Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Agents Are Not Just Gatekeepers

One of the more prevalent and persistent misconceptions about the future of publishing is that if we move to a model where you don't HAVE to go through an agent and publisher to find publication, suddenly agents are going to go out like the dodo bird by way of the buggy whip.

Here's the thing: being a gatekeeper is one of the smaller parts of any agent's job.

It's easy to see where misconceptions about agenting and the importance of gatekeeping comes from: in the traditional publishing model, you need an agent to get to the editors to get to the bookstores to get to the readers. Thus agents loom very large as the first hoop and first ring of the funnel, and to an aspiring author this gatekeeping role looms very very VERY large. For an aspiring author, the gatekeeping function is basically all they think about when they think about agents.

But in actuality, agents spend most of their time on their existing clients, who happen to be the ones that have already made it through the hoop. We're cutting new deals, tracking payments, keeping tabs on the new process, brainstorming new book ideas, etc. etc. While it's absolutely important to me to find new clients and I take my role as gatekeeper pro tem very seriously, I don't spend my entire day answering queries or even most of my day or even a third of my day. There's way more to my job than that.

Think of it another way: Stephenie Meyer and JK Rowling and countless other bestselling authors do not need to go through the submission process again, at least not in any sense that a debut author would recognize. They're already way way way past the gate. And they still have agents.

And you may have heard how J.A. Konrath has made waves by doing deals directly with Amazon for his e-books. He also has an agent.

The reason agents still exist when you take away the gatekeeping is that there are a wide range of functions, from selling subrights to career management to contract negotiation to opportunity creation, that authors aren't usually equipped to handle on their own, and that will still be true in the new era. Agents offer professional expertise and guidance that authors usually want and draw upon even when they're past the gate.

Agents existed in the era when publishers still accepted direct submissions from authors, and agents will exist when e-publishing is easy for an author to do on their own. We're not middle-men, we're on the author's side. The way authors and agents connect may change in the future and not everyone will need an agent to be published, but take away the gate and we'll still be here.

Evil laugh.


dicar said...

"being a gatekeeper is one of the smaller parts of any agent's job."

However, as an unagented author, it is the only part I currently give a damn about.

Barb said...

Surely the agent is who you go to the pub with once you've been accepted by the publisher, yes?

Emily White said...

*trembles from evil laugh*

The horror! The horror!

No, actually I never really saw agents as the middle men. The idea of trying to work out a contract with a publisher (should that ever take place) without someone there on my side who knows what he's doing is quite terrifying. I'm very glad agents are around.

r louis scott said...

I cannot imagine traversing the minefield of a publishing contract without a knowledgable agent. Or reading a royalty statement. Or figuring out foreign rights. Or...well, you get the idea.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

uMy three-year-old has, like, the cutest super-villain laugh ever. It's like he's already in training.

And I believe agents have to buy their clients beers occasionally. Right? All part of being a valuable resource.

Kathryn said...

Thank God for agents, Nathan. The very little that I know about the publishing business is daunting enough already. To have an agent there for you would be a relief, like we're not alone. Wait, are you guys aliens or something?

... I figured it out...


Karla Nellenbach said...

I guess I never really saw the agents as the middlemen...I look at them more like the Lancelot to any writer's King Arthur. They protect the writer from evil sorcerers and keep the kingdom at peace :)

Nathan Bransford said...


Beer purchases during nights out are part of the deal, yes. It's a good thing I didn't rep Hemingway.

Mayowa said...


I like this post a lot (great attitude!) and I agree that authors need agents for many things.

But (of course there's a but) this strikes me a bit like charles barkley claiming not to be a role model back in the day.

Perhaps "gatekeeping" is less of a willful responsibility for individual agents and perhaps this responsibility is more of a consequence of tightened publisher belts.

Anyway you skin it though, the decision processes by which agents collectively select authors is the greatest form of gatekeeping in the industry today. The choices agents make beat back the hungry mob astride the walls.

I think gatekeeping is necessary and it will be present in one form or the other as long as there are more writers than slots for books.

What worries me is the decision process agent's go through in making their selections.

Nathan Bransford said...


I'm not saying agents aren't gatekeepers to a large extent, only that they're not just gatekepers.

Steppe said...

All entertainment is a team sport. Music business parallels kick in when deducing the number of people that it takes to put even a solo performer, with an acoustic guitar, on a particular stage, in a particular city, at a particular time; while ensuring the performer is not the only person who shows up. The number of people it takes to make a movie goes without saying because it's talked about frequently from many different perspectives. In comparison getting a book published and launched propitiously is nothing more than a walk in the park on a sunny day with a few dozen close associates: all of whom you love trust and respect in a timely politically correct fashion.

Evil Grin

slytherclawchica said...

...And just in case anyone doesn't have an agent yet.... *bright shining marquees* CHECK OUT NATHAN BRANSFORD!!!

;-) Just kidding. Kind of. :-)

In all seriousness, though, I couldn't begin to think about all the bookkeeping-y things agents do... it would blow my mind. You guys are awesome

Erika Marks said...

Agreed, Nathan. Agents are so much more, indeed.

