Are Literary Agents Outmoded? Should They Be? Part 1

Disclaimer: My one contact with a literary agent about my own work was pleasant and professional. My opinions below are based on agent blogs I read online.

The ferociously fast rise of self-publishing has significantly reduced writers’ dependence on agents—the first line of publishing gatekeepers. A good thing, too.

Self-Pubbing’s Not All That’s Undermining Agent Influence
Perhaps acknowledging the extreme difficulty of writers securing agents to represent their manuscripts, several well-known publishing brands have instituted unagented submission periods: Harper Voyage, a division of HarperCollins, offered writers two agent-free weeks in October 2012. Avalon; Avon Impulse; and ChocLit accept submissions directly from authors. Most of these houses publish romance; some indicate an interest in mainstream and mystery manuscripts, as well.

And those writers who keep a sharp eye on Twitter are rewarded with tweets notifying them of other publishers who accept unagented work.

Yet, agents seem cling to the belief that they remain critical to the realization of writers’ publishing dreams. Though their careers are dangling by a thread, many continue to act as if they are central to the publishing process and that writers should be happy to kiss their rings for the privilege of their attention.

I’m ready to select Agent and hit Delete.

Agents Are So-o-o Busy

Writers aren’t?

At least agents get salaries and benefits to be busy. Most writers don’t. We find the time, outside of our jobs, our writing, and the regular responsibilities of life, to submit our work. But many agents apparently are too busy to even generate click-of-a-button auto-responses to our queries. So even when we follow their onerous submission rules, it’s unlikely we’ll get a response for our trouble.

Given the complaints of many agents about their workloads, they might be happy to see authors publishing their work without them. After all, if the tweets and blog posts of some agents with large online audiences are to be believed, these literary professionals are responsible for so many tasks that securing new writers is at the bottom of their list of workaday priorities. So, they’re forced do most, if not all, of their manuscript reading and evaluations at night and on weekends. How sharp is their judgment after a long week of work?

As author Lynda M. Martin blogged to agents, “[As] the self-appointed guardians of the castle . . . you complain you can’t handle the traffic.”

Is this a workable business model?

“[T]hey simply don’t have time to read all the books they’d like to read, even the ones from writers who sound like they might be talented,” writes, Michael Bourne, in his balanced article, “A Right Fit”: Navigating the World of Literary Agents. “So, agents work with people they know, and friends of people they know.

“If that sounds like I’m saying, ‘It’s all about who you know,’ that’s because that is exactly what I’m saying.’ ”

The trash-talking agents whose blogs and tweets I’m referring to are quick to tell writers in snarky, schoolmarmy tones, that they don’t have time for queries or mss that don’t conform exactly to their agency’s strict standards (which, by the way, vary from agency to agency). Small author oversights are punished with manuscript exile.

Martin notes in her well thought out post, Are You Looking For A Literary Agent? Want To Vent a Little? that writers have to go a-begging to agents, following each one’s particular submission whims. She calls querying, “most humbling,” and quotes one agent: “[P]art of our process is to see how well you take instruction.” Talk about school-marmy!

Who would tolerate their busy doctor or mechanic or insurance underwriter dissing them like they were pond scum? After all, writers are agents’ clients; it’s our 15% they live on.

I spent decades as a manager and director in for- and nonprofit organizations. Know what? In each, I encountered customers who misunderstood or deliberately flouted rules and guidelines. Was I allowed to be snippy towards them? Hell, no.

I hope you’ll continue with Part 2 of this post.

Resource: Ask the Agent: Rejections and Rude Agents . . . What to Do?

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2 thoughts on “Are Literary Agents Outmoded? Should They Be? Part 1

  1. Lynette,
    As you note, the publishing world is in rapid fire change mode. No one is secure, not writers, agents, publishers, or book stores. It’s a good idea for everyone in the mix to remember that, and never ever by snippy or rude to anyone–which is a good rule of life anyway. “Everyone has his story,” my dad used to say. Sure, we can be busy and sometimes an agent — or a writer, doesn’t have time for someone or some project. So one graciously declines and we move on. Good luck with your publishing project, agent or not!

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