36

When Agents Attack

About a year ago, I noticed a shift in the general tone of writers’ conferences. For the ten years I’ve been attending them, there was a tendency for agents at these events to lord it over the room, being very strict about what they were looking for, how they like to be approached, how not to approach them, and how to talk to them. The power balance was one-sided, needlessly (and sometimes insultingly) so.

Then agents started getting nervous. And defensive. Instead of, “This is how to get us,” the line became, “This is why you need us.” And things started to get a lot more interesting.

A week and a half ago, I had the opportunity to go to the Novelists, Inc. 23rd Annual Conference. And on one of the panels I sat on, all the growing tension and dissatisfaction came to a head.

In her article about the roundtable for the NINC newsletter, author Lori Devoti noted, “If you have heard any chatter about the NINCThink roundtables, it was probably about this roundtable. Things here were lively and at times heated, to put it politely.” Let me say that Lori put it VERY politely. I’ll quote myself here. When the anger had subsided, here’s what I tweeted: “I tend to be super low key, but a panel I was on today nearly turned me rabid. My anger, twas righteous.”

So: what the hell happened?

Here’s my take. The role of agents in the marketplace is changing dramatically. At DGLM, we’ve always prided ourselves on being a full-service agency. In the past few years, we’ve been aware that what “full-service” means is changing. As authors have more access to self-publishing and more success in doing that, agents need to be able not only to guide their clients through that process, but to be aware of the pitfalls, potential gold mines, and ways to strategize that are best for an individual project but also an author’s entire career. That said, here’s where things started to go off the rails: there are a lot of things authors can do without an agent, and there are more in-roads that authors can make independently than ever before. Does everyone need an agent? No. Does having a middling or less than wholly effective agent do you more good than not having one at all? At this stage, I would say absolutely not. That, I should note, is not a popular point with other agents.

Let’s break this down a little: one of my co-panelists went after someone on the panel for “denigrating” agents and said he wouldn’t stand for it. So I grabbed the mic and offered, as an agent, to denigrate agents for them. I believe very strongly that good agents are incredible partners and can bring authors more success (I’ll get back to this). But more importantly at that exact moment, I was just suuuuuuper pissed. It was disgusting to watch another industry professional demean an author simply because they seemed to be chiseling away at his pedestal.

Let me go back to Lori Devoti’s article for a moment. I’m “another industry guest.”

“Another industry guest…said that ideally agents are partners working with authors to serve them better, and that e-books were a revolution. ‘This year alone we have seen dozens of authors sell millions of books on their own with no support. Now you don’t necessarily need an agent and you definitely don’t need an agent who isn’t good. You need to be aware of what you are bringing to the table. And be aware of services that agent can offer. Be pushy and ask questions.’ This…industry guest frequently seemed to be alone in his opinions.”

My point was never to say that agents, particularly good agents, don’t offer value. If I believed that, I would have left my job ages ago. I love working with authors editorially. I love considering what comes next in line, and what the right next moves are. And I love being able to tell clients when they’ve received offers on their books or foreign rights or when we’ve optioned their film rights. There is a real thrill in that. And when agent and client work together effectively, everyone benefits. But in a marketplace that is showing so many rapid shifts in distribution, sales patterns, and access, it’s obscene to believe there is one right answer to any question or that just because your agent is experienced, they should be followed blindly.

What we’re seeing is a balancing of power. Authors have more control of their careers and can be more demanding. Does that make my job easier? No. Does it make it more exciting? Yes. Because it’s one thing to bandy the word “partner” around and make yourself sound friendly, which seems to be happening a lot. It’s another thing to actually act like a partner.

Authors have long been frustrated by the publishing process, and rightly so. It has been an antiquated machine that never treated the people who actually drive it with the respect they deserve. But that is less true now than it has been at any point since I became an agent.

I love my job, and I believe in it, but I also understand (as do the other agents at DGLM), that it’s not safe or effective to rule from a perch, nor to rule at all. To be an author’s advocate, you have to understand where authors come from. Here’s one last quote from Lori. This one is totally self-aggrandizing, but hey, why not?

