Does the System Work?

Last week, Christine posted a comment in response to Monday’s blog post, “Dreams” and I thought it would be interesting for you to weigh in on her thoughts. As you might guess, I have my opinion (and if you’re really nice I’ll consider sharing it), but I thought it would be more interesting to hear YOUR responses first. Here is a portion of her comment:

I personally find it strange that writers are out looking for agents than the other way round. In a business, you produce your product and market it to the masses, who pay you for the product. A writer produces a product and has to search the world for that one person to accept it, who has to find another to get it out to the masses. Writers appear as employees rather than the boss of their business. A writer is self-employed, so why is it that agents and publishers do not have to go through the rigmarole of applying to authors to fill these positions like other staff in a business?

Would it not be better for writers to self publish and if accepted by readers, be approached by agents and publishers with their credentials to see the book out to a wider audience? After all, it is readers who make or break a book.

So, readers, what are your thoughts?

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Rachelle on May 21, 2008 at 11:22 AM

    >Anonymous (Inspire-Writer)–
    I, too, wish we could make decisions based on reading someone’s book and not their query. Three things to point out, fairly obvious and no surprise to you, I’m sure:

    (1) As a fast reader at about 300 words a minute, the average 90,000 word novel takes 5 hours to read. Let’s see, 300 submissions a month times 5 hours to read each one… you have just given me 1500 hours of work, the equivalent of 37 full work-weeks or 8 months, and I have accomplished nothing but read manuscripts for potential clients… I haven’t even come close to making any money yet.

    (2) A surprising number of those manuscripts do not suit the individual agent’s taste, so they wouldn’t read past the first few pages anyway.

    (3) Just to give everyone the benefit of the doubt because I KNOW how hard it is to write a query, I make decisions based NOT on just the query but also on the first ten pages of your book.

  2. Anonymous on May 21, 2008 at 11:10 AM

    >So many of us are in the same boat. I’ve been looking for an agent for over a year. A few were good enough to ask for a partial. Three read the manuscript, making positive comments in the margins, saying my writing was excellent, the premise interesting, but that it just wasn’t for them. I am grateful they did read the manuscript and comment though. That was only three agents out of the forty I’ve queried.

    I queried WordServe and Greg was fantastic. But his client list is on overload. That’s another factor for rejections.

    In CBA there is only a handful of literary agents we can go to. In ABA thousands. So what do we do as Christian writers when our list of CBA agents is exhausted?

    It is extremely frustrating more so when you receive a rejection after only sending a query. I wish more agents would read the full, for how can they really, truly, evaluate a novel based on a query. I know. I know. The query must be engaging and well written. I believe mine is based on the critiques I’ve gotten and the reactions of some of the agents I’ve queried.

    I understand the temptation there is for writers to go with a pod publisher. Remember back in the late 90s when pod came on the scene. It was touted as the next best thing to sliced bread. I got lassoed in. Yeap, one of them got me, promised editing, bookstore placement, and help with marketing. Did they keep their promises? NO.

    It was a nightmare working with them. But it was a great experience with what book signings and speaking engagements I rallied on my own. I worked my buns off. I also got released from my contract when I told them I would not buy any more copies. Dumped and praising God for it.

    I think that a few bad apples in pod publishing ruined it all.

    Writing is sheer joy! Seeking publication feels more like a job, a thankless job that you don’t get paid for. But once we do make it, all the frustration, depression, and hard work will have been worth suffering through.

    I’m now 52, and I hope I can see that day when I do have a legit contract. Right now with the way the system works, I am not sure.

  3. Nicole on May 18, 2008 at 11:15 AM

    >According to the supposed professionals in the industry blogs, “that 2%” is very significant. Enough to cause rippling changes in the amount of overall books produced (according to some) and just who they select to publish.

  4. Twill on May 16, 2008 at 6:51 PM

    >The “only 2% earn out their advances” is a meaningless statistic.

    The equivalent in the restaurant industry would be “in only 2% of the dishes on the menu did the restaurants sell out of the food they had purchased and send someone to buy more”.

    When you run out of food, it means you didn’t order enough. When the author earns out their advance, it means you didn’t plan to print enough books.

    The question is, for how many books did the publishers sell enough to make a profit on the print run? That tells how well they are picking their books.

  5. Michael Scott on May 15, 2008 at 10:13 AM

    >Hi Rachelle,

    Okay, I’m grousing a bit. Self-appointed was a little snippy of me.

    My frustration is in this: convincing an agent to take a serious look at the writing I’ve done and can do. I’m more than willing to edit the snot out of my book to make it the best it can be. What I can’t seem to do is get anyone to take my writing seriously enough to take a chance on me. And yes, I’ve had it critiqued already.

    It could be that my writing just–well–sucks. But I don’t think that’s the case. I really don’t. I know it’s better than some of the stuff I’ve seen published out there. I had one agent do a line-edit of my first chapter. Very helpful. I went through and tightened everything I could. Later, I read a published book, and saw this writer making the very same stylistic errors that I was rejected over (overuse of ‘that’, among others).

