Lurking on Twitter, I stumbled on a thread of agents contemplating whether they should stay the course in this career. Some of the chatter echoed a conversation I had just weeks prior, where I said, “Agenting today is way harder than when I started agenting twenty years ago.” Just like that I sent out a request for input from agent peeps asking if they thought this was true. An earful hit my inbox. The consensus? Yes, agenting as a career is significantly harder than it was when we were baby agents. Here are fourteen reasons why.
Before I dive in, the requisite disclaimer: The information contained in this article is purely anecdotal and does not claim to represent an appropriate dataset for completeness, accuracy, usefulness, or even timeliness. I emailed a bunch of agents I knew, asked a question, and folks responded. That’s the level of “research” I did. This article is definitely not intended to be advice or a substitute for advice from, you know, a real expert or professional on the topic nor should any reader make a career decision or follow a particular career strategy based on content here. For further guidance, feel free to shake a Magic 8-Ball.
More Agents Agenting
Although the Writers Market phone book was huge back in the day, the number of agents actively agenting and doing regular books deals is higher today—especially in children’s and young adult—than it was twenty years ago. I recall only about thirty of us repping in the field in the early 2000s. I don’t know the number today, but it’s probably 100 or more. Also, many editors have made the move to agenting in the last five years. With more agents in the field, more submissions are hitting editor inboxes. (Conversely, there are also more agents leaving the industry. Not a week goes by that I don’t receive a query that begins, “My agent has recently left the industry so I’m looking for new representation.”) Still, the bottom line is that more agents are agenting in 2021.
Agents Acting More Like Editors
A project has to be close to perfect for a buy, so an agent today is doing far more editorial work pre-submission than back in the day. In the early 2000s, many an editor would take on a super promising manuscript and do the editorial work after acquisition. Today, it’s more common for an editor to request what is called a revise and re-submit—which places the onus back on the agent and author to gussy up the manuscript in hopes of an actual acquisition.
This is a large time investment that may or may not result in a buy—and the subsequent earned commission, which is the only way an agent gets paid.
Crowded Social Media Means Lower Agent Visibility
In 2006, I launched the blog Pub Rants. There were only two other literary agents blogging then. (Remember the amazing Miss Snark and her George Clooney crush? Such fond memories!) As one of the first agents to really spend hours educating aspiring writers and providing insider information for free on my blog, I was happy to see Pub Rants grow in popularity. At one point it was listed as the top 100 most influential blogs in the U.S. Glory days indeed. Blog Pub Rants = Visibility. These days, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are crowded with social-media savvy agents and editors. That makes it much harder for agents to create visibility for their brands or stand out and land the hot projects.
The Marketing/Publicity Agent Hat
In today’s publishing landscape, agents have to do so much more marketing/publicity management to optimize client success. This limits the number of clients an agent can take on and work with successfully. Since agenting is commission-based, fewer clients means fewer sales, and that can impact an agent’s earning potential.
The Taskmaster That Is Email
The sheer number of emails an agent fields in a day is impressive. For me, three hours minimum just reading, responding, handling everyday agenting tasks. Then I take a deep breath and dive into the actual to-do list. Three hundred emails is a light day. Dedicating so many hours to this necessary business task impacts how many hours are available for other aspects of agenting. When I started my career, email was certainly around, but it was used secondary to a phone call, and when it was used, editors would often email once a week with a summary round up. The pace of business is simply faster now with immediate responses often necessary. Not to mention editors of the current generation who are comfortable with the immediacy of email communication. There is no going backward, but email volume does make agenting harder in terms of a daily workload.
Authors might start in the traditional publishing realm and then move indie—which eliminates a source of income for the agent. As most folks know, 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 and makes an agenting career more difficult to sustain.
Publisher Payment Mandate
In the early 2000s, every contract I negotiated specified advance payments in halves: half on signing and half on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript. An agent earns the commission at the same time a client is paid. Publishers are now citing “corporate mandates” that payments must be structured in four or five installments—and some of those payments aren’t coming in until after publication…which makes it no longer an “advance,” but that’s a topic for another day. Not only does this structure impact an author’s financial well-being, it impacts an agent’s ability to earn a living. Imagine negotiating a contract today and knowing that a portion of your commission won’t be paid for two years. Yep. A get-rich-quick path agenting is not.
