Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: All Agents Care About Writers First

I never intended to do so many of the agent myths in a row, but since we’re having such a great conversation, and Laura Resnick brought this one up in the comments on the last one, it makes sense to just go on.

New writers and many professional writers believe that when they hire an agent, the agent has their best interest only in mind. With many modern agents, this is so far wrong, a writer’s interest doesn’t even get in the top three places of focus for some agents.

So said clearly, the myth is: Agents always have their client’s best interests in mind.

But before I start, I want to be clear. Every agent is different. Every agency is different. What I tend to call “old-style” agents do care about their writers. “Old-style” agents know they are an employee of a writer, they work hard doing what the writer wants, and puts the writer first in any relationship.

But the newer “slush-reading agents” as I call them, the ones that most writers deal with early on, are what this myth is about.

And let me be clear on basic employee nature. Of course any employee is doing the job for his or her own reasons. Money, love, challenge, companionship, whatever. All are reasons people take jobs. And becoming an agent is no different. Agents are people and their focus is themselves first, of course, as it is with any employee.

But most places of work for employees have rules of behavior, where during the hours that the employee works, the employer’s needs come to the front and are the focus of the actions of an employee. Just good business.

A clerk in a store helps customers, takes their money, keeps merchandise straight, all for the betterment of employer, so that the employee can make money and keep the job. A waitress in a restaurant follows restaurant rules, serves food in a certain fashion, and works while on the clock for the employer so that she can get paid and help her life move forward.

But, alas, there are no rules for agents. None. The new wave of agents have sort of made up rules for themselves lately, using not their employer’s interest, but instead twisting the job to fit their own interests. Wow, imagine a waitress doing that or a clerk in a store? Yet that’s how agents in writing are functioning now. No rules, no guidelines, nothing to keep them thinking that their employer should come first.

So simple human self-interest and lack of basic rules explain why so much of these myths exist for agents.

For more information and a lot of great discussion, all the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing posts about agents are linked here:

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: You must have an agent to sell.

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Agents Know Markets

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Agent Agreements

Please, please, if you have any desire to really understand agents and help your writing career, read all the posts and all the comments. Thanks, Laura Resnick, and everyone who asked questions and made observations and helped in the discussion following those chapters in this crazy book.

In a comment after the last post, Laura Resnick said, “Many agents (perhaps most) see their credibility, their reputations in-house at publishers, and the productivity of their editorial contacts as being based on having a high hit-to-miss ratio with submissions–a high ratio of submissions that the editor likes and makes an offer on.”

I want to really aim an arrow at what Laura pointed out on agent perspectives in her fine comment.

“Slush-reading agents” (meaning the current batch) in sending manuscripts to editors have both a similar and a completely different goal in mind than a writer does.

Similar Goal: Both the writer and the agent want the editor to buy the novel for as much money as possible. Such a sale helps both not only make money, but helps both of their careers.

Different Goal: The writer wants the novel out and seen by as many editors as possible, to give the book the best shot to sell and maybe even get a small auction going. The agent, as Laura points out, wants to make sure to protect the agent’s reputation with an editor, thus wants to limit the number of rejections.

And this difference in goals is where most of the troubles are. Agents who mail things for clients worry more about their own careers and their own value to an editor then they worry about selling a book for a client. In fact, if a book isn’t perfect in this type of agent’s mind, they won’t mail it. Not for fear of hurting their client, but for fear of hurting THEIR (AGENT) reputation.

When an agent asks a writer to rewrite a manuscript, who are they really concerned about? Not the writer, that’s for sure. They are only looking out for their own self-interests. Nothing more.

When an agent asks a writer to rewrite a manuscript, they are actually hurting the writer. Forget for a moment the fact that an agent is not a writer and can’t really give good advice, but look at a rewrite from simple business terms.

1)The work of rewriting slows down any possible cash flow.

2) Rewriting takes writer time that could be used to create a new project.

3) Rewriting on demand of an agent hurts a writer’s personal belief system.

