Search This Blog

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Would I use an agent?

I'm not going to say never, but I doubt it. So I thought I would outline why, if for no other reason so I can clear my mind on the issue and maybe get feedback about where I'm messed up.

Keep in mind, I'm not saying others shouldn't use or have an agent. I'm not saying all agents are bad, or even most of them. I'm very aware that good agents can provide some good services to writers. So don't misunderstand me. I'm not suggesting that any writers who have agents and are reading this blog, that they should dump their agent. That is a decision each writer has to make. What I'm telling you here is why I'm highly unlikely to ever use one myself. Not because I think agents are bad, but because I think there are some fatal flaws in the current agent system that I can't agree to.

1. Agents today suffer from a conflict of interest problem. What conflict of interest? Very simply, they also "work" for the publisher. You see, an agent is hired by the writer. It is the writer who pays their salaries. And prior to the 1990s, writers hired agents primarily to negotiate contracts between a writer and the publisher that the writer had sold books to. But during the 1990s, publishing companies were losing money. They saw the big stacks of manuscripts writers sent them in warehouses and the employees they had to pay to read all that "slush" to find the next best seller, and they decided they could save a lot of money if they farmed the slush reading out. And so they did, but for a really sweet deal, because they didn't even have to pay for it. The slush reading was pushed out to the agents.

This move drastically changed the writer/agent relationship. Prior to that, the writer paid the agent to look after their contractual interest and rights. It was predominately a legal position, and the agents didn't hobnob with the editors other than to deal with contracts. After that change, the agents now did for free what the publishers previously had to pay for. Well, not completely for "free" since how they paid for it was to raise the percent of the author's earnings they received to 15%. So really, the authors are paying for the agents to read slush for the publishers. Sweet deal for the publishers. Dean Wesley Smith does a better job of detailing this change than I can.

What this translates into is that agents have  a vested interest in keeping their editors happy, nearly as much as keeping their authors happy. In some cases, more than the authors. They know that if they want to stay on the good side of the editor, one author's demands can't get in the way of that. This is because now that they are reading slush for the editors, they have to find out what the editors are looking for, what they like, and send them manuscripts they think will fit the publishing house and editor. As soon as the agent is concerned about what the editor wants, what the publishing house wants, their objectivity in working for the author is compromised, especially when it comes to contract negotiations. How do you know your agent is letting the publisher keep a clause in that is detrimental to you because they know it will keep the editor and/or publishing house happy? After all, they have to sell to them again. They aren't going to burn any bridges by being hard-nosed in negotiations.

So the primary responsibility of the agent is compromised by a conflict of interest since they now work for the publisher on your dime. They have a vested interest in keeping the editors happy they sell to, whereas before they didn't because they didn't read slush for them. They didn't sell anything to them.

And this problem is only going to get worse, because now some agents are selling publishing packages to authors. When they become the publisher, how can they possibly represent the best interest of the author to themselves? Are we going to need agents to sell to agents so they can submit our work to editors?

2. The payment terms for agents isn't something I can stomach. For those not in the know, generally an agent will get 15% of the author's earnings on a book they help sell and negotiate to a publishing house. That's for as long as the book is in print, unless there is some special clause stating otherwise. What a finder's fee! No limit, no max payout, just 15% of everything you make on those books.

What other business operates like that? If I go to a temporary employment agency to find a job, they will take a portion of what I get paid, and once the employer decides they want to hire me, then they can buy me off. Then I start working at that job, and the temp agency no longer receives money for my work. They don't get 15% of my income as long as I hold that job they found for me. There's a cap.

And what contractor ever works for me, that I pay them a percent of what I make? Even after they no longer work for me? No one. They get a flat fee or hourly fee for the work they do. They get paid and that's it. No more money unless I have them do more work. But for some strange reason, literary agents will get 15% of all sales on a book for as long as it is in print, even if they are no longer representing you. The only other people I know who get that deal is the government income taxes around the world, the USA being one prime example.

No, if I need someone to negotiate a publishing contract for me, I'll hire a lawyer experienced in that field. They only need a flat fee, as it should be.

3. I want to control my own money. Most agents get a statement from the publisher with a check or money directly deposited into the agent's bank account. Then the agent compiles those for each author they are working for, takes their cut, and sends the author his/her share, with their own statement. Some agents will provide copies of the publisher's statements so the author can verify the veracity of the check. Some don't, asking the author to trust them.

No matter whether we are talking about an honest agent or not, this lack of accountability breeds corruption and simply isn't transparent. If I were to have an agent, I would require that the publisher who buys my book split the check and send me my money directly, and the agent their money, and both of us get a copy of the statement. That way there's no question on the agent's side, and removes suspicion from the agent. Any good agent should welcome this, because unless they are making money off the authors money using interest, or cheating the author, they should be more than happy to get rid of this bookkeeping nightmare. They get the money from the publisher, put it in their bank account, and move on.

But most agents probably won't do this. They are too stuck in the idea that they should get the money first and send it to the author, because that's the way it has always been done. Besides, they are used to earning interest on that money from the time they get it and whenever they get around to sending it to the author.

But this is a structural flaw that invites criminal elements to take advantage of unsuspecting authors. As long as that is the norm, I couldn't justify supporting that type of system.

4. I want control of my work. I've heard enough stories where agents sit on a manuscript, ignoring the author, not sending it out, or asking for rewrites before it can get sent out. And in many agent contracts, there is a clause that prohibits the author from sending a manuscript out to a publisher on their own. The agent has to do it. So if the agent decides to sit on it, or that there is little chance to sell it to someone, there is little the author can do other than fire the agent, and sometimes not even that totally frees it up due to some contract clause.

If my boss tells me something should get done, I can offer reasons why she shouldn't do it, or why another course of action would be better. But in the end, if the boss says, "I need this done," short of it being illegal, I'll end up doing it if I want to keep my job. But this isn't how it appears to work. Maybe the agent has a good point, maybe they don't. But in the end, it should be the writer who makes the call on whether a manuscript should go out to a publisher or not, not the agent.

But this is where issue #1 comes into play. Because they have a vested interest in keeping the editor happy, and maybe they know the editor might not like a certain story, they hesitate to send them that story, because they want to keep them happy. They don't want to "waste" the editor's time sending them something the agent thinks they don't want. In such an event, even if he author badgers the agent into sending it, it might be with a note, "Sorry for sending you this, but the author wouldn't leave me alone. I know you don't like vampire stories, so just slap a rejection on this and I'll break it to the author, and he'll be happy that I sent it." Twilight might not have hit the shelves. (Yes, I know for some of you, that would make you happy.) The point being, because the agent has a vested interest in not burning their editor relationship bridges, they'll tend to circumvent the author's wishes.

I'll always look at advice on something, but in the end, if I have to rewrite to the agent's specifications or refrain from sending out a manuscript because the agent doesn't think it is right, if I don't have the final say in the end, that is a broken system. As someone who has contracted for bookkeeping services, I would often tell a client based upon my expertise what I thought they should do. Sometimes they listened to me, sometimes they didn't. But they, not I, had the final say on what direction to go, because it was their business, not mine. They retained control. Authors should maintain control over their business.

Yes, there are other issues, mostly involving those who take advantages of authors using this system. But that part is not the real issue. There will always be bad agents and good agents, no matter the system in place. But if the system itself has fatal flaws, that is an issue that should be addressed and fixed. And until then, I'm unlikely going to hire an agent.

Would you hire one, and why?

No comments:

Post a Comment