Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing. Agents


To be clear, I like agents and have no desire to bring them harm. But the myths these days about agents are so thick and have become so ugly to new writers, I figured I had better tackle at least one of them next. And yes, there are more than one.

And in the last 20 years, the biggest myth that has blown up into a damaging myth is that you need an agent to sell a book.

This is, of course, complete hogwash, but I have no doubt some of you reading this are already resisting this idea. You want someone to do the dirty work for you, to do the research, to just “take care of you.” Yeah, that’s going to happen.

So to explain this myth clearly, I need to back up just a touch and run through some history to get to why this myth even exists and then move on into how to fight it.

Basic history. Book agents came over from theater and movies from 1900-1950. They were used by writers to help with the contracts, to get the books into movie and early television (in New York) and overseas, and to go get the coffee. They were simply a lower level employee used by writers to do some of the busy work.

It never occurred to most writers to have an agent sell a book for them. Writers worked directly with the editors, and the idea that anyone needed to be in the middle of that was just thought of as silly. Both the writers and the editors and publishers on the other side never stood for it back in those early agent times.

But then, as the industry got bigger through the baby-boom years, fewer writers lived near New York and thus mailing manuscripts to editors started to become the norm. Editors and writers still worked together, and the agent did the deal, negotiating the contract, helping with contacts overseas and in Hollywood. But up until the early 1990s, book deals between editors and writers were often done across a dinner table with a handshake, with the agent left to deal with the details later.

In fact, about twenty of my early novel deals were done over dinner clear up into the early 1990′s.

Also in those days, in the big New York publishers, there were rooms and rooms full of what is called “slush.”

Now the term “slush pile” came from the early days of publishing. An editor usually sat at his desk and writers brought him work. But when the editor was gone and the office door closed, the writer still wanted to leave the manuscript, so they tossed it through the small window over the door. The top of the door is called a transom, so thus the term “over the transom” came into being.

When the editor returned to the office and pushed open the door, the manuscripts on the floor would be pushed into a pile which looked a lot like a pile of dirty New York snow. Thus the term “slush pile” came about.

In the early 1980s, publishers had tried to slow down the growing wave of manuscripts coming at them by putting requirements that no manuscript be sent unless it was solicited. A simple thing to ignore, and it stopped only the really stupid new writers. Huge rooms of book manuscripts filled New York buildings and many, many assistant editors were hired to dig through the slush to find the gems among all the trash. And many, many major writers you read today came out of those slush piles.

Then in the 1990s lots of things happened in publishing, not the least of which was a complete distribution system collapse. Publishers had to cut back, larger presses ate smaller ones, and at the same time New York real estate prices went up and up and up. Publishers could no longer afford the huge rooms full of slush, or the assistant editors to wade through it all.

At this point in time, agents were doing more and more for writers, and the top writers had very powerful agents, simply because the agents worked for the top writers. (Agents always get their power from their clients. They have no power on their own.)

And also, writers became more of an unknown to publishers, a vast sea of people with a computer and a stamp who thought they could write and should be rich even though they had never spent any time practicing their craft or even learning how to spell. Very few of these new writers ever thought of going to a writer’s conference and actually meeting an editor, so editors became somewhat fearful of the nutballs out there.

Something had to be done to stop this massive wave coming at the money-worried publishers and overworked editors. So someone, somewhere came up with the idea “Let the agents handle it.”

So onto the guidelines went the simple line. “No unagented manuscripts accepted.”

Thus, for the last ten years or more, agents have been getting buried with the vast amount of slush. Older agents went into hiding, knowing their job wasn’t to read slush, and new scam agents popped up everywhere, taking advantage of this new guideline from publishers by milking the writer of their money and crushing their dreams.

Let’s step back for a second and look at the relationship of agent/editor/writer/publisher.

First: A writer sells a publisher a manuscript and there is a contract between the publisher and writer. In simple business terms, the writer produces a product and goes into a partnership with a publisher to produce and distribute the product.


Second: The editor works for the publisher. Paid by the publisher, represents the publisher’s needs.

Third: The agent works for the writer, represents the writer’s needs. Nothing more.

Agents are hired to do certain chores a writer needs done, to help in negotiating contracts, to be a pit bull with late payments, to have connections with Hollywood and maybe overseas, although that job is falling away as well. They are the business contact between the publisher and the writer on business items, leaving the editor and writer to work on the craft side.

So suddenly, because of the situation, the publishers are demanding that a writer hire an employee before they will look at their product.

