Besides announcing the release date for The Last Track ( 8/25/09 ), some longtime readers might have noticed a smaller, yet related to the larger news, on the site. A particular favorite page of mine “Are You Agent?” has been removed. Personally, I always found the entry amusing. But it is no longer necessary, which begs the question: is there an agent responsible for the publication? The answer depends on one’s approach to the question. After spending quite a bit of time trying to find one in the midst of an unprecedented and transformational shift in the adult fiction market, several realities of the landscape became very obvious which made a change in course necessary–at least for me.
The first is the classic problem confronting all authors right now: major upheaval at the big publishers. Books are risky bets in the best of markets, and right now the larger economy is in a major contraction. Some say a once in a lifetime trench. I could agree with that. Regardless, when the chips are down, publishers do as Wall Street and Main Street does and reduce their expenses. That means a lot of people who could purchase titles have less funds, or in some cases, no funds to do so. Less dollars chasing the same number of potential projects.
On the surface, the deficit undercuts primarily writers with new material looking for a home. But it also really hurts agents who suddenly have even less access to those making purchasing decisions inside the publishing biz than at any time in history. Quite a few established agents bemoan online the lack of editor response to their well qualified queries. Un-returned phone calls and email and the like. Par for the course for anyone trying to sell product to someone who is unconvinced of its merits.
It’s my opinion that at this juncture with only the rarest of exceptions, an author is at no greater advantage with representation over one without a literary agent. By this I mean primarily newcomers. There is a case to be made for established brands firing their agents, but that’s another entry for another time.
Consider the usual journey for an author with representation. NOTE: This particular progression of events I witnessed at fairly close range.
About two years ago, my boss sold an agent on the idea for a book and a week later the agent netted them a substantial advance. With about three business days worth of work the agent netted a near six-figure payout. When the book hit the shelves about a year later, it underperformed. Needless to say, that agent isn’t doing a hell of a lot for them right now trying to place number two.
That story is rather typical. Replace the substantial advance amount with the a lesser one and a correspondingly smaller payday for the agent and the same problem happens all over. Because no one knows the lifetime earnings potential of a book at the outset, agents gun for projects that will most likely net advances and commissions on the front end. Publishers like these projects because it means headlines. Agents and authors like them because it means a real check now.
Where agents can’t get big advances, they look for other flavors of more of what publishers have bought previously. At the end of the day, agents generally do very little to actually promote the book when it appears, or guide an author for the course of their career. They can’t afford to. They have little time for such matters, because the lion share of their effort goes toward finding the next big thing. Or at least the next thing. Agents want to close as quickly and as often as possible, much like a real estate agent. That is their best chance at getting paid. It’s in their interest to churn and burn and they almost have to.
Agents must place good projects in front of editors on a regular basis or their reputation ceases to matter–the agent loses their access to a publisher by attrition. Personnel at the houses simply turns over too often and what-did-you-ever-do-for-anyone takes hold. Entropy by another name is still time spent in Suck City.
What I realized after my efforts of searching was that I already have an agent. Me. I just had to accept that I’ve always had this job title. I have advocated my work from the beginning. So, I’m keeping another fifteen percent for my efforts on this book.
And I’m in very good company.
Here’s just a partial list of authors who managed to get manuscripts to market without representation:
Chuck Palahniuk – Fight Club was placed without an agent. He eventually signed with an agent, but they were actually an actor by profession. Said actor sold Fight Club to a movie studio.
Christopher Paolini – Eragon. Enough said.
Stephen King – Carrie ( did get an agent after earning 3 million dollars writing ).
Madeline L’Engle – Wrinkle In Time. Had an agent but when the going got rough, agent dumped her before placing her first book. Whoops.
Isaac Asimov – More books than anyone can list. No agent.
James Patterson – Didn’t have an agent, then got one, then got rid of them when he realized lawyers are cheaper than 15 percent per project earnings for life. In a twist that can only be described as quirky, turns out Patterson had the same agent my former boss works with.
UPDATE: New Release Date 2.13.10 – Read Why