(Or Why I’m No Longer Agented)

… or I won’t be when the thirty days for contract expiration run out.

First of all, because dropping ones agent in publishing is a lot like a Hollywood divorce, particularly when you’ve been together for eight years, as Lucienne and I have, I’d like to say it’s not her; it’s also not me; it’s the field and the way it’s changing (and how fast.) Lucienne was the best agent I ever had and is also a talented YA writer whom I can tell you without reservations to check out. (And now it’s not a conflict of interest.)

To explain what I’ve done, I need to explain my reasoning, which at the time is a little hard since part of me wants to sit around in a robe all day eating rocky road ice cream. (Inadvisable, since I need to finish Darkship Renegades and also because I’m not allowed marshmallows on this diet.) I haven’t been unagented since 97 and every time I dropped an agent before I secured one first. This time I chose not to do so because I think an agent won’t help. I could be wrong, in which case I’ll shop for an agent sometime in the future. However for now I’m alone, working without a net.

Things have changed so fast, you see, that a year ago because it looked like my series might all crash, I was very afraid Lucienne would drop me. Because she’s my fourth agent and because I haven’t even looked in so long, I was terrified of the process of looking and how much it would take away from my writing time. And yet now I voluntarily drop representation. What gives?

Let’s go back to 97, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and publishing houses not only weren’t reading unagented, they were lying about it. I.e., you could send your manuscript, and it would come back in x time with a rejection letter. The editorial assistants had the option of reading slush, but it happened only once in a blue moon. Mostly getting rid of manuscripts accumulating in the little slush room was a task involving putting in a rejection letter and speeding it back to its owner. There were exceptions, even back then. I had a couple of personal rejections. But, by and large, this was the protocol.

Once I understood agents were now the effective slush readers, I started courting agents. My first agent, let’s call her Ms. A, signed me on the strength of a novel now rewritten and published. Then she proceeded NOT to sent it out. And to lie to me about it. Look, the novel was flawed and I knew that. She gave me some re-write advice (good one) and I took it. Why didn’t she tell me about the main thing that made the novel unsaleable? I don’t know. Perhaps she was afraid how a newby would react. Or perhaps she liked lost causes. Who knows?

Eventually, I went to a workshop and there pretty much sold my first novel, Ill Met By Moonlight in proposal. To get the contract it needed only sending it out and getting it formally accepted. I sent out the proposal to my agent the day I got home. Three weeks later I heard through a mutual friend the editor was disappointed I’d dropped the project. So, I started shopping for agent #2.

Agent #2 was my dream agent, the one I’d have wanted first if I had a chance. We hit it off, I hired him right after meeting him. And then… And then I realized he had a “formula” for writing bestsellers, and he was going to make my rather quirky Shakespearean fantasies fit into it. One piece of advice he gave me was very good and it was something that I – frankly – should have known (make emotional action visible through physical action) but I wasn’t ready to understand it. He sold the sequels to Shakespeare for me, taking “a smaller advance than we could, but this will keep us writing on this series a long time.” He was wrong, and even at the time I knew he was wrong. (Someday I’ll do a post on why getting the biggest possible advance was the way to survive, back then.) Oh, Agent #2 also refused to send out anything not in that series.

Agent #3 was a bright up and coming assistant (who I understand is doing very well in her own right now.) Again, we hit it off right away. However, nothing I sent her ever got sent out. Part of this was her fault, part mine. I was badly put off my stride by agent #2. It’s not that I don’t take criticism well (I do. Sometimes too well.) It’s that I don’t rewrite to formula well. Actually, back then I had clue zero how to rewrite. I’ve explained before it’s an art in itself and it takes forever to learn. To put it mildly, I sucked at it. Doing the type of rewrite he wanted me to do was beyond my powers and guaranteed to turn out an awful book. (In fact the book I did this too, the second of the Shakespeare series, has the lowest sell-through of any of my books ever. Yes, even the one with the awful cover.) So I was off my stride and not writing as much as I could. But eventually I was offered a contract with Baen and agent #3 told me it was her or Baen. Well, children… One of them was offering to pay me and I had a mortgage.

This is when I hired Lucienne. It was also the first time I behaved like a real professional and submitted to ten people, then picked among the four that offered representation. And it paid off.

Lucienne and I not only hit it off personally (though not really at first. I was trying to maintain distance, given my experiences) but we also hit it off professionally. In the first year I was working with her we sent off something like sixteen proposals and sold seven (?) of those almost immediately. And I’ve kept busy ever since.

But for the last year I’ve had a growing sense that something was wrong. Part of it was the response to two novels I sent out. I’m not going to detail the response, but it wasn’t just that they were rejected but that the way they were rejected indicated answering cold submissions was no longer part of an editor’s primary job. If I had to guess, I’d say that the same thing is going on with this as went on with slush two decades ago. In this case it is due to shrinking lists and problems with distribution. Publishing houses are either sticking with their stable (Probably 90% of the new authors you see are old pros with new names) poaching bestsellers from each other, or hiring on the basis of “she’s a friend of, who has done well for us.” (This btw makes them absolutely the same as the rest of the hiring field. Yeah, you can still get a job from applying cold, but it’s fairly rare.)