All fantastically negative things to a writer working alone in a room somewhere. So a simple rewrite request from a theoretical employee who is supposed to have the writer’s best interest in mind is fantastically damaging to any writer’s business

And agents do this only because they worry about their own reputation, worry about what editors will think of them. They have no care at all the damage they are doing to their client. “Slush-reading agents” worry more about their own reputation with publishers and editors than they worry about their reputations with the writers who hire them. To them, the attitude is, “If the writer doesn’t like it, they can find a new agent.” (And the writer should, of course.) But the agent’s self-interest are so far above that of thinking about the interest of their boss, the writer, that nothing but damage comes of it.

Why this has happened is a number of reasons. The most often stated is that agents work for more than one writer. So their thinking is that if they have a good reputation among a dozen editors at hitting with manuscripts, those editors will give them extra time and read manuscripts faster. And for the clients of this agent who can get a manuscript through the employee blockage, it sometimes helps. At least with speed of sales, a very minor thing in the overall picture.

But, and there is a huge BUT with the above, the fear and worry about what an editor thinks of the agent’s reputation is very, very bad for a lot of the agent’s clients. The faster acceptance vs. the huge damage to many clients doesn’t equal out.

Who really cares how fast an editor reads a manuscript? In fact, I personally know of a number of projects that editors said to me, “The agent is always in a hurry, setting deadlines for an answer, so I just bounced it since I hadn’t had time to get to it yet.”

Not my projects, thankfully, because I sell my own stuff, but friends. And when the editor said that to me, I just shuddered. A writer’s employee was causing the rejection because they were in a hurry. Yikes!

Anyone who has the slightest clue about what happens in editor’s offices when it comes to the process of buying a book know how long the process can take, and how many different battles an editor must fight. If the editor has some agent pushing at them, why should they drop everything and fight what that agent wants them to fight? They don’t. Mostly they just bounce the book.

So instead of pushing your agent to get an answer from some poor editor, why not push your agent to get the book project out on five more editor’s desks???? Give the editors time. And if you hire an agent to speed up the process of rejection, wow are you in the wrong business. Catch a clue. Your goal is to sell books. Give editors time to work. Put your manuscript on five to ten editor’s desks and then write the next project.

In fact, I have a term I use. It’s called “Irons in the Fire.” When a project gets sent out, or I get called on a possible future project by an editor, I think of it as just another Iron in the Fire and I forget it. I never think it will actually become real, and I never wait for anything. When they call with a real offer of money and terms, then it is real and not one moment before.

So my goal is to get as many Irons in the Fire as I can. I have had Irons in the Fire suddenly become a real paying project years down the road.

But agents, especially the modern “slush-reading” ones, have the idea that you should only focus in one place at a time, one book at a time, go slow, write only the same type of book book after book. After a first novel SALE, this might be good advice for a year or two, but for most of your career, it’s awful advice. So why do agents give it to you? Back to their focus on what editors think instead of their client writers.

That’s right. Your employee is telling you what to write so that they can please an editor. (Remember, editors work for publishers, the corporation you will depend on the agent to get a good contract from. See the problems forming?)

Editors have to treat a book in a sort of book-as-event manner, since it takes so much for them to buy a book. And they want that author giving that book their focus. But wow, if you write 500 words a day, one book a year publishing pace in many genres is way too slow for you by half. But your agent, because of their focus on what the editor wants instead of what you want, will tell you to slow down or just not write.

And if you slow down, write fewer books, you will make less money because you have less product. Worst advice an agent can give, has nothing to do with the well-being of a writer, and yet agent after agent after agent gives this stupid advice.

Slow down is the flat worst advice ever given to writers. Yet I will bet a large number of writers with agents reading this have gotten that advice.

It all comes from agents, at least the new breed of them, thinking more about their own career and what editors think then what their own clients think or need. The older breed of agents who like doing deals and negotiations and sales don’t care how many books you write. The more you write, the more they make, so they are happy.

