I was trolling Livejournal and came across links to this GalleyCat post where the question was presented as to whether literary agents would go the way of the Dodo bird in these newer, straight-to-Kindle publishing times. Let me be succinct – I do not agree that agents will become obsolete, but let’s look at the issue as a whole – and here’s where my succinctness ends, lol.
Is it possible to sell a book without an agent? YES. I know more than a few authors who sold their first book(s) while agent-less. So to those who say it’s not necessary to have an agent to get published – you’re right. I find it notable, however, that those authors I knew who sold their first book(s) while agent-less now have agents. Keeping the extra 15% to handle everything themselves wasn't worth it to them, even though they’d been on both sides of the agent fence. Some authors do want to handle everything themselves and will sacrifice a lot of their time to do so. More power to them, I say. The vast majority of authors, though, prefer to have someone else handle all the various different aspects of publishing that have nothing to do with writing (which is what I want to concentrate most of my work day on, personally).
Some of the comments in the GalleyCat post about agents becoming obsolete went like this (paraphrased): "Agents should be obsolete! I have an agent, but she doesn't return my phone calls, emails, or even remember me most of the time!" To that, I say the problem isn't with the agent profession as a whole, but rather between those authors and their individual agents.
Sometimes, writers will be hesitant to express their needs to their agent for fear of coming across as "pushy". This is a mistake. No single agenting style will be compatible for every writer - and just like in relationships, you don't always know what you need until you're in that relationship. Some writers only want their agents to negotiate contracts and that's it. Other writers want their agent to be active in their career far beyond just negotiating new contracts (I’m in that boat). Put together an agent/author with incompatible styles/needs and you end up with a scenario where unhappiness abounds.
In cases where an author is unhappy, a frank discussion about expectations needs to be held ASAP. If an author never expresses their unhappiness, the agent never has a chance to correct it. If, however, an author is clear about their needs/expectations and the agent still fails to meet them...then the author's choices are either to change their expectations to match that agent's style, or to leave. Neither of those choices are easy (or fun), but doing nothing while expecting things to change is a one-way trip to Frustration Land. Bottom line is that an author pays an agent for their services. If the author's miserable with those services and the agent is unwilling to change, then the author who stays anyway is actually paying someone to make them miserable (doesn’t sound very logical, does it? ;).
Granted, if the services an author wants fall more under the BFF category than a professional one, getting a new agent won’t fix that. If, for example, an author is frustrated that her agent isn't calling her back after she left a message telling said agent about the fight she had with her husband, or the cute thing her puppy just did...the issue isn't with the agent. It’s with the author’s misunderstanding of a business relationship. If an author is frequently calling/emailing/texting their agent about things that have nothing to do with his/her writing career, it’s no wonder the agent is perpetually unavailable.
If an author’s needs are business related and yet they’re still not being met, then it’s probably time for a change. It's not unusual for an author to change agents, either. I signed with my first agent in 2005 and parted ways with her in 2008. Since then, I've been with an agent whose style is more compatible with my needs, which means I think she’s worth every cent of her 15% commission. Being unhappy with one agent doesn’t mean the entire industry is flawed. It means not every agent will be a good fit for every author, so it might be time to find an agent who is.
Agent necessity also depends on a writer's goals. If a writer just wants to be published, no preference regarding print or electronic format, distribution, advances, etc, then that writer probably has the same chance of success without an agent. If a writer is seeking to sell their book for a standard print advance (usually around 5K for a first book), or to sell to a publishing house that will distribute their book to stores nationwide, then an agent is frequently necessary. Most of the big, traditional NY publishing houses don't accept unagented manuscript submissions, so no agent = no chance to get published by them.
Yes, the digital world is growing and will open up more chances for writers, but again, goals matter in deciding which route to take. Writing full time was a goal of mine when I started out, so I went with the avenue I felt would best help me meet that goal (nothing is certain, of course, and goals don’t mean guarantees). I turned down an electronic pub offer and a small-press offer on my first novel to slog it out through the Query Trenches looking for an agent instead, all so I could go the traditional, NY-print-publisher route. It took much longer and was much harder, but it turned out I’d guessed correctly about that being the right avenue for me to achieve my full-time writing goal.
I’ll explain: all my books are sold in Kindle and just about every other electronic format, too. But when I get my royalty statements, my electronic sales combined account for only about 6-7% of my writing income (at triple the royalty rate I get for print books, no less!), and that’s only recently. When I was first published and no one had heard of me, my total electronic sales only accounted for about 2-3% of my writing income. I’m also not counting any foreign rights money in these stats, or the percentage of money received from e-book sales compared to money received from US and foreign-right print sales would be even smaller. Based on those percentages, even the highest ones, if I'd skipped the traditional agent/publisher route and went the digital one, I’d still be working a day job instead of writing full time – and even a crappy day writing is better than a good day at my old job :). Plus, if I still had to work full time, I wouldn't be able to write as many books. There are only so many hours in the day, after all.
In summary, I believe agents play a vital role in publishing and will continue to do so, even in this brave new digital era. The fact that the vast majority of published authors are agented - even mega-successful authors who could scribble a book idea on a napkin and still have editors throw money at them for it – seems to illustrate the point that an agent's value lies in more than making a sale or reading contracts.