Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Agents Know Markets

Back to agent myths for a moment. There are a lot of them. I did a general Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about how you need an agent to sell a book. If you haven’t read it, go here and read it now.

The myths that surround agents are killing a lot of writer’s careers these days. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t hear stories from at least one writer about how an agent hurt them. Often more than one. The myth that you need an agent to sell a book is an ugly one, the myth that writers work for agents instead of the other way around is really causing problems among younger writers. I have not had a lunch or dinner or meeting with other professional writers in the last few years that hasn’t included agent horror stories.

So, staying on my little trusty pony and running at the windmill one more time, let me talk here about yet another agent myth.

Before I get into the silly myth about agents knowing markets better than writers do, let make a few quick, basic points that need to be clear.

—Agents work for writers.

—Agents can’t buy books, no matter how much they talk about “acquiring” a novel.

-–Agents make 15% of what they sell of a writer’s work, never money in any other fashion.

—Agents don’t know enough about writing in any fashion to make a writer rewrite a book. If they did, they would be writing and making 85% instead of 15%.

-–95% of modern agents, especially agents you can get as a beginning writer, have no more clout with editors than a beginning writer does. (Yeah, I know, that’s a huge myth all by itself.) The 5% that do have major clout (and can get a manuscript pushed up high in a company), you don’t know their names and couldn’t find them if you tried. In other words, not all agents are equal.

—It takes nothing but stationery to become an agent. No rules, no organization, no school is needed.

So, with those basics in mind, let me talk about AGENTS KNOWING MARKETS. A huge myth.

So often I hear writers, especially young writers say, “Oh, I need to get an agent so I can get this book to the right market.”

I just shudder. There has been few dumber sentences uttered in the English language. Maybe when I said to Kris when we were talking about starting Pulphouse Publishing, “What can it hurt?” was a dumber sentence. But not by a lot.

To understand at a deep level why this is just flat silly, we need to look at a few things about agents.


Seems like a well-duh, until you think about it a little. Humans have likes and dislikes, they make enemies and they make friends, and worse yet, they have opinions and tastes. Every agent I have ever known, without fail, has favorite editors and very firm ideas (often misinformed) about what one editor will buy or won’t buy.

Now, understand, as an editor, I often didn’t know what I was going to buy until I saw it. And Kris when she was editing F&SF would famously go to a convention, say something on a panel about how she hated a certain type of story, and then every time go home and end up buying that type of story within a week. It seemed to never fail. Editors just don’t know what we want until we see it and fall in love with it.

Also, editors are always looking for a corporate way up the ladder, and often edit across book lines if they find a book outside their list that they love.

But agents have firm opinions on what an editor will buy or not buy, and won’t send an editor a book that they believe won’t be right for the editor. Thus your employee is rejecting your book for you without ever giving an editor a chance to read it. Back to the problem with agents having opinions.

Agents have made enemies. Ahh, there’s something you don’t often think or hear about, but it’s very, very real. Back in my editing days, when I would sit around with other editors at conventions, I heard all types of horror stories about how editors would bury things from certain agents, never read them, lose them, and so on. Yeah, editors are human also. Duh.

One agent was so bad to me at Pulphouse, when she called, I would never take her calls and never bothered to read anything she sent. I know, I hurt the writers, but it wasn’t my problem the writers had hired an agent that was hurting their careers. Not my job as editor to take care of stupid writers.

Well, folks, that attitude is pretty common in major publishing. One writer friend of mine had an editor who really wanted to buy the writer’s work, but the writer’s agent and the editor were mad at each other, so the agent never sent the editor anything, even though the writer kept telling the agent to do so. Turned out the writer thought the editor was mad and the editor thought the writer was mad. It wasn’t until a convention and a chance meeting that they discovered that the agent in the middle was the problem. Writer would have sold a ton more books if the writer had just mailed the books directly to the editor.

Still on the topic of Agents are Human, let’s look at tastes for a moment.

An agent thinks they are a super reader of some sort or another. Especially the young agents who had a few years of editing before moving over. That group of agents put their “taste” on a work. This often comes out in phrases like “I couldn’t get behind this book.” Or, “I don’t think this book will sell.” Of course, neither of those opinions has anything to do with their job working for the writer, but in today’s world of agent myths, you hear that all the time from young agents.

They are putting their own personal “taste” on a manuscript. And thus getting in the way of a manuscript selling.

See, the real truth about publishing is that it only takes one. Put that phrase over your marketing desk. IT ONLY TAKES ONE.

One editor to fall in love with your work, to push your work through all the roadblocks in a publishing house, to turn an unlikely book into the next bestseller. But if you have to run everything through the “taste meter” of your employee, you are adding a second level of acceptance to a book that often makes selling just flat impossible. It is hard enough in this business to have one person fall in love with your book, it’s damn near impossible to have two in a row. So by following an agent’s “taste meter” you are dooming a lot of work.

Still on Agents are Human topic. Agents get tired and lose interest. The ranks of bestsellers and classic books are filled with stories of a major book getting rejected thirty, forty, fifty times or more before selling and becoming big. (Back to it only takes one.) But agents after five to eight rejections on a project get tired and just quit on the book.

Why? Well, that leads to point #2 for the answer.


Again, agents develop a set list of editors they like to work with, with houses they think they know, and when a book goes through that list, it’s suddenly hard for them to find new markets. And they won’t send it to any house that…

—they don’t think is good enough for the writer

—has an editor they don’t like

—or had a bad experience with on another client’s book.

Also, they can’t think outside of any box. Science fiction and fantasy agents often would never look at going to a romance house with a book. Luckily, for paranormal romance fans, romance editors have no problem with science fiction and fantasy

Agents have developed a few major markets and editor friends they like to sell to, and when a book doesn’t get picked up in those top eight or ten spots, the agent gives up on it. Yet that same agent would be upset if their client wanted to market it themselves. At that point, they start talking about things like “career planning” and “focus” and things like that to hold back their own employer. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard that in writers’ horror stories. Yow.


I once was talking to an agent who admitted to me at a convention, in front of other writers, that she didn’t have time to read outside of her own clients. Now that should stun you to your toes. It sure did me.

So I asked other agents for a couple years that same question and discovered that many of them read some nonfiction in what little spare time they had, a few read a little inside a special area they liked to represent, but uniformly, they didn’t have time to read outside of their own clients much at all.

They were just too busy.

So my question is this? If an agent is too busy to read what is happening in fiction across the board, how could they really know markets? I flat asked two different agents that question a couple year’s back.

One answered honestly. “I read Publisher’s Weekly reviews, I read the blurbs selling in Publisher’s Marketplace, I glance at back cover copy of books that our agency represents, and when in stores I read back cover copy some.”

Well, I do all that! And a bunch more, including a lot of actual reading of books across many different genres. So by hiring an agent to market my book, I would be hiring them because they know LESS than I do, read less than I do. Oh, my, I don’t think so.

Plus, as I said, agents are busy. I only focus on my own books when looking for markets and watching lines in bookstores and reading the trade magazines. But an agent has upwards of 40 or 50 clients, some even more than that. I have a lot of pen names, granted, but I still have nowhere near as many types of writing to take care of than one agent.