Excuse me?

Let me look at why this system is about to fail and fail big.

First off, it forces agents by the nature of the requirement to be the gatekeeper for all the bad stuff publishers don’t want. That’s not their job. When I hire an agent, I don’t hire a slush reader doing someone else’s work, I hire someone who negotiates contracts for me and has good contacts. I don’t want MY employee reading slush.

It allows young agents to think they are the boss at times over writers. Of course, no longterm writers think this, and no respected, longer term agent thinks it either, but beginning writers and early professionals fall into this trap, and even go so far as to rewrite a book on demand of their agent.

Excuse me?? If the agent could write, they would be, instead of taking 15% of what a writer makes for writing. Yet beginning writers and young professionals who don’t understand how the business really works fall into this ugly rewriting trap all the time. Agents are your employee, they don’t tell you what to do, you tell them. Duh.

This guideline also helps young agents believe they have a lot more power than they really do, and it makes new writers buy into that belief. I have heard new writer after new writer get excited about “getting an agent” and the agent is 26 years old, a former editor who got laid off, and has hung out a shingle. The new agent wouldn’t know how to negotiate a contract if their life depended on it, let alone have any contacts except for maybe a few people in the place they were fired. But as a former editor, they think they know what makes a book better, so they think their job is to have new writers rewrite. And thus years are wasted and no one makes any money.

Point right here: Anyone can be an agent. There are no rules, no regulations, no training. The old joke is “What does it take to become a book agent? Stationery.”

Yet new writers put their entire business, their entire dreams, their entire hope for a future on someone who only needed stationary to get started. See how silly this all is? And sad.

Also understand that agents are not regulated at all. We all have watched in the financial world how well unregulated people do with money, yet new writers, without research, hire an agent and give them control over all their income. If you don’t think the Madoff types don’t also live in the agent world, you are sadly kidding yourself.

Another reason this system is showing major cracks and about to fail is that editors are not getting the new and innovative books they are looking for. They are not seeing the new talent, the new dangerous voices, because the agents and the system itself are blocking these voices. Often these new voices fall into the rewriting trap shoved on them by a new agent in the business and if the editors see anything, they see the watered-down manuscript that fits into the next vampire/Da Vinci Code want-to-be.

Writer after writer after writer I have met are getting discouraged and when I ask how many editors have rejected their book they say “None. But I sent it to 30 or 40 agents before giving up on it.”

No editor had a chance to buy the book.

Makes me want to cry for all the good books lost in this last decade.

So, a few basics here that are standards of this industry and you can infer what you want from these standards to help your own writing and your own fight against this myth.

1… An agent is your employee and makes 15% of what you earn, nothing more. Their job is not to sell books or help you rewrite it. You are the writer. Trust your own voice and talent. If your employee won’t do as you ask, fire them and find another employee.

2… Money always flows to the writer except for education and research. Never hire an agent, or a book doctor, or any other scam artist and send them money. Money only flows to the writer. Period.

3… Editors need new books. They have to fill a list every month. Just in case your book is the next “big book” they have to look at your pitch or query or pages. If they don’t look and you become the next Dan Brown, they will be fired. Remember, they work for corporations, their job is to find good books, fill lists, make their publisher money, not dismiss a book out of hand because there is no employee on the letterhead.

4… A form rejection these days says simply “We do not take unagented submissions.” It means exactly what every other form rejection in the history of publishing has meant: Nothing. It means that the manuscript, for one reason or another, didn’t fit their line. Maybe your manuscript sucked, or maybe it was brilliant but didn’t fit. (More than likely you haven’t learned how to do a good query letter or decent proposal and no one got to your book to see how good it really was.)

5… Most agents you can get as an unpublished writer is not an agent you are going to want once you actually sell a book. This statement alone kills more writer careers than anything I have watched over the decades.

6… Books sell themselves. Agents can’t force an editor to buy a book. The book has to be good enough and fit the line before it will sell. Nothing more. Having an agent will not give you a magic way in. Actually, it often won’t help you at all find the right publisher, because the agent may have ideas where the book fits and never try a publisher that might be just looking for a book like yours to start something new.

7… Editors never know what they want to buy until they see it. An agent who tells you he or she knows exactly what an editor wants is just full of crap.

8… Agents who blog regularly (Other than a very occasional education blog or guest blog) are dangerous, since they clearly have enough time to not work for their clients. It usually means they are selling very little. Caution!! Think it through. If you had a business and your employee was blogging all the time about your business, would you as an employer stand for that? Not hardly.