    I read all the time about going to writer’s conferences. I live in Upstate New York. I haven’t found any up here. I keep looking, hoping to find one that won’t require driving days to get to. And there are a number of agents who refuse to look at anything unless you speak to them face to face and “sell” them on it.

    So maybe the world just isn’t ‘ready’ for my book (no, not the arrogant thing. Just the “we don’t think the market is there” thing – which I don’t accept, either, frankly.). Regardless, I’m going to keep trying. And I’m going to keep working on at least one of the six other novels I have in the works. God keeps giving me ideas. I’m going to keep putting them down on paper. And unless I get hit by a bus or Jesus comes back first, I will make it. I’m just too stubborn to quit.

    Thanks for letting me rant, anyway.

    – Michael

  6. Anonymous on May 15, 2008 at 8:25 AM

    >Glad to see my story of being sought out and not actively pursing publishing a book isn’t the only one.

    I see the common thread is faith in God and doing what you’re supposed to be doing for Him!

    Praise God.

  7. Ann on May 14, 2008 at 11:14 PM

    >Christine’s scenario is my story.

    And it didn’t happen through self-publishing or the newspaper.

    It happened through blogging. Years of quietly learning the craft, finding my voice, apprenticing, all through the means of a quiet blog.

    And two blog readers who had connections to an agent (one as an author, one through a writing conference), contacted the same agent (nearly simultaneously and unbeknownst to the other–serendipity!) recommending him to contact me.

    An aquisitions editor of a larger CBA house also found the blog and contacted me, and the agent and editor have been discussing what comes next.

    I believe simply in humbly doing God calls you to do: writing. I see blogging as the practical outworking of Cec Murphey’s exhortation to be passionately committed to the process, emotionally detached from the outcome. If God calls one to write, then blog. Write online. Let Him do as He chooses with the words that He grants. He may never call to publishing. So be it. With blogging, the ministry of words remains genuine, transformative, useful to very real readers. More than publishing, as writers for God, we endeavor to simply offer Him our words, to do with as He sees fit.

    Without formally pursuing publishing, God can use your words to speak to an overwhelmed missionary in Bangladesh, a seeker in New Zealand, a new believer in Ireland.

    (And He, in staggering grace, may even have an agent and editor come knocking on the door of your humble blog, as Christine suggests. But that really isn’t the main point.)

    Thank you, Rachelle, for this interactive forum and your support of this community…

  8. Anonymous on May 14, 2008 at 8:29 PM

    >Who determines quality? Well, that’s always a difficult question because our definitions may vary from one person to the next. However, I don’t think publishing houses are looking for bad writing that sells. They’re looking for good books people will read. Yes, it’s a business, but the “publishers” aren’t robots who only crunch numbers and have no interest in writing quality. It’s far from a cavalier endeavor.

    Perhaps that “2 percent earning out royalties” tidbit isn’t so much about bad business decisions so much as it’s about publishers taking risks on projects that may or may not make money. Isn’t this a good thing for writers? Doesn’t this give great writing a place to rise up if the readers agree?

    Just a thought.

  9. Timothy Fish on May 14, 2008 at 8:07 PM

    >Would it be better for writers to self-publish and be approached based on their success? Better for whom? For traditional publishers, I think it would be good because they could reduce resources they put into reading through the slush pile. For agents, it would be worse, because it reduces the need for them. For writers, it isn’t clear. The cream would still float to the top, so it wouldn’t hurt the good writers much, but the dregs at the bottom would be working much harder and they still wouldn’t reach their goals.

    Will it ever happen? Probably not anytime soon, but with self-publishing becoming cheaper and the slush piles exceeding demand, I think it is possible that publishers could find it an attractive option since it costs them little and it accurately reveals customer demand.

  10. Nicole on May 14, 2008 at 7:16 PM

    >*And before being quick to judge the quality of a work, let’s not overlook another truth: one person’s “great book” is another person’s “crappy novel.”*

    I couldn’t agree more. This is exactly the point. Who decides? The publishing industry, whether CBA or ABA, ultimately decides at their level. Enough to invest their dollars and strive to give a reader a good product.

    *But even if the complaint of poor quality stems from years of literary study and analysis, what value is there in denouncing the royalty world? Just write a great book.*

    The point wasn’t to bash the “royalty world”. It was to display the oxymoron of demanding “quality” yet producing something less than the final sentence above. What is “great”?

    The marketing advantage and the general quality control of royalty publishing definitely gives the edge to royalty publishing. However, the “great” literature supposedly demanded by royalty publishers in either ABA or CBA comes under the subjective analysis of those who are shelling out the money to make a profit. It’s good to make a profit. One shouldn’t be in business if they don’t want to turn a profit.

    However, let’s be honest. With a shocking 2% of books produced by royalty publishers earning out their advances . . . um, doesn’t that speak to something?

