Radical Mediation: Agent, Evolve Thyself!

Jason Allen AshlockBy Jason Allen Ashlock, Founder, Movable Type Literary Group

In the past few years, across dozens of publishing and media conferences, each category along the publishing value chain has been interrogated—content development, product design, marketing, promotion, and (perhaps above all) distribution—and each has been found to be ripe for re-engineering.

The function of the agent has arrived late to that disruptive discussion, I suppose because the agent’s function has traditionally fallen outside the publishing value chain, a vaporous figure who hovers over the content at its acquisition and inconsistently emerges thereafter. After all, what value does an agent actually bring to a given property?

When one charts the path of a work of literature from ideation to incarnation in the marketplace, one hardly remembers who first matched the artist with her publisher. But recently, the agent has taken his turn in the spotlight, awaiting the judges’ critique. In a couple of thoughtful posts by Victoria Strauss and Jane Friedman, and in a particularly lively Twitter conversation initiated by Colleen Lindsay, the industry mused about the possible adjustment of an agent’s compensation, due to the possibility that in Publishing 2.0, an agent might bring quite a lot of value to a property after all.

With agents now in the conversation—as they were effectively during the Digital Book World conference earlier this year—it’s important that we state what really constitutes the agent’s problem: Though the agent’s function in the publishing value chain has changed considerably, the agent’s position in that value chain has remained the same.

I would suggest that before we can discuss how better to compensate an agent for his or her ever-expanding work, we must fundamentally alter our placement of the agent in that value chain. As long as the agent continues to be seen as taking primarily a sales position, there can be no more than a nominal adjustment of an agent’s compensation. And as long as there is no substantive adjustment of that compensation—whether in terms of increased commission percentage or openness to alternative means of payment for author services—there can be no wholesale, widespread augmentation of the agent’s activities to better match the industry’s needs.

And the industry is badly in need of what an agent—freed from the previous paradigm’s constraints—can offer.

Rather than resting, invisible, alongside the content in the acquisition category of the chain, the agent must evolve into the work’s inseparable acolyte, accompanying the work across subsequent categories in the chain—development, marketing, promotion, and branding. While publishing is grappling with the consequences of disintermediation in the value chain, I recommend an Agent’s role is one of radical mediation in that same chain.

To make my point, I’ll risk overstatement: the agent—more than the publisher, even more than the author—is best suited to stand alongside the work through a variety of categories along the value chain, to ensure the work’s proper development and shape, and to shepherd its arrival into the communities ready to appreciate its virtues.

  • If due to the requirements of their job, editors are able to edit less, agents respond—either editing themselves or bringing in third-party consultants and co-writers.
  • If due to the volume of a house’s list, a publicist is unable to discover, awaken, and motivate a title’s audience, agents respond—calling their own press contacts, designing author events, or bringing in outside publicists and media managers.
  • If publishers are unable to spend the time and money to build long-term, audience-building, brand-growing strategies for their authors, agents respond—crafting multi-year, multi-book, transmedia programs for their authors, in partnership with app developers, gaming engineers, and community managers.
  • And if the Bookscan numbers and a shrinking imprint destroy the chances of an author’s second or third or fourth or tenth book, agents respond—seeking out alternative means of producing work and engaging readers.

There is a lot of slack in publishing these days, and agents are picking up most of it.

And they should. Agents are uniquely positioned to focus on authors as a venture capitalist focuses on start-ups.

If agents do their job correctly, they will know their author and his or her work more intimately than any editor or publicist or publisher. They will know that author’s realized audience and potential audience better than the author will know it himself. They will see the uneven arc of a long career more clearly than anyone at a publishing company who may or may not be around 18 months from now.

They are the only player in the game who can radically mediate.

For many years, agents have been engaged in many of these activities on behalf of their clients, but now such work cannot be abberant or occasional or haphazard. It must be regular and required. Radical mediation must become an agenting methodology.

It will mean a better publishing world for everyone: for authors, it means representation that is not deal-centric, but career-centric; for editors, it means engagement with agents that is not antagonistic but collaborative; for publishers, it means less pressure to do what you’re not good at and more freedom to do what you are good at; and for readers, it means more publishing minds better focused on finding you and introducing you to a book they know you’ll love.

I don’t claim to know how best to adjust the payment schedule to better compensate an agent for his or her considerable efforts; that’s not what this post is about. An increase of commission to 20% sure seems like a start. An openness on the part of the trade organizations and keen watchdog groups to alternative modes of income seems a good beginning, too.

And we agents would certainly discover some ballast in our endeavors by embracing an entrepreunerial spirit less reliant on past conceptions of the agent. But before we can determine what should change about an agent’s compensation, we must interrogate our shared assumptions about an agent’s function and consider adjusting the limited—or non-existent—position an agent has held on the publishing value chain.

If this happens it will be because a number of agents are stretching farther than their compensation currently supports. Like a new hire anxious to win a promotion, we will do more than our current job title requires of us. But by doing so, we are gathering industry influence, and building brand equity for ourselves and for our clients, and developing audience loyalty.

For now, and for a while yet, that will have to be compensation enough.