Hint: Top agents are hard to find, their agencies have static web sites, and you won’t be able to get one until you have an offer from a major publisher in your hand. Then you simply call them to hire them to help you with the contract and such. (Oh, my, have I stuck my foot into it there. Here come the angry e-mails.)

9…What a publisher is publishing is frighteningly easy to figure out these days by either simply walking into a bookstore and looking at the shelves or going to the publisher’s web site and looking at their book lists. That’s not counting all the writer resources there are these days.

10… Lower level and new agents (meaning someone you can get without a book offer from a publisher) simply mail your book like a writer would mail their own book. It goes into the same piles as everything else the editor gets, including your manuscript that you talked to the editor about at a writer’s conference. But there is something you don’t know. Bad agents are often hated by publishers and editors and anything from that agent is automatically rejected. Also, sure, I agree that sometimes agents have contacts, but often they have made enemies as well, thus cutting off some places you could get to with your manuscript on your own. In other words, if you are letting your agent try to sell your work, sometimes having an agent can be a lot, lot worse than having no agent at all. The chance of this goes up the younger the agent.

11… Young agents don’t know contracts and how to negotiate a contract, which is the main reason you hire an agent. A short time back, I was reading a contract from a student of mine who had gone and gotten a young agent, even though he sold the book himself and could have gotten a top agent when he had the offer in hand. Everything, and I do mean everything, the agent added into the contract hurt the writer and helped the publisher. The young agent was new and a former editor. I have a hunch the young agent forgot which side of the fence he/she was working on. More than likely just didn’t know. Happens all the time I’m afraid. Nothing much I could say to the writer since the deal was already done. The writer had made the decision on the agent that got him a very bad contract.

So, in closing, I would like to state my credits. I have been selling books regularly since 1992 (one in 1988), I have sold almost 100 novels, not quite, but almost. I have been represented by three of publishing’s top agents, one for 17 years. I am friends with all three of them and would call each of them if I had a project I knew fit their interests that I had sold.

I have three years of law school and know contracts, especially publishing contracts, and am an expert on copyright law. However, with only a few exceptions (all work-for-hire that couldn’t be changed) I had an agent represent me for all of my books.

But all that said, I have sold every one of my books myself. None of my agents have ever sold a book for me.

Am I any different than any of you? Nope. I just don’t believe in the myth that an agent has to sell a book. And because of that, I’m still here, publishing regularly, and making a living with my fiction.


Notice below that I have added onto this series of chapters a donate button where you can donate if you feel these chapters of this upcoming book helped you in some way and you want to keep me writing them and putting them up here. And if you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, workshops, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

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85 Responses to Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing. Agents

  1. Robert Aldrich says:

    Yes, that is exactly what I was looking to find out.

    Thank you very much!

  2. Craig D says:

    Dean, do you see any way to land overseas sales without an agent? The writers I know who swear by the agents do so because they make good money on overseas sales that their agents arranged. I know you’re not recommending people ditch agent, but I am curious whether you think there are ways to land those same deals without agents. You seem to suggest above that agents are doing less of this anyway.


    • dwsmith says:

      Craig, great question, and the answer is yes, completely. Many writers I know, including my wife, are doing just fine with overseas publishers. Many of them are coming to the writers direct. Two levels of agents can really just mess up deals, which is what you have through traditional agents. You have your agent and then your agent works with an agent in the country overseas. And I won’t even go into the normal practice of just not passing money through from overseas publishers to the writer. And go ahead, try to get a royalty statement through that maze from an overseas publisher.

      The internet has made dealing directly with overseas publishers very, very easy. Also, overseas contracts are very simple for the most part compared to the monsters created out of New York, and also, for those of you not up on your copyright law (which is most of you, sadly), international contracts are always in the language of the author.

      So, Craig, I will deal with this question down the road in think like a publisher series, but that’s the short answer. You are better served selling your own work overseas than going through agents. By about a thousand times, and you will actually get all the money owed you.

  3. teri says:

    I just stumbled on this website and a light came on. In the 1990s, I sold my first book, which was published in 2001. I did it the “old fashioned” way by quering editors at major houses with a single page letter asking if they would like to look at a book. I took some time away (law school and a baby!) returned in 2005 with another book, stumbled on certain major blogs and forums and believed the game had changed. Now you query agents by email, new agents at established houses being the best becuase they are “building their list.” I saw people all around me hit the jackpot, so I tried it.

