The world of professional writing can be … no, that’s not right: the world of professional writing is – without a doubt – a very frightening, confusing place.
Not only are there only a few diehard rules – to either slavishly follow or studiously avoid – but even basic trust can be a very, very rare: should I put my work on my site, or will it be stolen? Should I even send my work out to other writers, for the very same reason?
What about editors or – especially – publishers? Does my editor really have my best interests in mind? Should I make the changes he or she suggests or should I stand my ground and refuse to change even one word? Is my publisher doing all they can for my book? Are they being honest about royalties?
Back in the days of print – before the revolution – a lot of these questions would have been answered by an agent: a person who not only knew the business but would actually hold a writer’s hand and lead them from that doubt and fear and, hopefully, towards success … however you want to define that word.
Agents spoke the cryptic language of rights and royalties: they could actually read – and even more amazingly – understand a book contract. They’d be able, with their experience and foresight, to say when a writer should say yes or no to edits.
They could open doors that no one else could open – and in some ways that still holds true: a few big (and I mean huge) publishers will still not talk to an author who doesn’t have an agent. Don’t get me started on the Catch 22 of an agent who will only look at published authors – when publishers won’t talk to writers who don’t have agents.
That was then, I hear you say, but what about now? Well, as the smoke begins to clear from the fires of the digital revolution, a lot of authors (and editors and publishers) are beginning to question even the concept of a literary agent.
Part of this pondering is because the doors that used to be shut to authors, without the key of a publisher, are beginning to swing open. Yes, a lot of the huge (and I mean immense) houses are still well fortified, but a lot of publishers, a few of them quite sizable, are allowing – if not welcoming – un-agented authors.
Another part of this doubt is that a lot of agents simply haven’t kept up with the times: the ebook revolution, they deluded themselves, is just a passing fad. Well, it isn’t, and many authors who have signed with these kinds of agents have begun to feel that they have hitched their literary wagon to the wrong horse.
But do you need an agent?
The rule I was taught still holds a fair amount of water: if you are submitting to a small to mid-range publisher an agent is really not necessary – in fact they can actually work against an author. Publishers want a smoothness in their dealings with an author: having to deal with an agent, especially one that feels they have bust a publisher’s chops to prove they are worth their percentage can far too often sour the deal. As an anthology editor – and an Associate Publisher – I’ve personally had to slam the door on more than a few deals because of an agent who got in the way.
Frankly – not to sound like the old man on the hill – I’ve had five of them, and not one of them has done me much good. In fact, I consider a few of them to have seriously slowed me down professionally. This is not a good thing.
But if you still think you need an agent, keep in mind that getting one – especially a good one – can be extraordinarily tough. This brings me back to the beginning: becoming a professional writer is intimidating, scary, and confusing – now more than ever – and there are more than a few agents out there who will promise to be your savior, teach you what you need to know, and guide your hand.
The proof though, is always, in the pudding. If you decide to try to get an agent, and if you get one, and if you think you have a good one, always keep an eye wide, wide open on what they are really, actually, doing for you.
A wise writer friend of mine said that a writer should never forget that an agent works for the writer – not the other way around. So if you find yourself frustrated, disappointed, or finding more publishing opportunities than your agent then it might be time to move on.
Will literary agents become extinct – especially when huge book deals are being made by everyone from twitters to bloggers to little ebook authors? I don’t know.
But I do know that it’s important to keep a level head and not let the scary world of writing and publishing make you run into the arms of an anyone – an agent or someone like them – who promises to be a hero but, instead, becomes a hindrance.
Scary? Yes. Frustrating? Absolutely. But with professional writing always work to keep a clear head and – with an agent or not – pay attention to what’s reallyhelping you … and what isn’t.