On Writing: Do You Still Need An Agent?

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Despite my best efforts there are some things I can’t do at the same time. I can’t carry on a conversation when I’m cooking, I can’t read a book while I’m riding in a car, and I can’t update my blog reliably while I’m trying to finish a novel. While I can pat my head and rub my belly or chew gum and walk at the same time (well, I have the gum chewing down pretty well at least), another thing I can’t do is write and think about the business of writing at the same time. There’s something incompatible in these things for me. When I’m working on a book or a story, even a stray thought about distributing or marketing it can derail my train of thought and when I need to put on my business socks and get down to it, I need to suppress my inner protective writer that thinks all of my pretty words are so, so precious. I need to focus on one or the other and, since my real passion is creating content and not selling it, it’s a pretty easy choice to make. But easy choices aren’t always the best ones and I find myself now with a precious manuscript full of precious words freshly completed and I know that now’s the time to put on those socks. It sure would be awesome if someone else could handle the business while I do the writing though, right? Those mythical people, unicorns in business casual attire that smile and mingle so comfortably at conferences, are agents.

Last night I went to an event hosted by the Willamette Writers in downtown Portland. The topic was Why You Still Need an Agent (and Why an Agent Still Needs You). The main speaker was Chip MacGregor from MacGregor Literary Agency. Chip is a good public speaker, obviously incredibly sharp with an impressive resume in the book business, and a really likeable guy. It’s easy to see why he is a successful agent that can talk to creatives (crazy people) and contract folks at publishing houses (robots) with confidence and ease. That said, neither Chip nor the writer that spoke with him (Leslie Gould, a sincere, smart and also really likeable speaker) tackled the big topic head on. They both talked about what an agent does and they are all good useful things that sound really enticing but they also sort of sound like a new kitchen appliance that might do a few things really well but might be pretty expensive and take up too much space on your counter. They did a really great job of convincing me that I Would Like to Have An Agent (If I Can Get One and He or She is Dishwasher Safe and Fits in My Cabinets Next to the Food Processor I Never Use) but I went there with that in mind already. I suspect it was really a matter of time and maybe format that kept me from getting the hard sell that the event title suggested but I’ve been thinking about it a lot and the whole thing leaves me with some conclusions and more questions.

I don’t believe agents are exactly the gatekeepers they used to be. You still can’t get real interest with the Big 5 New York City Houses without an agent (or at least a big YouTube following) but I don’t think the Big 5 are the gatekeepers they used to be either. The publishing industry has changed and it’s not going to change back. Everyone knows and accepts this which is why it seems peculiar to me that the old agent/writer relationship hasn’t been critically reconsidered. Once upon a time in the Algonquin Round Table days publishers had little clockwork gnome people that had to hand chisel magic plates to send to the presses to make baby novels come out (I think – I may have skimmed the Wikipedia articles and filled in some things) and agents were the only ones that knew the passwords to get to the Publishing Overlords. Now, you can write a book about your pet Chihuahua’s herooics in outer space and put that bad boy on Amazon.com with 13 well placed clicks and no clockwork gnome people are necessary. This means that password agents used to have and the relationships they have with publishers aren’t necessary to blast Li’l Chi Chi off to Mars for a series of fuzzy adventures. So, what else does an agent have other than a good Rolodex and experience in an industry that’s not the same industry it was when they started out 30 years ago? There are two really good qualities for a  21st century agent that I think help to answer that.

A good agent is an adviser. He or she can look at the business trends, look at your skills and weaknesses and suggest the next moves you make, not just how to finish the move you already decided to make before you signed with an agent. Chip hit on this during his talk last night as something he sees as crucial but also acknowledged that many agents don’t see themselves in that role. Some agents are all about the legal paperwork. Some agents are all about nipping and tucking your prose but those skills aren’t special. Yes, publishing contracts are probably labyrinthine and confusing to lawyers who don’t specialize in that kind of contract law but a lot of us new breed of writers aren’t ever going to sign those contracts and for those of us that do, the contracts themselves might change faster than the lawyers who remain attached to them. Also, with no disrespect intended, if I want someone to nip and tuck my prose, I’m going to listen to an editor or another writer before I listen to an agent. That part about being an adviser though, there’s something irreplaceable there.

A good agent should also have a clue about marketing your book. Yes, I was just dismissive of the lawyer agent and the editor agent but the marketing agent? I hate to say it but that agent is worth his or her weight in gold. Publishing is not the obstacle anymore for new writers, selling your work to readers is. A good agent that knows and understands all of the different marketing avenues available and can either dig in and help with that work or knows the right tools and the people who use them well is indispensable. It’s one of the reasons I’m so skeptical of so many current agents. I’m not convinced that they understand what gets people to buy books in the 21st century. Twenty years ago you’d walk into Borders and look on the shelf and browse for what you want. Now you go online. I don’t know anyone that primarily buys books from a brick and mortar store anymore and the experience is very different online. Online book groups, reviews, social media recommendations with links to your book – this must be part of the strategy. So, I Google agents and if the agent I’m googling doesn’t have a decent digital presence for himself, how is that agent going to advise me on how to market myself digitally? There are agents that still won’t accept queries by email. These agents better have a robust portfolio of already successful authors because no writer under 40 is ever going to send a manila envelope to a slush pile again.

So, do you still need an agent in 2015? To me the keywords in that question are “still” and “need.” The word “still” acknowledges that the relationship has changed and it must change (as Chip put it, publishing is not going through an evolution but a revolution). The real question that the word “still” is asking – are agents just relics of the past like those clockwork gnomes? I think a lot of them are, probably more than know it, but I don’t think they need to be. Chip and his agency seem to be making a lot of the right moves to me although their website could use some TLC if they ever do want to attract new authors (not that I have room to judge with my WordPress theme and minimal graphic design). If the agent/writer relationship is going to remain a common partnership, both writers and agents need to change the way they do things and work together.

That other key word – “need” is what makes me say the answer to the question is ultimately no. You don’t need an agent anymore anymore than you need a microwave or a blender or those awesome bear claw looking things I have for shredding carnitas but there are things that are much harder to do without an agent. Do you want to be the sole marketer and business analyst in charge of your book’s financial success and your ongoing creative career? I think I can do that, I think there might even be something rewarding in it for me, but I also think I can write another book instead while someone else helps with the business stuff and that might end up being more lucrative and valuable for my career. I also know that getting an agent isn’t an easy process and the hunting and networking involved in that might actually be more frustrating than stumbling through the business side solo. My gut tells me that what a writer really needs to do is write and get it out into the world in as clumsy a way as possible. Then, if the work is good, the writer is lucky and knows how to create opportunities for more luck, an agent will just flash a smile and saunter over while you’re mingling at some awkward event and hand you his card. Then the tables turn and you get to query the agent, you get to make the agent answer the question because the real truth is, they need us more than we need them now.

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