The Great Contract Slow Down
Publishing houses need to double their contracts departments. Most of them have two or maybe three people total for the hundreds of contracts they do in a year. Back in the day, I’d wrap a contract in eight weeks tops. Today, if the first draft arrives within four months, it’s a win. And then the agent still needs to review and negotiate it, all before the author signs. Six months is the new norm to fully executed. So add that into the agent’s earning timeline along with payment structures in fourths and fifths. The real question is, just how is an agent earning a living?
The Great Publishing Contraction
Just this week, news hit that Hachette is buying Workman. Yet another independent publishing house bites the dust. Consolidation of pub houses = limited submission options. Limited submission options = titles less likely to be acquired. Titles less likely to be acquired = less revenue for the author and the agent. This alone makes agenting a harder career.
The Great Submission Influx
Spend a little time on Twitter. Just a quick lurk will reveal that editors are drowning in the number of submissions they are receiving since more agents are submitting material. When I started agenting, I’d receive almost all editor responses within four weeks. Today, months is not unusual, and the number of no-editor-responses has risen significantly. Slow or no editor response = manuscript less likely to be acquired. Manuscript less likely to be acquired = reduced number of agent deals. Reduced number of agent deals = lower commission earning. Lower commission earning = harder to attain agent career success.
The Death of Editor Autonomy
Back in the day, individual editors had more autonomy to acquire a work/author. They connected with their boss, and that one person said yay or nay. In today’s world, a project submitted to a publishing house has to go to second reads, then editorial board, and then it has to run the gauntlet with sales and marketing for the final verdict. It actually feels like a little miracle any time a book sells.
In the early 2000s, it was understood that any newly launched author might need space and time to grow. Historically, authors weren’t expected to conjure bestsellers straight out of the gate, but to build their writing skills and audience over time as they developed their craft. Now, if a debut doesn’t do well, it is extremely hard to get the author a second chance. This is compounded ten-fold if the initial deal had a high advance. That means the agent must work extra hard to relaunch that client and will again face a low return on the hours they invest.
The Death of The Mass-Market Format
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. Today, with the death of the mass-market format, a whole swath of a viable market and its associated earnings disappeared for agents. The replacement ebook edition has not enjoyed the same robust earnings impact.
The Change That Hasn’t Happened
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.
So Magic 8-Ball, is agenting harder today than it was twenty years ago?
Answer: Without a doubt.
Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels
I good taste, you did not mention that everyone is a writer (in their opinion) and the number of good material is placed in the slush pile. What a shame ! For years I hoped you would take my work on. It is a great story. I will pay your agency to read it….
I can’t agree with the ebook sales not keeping up. Now that I switched and went indie, my ebook sales on three books (net income) hit about 10k. This is another example of traditional not keeping up with the industry. But you’re right about talent going to indie. Probably has something to do with automated query systems not even looking at submissions as well as draconian pay cuts for authors.
Great article with so much insight! I really appreciate getting this education from your side and always look forward to your posts. This one really is an eye opener, so thanks!
Great article that brings up some fine points, allowing a unique perspective. Although not really a fan, I think, like many industries AI taking over from editors and agents using algorithms similar to Amazon could be the future of publishing as in the movie “Her.”
Re: AI. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Algorithms are written by programmers with biases conscious and unconscious. Who vets those programmers, or orders them to “fix” an algorithm to achieve the “desired” result?
Whenever cybernetic organisms steal jobs for the sake of efficiency (profits), the spectres of politicized censorship and discrimination arise. This is seen everywhere, from social media banning to search results filtering.
How can an AI judge beauty or ugliness in prose, or tell a well-told story from haphazard, unedited dreck?
Thank you for yet another fantastic resource. It is great advice even if it is not intended to be and no one else is offering anything like it. Your writing is well-compiled, clear, and empathetic. Really gives insight into what the industry looks like. Unique. Wishing all the best for you and your authors
Fantastic article. Really appreciate the insight into the complexities of the publishing world, and the interplay between author/editor/agent/publisher. Agents seem to wear multiple hats (editor, marketer, negotiator), and be actively visible on social media. Like authors, they have to subsist on inconsistent income. My hats off to you all!
Oh, the role of the editor is absolutely not what it should be anymore, and as I watch my editor friends burn the candle at both ends, I wish the people in charge cared enough to fix it. (I work in publishing at a still independent [for now] house.)
