Are Agents Necessary?

by Steve Almond

Originally published in Poets & Writers magazine

A few months ago I received a note from a former student of mine. A literary agent had read her first published story and wanted to meet to discuss her work. This should have been cause for celebration. But my former student was in a state of near panic at the thought that she might make a poor impression.

I attempted to point out the obvious: that it was she, the writer, who was in the position to judge. The agent was, after all, her potential employee. My former student said she understood, but sounded totally unconvinced.

In fact, most of the young writers I know go into anxiety overdrive when it comes to agents. They seem to feel that the acquisition of an agent is the essential first step to a successful writing career.

steve-almondTo be sure, agents can be tremendously helpful to the writers they represent; initially, by instilling them with confidence and helping them sharpen their vision of a particular project; later by providing access to the daunting world of editors. In the best instance, they act as advocates, negotiating advances, helping generate press, or arguing for the right cover image. They deal with the business aspects of publishing, so their writers can concentrate on the creative side.

I have several friends who consider their agents invaluable, and I’m not about to argue against this enthusiasm. What I do want to argue, though, is that the agent’s role in publishing is really secondary to the central work, which is the writing and editing of books. And more so, that the dependence on agents is, itself, symptomatic of pretty much everything that’s wrong with modern publishing: it places the emphasis not on the creation of art, but on the conveyance of a profitable product to market.

As you might assume, I do not have an agent.

I find myself announcing this fact with alarming frequency, because virtually any time I talk with another writer, one of their first questions out of their mouth is: who’s your agent?

This seems sad to me. But even sadder is the reaction my disclosure elicits: a kind of bemused pity. Fellow writers almost always assume that I don’t have an agent because I can’t find one. Often, generously, they offer to help me out. I then have to explain that I don’t have an agent because I don’t want one, which causes them even more confusion.
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Indeed, for most writers the very notion of going without an agent carries a kind of stigma, because writers – particularly less experienced writers—tend to view their agents as a badge of legitimacy.

I find this notion offensive. As writers, our sole badge of legitimacy should be the work we publish, nothing more, nothing less. The question of agents (as well as how much our last advance was, or which house publishes us) really boils down status-mongering. It has nothing to do with art.

In my experience, in fact, agents have much less to do with a writer’s success than they would like to suppose. All they can do, in the end, is get a manuscript read slightly faster.

The agent who represented my first collection may have succeeded on this point, but the collection was purchased because an editor at a magazine sent my stories to an editor at Grove, who eventually made an offer. (My agent, in fact, had sent an earlier incarnation of the collection to a different editor at Grove, who rejected it.)

I give my former agent some credit, though: at least she was willing to take me on. Most agents are reluctant to send out short stories, either individually or as a collection. They are, instead, forever focused on the novel. And so they urge young writers to think about writing a novel (or at least a linked set of stories). This can be good advice. It can push a young author toward a more cohesive vision of the world, or a more ambitious approach. But that is not generally why agents push this agenda. They push this agenda because novels fetch larger advances.

I myself started writing a novel at the behest of my former agent, and wound up spending more than a year writing a terrible book. This was my fault, obviously. But in retrospect, I see quite clearly that I wasn’t ready to write a novel, that I bowed to external pressures—the demands of the market, as represented by my agent—rather than following my own instincts.

It was only after parting ways with my agent that I began to work on a project that I believed in, a nonfiction book about candy bars. I tried to secure several agents for this project, unsuccessfully. One told me he enjoyed the writing but, “the bottom line is I don’t think I could sell it.”

I also sent out a second collection of stories, which was greeted with even less enthusiasm. One agent recommended that I write “a crime novel…get one of your obsessive romantic protagonists involved in something via a missing girlfriend.” This note should be enough to illustrate the peril of allowing agents to give creative advice.

Another agent read this second collection of stories and seemed eager to represent the book—until she checked the sales figures of my first book of stories, at which point she withdrew her interest. At least she was candid about her motives.
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But this is precisely the point: the foremost issue for agents is not whether a piece of writing has literary merit, but whether it will sell. This is how they keep score. It’s an awfully boring way to keep score, in my view, and, more importantly, it’s entirely antithetical to the true purposes of literature, which is intended to move people, not product.

I am not suggesting that agents are without artistic concerns. After all, they have chosen to represent writers, not supermodels or athletes. In the ideal world, most agents would rather represent books they consider great art. But faced with a celebrity murder mystery versus a quietly devastating book of short stories (or, God forbid, poems) which do you think most agents would choose?

Nonetheless, the rejections I received hit me quite hard. I almost gave up on both projects. In fact, I probably would have, if it weren’t for friends of mine—other writers—who read portions of the books in question and ordered me to soldier on.

Just as important, several editors had expressed interest in seeing my next project. I met a few at readings, or conferences. A couple of others wrote to me, after reading my work. Actually, by the time I got in touch with them, they had all read at least a little of my work. And that’s precisely what I wanted: to get on their radar. Not to schmooze them up at a fancy party, and pretend we had a connection. But to establish a relationship based on the work.