  11. Anonymous on May 14, 2008 at 6:45 PM

    >While it’s true that being published by a royalty publisher is not a guarantee of quality writing, it is without a doubt a much better guarantor of quality than the tag of “self-published.” That’s not to say all royalty published books are brilliant or all self-published books are terrible. A quick glance at the ABA shelves will prove this is a universal truism, not limited to the CBA. And before being quick to judge the quality of a work, let’s not overlook another truth: one person’s “great book” is another person’s “crappy novel.”

    Regarding the copyediting issues. I’ve seen this, too – in ABA and CBA books equally. Sloppy copyediting (or more likely, proofreading – the last line of defense) ought to be dealt with, certainly. But I’ll take an engaging (even formulaic) story with a few typos and missed words over a perfectly-spelled bland story with no plot, poor characterization or ponderously self-indulgent writing every time.

    About that word “formulaic.” I know many of us wield that word like a sword of righteous indignation, but the more I consider the implications of the word, the less impact it has. Don’t all stories have form? Just because we’ve seen that form before – that character, that dramatic arc, that conflict resolution – does this immediately relegate the work to the poor quality bin? I’m all for originality, but just how many new forms are there, really?

    Finally, I have learned over the years that some of the loudest complaints about the CBA (and royalty publishing in general) come from writers who have not found a home in that world and feel they are somehow being treated unfairly. I suspect ignorance and carelessness are more common reasons for complaint. But even if the complaint of poor quality stems from years of literary study and analysis, what value is there in denouncing the royalty world? Just write a great book. If the royalty publishing model is not a fit for your book – for perceived “quality” reasons, market reasons, or whatever reasons – go ahead and self-publish. Just be aware that in doing so, unless you have lots of money for promotion or a platform that will sell thousands because of your name or reputation, your self-published book – no matter how good it is – will have a harder time reaching the same audience that a similar royalty-published work could reach. That is simply a market reality.

  12. Rebecca LuElla Miller on May 14, 2008 at 4:37 PM

    >As to the original question, I agree with Chris Morrow. It’s a buyer’s market, with the publishers/agents as the buyers. They get to pick and choose. Sort of like the idol finalists again. All three are good singers. If an agent was going to sign just one of them, then two outstanding talents would get rejection letters. And what is it that separates them? Most likely, an agent’s personal preference.

    About self-publishing being like online music. I disagree with that comparison. I think we have yet to see the equivalent, but it might be coming. Not ebooks. Those haven’t taken off. But some sites are putting up serials–a chapter a week or something. Now that is the kind of thing that could create buzz and build an audience. Will it initiate a new way of doing book business? Not unless someone figures out how to make money from it.


  13. Nicole on May 14, 2008 at 3:54 PM

    >Okay, okay, okay. You editors in the bunch make excellent points and are no doubt right in the overall picture.

    I guess the real point I’m trying to make without being insulting to anyone is this: being published by a royalty publisher–and, yes, that means TN, Z, BH, etc.–is not the guarantee of quality writing or book production. I read a ton of CBA novels. It’s great that each author has a contract and writes these books. Good for them. They jumped through the hoops, the pros at each level saw something to promote in their writing, and that’s a wonderful thing. But not all of them are the best in story, form, or copy-editing. I’ve never seen so many typos, extra words, words left out, etc., in the books from major houses in recent times. Not to mention some very formulaic stories. JMO, fair enough?

    I agree with the skepticism regarding custom-publishing. It’s just a whole lot better than it used to be in the actual process of producing a book.

  14. Anonymous on May 14, 2008 at 3:14 PM

    >Regarding editorial edits- I can say, again my experience, whenever I’ve worked with my agent/editor team we’ve yet to get a request to do a major edit on a product.

    I know when the publisher has come to expect you to turn in a great book, it seems like they are eager to take on the project, because they don’t have to do much in the means of editing, rewrite suggestions etc..

    I have learned when you are easy to work with, accept advice and make all changes that don’t compromise the integrity of the book, you get a reputation for being easy to work with and houses adn agents like that.

    With regards to this whole topic it’s my definate feeling that attutide is huge.

    I consider myself a partner with my agent and editor and I can’t imagine doing this without them.

    Regarding self publishing, it’s so frustrating that we are in a time where people assume if you say you’re an author, they assume that you’re self published. I love that I’ve worked with Thomas Nelson, cause I can know the same people that publish the Bible! then they get the point! May sound haughty, but when you’re viewed as non working because you write, it seems to shut the door to that chatter.

    And one final thought. Someone else said it- you can’t underestimate the importance of a quality, solid book proposal. I love writing book proposals and have landed a deal for each proposal we’ve submitted thus far. It’s great to hear a house say that this is a well thought out and put together proposal- it shows them that you really take your work seriously.

    just my experiences again.

    Love the blog!

  15. Katy McKenna on May 14, 2008 at 3:10 PM

    >We’re told in writing circles that it’s important–when seeking critiques, for example–to ask for input from those somewhat ahead of you on the path to publication, but not so far ahead that they’re giving you direction you can’t yet comprehend.

