Why Authors Need Agents
Many times on this blog, I’ve answered the question of why you, a writer (singular), might need an agent (also singular). I addressed it in posts such as 10 Things to Expect from an Agent and Earning Our Keep. Agent Nathan Bransford gave a terrific run down on what agents do, here and my client Jody Hedlund gave the perspective of a contracted, newly agented author here.
But today I want to answer a slightly different question. Why do authors, collectively, need agents (plural)? How does the existence of agents in this business help all authors?
You, as an individual author, may or may not require the services of an individual agent. But whether or not you realize it, whenever you deal with a publisher, you’re benefitting from the collective work of agents over the years.
For the last few decades, agents have been on the front lines when it comes to advocating for authors in their relationships with publishers. It’s interesting to speculate on the state of publishing contracts if agents had never been involved and authors had to fend for themselves or just take whatever the publisher was offering.
The economics of publishing are tough, and like in any business, publishers are always trying to figure ways to save money – or a least keep their money longer. Naturally, they come up with brilliant money-saving ideas that involve paying authors less. They try to lower royalty rates; they try to bump up the royalty breaks (i.e. raise the number of copies you must sell before bumping to a higher royalty rate); they may want to extend the length of time over which they pay out the author’s advance (a huge bone of contention right now between agents and a couple of the largest publishers); and of course, they sometimes try to pay lower advances.
Those are the simple things. The last couple of years have seen publishers and agents battling it out over e-book royalty rates and numerous other areas related to new digital technologies. And besides the money, there are other contract points that agents constantly work to keep fair for their clients—everything from option clauses to author copies to author buy-back rates and more. It’s complicated and tricky trying to negotiate all these points in such a rapidly changing publishing environment.
But over all the years and all the changes in publishing, agents collectively have had the knowledge and the clout to duke it out with publishers on a contract-by-contract basis, holding as much ground for authors as possible. For example, if you sign a contract on your own with a small independent publisher, and they offer you a 25% royalty on e-book sales, you have agents to thank for that, because at first, many publishers were trying to fold e-book sales into their regular royalty schedule, meaning you’d only be making 10% to 15% royalty. But agents have, for the most part, changed that.
An interesting nod to the importance of agents in the publishing process happened last month when Random House CEO Markus Dohle sent a detailed letter explaining the company’s new policy involving e-rights (which quickly became known as RH’s “retroactive rights grab”). To whom did Mr. Dohle send the letter? Literary agents.
As we continue into the confusing new world of digital publishing, authors are going to need advocates more than ever. You are going to have your hands full, trying to work your full-time job plus write your books plus market them. You won’t have time to become an expert on publishing contracts, too.
Just remember, if you choose to sign with a royalty publisher and stay agent-less, you may be missing out on the latest knowledge and expertise that will protect the value of your intellectual property; but you’ll probably also benefit from the work agents have already done in the last few decades.
Your agent doesn’t just work for you. Each agent is, in their own small way, protecting the rights of all authors. So love ’em or hate ’em, it doesn’t matter because if you’re an author, agents are your friends.
P.S. I imagine some of you will argue that it’s really the other way around—that agents need authors. Well, of course that’s true. We need authors if we want this job. But if authors didn’t need agents, none of us would have this agenting job in the first place, so it’s kind of a moot point. When authors stop needing agents, agents will cease to play a part in the publishing industry.