Think this through, folks. Say you are a writer who can manage to average 1,000 words per day (about an hour worth of work), so you produce four novels per year. If you have hired an agent who only has about six main editors and a few other secondary editors they work with, and you are pouring four novels a year at that agent, it is in the best interest of the agent to tell you to slow down. Not your interest, because the more work you produce, the more money you make. But the more work you produce, the more your agent has to work, and thus basic human nature kicks in. (Cue the whining music here…This is TOO hard.)

(Again, read the earlier agent blogs about marketing and such.)

THE TRUTH. A modern agent (slush-reader/blogger) is looking for a one-book-per-year writer who hits it big.

In other words, like a lot of humans, modern slush-reader agents are lazy. They want money but don’t want to work. They want to find a writer to hit the home run for them, the next Stephanie Meyers. At the big thriller conference, a major bestseller got up to talk about agents. He said simply, “The worst thing that can happen to you is that your agent has a client that is a major bestseller. And it’s not you.”

I have seen this happen time-after-time, writers with a agent who has another client who suddenly hits it big, and suddenly that agent is not returning phone calls, having writers rewrite to slow them down, not mailing manuscripts, and on and on and on.

The agent you want is a person who works for you, who mails a book when and where you tell him to mail it, who listens and cares about your writing needs and your writing speeds and your need to cross genres. If the agent is focused on you, they will be fine. You’ll find a good working balance. But if they are more concerned about what a publisher’s employee (editor) will think of them, then run from them.

And run fast. The amount of extra help they think they can give you with editor-focused thinking will do nothing but harm you in so many ways.

One more way, never talked about but very real. An agent is hired to be your negotiator in contracts. But the focus for that agent is to keep a certain small group of editors happy. So you sell a book through an agent to one of those editors.

Agent doesn’t care about you at all. Agent only cares about coming across as a nice person to the editor, someone easy to work with, someone who “understands” and can give favors and find good writers when needed. Only issue is, the agent in the contract negotiation is “giving” your rights away. And your negotiating power.

And I have heard of a number of instances when agents worked across contracts with different writers, talking to the same editor. “You give me this in writer A’s contract and I’ll give you this in Writer B’s contract.”

Yup, it happens, and it should make every writer shout in anger, but alas, remember there are no rules for agents, no one looking over them, and thus publishers know this and can use this lack of rules for their advantage in all aspects of their business. And how would you, as a writer know that happened and you were writer B?

You wouldn’t. Not directly. Your agent would tell you, “Oh, we couldn’t get that detail fixed. And that’s assuming you, the writer, even know enough about contracts to ask. Most writers, thinking “I don’t need to know business” just trust these agents.

Agents who are thinking more about keeping editors happy and their own well being then your contract. Yup, that’s the person you want to trust.

So, for a moment, let’s talk about what every employer must decide about an employee.


Understand that every writer will be a different sort of boss, and every agent is different, still, let me try to lay out some basics at least to jump from.

1) Don’t ever expect an agent to save you. Agents won’t and can’t save you.

2) Don’t expect them to know everything. Agents are not as knowledgeable about your writing and projects as you are. And after a time, they won’t even know as much about the business as you do.

3) Don’t expect them to be good in all areas and all genres. All agents have weak areas and strong areas. You need to understand them and balance their strong and weak areas against your needs.

4) Don’t expect an agent to do everything for you. Hire an agent (or any employee) for ONLY what you need. Nothing more.

5) Don’t expect them to tell you what to do. (Or worse yet, plan your career. Before you hire them, be clear with yourself and them what you expect from them and what you want them to do. If you start letting an employee guide the ship, your ship is doomed to crash on the rocks.

6) Just because you hired an agent, don’t expect the work to end. Expect to double and triple check everything they are doing all the time. It is your business, after all.

7) Never expect them to care or work as hard for you as you will work for yourself. This is just standard for any employer, and really, really is true for agents. You have only your own career, they work for dozens of writers, if not more.

If you have ever run a business or office with employees, you know I have just described what any good employer thinks about with hiring an employee.