Now that I have an agent and see first hand all the work she does and all of the hats she wears for her authors, I find the idea that an agent's job security is at risk in this current publishing climate to be truly confounding. And yet the discussion is out there, as we all keep reading.

If anything, I would think agents are more invaluable than ever nowadays.

Casey Lybrand said...

I like it when your laugh is an evil laugh.

I also like that you see your role in broad terms, responsive to the changing times, but with a clear vision of the core of of your role as an agent. (And not just in this post, this is just the first time I'm commenting!)

As an aspiring author, I have similar feelings about being published. I want to be published (not to self-publish), but what form that takes is less important to me than the core of how I see my role: I want to produce high-quality content (in my case, novel-length stories) and have them published through some kind of gatekeeping process, so when readers pick up my work, they know they are getting something that has been vetted. The particulars are less important to me, and I feel pretty flexible about working with how this process plays out in the future. But I know I will want an agent to help me navigate it.

Agenting and professional writing have been going on for a long time, and will keep going on for a long time yet. I like that you take a long view!

author Scott Nicholson said...

Great post. However, you are picking books to sell to NY, Nathan. You aren't picking books to sell to readers.

That's a vital function for NY editors who don't want to be pestered by a billion submissions they don't need (even the ones that are publishable but will never be published.) The function is less important when it's readers doing the picking and not the agents.

Still, an agent who is good at the other aspects of the business are well worth the 15 percent.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


I think the Barkley thing is often misunderstood. It was a rhetorical device. He wasn't really just saying he didn't want the responsibiulity of being a role model, but that parents and teachers have to step up and accept the task of teaching values rather than letting kids absorb them from popular culture. In other words, because someone's good at shooting hoops does not mean they are necessarily capable of being a good role model.

I think the same goes for agents, too. It's not that people can abdicate being a rolemodel/gatekeeper, but that's not what they're paid to do. These are subsidiary responsibilities that are important but not completely central.

And isn't it great, mixing writing and basketball? Who's watching game six with me tonight? I think Kobe is attempting 112 shots tonight. Just sayin'.

Jil said...

Nathan, when, and if, agents are not the author's first step will it be like hiring a lawyer? I know some agentless writers who do hire a literary attorney to help them through the financial bits. I presume it doesn't matter what the book is like in this case.
Would you, in future, just set a fee and take whoever can pay?

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan Bransford said...


I think there will probably be a range - I'm sure there will always be queries in the future, though what qualifications authors put in there and what agents want out of a client may be different. Agents will continue to look for talent, and yes, you may see some sort of consulting-type businesses crop up. As on the publishing side, I think there are going to be a range of options until things get sorted out.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Nathan, I love this post. You made some excellent points.

I'm curious about how you see your role as an agent evolving with the changes that the publishing industry will go through in the near future. May I make that my request for one of your future posts?

Kimberly Kincaid said...

First of all, anything that ends in an evil laugh is definitely okay in my book!

I look at it a bit like this: as a writer, I *could* try to navigate my way to publication on my own, but it would be a lot like a rookie playing a football game without a referee. *Could* that rookie play? Sure. But he might not know all of the rules, and someone's bound to get hurt. It just seems smarter to craft (and almost certainly re-craft) my work and hit the gate when I'm ready to give it my best shot. I'd rather trust the process, even if it ultimately leads to me going back to the drawing board. But that's just me.

Incidentally, Nathan, if you are the Gate Keeper, where is the Key Master?

Argh, sorry. Ghostbusters got the best of me :)

Mira said...

Oh shoot. I keep having to delete my posts. I'm out of school, finally, and feeling playful.

I'm also abit confused about what I do or do not want to say about the current state of the industry. I'm still working out the line between diplomacy and integrity.

Anyway, what I will say is I think this post is excellent in it's clarity, and completly on target.

I think unhooking the agent's role from the publisher's role is important - they are not the same, and their roles will continue to not be the same in the upcoming e-book era - and it's good for authors and others to see that.

I like the future and the way it is shaping up for both authors and agents. I actually think that agents will enjoy stepping more firmly into the advocacy role, rather than (I imaginine) feeling somewhat pulled between two agendas.

I like your vision of the future, and I agree with that vision.

pensees said...

Hopefully, I'll get to have a beer with you someday. ;)

What percentage of your day is spent on this blog, leading all of us readers in the path to enlightenment? I appreciate it, though I have often wondered how you find time to do all those things you listed plus this.

Must be your evil superpowers!

Nathan Bransford said...


I usually spend about half an hour per post, and write ahead and on weekends so I have something ready to go in case I'm busy.

So very little time percentage-wise.

Lisa Desrochers said...

My truly fabulous agent and her agency earn every penny of the percentage they get from my sales. She combs over contracts so I don't need to know about out-of-print thresholds and term-of-license, she deciphers royalty statements, and, most importantly, sells my books.

Plus, she doubles as the book fairy and gets me tons of amazing ARCs. That in and of itself is reason to have an agent. =)

Alyson Greene said...

It helps me to understand your point to think of sports agents.
An athlete doesn't need an agent to be recruited from her college team or to attend an open tryout.

But an athlete better hope she has an agent when that contract is put in front of her and she's looking for endorsement deals.