Jason Allen Ashlock is the Founder of Movable Type Literary Group, a literary agency that seeks to meet the needs of an industry in transition by serving authors and publishers at each point on the creative continuum, that long line that leads from an inchoate idea to its incarnation in the marketplace.

34 thoughts on “Radical Mediation: Agent, Evolve Thyself!

  1. Bob Mayer

    In essence, a savvy agent could replace most of the functions of a publisher, at least with regard to the eBook market. Even beyond that, as the price point on POD drops, they could even replace a traditional publisher with trade paperback sales via online retailers.
    B&N just announced they expect a 2 billion drop in print book sales with a 6 billion increase in eBook sales by 2013.
    So the agent who fills this gap certainly should be compensated for it. However, I’m not sure that will come out of charging 20% or by getting a percentage that used to go the publisher for doing what they used to do.
    It is inevitable that the numbers will rule: should an author get 25% of 70% through a traditional publisher for an ebook? Or should an agent and author split the 70%?

    As we say in the Infantry: Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.
    Thanks for the post.

    1. Jason Allen Ashlock

      I’m with you, Bob, in feeling unsure about what kind of compensation makes sense. With so many different publishing opportunities, standardizing compensation is going to be difficult.

      But if I have heard my colleagues correctly in conversations such as this one, they are in agreement with me on this: we want publishers to be healthy, profitable, and efficient. I don’t wish to become a publisher, but to enable them to do their job of producing quality books in whatever form a consumer desires it, and distributing those books through the channels of consumer discovery. A radically mediated agent enables publishers to focus on those core competencies.

      1. Randy Russell

        Wow. Your original post is as exciting as it is confusing. But, exciting first. Your adjusted compensation for agents agenda does not seem like a mere reflection on a possible change in the standard 15% commission to an agency/agent for a literary sell. I’m pulling this out from between the lines, but what I am picking up on is the idea an author might be paying for additional services provided by an agent/agency and her/his/their associated enterprises (p.r., branding, on-line creations, digitizing, alternative products, etc.).

        This would be disturbing to me as an author if it happened midstream. “By the way, we think you need more on-line marketing, author, and here’s the price for that…”

        There used to be people in the publishing business called “packagers.” They put together big book deals, no doubt. But rarely to the advantage of the author. It was usually to the overwhelming financial advantage of the packager. This is what scares me about your “new model,” Jason. And maybe this is simply my normal author paranoia and has nothing to do with what you have in mind as a compensation adjustment.
        I’m afraid, though, until you clarify, authors will think of the worst case scenario and run with it.

        And, yes, I am MOST HAPPY with my agent/agency. I am rep’d by Trident Media Group. And they have done much more than create the original book sell for me.

        On the other hand, it’s likely right up your tree for me to note that I am hiring an outside publicist (for quite a bit of money, actually) to promote and market my title for a 2011 launch. Were an agency/agent able to wrap in such services for a title/author, I would certainly be open to kindly considering alternative (we do mean “additiona”, don’t we?) compensation. But, certainly not, were my career held at gun-point because I had already signed with an agent/agency who NOW wants additional compensation. You need to get this up front, Jason, and in clear terms before signing an author. I think. 🙂 Otherwise, it is very scary for me to consider contacting you for representation.

        It’s not just agents who are afraidof our brave new publishing world. Dang it.

        P.S. Mississippi Delta is my kind of country.

        1. Jason Allen Ashlock

          Thanks, Randy, twice over: First, for affirming your agent (some of us aren’t so bad!), and second, for your bringing up the big question that’s not addressed directly in this piece: who pays for all this extra work?

          For future models, I do not know. As I noted in the above comment response, I don’t want it to be the author. For the model we use the answer to who pays is simple: everybody.

          Movable Type isn’t paid for any additional work–we still take the standard 15% commission for our work, though our methodology includes numerous additional efforts that weren’t listed under an agent’s job description when that commission was agreed-upon, and we don’t get any run-off or kick-backs from the services we recommend or arrange. The extra effort is subsidized by all the players in the mix: agent, author, publisher, and third-party consultant. We have strategic partnerships with various players–from web designers to digital managers to videographers to publicity firms to career consultants to branding strategists–that have reduced their rates for our clients; so they are subsidizing. The author himself or herself is, under our guidance, encouraged to look at their personal finances, their advance monies, their grant opportunities, and determine what amount they’re able to invest in their own career (“You are,” as I said, “your own start-up,” and so we recommend 20-35% of one’s advance monies be invested in a personalized, targeted campaign that’s a mix of resources); so the authors are subsidizing. We have on a couple of occasions (and imagine we’ll do so again, in select circumstances), deferred our 15% commission, opting to take it out of later advance installments rather than the first one or two installments, so that the author can have the capital to invest in the resources that can find his or her audience; so we as an agency are subsidizing. And several times over the past year, we have successfully negotiated with the publishers to allot money for publicity (yes, all independent publishers, but one takes a win where one can get it!); so publishers subsidize too.

          Yes, it looks different each time. And it should–because each project is different. Are we making more money as agents off this? Not in the short term. It’s likely, honestly, that we’re making less. But we believe in the model: if we bring the resources to the table that can awaken our writers’ audiences, then they will sell more books, find their core loyals faster, be better positioned for second and third books, and our client list will, as a collective, hold more value than it would without these efforts.