So a major logic question: Who can really discover markets better? Me, focusing only on my own book, or a busy agent who has 50 other clients and never reads much outside of those clients?

If you have problem with that answer, you might as well stop reading these posts. You are doomed.

So the myth is simply I need to get an agent who knows about marketing. Total hogwash. Agents know a dozen or so editors our of the thousands that work in publishing, and they have a lot of writers to work for, and they are too busy to read much.

Truth. You can do it better yourself. Agents have no secret organization that allows them to know market information before you do. Especially in this modern age of computers.

So some tricks on how to get more informed about markets an agent. (Because so many of you right now are feeling panicked about how much time that’s going to take. Right?)


#1…Just follow about fifty or more different major publishers on Twitter and read their release promotion. Make notes of books that sort of match something you are doing.

#2…Follow Publisher’s Marketplace and make notes on books and editors that match what you are doing, and search the data base for addresses.

#3…Follow a lot of writer’s blogs, publisher and editor blogs. (Agent blogs are worthless for the most part. Sorry. And what are they doing blogging instead of working for their employers?)

#4…Read fiction. All the time. And when you read a book that is similar to yours, make note of the publisher and read the author acknowledgments where they thank their editor. Duh. And oh, yeah, look at the copyright page and the spine for the imprint name. Duh.

#5…Talk to your local ID bookstore (not a chain) and ask for their old copies of Publisher’s Weekly, then read the articles, the reviews, and so on, and again make notes. If they don’t have it, go into a superstore and just read it standing in the magazine section. Or if you are rich, subscribe.

#6…Read your genre news magazines. All of them, no matter what genre you are working in. Locus, Mystery Scene, Romantic Times and so on.

#7…Join a writer’s organization, but do not offer to help or be on any panels. Just join and read their newsletters and use their site.

#8…Go to writer’s conferences and genre conventions and talk with editors. Not agents. Meet the editors, be nice, be polite, start making relationships. Remember, it only takes one.

In other words, make it a habit of staying informed. You can’t do it overnight, but after a year of this sort of thing, just five minutes here, five minutes there, you will know a ton more about marketing your own work than any agent will ever know.

Again, when looked at completely, it seems like too much to do. But the truth of the matter is this just takes five minutes here, ten minutes there, a few short sessions on Twitter, an e-mail every day from Publisher’s Marketplace with sales, and so on. Very short amount of time every day, but it adds up very, very quickly.

Remember, you still need to hire an agent when you get an offer to help you negotiate the deal. And once you have a major deal offer, you can use the phone to call an agent and find one and interview them, just as you would interview any other employee.

Say you have an agent, how do you help them market?

#1…Stay informed as if you don’t have an agent.

#2…When you send them a book, make sure you get a list of editors before they mail out the book, and talk about them and why the agent is sending to a certain editor.

#3… Make suggestion of other houses your agent can send to, and other editor’s names.

#4…Get all rejections the moment they come in to the agent and after a couple have the agent get the book back out. Never let the stupid and lazy practice of sending out to five and then waiting until all five come back before sending out to more. Keep it at least five editors at a time. Force your agent to do this as well.

#5…Take responsibility for your career and your work. If your agent doesn’t want to market a book, you do it, or fire the agent. If they give up after ten, you tell them you’ll keep marketing it and call them when there is an offer. You know your books better than any employee does. Always remember that.

Okay, I have jabbed my lance at this problem one more time. I have a hunch that when I finish this Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing book, the biggest general section will be on agents.

Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith.


This is part of my inventory in my bakery now. (Confused on that, read the last Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie. If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery. 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 or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, research, rejections, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

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116 Responses to Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Agents Know Markets

  1. Terry says:

    Dean and Laura,

    Thanks so much for hammering at this. It amazes me that when I think I’ve got things mostly understood (and yes, Dean, the Marketing Workshop and my own subsequent marketing gave a great perspective on this), there’s still more to learn.

  2. Rob says:

    Here’s a what-if scenario for education sake: Suppose you land an offer from a smaller press. Like a Five Star or Midnight Ink type of place. Would you still recommend connecting with an agent to negotiate the deal? Could you even interest an agent in that case, since the commission would likely be too small for their effort? Or is this another part of the myth?

    I’m loving this conversation. Learning a lot.

    • dwsmith says:

      Rob, as a former owner of a major small press, agents won’t do you much good with them. They can’t really bump the money, and the good small presses don’t buy many rights, since they respect writers and tend to give too much away, actually. I know, as a small press owner, my contracts were so writer friendly that when the business got in trouble with cash flow, I had no rights to sell or bargain with because I had taken no extra rights from all the sales with authors. I was pretty standard I’m afraid.

      Plus the money is so small, a major agent won’t really care much, so won’t help on that side either. Just do the math. 15% of $3,000 just doesn’t buy you much time with a major agent or lawyer. So in those cases, have your long-term professional writer friends help you with the contracts behind the scenes.

      Angelia, yes, some contests, judged by top New York editors, have a value and can get a book into the right hands. And remember, even though they are called a contest, they really aren’t. Your book is your book is your book and it stands or sinks on its own merits. If it has a high commercial value and is well written, it will go to the top of either a contest or an editor’s desk outside a contest. But I do agree, contests are another of the many, many ways in the door.

      Thanks, Kris, for the comments. Much appreciated.

  3. I’ve been following the discussion which is excellent. Let me add my two cents:

    I had one agent who just vanished one day, never to be heard of again.

    I had another who embezzled from me, but this agent, at least, sold things.

    I had a third agent who–after I’d won awards in every genre, and had books on the bestseller list all over the world–told me that I wasn’t a very good writer (!) and shouldn’t try to sell books to general fiction markets because I didn’t have the chops. This is the same agent who calls her #1 NYT bestseller a “smut” writer–not to the writer’s face, of course, but to all her other clients.

    I had a fourth agent who sent out things with such awful cover letters that I got the worst rejection letters of my career–worse than I got as a beginning writer with nothing sold.

    So why did I hire another agent? I’m an optimist.

    Seriously, I did it for the OTHER things the agent does: negotiate, speak in my stead, etc. Occasionally the current agent markets for me–at my request to the editors I request. Mostly, though, I market. So far, in the 3 years of our relationship, I’ve sold all the books, including the ones overseas. But so far, this agent has done a tremendous job on the contracts.

    Agents do have a function. That function is NOT marketing.


  4. Another excellent entry in this series, Dean. Thanks very much for the insight, and for providing great support to those of us who have always suspected the tilted relationships between modern-day agents and writer. Great work.

  5. Taking into account the simpler contracts and lower advances of most small press deals, what I would suggest doing in the scenario that Rob describes is hiring a literary lawyer to review the contract and make recommendations to -you- about what should be changed; then you negotiate with the publisher on the basis of that information.

    This would be an economical approach, since you may well wind up paying for only an hour of the lawyer’s time (small press contracts are often only 2-4 pages), and effective in the sense that you get some expert/information advice for your negotiating position.