Anonymous said...

LOVE your Evil Laugh, Nathan.

Jen J. Danna said...

The evil laugh was really the icing on the cake on this post. ;)

I think that those of us who are spending a lot of time getting to know the industry, and who are taking the time to get acquainted with a range of agents are getting a very good picture of all that you do. It's easy to get fixated on the gatekeeper aspect of the query quagmire because that is the first major hurdle for an author, but if any of us are lucky enough to receive an offer of representation, we need to be aware of all that our agent might do for and with us so that we can make an informed choice. Agents will have specialized skills that authors simply don't have, so they are a crucial part of the publishing process.

Thank you for clarifying this aspect of the agent persona.

Carol Riggs said...

When I began writing In Earnest years ago, I thought nah, I'll never need an agent. What for?--I can become published by myself! Har.
This past year I've done a 180 and realize I totally need one. I want to WRITE, confound it, not pore over contracts and agonize over legal decisions and spend my time printing up my manuscript and waiting in line at the P.O to mail them. Rah, agents! (Now, if I could ever GET one....)

Mayowa said...


Oh yeah I agree with you on that. Any thoughts on the decision process itself?

#Bryan Russel

Excellent points. I do think that gatekeeping is one of the most important factor in the author/agent relationship and not merely a subsidiary facet.

The balance between agents and writers (especially unagented ones) is as balanced as the one between gatekeepers and those seeking entry. The laws of supply and demand means agents have the power in this relationship...this is why every agent has hundreds of writers eagerly hanging on every word. That bothers me for some reason...but hey, here I am.

And how dare you besmirch the great name of the greatest basketball player ever? And here I was thinking we were going to get along hehe. Kobe is the man

Sugar said...

*needs an agent*
even one with an evil laugh :)
I can't imagine what you must deal with..specially if all authors are like me :)

I wonder how many hats ya'll wear..hundreds prolly :)

thanks for all the great info Nathan..It is much appreciated

Richard Mabry said...

I sold my non-fiction book without having an agent. When I began writing novels, by a stroke of fantastic good fortune I obtained representation by an excellent agent. The difference? Night and day. Chalk and cheese. Sour and sweet.
She not only helps me present my absolute best work to publishers, she talks me down off (symbolic) ledges and gives me excellent career advice.
Just a gatekeeper? Not on your life.

D.M.Cunningham said...

I just signed with an agent and I couldn't be happier. I now have a wonderful teammate/ally to help along the journey. We need each other to be successful in this game. Good and evil - you can not have one without the other. Continue evil laugh...

Marilyn Peake said...

Excellent points. I believe it’s the wonderful things that agents can do for an author’s book after they sign them that make all the work to find an agent so worthwhile for authors.

James said...

I doubt people's capacity to read will soon surpass the volume of reading material. So, we will turn to gatekeepers, to experts. If agents did less gatekeeping, I expect that critics would do more.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Once again, I fully agree. Perhaps it would help those who view agents as soon to become obsolete to think of them as personal managers. Very exclusive personal managers, taking care of finances, contracts, etc. Many writers who want more than a few close people to read their books will still want that sort of service, and will continue to seek agents to get it.

Robert A Meacham said...

Let's face it. Gatekeepers are intricate to literary gateway. The problem is finding one. Has anyone seen an agent around here?

Other Lisa said...

Lord yes. I can't imagine navigating all this without an agent. Of course I want to learn as much about the business as I can, but that doesn't make me an expert.

When in doubt, work with pros.

fivecats said...

but doesn't part of the gatekeeping process mean that we, as the book-buying public, can feel assured that a book published by Big Book Publishing House should meet some minimal requirements for writing, plot, characterization, etc?

my concern with Amazon becoming a publisher isn't that agents might find themselves out of work, it's that customers might find themselves inundated by cheap POD books that are just crap. anyone who can mash keys on a keyboard can now be a "published author".

i'm all for someone who knows the ins & outs, what sells where and through whom and how my work should be improved for marketability.


two-bit jeremiah said...

Lurker here--as an aspiring writer who just recently outgrew "I want to get published when I grow up" and finds the state of the industry massively intimidating--I really appreciate posts like this. I definitely want agents to persist, however else publishing changes. I need all that expertise beyond the gatekeeping role!

Anonymous said...

I'm successfully publishing my books on Kindle store, and occasionally I query an agent or publisher because I cling to the dream of seeing my books in print in a Barnes and Noble. I know, I know -- it seems so twentieth century, but I'm an old lady.

Last time I did the query gig I mentioned that I'd sold over 5,000 copies of my first book on Kindle (in a very short timeframe). They weren't impressed, and seemed downright angry in their responses.

I thought success with ebooks (and my incredible marketing efforts) might impress somebody. Apparently that was the wrong approach (ouch!).

I've since published another ebook (and it is doing well), but didn't bother with the whole query gig because, quite frankly, I'm making good money on the ebooks, and who needs the hassle of rejection?

I figure if they want me they'll find me. My books are always on several bestseller lists on the Kindle store, and I'm getting some wonderful reviews and fan mail.