    I now have a book coming out with a major publisher, but along the way I got tangled up with 3 “legitimate” agents, the most recent of whom lied to me about a submission, telling me he’d pitched my book to 18 publishers when he hadn’t because he wanted to get his name on my contract. (He’s a newbie agent doing the dog-and-pony show on the internet to let everyone know he’s aggressively seeking new writers.)

    Through a few lucky events, I’ve managed to keep my contract without him on it (long story) so he doesn’t get any commission (which he doesn’t deserve because he did NOTHING to sell my book.)

    Before finding your blog, it occurred to me that I needed to forget this newfangled approach of emailing 100 agents and go back to one page letters to editors.

    What makes it hard for people to give up the myths is that the forums allow you to see people get very, very lucky: Unknown writer with interesting manuscript lands major agent, who has her revise for a year, then gets a half million dollar deal. (True story — but I don’t want to put the name) You see people essentially win the lottery, so you try to. Once you’re down past the top ten agents, though, you’re just whistling in the wind hoping to win the lottery with a newbie agent.

  4. teri says:

    Sorry to do two long posts, but I wanted to add: I am a lawyer, and the agent who lied to me turned out not to have the slightest idea how to read a contract. There was very harmful language in the contract. He said, “That’s just boilerplate” as if boilerplate language is somehow harmless.

    Also, I want to explain the series of events which helped me get rid of him.

    Initially his name was on my contract and I figured I was stuck with him forever.

    Within a month, he got fired from the agency. His spin was that he decided to go out on his own, hang up his own shingle with a few other newbies and start their own agency. I said I didn’t want any part of his new agency, so we parted ways. Meanwhile, the old agency dissolved with the back list put up for auction. I was given the option of having my contract “returned” to me, which meant the agency and former agent removed from my contract.

    I opted to have my contract returned to me. So I got unlucky by getting mixed up with an incompetent agent, but fortunately for me, he got fired and then the entire agency dissolved.

    The sad part: The harmful boilderplate is still in the contract. My newbie agent refused to negotiate it, telling me, “The publishing house insists that this is how it has to be.” I signed the contract because I was terrified that this bozo would ruin the entire deal for me (he was that incompetent) and I really wanted my book to get published by this particular publisher.

    So anyway, I do have a book coming out with a major publisher, so next time around I can do it right: i.e. entirely on my own with the help of someone competent.

    • dwsmith says:

      Good attitude, teri… “Next time around I can do it right.” Spot on the money.

      Folks, teri, as said, got lucky in getting as much out as happened. This is just one of many horror stories that I hear every week. Usually behind the scenes. (thanks, teri for being out front)

      This is a mess, this agent side of things. I have a number of blogs almost done, one is a summary of all this about agents. Another is a new Think Like a Publisher, and yet another is a Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing. So as this workshop here finishes up this weekend, those will be also getting finished. So stay tuned.

      Thanks, teri. And congrats on the escape. Well done.

  5. Excellent post with good advice. I have always said I want writers to be empowered and treated with respect. I am glad to see that this is starting to happen.

    • dwsmith says:

      Kenneth, it’s not happening. Only writers having respect for themselves can demand that others give them respect. And right now writers want to give percentages of their work away (because they feel it has no value) and are willing to give a perfect stranger all their money and the paperwork with that money because the person calls themselves an agent on a business card.

      Writers need to respect themselves first before others will respect them.

  6. “Agents always get their power from their clients. They have no power on their own.”
    This entire chapter can be summed up in something you added for emphasis between parenthesis. Nuff said!

  7. dwsmith says:

    What’s interesting is that I’m not bothering anyone who has been around for a while at all. I’m just trying to save newer writers years of dream-crushing problems.

    We put up a sign at our major workshops. It says simply “You are responsible for your own career.”

    When you follow that simple reality, you often don’t turn to an agent to “save” you and do the work for you.

    By the time I’m finished, I should have an interesting book at least.


  8. dwsmith says:

    Sophie, I always use a top agent when I get a book contract. You can use an intellectual property attorney, but never just a local attorney. Again, when you have a book offer in hand from a major publisher, it is very easy to just call a major agent and ask them to handle the book negotiations for you. Doesn’t mean you have to sign your life over to the agent, or rewrite your next book for them. They are an employee, an important one, which is why this myth hurts writers so much.

    So I have no opinion one way or another with going to an IP attorney or using a top agent. I use agents at the moment, but many of my friends use an attorney. Plus and minus both ways.


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