Writing Excuses 4.4: Agents. Do you need one?

We’re going to wade into a recent e-brouhaha, but it’s not going to be the Amazon vs Macmillan one. No, this is the one where Dean Wesley Smith argued that authors do not need agents. But you don’t need to read that to appreciate this ‘cast.

So… do you need an agent? This depends on the operating definition of “you” and “agent.” What kind of contractual experience do you have? What kinds of things will your agent do for you? And if you decide you do need an agent, how do you go about identifying the agent who is right for you? We’ll cover all of this and more!

Unrelated to agents (but definitely in the “and more” category): Howard reveals deeply personal information in this podcast!

Audiobook Plug: The Maze Runner, by James Dashner

Writing Prompt: Write a story in which a bestselling recluse author dies, and his agent scrambles to keep the career alive without telling anybody. Skin in the game, baby!

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30 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.4: Agents. Do you need one?”

  1. I’ve noticed in some of my research that the major publishers will only take agented manuscripts, or those who have a published author putting it on the editor’s desk. Where does that leave an aspiring author? It’s all well and good to say that one does not need an agent, when the person saying it is already published. When the slush-pile is moved to the agent’s desk where do the unpublished go?

    Is marketing mentioned in a contract? Do I now need to–before I try to publish–make contacts with the book buyers, and B&N, and Borders, and other Bookstores for marketing, appearances, signings, CONs? On the other hand, will an agent know or help with these things?

    Mr. Smith goes on to say–in the comments part of his article–that, whoa!, you need an agent, just not to sell a book. Huh? I didn’t get that from his article at all.

  2. Ben,

    Based on the questions you’re asking, you probably need an agent.

    Now, to answer the questions!

    First: Yes, most majors state that they only take agented work. Brandon and Dan did piles and piles of research, and determined that there was an editor at Tor who might be willing to accept unagented, unsolicited manuscripts. So they went to a convention where they knew he would be, and finally managed to corner him in a bar.

    This does not always work, but it works often enough that if you’ve got the research chops and the people skills it’s probably worth a try.

    Note: if you’ve got the research chops and the people skills, you can use the same method to land yourself a good agent. Then your agent is the one cornering editors in bars at conventions.

    Second: a good contract will include commitments to marketing on the part of the publisher, but it will also include similar commitments on the part of the author. A good agent will be able to look at the contract and explain to you in plain English what is being delivered, what is expected, and what this looks like in the lives and careers of other authors.

  3. I felt that some good points were brought up in the discussion on Dean Wesley Smith’s posts but they were sometimes very one-sided (and over the top at times). Because there were bits of truth I certainly wanted to hear another side to this issue that addressed the rhetoric. Yes, Dean Wesley Smith says that not using an agent isn’t for everyone but he also makes it very clear what he thinks about using agents. Thank you for bringing this topic to Writing Excuses.

    Brandon mentioned that L. E. Modesitt, Jr. has a legal background and thus has enough experience to work with his own contracts (domestically at least). One thing to note is that Dean Wesley Smith also has a legal background (he studied law for three years, I believe), which gives him an edge that many of us do not have.

    I think this all comes down to finding a good agent and knowing what you want from an agent. Many websites exist to help new writers find a reputable agent. As Brandon stated, not all agents are good fits for all authors. Some agents like to help build careers and others like to help a writer improve their writing skills. Knowing what you want from an agent will help you determine what questions you ask when you find an agent who is interested in representing you.

    Thanks again for addressing this.

  4. Ben: Yeah, I didn’t get that from his original post either. I actually thought that is first comment was someone else, had to double-check the name to figure it out…

    It’s too bad in a way. He definitely makes some legitimate comments, but the way he presents them they’re skewed almost past usefulness in some places.

    Regarding agent school or the lack thereof: This is one of those “there isn’t but there is” situations, I think. If an agent doesn’t have a sales history (because they’re new) then look for what agencies they’re with/have had experience with. A new agent should still be able to tell you that (s)he’s worked for such and such literary agency.

    Of course I don’t actually have any experience with any of this, but what can I say, industry blogs make for a useful procrastination tool.

    Off to watch people go flame Amazon now…

  5. To be fair, Smith was very explicit in the comments section of his post that authors do need agents for a bunch of reasons he forgot to mention in the post itself. Raethe already pointed that out, but I wanted to reiterate it because he seemed so perturbed that people were misunderstanding him.

    Anyway, my basic thoughts are these: you don’t NEED an agent to sell your book, and in many cases as a first-time author it’s easier/better to sell without an agent anyway. Once you have an offer, though, I think you’d be crazy not to get an agent. (Though I should point out that Neil Gaiman was agentless for his first two or three novels, and he seems to have done just fine.)