Right now that's all I need to be happy. I'd like to see my books in a dead tree version in a physical bookstore someday, and I know an agent can help me get there in the proper way . . . but no takers so far. I know I'll try again in a few months with the book I'm working on now. I'll avoid mention of the ebooks (that was a big mistake), and hopefully it will fly on it's own merit.

It's ok though. Readers validate me and my writing, not a particular agent.

Amanda Sablan said...

Even when I won't absolutely NEED an agent, I'm still going to want one. I don't want to have to worry about contract negotiation and whatnot. So thank God for you guys!

writerjenn said...

This is what I keep telling people. I was on a panel about working with agents at a recent writers' conference, and when the question came up, "What do your agents do for you?" I pulled out the list I had made ahead of time because I didn't want to forget anything. Getting the ms. onto an editor's desk was just one item on that list.

In this world where more and more rights to creative works are up for grabs, agenting seems to me more necessary, not less.

ryan field said...

Hope you get this post into Huffington, too. There's such a misconception out there about what lit agents actually do it would help educate people (not just authors).

Anyway, nice post.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


I do think you have a point there. Perhaps "subsidiary" was the wrong word, as gatekeeping is more important for an agent than role modeling for an athlete (at least in a job sense). But certainly the gatekeeping is a part of the job only, and not the central aspect (or at least only one among many central aspects).

And I agree there's a certain power disparity at times, but this is a power dynamic that's fluid and ever shifting between agents and writers. For a lot of writers, I think, it seems as if agents have all the power. Rejection after rejection, and no golden key to open the iron door. But that's not always the case. It often depends on the product.

Say we have one writer who has been rejected eighty times before finally getting a conditional offer from an agent. Now let's say we have another writer who sends out their first 12 submissions and hears back the next day from 10 who are excited about representation. Where does the power lie?

In the first case, most of the power lies with the agent. The writer is going to be pretty happy, and perhaps a little desperate, at getting a nibble. But in the second case the agents are now going to have to sell themselves to the writer, and it's the writer who has the reins.

And the greater success, the greater the power shift in favour of the writer. If JK Rowling wants to go in a new direction... who's gonna stop her? What agent wouldn't be interested in that partnership?

It's difficult, I think, to label the power dynamics of a relationship that is so specific and endlessly variable.

And the key thing, of course, is that once you get past those first gates it's ideally a partnership. Hopefully the power is held jointly, and directed to the same cause: a successful (and profitable) career.

And as for Kobe, yeah, he's great. That's why I like to call him Jordan Lite. :)

Joe Konrath said...

My agent negotiated the AmazonEncore deal for me, and got me much better terms than I could have on my own.

In the past two months, my agent has sold have a dozen foreign rights, written two collaboration agreements, dealt with three pressing problems I was having with publishers, and drew up contracts for two movie options.

She's also currently marketing foreign and audio rights for my self-pubbed ebooks.

I've pretty much made the choice that I'll never sign a print deal again, unless the money is obscene. But my agent is still indispensable.

Magdalena Munro said...

Even though the gatekeeping portion of your job is minimal, you do it well and I appreciate how accessible you are on your blogs. Thanks for your high touch approach; it's really appreciated.

Mayowa said...

@Bryan Russell,

You are very right about that my good man, the relationship is rather fluid and it's not always clear cut. My oversimplification does it no justice.

I am actually not against gatekeeping in the industry. Some writers should never get published (a hard truth that scares me) and I think gatekeeping will exist long after the digital and self publishing tsunamis have receded into normalcy.

It's how agents decide who to let in and who to keep out that nags me incessantly.

I hope you have a blog or website. I have to find you tomorrow so I can gloat over Kobe crushing the Celtics (and the memory of that false god, MJ) tonight :)

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


You can find me at The Alchemy of Writing for all post-game razzings. :)

And I agree with many of the points on your blog. I must say I'm not too keen on the corporate skeleton of the modern publishing world. The whole one and done thing drives me crazy. One chance and you better succeed... rather than trusting editors and trusting talent, and trusting that together they will really develop over a few books and grow an audience. How many people hit a home run on their first major league pitch? What's wrong with drawing a walk, stealing second, pushing third on a groundout and getting home on a sacrifice fly? At the end of things you're still up 1-0. :)

Josin L. McQuein said...

What? You mean there's no cool uniform and one of those nifty keys on a chain that you use to open the drawbridge?


Awee. That would have been cool.

Simon C. Larter said...

Was that last sentence an imperative? I'm confused.

I'm laughing evilly right now, just in case it was an imperative. I err on the side of caution.

D. G. Hudson said...

Interesting post - especially with the last line. You're appreciated, Nathan, for the time you do spend sharing your knowledge with us (even if we're a small part of the big picture). You give most of us faith in the process.

We all just wonder how you get it all done (no clones? no robots?)

I'm learning a lot from the redlining you do on the selected works, as I work through my own revisions.

Mayowa said...

@Bryan Russel,

I've been to your site many times (most recently to disagree [naturally hehe] about the big info dump in Orwell's 1984. I just didn't put two and two together quickly enough.

Thanks for stopping by my blog.

The game is starting...Lord pls let the Lakers win...please.

Rowan Spence said...