    The catch to this approach, of course, is that you’ve got to be comfortable at negotiating on your own behalf with the publisher, and many writers aren’t. If you’re not, then either biting the bullet and paying the lawyer to also do the negotiation may be one possibility; or, yes, simply hiring an agent may be another.

    HOWEVER, if you’re not comfortable with negotiation, I’d say that a small press deal is a good place to tackle this challenge, LEARN, and GET more comfortable with it. They’re used to negotiating directly with writers (since many agents don’t get involved with small presses), their contracts are much simpler, and I think it’s a great scenario in which to start working on your skills and comfort zone as a negotiator.

    Keep in mind that agents rarely get involved in short fiction sales or article sales, either, so a writer who can’t or won’t learn to negotiate on his own behalf is a writer who’s severely limiting his options to get published and earn money.


  6. P.S. And there is always something to learn. On one deal I made myself, then brought in the lawyer to negotiate, it turned out during negotiations that the editor and I remembered the verbal deal (which is where you determine the broad strokes of a deal) differently. Both I and the publisher still wanted a deal, but the point on which we differed was a pretty major one (and too complicated to explain here), and neither of us liked the other side’s proposed solution to the disagreement. We did eventually work it out in good faith and arrived at a solution that worked for everyone.

    So this was a learning experience for me. What I learned is that, from now on, BEFORE I bring in my lawyer and get neck-deep in contract negotiations, the FIRST thing I should do is send a deal memo to the editor via email confirming the major points that we’ve agreed on in our verbal or email discussions about the deal. THAT’S the time and place to discover a major misundertanding, not 5 weeks later when our lawyers are halfway through hammering out the details of the contract and discover that we’ve each given them different information.

    So that’s a new self-representation habit I’ve learned as a result of that mistake. (And, for the record, my former agents also made mistakes in negotiations. Including several real doozies that caused me a lot more trouble than this mistake of mine did.)


  7. “This is the same agent who calls her #1 NYT bestseller a “smut” writer–not to the writer’s face, of course, but to all her other clients.”

    Kris’ comment brings up another point, which is that while my business is very private in the hands of my lawyer, since lawyer’s have clear ethical guidelines about client privacy, it was NOT very private when in the hands of agents, since they do not have any such standard training or guidelines. In fact, a number of agents (including some major ones) are the most unelievable gossipy blabbermouths. Also careless–I can’t even count the number of times that an agent had an email exchange with an editor about multiple clients and then, rather than cut-and-paste ONLY the portions that applied to -my- business, instead FWD’d me the entire email, so that I saw their discussions about -other- writers’ business, too: the status of a submission, how a book’s sales were doing, whether a MS needed extensive revisions, whether the publisher was interested in making an option deal, etc. Similarly, some agents also diss some clients to other clients. (In fact, after I fired one agent, a few months later, one of her clients called me and said, “I can’t even get her to talk about -my- business with me; all she wants to do is bitch about YOU.”)

    This is all bullshit that got ejected from my professional life as a side effect of switching to self-representation with the assistance of a literary lawyer. And I sure don’t miss it.


    • dwsmith says:

      Laura, can’t tell you how many times this sort of client cross-over has happened to me as well. I have more than once got royalty statements of other writers, and twice got other writer’s royalty checks. One was very, very large.

      When we have a check with a comma in it, we have forced our agents from the beginning to overnight the check to us with tracking. But I am sure over the years we have lost smaller checks along the way.

      Most writers don’t know this, but when a major publisher does royalty statements, they just put out the statements for all of an agent’s clients with that publisher for that period. Which means your statement can often be numbered page 67 or 124, and you have no idea why. Agents have to take apart these big statements, make copies, and spread them out to their clients. Some writers don’t even ask for royalty statements that have no money with them. Too damn dumb for words, that practice. How would the writer know if there was money or not if they didn’t get a statement?

      A way around all this, of course, is in contracts have the publisher send your money to you and the agents money to the agent, and royalty statements directly to you. And, of course, get all royalty statements and contracts for any overseas sales. I have heard of some writers giving agents power of attorney. I shudder at that, just shudder. Remember, agents are not regulated in any way. As Laura said, lawyers are regulated and have a code of ethics. Agents, even though they are dealing with your private business, do not. And I agree with Laura, it’s common to hear an agent talk about another client, or a former client. So common I can’t count the times I heard it.

      Another reason to stay a long, long ways away from any agent who blogs. Yow.

      So back to what I have said in both posts. Agents have no regulations, no requirement to even pass a basic test, no code of conduct, and no oversight, and yet many, many writers have bought into the agent myth so hard, they just let these people do what they want with their money, with their living.

      Now, that said, there are some fantastic agents out there, some very, very trustworthy ones. But in general, you have to be the oversight, you have to understand that it’s your money, they work for you, they do what you ask or they get fired.

      Another plain and simple way of looking at this situation. You are going to make six or seven figures with your business, so you go down on a street corner and hire a stranger to handle all your money, negotiate your contracts, and speak for you in business. And maybe or maybe not this stranger has business experience. Maybe or maybe not this stranger can negotiate a contract or even knows a legal term if it bit them. Maybe or maybe not, they will take your money when you are not watching. You know NOTHING about them, you just hire the first person who smiles at you on the corner.

      Sound like something you wouldn’t do? Actually, as a writer, if you believe in the agent myth and just take any agent that “accepts you” you are doing the exact stranger on a corner thing. You are giving someone you don’t know power over your money, over your career, and in the case of this blog that started all this, power over your marketing and selling of your work. That someone has no rules, no oversight, and no skills. Yet you just hand it over and then brag to your friends how you “got an agent” like it’s a huge success.


  8. Pati Nagle says:

    Fantastic discussion. I just want to add a datapoint here.

    John said: “While it’s true agents submitted a lot of stuff that got rejected, from Mitchell’s posts in the comments, it seems to me that Betsy’s method of reviewing manuscripts actually suggests agents, despite those with shortcomings, are a key way to get product in front of her.”

    And yet I sold my latest book to Del Rey after Betsy answered my unagented cold query with a request to see more. I had the advantage of being previously published, which must have bumped me up out of the absolute slush, but probably not above the agented submissions. Maybe I got lucky and my query hit her desk on a slow day.

    There are always exceptions, as Dean points out. Of course the publishers won’t add “but there are always exceptions” when they say they don’t accept unagented submissions. They don’t want to wade through cold queries from every first-time writer. If they can discourage those folks, they’ll have less trouble finding the experienced professionals.

    How does one become an experienced pro writer? Write and submit, repeat ad infinitum. And snap up education from folks like Kris and Dean whenever you can get it.