  6. How many rejections should a writer expect to get before giving up on a book? I’m almost done writing my current story and my friends insist i try to publish it. However I have no idea what to expect or really how much work that would end up being.

  7. Say I manage to get an offer without an agent, and then like Dan suggested, go find one…where does one look? And based on your suggestions, how can you tell who is good and who isn’t!?

    I’ve heard of writerbeware.com or something like that. Is there anything else we can use to find someone good?

  8. Just to be clear, Dean never said authors don’t need agents. Dean advocates for writers being their own best business managers, and Dean is very up front about the fact that many of the habits and practices of agents — especially New Breed Blog Agents, as Dean calls them — are not aligned with the best interests of writers.

    Caveat emptor, that’s the bottom line. And never, ever let an agent “stop” you or your writing. Never. Never let an agent sit on a manuscript and keep it from going to editors. Never let an agent tell you to re-write (without a guaranteed contract on the line) nor to write beyond your preferred genre(s) simply because the agent says that’s what sells. Never let an agent snow you into thinking he or she knows how to write books or stories better than you do. If that were true, they’d be writers, not agents.

    Yes, Dean is fairly blunt about all of this. But given the fact that it takes zero training to be an agent, and there is zero industry oversight on agents, doesn’t it just make common sense to approach them with extreme prejudice? These people routinely tank careers, and they don’t have to care because it’s not their career on the line, and the next crop of aspirants and the next Big Thing is just a slush pile away. Assuming they even read the slush well, which it seems, increasingly, they do not.

  9. Lisa, best advice is: you never give up on the book. If memory serves, Stephen R. Donaldson got like 50 rejections for Lord Foul’s Bane before it sold. That book — and the subsequent series — went on to be Donaldson’s meal ticket for four decades. And many blockbuster books and franchises began with similarly dismal numbers. The truth is, editors get it wrong as often as they get it right, and you can’t let editors — or agents — tank the book, or tank your morale.

  10. @Brad R. Torgersen: I seem to recall hearing that even J. K. Rowling got a lot of rejections before someone bought the first HP book, though I might be crazy.

    And now she’s worth more than the Queen of England. Goes to show editors/agents don’t always know what will sell ;-)

  11. Patrick, excellent example. My own opinion — take it or leave it — is that editors and agents both don’t have very grasp at all on what will and will not become a break-out hit. From my very-very-very new professional perspective, publishers hurl x-amount of books on the market every month the same way a man hurls dice at a table in a casino. They’re going to lose on some rolls, make money on other rolls, and every once in awhile, they’ll have a big successful book. And the difference between the losers, the money-makers, and the true blockbusters is…. Nobody knows.

  12. Oh man, Howards congenitals comment had me rolling. That said, it was a very helpful and informative episode, something I’ve always been curious about. Thanks for another great one guys!

  13. Brad said: “And the difference between the losers, the money-makers, and the true blockbusters is…. Nobody knows.”

    I’m going to disagree somewhat. Nobody knows _all_ the differences, but there are indicators. Just like a good craps player may not know the result of the next roll of the dice, but he does know the odds. Don’t forget that there’s more than “is this well-written or not?” that goes into the buying decision at a publishing house. There’s also “does this compete with/complement something we’re already publishing?” and “is this in our genre?” and “can we sell this into the market as we perceive it to be?” and even “is this new writer someone who will go on to more and better, or a one-hit wonder?”

    I think in Rowling’s case it was a matter of “is there even a market for this kind of fantasy these days?”, and most houses she sent it to thought that there wasn’t. There might have been editors she sent it to who thought it was great (for a first novel, that is) but didn’t believe in it enough to try pushing it through their marketing department.

    Most publishers also expect to lose money on a first novel. They hope it will turn into a big seller, sure, but they don’t expect it. They hope to do better on a second or third from that author, and that plays into the buying decision for the first. (I know Jim Baen wouldn’t buy without a three-book deal, and I suspect that’s fairly standard.) If they don’t think there’ll be a second or third, then they won’t likely buy the first, either.

    As for genre (Brad, you’ll probably remember this from the business workshop) there was a writer who kept submitting novels to science-fiction publishers, and kept getting rejections — until somebody told her to try submitting one to a paranormal romance publisher and she went on to sell them all.

    None of which has much to do with getting (or not) an agent. It does have to do with knowing the business beyond the popular myths.

  14. A few more thoughts, about agents.

    A really good agent can help a writer enormously.

