Agents – too much power?

So the other day I had a long convo with a fellow editor buddy who has a small indie press [like ours] in another state. We usually play catch up and exchange gossip before hanging up and  resuming our lives within our respective bat caves. However, little gossip was exchanged because she was frothing at the mouth about agents – those evil harbingers of literary destruction.

Holy bleeding contracts, Batman!

Frickin’ money grubbers!

Her main lament is that agents are responsible for the out of whack advances that accompany the big blockbusters, or even the solid mid-lister.

Eh, I think it takes two to play that game. The idea of “How badly do you want this story?” is the foundation of competition. This impacts small publishers because they don’t have the same budgets as the big guys, so they can’t compete.

Well, um, duh.

Reality Check: Face it, life is a money game, and anyone who thinks otherwise is living in LaLa Land. Until we devolve into buying groceries and paying our mortgage with walnuts, money is going to be the incentive that fuels most business deals. Since the author has turned to the agent to represent her literary interests, it goes to reason the agent will seek the best financial gain. I think my friend sounds a bit complainy.

We don’t get to see the best works

Oh Lordy, my friend practically singes my ear with this one. Yah, ok, I get that. Since it’s a money game, there are many manuscripts we’ll never see, and this really frosts my friend’s bananas.

Reality Check: And yanno, what’s so wrong with that? Did anyone say life is fair? Or remotely balanced? This is a world of competition, and those who can, do . Those who can’t create a niche for themselves. I don’t remember the Great Cosmic Muffin promising anyone a rose garden just because we’re small presses.

And furthermore, this isn’t entirely true. No, we small fries aren’t going to see the John Grisham’s of the world, but many agents bring their fabulous clients to a smaller indie press for any number of reasons. Maybe they need the book to get into the marketplace faster than the current two year wait time. Perhaps they realize their client will get a much better edit job with a smaller press because the small fry has the time to do it right – which is a whole other post in itself.

And most importantly, the agent may realize their client will get a lot more individualized attention than they would with a large conglomerate, where they may blend in with the white noise. It’s that bigger fish in a smaller pond thing.

Gatekeeper Status

My friend is convinced agent’s are the gatekeepers of the publishing industry and control what editors see – thus adding to their sheer evilness and ultimate power. After all, no one should have that kind of power. My friend believes agents are driving the marketplace and telling the editors what they want to see.

Reality Check: I’m of two minds with this notion. Agents are people whose lives are given over to nothing but understanding the marketplace, reader interests, and keeping their fingers on the pulse of what publishers want. They are another side of our industry whose opinions we’d be codified boneheads if we didn’t listen to what they have to say.

HOWEVER, and this is the flip side of my friend’s whining argument, we are always letting agents know what we’re looking for. We know what floats our boat and what we’d rather let sail on into the sunset. I see the agent/editor relationship as symbiotic, and we each fulfill each others’ wishies.

But I also see where she’s headed. Because of agents’ power, they’ve sealed off access to the big house editors.

Agents only take the authors who have blockbuster potential…

… which leaves a lot of great books unrepresented.

Yes, I do believe there are a lot of great books that will never see the light of day for a variety of crapitude reasons, but that’s hardly the agent’s fault anymore than it’s an editor’s fault when they have to reject a really good book. The marketplace is what drives our particular bus. And that means agents accept works they believe will sell. Period.

Yes, there are some agents who will only accept the hoo ha writer, but there are more who will take a work they believe will sell, regardless of the size of the publisher. Their ultimate goal is to see a good book find a good home. That said, agents can’t pay the rent with small fry sales, so it has to be a balance.

Reality check: All publishers have taken a huge financial hit, but none more so than the big guys. Their editors are still being given their walking papers. Since the large conglomerates are beholden to their corporate masters, they really need to bring home the bacon in a much bigger way. And this is where the big blockbuster only idea came into being. Agents knew this and were forced to switch their focus so they wouldn’t find themselves living under a freeway underpass.

