Some Thoughts About Literary Agents

Having parted company with my agent a few weeks ago, amicably enough, I've been pondering the topic a bit. I don't intend to look for another one. I'm going indie in all possible ways, although that's not to say that I wouldn't be prepared to pay for some help in the future. Just that I might be looking for dedicated editing or IP expertise instead. However, the excellent Passive Guy reposted an extract from this piece by US author Dean Wesley Smith, on his wonderfully informative blog recently, and it gave me one of those Road to Damascus moments, from which there is no turning back.

Essentially, the piece is a reflection on the changing role of the literary agent, and since I've lived through those changes, (the UK is not so very dissimilar from the US in this respect) and know a bit about them but had never quite clarified it all in my own mind, the whole piece gave me serious food for thought.

When you're asked to give talks and workshops these days, the most frequently asked question is usually 'how do I find a literary agent?'

With extreme difficulty, is the answer, but that doesn't deter writers, because received wisdom is that no publisher will look at a submission unless it comes via a literary agent. This is generally true. But what most agents won't tell you is that many if not most submissions will now be rejected out of hand, even with the backing of a literary agent.

What strikes me most forcefully, though, is how afraid we writers are. We are afraid of not getting an agent and we are afraid of not finding a publisher, or losing the agent and publisher we have, no matter how badly we have been treated in the past. We are afraid of saying 'no' to requests to work for commercial organisations for no money, lest we should be thought troublesome when anyone else in this position would be thought businesslike. But most of all, we are afraid of being without an agent in what seem like (and frequently are) shark infested waters. We are afraid that if we send multiple submissions to agencies, we will upset potential agents - and this is true. Some agents can get remarkably (and ridiculously) huffy about this. So we spend (waste) years submitting one application at a time, and waiting and waiting and waiting. If we are lucky enough to secure the services of an agent, we become remarkably humble, are terrified of rocking the boat with even mild complaints about lack of communication or lack of progress, or suggestions as to how we might want our career as a writer to develop. I know all this because I've been there, done that and got several tee-shirts in the art of supplication.

Let's pause for a moment, and think about it. As I write this, I'm waiting for our accountant to come and finalise our annual accounts - myself and my husband are both freelances. To be honest, we probably don't earn enough to pay an accountant, but our books are complicated by the fact that we do so many different things, and we've been with this small company for years. We pay a reasonable sum monthly, up front and he is efficient and friendly. Would I ever, in a million years, be afraid of upsetting him by making a suggestion about the way our business might go in the future? Why should I? We're both acknowledged professionals and he has a set of skills for which I'm very happy indeed to pay. The only time I'm afraid of my accountant is when he phones up and asks me if I can remember what I paid £53.47p for, a year ago and what was this sum of £28.73p which I lodged eleven months ago.

Unfortunately, the relationship between writer and agent is clouded with all kinds of other emotions, and I think - like so much to do with writing - there is a certain unsatisfactory imbalance about it that prevents it from being truly professional.

One of the most interesting observations made by Dean Wesley Smith was about the way in which agents started to demand rewrites, to become - in effect - our editors. He linked this with a seismic shift in publishing which threw a number of young editors onto the market - editors who then became agents, because they thought they knew 'what the market wanted'.

I can distinctly remember that shift myself - my old agent for plays, back in the seventies and eighties, would buy me the occasional lunch, chat to me about how my writing was going, make suggestions for industry openings, negotiate contracts skilfully and ruthlessly - but would never have dreamed of offering detailed script re-writing suggestions. That was not his job. 

Move forward some years and when I finally secured an agent for my prose, she asked for  (and got) rewrite after rewrite after rewrite. Publishers, she said, 'demanded an oven-ready product'. She was a good editor, and I learned a lot from her, for which I'm very grateful - but I was and still am a natural 'mid-lister'. I spent (wasted) a lot of time blaming myself for not being able to give her what she wanted, when in fact she wasn't looking at what she could do with what I so clearly was. There was, I now realise, an  imbalance in the relationship.  But when we parted company - with the triumph of hope over experience - I still looked for another agent.

I don't know what the solution is, but it strikes me that it might be healthier all round if we paid our agents a fee, just as we pay our accountants or website developers - without giving them any 'equity' in our product. But I can't see that working, can you?  And we writers are curiously reluctant to pay professional fees for a professional job. Instead, we are content to relinquish equity in our intellectual property in the innocent belief that some day - with the help of our magician/agent, we will strike it very very rich. This is unfair in all kinds of ways - not least to agents themselves who, whatever else they may be, are not magicians, but it's probably because so many of us are poverty stricken and don't have much confidence in the value of our own work. We'll believe practically anyone who tells us that if we do this, this or this, all manner of things will be well.

It ain't necessarily so.

