Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Should Agents Be Worried?

Last month, agent Rachelle Gardner posted about supposed fear among literary agents. The title: Are agents running scared?

No doubt the publisher industry is changing quickly. While the pace of e-book change may be slowing, self-publishing is continuing its ascent and the role of agents is ever-evolving.

So are agents going away? Should they be worried?

In her post, Rachelle concluded that even if the specific roles of agents change, the ones who are flexible will adapt right along with the industry. I've elsewhere argued that agents are far more than just gatekeepers and will negotiate with whomever is left to still negotiate with even when the gates are down.

But maybe the change will be more drastic than that. Could agents disappear entirely, or at least morph into an unrecognizable form? Are their days numbered?

What do you think?

Art: Self-portrait - Pieter van Laer


Jonathan Dalar said...

I think there will still be a definite role for literary agents to play in the future of publishing. As you pointed out, they're far more than just "gatekeepers".

Their role may morph according to needs of the industry, but I can't see it going the way of travel agents, for example. There are just too many more things in the mix than just searching for what you want and finding it.

Anonymous said...

Everyone has to change, and if you don't you'll be left behind.

Justine Dell said...

I think you are right, everything is changing. It's hard to say exactly WHAT it will change into, though. I think agents provide a wonderful service and I think, the studious ones, will find their place in the new publishing world--whatever it happens to end up being.

Lee Lofland said...

I wonder if the day will come when agents must query writers.

AnAlaskanGirl said...

What could their role be?

Their role now essentially is to do the business side of publishing so a writer can write, yes?

As a self-published author I know there is a whole lot that goes into the business side. Would an agents role then grow to take things such as coordinating with editors, book cover artists, bloggers and blog tours, and PR?

If that were the case, I'd gladly put a percentage of earnings for those items to be off my plate.

Jennifer Schober said...

As an agent I can say that I am not afraid of disappearing, it's just that some aspects of my role are changing at warp speed-- and what I provide for clients is also evolving. It's actually a very exciting time in terms of new opportunities for authors. The tough part is the changing business model and adding services where there are specific client needs. I feel as though my role as a coach to my clients is more robust then ever and I think my clients would agree that in this time of uncertainty that having a partner in this process is very valuable. Great blog Nathan!

M.P. McDonald said...

I think Lee Lofland is on the right track. I wouldn't doubt that in the future, agents will be sending queries to successful indie authors saying, 'Here's what I can do for you...' In fact, to some extent that is already happening to some authors.

AnAlaskanGirl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how the publishing agency is going to change, but I think in 10 years or so, they may be obsolete (at least in the current incarnation).

I tend to think the role of agent may become more of a business manager role and they will take on some of the marketing functions that publishers take on now. Not sure exactly how that will work financially. Perhaps a cut of sales so it's in their best interest to really promote a book? Right now, I'm not sure the financial structure of publishing makes sense for anyone but the publisher.

Richard Sutton said...

It would always be worth it to me, for example, to pay 15% of contracted deals to have the deal run smoothly and keep all parties in the loop, but the article you cite above, Why Rejection Letters of the Future Will be Silent, only further confuses the issue. In the same breath that many agents are trying to clarify their role in a deal as facilitator/pitchman, they are still talking about the 99% they see as unpublishable. Given the fact that lots and lots of real crap is published annually, making people lots of money, isn't it safe to say that the whole, "you were rejected because your writing isn't good enough" line is at the very least disingenuous? To stay viable, I believe literary agents would be well served to concentrate on the fact that a decision to represent a new writer is based upon potential income, not some nebulous and highly subjective concept of arbiter of the quality of literature. If a writer feels they are ready to publish, and the book can make enough money to go around, it becomes a business decision. I really think the tired, old leather-patched elbows vision of Gatekeeper is something that needs to have a stake driven through its heart once and for all.

jurassicpork said...

Agents are too egotistical and arrogant to be scared. Plus, since publishers get the dry heaves at the thought of actually dealing with rank and vile authors whose names aren't King and Grisham, the few that actually have gotten their toes wet in epublishing have still found a way to keep agents on the playing field. There's one publisher with a new electronic imprint that will only accept submissions from a small handful of participating literary agencies. Which, in my mind, is just furthering a decayed business model that never really worked for writers or anybody, to begin with. Keeping agents on the playing field and maintaining that buffer between them and unpublished talent is simply a needless perpetuation a corrupt, collusive status quo that so needs to go or radically change.

L. Shanna said...

I don't think agents should be worried... yet. Self-publishing has a lot of evolving to do before their worlds change all that much.

Michele Shaw said...

I think those who are willing to adapt and shape their role with what's happening in the industry will still be around. Their title may change and some or all of their duties, but I've found people who love the business want to be in it in some capacity. If it's their passion, they'll find where they fit. Or even better, maybe someone will blaze a new trail and change how we do things entirely. (Hopefully for the better.)It could be an agent just as easily as a writer or anyone else in publishing.

Taylor Napolsky said...

Hell no they're not going anywhere.

D.G. Hudson said...

Agents may have to evolve further as the needs of the writers and publishers change.

The need for evolving to suit the times occurs in other industries as well. It's not new, and those who see the writing will adapt.

I think we still need agents, but that's IMO.

Andrew Leon said...

I think agents can survive (and thrive) if they shift their model back to working for the writer. The agent needs to go back to being someone that supports the writer and helps him achieve the things he's not good at, like marketing. Agents that cling to publishers and working for publishers and screening for publishers... they are going to decline as the publishers decline.

Mr. D said...

Well, I happen to know of a few agents who quit being agents. Doesn't mean it's a trend, though. Or maybe it is... Ultimately, there will always be agents of one kind or another.

Stephsco said...

Super interesting comments! I'm just absorbing it all. At the very least their roles will change further, but it's so hard to say how. I suppose it's like predicting the next trend in publishing and then being right about it!

John DuMond said...

