An open letter to agents

I wrote a very long blog post last night. In fact, I’m not done writing it. It was so long, I’ve split it into two. This half is still pretty darned long. This is the less technical half, the shorter half (gnn, yes, really, sorry!) and it’s the half that I’m going to address to agents.

I want to be clear about one thing–while this is an open letter to agents in general, the agent I’m not addressing this to is mine. She and I have had several conversations about this new world, and I know we’ll have more. What has impressed me about her response is that when I’ve gone to her with a concern, she has thought about it, talked about it with others, and come back to me with a response that tells me that she gets where I’m coming from, that she respects me as an author. This shouldn’t be taken as a passive-aggressive dig at her; everything here I’ve already told her, and then some. If I ever need to tell her something, I’ll send her an e-mail or give her a call, and I know she’ll respect and listen to what I have to say.


{Edited to add the next morning: Please see my mea culpa here.}

So, to every agent in the world who is worried about the new world in publishing, except Kristin Nelson:

You want to know the number one question that authors are asking me about my self-publishing venture? Bar none, it’s this: “How are you dealing with your agent?” I can’t think of a single published author who wanted to ask me questions about self-publishing who has not asked that question, and wanted to talk about it at length. The ratio of questions about my agent to questions about everything else that I’m doing has been about 15:1. I’ve talked to other agented authors who have self-published, and they are also fielding questions about their agents, I suspect at approximately the same ratio.

Agents, I don’t think you have any idea how much your writers are talking about you right now. Seriously. I don’t think you have any idea. I am getting multiple e-mails every day from writers who are worried about what their agents are doing, and who are worried about how to handle agents, and who want to be fair to their agents but also don’t want to pay them a percentage when there’s little to no work involved, and/or the agent handles little of the risk.

Agents, I don’t think you realize how many concerns your writers have about you right now. Seriously. I don’t think you have any idea. I know you think that the lines of communication are open, but they aren’t nearly as open as you think. At least, I assume that’s the case–that your clients aren’t talking to you about their concerns–because when you breezily dismiss certain concerns, and when I’ve already fielded e-mails from clients of yours where they voice those exact same concerns, I have to assume that your clients don’t feel that they can talk to you about what you’re doing. The alternative is that they are talking to you about their concerns, and you just don’t care. I don’t want to think that’s the case.

Your clients do care about having an agent that is free of conflicts of interest. Your clients do care that you don’t create financial incentives for yourself to not fight for a better deal. Your clients do want to feel that you are always, always on their side, that they don’t have to question whether they’re negotiating for the best deal possible, because you will do it for them. Don’t make us doubt you. We want to trust you, but it’s hard to do that if you set up a publishing arm.

And I know that you have some clients who do trust you, no matter what you do. They would probably trust you if you asked them to sign a contract for their soul in blood. You may have gotten the impression that that feeling is universal.

It isn’t. I promise you, it isn’t. If you do things that could have the appearance of conflict, we wonder. If you take actions that look like money grabs, we are taken aback.

You’ve got one big thing going for you. As far as I can tell, every published author out there desperately wants her agent to stay relevant. You’ve helped authors build careers. You’ve fought for them. You’ve made authors lives easier. Agents have kept us sane at times when we were ready to scream and burst into tears. Authors don’t want to get rid of you.

But most authors won’t give you 15% to press the “upload” button, either–and we sure as heck aren’t impressed when you pitch us at a 50/50 split. We’re talking to each other. A lot. When someone agrees to a 50/50 split, and then discovers that the work that was done was about $300, and not done very well–that they’re paying someone 50% to undersell their work–they’re not happy. You may not see a lot of this chatter, but authors do–we’re holding this conversation over and over, through e-mail and on loops, and I’m seeing a lot of authors from every part of the list saying the same thing. The number of authors who are saying that they trust their agent, no matter what she does, is vanishingly small.

I don’t think it’s an easy time to be an agent right now. I know that agents are doing the math–at this point, given the contraction in the market, there isn’t enough money out there in traditional publishing to make all of you a living. If your sales dwindle to just foreign sales and a few traditional deals a year, you’re going to be hurting. You’ve peered into your crystal ball, you’ve looked at your fellow agents, and you know the truth: in the future, some of you are not going to be in business any longer.