“This guest…seemed to see and understand the issues through the eyes of the authors more so than most of the other guests.”

I hope that’s true. I really do. That’s the agent I want to be. Not the one who won’t listen to criticism of agents. Not the one who belittles authors who aren’t already hugely successful. And not the one ever on the defensive.

36 Responses to When Agents Attack

  1. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    Hmmm…As I recall. this whole agents-as-the-only-road-to-Rome started after the anthrax scare about a decade ago; editors suddenly stopped talking directly to writers (out of paranoia first, then laziness) and suddenly agents became responsible not only for acquisitions and terms, but most of the stuff editors used to do back before their duties just consisted of going to power lunches with suits from the publicity department. All this created a huge logjam which resulted in self-publishing (which I still mostly regard as an ephemeral opium dream unless you’re a world-class hustler) and the various online alternatives which are making life interesting nowadays. Am I seeing this right? I’ll still spend my time trout-fishing for a good agent because they have access to all the right machinery and I’d like to hustle my wares on somebody else’s dime, but you’re right-I don’t attitude from anybody on Mt. Olympus; this world is changing…

  2. Anonymous says:

    I went to my first (and probably last) writer’s conference last year. It was a disorganized mess, for one thing (only the 2nd year for it, I think) but I had 2 one-to-one’s scheduled (for 30 minutes each) with agents.

    The first one ran 20 minutes late and I got a whole 10 minutes with her. She had obviously barely “skimmed” my pages but was at least polite. The 2nd agent had not bothered to read my pages at all, was condescending and downright nasty. I got about 6 minutes from her–a “walk-and-talk” as she strolled to a class she was giving. Neither gave me anything constructive AT ALL to work with.

    I was so annoyed that I went to the organizer and complained–something I am generally hesitant to do. They weren’t happy with the agents, either. So they set me up with a 3rd agent. He was wonderful! He marked up my manuscript with wondrous editing notes, talked to me like I was a human being and was encouraging about my skills. He didn’t represent my genre but did send my 40 pages to a colleague–something he did not have to do.

    The point I’m making is this: A bad agent isn’t just one that is lazy. A bad agent treats you like chattel, a pathetic means to their 15% end. A good agent–no, a GREAT agent–goes that extra mile for you and actually cares. They want you to succeed. (Like you do, Jim. And thank you for being so wonderful.)

    We read your blogs, Agents. We read your tweets as you converse amongst yourselves. We read how you talk about your queriers and make fun of them. You forget–we are your bread and butter, dear ones. Treat us well and we will want you to shepherd us into our writing careers. Treat us like pathetic losers and we will go elsewhere.

    • el lobo says:

      …speaking to you while walking to her class… on the fly. Reminds me of trolling out of a motorboat hoping to catch something maybe, kinda, sorta, but not using one’s own arms to do the real work of fishing.

      The good thing ‘anonymous’ is that it let you see she was NOT the right anything for you. In terms of ‘agent’… that wasnt one. There are money Jabba-the hut-like persons, and there are agents with straight and true hearts. Two distinct species.

      I still grok what my agent said long ago when we first began to work together and I was a crumbling piece of burnt toast in all anxiety, and he was the wiser, calmer soul: “… the words are important, and money is important too… but in first place are the words.”

      I know you’ll find what’s just right for you.

      And Jim, thanks for your candidness. Panels are sort of like rodeos; there are the arm jerkers, and the bootings of the bull, and fading –mad bull spins in circles in order to gain even more traction… and you know what Joan Crawford said about rodeos… right? I hope you are smiling with me.

      el lobo

  3. Tori Scott says:

    I wish I could have been there. One of the reasons I quit submitting years ago was the “I Am God” attitude of so many of the agents and editors. I came very close to selling to Harlequin, ended up selling to a smaller press (a decision I now regret), and finally self-published despite the stigma. A year and 100,000 books later, I’m glad I did. And I didn’t need an agent to get there, though if even one had had your attitude, I might not have given up on that option. I think agents are still needed, but not with the attitude of that particular agent (I’m a member of NINC and have followed the discussions with interest.)