  9. I’m sitting here giggling. I just read through all these great comments, mostly nodding, sometimes squinting in confusion. I’ve spent considerable time and effort the last few years learning everything I can about fiction publishing (for novels), agents, editors, industry norms, queries, pitches, hooks, contracts, synopsises (synopsese?), outlines, markets — all with the idea that I could send a great packet (query, a short hook, a synopsis, outline, and a kickass opening 50 pages). All this with the idea that it would work for any editor. I could tailor it to each one’s guidelines, guidelines which I have been researching and collecting. But still, but STILL, I did all this with the idea I would send it to an agent. And (yeah, it gets worse), one of the reasons I would send it to an agent was because what if I sent it to editors and they said no? Well, then the agent wouldn’t be able to send it to that publisher and therefore might tell me no. Though I have intellectually understood the agent myth, there was this one piece that kept drawing me back – my fragile needy writer’s ego. I’d gotten more caught up in someone, anyone, saying yes, that I lost track of the goal. The goal is not to get a nice letter or phone call; the goal is to sell the damn novel. So many duhs.

  10. Steve Lewis says:

    Wow this just keeps getting better and better. I have to say I hadn’t really considered the small press side of the industry. So thank you Rob, Laura, and Dean for opening my eyes to that and helping to expand my horizons.

    Kris’s comment actually brought up a question for me. I’ve noticed lately that, along with opting to have an IP lawyer, a lot of pros seem to be selling their own books overseas rather than having their agent do it. I know that a local Arizona author, Joe Nassise, actually makes the bulk of his income from his sales in Germany. Apparently he’s had a few bestsellers over there. Are both of these big trends in the industry or is this something random that I’ve happened to notice?

    I love this info, mainly because I tend to be a bit of a control freak when it comes to career stuff and want to know everything. Again, thank you to everyone.


  11. Steve, I can’t address the trends you mention, but I can address a VERY common trend of the past couple of years which may well be the foundation of those two trends: Lots and LOTS of professional, published novelists can’t get agents these days.

    I’ve talked with a lot of writers in the past year or two who are currently representing themselves because their previous agent didn’t work out (maybe the agent dumped them, or maybe the writers left because the agents weren’t sending out their stuff, were giving up on books after 3-4 rejections, weren’t answering calls, etc.), and, since then, they’ve received only rejections from agents whom they queried. There are quite a few writers handling their own business these days who are still interested in hiring another agent, but who can’t get one. They don’t want to quit their careers just because they can’t find an agent, so they’re working with alternative tools, such as networking, self-representation, literary lawyers, marketing their own work overseas, etc. Although I’ve yet to see anyone discuss it -seriously-, I’ve also seen a number of much-published writers talk about the notion of forming a writers cooperative to replace the function of the agents that they and others like them can no longer get.

    This surge of professional writers who can’t get agents has a lot to do with the way many agents are reacting to the problems of the floundering publishing market. The short version is that a sizeable percentage of agents these days are looking for one thing only, and rejecting everything else, and the one thing is: The Next Big Thing–something that can be sold quickly and easily and be VERY lucrative. This precludes any project that doesn’t strike them as a gold mine; it also precludes, for the most part, a large percentage of experienced novelists.

    Ironically, as hard as aspiring writers feel it is for them to get an agent, the frequent discussion these days among midlist writers is that it’s actually harder for -us- than for you. The atmosphere of the business now is such that a significant percentage of agents seem to be looking ONLY for The Next Big Thing. And you (I’m using a generic “you” here), as an unpublished unknown, could be “IT!” But a writer with 10-20 published books on her resume is certainly NOT “IT.” If such a writer were The Next Big Thing, agents figure, then it would have already happened by now.

    This is self-evidently flawed reasoning, since I can point to any number of bestsellers who took YEARS and many books to get there, including current and recent arrivals on the bestseller list. But it is nonetheless a way of thinking that seems to be sweeping across agencies, making it very hard for many career novelists to find representation–because they don’t look like The Next Big Thing to the agents whom they’re querying.

    Hence, I surmise, the growth you’ve evidently noticed in writers working with IP lawyers and selling their own work in foreign markets, etc. It’s sort of like the trend of pumping your own gas: Lots of people who’d rather not do it nonetheless do it because there are (at least here in Ohio) virtually no full service gas stations left, so people have got to pump their own gas if they want their cars to run.


    • dwsmith says:

      Yup, noticed the same trend, Laura. Especially with unsold books. If you have an offer, you can usually grab a friendly old-timer to jump in and do the negotiations. An agent who isn’t concerned about the selling, but more about the deals and the work they are supposed to be doing. But those agents, for a lot of people, are invisible and very hard to find, since it’s only the newer wave of agents who blog and care about selling books only and have web sites who are actively out there looking for clients and visible.

      So the mid-list published novelists I have talked to who have run into the problem you mention are ones who have also bought into the myth that it takes an agent to sell a book. So they have a newly written book, a moderate but not hot track record, and in those cases, most agents will not be interested. Especially the new agents.

      I was at a conference a few years back and was jokingly interviewing an agent there, a young former editor, part of the new breed. I asked her if she minded that I sell my own books. She did, she wanted to handle them all. She minded a lot that I wrote more than two books a year. She wanted to rewrite me if she didn’t like the book, and wouldn’t send one out she didn’t like, even though I then couldn’t send it out either following her rules. Now understand, she knew I had published over 90 novels and she was putting those kind of rules on me if I HIRED her. Someone clearly very unclear on the concept of her being an employee.

      She didn’t like the thought of my being her client anymore than I liked the idea of having her as an agent. Just head-shaking. I laughed about that conversation for days. Just way too funny, and yet very, very sad. So many published novelists find themselves having to take on someone like her and then they just stop selling. Very sad and it happens to so many writers who have a number of novels under their belt.

      One big agent, who wrote a book and thought that all books from all his clients needed to be bestsellers from that point onward, took on a friend of mine, a New York Times bestseller. And this agent had the stupidity to tell the NYT bestseller he should rewrite a book. Never seen an agent get fired so fast. The stupidity and sadness of these agent myths are just stunning at times.

      Luckily, I sell all my own novels, and interestingly enough, am under deadline for one right now that I need to get back to. Later…

  12. Dean, Laura, and Kris,

    Awesome posts and comments! I’m learning a TON!! All important.



  13. Adding more to a couple of points Dean has just made–

    I know of a frighteningly large number of instances where agents advised a client to revise a book (and, in some cases, to revise it MULTIPLE times)… and then didn’t like the result and refused to send it out. I know an astonishing number of instances where someone rewrote and rewrote and rewrote for an -agent- for a year… and then never even got the book into submission! I talked to someone who’d been revising ONE book for an agent for THREE YEARS–and who was, at the time of our conversation, working on version 9.0 of the book, all of this in the belief (encouraged by the agent’s hype) that if the book was finally j-u-s-t right, they’d get a major deal for it. That conversation took place EIGHT years ago, and, no, the writer hasn’t sold that book–or any other book (but is still, last I heard, a client of that agent). I know of a writer who rewrote and rewrote for an agent for a year, at the end of which year, the agent said, “Well, this subject matter was time sensitive, and the time for it has passed now, so I’m not going to send it out. Work on something else.” A writer whom I know got taken on as a client by an agent who really liked a MS of hers, but thought it needed some revisions to be really marketable. The writer did the revisions… and the agent “hated” the result and refused to send it out, and now said that the original version had probably been a bad book, too, so let’s forget the whole thing.