    I wonder if the problem with many who go the self-pubbed route is that they simply haven’t advanced far enough in the craft of writing to be able to apply the advice of a good editor. So they ignore the advice and proceed with publication anyway, something a traditionally pubbed author would not be allowed to do.

    I personally sought critiques from a couple of multi-pubbed authors (who offered paid critiques as a side-line) several years ago. At that time, I needed a definition of terms to understand what was meant by POV, dialogue tags, head hopping, and a hundred other phrases the critiquer used. The experience of not knowing what they were talking about helped me realize I didn’t know what I was doing!

    On the path to traditional publication, a writer is forced to slow down and learn the basics. Not necessarily true when self-pubbing…..

    Katy McKenna

  16. Word Chicks on May 14, 2008 at 2:29 PM

    >Self publishing is similar to attempting to sell your own house. Occasionally it works, but if it doesn’t, you end up with plenty of “lookers” who have no intention of buying, while your house languishes on the market.

    In the end, you wind up going with a professional realtor who can connect what you’re selling with the person who is qualified to actually make the purchase.

    For me personally, a FSBO book deal isn’t even mildly appealing. Lord willing, I hope to eventually seek out an agent and let them handle all the “lookers” for me.

    Julie @ Word Chicks

  17. Rachelle on May 14, 2008 at 1:49 PM

    >Anon 12:33,
    That’s a great point. Having worked extensively as an editor for major publishers, I know that authors usually don’t want to take editorial advice – at first. But because their publisher has a lot of leverage, they suck it up and do the work (after taking a day or so to sob, complain and be angry). Invariably, in the end they admit the editorial input made their book much better. In fact, even though I’m sure it must have happened, I can’t remember any author who regreted the revisions they had to make as a result of working with their editor. I can imagine that in a situation where the editorial advice can be ignored and the book still get published, a lot of authors would make the really dumb and self-centered decision to ignore it. For that reason, self-pubbed books might never reach the overall level of editorial excellence of mainstream pubbed books.

  18. Anonymous on May 14, 2008 at 1:33 PM

    >I’ve got to do this anonymously for a good reason—to comment specifically on Nicole’s defense of the self-publishing business. You’ll see why I have to be anonymous. She remarked that the best self-publishing companies use professional editors and book jacket designers and insist on excellence.

    I am one of those editors.

    Here is my experience. it’s true that the big self-publishing companies hire good editors (I hope!), but the vast, vast, vast majority of books I see just aren’t any good. The problem in most cases is the author.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve carefully edited a book and made literally dozens or even hundreds of specific editorial suggestions, only to have the authors completely ignore me. In fact, I would say that many more authors ignore constructive criticism than take it. And, ultimately, they are paying for it, so we say nothing and shovel more garbage into the presses.

    It’s my experience that writers are too close to their own work, too sensitive to criticism, to voluntarily take critiques, even from a professional editor. That’s one reason agents and editors are valuable, because if you blow off your editor or snub your agent, you’re a bad investment so your career ends. But if the only person willing to make an investment in you IS you, then let’s just say your investment advisor has a conflict of interest.

  19. Anonymous on May 14, 2008 at 1:15 PM

    >At the risk of over-spiritualizing this, I would like to try and shine a different light on this question.

    In the world, many of the systems evolve out of desires for power, money, productivity, etc. Applying pressure where necessary helps produce the organization’s associated goals, and feed the monster, so to speak. However, our paradigm for life is a living, breathing body. Each member’s role is critical and each member takes orders directly from the Head – Jesus. The driving force behind our actions is love in the form of laying down our lives for one another. When we function accordingly, the body becomes more whole, and the Head gets the credit (receives the glory).

    I guess I’m sort of avoiding the actual question, but my personal writing-world struggles center around my own selfish problems, not around the particular structure of the system I work within. We do operate in the world and within its structures. Some systems function fairly well, others not so well. But, I think our relationship with the Head of the body and with other members in the body impacts the success of a particular system more than any change in its structure. It does seem like the writing/publishing world, like every other system, could stand some improvement. However, I have so much room for improvement as a person/writer, and a member of the body, that fixing the functional yet less than perfect writing/publishing structure seems a bit cart-before-the-horse.

    Here’s my quick specific answer to the question posed: I very much appreciate both the entity autonomy for and interdependency between the writer, agent, editor, publisher, distribution channel, retailer, and reader…each role with specific gifting and focus. Writers look for good agents who are a good fit; agents look for good writers who are a good fit. The same applies to agents and publishers, publishers and distribution, distribution and retail, retail and reader/consumer. If we neglect any part of that interdependent network, we all suffer. If we respect and attend to all the roles in love, then we all gain and people see God…just like in the body. Works for me.

    Mark Adair

  20. Cheryl on May 14, 2008 at 12:56 PM

    >But how are you going to find those readers to buy your self-pubbed books? Where are you going to store them? How are you going to package/ship them? And if you’re packing/shipping books, when do you have time to find readers, let alone write new material? If you’re a speaker or have some public exposure, then you may have an outlet, but to start without a way to sell? Those are the questions that pop into my head when I hear about self-publishing.

