Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Age Old Question: To Agent or Not To Agent

Someone in my internet-generated writing group brought an interesting if not well-argued question to the table: Why bother paying an agent 15% when you as an author are more invested and have more passion to sell the book on your own?
My first reaction was to roll my eyes and say, "he must be new to publishing!" But in an effort to be magnanimous and fair, I began to think, are there times where it is better to forgo the agent? After all, all of my opinions about how valuable agents are come from agents. Hmmm.... there is something a bit biased there.

BookEnds Literary Agency has a post about the value agents bring here and here.

Interestingly, Miss Snark has a very open-minded post about it here, in which she does give circumstances (or types of books) in which it is acceptable to self-publish.

An editor writes from the publisher point of view here about how important it is to have an agent bring your manuscript to them for consideration.

I also found an excellent blog written by a publishing consultant (who knew those existed?) who also details many different facets of publishing for profit, both agented and non.

After researching the possibilities, this is my take on the issue.

If you are writing non-fiction, it is easier to get published without an agent than if you are writing fiction. I'm not talking to the non-fiction side because I don't know that as well, and I have a sneaky suspicion it is an entirely different beast (the way people think all diabetes is diabetes, even though type 1 and type 2 are entirely different).

If you are writing fiction, there are options, but you have to weigh what it is you really want, and how much money and time you are willing to pay or give up in order to reach that.

  • If you want to have a publisher publish you, as opposed to paying a vanity or POD or equity press, you're options are very limited. Most big publishing houses won't accept unsolicited manuscripts. You could have the next Harry Potter and it will used to break in their new shredding machine. No one will even look the teensiest look at it.

  • You can go to smaller presses. The competition here is fierce, but you have more of a shot than the big houses. You don't, however, get the same level of marketing expertise or large print runs. Depending on whether they decide to publish traditionally or Print On Demand (POD), you may not have a shot at even getting your book into a bookstore. They also can't afford the masses of editors and layout experts, and often can't even afford people who are trained in this, and as such, your book is much more likely to be fraught with typos and strange layouts.

There are upsides to the small press, though, which include better communication and author involvement, and more personalized marketing. A much more comprehensive article about small presses is here.

In short: small presses offer opportunities to get published for the novelist, but if you want to make real money, you may need to later look for an agent who can then sell your book to a large press. Also, if you want to sell foreign language rights or movie rights, it behooves you to have an agent in your corner for that, as well. If your book sold well you have a better chance of landing an agent than if you hadn't published at all. If your book didn't sell well, you'll have a harder time landing an agent.

My instinct, though, with this gentleman who initially brought this question up, is that he thought it would be better to self-publish and market the book yourself. Take your boxes, if you will, and sit in front of a bookstore or a library and peddle them yourself. Which, frankly, is something many agented authors do anyway.

  • The downside to self-publishing, unfair or not, is that is has a really poor reputation among the publishing community. If you self-publish, most agents and publishing houses do not recognize that as published. You can't go to them and say, "I have published one book, and now I want you to re-publish it, or publish my new one." As most self-publishing presses accept almost anyone who wants to shell out the money, you buy no credit with those who are picky.

Here is a great article on what to beware of in vanity presses. They are fraught with sneaky, thieving companies who prey on an author's desire to see their words in print. Some are fine, but many are not. Be very careful who you go with if you choose this option.

  • Money is the thing other than reputation that makes this seem less viable to me. You end up paying for these publications more than most authors can recoup selling. Unless you are an amazing seller, in which case maybe you should be doing something else other than writing.

Let's take Lulu, which is one of the more popular self-publishers these days. If I want to publish my 300 page novel in paperback book form the size of a regular paperback (and not a trade), the cost per book is $49.95. For 25 copies, it's $1,238.25. For 500 books, it's 22,135, about $44 per book. I'm not sure how I am going to peddle that in front of Border's when someone can go inside and buy one for $7.99.

I recently read a book published by ACW Press, a reputable small self-publishing press which includes cover design and ISBN number so you can supposedly sell it in a bookstore, if one would take it. They also say they have professional editing, but the book I read had many typos, and occasionally the wrong name of a character or grammar issues which were most definitely not intended stylistically. If I wanted to publish my 300 word book there, POD, I'd have to pay $1,799. That would get me 15 books, which I would have to sell at $119 a piece. I could order more at $10.28 a piece. If I wanted a traditional press run of 1,000 copies, it would cost $10,220, which is only $10 a book to break even, if I could sell them all. There are extra costs, of course, which range from .10 to 3.50 per book, which you almost certainly would want.

