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. Thank you for writing such an illuminating article, Courtney! I’ve chosen to self publish for the exact reasons you’ve described and still can not decide if I need an agent. I would like to boost my sales but not if it means giving my profits away to someone who did little to nothing to achieve it.

  2. Why wouldn’t an agent direct a client’s backlist or unsold NY projects to upstanding businesses who are already experts at this: ebook publishers?

    Is there a valid reason? Are there reports of epubs being unwilling to work with agented authors’ requests to modify contracts?

  3. Courtney, I loved the “state of pissed-offedness” phrase. While I was in the querying process receiving cruel rejections or non-existent replies, I lived in such a state. Since self-publishing and cashing my meager royalty checks, I haven’t visited the state.

    You nailed the subject matter. Like most writers have been forced to do in recent times, many agents need to re-invent themselves in order to be viable income earners.

  4. Courtney, I’m glad you said that about the non-universality of “I trust my agent implicitly,” and the dangers of it.

    I was sort of shocked at how many writers said that about their agent. (Of course, when they’re responding to their agent’s post, maybe a little kissing up is to be expected.)

    Veteran authors know not to trust anyone but their own mother implicitly. (Sorry, Dad!) Trusting someone “implicitly” is hanging a big sign on yourself saying, “Go ahead! Cheat me! I want you to!”

    It makes a business relationship a personal relationship, and a dysfunctional one at that, with a needy, trusting partner and a savvy, withholding partner. (We’ve all been there with boys, right? Only we were 17, and it was only our cherry, not our careers, on the line.)

    A given agent might or might not be worthy of that trust, I don’t know. But why a trusting client thinks I or any other author also ought to trust this agent just because the client does– well, logic has nothing to do with dysfunctional personal relationships.

    It’s a business relationship. You have to be able emotionally to FIRE this person. You don’t fire your mother, but you might fire your agent. You might have to fire your agent. If you can’t even bring yourself to contemplate firing your agent, well, you are in a personal relationship where you have no power at all. (I bet the agent would, however sadly, drop you if business demands it.)

    And of course, such clients cannot see that their agents are flailing about trying to earn a living in the new industry, and if it means coming into conflict with clients’ interests, they’re telling us all, “I want to make my interest different from my client’s so I can make more money.”

    Oh, well. Too soon old, too late smart, aren’t we all.

  5. I have self-published (and ended up on the Amazon best seller list).

    I have been digitally published through an ePublisher.

    I also am on staff and owner of a small publishing house that produces both digital and print.

    I would never, never pay 15% to an agent for hitting an upload button.

    Now, if said agent is ALSO a skilled publicist that can arrange publicity, virtual book tours, press coverage, interviews and perhaps canoodle reviews from authoritative sources, I might consider it a good deal.

    I suggest some of the agents considering expanding into ‘self-publishing’ consider what services authors actually require. Hitting an upload button is not one of them.

  6. Courtney,
    Yes! I, like so many writers, want to believe our agents are plugged into what’s happening to the publishing industry, but the sad fact is, they’re either too busy sticking their heads in the sand or otherwise too preoccupied trying to figure out how to survive in this changing world. All understandable, of course, but inexcusable. I see a change in the model where authors start seeking out pay-for-service outfits that charge a one-time flat fee for doing what writers can’t or don’t want to do: editing (all types), formatting, design (interior and exterior), marketing, etc. Agentts and agencies, in an attempt to remain relevant, will have to adopt to these new services and relinquich their cherished 15% (or 50%).

  7. I really enjoyed this. Unfortunately I’m in the position of never having had an agent as yet. So, I can’t really judge. I’m with a small press, organising most things, including promotion, by myself. I think I’d like to have an agent to compare situations with. Hopefully my grass roots start will stand me in good stead.

  8. I agree with a lot you said, except that it applies to everyone but Kristen Nelson. I can name, okay not right off the top of my head. I know at least 40 agents who this need this a lot less than Kirsten. Not saying they don’t need to hear this, but, Kristen’s been doing some shady stuff

    I read her blog for years, even after it turned into one add after another, but I stopped. She and one of her underling agents started doing online seminars for something like $80.00 a pop. I don’t remember the exact amount or the exact number, but I remember that with just two seminars a month she stood to increase her “agency’s” revenues by over a million dollars a year per agent — while of course stating she gained nothing from this. Ha!

    Kristen and/or Minion: I’m going to a seminar out of the kindness of my heart.

    Blog readers: Great! Thanks!

    Kristen and/ Minion: It’s only $80.00 per person and there are 300 slots for 300 people.

    Blog readers: You’re so kind.
    (And now this post, extolling the virtues of Kristen Nelson.)

    Head desk* Head desk* Head desk*

  9. Excellent post. Agents are increasingly be disintermediated and, as the stigma of self-publishing declines as its quality improves, what are these people going to do? They need to truly help–or find other lines of work.

  10. Nice post, Courtney! The recent state of affairs involving the role of literary agents has been quite a hot topic. As an indie publisher/author with no agent, it’s a rather esoteric topic for me, though no less interesting. I felt a significant, negative impact from the lack of an agent when I first began independently publishing in late 2010. However, following increasing success with sales this spring and summer, and with my third novel due for release this fall, I’m finding that I feel much more at ease over the situation. I wish you continued success and can’t wait to read further posts on the topic!
    Jaz Primo

  11. Courtney,

    Thanks for writing this letter. Authors and agents need to read it.

    I’m in a unique position regarding my agent and my self-published fiction books. She’s currently my third agent. The first two dropped me after they couldn’t sell my two sweet historical western romances (which I self-published and have sold over 50,000 books in nine and a half months.) My current agent was for my nonfiction book. She didn’t have my fiction books. I started self-publishing before her agency started offering self-publishing services, so I squeaked by without having to deal with the issue.

    We have discussed the books, and she’d like me to write a contemporary Western romance that she could market to traditional publishers. So that’s an option.

    Authors work so hard to get an agent, then have a very dependent relationship on them. It would be hard to rock the book for many.

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