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?