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.