There'll still a need for agents, but with the rise of independent e-publishing (both self-pub and small press), there may not be a need for as many as in the past.

Large contracts, movie/TV rights, and foreign language rights will still have to be negotiated. Agents with a background in contract and/or intellectual property law will be in the best position to represent authors in this process.

Amy said...

Honestly, I don't think they should be worried. I love having an agent, and I can't imagine doing this without her. I know plenty of people who feel the same way.

My agent doesn't just send my book out to editors and negotiate contracts. She gives me editorial feedback, she answers questions, she finds ways for me to promote my book. I don't think we'll ever stop needing that.

But I've always thought that self-publishing was going to coexist with "traditional" publishing, not destroy it.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I think that most writers will always need agents, because a lot of us aren't familiar with the publishing industry and we don't know how to sell books like agents do. Not to mention agents can provide very helpful feedback on our manuscripts.

E.B. Black said...

I don't think they will disappear any time soon, but I definitely feel a change in the industry.

Diana Stevan said...

It's a fascinating time. Everyone is re-inventing themselves now that the book universe has changed. I've marketed services in the past,and it's a hell of a lot of work. Trying to sell my book without a good agent is like venturing out on a new road without a map.

Courtney Price said...

Well, my friend... did YOU stick around? :)

Spike said...

The agent is already changing and they will fill the role of business partner so writers can do what they like - write. But their role as gatekeeper and their number will certainly dimish. I see them calling authors who have made a name for themselves

Emily Hill said...


Agents - for those who have been paying attention to the political landscape of publishing - have been 'worrying' for at LEAST two years now.

I'll never forget the terrified scurry by agents running back to hotel rooms after the 'agents forum' concluded during the 2010 PNWA conference in Seattle.

...Or the actual 'shout down' of agents at the 2011 conference by PNWA attendees who were calling BS on agents and their 'It's your query letter' spiel for why authors were facing 3:36,000 odds of getting a traditional publish contract. Yep, they were worried, alright!

I come back every once in a while to the Bransford Blog in hopes of catching an actual cutting-edge topic - oh well - sigh.

Seeley James said...

It's Big 6 Editors who should be worried. Agents are salespeople, the world always need them; especially in an industry littered with introverts.

The Big 6 carry tons of merger-debt and yet still have EPS expectations. The next thing they'll require agents/writers to bring with them is a professionally edited manuscript. At that point, what does the author need the publisher for?

Seeley James

Sylvia Burton said...

I can't believe that agents are going anywhere. I have to believe that there will always be traditional publishing houses. Even if there aren't as many, the role of the agent may evolve, as so many careers do these days. As long as there are authors trying to break into the game, agents will have work - in whatever form it may be.

J. Mark Miller said...

I agree with the sentiment of agents working for the authors. Becoming an agent FOR the author in truth.

I wonder how long it will be until we start seeing agents trolling through blogs, self-pubbed works on Amazon and Smashwords, and Wattpad, looking for the next author to sign?

Could make things really interesting if the agents are the ones who have to start shopping themselves around. They would still pick quality writers to choose to serve and promote, but would turn the current model on its head.

Nathan Bransford said...

I'm surprised to see people posting that agents need to start working for writers. That is, and always has been, what they do. If they didn't they'd be out of a job. The idea that agents are working for publishers' interests is propaganda.

Mary Tod said...

I agree that agents can be more than just gatekeepers. The question is will they be? One of their challenges is size - most being too small to make dramatic change. A few thoughts on the changing industry dynamic are on one of my blogs

Lee Lofland said...

Nathan, you're definitely one of the "good guys," and I can say that because we've met, chatted, and you've been a guest on my blog. However, not all writers have had pleasant experiences with agents. And those not-so-nice encounters are the root of many of the ill-willed comments you see and hear.

Actually, I've had a couple of bad experiences with agents and that makes me quite leery about future dealings, should I ever need to begin a new and much-dreaded agent search.

Mira said...

I think that authors will always need coaches, mentors and guides. People who understand the business and contracts. People to offer editorial help or referrals) and emotional support.

The skill set of agents will continue to be hotly in demand (not to mention their contacts). Whether their job title will change or not, I don't know.

But I do think that agents will start moving away from the traditional idea of:

***Contract with a client, and try to sell their work to a Big 6 publisher**

and more to:

**Contract with a client and figure out the best publishing path for them. Whether indie publishing, small press publishing, traditional publishing, some combination or something else entirely.**

So, I think agents will foster each client's individualized path to publication.

They may also experiment with flat fee assistance. Indie writers who want help with film rights, etc.

This would be a very good idea, I think. :) Not too much time investment, but potentially lucrative. The interesting thing is that agents may find that as they individualize the client's path to publishing, they make more money. 15% of 70% is a nice chunk of change.

Agents do risk reaping some anger from indie writers now, if they shut them out or refuse to listen to their concerns. This is the biggest danger facing agents right now. I'm not an agent, of course, so people can take this with a grain of salt, but if I were an agent, I would try to present myself so that every writer on the planet saw me as potentially THEIR ally, no matter what path they took or how they felt about the Big 6.

I say this because I believe that indie writers are not a subset. I believe they are the future. Whether traditional publishing survives or not, I think indie writers will make up a HUGE chunk of the market. So, I think agents would be wise to be very attractive to all writers on this planet called Earth.

Just my thoughts.

Thanks so much for an interesting discussion, Nathan!

Steven J. Wangsness said...

Let's hope so!
(Just kidding.)

Cynthia said...

The present model needs to, and probably will, change.
It has been too easy for writers to feel like they are a fly being swatted away. When I read that out of 10,000 queries to an agent, not one was taken up it seems like a system that is not working. What a waste of time, both for the agent and the 10,000 writers.

I also think that those writers who have become accustomed to a 60 - 70% royalty will not easily give up percentages of their income again. Fixed amounts, yes, but not ongoing percentages.

Candice said...

