Literary Agents: Soon to be Obsolete?

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office, CA

What do milkmen, file clerks, photo darkroom technicians, typewriter repairmen and telephone operators have in common? New technology and a changing world made their jobs obsolete.

I was talking with a fellow agent a couple of weeks ago. As often happens when agents get together, we were talking about the rapid changes in publishing. She said, “Who knows if we’ll even have jobs ten years from now.” We’ve all been thinking about the future, but I was surprised by her pessimism. It begs the question: What is it that agents do? Do we add value to a writer’s career outside of selling to traditional publishers?

As my mentor and our Books & Such founder, Janet Kobobel Grant, said, “Those who are looking to the future will last. Those who resist change, who want everything to remain the same, will become obsolete.” Janet is right. If an agent is primarily concerned with “making the deal” (and there are a lot of agents in that category), he’s in danger of going the way of the dinosaur.

So let me talk about some of the things agents do and what the future may hold.

Disclaimer: It may appear self-serving to insist my job will endure. It could be argued that I have a vested interest here, but at heart, I’m a realist. If I thought my career were in danger of ending, I’d be working on a transition ASAP. (If you think I’m myopic on this subject, I’m counting on you to convince me otherwise in the comments.)

A good agent wears many hats. I picked a few that came to mind just from the things I’ve done in the last few weeks. This list is by no means exhaustive. To each activity I’ve arbitrarily assigned a number on the Obsolescence Danger Scale, with 1 being absolutely secure and 10 being on the proverbial career banana peel. The low/secure end of the scale are the jobs an author would be foolish to tackle at home or that require contacts or expertise an author couldn’t possibly have. Those on the high/danger end of the scale are jobs that may become unnecessary or that an author might be able to do for himself or hire out.

Salesperson: Yes, the agent is a salesperson. One of the things we love to do is take your project and find the perfect buyer. Dealmaking will always be part of an agent’s job, whether the deal is with a traditional publisher, an ebook only publisher, selling film rights or foreign rights. As long as an agent can think outside the box and create opportunities both within and outside traditional publishing, he’s got job security. Obsolescence Danger: 3

Editor: Many agents read manuscripts and help shape them. While agents are never meant to be the sole editor, if the industry moves away from traditional publishing, this oversight becomes more important than ever. Of course this task can be hired out. Obsolescence Danger: 8

Book Doctor: Your agent should be able to look at a manuscript and pull you up short if it is missing the mark. This job needs to be done by the agent because many times it requires a holistic approach. The book doctor needs to understand the client’s full career and see how a particular book fits in.Or doesn’t. Obsolescence Danger: 2

Brainstorm Partner: A good agent often helps brainstorm when the client gets stuck. Because this task can be performed by gifted fellow writers, it’s not something that would be of value if it were the only thing an agent did. Obsolescence Danger: 8

Rolodex Maven: Okay, the Rolodex is certainly obsolete, but I’m using the term metaphorically. Your agent knows the industry, knows important people. She’s a connector. This function is invaluable. It’s one of our greatest strengths, and we all work hard at relationships so we can leverage those for our clients. Obsolescence Danger: 1

Career Consultant: This is one of the most important tasks an agent performs. The more options there are for an author, the greater danger of missteps. Good careers don’t just happen, they are built with care. Whether an author is publishing traditionally or beaming their content onto a cloud in the stratosphere, his career needs to be carefully planned. Obsolescence Danger: 1

Air Traffic Controller: This is one of the most important functions I perform for my clients who have big careers. There comes a time with bestselling authors when the opportunities are overwhelming. A good agent will make sure all the planes stay a safe distance from each other and are successfully landed one after another. Books need to be spaced out, product needs to coordinated. One person must manage the entire calendar and product line. Obsolescence Danger: 1

Product Developer: An agent does more than just shepherd books as your career grows. We begin to talk about your “franchise.” Merchandise, films, audio. . . the sky’s the limit. Yes, there are product developers aside from agents, but your agent takes the holistic approach. Obsolescence Danger: 5

Fireman: Much of our day is spent putting out fires. Your agent can play bad cop to your good cop when a problem arises that needs a tough solution. If you had to go it alone in complicated situations, you’d run the risk of damaging important relationships. Besides, it’s no fun. Obsolescence Danger: 1

Contract Expert: An author could certainly hire an attorney to look over contracts, but no one knows publishing contracts like agents. We specialize in one kind of contract, and we’ve seen them all. We know every jot and tittle. Even if traditional publishing went away, authors need an agent to deal with distributor contracts and contracts with those who create ebooks, cover designers and editors. Obsolescence Danger: 4

Collection Agency: It would be nice if money just automatically flowed to the author, but even with traditional publishers, we often have to nudge. Your agents goes over your royalty statements looking for any irregularities and will step in with an audit if warranted. With non-traditional options this may become even more vital. Obsolescence Danger: 1

Manager: This is the change good agents are undertaking. We are trying to act more and more like managers. It’s that holistic approach I keep talking about. It may include marketing consultation and management, social media coaching, coordination of all parts of an author’s career, including appearances, media and newer opportunities like spokesperson gigs and product placement . Obsolescence Danger: 1

Lifeguard: An agent is the person who will pull you out of the water when you’re drowning and help resuscitate a flailing career. When everything is going along swimmingly, it’s easy to picture being the Lone Ranger. But if you’re going down for the third time nothing short of an experienced lifeguard will do. Obsolescence Danger: 1

Professional Worrier: As Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City said, “Leave the worrying to professionals and live your life.” This is an area in which I personally shine. Happily, I’m proactive about it. I not only worry over every detail but I know how to pray for my clients. Priceless. Obsolescence Danger: 1

I could go on and on, but I won’t. (Our fearless leader, Janet, sweetly mentioned that I didn’t need to write 900-word blogs. I think she hoped for succinct. *gulp* I didn’t mean for this one to tip the scales at 1200 words. I’ll do better tomorrow, Janet.)

