Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Changing Role of Literary Agents

February 26, 2014

Full disclosure first: I’ve been married to a very successful literary agent for decades, and I’ve seen her operate and grow a company, so I am burdened with insider knowledge and opinions.

One of the things her company has is a dictum that they will not represent friends or family. So I wasn’t going to get represented by her company and had to fight – just like anyone else – to find representation. Which I did. I have both a literary agent and a film agent.

But, in light of the massive changes to hit the publishing industry, my lit agent couldn’t sell my technothrillers to a NY publisher. My choice was to DIY or give up, and since I’d come so close to a deal so many times, I was sure there was the quality in my work that might yield me success in self-publishing.

Now, I decided to self-publish at the turn of this year and set myself a goal of publishing three of my works in series sequence this coming summer. I’d need a whole new set of skills. I know things regarding how publishing works, so crafting a budget and a schedule were easy. But, the rest – cover design, web site redesign, copyediting, publicity, social media – these were things writers tend to ignore until it’s too late. I’d have to learn them in a hurry.

My suggestion here is that if you are looking for a literary agent – regardless of whether you want a Trad Deal (contract with a large NYC publisher) or want to go Indie -  you should find one who is an expert in the three four disciplines I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

In the distant past, literary agents were likely to have been editors at publishing house. They acted as guides for your manuscript, touring them through the editors working where they’d worked, hoping to find a home for our work. Since the really good ones had a wealth of experience at those publishing houses, they knew the publication process and could guide a writer from submission through book release. Today, unless you want a Trad Deal, this experience is worthless.

But, the new breed of literary agent still needs to know the publication process, even though it has assumed a totally new form. Self-published authors still need a guide. My advice to authors is, if you’re going to self-publish and you haven’t worked in Silicon Valley, you’ll need a literary agent who understands social media, so you can develop a willing audience desiring your content. Your agent should understand what makes a web site sticky, so you can treat Internet visitors to your blog entries and keep them happy. A good agent will understand that the book cover for both ebooks and print books is responsible for around 60% of the sales decision, and should have a cadre of cover design graphic designers who have been successful with your  genre of book. Your agent should have worked with publicists who can offer their experience with publishing campaigns. With all this, your agent can be an effective guide through the new publishing process.

Oh, and one more. Know that you won’t receive an advance against revenues if you self-publish. It’ll all come out of your pocket. So you’d better have saved the cashish from your day job before you start. The good news is that you’ll gross 70% of the sales price (and on a $2.99 ebook that’s $2.21 per ebook) if you self-publish. With a Trad Deal, you’d net about 10% of net revenue (about $0.35 per ebook selling at $7.99)

In the past, literary agents earned 15% of your earnings. I believe your agent should still receive 15%. Some are charging a lot more. Caveat emptor!

So, remember, the opinions in this blog entry are mine alone. Stay safe if you can. No matter what you decide, happy writing!


  1. Yes, David, the whole landscape is changing. If I were a literary agent, I would watch which books are doing well that were independently published, then I would approach those people because most likely, if the book is good, they did a world of work to get their books out into the world. It's all such a mad, mad, mad game.

  2. Really glad I found this great information, thanks

  3. The landscape of publishing is currently undergoing its biggest revolution since the invention of the printing press. No aspect of publishing will be recognizable three years from now, due to the implications of self-publishing. Last year, ten of the top twenty-five bestsellers at Amazon were self-published.