When it comes to assisting authors with traditional publishing, you know more than the author. You have more expertise. You’ve seen more books go through the process. You know the pitfalls and you can really help the author along.

But you’re in a tough spot right now for a second reason. When it comes to assisting authors with self-publishing, agents know less than the authors. Your agent friends can help you if you don’t know something about a particular house. But they don’t know the right answers in self-publishing. There isn’t an agent out there that has the savvy that Bella Andre, Joe Konrath, and Amanda Hocking have in self-publishing. Not a one.

The traditional information storehouse has been inverted. Right now, the people who know the most about self-publishing are authors, and trust me, the vast majority of authors are aware of that. For the first time, authors are having questions about their careers, and their agents are not their go-to people.

And so you need to sit down and really ask yourself what you are bringing to the table. A lot of the early business models that I’m seeing make it obvious to me that the agent is asking this question: How can I get a piece of this self-publishing revenue stream?

I understand why you want to ask that question. But from an author’s point of view, I don’t want my agent thinking, “God, that’s a lot of money–now how do I get 15% of it?” This is especially true when I also think, “Gosh, but my agent doesn’t know as much about self-publishing as I do.” I want my agent thinking, “How can I make my author more money than she can make on her own?” I pay my agent 15% of my traditional publishing take because I believe she’ll make me more money than I can make on my own–at least 17.6% more, in fact.

Don’t get me wrong. Some authors will find it valuable to have someone arrange details of cover art, formatting, editing, etc. so that they can just sit back and write, and they’ll give up 15% for that. But…I also believe that very few agents will be able to make a living off of the self-publishing earnings of authors who do not want to acquire savvy in this new world. The question for agents needs to be not, “how can I keep my fingers in this pie?” but “how can I convince my most successful authors that I can make them more money?”

If you can’t figure out what you’re going to do to make it worthwhile for a Joe Konrath, or an Amanda Hocking, or a Bella Andre to stay with you, you don’t have a viable long-term business model. It’s that simple. If your business model is, “let’s hope my authors don’t figure out how to do things on their own,” you don’t have a business model. Your authors are figuring it out, and we’re happy to teach each other how to do it for free.

I think there’s a non-zero answer–that is, I do think agents can bring things to the table. I suspect that my agent and I will be working out the details of our relationship for a very, very long time.

But no matter what the terms of our arrangement in the future, she will not be publishing me. Ever.

Tomorrow, I’ll have the other half of this monster post–which is why an agent opening a publishing arm is a serious conflict of interest and a breach of professional ethics.

61 thoughts on “An open letter to agents

  1. I’ve been waiting for you to weigh in on this. I told my husband about this new development–I have a partial in at Bookends–and his knee-jerk response was, “Isn’t that a conflict of interest?” Some people are blowing that conflict off, as are some agents–but if that fundamental question isn’t resolved, I don’t care how great the numbers are/going to be, because I would never be 100% sure when the fuzzy gray line was crossed.

  2. You are saying exactly what I’ve been thinking. Oon top of that and my biggest quip is agents are acting as publishers. What may make you an incredible agent may not make you an incredible publisher. You need more than business savvy. It simply takes a different skill set to get the book in front of the reader than in front of the publisher. I am not saying agents will never have it. I am saying they should get it instead of being focused on this gravy train.

  3. Awesome post, Courtney! This issue has been much on my mind in the last couple of weeks. I don’t know how agents will fit into the new publishing model, but I sure don’t want the person who’s supposed to be my advocate to have even the appearance of conflict of interest.

  4. Amazing, Courtney! Your insight, and understanding of this problem is monumental. Thank you for placing all the points on the table where EVERYONE can examine them!

  5. So weird– I was writing a blog about the exact same thing when I saw the link to this on Twitter. Anyway, looking forward to the legal angles on it and also referenced this post in my blog.