I know some solid travel agents that have managed to stay in business by adapting and specializing. If they can make a living in the world of Priceline and Expedia, I'm pretty sure the smartest, most forward thinking agents will be able to as well. The mediocre? Yes, they should be refining their skills to secure other employment.

Carolyn said...

Artists will always need business people to help them not get screwed by other business people.

The artists' business people might wind up with a new label (manager always being a popular choice when going for vague) and the business people might wind up with a new label, but the essential dynamic is eternal.

Peter Dudley said...

Agents aren't gatekeepers, but they are the funnel through which books get to publishers. That funnel will always exist, but I think it is tightening and soon will include only the "big six" and a handful of intrepid hangers-on. Midlist will move to indie and self publishing, making it much harder for second tier agents to make a living. As an agent, if you're not living on the best seller list, you'll be doomed.

Going extinct? No. Becoming rare? That's how I see it.

Anonymous said...

Unless the publishing industry suddenly becomes run by angels and will never try to rip you will ALWAYS need an agent
I wouldn't try to buy a house without a real estate why would I sign a book deal without a literary agent?
Same idea.. protection,peace of mind and most of all, someone to blame when things go wrong :)

Kate said...

I don't have any axes to grind against agents personally, and I know some agents that I like very much, but I also know a lot of authors who have been burned by their experiences.

Will they go away completely? I think it is worth considering that agents have not always had the "exclusive gatekeeper to editors/publishers" role they (sort of) have now. I was shocked when I read some of the history on the subject and learned about how recent those kinds of developments were. I used to think agents were as "traditional" as publishers themselves. Not true. Most authors did not need them once, and they submitted their manuscripts directly to editors. Maybe we'll go that route again, who knows?

I do think that agents will have a much smaller role in the future. said...

I think agents will continue to groom promising writers, especially those who are self publishing. Most writers want to write, but if they chose the self publishing path, they have to market themselves. A lot of writers don't want to take the time or have the interest in building a platform, branding themselves, and attracting readers.
Agents could help them with fee-based services to get their self published books attention.
I wouldn't be surprised if interns and newer agents aren't already familiar with what it takes to be successful as a self publisher and wanting to take the next step, offer a service to recruit writers to they agency.

Anonymous said...

"The idea that agents are working for publishers' interests is propaganda."

I did see that posted on a popular self-publisher's blog recently. I thought the same thing.

But I also think the agents that will continue to thrive are those who are willing to change with the times. In other words, no more divas. And please don't tell me that's not how it is with some. There's been a great party going on for many years, and I think that party has ended. I really do know, from personal experience, in some cases it is that way. I have seen and heard things I would never repeat. And I also believe that when agents stop worrying about print books...and trying to save print books and brick and mortar bookstores...they are going to be a huge help to authors.

But it's all so secretive now, and no agents are speaking up about anything. Please don't tell me you haven't see this either. There used to be many agent blogs; many have shut down. It's like they are all terrified to speak on any topic involving e-publishing or the way things are evolving. It's very interesting to watch.

But again, I do think there will always be a need for agents. I just think it will be a different breed of agents in years to come. Summer Fridays are going to be a thing of the past, especially as new authors begin to produce more at a faster pace.

The good thing is that readers can now vet books they might never have had a chance to read because an agent didn't like it. And we all know that's the case because agents themselves have always said it's a subjective business. In other words, readers and authors aren't chained to the specific tastes of agents. If you ever check out the conversations on goodreads for self-published books, you'll see how much fun thousands of readers are now having.

Nathan Bransford said...


I agree, I wish more agents would step up and speak up about these things and defend both themselves and the business. At some point it becomes exhausting, though. I certainly get exhausted by the negativity and I'm not even an agent anymore. There are people where being anti-traditional is a religion, and it makes you want to just throw up your hands and disengage.

I know there are superiority complexes on both sides, I know there are rude people on both sides, but I'm not sure I know a single person left in traditional publishing who is actually anti-self-publishing or anti-e-publishing. Just about everyone has a client who started that way even if they're not actively facilitating self-publishing, how could they be anti?

But there are a heck of a lot of anti-traditional-publishing zealots out there. It gets very very exhausting to try and stand in front of that mob and shout for reasonableness.

Anonymous said...

People who become exhausted trying to find an agent--with a good book--are more likely to eventually run to self publishing. But I learned if I want to see my book on the shelves…I would need an agent. I'm not going to jump out at anyone online like in a store. Both sides have pros and cons. It's up to the author to decide which option is best for them. As long as bookstores are around, agents will be too ;)

Mira said...


I understand that you have a very unique perspective, since you are a former industry insider and an author, but I want to make a suggestion because I hear how frustrated you sound.

I hope this is helpful. Since I tend to be an anti-publishing zealot, I may be the wrong person to offer this to you, you may be fairly fed up with me, but....I'm going to offer it anyway, for what it's worth, and hope it's helpful.

It's not like I follow these suggestion myself, but I should, and I'd like to get better at it.

Okay, so here it is:

People don't take a strong stand against something unless there is a very good reason for it. And until someone understands their reason, it is very rare for someone to relax their position.

So, before arguing for reasonableness, it helps to listen to the other peson first. Really listen. Fully understand their perspective. As if you were them.

And don't assume you already do. Look at what people are saying and how they are feeling, and really put yourself in their shoes.

Because shouting for reasonableness doesn't work because people will just shout their reasonableness back even louder.

That's the thing. Each side shouts their side and no one listens, and it doesn't go anywhere because neither side feels heard and so they just shout louder.

The training I've had in communication (occasionally, I remember to use it) suggests that when you are talking to someone who disagrees with you you start by:

a. Hearing them and reflecting it back to them. Keep reflecting and wait until they say: Yes, you understand.

b. Then, find a point of agreement, or if that's not possible, go to the next step which is to ask them to listen to your position.

People will often stop being angry if they just feel heard. EVEN IF THEY STILL DISAGREE. If they feel heard, they relax and they can usually hear your side.

