Mark Terry

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Are Literary Agents Dinosaurs?

May 3, 2011
I have two agents, one that handles (if that's the right word) my fiction and one that is currently sitting on a nonfiction book proposal that's awaiting a Foreword/Endorsement before she'll market it.

There was a mention today that in the UK e-books are now 6% of the market, but grew 300% in 2010. In the U.S. it's more like 15% and growing.

I haven't heard much about what percentage of that is self-published e-books. And even for a moment if you set aside the original novels published as e-books, you have to wonder what percentage of those e-book sales are formerly out of print books now made available by established authors.

I'm reading here and there about agents that are offering themselves up as sort of quasi e-book self-publishing channels, although why you'd need an agent to do that and take a percentage is completely lost on me. This is not a difficult process and there are plenty of people out there doing affordable cover art and layout.

[My e-book cover art is done by Matt Elliott or Judy Bullard and layout is done by Natasha Fondren, all who do great professional jobs at a reasonable price].

Author Dean Wesley Smith, who is rather outspoken on this topic, argues that you don't need an agent anyway. One of his more interesting arguments to me is that you get the contract negotiated by a literary attorney for a flat fee, rather than the 15% commission an agent demands. Also, as he argues - a position I tend to agree with - most writer/agent relationships are all screwed up. The author is supposed to be the employer, the agent working for the author. But all too often the author ends up behaving as if they're the employee of the agent and the agent, once there's an author/agent relationship in place, doesn't advise, but dictates the nature of the business relationship, only marketing what materials they want to, controlling the monies, etc.

And along the lines, for you writers that have agents, here's a question for you. Does your money from your publisher go to the agent, who then pays you? Doesn't that sound as if you work for the agent? Why, if you're the employer, wouldn't you get the money, take out 15%, and pay the agent with a "Thanks, keep up the good work."????

But as more and more publishing seems to be shifting toward e-self-publishing (and no, I have no idea if this is a long-term thing at all; I keep wondering if 6 months or 6 years down the road this current wave we're all riding is going to hit the shore and disappear), agents in particular would seem to become somewhat irrelevant.

Hell, I wonder how they make money anyway, given how every agent I've talked to for the last year or two (or 10 or 20) always says, "Well, with the current state of the industry, advances are worse than ever..."

Which, on the one hand, is just them setting up the author to have low expectations and not be shocked when your advance sucks like an Electrolux (or Dyson, if you prefer). Although, do you accept that at face value, do you perceive then that your agent is lying to you, and if so, do you trust them? Or are they getting you good and warmed up for their failure to do a good job of sales and negotiation on your behalf? Hmmm? Or is it just the same old refrain, blah, blah, blah?

Anyway, what are your thoughts?


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Our only experience with a literary agent is thus far inconclusive in that she has insisted she will be able to sell out Victorian book but has not yet done so.

I really want to believe that we might be able simply to self-publish ebooks and sell enough to make it worthwhile, especially since I have self-published other stuff for fun most of my life. However, I am still not convinced that the inevitable flood (or Biblical proportions) of garbage isn't going to kill off self-published ebooks as a viable alternative for all but those who have created a trusted brand in traditional publishing or who have a genius for Internet self promotion.

8:34 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I suspect the market will sort itself out in terms of e-books just the way it did for traditional paper books, simply because no one's buying hundreds of thousands of books a year, they're going to go with name authors.

This tendency for self-pubbed e-books priced at $1.99 or $2.99 is interesting and the pricepoint may potentially cause some issues with traditional publishers, but my gut feeling is that what's happening at the moment is when you drop $189 bucks on your new e-reader (or more, sometimes a little less), you then want to get some books on it, so you buy a book or two by your favorite authors, then you wander around looking at, say, Kindle bestsellers, and note that there are some for $1.99, so you figure, "What the hell."

I'm open-minded to what this all means, but anyone who really thinks they've got a handle on it is probably fooling themselves.

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Jim said...

I think that the Big Name authors who sell truck loads of print books will sell equivalent numbers of e-books. There will also be a lot of self-published authors who will sell two or three dozen books to friends & family and another dozen or so to random Internet wanderers. It is in-between those two extremes where the opportunities lie for authors who are able to bring along a core of readers from the days of print books to the new world of e-books and then build on that... or for new writers to begin from scratch to build an audience. How? Luck and hard work and some understanding of how to market online, especially how to use social media, how to use blogs and online journals and Facebook and Twitter and especially to leverage the next generation of such things. (What will be the next gen blockbuster apps? I dunno... if I did, I could be the next Social Network billionaire!)

6:14 AM  
Blogger Shari Stauch said...

Good points - only argument that doesn't quite float is $$ trickling through agent to client... They can typically more quickly spot if and/or what is wrong on publisher statement, saving client time and $... it's a model of the same clay as ad agencies (though that is perhaps a whole other can of agent worms, lol).
Love the e-publishing model IF the author is willing to do what needs done on the front end... Too many readers still shying away from these products because too many still suffer from a sad lack of craft (read editing). Everyone, even the best writers, can use an objective eye (or two or four) in their corner... that's the plus an agent and editor can and hopefully do offer...

6:19 AM  

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