          Thanks for your thoughts, Randy–and I welcome further critique!

  2. Tim Barrus

    In a perfect world…

    In the course of forty years of writing and publishing a dozen books (under my name and others too scandalous to mention), I have met, corresponded with, talked with, pleaded with, argued with, plotted with, laughed with, drank in bars with — a variety of agents with a variety of skills.

    They’ve been mean, pretentious, paternalistic, vindictive, slow, ignorant, arrogant, unimaginative, opinionated in the extreme, and most all, AFRAID.

    Wouldn’t it be nice in a perfect world if just one was so adept he/she could intimately connect the writer and the work to the audience.

    Even I would stand up and applaud. I would even be polite about it.

    But it is a fantasy. I do not believe it. Even when (especially when) a writer thanks his agent in a book (this should be prohibited). Your bartender can do more than your agent can. The writer seeking guidance will always get it.

    This mythological person/agent does not exist and he/she does not have a single clone anywhere in the universe.

    Reading about how and why an agent is important (and possesses inherent worth) by publishing insiders is disingenuous.

    It simply joins the ranks of gatekeepers cheerleading-rah-rahs for the le jobs of gatekeepers. They do get it. But they won’t tell you they get it. It is not in their interest to do so.

    What they want you to hear is that you need them because they are so poised to be necessary. Fiddledeedee.

    Question: if you are so necessary then why is it such a steadfast rule at mainstream publishing houses that the writer comes armed the writer’s own gatekeeper versus a marketplace where it’s an option.

    It’s not an option. It’s a law written in the concrete that serves as the foundation to the gates of publishing.

    You either have one or they will not so much as recognize that you exist.

    In a world where the agent was in reality irreplaceable — and necessary — the marketplace would create the niche. But that is not how it works.

    It is now the paradigm. It is now the law as defined by publishing.

    Not the marketplace.

    It is the rule because publishing is 1.) about who you know, and 2.) a closed shop.

    I would challenge the agents to all go on vacation for the same week. The Hamptons are great any week in July.

    Rule: no one works. No one reads. No one says no on email. No one makes a deal. When the week is over, the world and ebooks will still be there.

    The agents give us publishing back for one week and no complaining about how the entire thing will go to the dogs.

    Publishing will either continue to go down the toilet — or — it will give writers a lot of food for thought.

    1. Jason Allen Ashlock

      There’s a lot of truth in what you said, Tim; I can nod my head to many of your thoughts. But on at least one point–and it’s your big point, I think–we deeply disagree. As one who has been an outsider (I was born in Tennessee, raised in Arkansas, educated in Memphis, immersed in fundamentalist evangelicalism, and arrived in New York without any semblance of a publishing pedigree), I’ve not experienced publishing as the culture of rejection you describe above. On the contrary, I’ve found it a very democratic space, and most of the few dozen books I’ve sold were written by debut novelists and aspiring journalists and earnest up-starts who brought few if any connections with them to the process. I’m not trying so much to offer a vision of a utopian publishing community with this piece; rather, it seems that many agents–yes, many of them young and hungry and hopeful and curious and unafraid of experimentation–are doing better by their authors than many inside and outside the industry have come to expect from our profession. And if that kind of agenting could become, as I stated above, a methodology, then perhaps you’d agree with me that there’s a lot in publishing to be excited about, and that the entire construct doesn’t have to collapse before it corrects itself

    1. Jason Allen Ashlock

      That’s a clever analogy, Richard. Let me be sure I get it: As Hadrian’s Wall protected Rome’s northernmost boundary, agents once served as the first line of what Tim would call gatekeepers, ensuring the security of the Publishing Empire, letting in only those who were respected citizens already. But Rome has fallen, and the outdated fortress of agenting that once protected the Empire is now important only as an artifact of a past epoch.

      First, I wonder if you really mean that–I mean, in that dramatic a fashion. Or was the analogy just a clever euphemism?

      Second, if that is what you mean, then the thesis of this post is not entirely contrary to what you warrant in that analogy: namely, the old way of agenting–deal-oriented rather than career-oriented; book-centric rather than author-centric; residing outside the value chain, etc–has a very limited future. As publishing changes–in every position in the value chain, and yes, quite possibly in the entire conception of that value chain–there is room for the radically mediated manager. Perhaps this kind of agent can’t keep the the Empire proper from collapsing, but perhaps he or she can manage to skip the Dark Ages and go straight to the Renaissance.

      1. Richard Pipe

        Jason I think you unwound that one a bit too far, but the idea was to question the relevance.

        To give some context in a recent project for a medium sized publisher nearly 5% of the books were stopped in digitization production because the agents wouldn’t do a digital deal. Apparently they didn’t think there was value in digital books given the current pricing and sales volumes. They may be right. I am not intimately involved in author/agent/publisher machinations – more of a victim! But there does seem to be a scene setter here for a “walk around the end of the wall” scenario.

        Hence the Hadrian’s Wall analogy – a bit of a digital content speed breaker for a time, but probably not a long-term show-stopper.

