The Changing Role of Literary Agents and New Submission Guidelines: Read Before You Query (or Self-Publish)

This week I'm totally jazzed to host my agent, Pam Van Hylckama Vlieg. She's one of the new breed of agents at the cutting-edge literary agency, Foreword Literary, founded by "Agent Savant" Laurie McLean.

Pam represents the book I wrote with Catherine Ryan Hyde, How to Be a Writer in the E-Age: A Self-Help Guide. I can't tell you how great it's been to have somebody savvy (and kick-ass) in our corner shepherding the book through all its various stages and lifting much of the stress off our shoulders.

Bu-bu-but, say the more tech-savvy among you... I even need a literary agent in the digital age?

Nope. Plenty of writers are doing fine on their own, self publishing or working with a small press. But the most HIGHLY PAID authors—most of whom are "hybrid" these days—generally have representation, whether they started out traditionally-published or self-published.

A lot of the big name "indies" like Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler, and Hugh Howey have powerful, hard-working agents who earn every penny of their 15%. And most of the successful hybrids, like Catherine Ryan Hyde, also have representation from agents who understand the new publishing paradigm. (Catherine's novels are repped by Barry Eisler's wife Laura Rennert. The traditional publishing world is a small one.)

But self-publishing is growing fast. Some people say 50% of all books will be self-published by 2020, and others say it will be more like 75%.

So is the literary agent an endangered species?

Agents aren't going anywhere. But their role is changing.

UK Agent Andrew Lownie spoke at the London Author Fair about the role of agents in the digital age (quoted in Porter Anderson's Writing on the Ether):

"I think there will be much more partnership, much more like celebrity and sports agents, having to look at a much wider range of things that we do.…retainers, tapered commission, an a la carte menu for authors where agent will do some of their books, not all of their books." ...Agent Andrew Lownie

The most up-to-date agents not only represent their clients' work to traditional publishers (and keep them safe from bad contracts that don't allow them to indie publish as well.) They also give advice and aid in self-publishing.

Kristin Nelson, the super-agent who has propelled the careers of hybrid superstars like Hugh Howey and Barbara Freethy, has formed a self-publishing wing of her agency called NLA Digital, which she's eager to point out is NOT a publisher. This quote is also from Porter Anderson's blog.

"Our author clients do not grant us rights. They maintain full control of their rights and intellectual property. However, what we do offer is a platform that fully supports them in an endeavor to indie publish."
...Agent Kristin Nelson

That means NLA clients are self-publishing, but they have access to the top professional editors, designers, formatters, and publicists as well as the benefit of Kristen's industry savvy and clout guiding their careers.

Foreword Literary has launched a similar project, called Fast Foreword, which helped us self-publish How to Be a Writer in the E-Age when our small publisher, MWiDP had to close its doors.

(BTW, the head of MWiDP, Mark Williams, "Mr. International" is very ill, and has been airlifted from the African village where he was volunteering to a hospital in the UK. After a blood transfusion, he is on the mend, but I hope you'll send him healing thoughts and prayers.)

Our book was selling steadily, we both have big platforms, and Catherine Ryan Hyde is one of the top-selling novelists on Amazon, so Pam was willing to take us on. 

But we're the exception to the rule. Mostly Fast Foreword publishes shorter works that can't be placed with traditional publishers because of rigid trad-pub word count rules. (Submission guidelines on the Foreword Literary website.)

It's true that a handful of superstars have gone from self-publishing to landing huge traditional contracts—but again, they are the exceptions. The reason you've heard names like Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey is their kind of success is rare, which makes them news.

Pam wants authors to understand what agents can and can't do for them in this new publishing world, and when it's a good idea to query and when it isn't.

Here's my take-away from what she's been telling me:

If you think you want a traditional or "hybrid" career, you should start by querying, not by self-publishing. Or query with a different book from the one you self-published.  

Yes, three years ago we were being told "the ebook is the new query", but that was back when Amazon's algorithms gave cheap indie books the same weight in calculating the bestseller lists as they did the big name, expensive trad titles. AND when the Big 5 weren't selling their backlists for 99c apiece through Bookbub. 

This industry is going through turn-on-a-dime changes right now. What I tell you today may not be true next week.

That's why you need to make sure you're querying an agent who keeps up. It's also a good idea to run any agent contract by an expert in contract law to make sure you're not signing with somebody who wants a piece of everything you publish for the rest of your life and your children's lives. Yeah. It happens. Be careful out there.

But even a cutting-edge agent has an eye on the traditional publishing world (which isn't going away, and we should be glad of it.) This means she's not going to take on a book that publishers won't buy. And she won't invest her time in something that has already been in the marketplace and failed to sell. Yes, even ebooks can become "shopworn."