So now, it’s up to you. What did I miss? There are plenty of online commentators– and agent-haters– who think otherwise. Am I kidding myself?


21 Responses

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  1. This secures my belief that I want and need an agent. I’m still really hoping for the housecleaner, too. 🙂

    I think it boils down to that an agent does much more, or should, then just sign the contract and get the deal. This posts helps illustrate that.

    Thanks, Wendy.

  2. Anne Love says:

    Thanks for sharing Wendy. This also gives unagented writers a great job description of what to look for and what is most important in a good agent.
    Interestingly, I just blogged today about a 19th century author who self published his books and his works were second in sales only to the Bible! Things in the publishing world have been changing for centuries! :o)

  3. Lori Benton says:

    Thank you Lord for agents who pray for their authors (and authors who pray for their agents!)

  4. So thankful, Wendy, that you’re a shining beacon amidst the harbor of would-be naysayers!

    And just like the clothes we wear, sometimes “change” can be a good thing. Well…unless I’m wearing mink or something. 😉

  5. Wendy, I agree with all the duties you list in addition to agents’ very important job of providing authors access to publishers, most of whom won’t accept unagented submissions. The balance, guidance, support, and (in some cases) therapy provided by agents is critical to most, if not all, authors. In the changing world, these duties won’t change.

  6. Robert Wolgemuth says:

    Thank you, Wendy: You’ve covered the waterfront so well. All 1200 words were necessary this time. (Guess you’ll just have to live with it this time, Janet!) We are grateful for this kind of insight, wisdom and truth. You’re making the rest of us look very good. Hope that’s okay.

  7. Rita Monette says:

    If an agent did all of the above, they would never go obsolete! I want one of those.

  8. Janet Grant says:

    Robert, I read Wendy’s blog and instantly forgave her for overstepping her word count.

  9. And THIS is another of the reasons I so appreciate my agent and the Books & Such Agency! Well said, Wendy.

  10. David Todd says:

    I think you have overstated the obselescence factor for Brainstorming Partner. You said brainstorming could be done “by gifted fellow writers”. My experience is that the unpublished author is rarely, if ever, going to be in contact with gifted writers who can brainstorm with them, except for a hefty coaching fee. In my ten years plus of creative writing and critique groups, I’ve never been able to find a gifted fellow writer with whom I could trade brainstorming services. Most are way too busy with writing, promoting, selling, and self-editing.

    Where can I find one of those critters?

  11. Bonnie Grove says:

    I will forgive your incorrect usage of the phrase “begs the question”, and agree that agents aren’t going anywhere. The ones with vision will endure, just as authors with vision will endure regardless of the what books and publishing look like in ten years.

    I’ve said it before, books aren’t solitary efforts of writers, but are created in concert with every level inside the industry.

    Publishing is the marriage of the ultra creative to uber business. In that marriage, there will always be need of a translator, people who speak both languages.

  12. Wendy,

    My hat’s off to you at Books & Such for setting a course for all of us authors who are your clients. I appreciate your vision, tenacity, and firm belief that together we’re able to give the world the gift of “story.”

    Blessings, Rebecca Ondov

  13. Wendy Lawton says:

    Oh, Bonnie, you wordsmith, you. Does it make you crazy to see improper usage? It begs the question, when does common usage trump correct usage. *wink*

  14. Brad Huebert says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I think some folks believe the only real job of the agent is to “get you into the door” of a Publishing House. I’m currently working with an editor from Multnomah but still want a great agent to help me navigate the publishing river and all its complexities. I also crave counsel for my writing career, not merely this current manuscript.

  15. However the publishing industry changes, the fact will always remain that all but the most experienced writers will never have the same experience as agents who have been watching and participating in the industry over the years in partnership with a variety of writers, genres, and publishers.

  16. Peter DeHaan says:

    There will always be a role for innovative agents in the publishing industry, but just what that role is will be theirs to figure out.

  17. Excellent post, Wendy. I agree with the others–if I wasn’t convinced before how much I need an agent, I am now.

  18. Nikole Hahn says:

    I doubt your jobs will be obsolete. As long as traditional publishing endures (and it will) and as long as they don’t take unsolicited manuscripts you have a secure job. Besides…I’d much rather have an agent to read over the legal lingo first. (groan)

  19. Joe Harwell says:

    Although I self publish, I’m very concerned about the future of the industry. As you have so correctly pointed out in the article, agents can be an authors best asset to navigate the fast changing world of publishing. FYI, I know some authors here in Tulsa who are writing some really great material if you are looking for clients.

  20. Glen newman says:

    I wonder if there are any agents or promoters out there that would work on a commission bases. I’ve written what I believe is a cutting edge book for the Christian Church world but don’t have the up front money to hire an agent that cannot provide me with any guarntees.

  21. […] This might garner some push back. Do you need an agent? Well, I guess that depends entirely on what your aspirations might be. If you just want to self-publish your stuff for family and friends, then no. But if you’re like me and you want to make a career out of being an author, you absolutely must have an agent. Aside from the fact that big publishers won’t even look at your query letter without an agent, you have to remember that an agent isn’t just the person who can get a large publisher to look at your work. They’re professionals in the industry. Let me say that again: agents are industry professionals. They know what flies or fries, they’re up on publishing trends and most importantly, they’re not going to submit your masterpiece until it’s been revised, revised and revised some more. Don’t believe that you still need an agent during a period of transformative change in publishing? Read this. […]