Literary agents are still the gatekeepers for authors seeking traditional book deals.
That’s the bottom line, despite all the big changes in publishing, says Candice Fuhrman, an agent with many New York Times bestselling authors in her corner.
“As long as publishers are buying books and paying advances, agents have a role.”
It’s still true
Most traditional publishers will only consider a submission that comes from an agent they know and trust. That’s the way it’s worked for decades and it’s still true.
But the downturn in big advances and the explosion of self-publishing has challenged and shaken up the role of agents. As with everything else in the turbulent book business today, smart agents have had to adjust, experiment, and evolve to keep up with the times.
A special breed
Literary agents are a special breed: they love books and they know how to sell them. Sure, it’s not easy to get an agent. Who said writing a great book or getting published was easy? Agents are always on the prowl, however, to find the next big thing, especially that spectacular debut author who comes out of nowhere and makes a big splash.
But that doesn’t mean all agents agree about the changing marketplace and how their roles are changing with it. No no. I found quite a range in points of view from these four veteran VIPs in the business, whose opinions and insights you’ll find below. First, their credentials:
Candice Fuhrman has had many #1 New York Times bestsellers ranging from nonfiction to quality literary fiction, including the series YOU: Staying Young, YOU: On a Diet and YOU: The Owner’s Manual, an Insider’s Guide to the Body, by Drs. Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz, all #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List. Also The Rapture of Canaan, a novel by Sheri Reynolds, a selection of the Oprah book club and #1 on The New York Times paperback fiction list, and many others which you can see at the link.
Andrea Brown was an editor at Knopf, Random and Dell before opening her own agency in 1981. She has sold more than 2,000 titles, from toddler board books to serious, award-winning young adult works, including the bestselling titles Mama Do You Love Me, The Beanie Baby Handbook, Fire on Ice, Dark Fusion, Everlost and Unwind.
Andrea Hurst is a 25 year veteran of the book business whose authors include emerging new writers as well as New York Times bestselling authors. As a literary agent she handles high profile fiction and nonfiction. Her consulting division offers skilled developmental and copy-editing. A frequent keynote speaker and educator, she has written several books herself, including The Lazy Dog’s Guide to Enlightenment and Everybody’s Natural Food Cookbook.
Bonnie Solow was a journalist and film and publishing executive before establishing her own agency in 1997. Since then her agency has celebrated 22 New York Times bestsellers, including Secrets of the Millionaire Mind by T. Harv Eker, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire by Rafe Esquith, Happy For No Reason by Marci Shimoff, and many others.
Are you finding that acquiring editors and their management are more risk averse than in the past?
Candice Fuhrman: Most definitely. Since the economic crisis began in 2008 we’ve seen a decline in advances. This is true even for the “high-platform” authors.
Andrea Brown: We don’t see our end of the business (children and YA) as risk-averse. Maybe some of the advances have been lower in 2011, but publishers still want books and are willing to pay for them.
Andrea Hurst: They absolutely seem to be. What used to be a sure deal for us is often rejected. A writer can have a great platform, polished manuscript, a compelling story, and still not receive an offer. It can be hard to judge just what publishers want now.
Bonnie Solow: In our experience, if you represent books that promise powerful content along with strong marketing platforms, publishers and editors will compete to acquire them.
Given this climate, how has business been for you?
Candice Fuhrman: We’ve been fortunate to have a string of very good years. But I would say that our clients’ backlist sales were lower in 2011. The collapse of Borders certainly contributed to that.
Andrea Brown: We had our best year ever in 2011, selling to all the publishers we have in previous years but now also selling to places like Amazon—both ebook and print deals. Perhaps because we specialize in children’s books, have many New York Times bestsellers and award winners, we are slightly immune to many of the upheavals my adult book colleagues are facing.
Andrea Hurst: In 2010, we did see far more sales with higher advances than in 2011. The changes happening at the publishing houses are affecting our productivity as well. Publishers appear to be taking fewer risks, offering lower advances, and taking longer to payout on a deal.
Bonnie Solow: Last year was a stellar year for our agency. After the financial contraction of 2009 and 2010, in 2011 we found publishers to be highly receptive toward new projects and aggressive in their acquisition strategies. The majority of our projects were acquired via preemptive bids and competitive multi-house auctions.