  6. With Borders closing, B&N not doing well and self-publishing rising, agents have to be worried. With more writers turning to epublishing and self publishing, why would they need an agent? Agents are going to find other ways to make money and it looks like they are going to offer services for a fee to get an writer’s book published.

    This is a conflict of interest and a breach of professional ethics, but is there a law against this?

  7. Hey Courtney,

    Great post. I’ve posted on this recently without giving my own opinion, just becuase I feel as if it changes daily. I guess I am in an interesting position, being both an author AND an agent. I have a co-written project that has sat around for 2 years and my critique partner and I (she’s multi-published as well) are playing with the idea of putting it up as an ebook. . . which begged the question, do we have to involve our agents? Do we WANT to involve our agents?

    And then I put on my other hat and as an agent I’m getting emails from clients playing with the possibility of self/e-publishing a project. Sometimes its a project I just spent months with them revising and fine-tuning and submitting and I still believe I can sell it.

    So, I have a lot of thoughts, none of which are resolute. I’m interested to see Part II.


  8. [quote]It simply takes a different skill set to get the book in front of the reader than in front of the publisher. I am not saying agents will never have it. I am not saying agents will never have it. I am saying they should get it.[/quote]

    great post Courtney. this above is what I wonder about. I don’t know the posibilites, but if I were an agent, I think this is something I’d be trying to figure out. How can I help my self-pubbing client reach a broader audience and then in doing that, she can pick up additional income.

    More authors with a reader following who self-publish, that’s less books in a bookstore from the publisher. I’d like to see an agent create that bookseller relationship and try to get her clients books there. but again, I don’t know the possibilities and complications there to prevent that.

  9. I’ve already talked to my agent about my intent to self-publish my old books on my own. The nice thing about my agent is that I know she’ll understand my concerns and will address them with me.

    I’m with you. I don’t want my agent to be a publisher. I also think you nailed it on the head when you said that agents don’t know how much we authors are talking amongst ourselves and figuring out where we go from here with out careers.

    It’s not just scary for agents, it’s scary for authors too. Like agents, some authors won’t survive the fallout either in terms of making a living at what they love to do. There’s only so many consumers and dollars to be shared across the landscape.

  10. I should have also stated that I would like it if an agency offered up a flat fee for self-publishing services in a boutique fashion rather than taking a percentage of the royalties.

  11. I was mentally applauding your response on BookEnds’ post on the subject, and I’m cheering you on now. I agree with every point you’ve made, and thanks so much for speaking up.

  12. This conversation is really heating up. Thanks, Courtney, for your insights. I have nothing but the utmost respect for you and Kristin. I also have great respect for Jessica, Kim, et al, and all the agents out there trying to figure out how best to move their businesses forward in the current market.
    It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

    For me personally, I’m deciding whether to search for a new agent (I split w/mine a couple of months ago), or to go the self/e-pub route.

  13. Wow! What an eye-opener and so very timely with all the buzz about self-publishing. RWA recently had a great article on self-publishing. I’m thinking that not only agents but publishers need to be more informed. Also agree with Monica Burns comment.

  14. I’ve been waiting for this – to know your thoughts. Can’t wait for the next post. When I read the news yesterday I went to my group to discuss. The same things are being said. Glad you said it out loud.

  15. Great post, Courtney. One of the things you are absolutely correct about is that a number of agents will be out of business. It’s simple economics. Publishers are spending less in acquisitions, mostly because of the technical revolution. Less spent means less in agent commissions. I think a savvy agent like Kristin will be a survivor, and many others will do OK, at least for a while. But the marginal producers will be wiped out. And all this change since just 2009. At least most agents are smart and have skills. They will be all right. They just won’t get to be literary agents anymore.

  16. Good post Courtney.

    And that 50/50 split is on the 70% royalties you get from Amazon. So it basically works out to 35% of gross profits.

    I think what agents need to be offering to their own clients is a flat fee of editing. Or some other one time service. Or a lower percentage on the books that the author decides to self-publish but ONLY if those books had been with the agent to begin with. For example, books that the agent shopped and couldn’t sell, then I think the agent does deserve some percentage of sales, if the author decides to self-publish it.