I think most of us, a.k.a. the unpublished masses, recognize that the gatekeeper role isn't the only one an agent plays.

That's why we cling so desperately to any kernel of advice which will help us get the edge to be "discovered" during that small window of time you have in your day for new authors.

Lynn Mitchell said...

Gee. I wish I was cool enough to have an evil laugh. Go figure.

Cheeky Grin.

Children's Champ said...

I am trying to contain my evil laughter while reading the comments, but the Skeletor/Draco Malfoy in me keeps coming to the surface.

I received a rejection letter last night that said "you should be able to find an agent this one though isn't for me." He then says "better yet get a publishing house."

based on my research, it is even harder to sign with a publishing house. Yes?

Ryan Morris said...

As an unagented author, I don't see myself wishing for a world where there was no agent in the way. Once you're in, you're in (in most cases!), so having that first line of defense is a good thing. Someone's got to filter out the heaps of crap that think they deserve to be published. Having to sell my idea to an agent first is a great start, and an important part of finding success.

Anonymous said...

sometimes, I wonder if you & Jessica Faust are spying on me: your posts are extremely of-the-moment-of-my- life'ish.

today, I spoke w/my agent (and your colleague) and the point(s) you make could not have come across more clearly.

what's interesting - you allude to this - but past the submission process, past the sale process, heading towards publication ... that's when the relationship really gets interesting.

I'm not trying to convince my excellent agent of anything: I was left alone to rewrite my novel and now we're collaborating on how to get my book out there.

I am amazed how important it is to have someone modulate my (tend to be reactive & excitable) instincts while guiding me through the process. they bring both the reality check and knowledge of what works and what's in the works.

v. good post (& I liked the Huffington one, too - you're rolling with it, and being contrarian all in one.)

T. Anne said...

Point well taken. You do more than hold the keys to the castle. I would like to see a future post of what exactly the linear road to publication looks like while holding hands with an agent. What guidance do you offer your clients? What would a phone conversation consist of? Would it start with reality TV chatter then segue to royalties? Are there diagrams and flow charts involved? Just what exactly does go on behind castle walls?

February Grace said...

I've actually always thought of an agent as the wise Jedi to guide the young unpublished Paduans through the mazes and be sure they don't fall prey to the machinations of the dark side...or get converted later once they're fully educated in the ways of the Force.

Though their function as gatekeeper is the one that most intimidates us as unagented writers trying to get through to Oz, please know that we don't view you guys as anything other than allies we just really wish we had.

Your job is hard. Our job is hard. I think understanding all around and empathy for the other's position (you made that much easier with your post about how you loathe rejections, Mr. Bransford) is always the best way to go.

We know you can't sign all of us. In fact, we know that some of us won't make it. Some of us might even totally stink at this. (I know you're all saying 'speak for yourself!' lol so I am) We just want a fair shot (and with your very reasonable submission guidelines, I think you truly do give us that).

That's why we all want to be your clients. Would you consider cloning?

Augustina Peach said...

There's more that I need from an agent than just help with contracts. I hope for an agent who will be Obi Wan Kenobi to my Luke Skywalker.

Oksana Marafioti said...

I agree, Nathan. I'm with Brandi Bowles of Foundry Literary. She's been an amazing agent to work with. An agent is a teacher, a friend, a critic, and often a psychiatrist. It's a partnership that is extremely important to an author's development, professional and otherwise.

Mayowa said...


I mean absolutely no disrespect to you Nathan (and to other agents) when I say this...

Writers (especially newbies) are not approaching this relationship as equals. Obiwan to Luke? Really?

No one knows more about your story and about what kind of career you want to have. Not your agent, not your editor, no one.

There will be none of this, I need an experienced agent to hold my hand rubbish. You just wrote tens of thousands of (hopefully) honest and creative prose and you left everything on the page. You take your stories and craft as seriously as people take their religion.

Get a hold of yourself.

isaiah.campbell said...

After reading this post, and your reverse funnel post, I can't help but wonder what the changing world of online marketing is doing to the agent's job description. Once upon a time, marketing happened after the publisher picked up the book, and was done by the author and the publisher (at least, that's my understanding.) In more recent times, a lot of marketing has been advised for authors seeking agents, to present a viable product for agents to believe in. But, is it possible that now mass marketing falls in the lap of agents, pre-publishing, to some extent? Suppose you catch a book from an author who isn't all that great at social networking/blogging/etc. Is it viable for an agent to pick up some of that slack and help create a web presence for the project? Is that too much work for agents to do?

Chuck H. said...

Crap!! The one time I'm out of touch with the internet is the day I've hoped for for the last year. Nathan and his faithful read and critique my work and I'm on a motorcycle between Missouri and Alabama. I'm so sorry I didn't get to read and comment on your responses. I will go read it all and do what I can to make up for this failure on my part. Mea Culpa! Mea Culpa!!

Mira said...

Oh, I want to add one thing. I was thinking about this post, and remembering last year on this blog, and there were many posts where folks were wondering if agenting would survive or not.

The conversation has really evolved since then. It's nice to see your forthright perspective and confidence, Nathan. :)

Those agents, that Anon 3:53 mentioned - that are angry about the Kindle - I hope your post is reassuring to them, too.