I realize that not every writer is in a position to meet editors at readings or conferences, or to direct them to published work. But I do want to emphasize that each and every one of these editors—despite what the agents assumed—was eager to see my new work. Because all editors really want, in the end, is to find terrific books. They don’t care where those books come from.

So I did the unthinkable: I sent them both books directly. Over the next couple of weeks, I talked to these editors and settled on the one I felt most believed in the books. I’m sure an agent could have gotten me a better deal. But my chief concern wasn’t the advance. I just wanted to find an editor (and publisher) who believed passionately in my work. My logic was simple: if the house truly supports the book, it will make money down the road. As for the contract, I read it carefully, asked my editor a few pointed questions, and showed it to a few friends. It was clearly the standard author contract.

I don’t mean to make all this sound effortless. But I do want to suggest that the real sweat equity wasn’t what some agent might have done for me. It was the eight years I spent working to improve my prose and putting it into the world. And that is why I tell the young writers I meet not to waste their precious energies fretting over agents. If you write compelling stories, and books, and send them out into the world, they will find a home. Not immediately, but eventually, and inevitably.

From time to time I read accounts of agents who pluck authors from obscurity and help make them famous. Young writers tend to find such pieces intoxicating, because they are experiencing, first hand, just how baffling and fraught with rejection the world of publishing is. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if fame and fortune were simply a matter of finding the right representative?

What I never seem to read about in the literary press is the far more common scenario, in which a young writer invests her hope in an agent and it doesn’t work out. We only get to hear about the famous, or the semi-famous, who are, of course, elaborately thankful to their agents.

But it’s the less experienced writers, that vast category of the not-yet-profitable, who are the most fragile, who hand their hearts over to agents and stew for hours about an unanswered email, when they should be at the keyboard attempting to love their characters.

Part of the allure of getting an agent, of course, is the fantasy that your career will suddenly become easier to manage. For the most part, though, all agents do is add another layer of emotional bureaucracy to the process of submission. Rather than worrying about hearing from editors, you get to worry about hearing—or not hearing—from your agent.

Every time I go to a writer’s conference, I hear the same set of complaints: my agent won’t return my calls, my agent has given up on me, my agent isn’t getting my work out there.

To be sure, complaint is the lingua franca of the literary world. We are all desperately seeking our little slice of attention from a culture that is largely indifferent to art. Agents are not to be blamed for this larger circumstance.

But they are part of a system that is predicated on keeping writers in a state of insecure dependence. Because, after all, the role the agents play is fundamentally parasitic. They do not do the dogged, lonely work of writing, or editing. They merely usher art into the gilded halls of commerce. They broker.

Thus, agents profit by the illusion that, without them, writers would be helpless; and, whether consciously or otherwise, they foster this illusion.

I can think of no other reason why certain agents would treat their writers with such disregard. Yes, they may be busy. But too busy to take two minutes out of their schedule to return a phone call, or an email? Too busy to explain what the blizzard of numbers on a royalty statement means? Please.

The ugly truth of it is that agents do best when their clients feel needy. They don’t want writers to take on the burdens of negotiation, or to learn too much about their own contracts, or, especially, to pitch editors directly. They want writers to believe that agents are the only ones who can set up a closed auction, or sell foreign rights, or provide that magical gateway to otherwise inaccessible editors.

But remember: all editors want are good books. They appreciate the convenience of having agents winnow down the submission pool. But that doesn’t mean they won’t look at manuscripts that come to them via other avenues, whether it’s the recommendation of another writer, or a direct submission. Several of the editors I’ve spoken to have told me they actually prefer to deal with writers directly, because, as one put it, “once an agent gets involved, it’s adversarial.”

Agents would argue that the process sometimes has to be adversarial, that it’s their job to get their clients the best deal. But the best deal to them really means the biggest advance, and that isn’t always in the interest of a writer. Because along with that advance comes an expectation of profitability. And should the book fail to earn back, it is the author—not the agent—who suffers next time around. They are the ones after all, who will be labeled as bad economic risks.

My own sense is that the publishing industry would be better off without agents, that young writers would spend more time focused on their characters, and following their instincts, rather than taking the counsel of people who—this must be said—see them, at least in part, as potential revenue sources.

They would, in addition, be compelled to learn more about the economic realities of the publishing industry, and to demystify the process by which a manuscript becomes a book.

Likewise, publishing houses would be forced to deal more directly, and candidly, with writers, about everything from contracts to marketing strategies to royalty statements.

To be clear: I don’t view agents as willfully harmful. The best of them work hard on behalf of their clients, and earn their cut. As noted, there are many writers who, understandably, seek to insulate themselves from the business side of publishing, who have no phone manner, or don’t want to worry about getting ripped off. They are happy to surrender fifteen percent of their hard-earned dough to agents, and well they should be.

But the bottom line is that agents do not serve an essential function in the creation of art. That burden resides with writers and editors. And it is the creation of that art—not its sale—that we should celebrate.

STEVE ALMOND lis the author of two story collections, My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the non-fiction book Candyfreak, a collection of essays, Not That You Asked,  the novel Which Brings Me to You, co-written with Julianna Baggott, Against Football: A Reluctant Manifesto, and a number of “DIY books” he has published himself.