    A mediocre or poor agent can utterly destroy a writer.

    There are probably several times as many mediocre and poor agents, as there are really good agents. And almost none of us can tell the difference between the three. Not at first blush.

    Virtually all of us who are selling — but don’t yet have Names — are not at a point where we can command the attention of the really good, really powerful agents. So how come we chase after lower-tier “blogger” agents — as if having an agent (any old agent) is the brass ring? That’s a bit like (ahem) certain women who think having a boyfriend or husband (any old boyfriend or any old husband) is the brass ring — even if that man happens to treat them like complete crap.

    If Dean advocates anything, he advocates for writers to a) stand up for their own interests and b) not let agents walk over writers. He (correctly) sees the agent as the employee of the writer — not the editor, not the employer — and he rejects the idea that authors should allow agents to “run” authors’ careers the way agents so often do. Especially when it seems like so many of the mediocre and poor agents are absolutely boneheaded about the kind of ‘career advice’ they give.

    Brandon’s agent experience sounds very good, and I don’t think Dean or Laura Resnick would tell Brandon that his experience is invalid. Just as they have not told John Brown his experience is invalid. However, Dean (and Laura) have experienced and witnessed and heard about enough agent horror stories, they’re now on a mission — of sorts — to break through the knowledge barrier, which insists that all non-Name authors must have an agent at all costs, otherwise they will never sell.

    I’ll be approaching editors and agents alike, this year, with two book projects, and hoping to cash in a little on my recent short work sales. My focus is going to be entirely on publishers — and a tiny handful of agents who come highly recommended from other authors — and if I detect even for a second that the agent(s) in question want to assume the “boss” role, I am politely saying no thank you, and moving on. I don’t doubt that a good agent can help me a lot, but I also don’t doubt that if I let myself get bass-ackwards, with an agent assuming the dominant role, then I am hurting myself tremendously, and I don’t want or need that.

  15. Hi guys, great podcast. I, like Brad, had the chance to hear the whole argument from the horses mouth last summer at a conference with Dean (Hi Brad, ‘member me?) and, like Brad’s comment right above, I thought the salient point was that the quality of agent you can get as a Nobody Author is not the quality of agent you want when you’re a Wonderfully Famous Author.

    I confirmed the idea with Scott Card afterward (cuz I had been to boot camp with him the summer before), and he was of the same mind. Scott told me that any editor who wouldn’t look at unagented work after a polite, concise query should be fired. So, I spent half of last year submitting my middle grade work to the venerable-publishers-that-be, with about as much impact as a fly assaulting an elephant.

    I’m thinking that established authors may experience the world a little differently than little Nobody me living in the sticks of Washington state.

    And those like me.

    Yet I persist, unagented, because I agree with the business model as Dean sees it: author has the product, hires salesman (agent) to sell work to buyer (publisher). Salesman doesn’t tell producer how to make his product, and certainly doesn’t say he won’t sell it until the product meets his specifications.

    Dean’s take is this: when you finally get a call from an editor who wants to publish your book, you say, “Wow, great, I’m so excited! Now, before we talk terms, I must secure representation. I’ll get back to you ASAP.” and then you, with offer in hand, can secure a Quality Agent rather than Just Any Agent.

    Am I missing something in this logic? Is it too idealistic?

    Brandon, Dan, Howard: LOVE writing excuses. It’s the one I never miss. Thx.

  16. okay, I’m thinking up a list of questions some actually related to this topic some not:
    Is it acceptable to try to sell a partially completed novel to an editor/agent?
    How many personal edits should you run your book through before going to submit it?
    If your Canadian (like say me!) is it still okay to apply to an American publisher?
    What is an appropriate length for your first novel?
    How specific should my book summary be?
    Will not having strong writing credentials hurt my chances of getting published? (I’m a scientist who loves to write!)
    Should I complete my novel before I try to edit it at all?
    How do you know if your writers group is giving you good feedback?
    How do you know if your agent/publisher is right for your book?
    What is the best way to get an editor/agent to take you and your book seriously?
    Thank you for reading my ridiculously long list of questions! (And look Howard no major spelling mistakes!)

  17. is it acceptable to try to sell a partially completed novel to an editor/agent?

    Yes. This is called a “proposal” rather than a manuscript. Established authors can get away with it. Sometimes. Unpublished authors usually cannot (exceptions for “famous people” who are selling book rights.)

    How many personal edits should you run your book through before going to submit it?

    Submit it when it’s ready, but don’t be afraid to just set it aside and start something else. You’ll probably have more than a couple of finished manuscripts behind you before you get published.