    It’s nice to see there are still good guys like you in the world of publishing.

    Tori Scott

  4. Jenny Ruhl says:

    As one of the authors who was on this panel, I have to say that none of the accounts, including this one, get across the sheer theater of the event described. Picture an aging agent, blending the look of Jabba the Hutt and the emotional stability of Alice in Wonderland’s Red Queen confronted by a brave group of Hobbits–successful author hobbits. Hobbits, in fact, with the senses of humor which were notably lacking in Jabba & Co.

    In the midst of this donnybrook, which at one point featured Jabba seizing a microphone from another participant’s hand after the moderator had wrested his away in mid-tirade, Jim acquitted himself with honor to the point wwere he was described by authors for the rest of the conference as “The nice agent.”

    This distinguished him from “the agent who spent his time up on stage with the panel answering his email,” and “the agent who had the tantrum,” and set him apart, too from the agent who tried to frighten authors into the belief that they needed agent’s services, after having, in a previous roundtable, called “indie” authors “vanity” published.

    Considering that this was a conference made up entirely of multi-published authors, many of them veterans of the NYTimes list and others earning six figure incomes from indie publishing this suggested that Jim really is serious about having a career and remembers that it is authors who provide all agents with careers, not the other way around.

    I chose to be on that particular panel because I am lucky enough to have forged a career that does not require me to fear agents or even, thank God, to need one, so I could speak frankly. But if I were looking for an agent, Jim would be high on my list. He stood out among the many so-called “industry professionals” at the conference for his lack of self-importance and his willingness to treat the writers whose work enriches him as peers instead of peons.

    –Jenny

  5. I wasn’t at the conference this year, but I’m a longtime member of Novelists, Inc.

    I, too, have seen a real sea change in attitudes to agents over the past couple of years. When I first start saying in 2007 “you don’t have to have an agent to run a successful writing career of selling books to major publishers,” kind people defined me as an anomaly whose example could not possibly be emulated, while others dismissed me as a loony crank. These days, however, although people tend to erroneously confine the parameters to a self-publishing career, rather than also encompassing a traditional career, the notion that one doesn’t “have to” have an agent is gaining a lot of ground… With a corresponding effect on how people see agents in this new light.

    For years, in the eyes of writers and aspiring writers, just the fact of -being- an agent (a job for which there are no requirements, qualifications, standardized training, licensing, etc.) automatically conferred tremendous importance, sage-like wisdom, and perceived power on a person. For years, I routinely saw agents at conventions and online (including inexperienced, unaccomplished agents with very thin resumes and a poor undertanding of the business) being treated like rock stars. A young agent with virtually no career would blog for self-promo purposes–and would receive dozens of posted replies each week thanking her for being gracious and generous enough to blog. An agent with only a scant handful of four-figure sales to his credit would have people lining up around the block for 15-minute appointments at a conference or crowding into his SRO talk to hang on his every word.

    Obviously this kind of treatment is very seductive, and people who habitually experience it–even when it’s wholly unmerited (but especially if an agent IS actually an accomplished professional with impressive credentials)–could easily start to think of such treatment as their just due, as the way writers are “supposed” to treat them and regard them. In any case, many of them certainly got used to such treatment.

    Some people in the agenting world (such as you, I see) are adjusting with professionalism and reason to a landscape in which the party is over, the lights have come on, and many writers are realizing that a literary agent is, alas, just a person and business associate, rather than being the living embodiment of all their dreams, hopes, and aspirations. In fact, writers are increasingly seeing the agent as just a person and business associate who =needs to rationally nd convincingly explain his pricetag of x% of the author’s earnings=… And I’ve noticed that many agents are not, alas, adjusting well to this new theme. Instead, they look bloated, bleary, red-eyed, pasty, and angry when they realize the music has stopped and someone has turned on the lights and is asking questions now.