  3. Chuck Emerson

    Not that long ago, agents fanagled a 50% increase, from 10% to 15%.
    I say that 10% is more realistic. There wouldn’t be so many agents if a lot of folks didn’t think the job paid well. Look at all the editors hanging up shingles. Recomputed to an hourly rate and compared to the median in both spheres, most agents make more than authors.

    1. Jason Allen Ashlock

      I’m so glad you mentioned this:

      “agents make more than authors.”

      Often, this is the case, and it’s a terrible reality, and supports the perspective (which seems to be the consensus among those commenting today!) that agents are blood-sucking hangers-on, bleeding the artist dry while pandering to the publisher.

      One line that I cut from this piece when trying to trim it: “I don’t claim to know how best to adjust the payment schedule to better compensate an agent for his or her considerable efforts *without placing even more of the burden on authors*.”

      This post was an idea piece, not a concrete plan, and so I didn’t have the mandate to address this particular issue, but it’s worth an extended conversation.

      I do wish we’d hear from an author or artist who was well-represented, and whose agent, in his or her eyes, had earned their commission and then some for the work done on their behalf.

  4. Ron


    1. Fire your agent either in person, on the phone, or via e-mail. Don’t send a personal letter and waste money on a stamp.

    2. Publish your own book(s) and launch ’em. It’s cheap. It’s easy. It works. Giving anything to an agent is like giving a lethal injection to a 10-day-old corpse.

    3. Do your own marketing. It’s nothing more than common sense. Agents don’t have much of that. They were all born witless and never opened their eyes.

    1. Jason Allen Ashlock

      The lethal injection analogy might just beat Ron’s Hadrian’s Wall analogy for most unexpected of the night. I don’t think I need to unpack it, though. (Or maybe I’m just afraid to!)

      One of the refrains of my conversations with authors is this: “You are your own start-up.” Authors do need to, as you suggest, adopt an entrepreneurial perspective on the promotion of their work.

      I’ve found, and the industry statistics seem to suggest the same, that for most authors there’s a spectacularly troubling gap between your claims–between a) “publish your own books and launch ’em” and b) “It works”. Unfortunately, for most authors, the “it works” never happens–at least not if by “it works” one means sales in any substantial quantity and appreciation beyond a few dozen friends, family members, and a few lucky strangers.

      Perhaps we can agree on this: books are more frequently successful when a team of energetic, knowledgeable people marshal their unique talents to trumpet a book’s virtues to its audience. What I’m suggesting is that the agent lead that team. And if an agent did that, and won you more success, more of the “it works”, would you think he or she a little less witless?

  5. Jane Smith

    I have a few comments about the comments here.

    Chuck Emerson wrote, “Recomputed to an hourly rate and compared to the median in both spheres, most agents make more than authors.” That might be so: but it’s a bit jumbled as arguments go, surely? If the agents were making more than the authors they represented then yes, that would be a big problem: but as they take 15% of their authors’ earnings as commission, that stands to reason that their authors are making 85% of the amount–nearly six times more than the agent gets. Which is a much better proportion. And as the advances for writers with representation are generally larger than those earned by writers without, AND writers with representation tend to make far more sales per book as far as translation and subsidiary rights go, I’m happy to pay my agent every penny she takes in the commissions she makes on my books.

    Ron wrote, “Publish your own book(s) and launch ‘em. It’s cheap. It’s easy. It works.” It depends on your definition of “works” I suppose: the average self-published book sells fewer than 200 copies (some reports put that figure at under 40), while for mainstream-published book sales figures of 2,000 are pretty low. From what I remember from Twitter last night, Joseph Connor’s Ghost Light (I think I’ve got the title right!) sold 2,300 copies last week alone–in Ireland. Ghost Light is literary fiction, and Ireland is a tiny market. Now, that’s WORKING.

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  7. Damien Walters Grintalis

    I don’t understand all the agent bashing. I would not want to navigate the waters of the publishing industry without my agent, Mark McVeigh. I can’t say enough good things about him.

    Agents bring an enormous amount of value to the table and are well worth their weight in gold. To be sure, an author can shop their novel around to publishers who take unagented manuscripts, but an agent is so much more than a gatekeeper to those publishers who don’t. (Just thinking about all the things agents do for their clients makes my head spin.) And the thought that agents are blood-sucking opportunists out to take advantage of writers is preposterous. If that were the case, the standard commission would be, say 80% instead of 15.

    I don’t know what the answer is with respect to improving compensation, but I gladly support raising the commission percentage as a start.

  8. Amanda Lees

    An agent may be the best person to stand alongside a work during the long and often bumpy gestation period but that presupposes a skillset many simply do not possess. And why should they if, like many, they entered the industry over ten years ago?

    The requirements of producing a book as an app or a game are a mystery to most publishers, never mind agents. I would suggest, therefore, that an agenting team work together as they do at some of the bigger agencies although this at present rarely extends beyond film and some digital rights.