Part of why the anti-publishing faction is so strident right now, is they are not being heard.

If anyone is in a position to help writers feel heard, it's agents. It's just going to take some neogtiating within themselves to be non-defensive, courageous and open in communication.

They need to understand that some writers feel hurt, damaged, dismissed, and angry at the industry. Telling them they shouldn't feel that way won't work. It will just make them more angry or hurt.

You have to listen.

It would also be nice if someone would listen to agents as well, so I'm going to do that right now, alittle bit. I imagine this must be very stressful and scary for them right now. I imagine they feel somewhat betrayed and misunderstood themselves. And getting pressure from both sides. I imagine it is very hard, and I hope they are offering support to each other, or finding ways to feel some sense of comfort within their community.

Anyway, hope this was helpful and not more aggravating.

Jason Runnels said...

I wonder if agents will "evolve" in the same way the headhunter's job did after the advent of online job boards like Yahoo and Monster.

Headhunters never went away completely. Those who still demonstrate value to job-seekers are still around today. These are the ones who actually work for the client.

And then you have the others...headhunters who link to a million people on LinkedIn and browse the same job listings anyone has access to.

The game may change but the smart ones find a way to evolve.

Peter Dudley said...

"there are a heck of a lot of anti-traditional-publishing zealots out there"

As someone who works for a Big Bank and thinks my company is one of the good guys, I understand the feeling. From my office I can hear the Occupy protestors (they're quite festive and lively, BTW). I know the good side of my industry and know there is incredible misinformation being spewed by our detractors. In some cases, outright lies. So I hear what you're saying.

But those zealots were created by something. People don't just wake up one day and say, "Hey, I hate traditional publishing. I'm going to go trash those muthers!" And people don't hate Big Publishing because Amazon has brainwashed them.

I have met wonderful people (yourself among them) in publishing. I love the writers, agents, and editors I've met at conferences. I've made amazing friends. But there are also those agents who give all y'all a bad name. There are those who are infuriatingly arrogant and elitist. There are those who act like gatekeepers and seem to work for the publishers rather than the authors.

The zealots don't just materialize. They are created by conditions, and the conditions in this case were created by Big Publishing.

wendy said...

While there was a trend over here in Australia for fewer publishing houses to accept unsolicited subs, now it's going the other way with the biggest houses opening their doors for specific times each month for writers to submit directly to them. It's a non-frills affair with writers requested to email their work but not to expect a response if unsuccessful.

Despite this current trend, I can't foresee the system changing terribly much even with the advent of ebooks and self-publishing, especially as bookstores and libraries usually don't stock self-published work. And for an array of other reasons as well, the majority of writers will still prefer to get their work out through a mainstream publisher, and the role of agents as gatekeepers and negotiators would still be needed. There's always a chance, though, that this role might diminish at some stages if self-publishing becomes more lucrative and enticing to a growing number of writers.

The artwork was a good fit! lol

bettye griffin said...

I miss my agent since going indie. She got me my rights back to 10 of my novels, I give her a complimentary download of all the eBooks I write, and of course she is in touch with me whenever I get a royalty payment. Fortunately, most of her clients are still traditionally published (I was dropped by both my publishers and have found new life as an indie writer), so I don't think she has anything to worry about. She is also a contracts attorney, so agenting is not her livelihood. In general, I don't think that agents with existing clients are in trouble because traditional publishing is still very much alive, but I think they will have to get creative in terms of getting new clients, perhaps, as has been suggested, by approaching indie authors with good sales numbers.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Peter and Mira. The people exhausting you have had bad experiences or have some reason to feel negative. Even if that negativity is completely unjustified (and I can't think that it is), we all know perception is half the battle.

I am not anti-traditional publishing or agents, but I have some friends who have written really good books. They have agents but can't get published. I'm not sure if it's the state of the industry or the fact that their agents are inept, but it makes me frustrated for them.

Unfortunately, none of them are seriously considering self-publishing at this point. I believe their books would be popular, but "traditional publishing" is not letting them in.

I am about to start submitting my first novel and quite frankly, I feel like I might get an agent, but I'll probably never be published traditionally. From what I've seen from the outside, it does seem as though agents are much more interested in being cozy with a publisher than in advancing a particular author. Perhaps that's completely incorrect, but it seems as though many people feel that way. (Even the people I know who are published authors are really close with their editors--not at all with their agents.)

Anonymous said...

Nathen if you want to see anti self publishing, check out the comments here about Goodkinds decision to self publish.

Anonymous said...

Nathan said: "The idea that agents are working for publishers' interests is propaganda."

Seriously? So a literary agency could decide to take on only wonderfully written novels and refuse to take on any inferior commercial writing because their hands aren't tied in any way by the demands of the big publishing houses? The literary agencies tell the publishers what they will and will not submit to them, what will and won't be marketed to readers? Or, honestly, isn't it the other way around? I'm not sure how you can say it's propaganda to express the viewpoint that literary agencies are paid by the publishing houses and therefore are beholding to them. For years, agents have been telling many writers that their books are wonderfully written, but won't sell enough copies, meaning enough copies to satisfy the big publishing houses' requirements. Many of those same authors went on to self-publish those same books and made plenty of money. I guess you could rephrase "agents are working for publishers' interests" with "agents are working for those writers who will satisfy publishers' interests" if it makes you feel better, but calling the first statement propaganda doesn't make it untrue. It seems to me that, in today's political climate, whenever someone labels something "propaganda," it's just a code word for turning off the discussion, bringing it down to the level of, "Is not...Is, too...Nunh Uhhh." For years now, special interests have been saying that global warming is also "propaganda," but the Earth just keeps getting warmer anyway. Calling global warming "propaganda" doesn't make it untrue.

Anonymous said...

TYPO: meant "beholden," not "beholding."

-Anon at 9:22 PM

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I think their role will be more limited.

Nathan Bransford said...


