Why Authors Still Need Agents

Recently, I was lucky enough to witness a keynote speech by Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords. He talked about a day when writers supersede agents and publishers. He even made a joke of it:

One day, an author will tell some friends, “I just got a book deal.”
And they reply, “I’m sorry.”

This elicited groans from the audience (mostly writers with a handful of agents and editors). I agree in principle with Mr. Coker. Publishers have dropped the ball. They need to cut their own costs to become competitive and offer authors a greater piece of the revenue stream. Amazon’s 70% is far better than the 12% you get from publishers.

I still see a place for agents. Next time you’re on Amazon, or Barnes and Noble, troll through the lists of available ebooks. You’ll see plenty of indie authors. That’s a good thing. The ebook has become the great equalizer. Yet, try purchasing one of these indie books.

I did.

I tried quite a few. None were worth the $0.99. Typos were rife. Even when they weren’t the story sagged or had horrific info dumps, or just bad writing. What all these books had in common was a lack of agents and proper editing.

Agents serve as gatekeepers. They champion good books and turn the rest to the door. It’s true, that agents take less and less clients these days, but this is an issue based on the poor state of the publishers. If those corporate guys can get things turned around, I think you’d see many more author’s picked up.

The truth is, as a reader, I want someone to vouch my books. I don’t have a lot of time to read, and wasting it on poor prose is infuriating. That’s not to say that lousy books can’t make it through the agent and publisher system. They can and do. But usually I sour on these as a matter of style. Agents, at the very least, make sure the writing is free of errors and has a decent story.

Tim Kane

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9 comments on “Why Authors Still Need Agents

  1. Agents are all well and good if you live in the States. In Canada there are only 15 Literary agencies in the entire country so it’s nearly impossible for Canadian writers to find themselves an agent. Even when they do, as in the case of a friend of mine, they don’t necessarily push your manuscript as hard as they should. Fortunately, few Canadian publishers actually require a writer to have an agent. Their editors will be the ones to, well, edit any manuscripts they receive. That doesn’t mean typos won’t occur, even then. Long after my first book was published, I was reading a section to a school class and noticed one that had slipped past me, my writer’s group and the editor. It may have been one of those things that occurred during the formatting stage before going to the printers that someone missed. All I know is, it happened. As for agents, it’s great if you can find one. For the Indie writers, they really need to have someone reliable to edit their work if they expect to be recommended as a good read.

  2. pawsdebz says:

    I work in the UK as a writer, trying and almost but not yet snagging an agent so I know how hard that is and why writers often do go ‘indie.’. But I also work as an editor and critique novels and short stories. I also edit for small publishers and you’d be amazed how many of the writers who self-publish don’t think they need even an editor. The graphic designer I work with says she is always suggesting to the writers who come to her with their books to self-publish, that they need an editor. She says she has lost count of how many she has recommended even referred them to me because even she spots the glaring errors in some cases. I’ve only ever had one pay that extra to get the MS edited. She says the rest didn’t bother, they trusted their own editing and proofing. I edit for a living and I still would get someone else to edit/proof mine, as you say the extra eye it needs! Good post! Thanks 🙂

  3. […] Kane explains why authors still need agents in the digital age, while Michael A. Stackpole argues that every author needs to look out for […]

  4. Ava Jae says:

    I absolutely agree with you, Tim. While I think it’s wonderful that writers now have a choice as to how their work will be published and distributed, agents (and gatekeepers, for that matter) are far from obsolete. I too like the reassurance of knowing that a traditionally published book, while far from perfect, will at least have gone through many hurdles to ensure that it is the best that that manuscript could be. That doesn’t mean that everything traditionally published is perfect, but you can tell when extra time has been taken to bring a novel to it’s fullest potential (and that goes for both traditionally and independently published books).

  5. kathleenduey says:

    It’s very interesting to watch this restructure of the ways books are made and sold. Amazon’s royalty percentage is lovely, but they, of course, have no vested interest in the work itself. They spend no time and no money preparing it and do nothing to sell it. So…of course they can offer a larger percentage the real publishers. They do seem to be starting to closely watch their meta data to winnow out few good writers and offer to (actually) publish them.

    I worry that the .99 books will turn people away from reading and will help kill off the few remaining local bookstores. I think many authors will end up with hybrid careers that include publishers and their trained, skilled editors, proof readers, copyeditors and sales departments–and some indie published work as well.

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