    Agents need to be revamping their agency contracts to reflect something like that for the future, so that when an author first signs they know exactly what they are agreeing to.

  17. Monica Burns said,
    “It’s not just scary for agents, it’s scary for authors too. Like agents, some authors won’t survive the fallout either in terms of making a living at what they love to do. There’s only so many consumers and dollars to be shared across the landscape.”

    I respectfully disagree. The convenience and low cost of the ereading experience has led to more books purchased. Additionally, since authors’ royalties have increased from 8-20% to 35-70%, much more revenue is flowing to the author. It may be scary, but only because it has changed. It’s not scary because the economics work against the author. The econimics wind is at the author’s back.

  18. Thanks for this post, Courtney.

    In the current environment, with so many elements changing so quickly (the economics, the continued adoption/transition to eBooks, the, well, just everything) this is NOT the time for an author to lock herself into any long-term agreements.

    I’ve been so very saddened to see major authors agree to let 3rd parties produce their eBooks for frankly heinous terms and then, on top of that, have that product be shamefully inferior.

    If we can’t rely on our agents to help us navigate this swiftly changing environment– and I don’t see how we can if that agent is ALSO in business as a publisher– then who do we rely on?

  19. When I first pitched the Haanta Series to my agent, he told me it was going to be a hard sell. He made many statements about market, etc. I said “what about digital books?” He said, “That’s suicide.” He didn’t want me to do it because that would mean he wouldn’t get any money. I began to distrust his decisions and went on my own.

    Now the Haanta Series has 24,000 readers and has a few major publishers after it. My agent has been calling me and asking me to be my publisher. I said no thank you. I’m glad there is someone else who feels the way I do on this subject. Thank you for this post.

  20. I’m very happy to see this discussion starting to come out into the open. I do know authors who are already sliding into these kinds of suspect arrangements with their agents – partly because they do implicitly trust their agents, but also because they’re reluctant to take control of all aspects of their careers. I can understand that, given that most writers just want to write, but we can no longer afford the luxury of simply doing that.

  21. It strikes me that agents have such a wealth of knowledge, experience and insight that has value to both new and established authors that they can come up with a way to parlay that value in the new world order of publishing. I think it’s ridiculous that agents and authors would consider agents who act as both agents and publishers-it’s just way too much of a conflict of interest in my opinion. I expect that as the industry continues to evolve, we’ll see more services offered from publishing professionals, including agents, such as extensive editing services, art services, marketing services, etc. I’ve always thought the best agents were successful marketers (sp? Is that even a word? Any who…) since they have to convince a publisher to publish a MS. Surely successful agents can use their marketing expertise to continue to assist authors in their publishing experience.

  22. Here’s an interesting thing. Under the Myers-Brigg author is INFJ. The exact opposite is ESTP=promoter. You want your agent to be a seller, ESJF, yet the exact opposite of that is INTP= architect.
    While these are generalizations and authors and agents don’t have to be those character types, it does make you wonder if someone whose #1 skill should be selling can construct a publishing company.
    I see a place where agents will morph with existing or new publishers as their screeners for new material and perhaps handling sub-rights. Who knows?
    What I find fascinating after 20 years in the business is that finally authors have some choices and some say.

  23. Great post, Courtney.

    Recently, my agency, DGLM stepped into the self-pub arena, but not in a publisher capacity. In my specific situation, with an agent that had been an editor in my genre at S&S and Penguin for the past 13 years, 15% would be worth it for many different reasons.

    But that is an isolated example. Agents are different across the spectrum.

    Becoming publishers, though…I can’t see how it isn’t a conflict. As an attorney, I would violate the rules of ethics by engaging in a business relationship with a client. I see an agent-publisher as the same thing.

  24. I think the approach you mention is exactly right: agents should be asking how they can bring added value to the process, not how they can grab some of the pie. It’s about what they offer authors.