Publishing has reduced so many roles, shrunk so many teams, and just won’t hire! It backlogs everything, restricts the projects, and burns everyone out. Editors are stuck with metadata, admin tasks, and very little time to nurture a client or their career.
Not to mention how marketing is and isn’t handled and the midlist is neglected.
We live in probably one of the deepest times for writers and illustrators. There are so many creative people sharing their work! It hurts to watch the opportunities shrink as CEOs make more and more money.
Ursula Nordstrom must be spinning in her grave.
Still thousands of books are being sold, so don’t give up.
Only one in the boat was able to walked on water. The rest of us stayed in the boat. But at least we left the shore of safety and tried to cross over.
Sort of depicts authors to publishers.
In a way, it’s getting ugly, because editors and agents are both getting railroaded by corporate policies. Authors lose too, because those policies usually aren’t in their favor.
Unfortunately, that’s why so many of us are going indie. There’s so little chance to make real money in the traditional industry–it feels more and more like winning the Powerball, if you do; and it comes with just as many pitfalls–that it makes more sense for us to take control of our own work from an editorial standpoint, choose the marketing plan that suits us best, and frankly, enjoy the ride a lot more.
Sure, getting paid would be nice–but when publisher policies are becoming so adversarial to authors, it’s not all bad to hang onto your own rights so you can do what you want with your work, when and how you want to do it.
I always wanted to work with a good agent. Today, under current publishing conditions, not so much. It’s sort of like asking somebody to get you a contract so you can sign your soul away (in five installments).
Excellent write-up. I’ve watched the SF/F industry closely for 20 years from an author’s perspective, both trad and indie. I was wondering how all these changes impacted literary agents.
Fascinating article. Your 2nd point about needing to have basically a perfect manuscript before submission was startling to me. At that point, if your manuscript barely needs work from the editor, why do you need to go trad pub then? Other than (marginal at times) marketing support, it seems like going indie would make more sense.
I’m really curious too how all the new indie author led small publishing houses like LMBPN are affecting things. I know they take on much fewer authors, mostly via connections and proven track records as indies, but they seem to be cutting out agents entirely.
After a lousy two-book deal with an ebook-only imprint of Random House (they insisted on squatting on my print rights), I walked away from traditional publishing.
As one of the only openly transgender authors in crime fiction, I felt the only way to get my stories published and make any money was to do it myself.
Five years later, I have eight published novels which have received glowing reviews.
I would love to dip my toe back into traditional publishing, but with the horrendous rights grabs, this nonsense about delayed advance payments, and all the other corporate BS, I find myself asking what they really have to offer.
I really appreciate getting this information from an agent’s side of the publishing agenda.
It’s interesting that with all those drawbacks to making a career as an agent, there are more active agents than before. Thanks for an interesting article. I’m an indie author but I keep an eye on the publishing industry.
Having follow your blog for many years, chatter and pitched to you, I know you are a stellar agent. I’m sorry that it is coming arduous for you and your clients. I been indie for some time now, but often wish there was agent to help me with some projects when I needed advise. It’s a hard publishing world out there.
Thanks for a thoughtful piece.
Do you think it might be time for some agents to take the leap and begin a new style of ‘agenting’ portfolio and provide services to moderately successful indies?
Foreign rights advice and acquisition springs instantly to mind. But
thought and some research with the target market might surprise you.
I imagine some agent will come along and make it work but honestly, the amount of energy and time (to only do subrights etc.) isn’t a storage enough financial return for the investment. Only in rare cases does it make a difference.
Sounds like the review board has the last say. Wonder how many are on the committee and do they make a salary ? Have they always had a review board? More than three is roadkill.
Good luck. Thank you for a great article.
My daughter, who’s looking for an agent, pointed me to this blog.
Horrible. I’ve been appalled at the mergers the government has allowed (competition? You mean between two monopolies?), and it just gets worse.
I’ve got a book published, (science fiction) but it was by a small press (Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press), and I’m looking for an agent for a novel they’re not interested in, and I’m still waiting – it’s closing on a couple months, and I was expecting 6-8 weeks, but this is worse than what I’ve been hearing from established authors.
And self-publishing? As Charlie Stross puts it, “the world-wide slush pile”.