Sarah Glazer wonders if literary agents have a future in the new digital world.

Lately I’ve been wondering if literary agents will soon be going the way of the dinosaur—or, dare I say it?—the paper book.

While crying on my shoulder is no equivalent for a scientific poll, it seems all the stories I’ve been hearing from fellow writers recently are about literary agents NOT delivering.

I remember a time not that long ago when getting an agent to take you on was the penultimate challenge for friends writing their first book. Once the agent was found, everyone was ready to break open the champagne, assuming all would proceed smoothly to publication.

But that doesn’t seem to be the way things work anymore, except for a few blockbusters.

One friend’s memoir spent over a year in the hands of a literary agent who was very enthusiastic about its prospects. But when the agent shopped the finished project around to major publishers, she met a chorus of rejections. My friend called a halt, worried that the agent’s forays were precluding her from making her own pitch on the book’s merits. She sent the book out on her own to university presses and finally found a prestigious one that gave her a contract.

Just this week, a British writer with four published novels to her name told me that she had two finished novels sitting in a drawer because of the disappointing performance of a big name literary agency. The agency had promised that each book would make her rich and persuaded her to make extensive revisions to fit in with their vision of the book.

In one case, she thought the rejections from multiple publishers was due partly to the less-than-accurate claims the agent made for the book--“epic” rather than intimate. Now that her agent has exhausted the British publishing market, she’s thinking of looking across the ocean to the bigger market in America.

It’s possible that these stories are exceptions. But a recent story in the Wall Street Journal makes me think they exemplify a trend. The Journal reports on a debut novel, Kirsten Kaschock’s Sleight. Kaschock’s agent thought it would be a shoo-in with New York’s top publishers. But the major New York publishers passed on it, and she ended up going with a small independent, Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, for an advance of $3,500—a fraction of the typical advances once paid by the major houses.

As the Journal reports, big retailers are buying fewer books, so publishers are approving fewer book deals and signing fewer new writers. The Journal blames this trend on the digital revolution in much cheaper e-books--a growing market that it says is disrupting the traditional economic model of the book industry.

One consequence is that authors are getting much smaller advances. If they go with an independent publisher, advances range on average from $1,000 to $5,000 instead of the $50,000 to $100,000 publishers once paid for debut literary fiction.

It makes me pause to think that a novelist I love, like Anne Tyler, would no longer be nurtured by publishers as she simmered through a few “modest successes” with her early books before reaching a “boil” with enduring best-sellers, according to New York literary agent Laurence Kirshbaum.

Since e-books cost less, publishers and authors make less—and the literary agent gets a much smaller cut.
The same is true for the small independent publishers that more writers are now turning to. While some writers have a great experience, others are shocked by how little influence small houses have on the book-sellers. Like the writer who told me she discovered that her small publisher’s “distribution” consisted of him riding around on a bicycle with her books in a backpack.

I wonder if there’s anything in it monetarily for literary agents anymore. The financial dilemma is epitomized by the arrangements surrounding a debut short-story collection recently published by Turtle Point Press, a small independent. According to the Journal, author Creston Lea’s advance was only $1,000, and the Vermont author says he can’t make his living as a writer. But one wonders if his literary agent can either.

At a 15 percent commission his agent Leslie Daniels, a 20-year veteran, used to make $11,250 on a big publisher advance of $75,000. Her advance on Mr. Lea’s $1,000 was only $150.

Is that any future for an agent?

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Tags: #publishing, agent, e-publishing

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Comment by kiana davenport on November 5, 2010 at 12:28pm
Dear Sarah...thank you again for your piece on agents, print publishing and ebooks. It sent me to the WSJ article, which gave me the idea of uploading all my O. Henry Awards and Pushcart Prize short stories as a collection onto Kindle ebook, where my published novels already are. I could never get the stories published as a collection with mainstream publishers. If this works, I will share the experience with SheWrites. It might help writers just getting started. With alohas from Hawaii...Kiana Davenport
Comment by kiana davenport on November 5, 2010 at 12:23pm
Dear Sarah...thank you again for your piece on agents, print publishing and ebooks. It sent me to the WSJ article, which gave me the idea of uploading all my O. Henry Awards and Pushcart Prize short stories as a collection onto Kindle ebook, where my published novels already are. I could never get the stories published as a collection with mainstream publishers. If this works, I will share the experience with SheWrites. It might help writers just getting started. With alohas from Hawaii...Kiana Davenport
Comment by Marva Dasef on October 22, 2010 at 9:12am
An agent holding the book for years unsold shouldn't happen. First, make sure your agreement with the agency is limited to one year, renewable by agreement of both parties. Second, remember you can fire an agent who isn't doing their job. That should also be in the ageny agreement.

Same with publishers. There should be both a limit on the term of the contract and a separation clause.
Comment by Judith Marshall on October 22, 2010 at 8:47am
Hi Linda,
You're right. Even if you find an agent, it doesn't mean you'll be published. I've heard horror stories of agents holding books for years and not being able to sell them. According to Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords, the power of publishing is shifting to Indie authors. See his interview on the Lit Chick Show.
Comment by Linda A Lavid on October 22, 2010 at 8:13am
Curious to know from those who have agents...How long did it take to find one? Was the agent successful in selling your manuscript? What was the total time frame from looking for a agent to seeing your book in print? I think trying the agent route has merit but when the time frame turns from months to years an evaluation of the manuscript and the option to self publish should be explored. There will always be agents. But brick and mortar bookstores? Unless redefined and re-purposed, they'll become artifacts.
Comment by Nancy Hinchliff on October 22, 2010 at 7:25am
@Louella and Genevieve: Very encouraging. Thanks for sharing.
Comment by Louella Bryant on October 21, 2010 at 3:58pm
Thanks for this rumination. One of the problems with big publishers is that they release the book in hard cover, and if it doesn't sell well, it doesn't come out in paper..which means the book is dead in the water. With small publishers, a book can stay in print much longer. Four of my books with small presses came out first in quality paperback, and all are still in print (the first was released in 1998). Many of my author friends who published with NY houses are now looking to small presses. Big name authors like Sena Jeter Naslund, who directs the Spalding University MFA in Writing Program where I'm on the faculty, will always sell her novels to big houses, will always have them released in paper, will always get a big advance, and will always have spending money in her pocket. But it wasn't always so. Her first few books were with small presses and earned her very little $$. But after her first blockbuster, Ahab's Wife, the publisher reissued a story collection to ride its coattails. Patience and, more importantly, perseverance are the things.
Comment by Nancy Hinchliff on October 21, 2010 at 11:16am
Thanks, Judith, Good advice....think I'll take it
Comment by Judith Marshall on October 21, 2010 at 11:13am
Hi Nancy,
I'd suggest exhausting your search for an agent before you decide to self-publish. You'll get better distribution with a traditional publisher.

Good Luck!
Judith Marshall
Author of HUSBANDS MAY COME AND GO BUT FRIENDS ARE FOREVER
Comment by Nancy Hinchliff on October 21, 2010 at 11:04am
Thanks so much for an informative post. It certainly seems as though publishing is going in a different direction now. I know e books are becoming more and more popular. I'm looking for an agent now. Actually, I haven't sent out any queries as yet, until I finish my proposal. But I plan to soon. Glad I at least have an idea of the kind of responses I could be getting. How does self-publishing figure into all this? Would it maybe be as good as or better an alternative?

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