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?

When the Editor Is Edited

It’s Done . . . Isn’t It?
Anyone who listened to my laments during my years of searching for my mother’s money, then supported me while I moaned my way through writing about the experience, knows how agonizing I considered the process of putting it down on paper.

I’m glad my writing of My Mother’s Money is over. I couldn’t stomach the prospect of looking at the old diaries and the purple folders threatening to topple off the hip high file cabinets in my study; or the successive electronic drafts going back to 2008; or the reams of handwritten notes and exhortations on bright pink legal-size paper wedged under the printer that sits between two windows I stared through at the spruce tree that’s practically within touching distance. While working on the book, I often wanted to swing out of my second floor windows into that tree for shelter and sustenance.

Done and Done
In June, 2012, I was done.

But only for the time being…

Since I’m a creative writing instructor and an editor myself, I knew “done” wasn’t the accurate word for my manuscript. It was simply done for the time being. I didn’t doubt it was a riveting story. But I knew some sections were flawed, and I’d run out of the necessary steam to continue tweaking them. The manuscript had become a mish-mash in my mind.

I could already hear the feedback that would be coming:
“This chapter would work better if it came before that one.”
“There’s too much backstory here; sprinkle it throughout the manuscript.”
And, one I’d already heard that I adamantly disagreed with: “You can’t start a memoir the way you’ve started yours.”

So imagine my delight when my friends and my husband’s family actually clamored for more chapters after they read the opening ones. Or my joy when my writer friend told me, “Truly, truly, the only problem I have with your memoir is how fascinating it is. The writing is silken and balanced.”

But It’s Got Its Flaws . . .
So I put out a call to my Twitter friends and my fellow serious scribblers in Chicks Who Write, and names of editors started coming in.

I spent weeks interviewing editors and talking to their clients. Besides wanting someone experienced in editing memoir, I want someone simpatico—not with me, but with the circumstances of my story. I edit my own writing clients best when their stories resonate with me. I don’t have to have experienced the exact situations myself (in most cases—like the murder mystery I just edited—I wouldn’t want to!), but I’ve been fortunate that each of the client manuscripts I’ve edited spoke to me personally.

That’s what I looked for in an editor—someone with the obvious technical skills, but also someone who could feel my story, and show me how to make all the elements fall gracefully, seamlessly, meaningfully. I finally found one.

I’ve gotten the edits back. They’ve been sitting on a file cabinet in my study, waiting while I finished a second memoir. I’ll be ready to look at the comments by the end of this week. I just hope my editor had as light a touch with my work as I try to apply when I edit my clients’ work.

I’ll let you know.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like:

After the First Draft is Done

A Mess Before A Masterpiece

When You Hate the Book You’re Writing: Intro (Especially for memoirists)

When You Hate the Book You’re Writing: My Solution (Especially for memoirists)