    I think agents and publishing houses do go through a “rigmarole” of sorts to find their writers, but in different ways. Publishing houses use agents as filters, then look at what the agents bring them. Having an agent is no guarantee that an author will be published, but it does allow access that is denied unagented writers.

    I also think agents and publishers are on the lookout for good writers for that is how they make their living–with good writers. But since the number of authors outweighs the number of agents, then agents don’t have to troll for writers. Authors will seek agents out.

    Just my thoughts from a first time poster, 🙂

  21. Ulysses on May 14, 2008 at 12:36 PM

    >An interesting discussion, Rachelle. Thanks for this.

    I believe self-publishing credits are an accurate indicator of mass market appeal… Unfortunately, they are rarely a GOOD indicator. I don’t read self-published books. From the numbers I’ve seen, most self-published authors rarely find an audience outside their social circle. There are exceptions, of course: Eragon (which had the backing of Paolini’s publishing family) and the Looney Spoons cookbooks here in Canada (which had the backing of a millionaire), but those exceptions are exceedingly rare.

    Usually, if a book is good enough to attract a good-sized audience, an agent or editor will recognize that and sign the author.

    Most of the time, it seems self-publishing is just a way to package substandard work in a form the reading public is free to ignore.

  22. Nicole on May 14, 2008 at 12:22 PM

    >I will, Rachelle. And I’ve seen the past products and even some of the current unattractive products, but I maintain it depends on who you use in today’s arena.

  23. Rachelle on May 14, 2008 at 11:40 AM

    >Nicole, when you read tomorrow’s post, please make sure you pay special attention to the words “in the past” and “things may be changing.” You are right in what you say here, but so are the folks you’re telling to “back off.” There is a history in self-publishing, and it’s not pretty. This very real history is what people are basing their comments on. Stay tuned for my thoughts tomorrow.

  24. Nicole on May 14, 2008 at 11:15 AM

    >Okay, a tad off topic. Self or custom-publishing has earned a bad rep from past and some present book production. However, those of you who haven’t worked with a good custom publisher don’t know what you’re talking about–no offense.

    The best use professional editors, don’t accept just any writers/authors who want their work in print, use talented cover designers which rival those a lot of the current big names are using, and insist on excellence from the copy-editing to the back cover copy. So back off with your custom publishing comments, please. It all depends on who you use. Not to mention that you can also purchase publicity/marketing packages which include television, radio, and newspaper appearances and interviews.

    Agents are necessary for those who desire to have someone else find the entrance into publishing. Those who are reputable have keys to the kingdom and don’t get paid until they unlock the doors. The good ones earn every dime of their commission. To say that it’s easy to find one–no way. Even the pros tell you it’s harder now to find a good agent than it is to find a publisher, even though most publishers don’t accept unsolicited queries, let alone manuscripts.

    If you are a craftsman and believe in your work, have the dollars to custom publish and promote your work in all the various required ways to effectively get your book noticed, then go for it. Some custom published books are picked up by known commercial publishers if they sell well, and in rare cases the author takes a financial hit by signing a contract with a royalty publisher.

    Yeah, in a perfect world people could publish their own work and hawk it to millions eliminating middle men of all kinds. Not gonna happen.

  25. Katie on May 14, 2008 at 11:10 AM

    >Everyone else already said what I was going to say. Yes, it’s partly supply and demand. No, the POD idea wouldn’t work, in a lot OF WAYS. Yes, the agents DO work for us, because it’s OUR story, but I see it more as a partnership.

    But like I said, so many of you have already explained why it works the way it does. It’s tough, but I, personally, think it’s rare that a truly good writer doesn’t end up published. On the other hand, it’s common to find people who THINK they’re good writers not getting published. (Those who want to be. I can think of a couple of good writers who are content with their blogs.) Only time will tell which camp I belong to. 🙂

  26. Anonymous on May 14, 2008 at 11:09 AM

    >My take on this is: If I invent something and believe in what I invent, do I sit around and wait for someone to discover it or do I go out and search high and low for that someone who can help me market, refine and maybe even help me design my invention so that it will be marketable and successfully advertised?

    Also, I love the success story of anonymous posted at 7:37am. Wish it could work for everyone like that but that is definately not the norm. I don’t think.


  27. Chris Morrow on May 14, 2008 at 10:49 AM

    >I think it’s basic economics – supply and demand. There are a lot more writers than agents. If it were the other way around, agents would be beating on our doors. As for the necessity and role of an agent – I see how slowly the publishing world moves now and although it’s hard to imagine the publishing world rotating any slower, I’m sure that without agents it would barely turn. Agents acting as a filter are integral. And then there is all that other stuff they do like pitching the right market and negotiating contracts.