Don't get me wrong. A good editor is a pearl of great price. If he or she asks the right difficult and searching questions (rather than attempting to rewrite for you, always a crime, in my book)  you - in answering them - will become an infinitely better writer. If your editor is a friend or colleague who loves your work, and has your best interests at heart, there is no relationship quite like it! I've known it once or twice with radio producers, and theatre directors.

For fiction, there are excellent  professional editors who - for a flat fee - will analyse your work, and put you on the right track. As usual, the trick is in identifying the genuine pearls. I don't have any easy answers, but it's something we should certainly be discussing. Before embarking on the long and frustrating search for an agent, we should certainly pause and ask ourselves why, these days, that generally means any agent at all, not the right agent for us - and that being the case, why is our opinion of ourselves so low while our expectations of them remain so unrealistically high?


It's been a long time since I visited your blog, Catherine and glad I stopped by today because this post was brilliant. Will RT it. I like your comparison to the accountant. Not sure why we writers devalue our work so much. I don't see that in artists or musicians but it's widespread in writers, even published ones of talent. Maybe it's because the industry has been a certain way for so long, and then agents came in and as you say became slush pile editors for publishers, and took more and more control of the writer's future. Don't know but glad to see things changing.
Boy, lots of good stuff here. I had an agent too, and decided to go my own way ... too. I didn't take that long to make the call. My agent was a good editor, but she had ideas that I didn't like too. I think the fear has been instilled over a long time by agents and publishers - god forbid you should make some mis-step that would get you in trouble!

I think this is the perfect time for writers to be reclaiming our power. Not that there is no purpose to either agent or publisher, but that the balance of power swung ridiculously one way, and now it's time to swing back. I could see that even though my book had a lot of appeal, it would be a long hard road to get a traditional publisher. And if I got one, I wouldn't necessarily be better off than I am now, having done it myself. In fact, I can almost guarantee that I'm better off this way, because I feel great about my book and how it's doing.

I say, the hell with fear. Let's just take a deep breath and dive in. Let's create the change we want to see.

Now I feel like John Belushi in Animal House, when he says, "Are you with me??"
Rosalie Warren said…
Thank you, Catherine, for this interesting post. I write for children, YA and adults and have so far not managed to find an agent, in spite of years of trying and a near miss that reduced me to a useless jelly and stopped me writing for months. Never again! On my own, I've managed to find good publishers for each of 3 novels so far, and one of them has just accepted my next book, possibly a series, for children. I'm also thinking very seriously about e-publishing some of my work. I've come to the conclusion that, although it might well be useful to have an agent at some point, my time is better spent (a) writing (b) networking and (c) looking for publishers on my own. It's a very freeing thought and I suddenly have a lot more time and a lot less anxiety to deal with.
CallyPhillips said…
Of course I agree with so much of what you say Catherine, as you know, I lost the 'fear' many years ago - and changed my definition of 'success' along with it. That's the bit that I think many writers may not want to do. Once one starts the redefinition it takes you on a journey many don't want to go.
However, something that strikes me out of this is that yes, I agree, a good editor is a great thing (a bad one an absolute nightmare) and perhaps we need to open a debate on exactly WHAT skills a good editor needs, because I'm thinking that in the same way that writers can be good 'readers' they can also be good 'editors' of other people's work and that in the current set up it's something writers baulk at for 2 reasons: when another writer asks you to read their work they are usually NOT asking you to be an editor so the fear is that one will offend them... (their work may not be to your taste - but if you were editing it this isn't as relevant) and if they ARE asking you to be an unpaid editor then the difficulty is that you are being unpaid.... maybe there is something in the idea of setting up some kind of editors co-operative where writers CAN act as editors (all straight and out in the open) for each other in a helpful way, for a fee or some other non monetary exchange based mechanism Obviously linking the writer to the editor is a skill but I do think that many writers have good editing skills. I believe we CAN edit our own work well given time and space (isn't that what we do during rewrites and maybe why agents etc always ask you to do that) but having someone else edit your work when they know what they're doing is a time saver if nothing else and opens up other possibilities. Anyway, I think this is an interesting debate to open up!! Count me in. It's another blow for writers taking some 'power' and that is not believing that editors are some special breed apart. It's part of the same skill set isn't it?
I'm certainly with you, Melissa! And I also recognise that sense of freedom, Rosalie.
Cally, these are all good points and essentially, I agree with you. My only problem with this is that whenever I've spent any time editing other people's work or reading and advising, I haven't wanted to do my own! I entirely agree about writers knowing about editing, and I spent several years doing this for the Royal Literary Fund, helping students with their academic work. I found I was good at it - could give good advice, ask the right questions (we weren't allowed to rewrite, of course!) but their marks definitely improved. It's just that although I loved doing it, and finished a big piece of non-fiction while I was on my fellowship, I didn't write much fiction. Somehow, it ate into the energy that I would otherwise have used for it.
margaret blake said…
Excellent post, Catherine. This was something that needed to be said.
Hi Karen, glad you enjoyed it - and we do devalue ourselves, don't we? In fact sometimes, it seems as though it's only the people who are too inexperienced to know how little they know who have an inflated sense of their own abilities. I know so many good writers who will take everyone's opinion except their own as gospel, changing their work time and again to the demands of a succession of people, until there's little left of it.
Linda Gillard said…
Terrific post, Catherine. I've always thought having the wrong agent is worse than no agent, yet authors will say yes to anyone who offers to take them on. The relationship is (or should be) a partnership and since an agent is going to give you some of the best and worse news of your life, they should also be some kind of friend. Yet I know authors who will readily admit they are afraid of their agent and feel guilty for "troubling" them. I know one author whose self-confidence was all but destroyed by her agent's denigration of her work and demand for constant rewrites (none of which secured publication as it happens.)