Not all authors were created equally – and neither are their agents. This means that not every author is conglomerate-worthy – meaning their books may be quite good, but they aren’t going to see the 50-100,000K sell throughs. The midlist author has taken a hit in finding a good home, and this is where agents are looking to smaller, solid publishers.

I suggested to my friend that she drink some blood, meditate on a bed of nails, and call me in the morning. Agents are NOT the evil harbingers of doom and failure. They are the wonderful vehicles who make our lives worth living on many levels.

16 Responses to Agents – too much power?

  1. MelissaA says:

    *grin* Those darn agents! They only want something they can SELL. Not like publishers, who are doing this entirely out of the goodness of their hearts with no regard to their pocketbooks.

    Your friend could always open the company up to unagented submissions and try to snag the future “big fish” before they land agents.

  2. Oh, believe me, Melissa, she does accept unagented works. Otherwise she’d never get any submissions at all.

    As for snaring the future big fish…I can see the advantage to that. But I always recommend unagented authors to seek representation, even if they have a publisher. It’s simply good business.

  3. NinjaFingers says:

    And agents do do so much so that authors can, you know, write. Isn’t that the ultimate point?

  4. Kelley says:

    “No, we small fries aren’t going to see the John Grisham’s of the world, but many agents bring their fabulous clients to a smaller indie press for any number of reasons.”


    This. This. This. Only I would have said for “any number of splendiforious reasons.”

  5. Too true, Kelley. I happily stand corrected.

  6. Agent. Agent. Agent! Where are you? I need you. I want one of you wickedly wonderful people. Lynn Price says we authors should get an agent even when we have a publisher. Just how do we do that? I’ve never seen an agent say they’ll consider repping a writer who already has a publisher. I’m assuming “having a publisher” means having a contract. I, uh, like Ninja Fingers said, would like to spend more time writing, not searching.

  7. Chris says:

    There are those occasions when both Publisher and Agent are equally wonderful! I have a question…does an editor automatically know when they have the next Grisham…or is that something that is usually figured out after the first 50k books are sold? Hmm?

  8. Steve says:


    “Face it, life is a money game….”

    I can see why you might say this, and I suppose that in one form or another I’ve been hearing it much of my life. I’ve tried with some success to ignore it. I work part-time, live modestly, and put “ambition” low on my list of priorities. Indeed, it distresses me to see the greed-based society of people with their hand out for the almighty dollar and bowing at the altar of the gods of “success”. I’m not going to spend a lot of effort arguing against anyone who chooses to live that way, but it makes me sad and I try not to go there.

    Of course, I acknowledge that in a money-oriented society you can’t avoid dealing with the stuff. But you can surely avoid making it your center.

    As far as writing, my goals are simple. Tell the story I have to tell, tell it well, and find an audience. If that should involve getting paid, I’m not going to object – but that’s way down on my list. The more I find out about traditional publishing, the more I lean toward “give it away on the Internet”. Sure, I’d love to see it on the shelf at B & N. But that’s way more about eyeballs than dollars.

    My day job is decent. I get by. And I try to play a different game than the money folks.

    Your mileage may vary,


  9. Steve says:

    OOPS – Should have been


    You said:


  10. Kelley says:

    Steve said: The more I find out about traditional publishing, the more I lean toward “give it away on the Internet”. Sure, I’d love to see it on the shelf at B & N. But that’s way more about eyeballs than dollars.

    There’s a direct correlation btwn eyeballs and money, however. But that’s only a part of why I agree with Lynn that agents are critical.

    A great agent tries to place your book (and your career) with the perfect house. Consideration of money and eyeballs is part of that search. It should be, if you respect that correlation and understand the business. But good agents know there’s far more to it than that. Far more. As I said, it boils down to splendiforous reasons.

    You’re going to have a very different journey depending on your choice, and your journeys shape you as a writer and person. So, for me, the journey of having an agent and pursuing traditional publishing was important.

