Are Literary Agents Useful Or A Hindrance – By R.D. Meyer

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I meant to post this for friend Friday but after receiving physical threats over my attendance of Worldcon, I ended up busy in the morning making sure the police reports were filed and the like. It’s handled now… so let’s get back to business with a guest post by RD Meyer, author of Salvation Day:

I was speaking last week with an old friend of mine named Kevin. Several years ago,
Kevin was a potentially up-and-coming author who’d secured a literary agent for his
book Paws On The Ground. The book is about his time as an MP working with dogs in
Afghanistan, and the title is a take off of the military phrase “boots on the ground.” It’s a
way to say that you have to be in the thick of things and physically present to have an
impact.

Kevin had gone to a writing conference and an agent was impressed enough to sign
him. That’s when he learned that maybe literary agents aren’t the best route to go if you
want to get your message out to the public…

His first agent(I’ll get to why he was the “first” in a second) kept giving him edits and
corrections to make. Don’t get me wrong – if something can be made better, then I’m
totally open to someone pointing out what that might be. What I’m not open to is
someone who supposedly works for me – and yes, literary agents work for the writer,
not the other way around – insisting that his or her suggestions must be taken. I’m the
writer, and I get to decide what works best for the story.

There was lots of back and forth, and tons of new “suggestions,” but the agent never
tried even once to submit Kevin’s books to publishers for sale. Finally fed up, Kevin
fired the guy and turned to a new agent. This one didn’t offer too much to change, and
he sounded like he was enthusiastic about Kevin’s book. Then…nothing. The guy just
disappeared, as if the Earth had opened up and swallowed him whole. Kevin hasn’t
heard from him in more than two years, and he has basically given up on anything
happening with his work.

Those who know me know of my antipathy towards literary agents. I think, for the most
part, that they’re useless. To start with, they’re supposed to be selling your work and
negotiating a contract, but every one I’ve encountered has no background in business
or intellectual property law. Most, in fact, have MFA or English degree and appear to
simply want to be writers themselves without running the risk of putting their own work
out there. No, they’d rather criticize actual writers behind the scenes and then take
credit for what someone else wrote.

Were I to ever decide to go the traditional route for my work(the offer would have to be
really high for me to give up the freedom of indie publishing), I wouldn’t need another
literary critic. I’ve got beta readers and people I respect for critiques. Since reading
taste is subjective, I have to be the final arbiter of whether or not a suggestion makes
sense. What I need instead of another critic is someone familiar with intellectual
property law. What rights do I retain? When do the rights revert back to me? Is the
publisher insisting on a right-of-first-refusal for my next book? What will the publisher
do from a marketing standpoint and what does that publisher expect me to do? MFAs
and English degrees are great, but they don’t credential someone to determine whether
or not a contract offer is to my advantage. And since the main advantage most of these agents offer is access to a traditional publisher, it’s more in an agent’s interest to get
better terms for the publisher than for me so that the agent can stay in the good graces
of the publisher.

Most agents rely on the naiveté of new authors to yoke them into their corral. This had
its merits…25 years ago. However, in the new age of indie publishing, all it takes is
some initiative and common business sense to get what an agent could. If you want a
traditional contract, then get an intellectual property attorney for your contract. You can
hire your own cover artist, your own editor, and market your book yourself. Sure, it may
not have a big-time publisher’s name attached, but a lot of successful books don’t have
that. Remember that The Martian and Fifty Shades of Grey both started off as indie-
published. It wasn’t a literary agent or traditional publisher that made them successful.
They were successful the same way I Am Legend or The Shining were successful –
they captured lightning in a bottle and caught a break(luck and timing are the biggest
pieces an agent won’t talk about, pretending instead that they can make you the next JK
Rowling rather than acknowledge that most books, even those represented by a
traditional publisher, don’t earn that kind of money).

If you want the comfort of having a literary agent, go ahead, but know that you’re likely
making a mistake. Most agents I’ve encountered think they run things rather than that
they work for their client, just like a lawyer or interior decorator. If you want to retain
your freedom and not worry whether or not someone who has an MFA but has likely
never published in their life approves of you, then eschew the agent route and put stock
in your own abilities. After all, you have some control over those.

Check out Salvation Day by RD Meyer! 

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2 thoughts on “Are Literary Agents Useful Or A Hindrance – By R.D. Meyer

  1. And don’t forget that they take 15% from you. Yeah really gruelling work moving manuscripts from one publisher to another at fancy restaurants or during happy hour.
    I agree with your advice. It’s scary to run a business but no more so than other activities. And it’s perfectly legitmate (and smart) to delegate some stuff to experts with the caveat that NOBODY’s in charge of your money or intellectual property but you. No powers of attorney, etc.

    xavier

  2. And I shall disagree on the ‘likely making a mistake” assumption. It all depends on the agent. My agent got my series in front of a major NY publishing house, which bought the four books and subsequently sold foreign translation rights into a number of countries. The amount of $$$$ I earned help make my lifestyle choices a lot easier. Yes, she got 15% for that expertise. I couldn’t have done this on my own with that house as the editor who published my work was not open to “over the transom” submissions and never attends writer’s conferences so I could pitch to her.

    I have other author buds whose agents have done their job properly and helped those friends attain decent contracts and attractive publishing terms. So no, you can’t make the assumption that all agents are a waste of time because that’s just not true.

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