    Smaller agencies could achieve this by working with dedicated consultants – now there’s a gap in the agenting market for anyone possessing the relevant experience and skills. Online publication, for example, can be very lucrative when it comes to non-fiction but there is a whole learning curve to follow that is beyond most traditional agents. They don’t have the time or inclination to focus on something so foreign to their experience. Indeed, some of the authors here might argue they don’t seem to have the time to focus on anything much beyond their next lunch.

    I’m not here, however, to indulge in agent-bashing. As an author, I like to work in tandem with an agent and that, to me, is the way forward. A career should be a collaborative process with all parties concerned able to adapt in this fast-moving environment. I’ve spent the last year adding a raft of online marketing knowledge to my author armoury and this can only stand me, and my agent, in good stead. I intend to add to my existing knowledge of the app and game markets, if only to be able to spot and suggest opportunities for my work where they exist.

    As for remuneration…it’s a touchy subject and rightly so. It is, of course, unacceptable under the present model that agents make more than authors. Working as a team might level out this particular playing field. I can imagine a scenario where an author would take, say, 60-70%% of a deal, the rest being split between the relevant members of the team who brokered that deal in all its lucrative parts. The emphasis there is on the word ‘lucrative.’ And that can only happen if the potential of a work is maximised in a professional and imaginative manner.

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  10. Alan Gilliland

    Re: RON and your response,Jason.
    I hope you don’t mind me adding to this conversation following your very interesting piece.
    Could it be that this “spectacularly troubling gap” might prove to be a somewhat illusory chasm set by over-protective parents to frighten their naïve youngsters from stepping outside the front door into that big bad forest without a guide?
    If you argue that only those authors with a temperament suitable to self-promotion can succeed in stepping over that “gap” then why do you as agent also argue “You are your own start-up” and rely on your own authors to do precisely that? I fully agree they need to, but, apart from you (ie the agent) finding the venues, it is still left up to them to market their own work. I can’t quite see the value chain operating at max efficiency for the author here.
    Case One. Author publishes own book. Is able to self-promote. Collects 40-50% of sales value (minus publishing costs).
    Case Two. Author has agent who finds publisher who publishes book. Author (in 90% cases) still has to self-promote to succeed. Collects 8-14% of sales value.
    (I am assuming that Case One’s author actually succeeds in promoting!)
    I chose the former course.
    As an ignorant outsider to the publishing industry (after 18 years in another industry as graphics editor of the Daily Telegraph in London) I blythely decided that the technology and my own technical skills were at a stage where I could form my own company, design and produce (but not edit) my own traditional books (in the first instance).
    My first children’s book, illustrated (to help talk kids into the story) has sold over 5,000 copies here in UK at £14.99, undiscounted. It has sold to South Korea (publ. last month), is under offer in Israel, was made Book of Year and Debut of Year by children’s book website, http://www.lovereading4kids.co.uk/book/3991 and is currently being turned into an e-book by eBook Architects. Have Big Apple Tuttle-Mori, Amo Agency and Ilustrata representing us in their regions. I do signings all over country, mainly in Waterstone’s (the B&N of UK) every Saturday and during hols, averaging over 25 per signing. Our website is http://www.ravensquill.com if you’re interested. We had Fox films asking for it (any chance was scuppered by Disney announcing Toy Story 3 at the same time), HiT Emtertainment (UK kids TV co.) wrote, “”We really enjoyed the inventive, witty narrative and surreal humour in the book. We can see that Curd the Lion might work very well as a family feature film,” and Tfou (France’s TF1 kids TV) wrote: “I think your book should become a film but we don’t produce film at Tfou.”
    On the down side, in this first year as publisher I lost £3,500 to the bankruptcies of Borders and Methvens for books I, as author, had actually sold in their stores at signings
    I admit that this comment is also a case of self-promotion but it is also, I hope, relevant to your argument here, so I hope you will permit it to stand.
    (I would be very interested to hear how you as an agent might go about promoting this and our future books in the US – MIke Shatzkin kindly wrote: “Alan, what a great story! I’m glad you didn’t ask me before you undertook todo this because I would have told you it was nigh on impossible! But, havingachieved this much, I think your Korea sale is just the first of many you’llmake around the world. You should find a literary agent to sell rights for you in the US, Canada, and Australia right away.”)

  11. Tim Barrus

    Jason, thank you for responding. I note that your response here is way, way more informative than your rejections. Your rejection of my work was so biting (but not actually informative at all), I came away from the experience with the distinct impression I had seriously offended you with the submission. I was not sure why. But there it was.

    You wouldn’t even remember me.

    Agent bashing? How can anyone be surprised.

    It’s a little ironic to say to me that publishing itself is not the culture of rejection I contend it is. After this exchange, I will contend it is not only the culture of rejection, but it’s also the culture of extraordinary alienation.

    I know on a personal level that my own breaking of the publishing rules — to break the rules, first you have to have no respect for them — has to do with not so much with the act of rejection, but the manner in which it occurs. “I’ll show them I can write. I will win awards and simply be someone else.”

    And so I did.

    The awards can easily be revoked (actually, they never were) but they can’t contend the writing was so bad it never won them.

    The hatred that is always projected at me is simply what I throw back now because I just don’t care anymore. Forty years of hatred from this business is enough.