    But everyone is different. Hopefully, throwing your book up on the Internet is going to shape you and impact your book in the way that is perfect for you. Good luck, however you go.

  11. Bonnie: It’s common that when an author is offered a contract from a publisher, they’ll find an agent to represent their interests. You may want to spend your time writing, but writing is a business and authors are smart to protect themselves at every turn.

    Chris: I think many of us do realize when we have something quite huge that’s dropped into our laps.

    Steve: I respect that your ambitions are low, but I think it’s unfair to disparage capitalists whose “hands are out for the almighty dollar and bow at the altar of the gods of ‘success’.” That’s simply your opinion.

    If it weren’t for us “greedy” grubs, where do you think publishing would be? As far as I know, Utopia hasn’t been created yet, and we keep our heads based in reality in order to keep the lights on and publishing excellent books. If you don’t want to compete, that’s fine. Give it away. But don’t mock those whose goals are different from yours.

  12. Steve says:

    Lynn:You said –

    Steve: I respect that your ambitions are low, but I think it’s unfair to disparage capitalists whose “hands are out for the almighty dollar and bow at the altar of the gods of ‘success’.” That’s simply your opinion.

    My opinion, indeed. But not mine alone. The critique of materialism is one shared by many of ther world’s great religious and ethical systems. I felt that since materialist values are so widely advocated in various online venues (to the point that “monetize” has become a household word online), it would not be inappropriate to raise my voice and make it clear that there are still those of us out here whose values and priorities differ. I surely can’t force anybody to see things my way, but I can at least present a different view.

    Plus, I’m not sure exactly who you mean by “capitalists”. From a strictly Marxian viewpoint, that would be a fairly small segment of society overall (owners of the means of production). But if you mean simply those who call our system “capitalist”, believe in it, and want to achieve “success” according to the values of that system, then that would be a pretty large chunk of the population. I just think they are wrong.

    Your mileage may vary,


  13. IT is what it izzzz…

    The market familiarity and personal contacts are what we pay for. 15% is a small price to pay for full exposure and the right publishing home. IMHO, we can always insist on a smaller advance anyway — assuming the agency contract allows our input in these matters. Smaller advances are a smart move for any writer if they want a long-term career.

    Agents may wax and wane with the times, but they will always be part of the mix for writers who seriously want to publish mainstream.

  14. Steve, it doesn’t matter how many people feel that capitalism is evil. Until we’ve managed to erase material wants and needs from our DNA, we’ll just have to agree to disagree because I can’t pay my cover designer on feel-good wishies and hopeys. She demands the real thing.

    Richard, if you tell your agent that you insist on a smaller advance, they’re going to let the beagle gnaw your leg off – without benefit of margaritas.

  15. Still, the gentle gnashing may well carry some comfort against the “one book wonder” moniker, or the (shudder) “pissed away pile of gold” (which any writer may well have to return if sales languish despite everyone’s good, avaricious intent) letter of shame. If writers have to learn to adjust and publishers have to learn to adjust, then so too will agents have to adapt to the new reality. Or not. That’s the indecision thing again…

  16. Steve says:


    I don’t have a problem with agreeing to disagree. I do want to make clear from my end what we are disagreeing about. I don’t necessarily feel that the capitalist system (private ownership of business, etc.) is evil – although I confess to problems with radical free enterprise beliefs.

    I’m not even against money, or the idea that somebody might find money important enough that they will work hard to get it. I earlier used the term “greed”. On reflection, that word is somewhat ill-defined, and perhaps needlessly inflamatory.

    Let me put it a different way. Some people seem to feel that money and the things it will buy are rightly at the center of life – above other values. I’ve seen this reflected increasingly on the Internet, and in the months since I have become an aspiring writer I’ve seen it reflected a lot on writing and publishing blogs.

    I’m not against money. I simply would not agree with putting it first.

    Thanks for understanding,

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