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.