I know you're familiar with psychology, so you are also probably familiar with confirmation bias, which is the tendency to seek out information that confirms your pre-existing beliefs and discarding anything that is contrary to that. I would ask you to examine your confirmation bias because I feel that you discount the things I'm saying on this subject.

I've been on every side of this business - I've been an author querying and getting rejected, I've been a literary agent, now I'm out of the business, I've been traditionally published and I'm probably going to self-publish someday. I have plenty, plenty of frustrations with traditional publishing, but I also don't let those frustrations blind me to the fact that the industry is made up of very smart people working for the love of books (it's certainly not for the pay) and doing what they think is best for the future of the business.

Is there some truth to what anti-traditional publishing zealots are saying? Absolutely! I've never argued otherwise.

Yes, the industry needs to get with the times. Yes, there are clauses in contacts that are onerous. Yes, 25% net is too low for a digital royalty. Yes, the industry sometimes treats authors like pests. Yes, it's frustrating to send a query and have it go unanswered. All true.

Where I get frustrated is when those valid points become religion for some people and leads them to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Traditional publishing is not a bed of roses, but it's not a den of thieves either.

When anti-traditional publishing becomes a religion, no amount of "I hear you, you have some valid points, here's where I think we agree, here's where I think we disagree" is going to persuade people. It's not rational at that point. And that's where I think a lot of people have ended up, not because of personal experiences with many of the things they're angry about, but because people have let their frustration with the querying and traditional publication process cloud their perspective.

There are some things self-publishing is better for. There are some things traditional publishing is better for. There really can be peace in our time.

Nathan Bransford said...


But even look at your own phrasing - you're saying "Big Publishing" as a pejorative. If someone from traditional publishing started calling self-publishers "The Unwashed" or even "Little Publishing" can you imagine the resulting umbrage? The entire country might catch fire.

I don't actually think most of the conditions people are frustrated with have much to do with "Big Publishing" at all, but with the funnel. And that funnel exists because up until now there were a finite number of books that could physically exist in a bookstore. Life in the funnel completely sucks. There are too many good books for too few slots, and that influences everything else - there are more agented books than can be bought by publishers, and there are way, way, way more unagented books than can be repped by agents. So there's a whole lot of rejection at every stage of the process, and by its very nature it's frustrating.

That's thankfully changing with self-publishing, but as long as traditional publisher publish only a finite amount of books, welcome to the funnel. It's not fun.

Nathan Bransford said...


Agents take on books they think they can sell to publishers. That is their job. It's a business. Agents make more money if they get better deals for the authors, e.g. if they're willing to get a publisher to pay more, which is at the publisher's expense.

They're not beholden to publishers, they're beholden to their clients. The better deal the client gets the more money the agent makes. Their interests are aligned.

Mira said...

Nathan, unfortunately I can't respond from my work computer because it will send to spam. Typing on my little I phone won't work for me to adequately address your comment. So I'll respond this evening. I didn't want you to think I was ignoring you!

Peter Dudley said...

"But even look at your own phrasing - you're saying "Big Publishing" as a pejorative."

That was intentional.

The point in using it that way (in the specific places I did) was to invoke the emotion while trying to illustrate how the Zealots feel. (Zealot itself is a loaded term. So... Hey, Mom, Nathan started it!)

That is, when I say Big Publishing, it's a shorthand that invokes all the bad aspects of the publishing industry that the Zealots don't like. The problem is not with the pejorative use but with the fact that it makes no distinction between the good and the bad. It does make distinction between the big and the not-big, however.

Which is exactly how I feel any time a friend of mine gets all up in my facebook about Big Banks. They don't hate "banking," they just hate "Big Banks." Which includes me, even though I personally am as far removed from the bad done by Big Banks as can possibly be.

The fact that there are Zealots who lump the good in with the bad and then get loud about it does not change the fact that there's bad. If there was no bad, there would be no zealots. Which was my original point. And which you have stated time and again, both in posts and comments. So actually we agree.

The subtle difference is that Zealots tend to be most angry about and target those they think have the most power and influence and elitism. Because that's where the biggest bad is. I think the Zealots don't hate "traditional publishing," they hate "Big Publishing."

For my own personal part, I agree with you. My frustration (until recently) was with the funnel. Self-publishing eliminated the funnel, and my frustration went away. As you've pointed out, we all need to understand our own motivations and do what is right for us individually. My motivations are served beautifully by self publishing.

More recently, though, I've become frustrated with the ongoing turf war between traditional publishing and Amazon. Here, "traditional publishing" means something different. It includes publishers, agents, and independent booksellers. Almost anyone who isn't Amazon or a self-published author, as a matter of fact. And there are a lot of anti-Amazon Zealots out there...

Nathan Bransford said...


Yeah, definitely agree that some of the hostility to Amazon in some traditional publishing bastions is extreme. You know what Yoda said about fear...

Also agree that the "bigness" and power makes publishing an easy target.

Okay we pretty much agree.

Anonymous said...

Nathan said: "But even look at your own phrasing - you're saying "Big Publishing" as a pejorative. If someone from traditional publishing started calling self-publishers "The Unwashed" or even "Little Publishing" can you imagine the resulting umbrage? The entire country might catch fire."

You've seriously got to be kidding me. Nathan, to use a term you directed at Mira, I would say that you have a huge confirmation bias. It has become very clear to me that you do not even remotely understand most of the arguments against big publishing or even where the term comes from. Big publishing companies are labeled "big" because they are huge conglomerates. When you suggest that "The Unwashed" could be an equivalent term for self-publishing companies, your bias shines through. "The Unwashed" is the same type of prejudicial term often used against minorities, calling them "unwashed," "dirty," "diseased," etc. "Big" means "extremely wealthy;" "unwashed" puts people in their place. And you know what? The country hasn't started on fire. Who cares what you suggest as a pejorative term for self-publishers? Who cares? The point that many self-published authors have tried to make, but it falls on deaf ears, is that authors often do much better after leaving traditional publishing for self-publishing and it makes them kind of angry that they wasted so many years believing the myths they were told by big publishing. If you do plan on self-publishing some day, you might want to keep in mind that alienating self-published authors isn't a great way to introduce yourself to that community. The fact that you treat the big publishing houses' side of the DOJ lawsuit with much more respect than you treat self-publishing as a whole speaks volumes about how little respect you have for self-published authors as a community. You always tread very carefully when talking about traditional publishers, but you treat self-publishing the way that prejudiced people treat any minority, your opinion is shaped by negative examples in that group. Not all self-published authors are angry or loud. Many are happy - quite happy, actually, because the publishing path they've chosen is a lot of fun.