Agents only take on what they think will grab the interest of the editors they know. They'll only choose a self-publishing route after they've tried the traditional one, and their self-publishing departments are usually reserved for authors who are already clients.

Like anybody else, agents can make mistakes. Sometimes they misjudge what editors will buy. Agents often fall in love with a book that goes on submission for years and doesn't find a home.

That's heartbreaking to the agent as well as the author.

But now, savvy agents can help clients self-publish when the big publishers won't take a risk—or have suddenly decided they won't publish anything but Steampunk Bigfoot erotica set in Oz for the next two years—or whatever the marketing department has deemed the "next big thing."

But as publishing's rules change, so do query rules. So Pam, take it away—

Ch…Ch…Changes in Agent Submissions

by Pamela Van Hylckama Vlieg

I’ve been an agent for two years. I came in right at the start of the digital revolution.

I love that small presses and self-publishing create so many chances for authors. Whether you’re a debut author or a seasoned vet your world is wide open and there’s a myriad of ways you can make money creating the art you love.

I’m not a New York City agent. My husband is a manager at Yahoo. Tech rules our world. At Foreword Literary we strive to attract and manage hybrid authors. Of course we have authors that are interested in traditional only and that is still how we make the bulk of our income but we are committed to learning and kicking some major ass in digital.

Agents are evolving. We’re no longer the gatekeepers placed high atop Mt. Olympus peering down at the plebs of the written word deigning to take a look at your pittance of a novel.

I love this. I’m a helicopter mom in real life and I enjoy helicoptering my clients. I want to be involved in every aspect of your career (even if it’s stuff I don’t take/get my 15% on) so that together we can guide you to your goals in a timely manner.

Now that I’ve declared my love for all new cool things, here are 6 things that seriously drive me batty.

6 Mistakes New Authors Make When Dealing with Agents in Today's Marketplace 

1) Mistaking an Agent for a Publicist

When an author self-publishes badly and then writes me asking me to sign them so that I can market their book, I can't help.

I’m not a publicist and even though we do have an in-house publicist at Foreword that’s not what she’s for.

If you want to self-publish you have to think of it as a business. Rarely does cranking out a book, not having it edited, and not having a professional cover work for anyone.

You can’t just sling your book on the internet plate like a side of bacon and expect it to fly off the proverbial shelves. There is work involved and that work is not my job. (Unless you are already my client and then I make it my job.)

2) Submitting to an Agent and a Small Press at the Same Time

You submitted to me at the same time you submitted to a small press and you come back three days after I asked to look at your manuscript and tell me you have an offer of publication from Otters R Awesome Press.

I don’t have a staff of fifteen to read that fast. I’ve never heard of that press so I’m not going to read you before I read the other people that have been waiting.

Upon looking at that press I see they have predatory deals, no distribution other than that you can secure for yourself, and their covers look like they were made in Paint by my four-year-old.

All of that is fine if you that is what you want from your publishing journey. Just don’t expect me to sign you. You’ve effectively taken my work out of my hands and done it for me and I didn’t get a shot to see if I can do better.

3) Asking an Agent to Negotiate Foreign Rights for a Non-Client.

You’ve self-published and sold a few thousand copies. You now want me to do your foreign rights but have no plans to give me a book at some point in the future that I can sell.

I don’t do foreign rights. We have agency partners that do that for me.

I can’t help you here. You don’t want me to be your business partner in any way so an agent is not what you want. You want a foreign rights specialist. (Some agencies have these but they are generally for their own clients.)

4) Self-Publishing Because Your Book isn't Right for Me.

You reply to my passing on your material saying you will just self-publish.

That’s fine, but I worry: are you doing it for the right reason? Are you doing it because you believe in your book and you want to make a real go of it getting the editing help you need and a good cover...or is it because you’re getting rejected because you haven’t put the time and effort needed into creating a novel.

(Note from Anne: Self publishing because of a few rejections isn't wise if you'd prefer to have representation. Agents and editors reject books for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your book. Often rejections mean exactly what they say: this isn't right for that particular agent at this particular time.  For more on this, read Ruth Harris's post 11 Reasons Why Writers Get Rejected.  Ruth was an editor at several Big Five houses, so she knows what those meetings are like.) 

5) Self-Publishing a Book that's on Submission

I’ve signed you as a client! Yay! Then we go on sub to the Big Five publishers on the first round and you freak out over a few rejections. And self-publish the book.


You need to tell me first so I can pull the book off of submission. The editors reading the manuscript are not going to be happy with me.

Also this makes me have less faith in your motives. Do you really want traditional publishing? I have to reevaluate our relationship and decide whether we should go on together.

Trust and communication are key. I work hard for my clients. I expect them to work hard too. That means communicating and exercising patience.

6) Being Ambivalent about Whether you Really Want an Agent

If you want to publish yourself or only work with small presses that you can submit to on your own then…you don’t need me!