    If your Canadian (like say me!) is it still okay to apply to an American publisher?

    Yes! But only if you learn to spell “you’re” like a good American. Or a good Canadian, for that matter. ;-)

    What is an appropriate length for your first novel?

    That depends entirely upon the market. Somewhere between 65,000 and 125,000 words, methinks.

    How specific should my book summary be?

    It should convince the editor or agent to read the manuscript, and do so without lying to them.

    Will not having strong writing credentials hurt my chances of getting published? (I’m a scientist who loves to write!)

    Strong writing is the best credential. Rely on that.

    Should I complete my novel before I try to edit it at all?

    That depends on how you like to work. If you haven’t finished your first novel then yes, complete it before editing.

    How do you know if your writers group is giving you good feedback?

    If it feels like they’re helping you fix broken things, it’s probably good.

    How do you know if your agent/publisher is right for your book?

    If they SAY they’re right for your book, and are enthusiastic about it, and are not a predatory vanity publisher or phony agent then the odds are good they’re right for your book. Go get a second opinion from somebody who knows more about them than you do.

    What is the best way to get an editor/agent to take you and your book seriously?

    Hrrrmmm… That depends on their personality. Again, strong writing is the best credential.

    Thank you for reading my ridiculously long list of questions! (And look Howard no major spelling mistakes!)

    So using the possessive “your” instead of the conjunction “you’re” is a minor mistake now? Duly noted. The internet needs to move to Canada. ;-)

  18. Great podcast, guys.

    By the way Brandon, I’ve talked to Laura Resnick some recently, and despite her bad experiences with four agents, she had some very nice things to say about your agent in particular. See you in Pasadena!

  19. Hi Amber! Nice to e-see you again. Funny how us Kris ‘n Dean people show up in the same places from time to time.

    Wow, great, I’m so excited! Now, before we talk terms, I must secure representation. I’ll get back to you ASAP.

    Thanks for posting this quote, from the horse’s mouth as it were.

    Everybody, both Kris Rusch and Dean Smith advise writers to secure professional services…. after there is an offer already on the table.

    Because when an author has a contract on the hoof, the author has power. Howard told an anecdote in the podcast about an agent going back and re-working an already-signed contract, so that it was more favorable for the author in question. This could only be done because the publisher had already put out the contract in the first place, which gave the author — and eventually the agent — something to bargain with.

    An unsold writer with an unsolicited manuscript and no offer on the table, comes to an agent with nothing to bargain with. He or she has no power, and frankly, given the recent history of agentdom et al, that’s not necessarily a good thing for the writer. Agent is liable to give the writer the runaround, or commit any number of other bass-ackwards sins, regarding the author-agent relationship. It’s this bass-ackwardness that Dean (and Laura and Kris and others) rail against: authors letting themselves get put into bad working relationships with agents because authors aren’t protecting their interests and are letting agents make all kinds of choices and get away with all kinds of (bad) behavior that is inappropriate for an employee of the author.

    If Dean is inflammatory, it’s only because he (and Laura and Kris) often feels like he’s the only guy in the room willing to point out the pink elephant. He’s been writing and selling since before many people listening to Writing Excuses were born. His experience and knowledge predate the Blogger Agent era by a good whack, and he remembers what it was like before lots of young agents got it into their heads that it was their job to control writers: what we write, how we write, where our stuff gets sent, if it gets sent out at all, etc, etc.

    Agents have definite uses and a defined role, in the old model. It’s when we as authors allow them to step beyond their defined role that problems — big, career-killer problems — can and do occur.

  20. I have a legal background (Juris Doctor) but I would not tackle the business side of writing without an agent. It may not be absolutely necessary for you to have one, but agents do more than just look over a contract. They know the state of publishing, going rates for certain works, who is looking (and who is not), can help you navigate the increasingly murky waters of electronic publishing (see Salon.com article on the Kindle/iPad pricing wars http://www.salon.com/technology/apple/index.html?story=/books/laura_miller/2010/02/01/macmillan_vs_amazon which I think affects one of the podcasters directly I may add) and of course foreign sales.

    Having an agent doesn’t mean that you don’t have to engage in the business side of writing. If you make writing a career (part-time or full time) you will have to deal with it. The trick should be finding an agent that is compatible to your wants and needs. Then again, just getting an agent to look at your stuff is hard enough, so I understand the underlying frustration.

  21. “agents do more than just look over a contract. They know the state of publishing, going rates for certain works, who is looking (and who is not)”

    Rafael, Yes and no. Some agents do and some don’t. That’s what I take from Dean’s points. I’m sure all have their own editor friends and that may be 6 or 60 editors. Some are relying on Publisher’s Marketplace for their research, which any writer can access for the same monthly fee that agents pay.