    I recently blogged about the paper and ebook supply chain, outlining the steps and tasks, and what roles I think agents and others can play AND add great value. It’s here:

    The short version is that Authors interested in the indie ebook/POD channel are going to want service providers who can deliver great editing, cover art, and marketing. They’re going to want folks who can help them sell into traditional domestic and foreign paper distribution channels. They’re going to want folks who can help them sell rights to other buyers–audio, film, etc. And they’re going to want help with their contracts. These are the high-skill tasks in the supply chain that are suited to agents. If I were an agency, graphic artist, editor, intellectual rights lawyer, or some other entrepreneur trying to serve indie ebook/POD authors, that’s where I’d spend my time.

  25. I’m really glad you laid this out so clearly, Courtney. My day job is in the realm of environmental consulting and government contracts. Conflict of Interest (COI) is a huge consideration for us in any project, which makes the breezy dismissal of it by some agencies absolutely mind-boggling. Is it against the law, KT? Yes and no – you can get yourself in a world of hurt if it can be demonstrated that you misrepresented your interests on a legal contract. Our firm, for example, could lose multi-million dollar contracts over it. We’re taught that even the appearance of COI is the same as COI and we must avoid it like the plague. I think that it must not have been an issue (yet!) in the publishing world since so many agents and agencies don’t seem to take it seriously.

    I totally agree with Courtney that agents have a wealth of information and skills to offer authors, now and going forward. The big point is, just as my clients are the ones who would be the injured parties should I have COI, it is *us*, the writers, who would be hurt by COI on the part of someone we contracted with. It’s up to the writers to be concerned.

  26. As usual a great and timely post. I think a good agent will re-invent their service list to help an author best accompolish their publishing–but not to be publishers. A good agent with these skills can take a big load off the busy authors back and contribute and easily earn their fee or percentage.

    For an indie author there is simply so much to juggle and an effective agent service can: 1. help to increase their sales, 2. allow the author more time to write, 3. do some of the marketing and heavy lifting, 4. help to negotiate deals for foreign rights etc.

  27. I fired my agent nine months ago and it was a horrible, difficult decision at the time. Now, I think differently. Now I know I fired him not a moment too soon.

  28. Another question is what is the viewpoint of the traditional print publisher toward agents who are also publishers.

    I would think the agent ala publisher would be very suspect in a NY publisher’s eyes as would be their submissions to them. I see their thoughts running something like this: “Hm-m is this project a second best? Is the agent/publisher only sending me what they don’t want?”

    I know this is all about indie/self publishing costs and conflicts, but NY is still there. Big Time. And I can see them frowning all the way from my island in the Pacific Northwest…

  29. I don’t need an agent to find me a publisher or be a publisher. As the term implies, in self-publishing I *am* publisher.

    I would love someone to manage my social media activities – follow my blog tours, point out blog posts or comments I might want to respond to, send out copies of books to reviewers and contest winners. In other words, handle things that must be done but that take away precious writing time.

  30. Courtney,

    Want to know why agents are considering becoming publishers? Because they don’t have the guts to exit the agency business and embrace e-publishing as a solo enterprise. They are trying to have the best of both worlds.

    Not sure how that’s going to work out for them. History is filled with examples of businesses that have been crushed by new technology. Remember travel agents?

    The strong play would be to either double down on agenting only the best works or double down on building an e-publishing house. Not both. Not with the inherent conflicts of interest.

    Sure will be fun to watch.

  31. When publishing houses merged and editors lost their jobs, many of those editors reinvented themselves as agents. Now they’re going to have to reinvent themselves again, because the entire publishing industry has been rocked by the surge in ebook sales. Agents need to find another way to provide the services writers need to succeed.

  32. RW Bennett said:

    “I respectfully disagree. The convenience and low cost of the ereading experience has led to more books purchased. Additionally, since authors’ royalties have increased from 8-20% to 35-70%, much more revenue is flowing to the author. It may be scary, but only because it has changed. It’s not scary because the economics work against the author. The econimics wind is at the author’s back.”

    Respectfully, I think either you misread my statement or I wasn’t clear enough. The key words were “…in terms of making a living at what they love to do.”

    I firmly believe that digital self-publishing will be a boon to authors in terms of more control over their works, and will provide more income. However, it will not, IMHO, allow every author to live off their self-pub royalties. Simple economics states that there are X number of consumers and dollars to be shared across the landscape.