What’s your prognosis for the future of agents?
Candice Fuhrman: It is closely tied to the future of the major publishers. As long as they are buying books and paying advances, agents have a role. We will have to fight harder, however, for a bigger share of electronic rights for our clients.
Andrea Brown: I have been an agent for 30 years and expect to be one representing the best in children’s literature for the next 30 years. Most writers we know still want their book published by the big houses and want those advances. They also still prefer the traditional book deals and paper. Ask me these questions again in 2 years and the answers may be different! But for now, nothing much has changed except we have some new doors that have opened, see increases in royalties now that e-books sales are increasing and have more options for our clients.
Andrea Hurst: Agents have always been the gatekeepers and in many ways will probably continue to be in one form or another. Those that resist the current changes will miss out on the wonderful opportunities that are available. Change is happening so fast in this industry, as I see it, you can be a part of creating this new world of publishing or ultimately be left behind.
Bonnie Solow: I wish I had a crystal ball. I certainly believe that certain agents will thrive with the evolution of the book industry. To do so requires staying current on digital developments, expanding one’s network of contacts in the digital publishing arena, and continuing to provide indispensable editorial, legal and marketing support to clients. Authors will need guidance in navigating their writing futures, and experienced, forward-thinking, savvy agents are in the best position to provide that direction.
What’s the most important thing an unpublished writer should do to get an agent?
Candice Fuhrman: Write well! Then seek referrals to agents from other writers who are pleased with their representation. I would submit to a number of agents simultaneously (even though many agents say they don’t “allow” this). If you’re good, you’ll have several agents to choose from and you can decide who is the best fit for you.
Andrea Brown: Above all, writers must write fabulous books that are also commercial.
Andrea Hurst: Research the publishing business and present a polished and professional query package. Also, make sure you are pitching an agent that represents what you write and follow directions on the agent’s website.
Bonnie Solow: Unpublished writers should thoroughly do their homework. Identify agents who represent books that are kindred spirits to yours. Writers should present compelling reasons to a prospective agent why you think he or she would be right for your project. Also, a query should be lean and persuasive and succinctly answer three questions: 1. what is the book about, 2. why does it have to be written, and 3. why are you the perfect person to write this book.
What do you say to writers who are considering self-publishing?
Candice Fuhrman: In many cases I say GO FOR IT! It’s never been a better time for self- publishing; there are so many options for sell your own e-book. With most major publishers still only paying 25 percent of net for e-book sales, most writers can do better on their own. Of course they have to be marketing demons — but that’s the case no matter who publishes you. Although many agents are becoming “jacks of all trades” with self-publishing authors, we could be called something else — such as a publisher or a production person or a marketer.
Andrea Brown: Some authors we’ve worked with have also done indie self-published e-books but don’t seem to make any money with them. The market is overwhelmed with titles — many badly written or edited — and writers find it’s tough to market. We do tell writers that if their book will be difficult to sell the traditional way (or we do not think we can place it), to go ahead and self-publish — but they must do it well and plan to spend lots of time to market.
Andrea Hurst: For many authors, this is a very viable option today. Indie publishing, especially with e-books, offers a way to get your book directly in the reader’s hands. It is still important to have a high quality product and market your work. Many agents I know are diversifying what services they offer and how they will work with authors seeking nontraditional publishing options. Our agency consults with self-publishing authors through the whole process, offering professional editorial, design and evaluation services.
Bonnie Solow: Self-publishing is a viable option for many writers. There is no barrier to entry and authors can enjoy the satisfaction of maintaining full creative control with an accelerated release schedule. For authors who are entrepreneurial and who can access their readers through online marketing, speaking engagements, and so on, self-publishing can be the right route to take. In the long-term I do think agents will be more and more involved in helping clients self-publish… At this stage, however, authors who come to me are not interested in self-publishing. Instead, they want to enjoy the myriad benefits that come with being published by a major house.
What about you?
Are you represented by an agent? Can you share something about how you found your agent, and the impact representation has had on your writing career?
If you’re an author seeking representation now, how is that going? Any advice for fellow writers?
And if you’re an author who’s decided to go forward without an agent, we’d love to hear about that decision too.
I’ll watch for your questions here in comments.