Are Literary Agents Necessary?

The publishing industry has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Its evolution has not always been progressive in nurturing new talents, in stark contrast with the attention given to those regarded as having a ‘track record’ of profitable appeal, which too often means authors who have settled on a formula and who inspire a host of imitators. The bookshop shelves at airports are full of such examples. As a result, the emphasis has been elitist, excluding many struggling for recognition. With the electronic age robbing the industry of the personal touch, it is easy to feel drowned in a modern technology expedient but soulless.

Writing, being a lonely profession, requires warmth and passion if it is to manifest itself to its full potential. It also feeds on encouragement and empathy as well as full access to those whose advice is significant and who can help to make things happen. In theory, that should be the role the literary agent fulfils.

But how often does she or he do so? In my long career in banking and retailing, in show business and as an independent entrepreneur, I have rarely used a go-between to conclude a transaction. I have always found that a direct approach to the source was more efficient and less time-consuming, and ultimately more rewarding for the parties involved. The inclusion of a third party in the equation often disturbs the balance, slowing down procedures, and in some cases creates unnecessary conflict which springs from an over-exuberance on the part of the intermediary. The agent’s motivation is naturally to maximise his earnings, but sometimes this can be pushed so far as to risk aborting an entire negotiation.

Over the years, literary agents have become more powerful and have gained what I term as disproportionate influence. They often exert the kind of hold over the industry which proves counter-productive to the small independent publisher, who has by and large been side-tracked through his lack of financial clout. In years gone by the industry was more concerned with literary talent, seeing the newcomers in the field as representing its seed corn for the future.

Now the focus is all on immediate gain.

It has evolved into a multi-million dollar industry intent on backing financial certainties like Dan Brown and the other paperback blockbusters, dwarfing any hopes for a newcomer to enter the arena, especially one who is trying to develop an original talent that does not fit the present mould.

To make matters even more difficult, the sales shelves are over-crowded with the oeuvres of the new cult of celebrity. Few of these books show any particular writing talent, but the trend has employed a host of ghost writers and flooded the market with fabricated best-sellers to order. A prime example is Jordan, whose enlarged breasts have, believe it or not, earned her a fortune in the literary world.

Admittedly the components of writing and sex have always fared well together, but are now bereft of literary merit. The situation has been brought about by the capitalist philosophy that money is the ultimate objective, without which even respectability tends to come at a premium.

Since my advent into publishing in the summer of 1976, I have learnt much about this idiosyncratic industry and have seen many changes, among them the emergence of the conglomerates. These octopuses have, throughout the western world, swallowed the larger chunk of small independent publishers. Alongside this development, literary agents have risen to prominence and become key players in concluding contracts worth millions for the benefit of super-rich authors whose influence in the media has simultaneously gained ground at an alarming rate. You have only to open a newspaper to see the coverage they receive. They have become the new royals of the publishing industry, with their agents acting as their chancellors. In their quest to do well by their authors, and justify their fees, the agents have gradually embarked on amending the accepted formulas for publishing contracts till they have taken these to the limits of credibility. Whereas in the past a publisher’s rights to publish lasted as long as a book remained in print, the most unreasonable and ridiculous contracts today will seek to specify a limit to the period of five years; though more liberal contracts may extend these rights to ten years. On top of this, to add insult to injury, the division of earnings has been tightened in favour of the author, thus eroding the publisher’s profit margins.

These extra pressures have come about at the same time as the book chains demand more and more discounts, the result being catastrophic for the small publisher, who comes under fire from all angles and whose future survival is a constant matter of concern. No wonder the book trade is on the wane.

Unless something is done to shift the balance in other directions, we are likely to witness the industry suffering mortal damage. The literary agents ought to be seeing it as in their interests to give it an uplift as a whole, rather than catering exclusively to the whims of the conglomerates. Otherwise their usefulness will ebb in time. They work hard to steer their authors in the direction of fame and fortune, but by so doing unwittingly distort their talents through a limited understanding. They need to see a future in the small independent publishers, who have for years been discovering the writers of the new generation and whose task remains vital if our cultural heritage is to remain unassailed in times when fads seem to govern the way we write, think and measure reality.

In my view, there is more to life than making money. The current obsession with wealth is lethal. It changes our character, and instead of improving our lives, it sometimes destroys them. The more that sustainable wealth can be steeped in culture, in music and in the ability to create an environment, the more supreme will be its nobility of spirit.

However, the question remains. Are literary agents necessary?

Perhaps. But they have to reform if they are to fulfil their task properly. Dealing with literary endeavours is almost a vocation in itself. A lot of sacrifice and commitment are needed, with less emphasis on superficial gains.

They should be more open to new talent and willing to share in taking risks, rather than concentrating on what they think are certainties.

3 responses to “Are Literary Agents Necessary?

  1. I went into the great beyond, the wilderness that is self-publishing, so do not have an agent or the support of a large publisher. I decided that the whole process of finding both was too time consuming and disheartening. I listened to people who read and enjoy my books and just ‘got on with it’. It is difficult and painfully slow to gain recognition but I’m getting there. If a large publisher could take me on and put into effect all their PR machinery and marketing clout, then fine but I am not going to spend the rest of my life searching for them!

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  2. Wow! A breath of fresh air! The message that comes through to unpublished but passionate authors like me is that publishers are no longer interested in receiving submissions, they would rather let agents filter them out. I had an agent, she did nothing for me, she tried to tell me where I should set my novels. I am sure they are not all like that. Now a friend is encouraging me to give my stuff away as eBooks. I have already paid for a stash of ISBN numbers, but I really don’t want to go that route.

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  3. Miriam, Richard – thank you for your comments.

    Unlike the vast majority of publishers, we accept unsolicited submissions from unpublished authors. It is hard enough, as you know, to get your work seen. Agents can often facilitate that process but, at times, they can be just another obstacle.

    The key, as the old adage goes, is to never give up.

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