    Agents shake their heads and say it isn’t so. It is so. Social networking changes the entire game. Sandra Dijkstra will categorically (knees do jerk) reject anything I write and will never, ever send a mere writer even the courtesy of a response. She maintains they are too busy. No one is that important. That they can’t even say no. Instead, what she does is put my own “alienated rage” on her Facebook account for the world to see that she is abused (by a writer she can’t even talk to and for whom she only has contempt). Ironically, this amuses me because I want other writers to know how the agency operates. Even when they become irate that I am irate. I am more than irate. I will respond to meanness with meanness. I am not going to take it anymore.

    On Facebook, we can even see what the agents are so busy doing and it’s not publishing.

    I run the largest VOOK group on Facebook. I was stunned by the numbers who flocked to the group. Especially the numbers of young people from Asia. There has to be something going on with that — I would argue it’s something publishing has not tapped into — and the videos young people post there are fascinating. I work with boys with HIV/AIDS and had started the group just for them to post the video art they make. But it didn’t stay “just for them” for very long because hundreds had joined after the first day. I would contend that we have given up on writing. Why would any of us even bother. The discontent toward the world you describe is hardly limited to Tim Barrus.

    Publishing itself says: Tim Barrus is just a nut case who wrongly maintains there is something rotten in the state of Denmark and there is nothing rotten in Denmark; we’re just struggling through changes now. This marginalizes me as effectively as the out of hand rejection of my work. Certainly, no agent is courageous enough to say that the gay content of my work makes them uncomfortable.

    Like I don’t know this.

    I just don’t have anything to lose anymore.

    There is something rotten in the state of Denmark. “Embracing an entrepreunerial spirit?”

    You can’t be serious. I don’t see it. A spirit that steps out of the box in publishing will receive NOTHING but contempt, and there has to be a better way to build a box versus a mouse trap.

    The mouse trap used to suggest there was room for a diverse variety of voices. Those days are done and over with. More and more people, talented people, young, vibrant people with new ideas and enthusiasm; no one, no one saying that publishing is the way to go because there is room there for for those voices because clearly there isn’t. I used to rather grieve that this meant the decline of the book itself, but those days are over, too. Too much light has been shed on how the system is constructed to keep us out all the while disingenuously contending it is inclusive. The facts strongly suggest otherwise. No one believes the “inclusive” rhetoric.

    I get it from the kids I deal with, too. “What’s wrong with you, Tim. There is no room for us there. Why are you bothering to care.”

    I don’t care. Not anymore. Those young people are pointing to entirely different directions, and I am now convinced it’s been forty years of wasted time, but what I do is being EMBRACED — just not by book publishing.

    Where the agents do not even know — after all of this — that I even exist.

    1. Lance Foster

      When I was a kid, from elementary through college, my teachers told me I should be a writer. My art teachers told me I should be an artist. Like any kid who was finding life rough, I took their words as truth. Ah, silly kid.

      My family is a mix of Indian (Native American to you PC types) and white. We worked with our hands. I was the first male in my bluecollar family to graduate high school. I was the first person in my family to attend college. Lots of unrealistic expectations and dreams. I have always been an outsider. I still make well under poverty level.

      I’ve written some things here and there. I did get a book published, nonfiction and regional, through a regular publisher. I’ve done a little fiction, unpublished. I don’t really have a dog in this fight because I’m not playing the game, though it interests me because Tim talks about it.

      I don’t know Tim face to face, but I like him. He tells the truth. His core is good while his outside is wild. I know too many people who smile in your face but stab you in the back. I don’t trust mannerly people, the odds haven’t worked out that they are also mannerly inside.

      The publishing industry is in flux, even crisis. But then all of America is in crisis mode now, so no big surprise. Everyone is about half-nuts as my Grandpa would say. I would add, now many are well past the halfway mark.

      Being poor, I have no problem with a decent ethical agent needing to make some bucks, if he/she earns it. If the agent functions to help the writer make more off their work, cool. If the writer on his own could only sell the work for 5K and get ripped off in terms of other rights, but with an agent, pulls in 50K with protected rights, then the agent is worth 10K of that 50K. Arguably more, perhaps. If an agent makes his/her writer tens of thousands, or more, hell, the author owes them too.

      But the agent has to do the work. The agent has to be straight, even with bad news. The agent can’t be making bank (50-100K or more) while the actual writer only makes a couple thousand IF that. Plus all the kissyface crap you have to do as an author.

      If that’s really how it works, well, I’m okay with never “making it.” I’ll stick to mimeographs and telling stories on the streetcorner and around a kitchen table. I’d rather make $100 through my own POD work I control, then make 5K off a work with an agent-publisher team that rips you off and treats you like a chump.

  12. Mayowa


    I love how proactive you are about evolving the agent’s role during this tsunami of change, that kind of bravery is needed across the industry. Well done.

    I find it interesting that while Victoria’s post suggested an increase in agent compensation because agents are already providing greating value, you suggest that agents can provide greater value and will deserve higher compensation once they do so.

    Unfortunately, both suggestions have the same flaw, the direction of change.