You need an entertainment lawyer to look over your offered contracts. Not an agent.

If you want someone who is available to brainstorm with you, or as contacts in the industry, or will fight for you like a mama bear, and you want to traditionally publish then you need me.

And I need you.

I do this job because I love it. I take 15% of the books I sell for you that you’ve given me to sell for you.

I don’t take 15% of your short stories or things you self-publish (unless you need my assistance in self-publishing).

I work at least 10 hours a day, seven days a week. I’m writing this on Saturday morning and when I’m done here I have a nonfiction book proposal to write and ready for Monday morning.

If I get done with that proposal today I’ll read queries and submissions. I think I deserve my 15%, which let us be honest doesn’t even amount to a living for a new agent. I’d break it down to what I made an hour this past year but I don’t want to depress myself (or you).

I love books, reading, and authors. I love that authors have choices. I love that those choices don’t have to include me. I’m not afraid of losing my job. I’m not afraid of big publishing going away. I’m excited for the change and want to meet it head on.


To read more about Pam you can follow her on Twitter or read her bio and submission guidelines on Foreword’s website.

What about you, Scriveners? Are you still hoping to "land" an agent? Did you self-publish hoping an agent would take you on afterward (I know 1000s of authors have been doing that, alas.) Do you hope for a "hybrid" career at some point? Do you have any questions for Pam? She's generously offered to reply to questions today and tomorrow.

WE HAVE A WINNER!! THE WINNER  OF LAST WEEK'S "DE-LURKER" CONTEST IS CORDIA PEARSON, who was selected by a random number generator at So CORDIA, just send me your email address to annerallen dot allen at gmail dot com, and I will gift you a copy of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE from Amazon. 


It's HERE: the new, improved, deluxe version of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE: a Self Help Guide now published by Fast Foreword.

NOT JUST FOR INDIES: It's full of advice from NYT bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde (and moi). There's a step-by-step guide to blogging, and self-help guidance for dealing with social media overload. Lots more on how to deal with rejection, bad critiques and troll reviewsas well as how to query, how to decide the right publishing path for you, and how to market without spamming. It's all in there! Do you know who the Big 5 are? What agent-assisted self-publishing is? How to tell if your book is ready to publish? We've got the answers!

You can pick it up for only $2.99 at Amazon US, and the equivalent at Amazon UK, Amazon CA, and all the other Amazons around the world! (Paper version to follow in about 6 weeks)

"Their prose is easy to read, warm, worldly, honest...instantly we are welcomed into their fold, and serious subjects (encompassing our dreams and livelihoods) become fun."...Joanna Celeste

"I so wish there had been a book like this back when I first started….The moment I started to read 'How to be a Writer in the E-Age' I knew it was a winner in every sense. The information is not only valuable to new authors, it's relevant to published authors." ...Ryan Field 

The Golden Quill Awards: Entry fee $15. Two categories: Short fiction/memoir (1000 words) and Poetry (40 lines max) $750 1st prize, $400 2nd prize in each category. Sponsored by the SLO Nightwriters and the Central Coast Writers Conference. Entries accepted from April 1-June 30th.

Writers' Village International Short Fiction Award. Entry fee £15. This is a biggie. Stories in English up to 3000 words in any genre from anywhere in the world. £3000 First Prize. Judges include iconic mystery author Lawrence Block and Whitbread & Orange short-lister Jill Dawson. £4500 ($7200) in total prizes. The top 50 contestants also get a free critique of their stories. Deadline June 30th.

The 11th Yeovil International Literary Prize now open for entries  Prize categories for novels, short fiction, poetry. Entry fee £11 for novels. 1st prize £1000. Deadline May 31st.

Flash Prose Contest $15 ENTRY FEE. WriterAdvice seeks flash fiction, memoir, and creative non-fiction running 750 words or less. Enlighten, dazzle, and delight us. Finalists receive responses from all judges. First Place earns $200; Second Place earns $100; Third Place earns $50; Honorable Mentions will also be published. Deadline April 18th.

GLIMMER TRAIN FAMILY MATTERS CONTEST $1500 prize, plus publication in Glimmer Train Stories, plus 20 copies. $15 ENTRY FEE. They're looking for stories about families of all configurations. It's fine to draw on real experiences, but the work must read like fiction. Maximum word count: 12,000. Any shorter lengths are welcome. Deadline March 31.

14th “Dear Lucky Agent” Contest for Middle Grade fiction. FREE! This is a recurring online contest with a different genre each time, with agent judges. Submit the first 150-200 words of your unpublished, book-length work of contemporary middle grade fiction. Prizes are agent critiques and a free subscription to Writer's Market. Please note: To be eligible to submit, you must mention this contest twice through any any social-media. Please provide a social media link or Twitter handle or screenshot or blog post URL, etc. Deadline is March 18.

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