  6. Jim, you were a breath of fresh air. Having been strafed badly as a participant on a previous panel, it was nice to know that not every agent there held authors in such contempt. It seemed you were the only agent that got it–that the industry is changing and we’d better change with it or we’ll be left behind. I also appreciated you injecting sanity, reality, and graciousness into the discussion, something that was sorely missing in the other agent participants.

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  8. Pete Morin says:

    I’m very curious to know what PM reports for Tantrum Agent’s recent sales.

  9. The changes in the publishing world are challenging and exciting, and I like the fact that things are improving for the author. Writers have always gotten the short end when it comes to financial return and respect in the business, and it is past time that the other professionals acknowledge that it all starts with the writer and the book. I applaud the agents who are moving with this new tide in publishing.

  10. Dear Jane,
    Having met you at the Geneva Writer’s Conference some years ago, it’s nice to read your balanced and positive take on what the future bodes for authors and agents. It sounds as if the panel’s debate was not only heated, but something we might see repeat itself at conferences elsewhere. Our panel at the last Geneva Writers Conference in February 2011 was a little more decorous but no less passionate. The winds had changed direction.

    Certainly, there’s one thing that I’d like to hear more about, and that is the continuing importance of agents for selling broadcast and film rights, channels which aren’t accessible even to those of us who’ve gone indie and are pleasantly surprised by steady sales across the platforms for books that had been published years ago or hadn’t found a home in trad publishing. Six novels uploaded and selling steadily, I’m not tempted to look for representation for print or e-book. But why aren’t agents making it clear that a successful indie author could knock on their door to discuss serial radio, television or game rights? It’s all lying there unattended.

    Also, I’d like to see reputable agents like yourself step up a little more forcefully to parse the disturbing conflict of interest when agents start their own digital publishing arms and ask for a continuing percentage of earnings on books they’ve failed to sell well.

    Warmest wishes,
    Dinah Lee Küng

    • Guest says:

      “Certainly, there’s one thing that I’d like to hear more about, and that is the continuing importance of agents for selling broadcast and film rights, channels which aren’t accessible even to those of us who’ve gone indie and are pleasantly surprised by steady sales across the platforms for books that had been published years ago or hadn’t found a home in trad publishing. … But why aren’t agents making it clear that a successful indie author could knock on their door to discuss serial radio, television or game rights? It’s all lying there unattended.”

      Can someone comment on how exactly this can be done, pursuing assistance with distribution in other media channels — film, TV, etc. — while retaining rights to distribution of the primary product, which is the book itself? Would it be in a query letter, something like

      Dear Ms. Agent:

      I am seeking representation for the film distribution rights to my novel, THE GREAT AMAZON CAPER, a Top 10 bestseller in the Kindle Select Romance category and a finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel award.

      It was a dark and stormy night when the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

      My name is Jane Q. Pubber, and THE GREAT AMAZON CAPER is my first novel, available at Amazon.com at the following link:

      amazon.com/etc-ASIN-ABC123XYZ-The-Great-Amazon-Caper-Jane-Pubber

      Per the guidelines on your website, I have enclosed a short synopsis and a partial excerpt from my novel. I look forward to potential representation with you and Agents, More Agents & Associates.

      Sincerely,
      Jane Q. Pubber

      Can anyone comment on what the proper or best approach for doing something like this is? Would you include the Amazon link in the query? Is a query necessary? Would the guidelines for inclusion need to be followed (synopsis, excerpt, whatever floats the agent’s boat) even though the book is already up for sale?

      • Guest says:

        Whoops, that random line there about the quick brown fox was supposed to read

        (Description goes here) It was a dark and stormy night when…

        – that being the plot summary included in a query letter.

        Sorry that the tags got messed up. :-)

  11. I wish I could have heard that discussion. Fascinating! For twenty years I attended many conferences. Weeks before conference, articles would be circulated, letting writers know how to treat an agent; they were definitely put on pedestals.