    Authors have been and continue to be the plankton of the industry and we finally realize that is not okay. Victoria’s suggestion met such vehement opposition precisely because it suggests changing the financial facet of the agent/author relationship in a manner detrimental to authors. Your suggestions change the agent/publisher dynamic (because the agent is more involved in formerly publisher only roles) but again seeks to obtain compensation from authors

    We won’t have any of it.

    Instead agents (and writers) should focus their efforts on changing the industry itself. Fight for higher royalty rates for your authors and you’ll get your raises. Fight for quicker royalty payments and you’ll solve your cash flow problems etc. Change the industry, fight harder for your clients and you’ll save yourselves.

    I realize it’s tough to take on the big six and the numerous other publishers. I know individual agents have as much say with all publishers as much as individual writers have a say with all agents. Collectively though, you represent thousands of writers and that is a pretty great bargaining chip. Also theres this, if agents are helpless against the might of the corporate beast, why do authors need them?

  13. David Quigg

    Thanks for putting these ideas out, Jason.

    I’m struck by the start of one sentence in your reply to Bob: “I don’t wish to become a publisher, but to enable them to do their job of producing quality books …”

    Your words seem to imply that an agent who notices the very real potential to become a publisher has two choices: 1) Remain an agent and try to help traditional publishers; or 2) Become an agent/publisher and go to war against traditional publishers.

    If that’s your meaning, please consider that it may be a false choice. I’m going to go ahead and predict that some clever agent will figure out a way to help traditional publishers “do their job of producing quality books” precisely by becoming a publisher himself.

    Let’s take a hypothetical agent. We’ll call him “Jason.”

    In addition to his traditional work as an agent, Jason has recently used his agency’s talents and contacts to shepherd five books through the process of what would normally be thought of as “self-publishing.” It’s a mix of e-books and print-on-demand publishing. Since becoming an agent/publisher, Jason has a new litmus tests he applies to potential clients: “Do I love this book enough and believe enough in its author’s career to take on the added risk and work of publishing this book, attaching my name to it, and telling my Twitter followers to buy it?” Jason’s publishing, in other words, is not just about a fast buck. Nor is it a charity. It’s an incubator and a showcase for the careers of writers who Jason has judged to be on the verge of the commercial viability that attracts traditional publishers.

    So when Jason gets an improbably strong query from a woman who’s written a book about the fungus that grows on the mold that grows on the hairs of raspberries, he can read the manuscript without the heckling of that voice inside his brain that used to ask “How am I ever going to get a house to take a chance on this amazing, unknown writer who’s picked this totally unmarketable subject?” He can instead think about things like how much his Twitter followers are going to thank him for making this strange, wonderful book available. He can instead think about how word might spread about this book as it has continued to do with his five existing titles. He can think about how he will use the modest success of this first book to get the attention of established publishers when the writer is ready to sell her next book.

    I could keep going. But I’ve got things to do. You all have things to do. Thanks for reading and considering my ideas. I trust someone will jump in and inform me if I’m being disastrously naive.

  14. Bob Mayer

    Sigh. I’m as tired of agent bashing as much as I am of writer bashing. I wish all the agents who tweet would stop posting one liners from queries and ripping them apart. Not helpful. And how many anonymous assistants to ‘a big name NY agent’ are there who blog and rip apart the queries they get? Anonymity is a sign of cowardice in a public forum. At the same time, I wish a lot of writers who think they are the world’s most talented thing since Hemingway would see reality and realize they aren’t. Not going to happen either.

    I’ve taught writing for over 20 years and seen more partials and queries, etc. etc than many agents. How many were publishable? A handful. Too many writers are spending too much time fighting publishing rather than getting better at craft.

    Reading PW Deluxe every day, it’s obvious the head of NY is in the sand as ‘business as usual’ is the mode.

    Let’s look at facts. 2004 when POD first was hot. 1.5 million titles available. 950,000 sold less than 99 copies. 2010? We’ll have more books than can be counted ‘published’. How many will sell more than a couple of hundred copies? 5% at best.

    By the way. In Special Forces we knew about breaking rules. But there are three rules to rule-breaking:
    1. Know the rule (breaking a rule you don’t know or understand is called being stupid)
    2. Have a good reason for breaking the rule. (as a writer this means you better have a damn good manuscript to self-publish fiction and be the best marketing genius in the world).
    3. Take responsibility for breaking the rule. When it works you’re the 1% genius. When it fails, learn, and start over.

    The key to this blog was to get people to start looking at the future of publishing differently. Not to angrily reject everything out of hand. We need to think, to work together, to be on the same side. The goal is to get great books in the hands of readers.

    1. Jeremy

      I agree the goal is to get great books to readers. What’s most significant right now is more the fact that people are thinking about the shape of the industry, which has frankly not been the best engineered system for a long time. I mean just think about the return policies on books alone.

      Right now is an excellent opportunity to improve the industry as a whole, the main difficulty is just getting people to work together and/or actually do it.

      I do think that big publishers have kind of let their own quality drop a lot over the years, resigning to familiarity rather than quality and this aids the idea that you can publish just about anything and get away with it. I’d personally rather read something poorly put together which doesn’t read like a retread of the same old popular junk than read a well groomed turd.

