Is it time for writers to rethink attitudes about agents? (And, dare I suggest, agents rethink writers?)

I laughed a lot when I saw this photo from last week's Frankfurt Book Fair. With 7,300 exhibitors and almost 300K attendees at more than 3,000 events, I understand the need for organization, and I don't know if there was a special segregated potty for writers... but I doubt it. In any case (without even addressing the fact that the agent is assumed to be a man) the sign makes a pretty potent icon for the industry dynamic that's arisen in the last few decades.

When the advent of the home computer made the physical process of writing a book infinitely more achievable, a tsunami of aspiring writers started pursuing literary representation, which cast authors as beggars and agents as choosers, bringing about a massive shift in the power balance. I think indie publishing is now shifting power back toward authors - if authors are willing to grow a pair and do their own dirty work.

True or False?

Agents should champion books based on literary quality, not income potential.
True, in that perfect world where lions lie down with lambs and ice cream is an excellent source of calcium. I mean, yeah, but reality check that. Agents are supporting their families, just as writers are. And overall commercial success makes it possible for them to devote time to occasional windmill-tilting.

False, when it gets to the point that easy-selling crap completely trumps literary quality and gluts the market to the exclusion of the low to moderate (read "midlist") moneymakers, and that is the direction a lot of agents are going as the industry sphincter continues to tighten.

Agents are the best gatekeepers/tastemakers.
True, in that agents are (for the most part) educated, intelligent, bookish folk who do have insight into what readers want and what publishers will pay for.

False, in that marketability has become the primary (if not sole) criterion, not only for taking on new authors, but for strongly influencing the revision of manuscripts, and too many supplicant authors are willing to turn their backs on their own artistic vision in a desperate attempt to win that agency contract. ("What doth a man profit," Jesus asked, "if he gains the whole world, but loses his own soul?") In a biz as capricious as publishing, you need intelligent guidance, but shared craft values and a common vision for the author's work are imperative.

Agents know more than authors about how to write books.
True, when the author is an amateur, in which case the author does not need an agent, the author needs a good critique group.

False, the rest of the time. A terrific agent excels in the art and craft of sales. A terrific author excels in the art and craft of writing. In that perfect lion-lays-down-with-ice-cream world, the two come together with mutual respect in an equal partnership that is peaceful and prosperous for all concerned.

Must end with my favorite Mitchell and Webb bit, which should be required viewing for any author before s/he rewrites based on agent input. (I know I've shown you this before, but it bears repeating. Or don't! Yeah?)


Suzan Harden said…
Love the picture!

But segregation aside, the whole industry is wobbling, trying to find the new balance.

More and more of the tasks, such as marketing and editing, have been shoved back into the writers' corner. So now everyone is asking what do agents bring to the table?

The real question is what will agents transform into in this upheaval. Some agents have jump into publishing with the same outlook as some writers--upload it to Amazon and the readers will come.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple.
I love that clip. LOL! And loved your article as well.

I'm in the happiest of agent relationships right now, one that's based on mutual respect and trust. But I'm all too aware that, as in most relationships, things can get painfully out of kilter. When they do, it's time to re-evaluate and, if necessary, move on.
Thanks for reminding this yet to be published author that agents are not the all mighty Oz (or maybe they are--look how that turned out). I also like that your article was so well balanced, both about the author-agent relationship and about the changes in the publishing industry in general.

Now if I could just stop having that dream where I'm in a hotel and a bunch of agents surround me, all dressed as Wonder Woman. Male and female, mind you. All Wonder Woman.
caitlin said…
Speaking here as a writer, I think so much about publishing is changing that we all need to educate ourselves and then to carefully consider our options, which begins with an honest assessment of our goals. Sometimes it feels to me like people still feel best about traditional publishing and I like the keen perspective you bring to a discussion of what really works now, of the possibilities...

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