The other part of it is that I’ve been looking at where things are going, how the market is changing and a lot of the things I’d like to try are things I’ll either have to invent (yes, I’m still working out how a subscription would work), things that I’ll have to learn and my agent knows no more about than I do (minor subgenres with obscure presses), things in which no agent can help (publishing through a co-op micro press or publishing myself) and other things that agents (well, understand, with the closing of the publishing field to just a few houses they had to be loyal to publishers, no matter how much they tried to stick up for agents) will simply NOT let you do like absolutely closed names that even the publishers don’t know about. (No, it’s not ethically wrong. Golden Age authors did it. The book is the book is the book.)

I’m not writing off big publishers. I’ll continue working for Baen. However, my relationship with them is of the sort we never needed an agent. (First, I give the publisher Port, then we negotiate – evil grin.) And I’ve got a few novels I’ll be submitting to a couple of houses for highly targeted type marketing that I’m fairly confident of placing, at least if the houses are still there, and if there’s a market for traditionally published books.

And that brings me to the next step. You see, I believe there will be a market. I believe some (though not all) of the large houses will adapt and survive this. However – and this I can’t emphasize enough – the agencies don’t think publishing is going to be with us much longer or that you can make a living off it.

I think part of this is that the agencies are still selling – and well – the books of bestsellers, because that’s what the houses want right now. This is misguided as I think the bulk of their income is still from midlisters. It’s akin to the restaurant that decides that they make the most money off deserts, they in fact lose money off ribs, which brings in most of the customers. So they’re going to take out ribs and serve only appetizers and deserts. (And then are shocked when the bottom line crashes.)

While it’s misguided for publishers, it will take a while for the financial effect to be felt. But it’s being felt by agencies. Us midlisters are by and large a low-work lot, who get our own contracts and keep on going. So we were a good “bulk” money maker for an agent. But now the big houses don’t want no stinking ribs.

Agencies are feeling the pinch from this, and in response they’re doing something which the agency Lucienne works for just did. (To quote my husband who is the sweet side of this association “Well, they’ve got to make a living, somehow. What would you have them do?”) And while I understand it, I want no part of it.

Yep, they’ve started their own digital publisher.

I know I’ve said here in the past that this was the logical next step in digital publishing. Agencies already sift through slush. They already promote their writers, to greater or lesser extent. So, why not transition?

Well, two problems. First, they’re not transitioning. They’re remaining agents and charging you for the privilege of selling things to themselves. (Kris Rusch has written extensively on the conflict of interest present, but it should be obvious to everyone, too.) Second, they are loading the deals with up front costs. (Perfectly understandable, if you’re in a bid to survive, but it makes them much inferior to most micro publishers out there, who will get you cover, proofread and put up your manuscript for a percentage of your earnings which comes out at the same time your earnings do. I.e. you’ll start earning from the first dollar, not after 1k or so is paid back to the “publishing agency.”)

So, agencies who publish you are making a desperate bid to survive and they’re not necessarily the best deal for epublishing. But why do I say this means they don’t think the big houses will survive?

First, because if they thought this was just a trough in sales, they’ve gone through those before without changing their model and they would do so again. Second, because of the conflict of interest. They wouldn’t risk the appearance of competing with the big publishing houses if they didn’t know, in their heart of hearts that the big giants as such are over.

Heck, the big giants think the game is over. Why do I say that? Because they’re not completely stupid. (Individual editors may vary.) They know – they have to know – that if all they keep in their stable are bestsellers, in a year or two the bestsellers will decide that they can make more money self-publishing or from a micro press. They can. And they have the name, so… why not? Publishers have to see this as clearly as I do. So, why go to that model? Unless your whole intent is as a stop gap measure “to keep us afloat just another two years.”

Do I agree with them? Not necessarily. I think some of the big houses will pull back from the abyss. They can still offer value, or at least some of their imprints can, if they uncouple from the conglomerate and develop highly individualized selections and a community that’s loyal to them – say, like Baen. Then they can put their imprimatur on newbies and offer beginners a ready-made public they’d not otherwise have.

So you could say I’m unagented because the agency my agent works for no longer believes the old model is viable, and I don’t agree with their concept of the new model.

Of course, the usual caveats apply. Making predictions is hard, particularly about the future. I could be completely wrong. If I am, I might yet be shopping for an agent. But that will probably be in two years or so when everyone is done making desperate moves to “see us through the next two years.”

Until then, like any good super hero, I’ll work alone. And now excuse me, I need to get out of this bathrobe, take a shower and work.

Maybe it’s my being an Heinleinian (reformed but unredeemable) but while there’s doom and gloom all around, from where I’m standing, the future is so bright, I got to wear shades.

*Crossposted at According to Hoyt and Mad Genius Club*