Again, no agent is the same. Many are very, very honest. But understand they have no rules, other than the rules you give them as their employer. They are human, and often would rather not do the work, especially if they think the project is only small or has no hope. As the boss, you have to be aware of these human traits and understand them and push where a push is needed.

But never once believe that an agent, any agent, no matter how good they seem, has your best interests at heart. They do not. That is an ugly myth. They are an employee that only cares about their own business. And they are an employee without rules unless you put the rules on them.

And some of the agents these days might as well be working for (and just drawing checks from) the publishers. But if you understand that, you can work around that and keep your best interests in mind in who you hire.

Just like the owner of a restaurant or a clothing store, you have to control those who work for you and keep them working the way YOU want them to work. And if an understanding can’t be reached between you and your employee, fire them.

It really is that simple.

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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77 Responses to Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: All Agents Care About Writers First

  1. Lots of good stuff in the discussion here. I wish I were stunned at the pushback that y’all are getting from your workshops and listserves, but I’ve taught professional writers stalled in their careers long enough to understand that the defensiveness comes first, and then some of them step beyond it.

    I’ve been noodling about something Laura said–dunno if it was in response to this post or a previous one–about agents earning 15% and not doing 15% of the work. And that has bothered me from the start.

    She and I come at the people we hire differently. I don’t look for someone else to do 15% of the work. I look for added value.

    Let me take this out of the realm of agents at the moment, and put it in a different context. My mother was an extremely anal woman, probably obsessive/compulsive, and it was around cleanliness. Our house sparkled. She taught me how to have a house like that, without a speck of dust or dirt, everything in its place, and even the no-iron sheets ironed.

    I know how to do it. I lived it. I don’t do it. However, I want a clean house. I don’t mind clutter, but I loathe dust. I could–and used to–clean everything. On a weekend. When the place got bad. But I could use my mother’s methods. I can delineate them to you even now, 30+ years after I moved out of her house. With minimal daily effort, my house could sparkle.

    I don’t do it. I hire someone to clean and frankly, her standards are so far below my mother’s that I can hear my mother clucking disapprovingly as this woman cleans. But every week, my house gets clean. Dust-free (relatively), dirt-free (certainly), and a little sparkly. It’s an added value, one I’m loathe to go without.

    I hire an agent for the same reason. To add value. My current agent adds value. He doesn’t do 15% of the work, nor would I want him to. I do the work. He does the things I know how to do but prefer not to do. So I hire him for added value.

    Most of those things are as quirky as my house cleaning needs–the way he asks for things I would shrug off (but I now benefit from), the fact that his is a voice that I occasionally use to speak for me. Many of them aren’t something a literary lawyer can do. If I thought so, I’d hire a literary lawyer.

    But those are my quirks. And my attitude–on anyone I hire–is do they add value? If so, then they’re worth what I pay them. If not, they’re so gone.

    And yes, I’ve made horrible mistakes with agents and other employees as well. This is years of hiring and firing talking.

    • dwsmith says:

      I would add one thing to what Kris says, my opinion on it. I have rarely, if ever, had an agent actually earn 15% worth of the money on a novel. So on that side, I have agreed with Laura completely, yet I also tend to look at agents and other employees not so much on the percentage of work, but also on value added, as Kris said. But how I approach it is “Is it WORTH the money TO ME for what the agent will do?” So in that respect I look at it the way Kris does.

      But there is yet one more added side to this. If you look at it strictly from a “amount of work for money” or “added value” which are both right, but I add in a third factor. “Downside distraction.”

      On agents, for me, the roadblock that just having an agent puts up IN MY MIND is enough to keep me from not writing. If I am thinking I’m going to have to run this through an agent, get their approval, fight to get them to mail it to more than their eight friends, and then watch them with all the money, I just say, “to hell with the project.”

      Now, over the years I’ve had some pretty good experiences with agents, even though I have sold all my own books. Yet I can’t begin to tell you how many novels I didn’t write because IN MY HEAD I still believed some of these myths. I made career decisions at times to AVOID the problems with an employee. How bad is that?? How silly is that, yet I did it, more than once.

