Dear Dean Wesley Smith – I’m Keeping my Agent, Thanks
A friend pointed me to Dean Wesley Smith’s blog post about the state of publishing, titled The New World of Publishing: There Are Suckers Born Every Minute and They Are Writers.
As one of the suckers, I will say that Smith makes some points I agree with. For example, when talking about indie vs. traditional publishing, he says “Adopt this phrase: BE SMART. DO BOTH.” I absolutely agree that writers should be exploring both paths, and in general, it looks to me like writers who dip into both streams are having the most success. And he ends the post by stressing the importance of story, another point I strongly support:
“Keep focusing on writing better and better stories. If you aren’t spending more time learning how to tell a better story than marketing or mailing, then none of this will matter.”
But Smith also warns writers to “Avoid agents at all costs,” saying:
“If you have one, fire them now unless your agent is also an attorney. No reason needed. A writer in this new world needs a good IP attorney on board. And not an agent who has other clients with the same publishing house that you sell to. That agent will NEVER fight for you. Ever. An attorney will fight for you and cost you a ton less money. (I do not have an agent and can see no reason now to ever bring one back into the picture.)”
There are two things going on here. In part, he’s talking about agents who act as publishers and the conflict of interest there, which is an ongoing and important discussion. But he’s not saying “Fire your agent if they’re also a publisher.” He’s saying “If you have one, fire them now,” and that he “can see no reason to ever bring [an agent] back into the picture.”
Here’s a reason — I’ve earned a pretty good five-figure income this year from my writing, almost matching what I make in my day job. Close to half of that comes from foreign sales my agent made via the contacts he’s built up over the past few decades. Sure, he takes a commission (25% on foreign sales), but he then doubles my income.
I might be a sucker, but I think the math works out in my favor here.
My agent also reviews my contracts, challenging clauses and explaining things I simply don’t have the knowledge to fully understand. Smith is right that a good publishing lawyer could do the same thing, of course. But a lawyer works for an hourly rate, whereas my agent works on commission. Based purely on money-as-motivation, I prefer working with someone who’s motivated to get the best deal as opposed to someone who’s motivated to take as long as possible to do the work.
There are bad agents out there, and a bad agent is worse than none at all. I also know several authors who do quite well for themselves without an agent, and that’s great.
I’m not one of them. I’m not in a position to represent myself as well as my agent does.
Smith several times refers to the stupidity of writers. In my case, walking away from someone who has had a strong and demonstrably positive influence on my career seems like a stupid move. I could probably negotiate my own deals with DAW (my U.S. publisher) at this point, though even now my agent has talked about several long-term issues with my contracts that I never would have considered. But I don’t have the overseas contacts my agent does.
This is getting long, so maybe I’ll wait until later to respond to the oft-repeated assertion that writers are stupid for taking 15% or 25% from a major publisher when, in Smith’s words, they could “simply indie publish and get 70% of Gross Income instead.” Here’s a preview of my response: 15% of 10,000 books sold is generally still a better deal than 70% of 1000…
I just wish writers on their soapboxes (and most of us climb up there from time to time) would recognize that people’s careers are different. What works for one writer might not be the best path for another. I’m glad Smith is doing so well with self-publishing and going agentless, but suggesting that we should all follow that same route is misguided at best.
November 21, 2011 @ 10:26 am
I don’t have words strong enough or big enough to express how strongly I agree with you, Jim.
Daniel J. Hogan
November 21, 2011 @ 10:33 am
After going the self-pub route (Print on Demand, not small press) with my first book, my plan after I finish my next novel (goal: end of next month) is to find an agent. I learned a lot by self-publishing, but I don’t have the time or resources for another go round–I would rather focus on writing. Being my own publisher was fun, but it was exhausting (and expensive) since I was running ‘a business.’
The importance of your agent’s contacts in the industry, and worldwide, cannot be stressed enough. Knowing people is how stuff gets done.