      The turd is most often what people try to sell me.

      Don’t get me wrong, I love books and spend a lot of time reading, but the industry is full of people full of themselves and the idea of the craft in general. Everyone, professionals and otherwise, need to step it up in my opinion. A good place to start is the business model as a whole.

      Unless someone wants to suggest that the infinite time period on returns to publishers is a good idea?

  15. Tim Barrus

    Yes. The industry has a few people quite full of themselves. Self-satisfied, pompous, arrogant, paternalistic, unoriginal, greedy, disingenuous, and they and only they stand guardian against us unwashed barbarian hordes who play at writing but we don’t know anything about it. Suddenly new media is beginning to sound like old media. Same players. Same games. Sames tired old hierarchy where they sit at the top of the heap and whine they need more money.

    I know. Let’s wring it from the writers.

    Squeezing water from a stone is nothing to god. Nothing.

    1. Jeremy

      That’s what a lot of invested interests really want: everything to stay the same. That way they can continue to whine and take money from the writers who make their business possible in the first place.

      The technologies and tools to change it all and yank the carpet out from under the slow moving giants exists. People just have to grab the edge and pull. What would be really good is for enough smaller publishing companies to rise up and change the industry. Little is gained by having a core of massive companies at the top of any industry and in today’s market the massive size of the big publishing houses is actually more of a hindrance than a help.

      Their position is weak, even if they don’t know it. But I suspect that many of them do know, which is why they take so much time to tell us all that it isn’t, that everything is fine, and that business as normal should continue.

      PR is their biggest and most effective weapon.

  16. @jmartinlibrary

    My husband, a statistician, muses that comments are never a random sampling or a true representation of the broad spectrum of opinions on the topic at hand. Generally, only those with a strong viewpoint choose to comment.

    The responses here are no exception. My, what a lightning rod this topic is.

    And yes, I have a strong opinion.

    I have an agent. And I’ve queried many, many more in the past. I’ve met them at conferences. I’ve talked to a few on the phone in the midst of making a final decision on offers of representation.

    And none of them has been anything but honest, professional, and kind to me. Even in rejection. If I had a dollar for every useful suggestion or tidbit of advice on craft I’ve received in a query, partial, or full rejection, I’d have enough to buy a very expensive bottle of wine.

    Guess what. These agents, interns, and editors are actual (gasp!) human beings, not descendants of trolls, demons, or giant deer ticks.

    I repeat, Mr. Ashlock is not a deer tick. He’s a gracious, approachable person who is open to new ideas.

    And my own agent?

    I can’t say enough good things about her. Her expertise and knowledge base are invaluable to me. I’m thrilled to have such a fierce advocate.

    In my experience, agents aren’t out to get people. They are people.

    1. Scott Nicholson

      Thanks, Jason, for your forbearance in addressing these challenges. I agree with David Quigg–agents should be building a small flotilla, not finding ways to bail water from a sinking ship.

      First, I have worked with several agents and published as a midlist writer. Mediocre sales, fairly typical arc, with some exceptions. I’ve also self-published recently to tremendous satisfaction. I responded to both Jane’s and Victoria’s posts and I’d like to see more creativity from “agents.” The original Latin root is “action.” All in all, I have been very lucky and happy because I enjoy the work.

      First, I am not convinced most agents are qualified to revise manuscripts. Otherwise, they would be writers. I am more convinced they understand their job and what they need for the job–currently, manuscripts that sell to editors. Right now, that is pretty much the job. I am not sure that job will be there in five years, at least below bestseller status. I understand the many, many reasons for rejection, which really boil down to “I don’t think I can sell this to a publisher.” Simple enough. Like “I don’t think I love you,” it’s not really a position that invites debate.

      But what if there’s an audience of readers out there beyond the few dozen editors? What if you can make 10 or 5 percent from a lifelong (or life of copyright) stream of income in various media? What if instead of seeking the slam-dunk and cashing your check, you tend your garden and help writers blossom and find their audiences? What if you became a matchmaker–instead of “selling” translation rights, why not find translators for your authors and publish all over the world? What if you developed a reliable team of app artists for the coming transmedia era? What if you became the “agent” who knew the best book cover designers and digital formatters and emerging filmmakers? What if you envisioned an entirely new money flow that wasn’t one single pipeline? What if you ventured out into the world of readers and book audiences and actually understood what they wanted, instead of whatever looked to be the trendy genre of the moment?

      I believe these people are already percolating, and I am not sure veteran agents will be able to adapt fast enough, especially given the interest in preserving the current model. Agents have had it great for a decade–15 percent, no application or training required, lots of hopeful writer-followers on your blog, a very small customer base in which to deal. But now it looks like the hardest job in the world, because nobody really needs you in order to succeed. For most writers, an agent now looks more like a roadblock into the many smaller pipelines. In an era when Amazon delivers a writer directly to readers for a mere 30 percent cut, you will have a hard time justifying to me that you deserve 5 percent, much less 20 percent.

      Of course, if you DO get the big sale and, then you deserve every penny of your 15 percent. And I’ll even buy lunch.

      Scott Nicholson

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