I'm not saying this isn't viable. I just think it would be very difficult to break even, money wise. I didn't get into writing to become wealthy, but I certainly didn't do it to lose money, either.

I'm quite sure I didn't cover everything, and I am equally certain I probably got something wrong, but in my own opinion, agents make their money, and it's worth waiting to get one. I'm not expecting Spielberg to pick up my book for a movie, or fifteen European countries to snatch up French, Italian and German translations. But if they did, I'd want someone who knew what they were doing to take care of it. And frankly, I'm too busy writing to figure out all these details. Maybe if I only had one book in me, and wanted to spend the next ten years peddling it.... nah. Even then, I'd need someone else looking out for me.

At least that way I have someone else to blame other than myself! :)


  1. Oh my goodness, I'd never found those numbers, although I do agree with you that it is a little more easy (perhaps??) to get published with a non-fiction without an agent.

    However, I just found a new agent blog (KT Literary Kae Tienstra FYI) that said in a post of hers that the publishers are recommending non-fiction to be the next big money maker for agents...which I guess would make sense in a way.

    I never really considered ever self publishing anything, although I know The Rejecter did that and did ... okay. It was a very niche sort of book though, and she went in with that in mind.

    Very interesting post!

  2. Wow, well put together!

    I've been checking out these agent blogs (Miss Snark started me off!) for almost two years and I've come to pretty much the same conclusion as you have.

    I want an agent because I want an advocate, business manager, and guide. They know stuff I don't. I don't want to learn what they know- I want to write!! I have more than one book in me, I mean four have already come out and there are more, and I want a business partner to take care of things I'm not good at.

    I do think I'd be willing to look into a small Canadian publisher if my agent search is exhausted, but I'm not ready to do that yet.

    Someone in my big writers group self published a couple of years ago, and he's happy with the results. But, he's had to be the marketing and promotions guy, handle the money, and park the boxes of books in his house. I just do not want to do that! I'll go visit other groups and talk about writing, I'll sit at a table for hours waiting for someone to want my novel signed, I'll even sweat through an interview, but I do not want to load up the hatchback and hit the road trying to sell the darn book myself!

  3. Fantastic post Heidi. I know of BookSmart, where you do your book and can order it, hardback or paperback. For me, this would be good for a personalized family photo album. Or a memoir book of family memories. I can order it, have a nice hardback coffee table book. As far as selling it? I don't know how that would work. I do know you can visit their website, read an excerpt and then buy the book for whatever price. The money goes right into the author's bank account, like a paypal type thing. Its more of a, "I want this book, they will print it." so if I buy a book, they print on demand and they've marked the book up so the author is making a little money, not much.

    This reminds me of Hollywood, let's say I'm an actor. Very few actors can go out and land major movie roles with no agent or manager. These people know the business and if you get a good one, you will benefit more from having one than from not having one. That's my take on it, at least.

  4. Jen - I think you're right. Non-fiction is the thing right now, and it's easier to get published, with or without an agent, if you write non-fiction. And easier to land an agent.

    Heidi - I agree with you.... I don't want to be my own manager either. There is such a huge learning curve, and I'd rather be writing than figuring out the legal aspects, probably getting it wrong, and dealing with the consequences. Also, I'd love to sit at tables and sign books, but no way I'm sucking up the money to buy a couple boxes and then depend on myself to sell them. I'm just not that good at selling anything.

    Brittany - I think some of the self-publish sites are really great for family heirlooms and books as gifts. If I wanted to give my book as a gift, $50 wouldn't be bad. I've even thought of making a book of photography for my father. But who else is going to spend that kind of money buying a novel? So I think those sites are great for that gifty niche.

    You are absolutely right about the acting thing. It's the perfect analogy. I don't know people in the biz. I need someone who does.

    Although the publishing world is changing. This post may be moot in ten years. Who knows? They may all be ebook and anyone can get published and make their money as people download.

    Writing this helped me sort out where I want to be now, though, and that is with an agent!