Claire Dawn said...

I love the first comment on this post.

An agent is actually a business manager. In some industries, you can start small. As a musician, you could play gigs in the local cafe, and work your way up to recording. You could record on your own and only after you've developed a following try to sign with a big label. Up until that point, you're probably fine without an agent/business manager.

Traditional publishing is like you're trying to hit it big from the start. But I think the new model should be more like the music industry mode.

Alex F Chavez said...

I Love it!

Looking forward to catching the attention of a gatekeeper to guide Me through the tunnel of tomorrow.

Chuck H. said...

Just finished reading all the comments/critiques of my work and made my own comments, in case anyone could possibly be still remotely interested. Once again, sorry I was out of touch Monday. And a really heartfelt thank you to Nathan and everyone who commented.

Nancy said...

The sardonic 'Evil laugh' comment surprised me. I suppose it was fostered by all the agent bashing going on. It seems that self- and e-publishing have created literary entitlement; "I have a right to publish my words" and this has bled over into the world of traditional publishing.

If my novel was rejected because it wasn't polished enough I would want to know that before I embarrassed myself in front of my peers or other readers who know good writing. And if it was rejected because it wasn't a good fit for the agent, I'd move on. No quarrels.

And after 112 rejections I'd probably get the message that my work needs work, or that my Dr. Jekyll experiment will never fit into the publishing neighborhood. I don't expect any and everyone to behold my work as if a golden babe had descended upon them, sent by literary gods.

I don't get this agent bashing melodrama. What's wrong with learning more and working a bit harder to realize our goals?

Dan Holloway said...

It's always struck me that agents would if anything have more of a prominent role in the new climate, but that the dynamics would change somewhat (I wrote about this back in May last year ).
I see agents becoming more like managers, employed by writers to coordinate the various aspects of (self-)publishing - so to represent the writer's interest to editors, cover designers etc, and negotiate teh best print price deal, ad space, marketing and web work. Although ostensibly this would be a big change, in practice the best managers would be able to choose either to take a massive pay cheque, or to pick and choose the writers they worked for, so after a settling period things will come back to where they are now - what WILL change is the role of publishers in it all - but agents, not so much.

swampfox said...

I think agents are tireless workers, just like teachers.

tessaquin said...

I don't believe that agents or publishers will ever disappear. I think that 99% of writers want to be published via agents and trade publishers, and so they'll try that first.

My take on self publishing is that it's either a last resort (or it would be in my case), or it's for non-fiction writers who have a good idea and want a larger slice of the profit (which isn't really that much larger if you go by the popular self-publishing companies).

I was approached by a self-publishing company who tried to focus on the fact that I would get to keep the publishing rights (which sounds appealing), and sort of told me about the royalties in a passing. Of course I caught it and asked more about it. I just think that 10% is very little for self-publishing. I understand that the cover costs money, and the printing, sending costs, and the fact that the company will want it's share, but I'd have to pay for the editing myself etc. Point being that I think that the royalty is too little to consider self-publishing a first option with the fact that the novel would never reach as wide an audience as a trade-published book.

Rick Daley said...

Just like there's more to following this blog than the desire to be your client. I have representation, and my agent is doing a great job, but I still learn from your posts and enjoy reading through the comments.

Sommer said...

Oh man, isn't writing a book hard enough? I couldn't imagine being the author and the agent all by myself. There are things I'm good at, and things I'm not, and when I become an agented, published author I want someone on my side who is an expert at those things.

Anonymous said...


I understand you are an agent for Curtis Brown. Does that mean you are on salary, or do you receive the 15% agent cut from your authors? Or is it a combination of salary and commission based on client book sales?

The reason I ask is that I think agents will still exist, but they'll be compensated more like lawyers (billable hours) when working for client authors.

If I could pay an agent for specific services (foreign rights work, editorial services) and get a statement showing hours worked, tasks completed, etc. each month it would be a better (and more professional) relationship from my point of view.

I think agents will still be valuable in the process, but the way they work and compensation scheme will change.

In a virtual world can I hire cheap labor in Bombay to be my agent?

Anonymous said...

I think the flow of information will change in the future as more and more authors (hopefully) start to realize they do actually need to know the business as well as the writing and start taking control of their own careers.

An agent is the employee of the writer, that's it. A great agent can help a writer in many ways (gate-keeping isn't one, of course). But it doesn't excuse authors from needing to read their contracts and make their own business decisions. And everything an agent does an author can either do themselves or hire someone (like a literary lawyer) to do for them.

And you don't need an agent to be a professional author. Learn the business and make your choices as they best fit you, not because you were told "this is how it is done". There are many paths, and the agented path isn't necessarily the best. Agents don't all have the author's best interests at heart, and not all agents are equal.

You are in control of your own career. You, no one else. As Oprah advises "sign your own checks", ie don't give away the business decisions to someone else.

The Zuccini said...

If I get an agent great.

If I don't, well it's premature to cross that bridge.

I don't think agents are gate keepers. I think they're businessmen and woman. I don't even think the gates even exist. Certainly not the way they do for say figure skating.