    I think it’s a really difficult judgment call, because there are a few genuine instances of an agent’s advice producing beneficial results. Just as there are a few genuine instances of someone becoming The Next Big Thing straight out of the gate. There’s almost always a convincing element of truth in every destructive myth in this business–which is why there’s really never a Right Way or a Universal Answer, only individual paths and choices to make and keep rethinking all along the way. But an agent’s suggestion that the author should rewrite a book usually turns out so badly in the =majority= of instances that any writer should REALLY THINK IT THROUGH before deciding whether or not to go along with it. And try to remember that winning the agent’s kudos or approval isn’t the goal; SELLING THE BOOK to an editor is the goal.

    The other thing Dean touched on (just above) is how uninterested NEW agents are in experienced writers. This is an amazingly common phenomenon. The last (and probably last EVER) time I queried agents, I included one young newbie agent in my queries. I thought maybe someone so NEW would still have the energy and passion that I was looking for, wouldn’t give up on a book after 3 rejections from a handful of buddies, and might actually, oh, READ the work she represents. So I picked someone new whom I had researched and who struck me as a good prospect for me, for various reasons. I had also researched her client list. I was more-published than any of her clients, and I was under contract at the time for a very respectable advance. So I assumed I would be an interesting prospect to her and that my query would receive her prompt and serious attention.

    But this was a (Hi, Dean!) BLOGGING young agent who was so absorbed in serving her blog audience and in reading-through and then blogging about the massive slushpile that her blog generated, she didn’t have time for me. My query was on her desk for six weeks, during which time I couldn’t even get her to acknowledge my emails asking for confirmation that she’d received it. The established agents whom I queried had all responded by then, but I still couldn’t even get an update from this newcomer. Finally, I (courteously) informed her I was withdrawing my query. THEN she got in touch… to say that she wouldn’t have been interested anyhow, she didn’t like my proposal and didn’t have the time to invest in the editing it would need to be marketable [Cheap parting shot, kid.] And, talking with other career novelists, this sort of non-response, completely lack of interest, and ungraciousness is AMAZINGLY common behavior among the newer generation of agents.

    (BTW, although I don’t usually talk about money in public, I do it when telling this anecdote, because I so enjoy pointing out that, a few months later, I sold that exact same proposal on my own for $75K.)

    I was also really put off by the social skills of a number of young agents at a conference where I was a speaker last year. Upon being seated next to me on panels or at other events, they ignored me and didn’t bother to introduce themselves, and they seemed awkward and uncomfortable when I introduced myself, as if unaccustomed to meeting people in professional settings. When I was introduced to a couple of young male agents who were sitting down, neither of them stood up–and, sorry, I am an old-fashioned Midwestern female; if I am standing, then I am accustomed to men standing up when they are introduced to me, ESPECIALLY in a professional setting. Instead of networking with writers and editors and aspiring writers, the young agents at the convention mostly just hung out with each other. (And don’t even get me started on all the name-dropping I overheard!) One of the young agents whom I got seated with for about an hour talked on the cell phone half a dozen times, not even bothering to say something like, “Excuse me,” when interrupting the conversation for yet another call–none of which were professional (they were all “what are you doing now?” type of personal calls with a spouse).

    Although I won’t work with agents anymore, there are many agents whom I like socially. (Not that we’re buddies or hang out. I just mean that it’s nice to bump into them for a chat at conventions.) But lately I do find I have a caveat on that comment, which is that a lot of the younger agents I’ve met in the past 3-4 years bizarrely have fewer social skills than the =teenage children= of my friends. No exaggeration there.


    • dwsmith says:

      And no argument from me on any of that, Laura. I have noticed the exact same things. And have a ton of stories of writers rewriting for agents. I’ve yelled about that here more than once. (grin) I consider it the stupidest thing any writer can do, without a close second. (How’s that for blunt? (grin))

      One thing good I have started to notice. These young agents are starting to drop out of the business, mostly because their economic model doesn’t work.

      Let me point out why their economic model doesn’t work. 1) Blogging makes them no money. 2) Rewriting a client’s book makes them no money. 3) Not responding in timely fashion makes them no money. 4) Not sending out a book makes them no money. 5) Giving up after a few rejections makes them no money. 6) Not knowing how to get good terms in contracts makes them a lot less money. 7) Not knowing how to sell any sub-rights makes them no money.

      And they have to survive on 15% of what they are selling, pay overhead, pay their own bills. We’re going to start hearing stories of some of these young agents stealing from clients because their cash flow is so bad. But with the economic model they are functioning under, their only hope is to have a client hit it huge or go out of business. And many are starting to drop away now. Just two this last month in this economic model.

      This working method for all but a few agents who get lucky is unsustainable in any business and cash flow sense for any length of time. And let me say simply: Good.

  14. Nothing to add, except my gratitude. This post and comment thread is the gift that keeps on giving. Priceless knowledge Dean, Laura and others have shared.

  15. Coming to this conversation late, and I just want to say wow, what a wealth of information here. In addition to Dean’s insightful post, great thanks to everyone else for all their input — especially Laura Resnick. Great, great stuff.

    I’ve had to part ways with two agents now before my first book has even been published. The first agent failed to sell my book, and when I sent her another, responded that she “didn’t connect with it” and didn’t want to mail it. I parted ways with her and sold that book to Simon and Schuster a few months later.

    My second agent, a very reputable “rising star” with a nice stable of writers and even a couple bestsellers at the time, became increasingly unresponsive, and when I finally parted ways with her last month she was actually very gracious about it — because it turned out she was “transitioning out of the business.” Ah,yes, that would have been nice to know earlier.

    So I’m marketing my own books now and feeling really good about it. Not opposed to using an agent when necessary, but I know exactly what I’m looking for. Glad I learned this lesson now instead of ten years down the road — and all the wonderful posts here only confirmed I’m on the right path.


  16. Laura,

    Not to defend the new agents–because I’m not–but their behavior seems to be the new model for young professionals everywhere. Only recently in our writing classes have had I had to threaten to take someone’s phone away from him because he kept texting AND TALKING while I was trying to teach.

    And he wasn’t alone. We have a no blogging rule, so people started tweeting while we were teaching. Now we have a no-tweeting rule too. And if I continue to see this behavior, I will take people’s laptops away from them until the class is over.

    People I talk to will be texting while talking to me. It’s rude, but apparently it’s happening, even in business meetings.

    That said, I want a young doctor and a middle-age agent who has been in the biz at least 20 years. The young ones don’t have the experience to handle the things an agent must do.

    I pointed this discussion out to a long-time professional writer (been in the biz since the early 1980s) and mentioned that I think, like Dean, that a lot of these self-important inept agents will disappear in the next few years (maybe even the next few months). I said, “After all, in a good market (like the one we just came through), any agent, even a bad one, can accidentally sell a book.” And she wrote back, “So can mediocre writers.”

