Literary agents aren't dead

There is a current trend, specifically on LinkedIn, to pronounce certain careers dead. It’s getting to the point where no line of work seems safe anymore. The LinkedIn morticians have declared an end to everything from working a traditional sales jobs to being a lawyer.

For example:

Cold calling is dead

Big Box Retailers: dead

Gatekeepers: dead 

And if the career, the brand, the industry isn’t “dead” then it’s certainly on its deathbed. The NFL is dying. ESPN is dying. Traditional TV cable is dying. 

The reasons are different. There’s the “robot card”: robots will be delivering pizzas, cleaning our bathrooms, performing surgeries. There’s the “cheaper overseas card.” The “death of the middleman card.” Or even just, “people’s interests are changing” card.

As every other job goes extinct, the only career left in 3-5 years will be a LinkedIn content producer.

What’s a literary agent

In the world of self-publishing, literary agents serve as the middleman/gatekeeper between authors and the publishing houses. After the manuscript is finished, authors put together a “query letter” (think a 1-page sales pitch, kind of like what you see on the back of a book), a paragraph about their career/writing background, and sometimes a sample chapter then send that off to a literary agent, hoping to be represented.

Then, just like a real estate agent, agent for an actress, agent for a sports star, the literary agent is now working on your behalf trying to get you that big book deal. They’ll get 10-15% of the commission, which is fair because most big name publishers won’t even look at a manuscript that’s unattached to an agent.

And so it’s popular in the “rah-rah self-publishing!” camp to declare the role of book publisher (besides and literary agent as dead and even more dead. The argument looks like this:

Question: What’s the need to have someone get me in with a publisher when I can just self-publish through Amazon?

Traditional Answer: You won’t be able to get your self-published book into any physical bookstores. No Barnes & Noble, no Borders, no airport bookstore.

Rebuttal: Well, first off, self-publishers CAN get their books into physical bookstores. But traditional bookstores are also closing. Retail stores, in general, are closing. Everything is ordered online.

There’s a lot of truth to the rebuttal. But I would still argue:

  1. Literary agents aren’t dead
  2. The good literary agents will survive and adapt
  3. As an author, you’re better off having a good literary agent in your corner.

Literary Agents aren’t dead, and the ways around them really aren’t that easy

If you want to be published by Random House, Simon & Schuster, or Penguin Books, then the traditional literary agent approach is still the industry standard.

But just like people can land good jobs without submitting a resume/cover letter or how you can still end up having a solid career with a low college GPA, or no college degree at all, there are ways around the literary agent. It’s just not that easy.

The first idea is a concept Brent Hamachek, founder of the company Segueway and one of the authors of the book “Time for a Turning Point,” used where he treated the publishing industry like it was any other company. As someone with a sales background, Brent knew there was the traditional way to move a sale gradually up the ladder, but there was also the option of reaching out directly to the CEO/CFO/VP of Whatever, winning that person over, and getting the deal. Ends up being a lot faster too.

Now, it’s not a best practice to find the Random House main line, dial-in, ask for the top person, but I mean you could try it. Nothing is stopping you. Sales reps at different vendors are calling into Nike, Wal*Mart, Facebook all the time, why shouldn’t this concept apply in the publishing world?

The more practical option, though, would be using LinkedIn, finding out if you’re connected to anyone they know or, honestly, just being alert for chance encounters. Life has a weird way of setting up these random coincidences. So many of the “I got the job” or “I got the book deal” stories begin with, “So I was sitting next to this super high up publishing executive on an airplane, she asked what I do for a living, and the rest was history.”

The other way around is like Wool author Hugh Howie: just sell a crazy amount of books.

But look at those three alternative scenarios. “Cold call/LinkedIn the top person, hope they see it, respond, aren’t annoyed, and give you a chance.” “Chance encounter on an airplane.” “Sell a crazy ton of books.” Which one of those sounds easy?

Think about it, is it easier to get 100,000 self-published sales or convincing one of a thousand literary agents to like your book enough to sign on? If you can do the first, you likely don’t need an agent or publisher, but ironically you will now have their attention. You become the pursued rather than the pursuer.

EL James (Fifty Shades), Hugh Howie (Wool), Andy Weir (The Martian) are self-publishing’s “food truck turned billion dollar restaurant,” “Apple starting out in a garage,” or Chance the Rapper didn’t need a label to win a Grammy, neither do you! They are the exception, not the rule.

I apologize that I keep belaboring this point, but I don’t want people to feel disappointed if their first few books have sales that can only fund a family dinner at Chili’s. I’ve been there. Scratch that, I am there. As a reader of this blog post, you are one of maybe 100 people. Not 100k, no K, no commas. And it’s sometimes fewer than that. Viewership is a grind whether that’s a blog, a book, or a, “Hey guys, our band is performing on Friday night.”

But it’s still exciting to have your book out there. Still exciting that it has a chance. And even though James/Howie/Weir’s success may be hard to duplicate, I do believe they paved the way, creating the new blueprint for thousands of first-time writers. More on that next week.

This will be a three-part post rather than one 3,000 word sprawling marathon. Next week (5/10) I will talk about how the top literary agents are already evolving to the new landscape, why their role is still vital, and then I’ll pitch my TV show idea that’s essentially “Shark Tank for books.” Then Part 3, the grand finale, will be on Wednesday, May 17th.* I’ll share what my personal strategy is for pursuing a literary agent.

*The 5/17 date will depend on whether or not NBC and/or ABC immediately fly me out to go over plans for the “Shark Tank for books” TV show. And by “will depend” I mean yeah, this is not gonna happen, see you next week!

To subscribe to the blog and have posts delivered directly to your inbox (like “Blue Apron for blogs.” Little bit of a stretch? Maybe) you can type your email address in the box below. No spam and you can unsubscribe at any time. 

Leave a comment