I've been a literary agent for 25 years, I think I'm a pretty good one, I'm kind of partial to the profession in general.
If you want to read another perspective, go at Dean Wesley Smith's "Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing," which you can find here.
If you read through all of his posts he'll often go to great lengths to say that he doesn't dislike literary agents, some of his best friends are literary agents, this post is about the bad literary agents for of course there are plenty of good and wonderful ones, and that post he's just talking about the newfangled agents and not the old school agents for which of course none of this applies. But all caveats aside... close to half of the sacred cows he wants to kill in these posts deal with literary agents directly, and some of the other posts deal with them tangentially. One of the posts talks about the "hundreds and hundreds" of scam literary agents. Which would be almost all of them.
I should also mention the comments! I'm the kind of person who sometimes watches C-Span with a strange fascination. 20 minutes watching a candidate work a rope line, or one of those special order speeches at the end of the day. In his posts Dean will often have a colloquy (even better than the solo special order speeches is a good colloquy) with Laura Resnick and then some third party will come in and provide a jump off point for more. So when you're clicking thru one of the links, be sure not to stop with the post itself.
Once last year and again recently I had people asking me about one or another of Dean's posts. Haven't responded. In part because I don't want to use the blog to get into fights with anyone. But perhaps as important, the posts often have enough of a kernel of real truth which is good and valuable and important for people to know, that I don't think anyone should just dismiss what Dean has to say out of hand. Dean knows publishing. He's written and sold an awful lot. 20 years or so ago, his Pulphouse was a pioneering and revelatory small press in sf/fantasy. Some of what he's done he's done in partnership with his wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch, herself what Variety would call a "multi-hyphenate" who's made a mark on the field in many different ways as an author, editor, publisher, more. The two teach valuable writing workshops, some geared toward professional writers which try to emphasize the importance of writers to take charge of their own careers.
With all that background, Dean has a lot of good advice to give. I will happily concur in good things Dean has to say, like:
Agents should work for writers, and not the other way around. I've come to great grief as a literary agent when I've forgotten this one.
You don't need an agent to sell a book. Well, no, you don't. I've often said that finding an editor and finding an agent are things that can proceed on simultaneous tracks.
That it takes nothing but stationery to become a literary agent. Sadly true, there is no licensing, no classroom, no regulation, pretty much anyone can become a literary agent just by saying so, and that does mean there are some bad agents out there.
You don't want an agent who spends all his time blogging. I've been posting like crazy the past week or so because things do get quiet this time of year, largely because there are so many vacations taking place, especially overseas where lots of foreign agents and publishers can take most of August off. When it gets busy, the blogging slows. I have a day job. And no, I don't think you should go with an agent because you've loved the 21,563 tweets they've done.
So when Kris and Dean give workshops to published writers, yes, they hammer hard on the fact that writers should take charge of their own careers and not just delegate all the thought and paperwork and planning and everything else to their agents. Who can be schmucks off the street with nice letterhead and business cards fresh off their inkjet.
But I ended up providing a few paragraphs in recent days for a private forum on one of Dean's posts about agents, and as I got to thinking more on the totality of his Sacred Cow killing, I had a big-picture philosophical approach to what he says which I thought was worth sharing here.
For the past few hundred years, humanity has advanced on account of specialization. And for all the good points Dean makes, his underlying dislike of literary agents blinds him to the fact that the community of arts and letters and culture is as a whole a better place for writers where more writers make more money than they would otherwise. Dean feels pretty darned strongly that the world would be better without agents, or with agents used so piecemeal and so selectively as to not be very effective or helpful at all. He does it that way, it works for him, it would work for every author if they'd just take more control of their own things and have the agent doing a lot less. If anything.
There are sleazy auto mechanics who will repair things that don't need fixing, yet how many think the world would be a better place if we all did our own auto repair work? You know how there are people in the world who love to spend Saturday afternoon working on their car and doing their own oil changes, about the best example I can think of, but most people I know aren't those people. Would the world be better if we all did our own appliance repairs, hemming, and taxes? Of course not. And the world wouldn't be better for writers without literary agents. Most authors I know just aren't, at heart, Dean Wesley Smith. They don't have his skill and talent and passion for adding so much of the agent skill set to their own repertoire. They want to write and let somebody else handle the negotiations and the paperwork and keep track of the markets here and abroad and the many other tasks that fall to competent literary agents, and in the totality of things authors are better for having a good agent do the agenting, while they do the writing. Dean is strongly DIY on this topic, thus he writes with a negative undercurrent so fierce that it drowns what could be a more constructive message. When Dean talks about what authors can do to in the way of self promotion, I see more constructive distance. He's able to be a little more constructive. Why authors do self-promotion, why they probably shouldn't need or have to, how to analyze the pros and cons of doing different things. You can decide for yourselves.
This is a conversation that could go on for a very long time. I could debate specific points, mount a full-throttled defense of my profession, provide examples of where I managed to do something good for someone. None of those are things I do on this blog with great frequency. As opportunity presents, maybe I can pick up some specific items, maybe Dean and I can dialogue where it might be constructive to do so. But this is where I'll leave off for today.
- The Brillig Blogger
- A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.