      So for me, yes I look at the actual amount of work an agent would do for me compared to the money earned, and yes, I look at value added to my career as Kris says. But the third factor, the “distraction factor” of simply having an employee, has to be factored in for me right along with the other two. And for me, it’s a huge factor. The biggest, actually.

      To describe the “distraction factor” using Kris’s housekeeper example, say you really wanted a housekeeper, but the housekeeper turned out to be so passively judgmental about how the house looked on arrival that over the months you started slowly cleaning things BEFORE the housekeeper got there, until it ended up you were using a large part of a day just to keep the employee happy.
      Silly, right, but what writers do all the time with agents.

      How do I often get around this third distraction factor? I play a mind game with myself. Any book I write, I promise myself no agent will be involved with it. Then I write it the way I want to write it, market it the way I want to market it, and if I need an agent to help with the negotiating part, I hire an agent only for that project. Or a lawyer only for that project. But to keep the distraction part out of my life, I have to play the game.

      And what’s interesting is that the last five novel projects I have worked on in the last year I haven’t needed either an agent or a lawyer. And they have been the most fun writing I have had since I started writing. For me, the distraction factor is huge. Value added is important, actual amount of work done is important for costs, but the distraction factor is what kills me every damn time. I just can’t have the ghost of an agent standing in my office.

  2. I had a “value added” view about agents in the past, but I can only think of one sole occasion when I actually =got= value added. Not one sole agent; rather, one sole occasion with one of my former agents. (Which is why, of my four agents, that’s the only one whom I don’t regret having hired; though I should have left that agent sooner than I did.)

    To use Kris’ analogy, my experience was that I kept winding up paying people to come and clean my house, who instead came and made it messier, so that I flt like I always wound up =cleaning up after them=, IN ADDITION to doing all my own work. Hence my irritation about the division of money vs. the division of labor.

    But I agree thinking about what “value added” qualities you want in an agent-author relationship is a very good way to look at this for many writers.

  3. I definitely identify with what Dean is saying about the distraction factor. (And I’ve known many people who do indeed clean their houses before the housekeeper arrives! )

    As I’ve said before, although I’ve been astonished to realize how much more money goes into my pocket since I turned to self-representation, money was =nowhere= on the list of reasons I quit the agent-author business model. What Dean calls the “distraction factor,” though, was VERY high on the list–and it’s high on the list of reasons I don’t want to go back to working with an agent, either.

    I don’t think I ever DIDN’T WRITE something because of having an agent, but I certainly did used to spend MONTHS at a time fretting about how to convince my agents that it was a GOOD IDEA for me to write something and that book should be SENT OUT. And I did this fretting precisely because of the negative way (and, in some cases, the ANGRILY negative way) they tended to respond to my work and to my desire for it to be sent out. The fretting wasn’t me borrowing trouble (I am not a fretter, by nature), it was instead a learned response based on my experiences with the agents.

    So to take the value-added analogy further, when I look back, I see that I was paying a housekeeper to come here, refuse to clean, AND belittle my house, my decor, and my own housekeeping abilities, and occasionally throw a tantrum at me for having a house. So I just clean my house myself now. And since I’m a good housekeeper, this works out well.

  4. I’ve heard of agents hired to negotiate the deal after a book is sold (by a newbie) getting enough of an increase on the advance to more than cover their 15%, in which case they’ve clearly earned it. Perhaps a literary IP lawyer could have done as well, I don’t know.

    It’s often helpful to have an intermediary in a negotiation. It lends a level of detachment where personal involvment might interfere with the process; most people who don’t do it for a living aren’t very good at it. (From buying and selling houses, for example, I know it’s much easier for me to be a tough negotiator if my responses and demands are filtered through the real estate agent than if I were discussing it with the buyer or seller in person.) In the literary world, I know an author and magazine editor whose agent got the rights reverted on several years’ worth of editorials (originally works for hire). He might have been able to do that himself, but the very request might put him in an awkward position with his employer, especially if refused.

