February 9th, 2011 by Bob Mayer
The Future of Agents

Lately, I’ve seen several agents rip off their rank insignia and surrender, aka, find another job.  That is in line with the people laid off or leaving publishing houses, the midlist authors whose contracts were not renewed, etc. etc.  So what will the agent’s role in the future of publishing be? Or more accurately, what should the role of agents in the future of publishing be?

For now, I see about a two-year window where agents can operate traditionally and survive if they are established.  Read PW Daily/Deals and it’s pretty much business as usual, although less books are being bought for less money, which directly impacts an agent’s bottom line.  But waiting that two years without changing will cause an agent to end up in the same boat as Dorchester which refused to see the changes occurring in publishing and suddenly decided this year to completely switch their focus in publishing, after ignoring the warning signs for a decade.  Not working.  A smart agent (like the smart author) will examine the handwriting on the wall and try to see through it, to what lies on the other side.

Andrew Wylie tried it.  He announced in 2010 that his agency would bring most of his clients’ backlist into print in eBook.  The publishing world went berserk.  Random House blacklisted him for a while.  One of the tenets of Warrior Writer is that anger is an indicator of a deep truth and a strong need for change.  Random House’s extreme reaction indicated more to me than anything else that publishers fear agents supplanting them.  After all, few of the Big 6 have a slush pile any more.  They rely on agents to sift through that for them.  So agents have to ask themselves, as eBooks take a larger and large slice of the market, why they need publishers if they’re doing the heavy lifting of manning quality control in publishing.  Why wouldn’t an established agency with a list of headline clients, not set itself up as it’s own publishing house via eBooks and Lightning Source Print On Demand?  Outsource the editing to the many editors who have been laid off from traditional publishers, and also outsource the formatting and cover art work?  In essence, become what we’re doing at Who Dares Wins Publishing?

The line between agent and publisher is going to blur.   What does this mean for authors?  For now, not much, although if you have an agent, there should be some discourse on what your agent envisions their future to be.  And yours.

Now for some blasphemy.  I’ve attended a lot of writing conference over the years.  I participate in social media and watch the discourses.  Read blogs.  Here are a couple of suggestions for writers and agents that are controversial, but, screw it.

Writers.  Query every agent you can.  I don’t care if they handle your genre/type of book or not.  With electronic queries, what does it cost you?  The time to get the email for the submission and the agent’s name.  I’m so tired of hearing agents sit on panels and tell authors all the things they don’t want.  It’s part of their job to go through the slush pile.  A good book is a good book.  The reality is that there are so few diamonds in the rough, that any diamond looks good.  If the agent doesn’t handle that type of book, but recognizes quality, they will pass it on to someone who does.  But by limiting your number of queries, you limit your possibility of success.

I’ve had authors tell me that will piss off agents.  Don’t rejections piss you off?  But you have to react professionally, and so should agents.  If I see one more tweet about how hard it is to go through the slush pile from an agent, I’m going to scream.  It’s called a job.  Sort of like how hard it is for a writer to write.  Besides, if you send to the wrong agent and piss them off, they’re the wrong agent anyway, so you haven’t lost anything.   This is in line with my change in position on self-publishing.  The reality for all of this is your odds of success as a new author are less than .5% (that’s not 5% but 0.5%).  But someone is going to be successful.  The more shots you take, the better the odds.  Aiming better, for a writer, is writing better.  Just last night I saw another tweet from some junior agent, with all of two years in the business complaining that ‘even published authors must follow our guidelines for submission’.  So go ahead and keep rejecting based on form.  Short-sighted.

Agents.  Come up with a standard query format for fiction.  You constantly complain about what you get and how it doesn’t follow your specific format.  You’re not that important in the big picture.  Get over yourself.  The AAR needs to adopt a standard query format.  A writer submitting hundreds of queries can’t spend weeks adopting their query to each specific agent’s desires.  The funny thing about this one is:  it will help agents clean out their slush pile that much quicker.  Win-win all around.  When I propose this, an echoing silence from all those agents who tweet-complain about their slush pile.

The twist on this is that the diamonds will follow my three rules of rule breaking in Warrior Writer anyway.

Writers:  Detail for your agent your career plan.  Give them your strategic and tactical goals as developed under Special Force One (What) of Warrior Writer.  Show them you have a future and a plan.  Then work with your agent to see how they can help you.

Agents:  Come up with a training program for your writers.  Just getting a writer a book contract doesn’t mean they know anything at all about how to be an author.  Hell, use my Warrior Writer book and program if you want.  But to not train your authors is to propagate the 90% failure rate for first novels.  We just can’t afford such a failure rate in today’s market.  Do you have a Standing Operating Procedure you give to each of your newly signed authors?    In the long run, this will save you time and give you a higher success rate.  Yet, not a single agent or editor I’ve talked to has an SOP for new authors.  The first thing we did when a new team member joined our A-Team was hand them our team SOP.  Writers, agents and editors need to be a team, but leaving the writer ignorant helps no one.

Authors:  Follow up.  I was stunned when I heard that only 10% of authors who get requested to send further material after a one-on-one at a conference (BTW, most agents tell everyone to send material) follow through.  Then I thought about it.  For years I’ve been telling authors who invest good money to attend my workshops to feel free to follow up with query letters, synopsis, whatever, after the workshop.  Less than 10% do.  So I believe that percentage.

It’s a rough world out there.  Wishing for the good old days is like the dinosaur wishing it hadn’t strayed into the tar pit.  Assimilate and succeed.

Write It Forward.

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6 comments to “The Future of Agents”

  1. Laurie Kap
     · February 9th, 2011 at 2:31 pm · Link

    Great Post – loved the link to Warrior Writer and the audio clip.

  2. Vicki
     · February 9th, 2011 at 3:01 pm · Link

    Loved this post and the audio clip from Warrior Writers. It’s certainly not the same writing world as it was before (even 5 years before, heck who am I kidding 2 years ago). Still I do believe that with perseverance those published can continue and those working hard towards publication will find it in their future.

  3. Jenni Holbrook-Talty
     · February 9th, 2011 at 3:21 pm · Link

    There are two groups in all of these changes in publishing that are going to come out on top–the author and the reader.

  4. Bob Mayer
     · February 9th, 2011 at 6:02 pm · Link

    Thanks– I appreciate the feedback. Things are indeed changing fast.

  5. henya
     · February 9th, 2011 at 10:14 pm · Link

    What a great blog!!!
    Your POV is so fresh, progressive, and to the point.
    It is so nice to hear something positive for a change.
    As a writer, I keep reading/hearing all the not to do’s…all
    this negativity…

    I’m sending this blog all over, beginning with tweeting…

  6. Bob Mayer
     · February 9th, 2011 at 10:24 pm · Link

    Thanks. I try to be positive because that’s the only way to succeed. I see lots of opportunities in the future for writers. And everyone who is aware and takes advantage of the opportunities.


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