    The bar was pretty low for break-in writers for a while there. Not to remain a career professional (see Harlan Ellison’s quote above), but to break in. For a while, you could break in if your book sold to Hollywood first. Then book publishers realized that just because Hollywood bought a ms first, that didn’t mean the book was any good. Or that it would even become a movie. So that went away. Then everyone was trying to buy the next Dan Brown. Now they want the next Twilight, not realizing that when you see the band wagon, the time to jump on it has passed.

    As I once explained (13 years ago now) to my third agent, the books that become game changers and/or bestsellers are new to the marketplace. They’re not like anything you’ve seen before and/or not like anything you’ve seen for a long time. I think that lesson stuck for a whole week, at least with her. I forget it myself from time to time. Then I see the whole steampunk/vampire thing and remember the Gothic novels I loved as a tween, and realized–gosh, something we hadn’t seen for a long long time, updated for 2010.

    It’s tough to be a freelancer. Tougher even when you hire an unenthusiastic employee. Impossible when you hire a clearly egotistical one. (Blogging? Are you kidding me? Telling *me* how to run my business? How many books have you written, kid? Hmmm?)

    I know of good agents who walked away after their first vacation in 12 years. Just quit when they realized how burned out they were. (More than one, actually.) I know of agents who got cut loose from their salary and quit to go to easier corporate jobs. I know of agents who snorted their clients’ money in a cocaine frenzy. I know of agents who used their clients’ money to pay their very high New York rent. I know of agents who have embezzled for years from their clients. I know that that attorney general for the state of Florida has opened a fraud investigation against an agency that took money from writers to mail things, asked the writers to continually rewrite, and never mailed anything. I can go on and on.

    Still think an agent will save you? Well, then, who will save you from the agent? Learn the biz yourself, folks. Maybe take a look at my freelancer’s guide on employees and negotiation.

    I’m glad Dean & Laura are opening your eyes to all this. I’ve watched too many careers die, too many good writers go by the wayside, because they can’t run this gauntlet. It’s a tough one. And you need to understand it before you hire someone to work for you.

  17. John Brown says:

    Wow, a lot of bad agent stories here. Laura’s points below are well-taken.

    One of the consistent experiences that kept surprising me was that no matter how big an agent’s reputation, they only speed up the process or get you a guaranteed read with editors =who know them=. . .

    I don’t seek to obliterate pro-agent arguments; I seek only to open the door to the ENTIRE OTHER HALF of the subject, which tends to be concealed, swept under the carpet, ignored, glossed over, and unacknowledged.

    And this one by Dean.

    You have to think, folks, think. That’s all Laura and I and others have been saying here. Learn to think, learn to question, find your way in the door and get your manuscripts read by people who might buy them. And when that door closes, force open another door to other editors and keep thinking and learning. Maybe the door is through an agent, maybe it’s through a writer’s conference, maybe it’s through a good query and chapter part sent directly, maybe…maybe…maybe… There are a thousand ways in, and it only takes one.

    What this all says to me is that it’s MY job to get manuscripts in front of editors. If I elect to use an agent to help me do that, it’s still MY job. The buck stops with me, not them. This is MY career, MY business. I’ve got to take responsibility for developing and delivering good product AND for getting the offer to the customers. AND making sure I like the contract. Etc.

    • dwsmith says:

      John, exactly. It is your job to get your manuscripts in front of editors who can buy them. If you try an agent and they stop you, then find an agent who won’t, or don’t use an agent, or use another way. And when you get an offer, it’s your job to get the best contract you can get, so make sure you have someone to negotiate who knows what they are doing. Realize beginning or young agents don’t know, so if you are with a young agent, make sure that agent is with a major agency with a contracts department in-house to do the detail negotiating. It’s your career. As the sign on the wall at any workshop we do says, “You are responsible for your own career.”

  18. Pati Nagle says:

    Been thinking about the early part of this discussion and the confusion about whether or not a writer needs an agent.

    Maybe the way to put it is that a writer needs a negotiator when it comes time to establish the contract. The negotiator can be an agent or a literary attorney, either one.

    Kris’s recent posts about negotiators in the Freelancer’s Survival Guide are great. They start here:

  19. Thanks to Dean for this wonderful series of posts, start to finish. You put things into such clear terms and sort out all the usual crap that can be read and sounds true.

    And to all who are fueling the discussions both here and on the Agent Agreement post as well. This is simply an excellent exchange that has given me clarity.

    Pati Nagle made a good point earlier; the writer needs a negotiator when it comes time to handle the contract. But I would put a caveat on the following statement. The negotiator can be an agent, a literary attorney, or even the writer.

    However, regardless of which path is chosen, that negotiator had better know the ins and outs of publishing contracts. I don’t, personally. However, I am embarking on a study to learn them. It’s critical. In the meantime, when the time comes (when I get an offer) I will hire a good agent, not one of the bad ones. I will also be putting in the time to learn how to select a good one.

    But I will not hire an agent before it’s time. It would just muddy the waters and take my focus off of my goals.

    Dean, you simplify things so well, so that writers can focus where they should; their writing and marketing.

    Thank you.

  20. Thanks again for this great series on the publishing myths. I went to a conferance in St. Louis last year and the main speaker was an agent that pretty much repeated every myth you’ve laid out. I bought it hook, line and sinker.

    I’ve written three books over the last ten years and sent all three of them to agents. After reading your site this Christmas, I found a bunch of publishers and sent out my latest MS. to them. It felt so much better sending to someone who could actually publish my work rather than a middleman. For just that, I thank you.

    Next step is to dust off the other two and find suitable publishers.


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  22. Jana Oliver says:

    Thanks for the initial post and all the fascinating/depressing war stories in the comments. I do have an agent and she doesn’t have a blog (wink). When I submitted my second manuscript to her we had a discussion as to whether I needed to do a rewrite re: the characterization and she said, “Let’s send it out. What bugs me might not bug an editor.” We sent it out. It sold. Blowing years rewriting for an agent is not in my DNA. Send that manuscript out and see if it hits. If it doesn’t try another. No manuscript is ever perfect even when it’s on the shelf.

    Besides doing industry research as Dean suggested, I keep my agent in the loop by sending her occasional updates as to what’s going on in my writing world. The more in tune we are with each other the better. She’s there to step in if things get testy with my editor and she advises me on my career. Key word – advises. Ultimately, I make the decision on everything. That’s why we work so well together. Here’s hoping that’s the same for years to come.

    • dwsmith says:


      Your relationship with your agent sounds like it’s working exactly the way it’s supposed to work. You are in charge, she helps as any employee would, and you help her do her job in return by feeding her information so she can “advise” you in the best way. Nice to have a case that has worked. I know when I have used an agent, it has worked well. Unlike Laura, I have no horror stories about agents. None. But everyone around me does, and I’m watching all this silliness with the myths and have to speak up. So thanks for putting in another voice and example of a healthy writer/agent working relationship.

