Monday, February 1, 2010

The Agent Debate - Revisited

Last year, in April, there was a series of rumblings on the interwebs concerning the relationship between writers, agents and publishers.

The first was a snark-fest called '#QueryFail' where the slush-pile bees sharpened their stingers to nail every hapless wannabe writer who sent in a query. The Swivet seems to be the source of the idea – and a quick check of the blog shows there are still posts up.

The actual twitter links are no longer active. Some intelligent soul has yanked them. (Bravo!) Google it however there are blog entries aplenty about it.

I'm going to quote this from Romancing the Blog:

"There were mixed feelings about the stream. While some people found a lot of value in Queryfail: "maley43055: @rebeccacoffey: People really say and write these things? I love this and it is helpful of what never to do!" and though it wasn't meant to mock anyone, it did. You can say you didn't mean to hurt someone, but that doesn't change the fact that if you hurt them, you hurt them. Mockery may not have been the intent, but mockery was the result. Many people felt that when you send a query that is declared bad, it opens you up for such criticism and you have no business trying to break into the publishing world."

From there it got more interesting. Mary W. Walters – a literary writer who I respect deeply – posted a blog challenging the agent's role as gatekeeper to the publishing house editors.

The result?

Her blog The Militant Writer was awash in flames. The post got thousands of hits and hundreds of comments ranging from supportive to blistering, mostly blistering. (There are currently 22k hits on her blog.) In an open letter to Editors, she has this to say:

"The substantial and nearly unassailable wall that separates you (Publishing house editors) from us (writers) has been under construction for decades. You can find the names of its architects and gatekeepers on your telephone-callers list, and in your email in-box. They are the literary agents—that league of intellectual-property purveyors who bring you every new manuscript you ever see. Those men and women who are so anxious to gain access to the caverns of treasure they believe you sit upon like some great golden goose that they would likely hack one another's heads off were they not united by one self-serving mission: to ensure that quality fiction never hits your desk."

Her efforts to be heard were in vain – one small press publisher replied to her, but to my knowledge, no other publishers did. There were a couple of agents who replied to her posts. Most of the replies came from other writers – a host of wannabe writers who appeared to be incensed that she challenged status quo.

There was so much snark and flaming that, at the time, I thought that the point was made – agents ruled. Writers are at the bottom of the food chain – they needed to suck it up. My interest in creating a self-publishing platform was born. I didn't want to give my money to "those trolls."

Then I found this little gem from Dean Wesley Smith – a writer with over 90 books to his credit. His essays on "Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing" and the long, interesting and instructive comments have shifted my personal paradigm once again.

"The myths that surround agents are killing a lot of writer's careers these days. There isn't a week that goes by that I don't hear stories from at least one writer about how an agent hurt them. Often more than one. The myth that you need an agent to sell a book is an ugly one, the myth that writers work for agents instead of the other way around is really causing problems among younger writers. I have not had a lunch or dinner or meeting with other professional writers in the last few years that hasn't included agent horror stories."

In addition, he is very, very clear that the AGENT works for the WRITER – not the other way around. He says the writer knows the markets much better than the agent. Sell the manuscript yourself – then contact an agent – they are supposed to negotiate the deal. Another frequent commenter doesn't use agents (too many bad experiences) she hires a lawyer, paid by the hour, and saves herself 15%.

Who is this guy? He's writer of popular fiction – one that writes under a myriad of names, in many different genre. The point is not what he writes – but how long he's been in the business, and the fact that he offers hope. Not the 'Santa Clause' type of hope – but the 'get out there and work your ass off' kind that I can relate to.

This is why I believe he's telling the truth:

  1. Most agents want to know to whom your work can be compared.
  2. Most agents want to know what your marketing plan for the book is – before they even look at it.
  3. Most agents are interested in your qualifications to write the book.
  4. There is no certification or qualification to be an agent. Buy some stationary and put your name on it, put up a webpage, and if you want to be a superstar – blog about yourself.
  5. An agent is looking for reasons to reject the work – up front – because they have a huge slush pile. This leads to inexcusable behavior like #queryfail.
I'm going to stand in line to buy "Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing" when it comes out.

Now to delete that list of potential agents, I'm not going to waste my time.

2 comments: said...

It sounds like a good book, and I'll likely buy it, too. And you made a lot of good points - but I'm still on the fence about the usefulness of agents and publishers. I like the concept of selling the manuscript first and then getting the agent to negotiate. My WIP isn't even finished yet, so I haven't put a whole lot of thought yet into what I'll do with it once it's done.
Thanks for a good & thought-provoking post!

Ms Kitty said...

From what I've seen the market for contemporary romance is dead - unless your name is Nora Roberts or Catherine Anderson.

I was shocked when an agent wrote "DON'T SEND ME ANYTHING EXCEPT HIGH CONCEPT" then posted a link (a link? gag me!) to ANOTHER agent's blog!

That struck me as lazy.

When I followed the link - the second agent's definition of High Concept: "I know it when I see it." Not very helpful. The next two words really ate my shorts: "like Twilight."

(Rant deleted.)

Dean Wesley Smith makes more sense.

Write your own book. Sell your own book. Get a contract. Save your money - hire a lawyer.