    Once I decided to self-publish my work, I parted ways with my second agent because I wanted full control and I was done waiting.

    I must say that negotiating my own contract with Thomas & Mercer this year was thrilling. It was also frightening at times, but I hired an agent/attorney to look over my contract for a flat fee and we discussed questions I had over the telephone. For weeks I negotiated on my own: I made changes to my contract, I asked for more than they were offering. The talks went on and on and it was exhilarating because for the first time in twenty years I wasn’t sitting at home waiting to find out what was going on in the trenches. I was right there on the front-line, talking straight, being fair (IMO), and working to get the best deal for MYSELF. One thing I have learned is that nobody cares more about my books and my career than me.

    And I’m not saying I would never sign with an agent in the future. But for now, all of that endless waiting is still too fresh in my mind. For too many years, I spent hours querying agents and editors only to get a one-sentence reply six months later. But what choice did writers have back then? Many publishing houses would not look at un-agented manuscripts.

    Anyhow, it’s nice to know there are agents like Jim out there who truly get it. Thanks for the great post.

  12. Willow says:

    If all agents were like you, Jim, I would not have given up on trying to find one (and would probably have had one several times over by now). I can definitely use an agent, considering how many projects I have going at any given time, but after years of exactly what you’ve described here, I had finally had enough.

    I realized that the time I was spending in submitting queries, and follow-ups, and manuscripts, and waiting for responses, and searching for other possible agents and publishers, and keeping a database of them… it was all cutting into my time to actually write. The frustration, the waiting and the rejection letters were a wet blanket on my creativity, and I’m really not into sadomasochism.

    What’s wrong with people? Is it really so difficult to work in a partnership that benefits everyone? Greed and inflated egos cause all the world’s ills. Very sad.

  13. M.P.McDonald says:

    I self-published after doing the query roulette for 8 months back in 2009/2010 so I won’t pretend to know much about how authors have been treated, but I will say that this blog post gave me hope that things are changing for the better. At first, I was angry at agents for rejecting my book, but as I’ve been somewhat successful on my own, that anger has cooled. I probably had too many typos in my queries or something.

    I think that there is room for both self-publishing and trade publishing and there is no need for animosity on either side. Finding success as an author is hard no matter what route you take, so why make it even more stressful by choosing sides? Some authors want or need an agent to help them find their way, others push forward in an attempt to find success on their own. Sometimes an author will do both–trade publishing some books and self-publishing others. It’s all good.

  14. Very realistic post. Thanks.

    I’ve had four agents but am agentless now. Of the four, I’d only recommend one (shout out to Holly Root).

    Regarding film and other subsidiary rights…I think this could be a real opportunity for agents these days because it is the area where authors can’t go it alone or have trouble doing so. Unfortunately, my experience has been that many literary agents don’t aggressively push film/TV rights because the money up front (the commission from an option) is usually pretty low, just a few hundred bucks off a several-thousand dollar option. And many film/TV options don’t result in sales, where the big money is.

    If agents decided to aggressively market all their clients’ works to Hollywood, taking the time to make connections in L.A. the way they do with editors in NYC, I think you’d see authors flocking to those agents.
    Libby

  15. Vella Munn says:

    I too was a member of that panel, as a long-published writer. Afterward someone said I looked shell shocked but it was more a realization that everyone in the room now knew the emperor had no clothes. One thing I want to make clear is that the domminteering agent has been hugely successful–a fact he repeatedly tried to drum into us. That’s all well and good and I applaud his efforts for his A list clients, but there’s more to the publishing world than those few.

    I’m now making more money e-publishing than I ever did while writing for traditional publishers. Granted, I’m not selling as many titles, but those titles have the potential to continue selling for years instead of disappearing after a month. E-publishing allows me to be paid every month just like the majority of working people instead of twice a year. Instead of waiting more than a year after finishing a book to see it published, as soon as I’m comfortable with the product and have a cover, I can put it up and start selling.