I've only ever had one agent and I've had her for years. She's seen me through some very bad times and totally believes in my work. She even backed me to withdraw a ms when my publisher demanded rewrites which entailed turning the novel into a different kind of book altogether.

What I learned from that experience (which threw me out into the professional wilderness for years) was that the book was/is my property. It had its own identity and integrity and it still had that, even if no one wanted to publish it (and no one did.)

It was all very depressing but I eventually came to accept that I didn't need anyone else's validation - not even my agent's. I believed in my novel and trusted that its time would come. Even if it didn't, it was still a good (and unadulterated) book.

A few years later, I e-published it myself on Kindle with my wonderful agent's encouragement. It became a Kindle bestseller and has sold 15,000 copies in 9 months.

I'm not sure I need an agent now but I wouldn't be without mine because we're a partnership. But if someone asked me why I think my agent is such a gem, I'd have to say because she realises there are some things more important than being published. The integrity of one's work, for example.

Or, as I often say to students in my workshops, "There's writing... and then there's publishing. Try not to get the two confused."
Sally Spedding said…
Great blog, Catherine. I had a near-death experience in hospital 3 years ago and when out, decided that no, I couldn't write like Martina Cole, as my agent wanted,so sadly (as we are still friendly)I decided life was too short to write what wasn't in my heart. Have found a fab new publisher, Sparkling Books, and the future's looking good. Be brave, and trust yourselves...Good luck.
Barbara said…
Linda Gillard shared this post on Facebook and I'm so glad she did. I wonder why it is that most writers are, like me, so lacking in self-confidence that we put up with such nonsense. I've heard many authors, even successful ones, say they feel like a fraud, like any day someone will discover they are no-talent nobodies. Maybe it's because we're also readers and can still be amazed at another author's spell-binding prose. Anyway, I think the day of an agent being necessary is over.
Barbara - you're so right. I had a conversation with a friend who is a professional artist, recently - I know artists and musicians have to put up with all kinds of rubbish, and we find that we have a lot in common (it's one of the reasons why we are such good friends!) but one thing she was certain of - as a seasoned professional, with a good track record, she would never expect to be told to change a piece of work to the demands of somebody who was perhaps not even an artist at all! This didn't mean that she wouldn't expect - and sometimes need - help or a different point of view, or discussion and debate. All these would be welcome and necessary. But nobody would presume to tell her to change her practice. That was an eye opener for me too - because it happens to writers all the time!
Augustina Peach said…
Ann Turnbull suggested your blog to me, and I'm so glad she did! Both your post and the comments have encouraging thoughts for me to ponder. I've been in the process of trying to find an agent for my first novel for the past two or three years. I've tried to make it a targeted search with agents I thought might be more likely to be interested in the type of project I've written. So far, my efforts have yielded three outright rejections, one request for a full that resulted in a rejection unless I wanted to rewrite the book to be something substantially different (which I didn't do), and many submissions that have had no response whatsoever, which I assume means "no." (I really hate that "no response means no" policy.) Finally, I did get a response from a query contest which said my work wasn't "commercial" enough for the current market.

I have known for quite some time that my book (historical romance for young adults) won't be published by traditional publishers, but I think I kept querying in hope someone in the industry would tell me, "This is good." How ridiculous! Why do I need their validation? I'm going to bookmark this blog, and when I start feeling "needy," I'm going to come back and read it. This is my story, and I'm not going to let it be squeezed to fit into what some agent thinks will sell.

Like Cally, I've thought it would be helpful to have a cooperative of some kind for writers to pool their skills. I'm not sure how it would be set up, but if anyone wants to talk about it, I'm in!

Greta Marlow
I'm so glad you found this post useful! Your story sounds like so many others I've heard recently and it's both depressing, because of the way the industry has gone, but cheering, because at least the remedy is now in our own hands. And writers such as Linda Gillard (who commented above) are proving it. I wrote a post for The Scottish Review a few days ago about being a mid-list writer which may also be of interest:
It also includes the worst response ever from an agent. But at least I can laugh about it now!