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The mysterious world of Planet Agent

We usually look at the world through the eyes of authors – and quite right too – but I recently saw an interesting article by literary agent Kristin Nelson, which evaluated the changes she’s seen over twenty odd years on Planet Agent.

The gist of the article was that agenting has become a tougher business than it was. I’m going to look at her fourteen reasons why … but first:

Oh ye people.

Last week, I told you that the Summer Festival of Writing is, from now on, going to be free to Jericho members. This week, I tell you that we’ve also tossed in an extra event, for free. October sees the launch of our Build Your Book month (info here). We’ve got twelve events aiming to help you turn your book into a masterpiece. In effect, it’s the self-editing complement to our super-successful Getting Published and Self-Publishing months, which take place in spring.

All this stuff is, and will remain, completely free to Jericho members. If you’re not a member yet, we’d absolutely love to have you (how to join). You also get full access to all our 1000+ literary agent profiles on AgentMatch. You also get access to our 400+ films and masterclasses (info). You also get access to our amazing (and expanding) range of video courses (info). You also get free weekly events throughout the year (info). We’ve also got further yumminess coming up, but I can’t tell you about that now, because I’m bound by the terrifying code of Jerich-o-merta …

Okiedoke. Back to Planet Agent. Here are Nelson’s fourteen reasons why agenting has got tougher:

1. More agents

Nelson reckons there are more literary agents around now than there used to be. I can’t quantify the degree to which that’s true, but certainly there don’t seem to be fewer agents, even though most publishers have cut the size of their frontlists.

Verdict: she’s got a (smallish) point here.

2. Agents as editors

Back in the day, agents used to be able to hawk a manuscript that had clear potential – and clear editorial needs. These days, with the competition as it is, it would be a dumb agent and a dumb author who took that approach. Instead, agents have tended to get involved in editorial work prior to submissions.

(And if you think that because your agent has given you editorial feedback, you won’t need an extensive editorial process with the publisher – well, think again. Everyone gets to give their thoughts; you get to do the work. The good news: books usually get better as a result.)

Verdict: She’s right

3. Less agent visibility

Nelson comments that, years back, it was quite easy for an agent to be noticed via your blog or Twitter feed, just because so few agents did anything like that. Well, that may be the case, but you don’t find many agents complaining about a shortage of submissions – and I know plenty of successful agents who don’t spend any real time on social media.

Verdict: Hmm.

4. Agent as publicist

Nelson writes, ‘In today’s publishing landscape, agents have to do so much more marketing/publicity management to optimize client success.’

Really? Aren’t publishers doing that? And how many agents are actually pro publicists? And if they are, why are they selling manuscripts for a living? I think most agents do take on real editorial work. I think the good ones do a lot to manage a career and guide the author/publisher relationship. But honestly, most agents don’t do a ton of marketing work and they probably shouldn’t. It’s not their skillset.

Verdict: Hmm.

5. Email mountains

Nelson comments that ‘three hundred emails is a light day’. Jeepers. There’s no question that email volumes have vastly increased – and it can’t actually be healthy or make for efficient business that any one person has 300 emails to deal with in a day. (Before they’ve actually read a word of their clients’ work, or anything from the new submissions pile.)

Verdict: I’m very sympathetic.

6. Indie Publishing

When I started writing, traditional publishing was the only meaningful route to making money and finding a relationship. That’s no longer true and that also means agents are aware that their clients can scarper sideways into a game that’s fertile for the writer and arid for the agent.

Nelson writes, intelligently, ‘I’m hugely supportive of authors and indie publishing, but the loss of talent to the indie sphere does impact an agency’s bottom line.’

Verdict: She’s right, of course. Not a big problem for authors, though :)

7. Publisher payments

Back in the day, advances were split into two or three chunks – typically, on signature, on hardback publication, and on paperback publication. These days, some publishers insist on four or five instalments, and have pushed some payments back to well after publication. (So they’re not advances any more – perhaps ‘late payments’ would be a better term.)

Nelson notes that this practice makes life harder for agents, which is true. I also note that it’s effectively a way for billion-dollar companies to boost their cash flow at the expense of authors, which doesn’t seem very graceful to me.

Verdict: She’s right again

8. The Great Contract Swamp

Publishers have always been slow in negotiating contracts, which is pitiful when you consider that the vast majority of contracts deal mostly in boilerplate. But they’ve got slower.

I’ve known authors with roots in more businesslike professions write to me concerned when they haven’t seen a contract within two or three weeks. What’s going on, they ask, is there a problem?