    Along with greater control over my career comes greater responsibility, but we published writers are a creative bunch. We co-op promotion and publicity, we share experiences, copy editors and cover artists. We’re united in ways we weren’t when trad publishers did everything except produce the product that keeps publishing rolling.

    I’ve had agents, four or five of them but don’t now. That isn’t to say I believe my need for one is behind me. In fact earlier this year I asked a former agent to handle a complicated issue. She professionally did her job. In other words, I reached out and she agreed to tackle one item. She’s been in business for many years but is evolving, keeping up.

    That, IMO is the kind of agent today’s writers need. Co-workers.

    And Jim, we sang your praises long after the panel ended

  16. Wow- can I just say thank you? Having had to deal with some of those ego first-writer second agents, it is refreshing to see the other side win.

    The publishling world is still in such a constant state of flux, that it’s amazing to me these agents don’t realize they need to change too. To paraphase & modify, the more they tighten their grasp, the more writers will slip through their fingers. ;)

    Thanks for being one of the good guys, Jim.

    You rock :).

    Marie

  17. paige wheeler says:

    Hi, all. As one of the other industry guests on this roundtable, I have to say it WAS adversarial. However, I’d like to think that Jim and I both comported ourselves professionally. I want to make sure that the message I was trying to get across during the event doesn’t get lost, because I’m not sure it was communicated in the NINC newsletter. I know that Folio has been actively partnering with authors to help them become successful and has created a number of initiatives to give AUTHORS the tools to become succeed. I’m pretty sure I mentioned that quite a number of times, and since I had a number of my own authors in attendance at the event, I really thought it was key to stress what at exciting time it is in publishing. Let’s not lose sight of that!

  18. Sorry, I now see that this post was by “Jim,” not Jane Dystel as listed over on the Passive Guy publishing blog. I leave my comments as is, otherwise, and thanks again for an interesting post.

  19. Jim, you were a breath of fresh air. Having never you you speak before, you helped “make” the panel.

    I’ve heard Jabba speak before, and he had a mini-outrage then. So I wasn’t surprised when it happened. That said, I know he’s hugely successful and so is his agency.

    I found the whole thing eye-opening but also informative and, yes, entertaining. How the moderator managed to control the mic, I don’t know, but she did a GREAT job.

    Cindy

  20. Counting reprints and foreign sales, I’ve made more than twenty book sales to publishers large and small without ever having an agent pitch and receive an offer. I’ve had them pitch and not succeed, and I’ve had them negotiate deals that I’ve successfully pitched. And I’ve done quite a few entirely on my own.

    So I’m not sure that having an agent has ever been the necessity that everyone seems to think it is.

    Now I’m going to try self-publishing my backlist as well as the fifty or so short stories I’ve sold to mags (which become effectively valueless once they’ve seen print). If I’ve built up enough of a readership to succeed at self-pubbing the old stuff, I might start doing it with new works, eliminating all the middlemen.

    Bring on the brave new world.

  21. Elle Casey says:

    I was in the next room over from that room and I heard the yelling through the wall. And after it was over, I listened to several very offended authors relating the experience of watching this group in action.

    This wasn’t the only panel that had the agents on it. I was present for one other. And what I pieced together, from my trip to White Plains for the conference and my own success as an indie author without an agent is is this: there is fear in the air. Fear from the big 6 publishers and from agents who work with them.

    Indies can make far more publishing themselves in ebook format, and eventually everyone’s going to know that. The only thing agents like that whack-a-doodle (aka Jabba) can do at this point is try to scare authors into thinking that they won’t make it without him. He said something about how he can take an author down not just the Amazon but all its tributaries (as if without him, you’d be stuck on just the Amazon?? I don’t know, it was kind of nutty). He also bragged about his immense overhead in salaries and offices. The fear was palpable in that room. Without authors signing on for his “Amazon and Tributaries” program, he’s going to have to downsize in a major way. He didn’t look like the type who likes to downsize.