    For a small membership fee after geting your first contract(offer), Authors Guild offers a contract review service for free as well as a guideline of standard clauses and what they mean and recommendations as well.

    So, between Authors Guild and Publisher’s Marketplace, you can probably be about as savvy as many average agents.

    You can also find critique groups that may be every bit as effective at giving you feedback on your writing that an editgent could.

    This is not to say that an agent can’t help you with all these things, and might well be very good at all of them, but you should be aware when an agent is holding you back, too.

    Dean is pointing out the ways an agent can hold you back. It will seem like the agent is helping you. If you think the only way you can sell is through an agent, you have already let them hold you back.

    The mantra that Dean(& Kris) preaches at all of his workshops is that “You are responsible for your career”.

    If an agent never submits your books, that’s your fault. If you sign a bad contract, that’s your fault.

    Dean’s posts raise awareness of the potential pitfalls of the writer\agent relationship, and I think that is a good thing.

  22. First, thanks guys for the great podcast and helping inspiring writers find their way. Kudos.

    I’ve read this some time ago at Tobias Buckell’s blog, and I think it has some relevance to the conversation. I don’t think that anyone would claim this is a scientific survey, but the results are compelling.

    Here are the results from a survey of writers by Mr. Buckell:
    First Novels: Agented vs. Unagented:

    58% of our first time novelists had an agent, the other 42% sold the book without an agent, and a high number indicate they got agents right after or during the sale of the book.

    The range in agented advances is from $1500 to $40,000

    The median agented advance is $6000 (the average is $7500)

    The range in unagented advances is from $0 to $15000

    The median unagented advance is $3500 (the average is $4051)

    These figures have noticeable differences any way you look at them. Not having an agent looks to cost one well more than the agent’s percentage on average, and certainly most of the higher ranging figures come from people with agents.

    note: Geoff Landis points out that the reverse may be true, agents may not choose to represent clients with lower advances.

    Here’s the entire article: http://www.tobiasbuckell.com/2005/10/05/author-advance-survey-version-20/

  23. I posted the text below to Dean’s current blog post when the transcript was posted, but maybe Dan, Brandon, or Howard can explain this a bit more?

    [Dan] Here’s a quick story from David Hartwell to finish this up, because I thought this was wonderful. We’re talking about first-time authors specifically. He said as a first-time author, really, 50 to 100% of what you’re selling to an editor is yourself rather than your book. An agent can’t sell that for you.

    [Me] 50-100%? Aren’t editors looking at your manuscript more than your website, etc. if you’re a first time author? David Hartwell knows the reality from his perspective–obviously–but I still find this a bit shocking and hard to understand. How much can an editor learn about the author before publication, and if that’s such a great focus then why aren’t they asking for you to do more to prove how Cool you are rather than reading your manuscript to see if they think the book is good and marketable?

    I thought this tidbit was one of the most interesting and somewhat puzzling things in the podcast.

  24. @Moses I think he means based on your presentation of your material, things like the professionalism present in your cover letter or query letter.

  25. Sorry to chime in late on this; I appreciated the topic–lots of good advice.
    Stuff not discussed in enough detail (for me):

    1. At what point in the process do you get an agent? If it is after the offer on your first book, is this seen as a negative by the publisher?

    2. Is there a printed source for reputable, trustworthy agents beyond author recommendation?–I don’t know many (read: any) published authors.

    3. What sorts of things should be in an author/agent agreement? (escape clauses etc.)

    4. What is the typical percentage fee for agents? (10-15%?) — Is this a one-time fee or an ongoing royalties fee? (forgive my naivety)

    Much appreciated.

  26. I really enjoyed this podcast, and found it informative. I thought I would add a few comments from my own experience publishing in nonfiction.

    1) my agent did all the marketing to editors work for me after working with me on a sellable proposal. I didn’t have to do research, learn the names of relevant editors, figure out what kinds of proposals sell. If you don’t know how to do this work yourself, trying to find an agent to do it is smart.

    2) my agent also knew a lot more about my contract than I did. For example: she knows the industry standard for ebook rights. She’s protecting me about things I didn’t even know what it means.

    3) People like Ty who want an agent but don’t have one should consider writing to authors who have published similar books. Especially less well known authors who will likely have time to respond and will probably recommend (or not if the person is bad) their agent – meaning choose someone who is more realistically in a similar boat to where you might find yourself. You don’t have to know somebody to ask for their advice.

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