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  24. What a wonderfully informative discussion! I’ve had three agents in a career spanning over two decades and 50 books. Two of them sold nothing for me, and we parted amicably. The other worked on two, four-book contracts with me, got me a slightly higher percentage on my sales, but when she put her prices up from 10% to 15%, I left her and continued selling on my own. I’ve approached other agents, but as has been pointed out earlier, they don’t want established midl-list authors–they want the next “big thing”. I’m not it, but I’m damned if I’m going to quit writing. And somehow, I keep getting books out there–even if it’s only on Kindle, and with other electronic houses. I’m not getting rich, but I am enjoying life and looking forward to meeting Laura in person in Vancouver, BC, in the spring.

  25. Dean – I love you!!! It is awful great to read Laura’s commentary also.

    Possibly, maybe – before I am 97, I’ll do some business for myself the way I have in all other aspects of my life . . . I made that promise to myself about 2 years ago, so I have 3 years more to go on this five-year plan.

    Which is another way of saying this lot did occur to me as well and what do I know???

  26. R. L. Copple says:

    About getting around unagented manuscript restrictions by publishers…

    Since becoming an agent is so easy (get stationary and business cards, and BOOM, you are one, yes?) why not do the following?

    Get a friend to “hang out a shingle” as an agent and have him send in your manuscript as an agent. You can write the cover letter, query, synopsis, etc., and do the work, but he’d send it from his address. When the time comes to actually negotiate the contract should they accept, the “agent” could allow you to tell him/her what to ask for if you feel comfortable, or you could hire out a IP lawyer as representing the agency.

    Then buy your friend a dinner for his help. But at least you shouldn’t get the “we don’t accept any unagented manuscript” rejections, and maybe ensure it will get a fair reading eventually.

    What’s to prevent anyone from doing that? Seems it would work.

    • dwsmith says:

      R.L., Why go to all the bother? Just mail it to the editor and if they like it and it fits your line, they will buy it. If they don’t, they won’t. All you would be changing would be the name on the rejection slip. If they actually reject a manuscript because of the name on the address, the editor has a problem, not you.

      And it is always a good practice to be completely honest with editors and publishers.

      Just seems like too much work to me for no real return and a silly risk.

  27. R. L. Copple says:

    Well, I guess the only reason to do that is if you really wanted a pub house to read it. I get the impression (maybe wrongly in some cases, but in others perhaps so) that if the one who sent it has the same name as the author on the manuscript, they don’t even bother to read the query/synopsis, whatever. So it seems this would at least get them to look at it if they are the kind so inclined to toss anything smacking of unagented.

    But, you have a valid point. I think I agree that the current system can’t sustain itself and will fall apart eventually. What will replace it may be just as bad or worse, but the effort may not be worth it to set up the temp agency. It just seemed if it isn’t that hard to become an agent, it may not really be that much bother, and get your foot in the door.

    As to the risk, that may be another issue. I’m guessing the risk would be if they discovered the agency was just a “front” for the author, they might blacklist you among other publishers?

    Personally, I’m not inclined to deception, so I like your take on it, but still it seemed it would be a pretty easy way to get around the requirement, the means to get past the closed door, so to speak, and find that transom to slide it through.

    I wonder why publishers don’t simply have submission and reading times? Say, they only take submissions through a PO box during certain months, and at any other time anything that comes gets thrown right into the trash without even leaving the post office. That would be one sure-fire way to cut down on the number of submissions, I would think. And give time for reading and proper responses to those who follow the guidelines.

    What is surprising is why agents agreed to this model. After all, as you’ve pointed out, they don’t make any money doing this slush reading gig. People used to get paid by the publisher to do this, but now they do it for free. It even lowers their paycheck because they have less time to do what earns them money, negotiate contracts. It seems not only the author’s have suffered under this system, but also the good agents who may have ended up spending their time doing slush reading for the publishers. What a freebie for the publishers! No wonder they like it.

    And, there is another way publishers can cut cost of slush reading, which appears to be the warehousing space needed to store these manuscripts. E-subs. No warehouse space needed, and one good disk can store thousands of manuscripts. If they simply moved from snail-mail submissions to totally electronic submissions, they would save a ton of money and time.

    Maybe if the agents revolt on this enough by simply refusing to do slush reading for free for the publisher when they really should be working for the author, maybe the publishers would be forced to look to alternate methods like these to cut cost. Some of them are overdue, I think.

  28. I have a couple of theories on why agents would like this model.

    First, it gives them the possibility of gaining an exclusive over the next Stephenie Meyer. If they can read the books before the publishers, they can control the outcome of that breakout novel, and corner the market. But that’s perhaps secondary, because it is dependent on number two.

    The more likely reason they like this arrangement is because it gives them power and prestige, which are better than money to most people. They get to make or break new authors, some playfully reveling in that on their blogs. They also get to go to writers’ conferences and be revered by the authors present, much like Alice Cooper in Wayne’s World. Basically, they have the whole author community falling at their feet, and they get to pick and choose. And if they work hard enough at picking up and putting down writers, they might just find the next Harry Potter. And that would be a home run for them, of course.

    I don’t know the industry intimately, but if I were an agent, those would definitely be the two draws for me.

    Of course, in my best “people are basically good” voice, I would say that most of these agents generally do love books and love being a part of the process of developing them. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are all money grubbing devils out to wreck people’s hopes and dreams.

    • dwsmith says:

      Jeremy, only one problem with your theory. No one can recognize the next “big thing” and if they think they can, they are almost always wrong. One of the really, really annoying things about publishing.

      But you are right about how many of them work for the power since that translates into money for them, if they work it right.

  29. Oh, I agree. It’s almost impossible to be right about that sort of thing. When you are, you’re usually just damn lucky and were following your passion.

    But I’m not sure that means it’s not why they do it. I think that many agents genuinely believe that they can pick the next big thing because they have their finger on the pulse of the market and the world. Otherwise, I couldn’t see them wasting all that energy for no revenue.

  30. This is as good a post as any to bring this up, and is maybe the best.

    I’ve been reviewing some local writers workshops and events in New England today, and I learned a couple of things.

    First, as has been mentioned here and elsewhere, these places are great for meeting editors and even publishers if you can get to them. They’re always there, gaining you a potential opening to the “no unagented submissions” rule. At worst, you’d have someone’s name to which you can send your manuscript.

    Second, no surprise, there are a TON of agents present at any one of them. Agent this, agent that, etc.

    Then, confirming the analyses in this post and comments, many (if not most) of those agents are former editors.

    Finally, are the way their bios are written. They almost always start with something like:

    “Jeremy has been an editor at Tor books for more than ten years, during which he worked on this, that and the other thing. This experience gives him the knowledge that he uses to understand the industry. In the spring of 2009, he started his own literary agency….”

    That’s off the top of my head, but it’s not that far off.

    Another thing I notice is that the editors, publishers, and writers list their credentials in their title, e.g.:

    Joseph J. Jones
    Senior Editor, Bantam Books

    The agents often leave all of that out, in favor of just their name, followed by the spiel I listed above.

    This is not a cut and dry rule, and I have no idea how many of the agent names I saw were high-end agents (though I did see one from William Morris), but it jumps off the website as a red flag to me.