Stephen A. Watkins
November 21, 2011 @ 10:53 am
Yes… the 70% of this versus 15% of that argument is a full-monty stupid argument, but it’s amazing how many people have fallen for it hook-line-and-sinker. Yes… 70 is bigger than 15. But you can’t compare the figures directly. The real question should be “70% of what?” But not enough people are asking that question. So far… the data that I’m seeing suggests it’s “70% of not a whole hell of a lot; unless you’re Amanda Hocking”. Since only Amanda Hocking is Amanda Hocking, that says a lot.
Jim C. Hines
November 21, 2011 @ 10:59 am
In some cases, people are doing much better with self-publishing. But yes, if we’re going to play math games, you’ve got to list ALL of the variables.
November 21, 2011 @ 12:50 pm
I think Stephen has summarized the issue quite succinctly. And the fire and brimstone approach to an on-going process of change has never amounted to anything useful in the past. I see the self-publishing model for ebooks as about the same as the first wave in the POD self-publishing wave (not to be confused with small/specialty presses that use POD but have an actual editorial process). This wave will be bigger, expand much larger but in smaller unit, and then, like the .COM craze, it will collapse.
The more people who do this personally with no following for their work, the more the online retailers will become the filtering system that used to be publishers. But they will not consider quality of product but blindly lean upon quantity of sales when faced with the glut. They will have to in order to not lose money in administrative costs. In an arena wheere marketing is now more than ever controlled by SEO divisions and search engine monoliths that are also selling “push” in search results (oh yes, Google and Bing and doing this), the only way to sell personal ebooks will be to get them into the most used distribution points. And those online retails are already eying this whole thing with mixed emotions. For now they have developed channel controls for the flow; those channels will soon begin to narrow as the pressure of flow builds. But of course it will then eventually drop off to flow elsewhere in many more channels less and less noticed but the consumers. And hence this bubble still growing right now will collapse
Too many of the new e-self-pub gurus (like agents turned e-publishers) are pushing this paradigm for only one reason: their own profits in being a guru. That being said, the e-self-pub model holds potential for the moderate to largely successful author wishing to expand on offerings that publishers are luke warm about.
The problem with this debate in all quarters is an echo of a problem in society… mostly in the USA. It is called binary thinking: the old “either/or” that forget the “and”. The e-self-pub model is not an alternative choice but an additional one for those who step outside the binary thinking long enough to consider… is it worth it to me and not just to those telling me what I should do or think? Or is it something fun with a little potential that I’d just like to try without all the bruha?
Both sides of this issue need to wake up and think for themselves and not for or by someone else. I’m not speaking to anyone here, but in general, as Barb and I have been watching all this for a while. Maybe we should be talking about how to experiment with it, in supportive fashion, rather than which bandwagon to jump on. Maybe we should burn both wagons and take a leisurely walk together.
November 21, 2011 @ 12:59 pm
Smith correctly notes that you need to maintain a focus on writing stories, and writing better and better stories. But then seems to miss the point that one thing a good agent can do is relieve you of a good chunk of the ancillary work — most of the marketing to publishers, in particular, and much of the contract negotiation.
November 21, 2011 @ 2:15 pm
I am up to HERE (imagine dramatic gesture) with all this binary thinking. It’s not just writing, it’s everything. The economy. Parenting. Even my #@#$%% diet. It’s all or nothing, and if you pick the wrong binary you are KILLING yourself or your child. I have gotten to the point where I tune out all extremists, just from weariness with it all, and because of my own track record of doing just peachy keen without choosing sides when told I MUST CHOOSE. So I’m afraid that Mr. Smith, though I respect his success, has fallen into the “la la la I can’t hear you” category for me until he can tone down his rhetoric a smidgeon and show some genuine understanding of the opposite POV.
November 21, 2011 @ 4:18 pm
I’ve written before about my ire for Dean Wesley Smith in which he advises against re-writing, and tells you to mail out your first draft, because the publishers are going to ask that you change it anyway.