For figure skaters the ultimate prize is a gold medal. For writers the prize is publication. A skater can't buy himself or herself a gold medal and call themselves a gold medalist. Authors can and do publish themselves. And I think that's the maybe the most frustrating part about writing. It's one part skill and two parts public opinion.

Nathan Bransford said...


No offense to you personally, but the "agent as employee" thing is one of the most commons mischaracterizations of the relationship. I understand that it has a seductive suggestion of table-turning and pedestal-chipping, but it really doesn't even accurately depict the relationship. Writers don't hire agents, and before the writer's work has been published, they aren't paying the agent either. Yes, an author can fire an agent, but an agent can also fire an author. In reality it's a collaborative relationship that works to mutual benefit. I absolutely agree with you that it behooves authors to familiarize themselves with the business and to remember that the decisions are ultimately theirs, but it doesn't then mean that authors can necessarily do everything that an agent provides on their own.

I mean - I'm an agent and I have an agent. I happily give up 15% to have an experienced advocate in my corner even though I know the business. And I certainly don't treat my agent or think of her as my "employee."

Mira said...

If you guys don't mind, I'd like to chip in on this one. I agree with Nathan.

If I hire a professional, they may work on my behalf, but they are not employed by me. Agents are in the professional class - they bring expertise to the relationship - and there is mutual choice involved. Someone asks to hire the professional and the professional agrees or disagrees to take them on as a client.

Either party can usually end the relationship at any point, although there are both unwritten and written expectations about responsiblities and ethics within the relationship, which may or may not affect when and how the relationship might end.

Other examples of this might be a Doctor, Lawyer, Finanical Advisor, Therapist, etc.

Mira said...

And I do want to add the reverse is true as well. I sometime see this confusion on the web.

The writer is not employed by the agent either.

Anonymous said...

I think of the agent as a sort of general contractor, the kind you need when building a house. The general contactor finds the best subcontractors (electrician, carpenter, plumber), negotiates the contracts, and ultimately rides her over production of the final product (a new house).

But, a home buyer can serve as his/her own general contractor (lots more work!), and buy services a la carte. Yes, it's difficult, but I know people who have done it successfully.

I think today's author can serve as agent to a point. Editorial services, formatting services, cover artists etc. can now be purchased a la carte (internet has opened this up, it is now a global marketplace for these services). An author can even distribute work in a large market (Kindle store, iBooks, etc), but of course not all markets (physical bookstores).

I'd take a good agent in a nanosecond, but for those who don't make the cut there are more options than ever before. It's all good -- for writers, agents (who can now operate under different business models if they choose to do so), and readers.

Anonymous said...

If you hire a lawyer, that lawyer is your employee in that they work for you when it comes to whatever you hired them for. Same with an accountant, same with an agent.

There's no pedestal chipping :) An agent's 15% isn't magical, it comes from an author's 100% (that they are paid by the publisher).

And you can, in fact, just hire an agent. Sell the book yourself and then make a phone call or five to your top agent picks and see which would be the best fit to negotiate the deal.

Josin L. McQuein said...

I've never understood the assumption by some that an agent is a writer's employee. If that were the case, a writer could toss an ad up on Craig's list and pick and choose from a pool of interested agents like they would an electrician.

It doesn't work that way, nor should it.

Writers provide the raw material for a sale in the form of a book. Agents provide a service utilizing that raw material, making it marketable. They know what doors to knock on and what numbers to call.

Both parties rely on the sale for their income.

If the writer simply "employed" the agent, the writer would have to pay the agent a salary no matter what the outcome of a submission.

You don't look for an agent as though you're going to be their boss. You don't look for an agent as though they're going to be your boss. You each have a part to play in the other's success, and if you don't succeed, the failure is shared as well.

Josin L. McQuein said...


my post went through before I saw your answer, and there's no way to say this gently... you're dreaming.

1 - if you've sold your book, there's nothing for an agent to do.

2 - if you get an offer, you MAY attract some attention from an agent, but still, you've pretty much tied their hands since they can't shop the book to multiple editors that may have offered more.

3 - the idea that just because you have an offer 5-10 of your top picks will all want to rep you is ridiculous. You might get someone to agree to a one-off representation for that deal, but they still have to read the MS, love it, and believe they can rep it effectively. And that's no guarantee of a continued arrangement.

Nathan Bransford said...


Definitely an agent works for the author. I agree with you about that. I just think that the best relationships are more collaborative than the connotation of "employee" implies, and that an author isn't going to get the most out of the relationship if they go in thinking that way.


Agree mostly, but there can be lots for an agent to do after an author has found their own deal. Though I definitely agree that getting your own offer is not necessarily going to result in landing the agent you want - as you say, they still have to love the book and feel that they're the best advocate for it.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Nathan -

I took "sell" in Anon's comment to mean the deal had already been signed. Wouldn't that make it too late to be negotiating pieces of it? (serious question)

Nathan Bransford said...


Ah, I see. If the deal is signed, yes, it would be too late for that deal, but there may be subrights or other things an agent can do. Depends on the contract and situation.

Ermo said...

