Literary Agents: An Endangered Species?

Publishing keeps zooming into the future:

So is the Literary Agent about to become extinct?

Some of us might do some secret gloating at the thought. If you’ve spent decades knocking on agents’ doors, only to be told your work is too quirky/unremarkable, dark/light, similar/different, and “not right for us at this time,” it’s kind of nice to get your brain around this wonderful new fact: you don’t need an agent to be a successful writer any more.

But most agents aren’t leaving the profession. They’re retrenching, redefining their roles, and trying out innovative concepts: some smart; some not so much.

Here are some of the new tactics:

1) Providing flat fee services for self-publishers: 

Bottom line for authors? Good.
This is win/win if you can afford them.

2) Only taking new clients with proven sales numbers.

Bottom line for authors? Bad.
Authors are judged on their ability to market, not their writing. And as for the poaching—would you really want to be represented by somebody that slimy?
3) Adding draconian clauses to contracts.

Here’s the problem with the Kindle-trollers. Sometimes the contracts they offer the starry-eyed self-publisher are seriously predatory. Here’s some of the stuff they’re doing:

Always run a contract by a lawyer. Big, well-known agencies can be as guilty of nasty dealings as smaller, obscure ones. There are a lot more horror stories at The Passive Voice and The Business Rusch. If you’re at the point in your career where you’re looking for an agent, they are a must-read.

If an agency won’t negotiate on these clauses, walk away. If this agent wants you, a more ethical one will, too (YES, THERE ARE STILL ETHICAL AGENTS!!) 

Bottom line for authors? Seriously sucky.

4) Becoming publishers

There was much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth earlier this year when the Wylie agency began publishing e-books of their clients’ backlist instead of selling the e-rights to the Big Six. Many people in the industry have called this a conflict of interest and a predatory practice.

Kris Rusch of the Business Rusch Blog is still frantic about it: “If your agent has become an e-publisher, fire that agent now. That agent is not working in your best interest and never will again (if they ever did). Your agent has left the agenting business and has become a publisher, so your agent now has a conflict of interest.”

And according to agent Meredith Barnes, some agencies are indeed charging way too much for the service—especially when they pay themselves 15% to “represent” the client to themselves as “publishers” who get another hefty cut—often over 50%.

But the Association of Author’s Agents refused to condemn it, saying: “There are certain activities that our code of conduct explicitly prohibits and the practice of agencies offering their authors a way to market their books directly to the reader is not one of them.”

The Andrea Brown Agency made headlines this week when they joined in the epublishing fray. But Pay it Forward author Catherine Ryan Hyde, who is repped by Laura Rennert at Andrea Brown, couldn’t be happier. CRH has a number of titles that have not sold to US publishers, although they sell well in the UK and other foreign markets. If the Big Six had their way, none of these books would ever be available to the majority of U.S. readers.

But as of this week, Second Hand Heart is now available on Kindle for $2.99, published by the Andrea Brown Agency.

And Catherine is NOT paying the agency the usual 15%. Just a very reasonable publisher’s fee—less than most of us would pay if we got the books coded and designed ourselves.

Bottom line for authors?: Depends entirely on the ethics of the agency.

Personally, do I still want an agent? I sure do. I think it’s worth 15% of possible earnings to have a savvy advocate in my corner.

But are all agents savvy advocates these days? Nope. Especially the ones who are running scared or trying to cling to 20th century ways.

This means we have to screen agents as carefully as they screen us.

For more on the role of agents in the 21st century, read agent Kristin Nelson blogpost on the subject. She warns writers not to sign “in perpetuity” agreements and cautions against other unethical practices.

But in this new publishing world, writers don’t need agents anywhere near as much as agents need writers. Be smart and protect yourself.

And remember there are still ways to be traditionally published without an agent. Michelle Davidson Argyle wrote a great blog series on this a couple of weeks ago. She’s very happy with a small publisher, as are many successful authors I know.

This just in: On Monday, June 27, the Dystel and Goderich agency announced its foray into the digital world: they will represent their clients who want to e-publish some of their titles. Again this is a slightly slippery slope, because some may accuse them of pushing clients into self-publishing. But they will walk that line by leaving the decisions up to the client. Here's what they said--

"What we are going to do is to facilitate e-publishing for those of our clients who decide that they want to go this route, after consultation and strategizing about whether they should try traditional publishing first or perhaps simply set aside the current book and move on to the next. We will charge a 15% commission for our services in helping them project manage everything from choosing a cover artist to working with a copyeditor to uploading their work.  We will continue to negotiate all agreements that may ensue as a result of e-publishing, try to place subsidiary rights where applicable, collect monies and review statements to make sure the author is being paid.  In short, we will continue to be agents and do the myriad things that agents do."

What about you, fellow scriveners? Are you still hoping to land that agent? Self-publish? Find a cozy small press to call home? Have you heard any horror stories of predatory agents and nasty contracts?

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