I have no idea what he’s thinking when he tries to impart his advice on the younger generation, but it sure sounds crackpot-ish.
November 21, 2011 @ 10:45 pm
Great post — I like your logical and reasonable thinking, Jim.
Ann Elise Monte
November 21, 2011 @ 10:54 pm
This is exactly the reason why I’m fed up with sensationalism. It’s all well and good to have an opinion, but people need to accept their way is not the only “right” way. We get this sort of poorly-researched, arm-flailing stupidity from people determined to paint Young Adult fiction as “bad” too, and it really gets under my skin.
Ian Thomas Healy
November 21, 2011 @ 10:54 pm
I’ve had two bad agents. Now I don’t have one at all. I negotiated my most recent deal all by myself, and I’m pretty pleased with the outcome. I am also self-published, with a growing library of backlist work in the ebook stores.
All that being said, I’m seeking an agent for my newest work, because I believe a GOOD agent brings a lot to the table that I have neither the money nor time to develop on my own–industry contacts, foreign contacts, and a much greater likelihood of landing the sort of deal that gets reported in Publishers’ Lunch (even as just a “Nice” deal). I am willing to give up 15% of my income for a particular work so I don’t have to spend time and money upfront to develop those contacts myself. I’m staying away from the agents that are also acting as publishers, because that’s a clear conflict of interest, but there are plenty of them out there who feel the same way.
Dean Wesley Smith has had a lot of useful things to say about the new state of publishing, et al., but I encourage everyone to take what he (or anyone who has an all-or-nothing inflexible viewpoint) has to say with a block of salt. Mishell nailed it when she described binary thinking. It’s like being forced to choose between Republican and Democrat. Publishing is not, and shouldn’t ever be thought of, as a two-party system.
November 21, 2011 @ 10:58 pm
great post … definitely retweeting this.
November 21, 2011 @ 11:51 pm
Jim, I totally agree with you. Every career is different; every writer will need different things. I’m published via a small e-press, and my next goal is to get an agent. Though that will take some time, I’m willing to do it because I’m NOT willing to become a contract expert.
Thanks for being a voice of reason in this challenging publishing time.
November 22, 2011 @ 12:34 am
Justin D. Jacobson
November 22, 2011 @ 9:12 am
As a writer and lawyer, I just wanted to comment on one part of the post that is a little misleading. You say: “But a lawyer works for an hourly rate, whereas my agent works on commission. Based purely on money-as-motivation, I prefer working with someone who’s motivated to get the best deal as opposed to someone who’s motivated to take as long as possible to do the work.” It is true that many lawyers work on an hourly-rate basis. And I am the first to decry that antiquated method for many jobs as it does indeed reward inefficiency. However, there are many changes going on in the legal industry too, and one of them is in fee structure. I expect it would be relatively easy to negotiate a reasonable fixed fee for a simple contract review–probably as little as a few hundred dollars for a simple contract. For those who want to employ an attorney, you should consider this option.
Jim C. Hines
November 22, 2011 @ 10:33 am
Thanks! I agree that a flat fee would certainly be better than the hourly rate, and my agent gets a lot more than a few hundred dollars on my last contract with DAW. At that point, my question would be whether the lawyer can do as much for me for that flat fee as my agent does.
Given what I personally ask/expect my agent to do for me, I’m doubtful, but every author is different, and I suspect the lawyer option would work for some. (I know a few folks who have gone that route, and seem to be doing quite well.)
Jim C. Hines
November 22, 2011 @ 10:34 am
Dean does have a follow-up post addressing some of what you’re saying here. (I don’t entirely agree with his follow-up, but figured it was worth pointing out.)
Also, I like this line, “Publishing is not, and shouldn’t ever be thought of, as a two-party system.”