    The music business has changed, in large part because of the internet. Bands not signed to major record labels are seeing success because they can get their product out to the masses without the help of the giants like Warner and EMI. I see self publishing as similar to this Indie Rock movement, but without the success. Maybe that’s because with music people like to be able to say that they’ve discovered the next big thing, or were fans of the band before they were big. Listening to a four minute song doesn’t involve the investment in time that reading a novel does, and so as readers we like to let the big publishing houses tell us what is good and what we should read. Unfortunately I think sometimes they throw out the wheat with the chaff.

  28. Anonymous on May 14, 2008 at 10:48 AM

    >In response to the Michael/Rachelle thing above:
    Yes, agents are definitely the gatekeepers and this is one of the things that is so frustrating if you haven’t gotten through that gate. And I know that agents are human beings, with their own tastes and flaws, no matter what their level of experience, dedication or credentials.

    Also I think Michael is right that writers put our hearts on the line (we aren’t usually marketers), agents, their time (so I assume they are spending all or most of that trying to find authors – and not so much of it writing themselves or advising), and publishers, their $. My hope is that with technology advancements, publishers won’t have to risk as much money to take a chance on a new writer…you could be ‘published’ on things like the Kindle, and maybe only enough books would be printed on paper to meet the market demand. Readers really could be the judges of what is good and what they’d recommend to their friends!

  29. Pam Halter on May 14, 2008 at 10:11 AM

    >I’m not sure I understand the question. I think it’s “why don’t agents seek after authors?”

    Hmmmmm … I think they do. If you have a service, you advertise and potential buyers come to you.

    Agents advertise by going to conferences, building websites and hosting blogs. They post guidelines and contact information. That means they’re looking for authors.

    An author answers the ad by submitting work according to the guidelines. That doesn’t mean the agent HAS to take on the work. You have to go through an “interview” process first, like any other job.

    If authors do it right, they do their research and ask questions. The agent responds.

    Sometimes decisions are made together and sometimes they are made by the agent or author alone.

    Agents are looking for good authors and if we want to be that author, we’ll work hard to make sure our writing is excellent.

  30. canvaschild on May 14, 2008 at 9:38 AM

    >I think agents are looking for writers who are willing to pour in the time to create a professional book proposal and invest in researching the market; this shows a certain kind of fortitude and character which is all part of the voice behind the book which will assist with selling the product in the long-run. Half the battle is writing the book; half of it is pitching and standing behind it as rejections rain down upon you. 🙂 Emily.

  31. David A. Todd on May 14, 2008 at 9:36 AM

    >It’s easier for 2,000,000 to find one among 1,000 than the other way around.

  32. Anonymous on May 14, 2008 at 9:24 AM

    >There are two issues at work here.

    First, many people – way too many -are so eager to be published that they’ll work for peanuts just to see their name in print. Go to any writer’s conference and you’ll see what I mean.(Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? ask the publishers.) Consequently, authors have little or no power in the industry. Christine is right, authors kill themselves producing the product that gives everyone a living and get no respect for their effort.

    Secondly, if you hang out a shingle that says “Author,” how does anyone know if you really are one? As I said above, there are way too many wannabe’s. If Dean Koontz or Stephen King let it be known that they were considering taking on an agent, people would beat a path to their door.

    Anyone who watches American Idol knows about the process of elimination. Actors, musicians and writers have to audition until they’ve been proven successful.

  33. Anonymous on May 14, 2008 at 8:37 AM

    >Seems like my post didn’t go through…I’ll try again..

    My agent actually found me.

    He called me out of the blue- well after reading an article about me in the paper. He saw the potential platform and saught me out. Within a few months we had a 2 book deal with a major publishing house. A few years later we are on book 4.

    The more I read this amazing and interesting blog, the more I see my experience is completley backwards.

    I can say however that although my agent does tons of work, my enthusiasm for marketing my projects has really impacted the view the houses view of my platform and seems to help with their final decesion.

    When i’m excited they seem to be excited. I’ve got tons of free press though sending out books for review, press releases etc and its been really helpful and free. They are always amazed at how much publicity I’ve generated on my own. So they know that I’ll do my part in selling and marketing books.

    No complaints here. I’ve enjoyed this whole expeirence, mostly because my agent is awesome!

  34. Tiffany Stuart on May 14, 2008 at 8:10 AM

    >First of all, I can’t imagine trying to self publish. Writing is hard enough. I don’t have any interest in self publishing as an option prior to going through a publishing house.

    As for my random thoughts on self publishing.

    First, I’ve never seen books that looked at good as those in the stores. The graphics seem cheesy. But then again, there maybe some that aren’t. I’m only speaking from my lack of experience here.

    Two, I see agents as a HUGE benefit and worth their fee. They are the experts and know the industry more than I do. I need their wisdom. They can help me make my work even more publishable.

    To me, writing is always a partnership. Either writer and editor. Or writer and agent. Or writer to writer in a critique group. I need the extra eyes. Together we write well and get published. Not sure I see that benefit in self publishing.

    I view self publishing as riding against the waves, not with them.
    Who knows someday the tide may change. Until then, I hope to keep my head above water and my body on the board as I try to catch the big wave.

