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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.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


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.


Author Scott Nicholson said...

Thanks, Joshua. I love Dean's advice simply because he's not afraid of making enemies simply by having opinions, and, true, the value of advice varies depending upon one's place in the orbit.

I'd like to see more agents taking leadership in digital matters--especially in the era of self-publishing when an agent can be more of a liability than an aid. Progressive agents will be a great help, but all those "bad ones" are going to help kill some careers.

I know writers who are signing for ebook royalties of between 4 and 10 percent--and these are people with agents. Or maybe that should be "agents." I appreciate your comments.

Scott Nicholson

Brad R. Torgersen said...

Mr. Bilmes,

My compliments on your having supplied an urbane rejoinder to Dean Smith's posts on agents. I've been rather outspoken in Dean's comments, and am a Dean Smith enthusiast, mostly because Dean gives voice to much of what I've been feeling and thinking for years, even before Killing The Sacred Cows debuted.

I'm a recently professionally-sold short fiction writer, and while the business of peddling and selling short fiction is rather straightforward, peddling books is another matter entirely. Mostly because, for as long as I've been working at selling my fiction, there have been so many question marks about the agent issue.

How to find an agent? How to know if that agent is any good? What to do if the agent wants re-writes? What to do if the agent won't send the book to more than a small handful of houses? How to know if the agent is handling the money properly? And so on, and so forth.

Because most novels sold these days pass along the avenue of agent-to-editor, almost nobody who is trying to sell novels (especially down at entry level) can afford to not ask these questions.

Your name is spoken of rather highly in the Utah science fiction writing community, especially since Brandon Sanderson has been gaining publicity, having taken over the (late) Robert Jordan's famous Wheel of Time series. I've therefore got your name on my very short, short list of possible agents I'd be interested in. Precisely because there seems to be no viable filter method, other than word of mouth. And your name comes up too often in conversation in my local circle, as being one of the rare "good guys," not to put you on the list.

Problem remains, however: what does a new author offer to attract the services of Bilmes and Co? Moreover, what do Bilmes and Co. offer to attract new authors?

Because I've more or less decided that it's better to work without an agent, and do the hard chore of learning the business myself, than have to struggle with a middle-of-the-road or poor agent. And the stories of middling and poor agents are too numerous and too frightening to assume they will only ever happen to someone else.

I'm not a huge fan of changing my own oil, to use your metaphor, but I'm also not the kind of guy who can blissfully assume someone else is going to just take care of me all the time, either. When I bought my house, the closing took hours because I parsed the documentation and asked loads of questions -- because I was dealing with years of commitment and hundreds of thousands of dollars, and I was doing it with more or less total strangers.

Sort of like book deals.

Anyway, this reply is too long and my time is too short. Again, thanks for giving us a thoughtful reply to Dean's posts. Brandon thinks you're quite good, and he's not alone. It's just too bad every author in my shoes can't have a clone of you to help us work the novel biz.

Alex F. Fayle said...

I see Dean's posts as on the slightly extreme side as a way to wake up unthinking writers. I agree with everything you say in this post and also with everything he says in the Sacred Cows posts.

Having run my own business for years, I plan on taking full control of my writing career and if and when I need an agent I'll be following his advice as well as yours.

After all, the more one knows the better "armed" one is...

Mark Terry said...

I've read Dean's posts with a great deal of interest--and skepticism. Why not? He's telling us to look at all of publishing dogma with skepticism and I think we should apply that to his statements as well. I'm a multi-published novelist, author, and freelance writing--and my agent often drives me crazy and it may be time to move on. But go without one? Well, let's put it this way. As an experiment, after reading one of Dean's posts on going it alone, I sent out polite, professional query letters to several well-respected editors and queried them. I provided my publication history, several good reviews and blurbs from bestselling name-brand authors and waited to see what kind of response I would get.

What I got: none.


In the past I've at least interacted with big 6 editors who at least would respond with "we do not respond to unagented queries." I thought I might get at least that, but didn't. And I do have a track record. That isn't to say that I couldn't have tried another 100 queries to editors on my own, but the fact is, one of the key functions of my agent is to open doors that are otherwise apparently closed to me.

Sure, I stay educated on the market. Suggest editors and publishing houses. I read every word of my contracts and ask questions and even read the copies to make sure no changes have been made inadvertently. But really, my time is better spent being the writer, not the agent.

Mark Terry said...

Oh duh. I wondered why your name was familiar. You're the agent for 2 of my friends--Tobias Buckell and Jim Hines.

Unknown said...

As an author who has worked with agents for 25 years, I have my own take on this.

It's true that some agents might not make great partners for you, but with that nod to Dean, the truth is that a good agent doesn't just bring his own literary expertise and contract-negotiating skills to the table. He or she also comes along with a network of relationships to editors, foreign agents, book buyers, movie producers, and other authors who might champion your work, and so on. That network of relationships in itself is probably worth your agent's commission.

Certainly, both of my agents (Virginia Kidd and Russell Galen) have earned far more than they cost me in agenting fees, and that's the bottom line.

So if you're a new author, I'd highly recommend that you buck the trend of going agent-less. Instead, look for a competent agent who shares your literary tastes and consider making that person a partner in your business, treating them with the respect and grace that a partner deserves.

Scott Baird said...

"Would the world be better if we all did our own appliance repairs, hemming, and taxes? Of course not."

For the record, YES the world would be better. Sure, some handymen and H&R Block guys would be out of a job, but I believe in self-reliance.

That said, I can definitely see the value in a good lit agent to act as guide in the shadowy, twisted world of publishing. Both Dean's ideas and yours are very much appreciated. Thank the internet for opening a lot of these issues up to the light of day.

Laura Resnick said...

Kudos to you for expressing such a courteous and open-minded response to what have certainly been some extremely frank and negative comments on Dean's blog (many of them made by me) on the subject of literary agents and agenting. I hope that I would be as gracious if a literary agent commented about what made him quit working with novelists, as I comment about what made me quit working with literary agents. (Mostly likely, I'd just look the other way and say, "He couldn't possibly be talking about ME." (wg)) I hope you and Dean do indeed find an appropriate forum at some point for a dialogue.