Nathan Bransford said...


I think it was clear I wasn't actually calling anyone anything. But that's a lot of umbrage for what was posed as a hypothetical. I think you proved my point.

Anonymous said...

Peter and Nathan, do you realize that the discussion has now fallen to the level at which nothing of substance is being discussed? By focusing on one term, the term "big publishing," the discussion has narrowed down to whether or not that's a pejorative term. Fox News does this brilliantly, by the way. A linguist once pointed out that by controlling language, Fox News completely takes the focus off the real issues. I'm just waiting for self-publishing to be labeled "socialist," than we'll have the kind of discussion we're used to.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nathan Bransford said...


I feel like you're trolling at this point - if you wish to continue this discussion I'm happy to do so but only if you're non-anonymous.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't trolling, but I can see where you might think so. I'm going to opt out of the rest of the discussion, as it has become a bit one-sided.

Anonymous said...

I think they will, but there's going to be a painful period of adjustment. The self-pub model, once it gains critical mass with traditionally published writers (which may take a while, since I assume many of them are chained to contracts which would necessarily limit their ability to adapt as quickly as novice authors) start publishing, that will accelerate more quickly.

I was not a fan of the whole self-pub thing (how else to describe), until I went back and looked at my contracts, and read That Guy's Blog. Stripped of the rancor towards traditional publishing, what he says makes sense: the archaic royalty periods, the gross financial exploitation of writers who aren't front list (mid-list, you're essentially self-publishing, at this point) and the countless other ways authors are being taken for a ride, the 30/70 split is clear, pays in a timely fashion, and well... what else?

The digital / device element is simply too large to ignore at this point, and unless they have some magical way to control it, that genie isn't going back into the bottle. So they have a while for literary fiction. Genre fiction, it's already gone: people don't seem to care about imprints, or houses, or any of that.

This question is a good one, and one I've given thought to, but I can't help but question if it works as a one size fits all. Prestige authors (or those with that perceived cachet) are supported by houses' less glamorous lines: what happens when lady's fiction, for example, has completely migrated to digital, and whatever subsidiary of Random House that drew upon that revenue stream, no longer can? Do agents then become hyper-hyper-hyper selective, only repping prize winners? In which case, how do they prevent their client lists from atrophying?

Peter Dudley said...

Peter and Nathan, do you realize that the discussion has now fallen to the level at which nothing of substance is being discussed?

must... not... take.. the bait...

Anonymous said...

I am anon 4:44 & would add ... people don't tend to think about this, but sometimes an agent's slowless (to read a mss, submit it, return notes), works in the writer's favor, forcing or provoking revisions that this fever for instant publishing (and crashing down those gatekeepers' walls) circumvents. For people like Amanda Hocking who thrive in the world of series, producing as much possible makes sense - the writing isn't (sorry, not to be a hater, but she as much admits this herself) as good, but her as a business needs more attention than a slower, or less "productive" writer would. And though I'm sure her agent has a game plan, it's probably a different one than a literary novelist in the deep south who one the National Book Award.

another question for Nathan: given the money that authors can make digitally, yet the attachment to prestige of MSM pub, do you foresee a world in which one can have both? perhaps using pseudonyms? and did you read the NYMagazine interview with Barry Dillers in which he retorted that new technologies (he was speaking about tv antennaes that suck off MSM broadcast signals) don't replace but grow up alongside existing technologies? Is that co-existing model valid for publishing, or would you say TV is apples to oranges? (And back to the original query, if they can coexist, how do you foresee agent/agencies fitting into that sort of blended future?)

Anonymous said...

I am anony 4:44 & 4:53: whoever is disrupting this convo, please stop. this question is too important to some of us to wade through off topic posts. Thank you for being considerate of others.

Nathan Bransford said...


I think there will be blurring all over the place, at least if the author keeps an open mind to opportunity. There will be (and already are) authors who go with traditional publishers for some books and self-publish others, there will be authors who start out self-published and move entirely to traditional and vice versa, there will be authors who self-publish their e-books and work with a traditional publisher for print books.... there's basically an infinite number of combinations.

I'm not sure I still quite see how agents will fit into the self-publishing process, unless they're able to cultivate a relationship with distributors to lend their books preferred promotional status. But short of that, I think the value add as an overarching consultant is somewhat murky. It's only going to get easier to self-publish and I think it will be tricky for an agent to add value in a way that scales.

But I think agents will continue to still exist for the biggest authors who have many different types of deals to negotiate, from traditional print deals to foreign rights to subrights. The biggest authors will always have room for negotiation, and an agent can add a lot of value there.

But who knows - things keep right on changing.

Anonymous said...

okay, how would you have that conversation (not you, per se, but a generic "you") about self-pub/trad pub tracks with your agent? in a way that wasn't threatening, and didn't upend the author/agency agreement which (assuming they're standardized) is an agreement for the agent to rep literary work the author produces? and if the 2.99-3.99 is the price most people are willing to pay for digital books, is the 15% commission appropriate? (and how does Amazon's inevitable collection of taxes affect that equation?) ... please, please speak to some of the dollar elements of this: I feel like this convo's been limited by "feelings" and tho I respect everyone's, I'm focused on finances

you've spoken/written before about big authors, & their need for contracts but what about an agent & foreign rights/ translations? it's one thing to upload to the domestic market, but other than English language countries (amazon uk), how would one even begin to navigate the global market?