  35. Anonymous on May 14, 2008 at 8:04 AM

    >Interesting question … undoubtedly, the business model for US publishing is screwy, but I don’t think it’s the writers who are ill-served. It’s the publishing companies. The margins are horrible, the waste is epidemic, the growth is anemic — it’s no way to run an empire.

    As for the gauntlet facing would-be writers, I’m not sure that lowering it would do anybody any good. C’mon, people, honest now: how many of you regularly read self-published books? Any self-pubbed books?

    I’m a heretic as far as writers are concerned. I’m in favor of high barriers to entry. If it was too easy (a la POD services), there’s nothing to hold back the wave of bad writing that threatens to swamp us all. I like knowing that the big-house book for which I plunk down $15 has been through the ringer already, worked over by people who are far smarter than me. And as a writer, I find it challenging knowing that, to successfully publish, I have to be the best I’m capable of — and then a little better.


  36. Robbie Iobst on May 14, 2008 at 7:59 AM

    >Isn’t the answer to why writers are seeking agents and not sought just a numbers game? Almost everyone I know tells me they have thought about writing a novel. I don’t think I have met anyone who has told me that they have thought about being an agent. If there were tons of agents and less writers I bet that we writers would be persued. It’s a nice dream. As for self-publishing, I have not ruled it out because I speak to MOPS groups all the time and it would be lovely to have a book to sell after my talks. But first, I will go the conventional route and hunt for an agent.

  37. Katy McKenna on May 14, 2008 at 7:59 AM

    >I’m still applying the American Idol metaphor here. When we watch the early episodes of the season, it seems like Randy, Paula, and Simon are actually viewing the auditions of tens of thousands of kids in each city.

    In reality, they only see the truly awful (so we the audience have something to groan about), the amazing (so they have some kids to send through to Hollywood), and a few borderline talents (so we in the audience have something to complain about). I consider the three judges to be like acquiring editors at publishing houses. Their job is to send singers on to the “pub board” (the voters) for a decision.

    But before anyone makes it through to sing for the the “acquiring editors,” they have to make it past the “agents.” The singers gather the night before, sleep outdoors in the rain, do whatever they have to do to be included among those who are accepted by the first round of filters–the “agents.” Mostly, the kids work on having a great “product” and a winning attitude. Everyone in the crowd has a chance to show their stuff to an agent, albeit a brief chance for many of them.

    Of course, the system isn’t perfect. Great talents do get overlooked. But just the fact that those kids show up at a mass audition says a lot about their persistence and sheer guts. Even that information is something agents and editors need to know.

  38. Rachelle on May 14, 2008 at 7:28 AM

    Just wanted to interject quickly here. Agents don’t just seem like gatekeepers, we ARE gatekeepers. That’s the main reason for our existence, and it’s the reason that publishers need us. For every project I send to a publisher, there are probably a couple of hundred I don’t. Publishers wouldn’t be able to function if they had to consider all those submissions themselves. As for the “self appointed” part, well I guess it’s true in the sense that we decide to become an agent, but we did not create this position (at least I didn’t!) There was a need long before I became one of those filling it.

  39. MichaelScott on May 14, 2008 at 7:21 AM

    >I know I’m frustrated by the whole process. I’ve been searching for a year and four months for an agent to represent my book. It’s difficult, given that it’s my first submission, to find someone willing to believe in the project–or willing to believe in me, I suppose. I KNOW I have more stories in me. A lot more. I KNOW I have a fresh voice and a new take on things. I wonder if it’s too new (not that I’m trying to bleat my own horn, here). But it’s frustrating trying to get by those who sometimes seem like “self-appointed gate-keepers.”

    I think ultimately, we all work for the readers, but the publishers are the ones who have to actually put the money on the line. The agents put their time on the line (and some money, but not as much as the publisher). The writers put their hearts on the line.

    I know my writing is good. My critique group believes in it, too. The hard part is selling it to those I don’t know/haven’t met. But that’s exactly what I’m asking a publisher to do for me, isn’t it?

  40. Susan Helene Gottfried on May 14, 2008 at 7:01 AM

    >Yes, it SEEMS as if that’s the correct interpretation of how things ought to go.

    However, the situation is more complex. Passion and subjectivity are the factors in here that alter the simple scenario of Here’s a writer, There’s an agent. Team up. If the players don’t like each other, if they aren’t compatible, no one will do their best work for each other. The passion has to be there in order to bring out the best in all of us.

    Yeah, we writers can self-publish. I’m tempted at least twice a day to do so. But I keep searching for the elusive needle in the haystack of an agent, an editor because I believe that I’ll find those people who share my passion for my book and who will do their best by it.

    When you factor in the passion aspect, the business model that seems to make so much sense flies out the window.

    Sadly, until you DO meet someone who shares your passion, it’s a hard concept to understand. Sort of how I came to understand how/why fighting is acceptable in ice hockey. I had to play the game and experience it myself. But once you do, there’s no turning back. And no settling, either.