Justin D. Jacobson
November 22, 2011 @ 10:43 am
Absolutely. If you want to call on a lot of services from whoever you’re working with, a fixed-fee arrangement with an attorney is probably not the way to go. However, for a writer who wants to take a DIY approach but wants to get that expert legal advice a few times a year, a fixed-fee arrangement is probably a good fit, e.g., a writer that wants to negotiate their own contracts but wants someone to explain some of the terms and suggest changes. Definitely depends on what you are looking for.
November 22, 2011 @ 11:19 am
Thanks for this post–I agree with it one hundred percent. Dean is committing the classic advice mistake: what worked for me must work for all. The other problem is that what worked for him has led to a career that is not where a lot of writers want to be.
November 23, 2011 @ 7:49 am
On a slight tangent, one of my real problems of this supposedly new publishing paradigm is that it requires writers to commit money upfront. Money for a lawyer, if they are going for a traditional publishing route without an agent, money for formatting, covers, editing, proof-reading, marketing and all the rest.
Now, if you are successful, this investment will turn out cheaper than paying the percentage to the agent (and to the publisher), but if you’re not, it won’t, and it still requires you to be able to dip in your own pocket to get yourself published. I certainly don’t have money spare to do that, and even though I can actually manage the formatting and covers myself (they are similar enough to web design that my skill-set transfers), I wouldn’t dream of skipping the editing and the rest.
I do not see it an improvement for authors to have to bear all the risk and expense of publishing; the model of the risk being shared with publishers and agents was great for authors.
November 23, 2011 @ 7:51 am
Which is not to say that I rule out going the self-pub route ever (I can certainly envisage it for some stories and novels); I just don’t think it is universally the only good option.
November 23, 2011 @ 10:50 am
Totally agree. There is always more than one way to do something and no one-size-fits all answer. From what little I’ve read of Dean Wesley Smith’s posts (admittedly, not much – I find myself less than willing to read advice from someone who’s apparently already decided I’m stupid), it seems he favors the shock and awe approach to “education”.
On a YA note – I completely agree with you here as well. I’ve been participating in a book club that reads YA for a couple years now (most of the people in it are school librarians or teachers that work with that age group – I just like to read). We’ve read a couple books we really didn’t like, but the vast majority has been excellent. Just like any other genre, there are good books and not-so-good books. I’ve never really understood why people feel the need to make a sweeping judgement of entire genres.
November 23, 2011 @ 11:53 am
Nice to know, Justin. And this is the kind of useful information between the extremists that we all need to know. It is definitely something to keep in mind, even for contracted authors… should they wish to experiment with IP lawyers.
Mind Sieve 11/24/11 « Gloria Oliver
November 28, 2011 @ 8:13 am
Extremist Views « Reviews and Ramblings
December 11, 2011 @ 11:22 pm
[…] this came from, I was perusing some other blogs and came across a link to Jim Hines website and this post where he was talking about Dean Wesley Smith’s posts about whether an author needs an agent or […]
December 15, 2011 @ 3:03 pm
You need more DWS reading not less ;->
I’ve included the link to his Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?page_id=860
as with a lot of iconcolasts bucking deeply held belief systems the argument becomes not so much why he’s wrong (and we should keep on doing things with a conservative mindset) but rather what IF he’s exactly right?
Right in a large enough % of cases to make the only arguments against what he’s saying A) argument by antecdotal exception or B) arguments rooted in the very deeply held memes that he showing the path of emancipation from.
Not saying he’s right–just that people who are telling us potentially painful stuff should often be the ones we listen to the most. Even if we go on to dismiss what he says well have a fresh way of looking at how agents conduct business in this industry.
That glimmer of a perspective maybe the only thing you (or anybody) needs to start spot bad practice. Give it a shot, let those damn goblins herd themselves for an hour 🙂
December 15, 2011 @ 3:15 pm
Jim, forget that last post–I meant it somewhat tounge in cheek anyway and there’s no way reading all those myth-tacklers is going to get done in an hour, lol.
Honestly–read this short post: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=5997
it seems like sage like advice from an established pro with decades of experience as writer and editor who’s tried hard to maintain a “big picture” perspective.