Sunday, May 13, 2012

Are Agents Still Good for Writers?

Not that long ago, and perhaps for some writers today, a writer’s goal was to land a top agent who could sell their manuscript to big six publishers, obtain foreign rights, movie deals, and get the best possible contract for each. But things began to change. Recession made publishers more “risk adverse” and therefore less likely to take on new writers unless their books had obvious bestseller potential. The ebook and self-publishing revolution enabled thousands of writers to reprint their backlists, or publish new work without going through the long ordeal of acquiring an agent and publisher. Writers began to wonder if there was any point to having an agent? The answer is both yes and no, depending on the writer’s dreams and desires.

I have plenty of anecdotal information about my and colleagues’ experiences with agents, and most of it hasn’t been great, but I repeat, this is anecdotal only. A recent blog by Dean Wesley Smith, talking about agents, caught my eye, and no, he wasn’t agent bashing. In part, it was stupid writer bashing. What he did say about agents, though, was interesting.

The bottom line, Smith says, is that agents stopped working for writers years ago and began working for publishers, unofficially, of course. He goes onto say why agents are bad for the smart writers of the world: ie., taking part of their copyright, having complete control of funds going in and out, etc. He also says that the AAR (an American association many agents belong to) doesn’t like the lawsuit the Department of Justice filed against publishers and Apple for colluding to keep ebook prices high (see my blog of March 11, “Ebook Pricing Issues Could Wind Up in Court”).

Smith maintains that agents and publishers came together (sort of) to help establish ebook pricing that would grant both of them a larger piece of the pie, and that little thought was given to authors, at least those who aren’t bestselling authors. It’s a thought-provoking blog, and I would encourage anyone who’s thinking of acquiring an agent to read it. I really have no idea whether Smith is right or wrong about agents working for publishers. I haven’t been in his shoes, however, he has had three top agents, been traditionally publishing books for over thirty years, and understands the business better than most writers. So, take a look at

I'd love to hear your thoughts about agents. Good, bad, or indifferent!


Julie H. Ferguson said...

Lots of food for thought here - thanks, Debra.
I know a few excellent agents, also many writers who have been disappointed with agents.
Perhaps its a case of buyer beware too?

Gwynneth White said...

As always, a brilliant post. Followed all the links and am so glad I did. It's a Brave New World out there . . . and fortune favours the brave!

Debra Purdy Kong said...

Glad you enjoyed it Gwynneth, and yes, Julie, I agree. It does come down to buyer beware. Writers need to do their homework!!

Pat Bertram said...

More than anything, the big agents are the gatekeepers to big publishing, both allowing in a few new voices but mostly weeding out the man. If you are a new agent, you have no access to the big publishers, and if you are a new author, you have little access to the big agents. It's always been a symbiotic relationship, and unfortunately, if one wants access to the big publishers, one has to deal with whole mess. Luckily, there are other options, since many small publishers don't require agents.

Debra Purdy Kong said...

Thanks for your comments, Pat. According to Dean Wesley Smith, not only are agents gatekeepers now, but they're actually working with publishers, and not always in the author's best interests!