    It seems to me that those bios play directly into this myth. “I’ve been working in the industry for a long time, so I have a ton of contacts, and I know how things work. As a result, you don’t have to worry; you needn’t learn any of that. Just sign with me, and I’ll take care of all of it.”

    Sounds a lot like a pitch from Satan when he’s trying to buy your soul.

    DISCLAIMER: I do not assert that any literary agent is Satan, or is affiliated with Satan in any way. I’m merely saying that my second bio example oozes with the feeling that makes my skin crawl, and if you read carefully, you can see that second pitch in the first.

  31. Ray Busler says:

    Love the repartee that follows your chapters/essays. Best epistolary writing I’ve seen since Esquire published the “Happy Jack Fish Hatchery Letters.” But I like it too well. I realized that in the time it takes me to indulge myself by reading the thousands of words of reply to your fine essays, I could have written a few hundred of my own. Bless you all. I’m going back to work.

  32. Laura Lee says:

    I hope that I am not too late to this conversation. It was such a pleasure to read discussion of so many professional authors. Most of the forums for writers that I have found on the Internet focus on selling your first book and getting into print.

    I have published 13 books, at this point all non-fiction, including one children’s book. I have also previously written a novel that a former agent took seriously enough to submit for me. It had some interest but got rejected on what seems like a technicality– the inclusion of song lyrics that the publisher thought would be expensive to clear. Now I have completed another novel, which has gotten some good feedback, and my agent says she likes it and would like to represent it, but so far has not submitted it. She wants to wait until after the holidays, but I also think she’s not quite sure where to send it.

    She has done some work “managing my expectations,” but I have been in the business long enough that I don’t feel I need expectation management. I’m not expecting Harry Potter.

    At this point, I still feel that the agent is the best way to go. I have a good working relationship with her, and having an agent really respond to the novel seems to be half of the battle.

    But my experience with agents has been mixed, both on submissions and on contracts.

    I sold my first books, including my best seller (85,000 copies), without the benefit of an agent. In some ways, there were benefits to working on my own. Working through an agent; and I have had two now, I have to sell the agent first. And often the agent suggests changes to a proposal and focus based on what they believe the market is and in anticipation of what they think an editor will want. Those changes may or may not be what the editor would like, and often discussing your concept without an intermediary, you can get a clearer understanding of what each of you has in mind. Going through someone else, it can be like the telephone game.

    On the other hand, I do not think I would have sold a book to Harper Collins without an agent. It was reasonably lucrative, although I was disappointed that it didn’t lead to the kind of continued momentum I thought the big name publishing house would bring. (The next two books I did, if I remember correctly, were projects that were proposed to me through editors I had a previous relationship with.)

    I have also had to switch agents to get buy in for an idea that later turned out to have interest from multiple publishers. It was harder to sell the agent than it was for the agent to sell the editors. I think a lot of writers would have given up and gone home.

    What I was most surprised by, however, when I started to work with agents is that there were contract terms that I found easy to change when I was representing myself that I have simply been unable to get my agents to consider even asking the publishers for. “That is standard,” they will say, and refuse to even take it to the publisher. Whereas, I was able to get it changed every time speaking on my own behalf. If I could do it, I don’t understand why the agents can’t.

    What I find in these cases is that no matter how long you have been in the business, and how many titles you’ve sold on your own behalf, agents tend to act at that point like you don’t know
    how the system works, that you are like the first time writer with starry, unrealistic visions of your status. I feel that I have to overcome the bias that writers all think they’ve got a best seller on their hands and a four picture movie deal in the wings. I understand why editors and publishers would believe this, because there are so many aspiring and new writers who have not experienced the frustrations of publishing. They have to deal with their foolish suggestions all the time.

    I do have to say that one valuable service an agent can provide is rejecting a bad idea. I am professional enough to know that not all my ideas are the best I’ve ever had. I have pitched some unworkable ideas, and have listened to the agent’s criticisms and learned from them and abandoned the truly unworkable. The problem is that you need to have enough of an internal compass to know when the agent’s instinct is right or when yours is right. If I had listened to my last agent, my most recent book would never have been published. At this point, I think I have a fairly good instinct on that.

    In general, I still lean towards the belief that having an agent to represent you is better. But it can delay you quite a bit at times, and it is not always easy to know if they’re giving you the best advice possible or not, because there is a subjective quality to anything creative. Just because they have experience doesn’t mean they really know what comes next.

  33. Terry Mixon says:

    Dean, great posts. I’ve been playing catch up and read six yesterday. Still a lot to go and absorb. And to fight over the myths with myself, too.

    Above you said:

    “#4…Get all rejections the moment they come in to the agent and after a couple have the agent get the book back out. Never let the stupid and lazy practice of sending out to five and then waiting until all five come back before sending out to more. Keep it at least five editors at a time. Force your agent to do this as well.”

    I’m trying to decide if you’re advising us to do the same, even if we don’t have an agent. Most editors seem to say no simultaneous submissions. Is that another “rule” we should ignore? I always thought they broke out in hives if you sent the manuscript to more than one, especially if they ended up wanting it and it wasn’t available.

    The wait time for responses can be killer, so if I’m better off doing more than one house at a time, I’d like to know for sure, but if it’s going to hurt me and the rule is a real one to be heeded, I want to be sure I didn’t misunderstand.

    • dwsmith says:

      Terry, with short fiction ONLY one at a time, but with novels you want to stay with five or more because if two want it, you have an auction and then that’s when the price goes up. And book editors expect it to be at other houses. That’s the nature of the way it works.

  34. Geof Johnson says:

    This is helpful.
    I recently finished my first novel, a sci-fi romance titled The Lilly Effect, and sent it to a couple of pros to get some feedback. One of them offered to publish it through her small publishing company. Wow, was that easy.
    But, one month later she changed her mind with very little explanation, other than “our list is full.” Bummer.
    So, I’m back at square one, trying to figure out what to do with a mixed-genre book and no publishing-cred. Blogs like this are a huge, huge, help. Now i think it can be done, but not as easy as I’d hoped. Hey, join the club, right?

    Geof Johnson

  35. Dean, I’m a new writer who just finished his first novel and have been actively looking for an agent to help me sell it. You have really opened my eyes about the process I’ve been following especially considering the colossal energy it takes to research prospects and draft query letters for a role that doesn’t even decide whether the book gets published.

    I’ll be immediately taking your advice under “Tricks to Find Markets.” If I ever make it big, I owe you a beer ;-)

    Thank you for your candor. I have a helluva lot to learn.

    • dwsmith says:

      Trust me, Christopher, in this business, we all have a hell of a lot to learn and it never ends, which is fun, actually.

      Just head to editors who can buy your book and don’t let rejection deter you. It happens to all of us all the time at all levels. That also never ends.

      And the biggest key is be writing the next book as fast as you can while marketing the first one. And then repeat down the line. It is rarely a first written novel that is first sold. For me is was a third written novel that sole. Then could not sell the 4th and 5th written novels, but did fine after that. I sold about nine out of ten novels after that. But understand, rejection and learning are constants in this business. And that never lets it get boring. (grin)

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