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.