Fifteen Percent for Life

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The agent wants to see my manuscript!

Columns  •  Apr 04, 2011

“The agent wants to see my manuscript!”

In the old days, like, 2009 or so, those were the words that would make a writer squee her pants while telling her writing group, who would smile and issue congratulations while secretly plotting to poison the coffee.

In retrospect, the bizarre notion of publishing houses to remove themselves even further from their product development is one of the characteristics contributing to their downfall, but you can’t blame the agents. Few are able to take on positions of authority without it going to their heads. As a friend and former lifeguard once told me, “If they give you a whistle, and the only job you have is to blow the whistle, you’re going to blow the whistle.”

So all the English grads who couldn’t find useful jobs as part-time instructors turned to the only other place where they could create a job: New York. With no licensing, with no technical certificate, with no bonding or association membership or background check, these people went to New York and set up shop in the guardhouses of Manhattan, the first line of defense of our literary heritage and the first stop for writer’s checks.

When I started submitting 15 years ago, there were still a handful of publishers that would take slush manuscripts. That quickly evaporated in the next few years, and editors completely abdicated the role of scouting properties and talent. For the Decade of Downfall, an agent was required for most manuscripts to even get a viewing, which gave agents incredible power. It was sickening to watch authors debase themselves at conferences and the five-minute pitch sessions that had lower chances of a score than a speed-dating roundabout at a bible college.

And the question quickly changed from “Is this any good?” to “Can I sell this?” That’s why most agents were able to reject solely on the basis of a query letter. After all, who cared what the words were like? That was a secondary consideration to the pitch.

The Decade of Doom was a great time for agents, because they also upped their standard commission from 10 percent to 15 percent, with occasional murmurings of “increased business costs,” even though hardly anyone was printing anything anymore. Imagine: you hold all the products, you only have to worry about marketing to a few dozen potential buyers, and you get 15 percent of whatever happens.

And agents have little incentive to worry about the back end, because most books and most authors don’t have a back end. You push for the biggest advance you can get because your 15 percent is in the bank.

Sure, there are “good” agents, who develop their clients and remain loyal partners for life. I’ve worked with a handful on different projects. The agent who just got you the deal is a “good” agent, and the bum who didn’t sell your book is a “bad” agent. It’s sort of like lawyers. Everybody makes lawyer jokes but they always swear their personal lawyer is “good” because that lawyer is an extension of their ego, and who would admit to choosing a bad lawyer?

Besides, it’s hard enough to get a bad agent, let alone a good one. Now it’s even murkier. I know agents who are getting a piece of the action for their clients who are publishing independently. Morally, I do not see how they can justify it. Maybe under the premise of “Once you build the audience yourself, I can sell it for you.” In other words, after the author has done all the work.

The Amanda Hocking/Barry Eisler moves are getting plenty of attention in publishing circles. Amanda Hocking signed a corporate publishing deal for $2 million. I don’t know the exact specifics, but under conventional policies, there are lots of risk and uncertainty for both Hocking and the publisher. One or both may lose big.

But who wins no matter what? The agent who walked away with $300,000. (Future news reporters, please note: Hocking signed for $2 million, but she will earn $1.7 million).

Some people may call that agent a shark—hanging around the Kindle bestseller list looking for a vetted commodity, snapping it up, and taking the easy payday. What’s the agent going to say? “Gee, Amanda, you are doing very well and you’ll earn in six months what I can get you over several years. But then you’d make all that money and I wouldn’t.” I’ll bet you $1.7 million that Hocking would consider her agent a “good” agent.

Eisler has said he is not going to use an agent for his self-publishing venture. His agent lost $75,000 on Eisler’s decision to turn down half a million for two books. I don’t know if that’s a “bad” agent, because the agent was poised to make the deal, but it’s definitely a “sad” agent.

Publishers want more for their money these days—rights in more territories, more control over subsequent books, and virtual eternal rights to e-books. At some point almost every book will go out of print in paper, but e-books will still be around. Where does the agent fit when you will be giving up 15 percent of your book’s income for life?

Think of it like this: for every paragraph you read, the agent is being paid for nearly the equivalent of a sentence. Exactly how does an agent justify that sort of cut for so little contribution to the actual work? And guess who ends up paying for that?

Flexible agents will be getting creative and trying to add value to a manuscript as their market of a few dozen editors shrinks. They’ll be able to ride it out for a few years because there’s still such a sacred aura surrounding them as the priests of the Oracle. But I suspect the agents will be the first casualties of the digital era, for the precise reason that they add the least and take the most for a product where they are increasingly not even needed in the first place

There’s a little more to traditional authors going indie than just regaining control over their careers. And that “little more” is 15 percent.

And that’s 15 percent that can now be divided between readers and writers.

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Scott Nicholson is author of the new mystery thriller Liquid Fear—available for 99 cents at Amazon, BN.com, and Smashwords—as well as the bestsellers The Red Church, Disintegration, Speed Dating with the Dead, and 20 other books. He resides at hauntedcomputer.com.

3 Responses to “Fifteen Percent for Life”

  1. avatar Helen Hanson says:

    Scott,

    Great post!

    The agent’s only identifiable customer is the editor. If the agent doesn’t see a fit, the book is not worth his time.

    I participated in an “editor speed date” at a conference where agents shifted to a new round table every 15 minutes. With 10+ of us at the table, I repeatedly heard these general words – I like the idea, but I can’t sell it.

    Writers have the means to take their work directly to readers. I don’t see a downside to that opportunity.

  2. avatar Bella Street says:

    As someone has has both debased herself at conferences and has had an agent (past tense now), this article brings a lot of validation. As always, a thought-provoking and entertaining viewpoint, Scott!

  3. avatar D Moody says:

    What a great post. Once upon a time I had an agent. She was so busy sending out prayer requests for her uncle’s neighbor’s sister’s dog suffering from an ingrown toenail, she never quite got around to shopping my manuscript. I lost a year on her. As for the “editor speed date,” we’ve all suffered through those. I’m so glad to leave all that in my rear-view mirror. Now I’m having way too much fun self-publishing and laughing all the way to the bank.

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