Literary agents aren't dead: Shark Tank for books

The publishing landscape is rapidly changing. In the past, any aspiring author needed a publisher and landing a publisher almost always required a literary agent. This has changed with the rise of self-publishing, BUT it’s important to keep things in perspective. I’m writing this series (part one here) to give ideas to writers (including myself) on how to navigate the new terrain while also doing somewhat of a myth buster on the notion that literary agents are now somehow extinct.

So first, let’s start with where things were not that long ago.

I remember testing the literary agent waters in either 2011 or 2012, and the process was something like: send the query letter, author resume, sample chapters in a physical envelope, with another stamped envelope inside where the literary agent can put their response (if it warrants a response).

Physical envelopes. Physical mail. Not fifty years ago. This was only five years ago!

Here in 2017, it seems like the process has evolved. I mostly see literary agents ask for writers to attach a PDF to an email. But even that could be obsolete in the next couple years.

I think the next evolution will be for literary agents to use the self-publishing round as the testing grounds. Instead of any envelopes or PDFs, I could see literary agents saying, “Send us a physical copy of your book, or a free download code for the e-book. Also, send us last year’s sales report for that book and any others you have done.”

Why? This shows the author’s ability to put together a sales/marketing plan on their own. The self-publishing sales become the proof of concept. It shows not if people might be interested in the book, but proves that some people already are. Also, seeing a list of titles displays if the author is a one-hit wonder or if they’ve got more ideas in the queue.

Would literary agents go for this?

I think this system would be ideal for literary agents. They wouldn’t have to take as big of gambles, which is key because literary agents are, at a certain level, like early angel investors. Ultimately, they want to find a young LeBron James (aka JK Rowling or Stephen King) and represent them for 20 years rather than signing 42-year-old LeBron. Or, in book world, like 75 years old. That’s another great part about being a writer; you don’t even peak til like 55-60. George RR Martin, the writer of Game of Thrones, is 68!

A lot of times the bet isn’t on the success of the first book, it’s about building for that second one and all the ones after when people become more familiar with the author’s name. The self-publishing round, then, is like seeing a young LeBron play against pro-competition. How will the author stack up? Can he or she hold their own?

And I’m not saying every author should feel like they need to become a high producing book factory; have an output up there with Louie C.K./Amy Schumer/Woody Allen, but it doesn’t hurt to have a library of work when you’re trying to convince an agent to represent you for a long career ahead.

Quick Devil’s Advocate

One of the arguments against this sort of route becoming the norm is that self-publishing authors are posers. We are people with thin skin who can’t handle rejection and yeah, sure, the book may exist on Amazon, but it won’t be real, won’t be legitimate, the New York Times Bestseller list won’t even track its results. The real writers will continue to follow the standard path (if it was good enough for Franzen, it’s good enough for me!) and the difference between their books and self-published books is like the gap between a Harvard degree and some random online university.

Fair point? Maybe. I mean I don’t like being rejected, but I’m not sure who does. For me, the fear of rejection isn’t solved by landing an agent. There’s still rejection regarding weak sales, still rejection by the audience’s review of the book, still rejection by critics, still going to be plenty of, “THIS SUCKED!!” comments out there. The possibility of rejection always exists and trying to avoid it keeps any progress from happening. My reluctance to the literary agent round is less about thin skin as it is I don’t want to wait around. I want to keep moving forward.

Because, with the rise of self-publishing, whether that be in the book world, music world, or even something like YouTube stars, this has all created an environment where having something to show for yourself is expected. You’re a writer? Great, send me a link to your book. You’re a movie director? Sweet, send me a link to your YouTube channel.

Waiting years upon years for an agent or publisher to greenlight your book, and having nothing that’s searchable, feels like a comedian saying, “I would send you a link to my routine, but Madison Square Garden hasn’t let me use the venue” or “I do have a short film idea, but Paramount Pictures hasn’t gotten back to me yet.” I don’t think it ever hurts to have something finished and easily available for people to see. If there are flaws, so what. I believe there is a pretty good understanding/acceptance out there for: this was my first attempt, this was done on a $25 budget, my parents served as my grammar editor.

And again, this doesn’t take literary agents out of the picture

I imagine the literary agent’s role for the author becoming less: line up a publisher, get into a bookstore and more creative partnership. Less talent scout, more angel investor. Literary agents will look at books that have already sold 500, 5,000, 50,000 copies and ask, “How do I get this to a hundred thousand? A million?” How do I get you on podcasts, radio shows, articles in magazines, guest spots on popular blogs? I’m going to invest in your new cover design, editing, page layout and in turn I now own 10 percent, 15 percent, 20 percent of the sales.

There may even be a show like Shark Tank, the top five literary agents becoming household names, listening to authors pitch (or, because authors can be a shy bunch) a trained marketer steps in. Get that dude from those “Real people, not actors” Chevy commercials.

No, wait! Here’s an idea. The show has the creative team from Pixar who makes story pitches for a living. The episode starts, and they’ve got like a hundred self-published books on a big conference room table. The team narrows it down to their favorite five, and then talk about how they are going to present it to the literary agents. They talk with the author, hear more about their backstory. Now the pitch is ready.

The Pixar team goes out in front of the literary agents, tells the story, and lets the bidding war begin. The name recognition/facetime through the show is good for the author, good for the agent, and probably even good for the Pixar team. Everybody wins. Call it “Book Club.” ABC, NBC, let’s talk offline!

And just like Shark Tank led to spinoffs, or how Ted Talks spawned smaller Ted Talks on college campuses, OR even how it seems like every small town now has a “Taste Of” festival in the summer, I could see this model being repeated from the big houses down to the one-person shop. Just less dramatic, and not always televised.

And it wouldn’t require deep; Mark Cuban pockets either.

For example, say a war veteran has a self-published account of their experience, and a literary agent decides they need about $30,000 in marketing budget to get the word out there. The literary agent doesn’t have to personally write the check; they could start a Kickstarter, GoFundMe, or begin reaching out to a list of veteran’s groups, associations, organizations that support veterans and build a team. In this scenario, the war veteran wanted to get their story out there, and the literary agent was still involved, still crucial in making all of that be a successful rollout.

As the publishing/book industry continues to evolve, I think literary agents have a stronger footing, better value prop than publishing houses.* Authors will always need help making their book better, making the presentation better, marketing their book, expanding their reach beyond their immediate network. Because of all this, literary agents definitely aren’t dead, and the good ones could become more successful than ever before.

*but don’t think that’s me going anti-publisher. I will have a post ‘Publishers aren’t dead’ series at some point. One of the ideas for them is to become less like FedEx/UPS (distributors) more like a (aggregators). 

I hope this post and the last one provided some level of help. Ultimately, I’m a novice. Still navigating these waters myself. If there is anyone out there who has published a book the traditional way (or self-published) or if there are literary agents out there reading this, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If there’s interest in writing a guest post on your experience let me know, my email is or maybe message me on LinkedIn? I would suggest Twitter, but mine is basically just a stream of NBA consciousness during the Playoffs.

I’ll be back next Wednesday with the final part of this series. If you’d like to subscribe via email, enter your email address in the box below, click enter, and you’ll be good to go. See you next week!

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