Nathan -

I have a question for you. In this changing publishing landscape where authors are more likely to self-publish, do you see your role as gate keeper changing? Do you think you'll spend more of your time seeking out authors based on what they've self-published instead of them seeking you out via query? Or do you think the whole self-publish thing will have minimal effect on the whole query for an agent thing?


Bonus: Will you still blog if the Lakers win the title?

Nathan Bransford said...


Probably a bit of both. And yes, I will still blog if the Lakers win but I will not be a happy camper. Though I have to say, my reaction is muted somewhat in that my 2nd least favorite team is playing my 1st least favorite team.

Mayowa said...

Lakers Lakers Lakers! sorry.

I think we're swinging to far in the other direction here. The idea is that the relationship should be one of equals, as Nathan said for mutual benefit.

The current problem is that agents have the power in this relationship (via gatekeeping). Having read a lot of the comments, im thinking agents aren't even at fault for this, writers are.

It absolutely kills me when I see writers get a subservient attitude towards agents. You are in charge of your vision, your career, your royalties, your advances, your life.

If you want a small advance with higher royalties, tell you agent. If you want a high advance with low agents, tell your agent.

Sure you should listen to your agent's advice, at the end of the day though, its your life (hence the no promise of high advances/royalties/sales/anything) in your agent contract.

Writers and agents are equals but writers are more equal than agents (the whole your life spiel).

Willow said...

Then why, if agents are on the author's (client's) side, are they so freaking hard to get? I'm offering to pay them a percentage to negotiate with my body of works, and I'm exactly as stonewalled with agents as I am with publishers. Do agents actually want my business or not? Because they seem to not understand that I am giving them my business, not the other way around.

Mayowa said...


Each agent has to evaluate your query/synopsis/novel (your business) to see if they can/should work on your behalf.

Your business may eat up a lot of their hours and not be worth much.

The real question then is what criteria they evaluate your business by? That is the worrisome part...

Good luck and keep at it.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Willow -

It may be hard to hear, but you have to have a commodity they can sell. Most people don't. Having a finished book isn't enough; you have to meet a certain bar.

The usual percentage given is something like 98% of what gets submitted is unpublishable. It may not fit the market. It may be derivative or overdone. It may be a mess that not even an editor could save for the number of mistakes.

I don't know your work, so don't think I'm telling you that you're out of luck or not going to be successful at some point - I'm not insulting you. But know that it's an exceptionally small number of people who have something an agent thinks will sell, and a smaller number than that which actually get purchased.

There are FAR more writers than there are agents and FAR more books than the market can handle. That's why the gulf between commercial and vanity publishing numbers is so high. Anyone can vanity publish, not everyone's commercially viable.

abc said...

All the reasons I want one!

Perry said...

No kidding. Agents are working with the system, not against it. There are many more effective ways to put gatekeepers in place than using an agent.

I look forward to the day when I have an agent working with me to bring my books to the shelves.

Augustina Peach said...

Yeah, but look what Luke became with a minimum of early guidance by Obi Wan. Admitting you have something to learn is not the same as asking for hand-holding.

Anonymous said...

For a different perspective, these posts might be informative:


This is a professional, best-selling working author's view of things, and the comments are priceless as well since many authors chime in with their views and experiences.

Anonymous said...

. . . and, loving it!

(Ya had to grow up in the 60s.)

Anonymous said...

Hey there,

I just had to say that I agree with this post whole-heartedly. I've always been surprised that the gatekeeping aspect of an agent's job takes up so much of the attention - and I'm an unagented author btw - when the thing is, the most important bit comes after you're actually agented, whether you work well with your agent, whether he/she is good at what they do (not gatekeeping so much as negotiating good deals, managing the progress of the work in the publishing industry so that it actually gets somewhere/has a chance to succeed, ensuring the money gets paid etc), and all those things that writers either aren't good at personally, or wouldn't have the time for if they're actually writing.

I think, regardless of the evolution of the publishing industry, there will always be agents (just as there will always be writers and editors); it's just the emphasis on the agent's various roles that might shift to accomodate the changing times (the same way a writer is expected nowadays to play a greater role than before in marketing/promoting their books).

Hmmmm, also wanted to mention that as far as gatekeeping goes, even if it's difficult to get an agent, I would actually be happier knowing that the agent I finally get once I make it through all this gatekeeping actually likes my work enough to stand behind it.



heather said...

Hahaha - "buggy whip"

Thanks for being a resource for us, Nathan! Keeping our heads filled with knowledge and truth and inspiration.


Lauren Johnson said...

That seems like a lot for one person. To be an agent for the authors that you do have while at the same time look for new talent.

Shouldn't there be a headhunter agent of sorts?

Is it a bad thing to split the job in half? Or is the whole notion ridiculous?

GuyStewart said...

There's A LOT of talk out there!

"When the REAL AGE OF THE EBOOK arrives, anyone who wants to can publish their MOST FABULOUSIST MANUSCRIPT that the editors and publishers and agents they approached didn't see the brilliance of..."

I recently blogged about this:

Laura Miller at has some interesting light to shine on the Advent of the Ebook:

And Ian Randall Strock Facebooked about it here:!/notes/ian-randal-strock/thinking-about-self-publishing/409746324095

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