    The slush pile isn’t on the agents desk anymore. It’s on the Amazon best seller list. The big 6 are catching on, cherry-picking those who already have an audience and a platform they they created for themselves. It’s a slam dunk strategy with almost zero risk. They can stop taking agent submissions and just pluck these best sellers off the counter one-by-one. With fewer losses on advances that don’t earn out, they can afford to pay decent advances. A smaller stable but a more lucrative one. A less risky one. This is a no-brainer in my world.

    So where does that leave the agents? Well, speaking personally, I need an agent to help me with foreign rights sales, and if I’m ever so lucky, movie or TV rights sales. I was approached by a foreign publisher for one of my series and negotiated and sold the rights myself. But there are plenty of other publishers who might want the same series or one of my others, but I don’t have the time or inclination to find them. I’d gladly hand over 15% to an agent who would do that for me.

    Do I want an agent to shop paperback rights to the US and UK markets? Sure. Do I want them to shop my ebook rights in English-speaking markets? Hell no. I can do that myself and do it well. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Bella Andre is a trailblazer here, along with Hugh Howey who nabbed his deal before her. And if they can do it, so can a lot of other authors, so long as they don’t buy into the fear that Jabba is selling. The only exception to my feelings here would be if Amazon publishing came for me. They can put my ebooks in front of my biggest market, pulling me out of the shadows and putting me front and center. That would be worth it to me, if the numbers made sense. That’s not the case for publishers who don’t have that kind of influence at Amazon.

    Two of the agents on the one panel I attended said they would do “à la carte” representation of authors who want just foreign rights representation; but they both, after listening to Jabba spout off, amended their statements to say they’d only do it in certain circumstances, with certain authors. So I guess the agents will be cherry-picking too.

    Regardless, it’s an interesting subject, an industry that changes month to month. I have a feeling the sharp agents will find their niches and make the most of it. The others will stick their heads in the sand and pretend that their lives don’t need to change and eventually they’ll become extinct.

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  23. I can somewhat understand why some agents would react in the manner of your co-panelists, lashing out. Times are changing, and it makes them scared for their jobs. They feel the need to sell themselves to get authors, just as authors need to sell themselves to get agents. This clearly wasn’t done well by the angry agent! Based on the above account of Jenny Ruhl, his meltdown would have been both entertaining and terrifying to see.

    I think your approach sold the services you can provide in a better and more effective manner, because instead of getting angry, you seem to have thought critically about the way things are changing and how you can adapt to still be relevant and useful. I respect that. As a young librarian, there are lots of similar talks going on in my field. I wish you continued luck in your work!

  24. Suzie Quint says:

    Thank you for acknowledging the power imbalance. That goes a long way toward easing the resentment I’d come to feel for agents who are too busy being prima donnas to even say, “Thanks but no thanks.”

  25. Antonia Marlowe says:

    Thank you, Jim. You have almost restored my faith in agents. I am pleased to hear some of you care about their clients, and just as importantly, in the expression of professionalism in their own writings. This has not been my experience to date, neither here in Australia, in the UK or in my dealings with US agents.

  26. Sharon L Reddy says:

    I’ve been thinking about the role of agents in this changing industry for quite some time. Perhaps the agent should not be marketing to publishers, but to the public. An agent, with a good reputation, could serve as the ‘gatekeeper of good taste.’ Why not pay that agent the 30% Amazon and others want for the privilege of dumping a book in with all the others?

    As I’ve said before, Amazon is a warehouse and Smashwords is a distributor to other warehouses. The review and ranking system on both Amazon and Goodreads are more abused by spite reviews and cyberbullies than authors reviewing other authors, or family, who are of the honest opinion the book is wonderful, because it was written.

    Thankfully, the changing industry allows books that are not written for the mass market to be published. Literary art is being revived and renewed, but who will say, “This book is more?” Where are the boutiques and galleries for works that are? Is there a book the equivalent of Ursula Leguin’s great work languishing under a batch of one and two-star reviews, because it’s not mass-market oriented? Where are the boutiques and galleries, for those looking for more depth and complexity, for fine art?