I wanted to add something about an agent's value: they're schooled in thinking tactically/strategically in a way that, cleaver as I am, am not. I've noticed, too, that my agent consults with the other agents, and I wonder if people know you don't get just one agent, but benefit of experienced people you may never meet or speak to.

Anonymous said...

I haven't listened to this, but the paper (imagine that) version of Wasserman's piece in this weeks, "The Nation" (supplement with two others), is very interesting and worth a read.

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

What I think is happening is the same that happened with trading stocks, you know have the capacity to do it yourself without a stock broker. If you think of an agent as a stock broker making a transaction for you, then think of it as a premium of service. While stock brokers still exist today, we need less of them.

Wendy Tyler Ryan said...

For now, I'm leaning toward "morphing" into something else. I also think Agents may have to rethink where there clients may be coming from. They may have to rely on more than the inbox or the slush pile to find their next author.

I also think there needs to be an alternative to writers conferences. Writers who live in the vicinity of the conference or writers who can afford to fly to a conference make up a limiting pool. Many, many writers will never get the opportunity to impress anyone in person.

Last, agents will have to take their blinders off. That narrow focus they use to choose their next project may have to include good writing - not just flavor of the month.

H Bastawy said...

In today's world, authors have got more resources on their hands. A lot of authors take to the internet, build their own websites and start establishing online platforms where they can promote their works themselves, works that they might have self-published or published the traditional way. I believe the role of the agent after its boom in the last two decades is shrinking back again to how it used to be. Soon, publishers will start to get more contactable as a consequence to the influx of self-published books. When this happens agents will become optional to short-on-time authors, and a luxury to the more established ones.

Daniel McNeet said...


I believe agents will survive and prosper if they can develop some empathy and compassion for writers whom are hard working people. To consider submitting a query to an agent whom says in advance, "I will respond if I am interested" I do not think so. For they must come to realize that they would not be in business if it were not for writers. You were always courteous and responded promptly when you were an agent.

Anonymous said...

@Daniel, not to be obnoxious, but what exactly is wrong with, "I will respond if I'm interested"? A no is still a no. I'm consistently amazed by the unspoken sense of entitlement underlying the believe, "they must come to realize ... were it not for writers." True, but 15% of nothing is still nothing. People's expectations of what they "feel" agents should do blows my mind.

Mira said...

So, I took my questions down....
Nathan, honestly, I feel like I'm stuck in an argument with you I keep trying to end.

However, I am going to continue because I always cut you off when we debate, which I think is unfair. So, here I go. You can decide to respond or not, but knowing myself, I'll probably consider deleting this comment tomorrow, unless it becomes part of a conversation, because I dont' really have perspective on it. Besides, I don't care if this comment is made public or not. I'm talking to you, Nathan.

So, I probably should start by reflecting your above statements back to you, but I think that would just annoy you at this point, so I'm going to go right to my perspective.

This is why I speak out. I believe that strong pressure needs to be put on publishers so they will change their practices towards writers. I don't believe that they will change these practices out of their own initiative. To put it in very clear terms, I think that labor needs to stand up for itself in order for management to change.

I have no issue with those who work INSIDE publishing. I'm sure they are wonderful people. I have an issue with those who work at the TOP of publishing. The people who are very rich and powerful and probably want to keep it that way.

To give an even better example, I have serious problems with oil companies, but I'm sure there are wonderful people who work in them.

I also have no issue with writers who want to work in traditional publishing. If they think it's best for them, that's great.

In terms of reform, I'm fine if publishers adapt and survive, if they do so while offering better terms to writers. But I'm not attached to that solution.

So, I know that you don't agree the system is exploitive and needs pressure to change, Nathan, but I wish you would understand that I do. I'm sorry if that makes you feel I'm discounting your opinion. That's not my intention, I just see it differently, Nathan.

I will say that I had already decided, this weekend, to stop saying anti-traditional publishing statements on your blog. I've decided it's rude. It would be like going to a vegetarian's website and talking ad infinitum about the barbeque last week. I'm sorry if my statements here have put pressure on you. I guess there is a part of me that wants to change your mind. But I think it's time to let go of that.

So, that's my response to your post above. I will respond if you want to continue, I won't cut off the debate. And if you don't, that's okay, whatever works best for you.

Mira said...

Oh, I guess saying I feel stuck in an argument I keep trying to end is really unfair given how provocative I am.

That is unfair. I'm sorry. I just hate feeling as though we are at odds, so whenever you respond, I just want to say "let's agree to disagree." Maybe that's trying to dodge accountability. Sorry.

wendy said...

Good for you, Peter, answering in a way that is non-reactive and witty. Always admire you, Nathan, for keeping a calm head in any debate. A debate is always about issues and shouldn't become about the debators. Not everyone is good at expressing their opinions, but everyone has the right to express his/her opinion without being insulted for having that opinion. Disagreeing with the opinion without finding fault with the one expressing it is always a win-win - in my opinion. ;)

Anonymous said...

Kudos to you, Mira. I feel exactly the same as you. There's nothing wrong with questioning the questionable practices of very rich and powerful people at the top of huge multinational conglomerates. The DOJ has done the same in regard to most of the huge publishing houses, and kudos to them as well. Like you said, that has nothing to do with all the wonderful people who work for and with those corporations, most of them being paid only a small pittance compared to the huge profits made by those at the top. No one should feel guilty or apologetic for the type of stand you're taking.

wendy said...

But are the biggest publishers operating on huge profit margins? Are they 'greedy corporations' with profits going mainly to Board members while being ruthlessly stingy with their authors? Do any of us know this for a fact or is it heresay? I've always had the impression that the book biz operated on a slim profit margin with only the occasional best sellers keeping most companies going. Wasn't it Houghton and Mifflin the latest publishing company to file for bankruptcy? Publishers are going under, financially, all the time.

It is a very competitive and risky business, perhaps now more than ever.

wendy said...