  41. Wendy Melchior on May 14, 2008 at 6:49 AM

    >perhaps readers should be looking for agents. “find me something really good to read…”

    No, actually, I think agents ARE looking for writers, but if writers don’t somehow declare that they exist it’s like looking for milk in a snowstorm. It’s a big, global, flat world – which works for the writer and against her/him. I am learning, in this business, that everybody needs everybody else’s resources to succeed, and if the lines cross a little (if I do some of my own marketing or if an agent has a hand in my editing) all the better for everyone involved. If you want to self-publish, have at it, but how will you mass market? If you want to acquire an agent, go ahead, but your writing must be great. If you want to attract great writers, that’s great, but you’ll have to work through the slush to find them. I have no idea why different teams have been formed, we all need each other or we all starve.

  42. beth on May 14, 2008 at 6:14 AM

    >People don’t tend to read self-published books. The bookstores and Amazon are too big. People read what has been advertised to them to read; they pick up the shiny cover on the bookstore shelf, or search out a copy of what’s most popular on Amazon. Self-publishing means there’s no filter–think of all the revisions struggling writers who want to be published by a publishing house go through (by themselves, crit groups, agents, and finally, hopefully, editors)…none of that is required by someone who self-publishes. If self-pubbing became the norm, we’d have a huge increase in shoddy books, making it even more difficult for a good writer to stand out.

  43. MelanieWrites on May 14, 2008 at 1:27 AM

    >I’m thinking way too literally, I guess. I can’t figure out HOW you’re supposed to know who wants to be a writer if we don’t come to you.

    People who are self-employed have a business, and they do business for clients. If I write an article for a magazine, I don’t consider it any different than my full-time work at a newspaper. I’m doing a job for someone. If I’m ever blessed to have a novel — or any fiction — published, I will be working for that publisher.

    Everyone works for someone. Even the folks who own and run publishing companies have to serve the public — and, if it’s not privately held, the company’s investors.

    Having editors and agents knocking down my door would — or even knocking ON my door — would be a dream indeed.

  44. Beth K. Vogt on May 14, 2008 at 12:55 AM

    >Some folks like to say writing is a solitary business–a do-it-yourself deal. I disagree. I need help along the writing road. I learn from the experience of others.
    And “self-publishing” isn’t really self-publishing, unless you’ve got a print shop in your garage. There are lots of self-publishing groups–some legit, some not. Usually, you are investing your money to get your book produced and out into the market. Other people are involved in making your manuscript a book. And, to be honest, I’ve seen some unimpressive self-published books–and some downright awful ones. Is that how I want my book presented? I don’t think so.
    Bottom line: It’s your choice how you want to navigate the writing world. No one can make you use an agent or publisher. But why are you closing the door on a legitimate avenue to publication?

  45. jackie4jc on May 13, 2008 at 11:09 PM

    >Does anyone hold investments with an investment company? Does anyone have a broker? Now we could buy our own stocks or mutuals and research, research, research. Or, we can have a trained professional do that for us. And, I might add that the trained professional probably can do a better job. After all, they are licensed with the NASD. And, that frees people up to have a life outside of researching markets. Hmmm..I wonder how the Nijiya closed today. I digress. These licensed professionals are called—you guessed it—agents. By the way, that’s my day job. 

  46. jess on May 13, 2008 at 10:42 PM

    >When I was a real estate agent, I went out hustling for business: I solicited buyers and sellers and when they became unhappy with me, they got rid of me. Some clients I worked with as long as a year before we found them a house. They had patience and they trusted me. Others I never bonded with, they left me within a few months and went to another agent. I didn’t get paid until I sold… or until someone sold my listings.

    I noticed when I gave up writing and became a realtor that the business was very similar to writing and publishing. 🙂 That’s probably why I came back. If I have to be miserable why not be miserable doing something I love.

    As a writer, I feel as though I work for the agent. Yes, I hear over and over again that my agent works for me and I’ve heard that for years. I’ve never really bought into it.

    Honestly, I wish agents and their professional organizations would just ‘fess up, admit we work for them–what would really change?

    I have to add that I don’t begruge an agent his 15%. But I do grumble when I feel I’m not any better off by having an agent. S/he should know more about the market and what publishers are looking for than I do, don’t you think? Yet not all agents keep on top of things. Heard the old saying “can’t live with them, can’t live without them?”

    Ahem, we were supposed to be honest here, weren’t we?

  47. Kim Kasch on May 13, 2008 at 10:32 PM

    >But everyone has to get help marketing their product, unless they’re super-rich. Take any product, someone has to find people willing to invest, to produce the product and get the transportation funded (at 4 bucks a gallon) to get the product on the shelves. In my family, we come up with ideas for products all the time. Unfortunately we haven’t figured out a way to mass produce our invertaboots yet. I guess we could search out a sponsor but I’m still searching for an agent and writing is my priority – right now. But, who knows, maybe in a few years y’all will be wearing my invertaboots.