  27. Dear Jim,
    Thank you for this very helpful post. I was at that roundtable, sitting near the back. It started off quite civilly, then the tenor of the voices began to rise, and the next thing I knew we were witnessing a rather unfortunate display of don’t rock the agent boat. In this new publishing paradigm everyone’s boat is rocking, from writers to agents to publishers. But having been a writer for twenty years and a reader all my life, there has never been a more exciting time to be part of what is now such a vibrant industry.

  28. Jim,

    As co-chair of the conference, I just want to mention that several members came up to me at the conference and volunteered that you were wonderful and we should invite you again. I can see why they were so impressed after reading your post (I had to miss the panel to man the registration desk).

    My hope is that the issues raised at the roundtable (and here) don’t get buried in the furor. I see such a strong opportunity for new partnerships between authors and agents to develop. Agencies like Dystel & Goderich and others obviously see those opportunities, too.

    It seems like the conversation could get much more interesting if agents clearly understand why so many authors are embracing the self-publishing possibilities:

    1 – the $$. Yes, I don’t make enough on my self published books to impress certain agents. However, it is enough to allow me to concentrate on writing and forgo a day job (and pay for my daughter’s recent wedding). That is a huge incentive to me (and makes signing a deal with a publisher that includes restrictions on my self publishing unattractive).

    2. the long tail. I love Chris Anderson (we had him speak at NINC several years ago, and his take on the long tail changed my perspective as an author). Right now I can put my self published books on as many platforms as I choose, promote them when I choose, and give them years of discoverability (as well as an appealing price for readers who haven’t yet tried one of my novels). I can break into foreign markets and audio if I think that will be a successful move for my books.

    3. Abundance thinking vs scarcity thinking. For so long, publishing has been dominated by scarcity thinking (only so clients to an agent, only so many books published by a publisher, only so many shelves in a bookstore, etc). As a self published author, I can think of the abundance of possibilities for my work, with no need to spend time trying to convince an agent, then an editor, then an editorial team, then a bookseller. I write the book I want to write, I use a team to make it the best book it can be, I put it out there and let readers decide (knowing full well this can be as painful as letting agents/editors decide :-)

    4. Bestsellerdom. Most of the authors I know are terrified of being stuck in the midlist, because that means less advance money, less publisher support, less bookseller enthusiasm, less sell-through. In my self-publishing, I’m happy to be midlist. I am awed by Bella Andre, Barbara Freethy, and M. J. Rose. But I do not need to have their readership numbers to be satisfied. If my readership is smaller, that’s okay. Not every book can be a mega bestseller, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a solid readership who will love it. Publishers have a harder time with that right now, because they’re all about growing the bottom line profit. After a dozen years and a dozen traditionally published books, I’m happy to just have a regular income that lets me head to the computer to create without the worry about how to pay the bills.

    This is a complete sea change in authorial perspective. But the opportunities for agents to partner with writers in new and exciting ways can actually be better because of this new perspective. Or so I believe.

  29. Anu Kalgudi says:

    Three words: respect.

  30. Jim.
    Your an amazing , Extremely talented ……. Agent. You listen with 2 ears , your Incredibly honest and more !!! I’m
    Extremely proud to say you’re my agent . I’m looking past the loud Noise of chatter ….. The smoke clears and you shine !! I don’t write on blogs so excuse me for being right at point , it’s Jim or nothing for me.

    Thank you for being that stand up man !!! Lost art found at Dystel

    Love you
    Jackie. Barrett.

  31. Pingback: Links 16/11/2012: Fedora 19 is Schrödinger’s Cat, Android Grabs 90% Smartphones Share in China | Techrights

  32. Carolina says:

    Jim it takes courage to talk loud about these things. Even if the post is 2 years old, still I found myself in the same position as you are right now. I think the industry will vibrate even more in the close future with all the new technologies coming up. It’s incredible how in such a short time, many roles are changing so fast.

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