    Since I specialize in romance, I can’t speak to other genres, but the majority of traditionally pubbed romance authors need to hold a day job in order to survive as their advances/royalties are not enough to live off of. My gut says this is true of other genres. I know that even with my combined income from ePub and traditional pub, I still can’t quit my day job, and GOD how much I wish I could.

    The economic wind might be at the author’s back, but unless one is a success like Bella, Joe or Amanda, quitting the day job is unlikely for most writers no matter what way the wind blows or what publishing path they choose.

  33. @Monica,

    All you say is true. My point is not that self-publishing for the vast number of writers eliminates the need for the day job. Certainly not. In fact, the lack of gatekeepers has created a ‘gold rush’ of new writers hitting the ‘upload button’. Many will sell fewer than 100 copies in their lifetime.

    My point is that the changing tableau does not adversely impact “…in terms of making a living at what they love to do.” You said many romance writers needed other sources under the traditional model. Many will under the new model, too. But the current climate will allow (at least a few) more writers to rely on royalties as their main source of income. I hope that you may be at that point very soon.

  34. There is only ONE ongoing, value-added skill that an outside party can bring to the modern and near-term publishing table, the only one that can’t be easily purchased for a small one-time freelance cost. And that is marketing.

    Any agents–and former editors, and, heck, anyone unemployed persons–who figure out how to market books to readers (not publishers) in the modern digital environment, you’re going to be wealthy and loved and talked about and the kind of partner that many will seek. That’s where you can bring it, if you’re brave enough to be the first.


  35. Cogent, straightforward, and spot on — as usual, Courtney. Thanks for taking the time to write this post (and the other half, which I can hardly wait to read).

  36. Hi everyone. Thanks for the many, many comments, which I’m still reading through.

    One thing I want to add, which I’m going to add as an edit to the above post: While I used the words “agents” generally, this was obviously written in response to some actions by specific agents. My response is aimed too generally, and I apologize. There are a lot of good agents out there–I’ve heard of them just as much as I’ve heard horror stories–and I didn’t mean to imply that the lot of you were clueless. Not true. A lot of agents are awesome, aware, and moving on these issues–not just my own.

    I wrote this in a state of pissed-offedness based on some internal conversations with people via e-mail, in response to some very specific agents who I can’t call out, and it’s my bad that I directed it too broadly.

    Will respond more in comments now.

  37. Excellent post.

    I’ve long felt that agents do have a role to play in the self-publishing arena: the power and business savvy their platform holds for promotion.

    I completely understand and sympathize with agents who are worried about their income, but all that fear does is make individuals worry about themselves right now instead of looking at the long-term repercussions and/or outcomes. It worries me that agents see their self/e-pub model as the only way to keep control over the situation, and it honestly angers me that agents may make quick decisions to benefit their livelihoods, rather than making decisions to protect the agent-client partnership.

  38. 100% Amen, Courtney. You nailed this.

    Being a writer is being a business. Plain and simple. An agent is an employee. If an employee’s wages are higher than the income they generate, that’s bad business.

    Also, any of you out there who have ever run a business (besides writing) probably already know this, but the fact is, good, hard-working, conscientious employees are hard to find. Employees who will run your business into the ground, and rob you blind, are legion.

  39. I saw your post on Passive Guy’s website. Right on! That is exactly what everyone I know in traditional publishing is saying. Your agent should never be your publisher!

  40. Quite simply I would be standing on my chair cheering you if the chair didn’t have wheels and I weren’t risking certain death by standing on it.
    This is probably the first and likely the only blog entry I’ve seen on this topic in which I agreed with all points 100%. I’m especially thrilled by seeing you state what we authors already know: when it comes to self-pub, many of us know more than our agents…and that we’re talking to one another. And in that mix, I’m so glad you’re “talking” here. Brava!

  41. Thanks for a great post, Courtney. Can’t wait to read the other half…because an agent opening a publishing arm *is* a serious conflict of interest and a breach of professional ethics.

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