And the answer is no, there isn’t a problem, except that publishers understaff their contracts department and deliver too little authority to editors to sort out issues. I once wrote an entire book in between agreeing the deal (orally and by email) and the publisher actually delivering the contract. And which do you think ought to take longer: writing a 100,000 word book, every word of it original, or writing a contract of about a dozen pages, with almost every word of it boilerplate?

Verdict: I’m with Team Nelson here. And I think the publishing industry should do a lot, lot better.

9. Then there was one

Publishers keep eating each other. First Penguin and Random House married. Now they’re going all menage a trois with Simon & Schuster. Meantime, Hachette is currently gobbling Workman, its sixth US acquisition in eight years. And so it goes.

The fewer big publishers there are, the less the competition for authors. And yes: there are some terrific micro-publishers and they do a great job. But if you want cash in your pocket, you need one of the big guys. And there aren’t as many as there used to be.

Verdict: Team Nelson all the way

10. The Great Flood

Editors see a lot of submissions. They say no to a hell of a lot. And because they see a lot, and say no a lot, it takes longer for editors to get back to agents.

That makes it harder for an agent to mount an effective auction and means a lot more chasing to get anywhere at all. Nelson comments that that’s made life harder for agents and, since trad authors have their fortune yoked to Planet Agent, that means it’s worse for writers too.

Verdict: Yep, right again

11. The death of the editor

Yea, verily, back in the time when the flood waters receded from the earth, editors were allowed to choose books because they liked them. These days, editors are second-guessed by acquisitions committees and marketing folk who sit on those committees, with the result that the whole process has become more tangled, more bureaucratic and (I bet) no more effective.

I’d like to say that Nelson is right about this, but remember marketing people and other execs were deeply involved in acquisitions even twenty years back. So if she is right, she has a longer memory than I do.

Verdict: Hmm.

12. Blockbuster or bust

Back in the day, there were authors like Ian Rankin whose first books didn’t sell especially well and weren’t perfectly formed. But they grew into their careers and became serial bestsellers.

These days, publishers lack the patience to grow an author in that way. If an author’s debut two-book deal doesn’t pretty much earn out, there’s every chance that author will simply be discarded. That’s nuts.

Verdict: I’m Nelsonian – one-eyed and one-armed.

13. The Death of the Mass Market Format

Nelson writes, ‘Back in the day, so many agents got their start representing authors in romance, mystery, and urban fantasy—all genres traditionally launched in the mass-market format. Fantastic glory days were when I would sell in a debut romance author for six figures.’ These days, she says, mass market editions have subsided in favour of e-books, which haven’t given publishers anything like the same income.

That’s all true – but also a misdiagnosis.

The reason e-books haven’t given trad publishers a huge payday, compared with the mass market editions of the past, is that the areas concerned – romance, genre mystery, YA paranormal, SF, and much else – have been very largely colonised by indie authors, who have made a killing.

So, on this topic, the impact for authors has been highly positive – so long as they’ve gone indie.

Verdict: I know what she’s saying, but …

14. The Change that Wasn’t

Oh Jeepers. Nelson also says this: ‘Publishers, despite emphasis on social change in the last couple of years, have not expanded their readership outreach or marketing to reflect the current cultural landscape. This continues to mean fewer opportunities for agents and authors of Color. This should be the one area where it’s better for the agents of today, and it’s not.’

This is real head-in-hands stuff. If not now, then when? As it happens, I think a change that has been very long overdue really is beginning to happen – but it probably won’t finally bed in until the mid- to senior ranks of publishing start to resemble the cities that house them: the highly multicultural London and New York.

I’ve been publishing work for more than twenty years. I’ve had more editors, publicists, marketing people and others involved in my books than I can easily count. But, from memory, only one of them – ONE! – was a person of colour. Ye Gods. It really is changing though. It really is.

Verdict: She’s horribly right.


Don’t forget to check out our Build your Book month. And n'oubliez pas that the Summer Festival is now free to Jericho members. Interested in joining us maybe? Course you are.

Oh and you don't know what I mean, one-eyed, one-armed? Tush and pish. Inform yourself.

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    • Please provide a printable version of your messages. The graphics are pretty and certaily arthistic but they take too much ink when printed out. Thanks.

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      • I'm blessed with a very good agent who would certainly echo some of those remarks, particularly the rising power of the 'suits' vs the 'commissioning editors' in acquisitions. Amazon is now a near-monopoly in many genres (typically 75%+ of sales) and they are demanding so much margin that publishers are highly risk-averse. Hence also their unwillingness to support an emerging author in the hope that book 3 or 4 will be a blockbuster. If #1 doesn't break through they won't take #2.

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