    I’ve been around — if not in — this business enough to know more about it than most newbies, but also enough to know how much I don’t know. This Killing the Sacred Cows series is great, Dean.

  5. That’s an interesting distinction, Dean.

    Are you saying that you essentially avoid keeping an agent “on retainer” and instead sell the book yourself, then when you need to hire an agent for the contract negotiation, but only for that book?

    I suppose you made that clear before but that I missed it. But that would mean that you are hiring the agent with the explicit understanding that they are to handle that contract only?

    • dwsmith says:

      Jeremy, that’s right. When I need a task done and think another person would add value or help in a way, I hire that person for that task. Never, ever again will I have a full-time agent. Just don’t need one. But I do have agents I like to work with and who I know and have checked out completely. Those are the ones I pick up the phone and call when I need help on something. And when I do that, I gladly pay the going rate.

  6. But, to be clear, if you find a housekeeper who comes and cleans the house and behaves well, and that relieves you of the burden of cleaning, then that’s a working relationship worth having. Just because I had a series of pathological housekeepers who turned me off the whole idea, and just because I happen to like keeping house myself, that doesn’t mean EVERYONE should keep house for themselves. It just means -I- should keep house for myself–and I wouldn’t suggest otherwise to anyone who either has a really good housekeeper or who seriously WANTS a housekeeper.

    Can I torture that metaphor any MORE? (Oh, if I really try, I think I can…)

    Back to the there is no One Right Way or Universal Answer. Whether choosing to work without or without an agent, I think (as per Dean’s “your are responsible for your own career” motto) the point, really, is that a writer needs to think about what he wants, why he wants it, how to get it, and whether he IS getting it (and, if not, what to do about that problem).

    If a writer wants an agent, he should think intelligent about WHY he wants an agent, WHAT his expectations are, and then regularly examine whether his expectations are (a) realistic, (b) changing, and (c) being met.

    And ditto if a writer decides he does NOT want an agent.


    • dwsmith says:

      Exactly, Laura. I agree completely. No right way, just the way that works better for each writer, from an informed position. And that “informed” word is what this is all about.

  7. Dean, do you think a beginning writer would get a considerable amount of pushback from most agents if attempting to take that position?

    I suppose that’s a guarantee with the wrong kind of agent, or the wrong agent for me, but that the right agent would be very agreeable to such a concept.

    • dwsmith says:

      Jeremy, first off, why would a beginning writer need an agent???????? Go back and read my posts again and then firmly plant the standing knowledge that has been around a long time in your mind.

      “Any agent you can get as an unsold writer isn’t an agent you will want when you sell a book.”

      If you have an offer in hand from a major publisher, you are not a beginning writer and can hire who fits you. If you are trying as an unsold beginning writer to get an agent, you get what you deserve I’m afraid. Sorry to be so blunt, but alas, the hard truth.

  8. Point taken. I didn’t write what I meant, unfortunately.

    It would have been more accurate to ask about an author with his first offer in hand. But you’ve answered that. The writer with an offer in hand can hire who he wants.

    What I was trying to ask was whether a writer with his first offer would find agents reluctant to deal only with the one contract. But that is just a slip into conventional thinking. Rather, the author with an offer in hand has every opportunity to acquire an agent that would agree to a proper author-agent agreement.

    Make no mistake. I will never hire an agent without an offer in hand. I never liked the idea of doing that as it was, and you’ve helped me realize that my instincts in that area were correct.

    • dwsmith says:

      Jeremy, yup got it. With an offer in hand, you can shop for the right employee that fits what you need an employee to do. Exactly on the money. You might have to interview two or three, but you will find one. And it will happen fast, on the phone.

      A point that some agents do which is just silly. They ask to see the book first. If they do, ask them why? They will be thinking that you are hiring them for life. Just say you would like them to do just the one contract first, then the two of you can talk about the future. You want to see how they handle the important stuff, the negotiations and contracts first. If they insist on reading the book first, walk away. Their judgment on your work means nothing and will only get in the way.

  9. Good tip. And a good red flag to look for.

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