*Houghton Mifflin* I meant - sorry.

Anonymous said...

Wendy - Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has been owned by and merged with a number of different companies. For example, in 2001, under the name Houghton Mifflin, it was acquired by the French media giant Vivendi for $2.2 billion. In 2003, Vivendi sold Houghton Mifflin to the private equity investment groups Thomas H. Lee and Bain Capital for $1.28 billion. Recently, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt filed for bankruptcy in order to receive help in dealing with billions of dollars of debt that was about to come due and worked out a plan to have $3 billion of its debt reduced to zero. Here's information on it: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Files For Bankruptcy, Claims $3 Billion In Debt. Now, does this sound like the kinds of financial dealings agents or editors or other workers farther down the food chain deal with in their daily lives? I don't think so. And that's just a very tiny mention of all the mergers and acquisitions and financial dealings in which Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has been involved.

wendy said...

Thanks for that info, Anon. Very interesting, actually. Sorry if I'm splitting hairs, but according to Wikipedia this company is not strictly a publishing company but has - over the years - owned a diverse number of companies including, Canal+ Technologies, Vinci Construction, Univeral Studies, etc. And also according to Wiki, in 2002 Viveldi was fighting to stave off bankruptcy, itself. I think your point is, though, that Viveldi considered that H.M. was worth purchasing at 2.2b so there must be quite some money to be made by this publishing company. However, maybe their assumption wasn't totally correct, because as you noted they sold it again, fairly quickly, for almost half of what they paid for it. But 1.6b is still a lot of money though.

Actually, in support of your view, Anon, I came across this article about Penguin Books U.K:

'Penguin UK had its best ever year in 2010 as parent company Pearson reported a profits increase of 21% to £857m.

For the year ending 31st December, sales at Pearson were £5.66bn, up 10% on 2009. Sales at Penguin were £1.05bn, up 6% on the previous year. Adjusted operating profit was up 26% to £106m. Pearson attributed this to an "outstanding" US performance, driven by a record number of bestsellers, increased market share and expansion in emerging digital platforms and formats.'

Apparently in 2011 there was a slight dip in profits, but in 2012 there was a big leap in ebook profits, worldwide for this publisher:

'E-book sales represented 12% of all Penguin revenue worldwide in 2011; in the U.S., e-book sales accounted for more than 20% of Penguin’s revenue. While overall revenues at the company were up 1%, profits were up 8%, according to a statement from the company, suggesting that e-book sales deliver a higher profit margin.'

It seems Penguin are doing alright, then *g* I chose Penguin because it's the most well-known and successful publishing co. here in Australia. If the figures for this company are anything to go by, then the publishing biz isn't going too badly.

I'm just tossing ideas around trying to fathom things out. I really appreciate your reply, Anon. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Wendy - Fascinating information. Thanks. When people working away in the lower levels of these huge conglomerates get laid off, they're just being used to boost overall profit for those at the top. What I don't understand is when the struggling workers defend the conglomerate as though it's feeling the same kind of struggle rather than just experiencing a pause in steep incline of huge profit.

Mira said...

Anon 11:37. Thank you! I'm glad we agree. It was really nice to read your supportive comments. :)

Just to clarify, I'm not apologizing for my beliefs, but more for trying to bash Nathan over the head with them.

Part of the problem is that one way to put pressure on the people at the top is by putting pressure on the people inside by confronting practices. I'm still learning when and how it's best to do that!

Anonymous said...

Mira - so glad you contributed to the discussion!

Anonymous said...

Don't think so.
There still has to be someone to help authors (who are pretty busy writing) deal with some questions, like books promotion, selling rights, etc

Lillian Archer said...

I do not think agents are going away...but I think there will be less of them in the future. And I agree, much like the rest of the industry, agents will need to maintain flexibility to adjust to the marketplace. There are many paths to publication, with the same results- the public reading and enjoying an author's work.

Peter Dudley said...

A couple of weeks ago you opined that there is no "us versus them" in publishing. I think the number of people unwilling to put their names on their comments shows otherwise.

By the way, anyone know why a bunch of 5-star Amazon reviews would mysteriously, simultaneously disappear? (The users who wrote the reviews did not delete them.) That happened to me late last week. Amazon has been no help. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might start commenting here anonymously...

Dianne L Gardner said...

I think that the agent will probably be around in some form or another, but I also think the whole publishing industry needs to take another look at what consumjers are reading. I find too many agents wanting books that they personally like, and refuse to open their eyes to what the consumer likes. People buy/read what's available to them and I think that's why self-publishing is taking off so well. If an author's work doesn't fit in the 'box' that the agent has predetermined is what they'll represent,up until recently that said author remains unpublished. Unfortunately the 'box' concept leaves the truly unique style/genre/message author hanging in limbo. Consumers want something different, not just something that fits well on the shelf. A lot of authors find it hard to sell to agents, but their book sells well with the consumer. To add to that, I recently went to a conference and noticed that agents and publishers don't always agree on what they'd like to see published. Where does that leave the author if there's a publisher out there that would like your work but the agent won't bring it to them? Just some things that I think the publishing industry needs to reconsider. Ultimately, the success of books is determined by the consumer, not the agent, not the publisher. I think the whole of Indie is proving that.

Sara said...

Mira: Just wanted to say thanks as always for your thoughtful, intelligent, well-worded and (I believe) very fair comments. As always, I feel that your contributions both contributed to and elevated the conversation.

Also, I think I'm an unbiased party. I see the pros and cons of traditional and indie publishing and honestly don't know which I'd go with if I ever had the chance to choose between them. And as an unbiased person, I really think that you made a huge effort to hear and honor both sides of the discussion and I absolutely disagree that you spoke with any bias of any kind.

I have always been a huge fan of yours Nathan, but from reading this thread carefully and exhaustively, I don't think you heard what Mira was trying to say. Just my two cents.

Great convo all! Thanks for the thought-provoking comments!

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