These days, with Amazon and a host of other opportunities for self-publication, writers take more of a lead in getting their books in the hands of readers. If writers can upload their books and sell directly to readers then what happens to the “middle men” like literary agents? While some writers seem pleased to see the “gatekeepers” go, I wasn’t so sure.
Agents have long filled an important role in our industry. Their job is so much more than vetting manuscripts and connecting writers with the right publishers for their work. Good literary agents help writers throughout the many stages of their careers, navigating the many important hurdles that writers face.
As I learned at Writer’s Digest Conference East, literary agents aren’t going anywhere. the smart ones are shifting their attitudes towards self-publishing and adapting to fit the new publishing climate. These agents recognize the importance of adapting to the new scene as much as the rest of us and believe that their role is much more of a partnership with authors than anything else.
Reasons to consider an Agent-Author Partnership, even if you self-publish:
1) An agent can help you develop a strategy for your whole career.
Good agents know that the key to an author’s success is not just publishing one book. While you might sign a retainer agreement for one particular project, smart agents know that it’s better all around if they guide the writer in terms of his or her overall career.
In a Q&A session at Writer’s Digest Conference East, agent Barbara Poelle emphasized that while authors have to be the CEO of their career, the agent’s job is to advise the author on how to negotiate the publishing process.
Writers often get so hung up on the nitty-gritty details of their books that they forget to look up and take in the big picture. An agent can keep an eye on the horizon, leaving you free to tackle the immediate tasks, like the book that’s right in front of you.
2) An agent can help you avoid publishing traps and pitfalls.
Like a consigliere to the author-godfather, an agent can help the writer avoid big mistakes that can’t be undone later. Writers often think that having a “friend who’s also a lawyer” look over a contract is enough to help them avoid pitfalls but that’s usually not the case. Unless that lawyer is well-versed in copyright law, he or she won’t be much help in looking over a book contract.
More importantly, a lawyer will think in legal terms but probably doesn’t know a lot about the nuances of the publishing industry. As Kristen Nelson (Nelson Literary Agency) said in her talk about agents and self-publishing, agents look at contracts differently than lawyers do and they think in terms of the industry.
This applies when you self-publish as well. Recently Hugh Howey–author of the best-selling eBook Wool, and a client of Kristen Nelson–signed an unusual book deal with Simon & Schuster for print rights only. Howey continues to retain eBook rights to the novella. To read Howey’s account of how he got his movie deal and print-only book deal for Wool, check out these two links.
3) An agent can be your champion in the publishing process.
While agents used to be called “gate-keepers,” the good ones realize that their job is much bigger than that. When it comes to the agent-author relationship there’s no “us against them.” We’re all on the same side and we have the same goal: to get books in the hands of readers.
As the publishing industry continues to evolve, it’s imperative that writers and agents work together, to make sure that these changes end up being good ones. In her talk Nelson stressed that in order to make change in the publishing industry, there needs to be more conversation and one of the key ways that this conversation can happen is by agents and authors working together in partnership.
In the end, the adaptable writer wins.
There’s been a lot of “either-or” in the industry. Either writers sign with an agent and get a traditional book deal, or they self-publish and go it alone. But as has become very clear, there is no “either-or” anymore. Writers can and do both publish their work themselves and via the traditional path. And these writers are finding much more overall success than their counterparts who choose one avenue over another. (More on that topic in a later article.)
The verdict is still out as to why these hybrid authors seem to find more success in the new publishing climate. Maybe it’s because they have an entrepreneurial streak so they’re constantly thinking of new, innovative ways to get their books in the hands of readers (whether those books are self-published or not). Or maybe it’s because they’ve had to forge their own path so they’ve become more savvy about the business as a whole, rather than just deferring to industry professionals for everything that’s not related to pure writing.
Or maybe, because these writers have had to negotiate their way through a changing industry, they’ve learned to play well with others. It has become clear that in the brave new world of publishing, relationships rule. Publishing is not a machine; it’s a living, breathing organism and the parts depend on each other for the whole body to function.
When the environment changes, what do organisms do? They either die or they adapt. In this case, I’m happy to report that the publishing industry is not dead, but it is most definitely adapting. And the writers who adapt with it will be the ones who find success.