F*ck literary agents

Don’t get me wrong.

Literary agents do serve a purpose as an acting gatekeeper to the publishing world. But the only forward thinking thing about them is their authors. I believe they know this. I also believe it takes authors about eighteen months to realize this as well.

Aside from rejecting 96% of book proposals that hit their inboxes, literary agents make themselves elusive — to authors and publishers. The less they talk to authors, the more valuable they appear. And the fewer publishing deals they make, the more illustrious they become.

“I’m going to run this idea by my agent to see what he thinks.”
Yeah, you know you love Hank Moody.

If you wrote a novel where a dominant vampire becomes master to a naive, submissive, shape-shifting werewolf, or where a dominant white male businessman becomes the sexually charged master to a naive, submissive, sexually-curious subordinate, I’m sure you’d spark interest. Maybe. If you’re a non-fiction author, just show them your email list.

Lit agents are concerned with commercial viability, that’s first and foremost. Period. Literary quality is a secondary bonus, if present.

Atop their mountain of crumbled proposals, lit agents can get you a publishing deal. They can. How much that deal benefits the author is often difficult to objectify — even if you do have an “A-list literary agent.”

The top 4%

Lit agents cater to the top 4% of of authors — and the top 1% have standout success. It’s lucrative up there. And the bigger deals you get, the harder it is to separate from a lit agent. Jeff Goins and other successful authors, including Tim Ferris and Seth Godin, agree.

These authors also want ease and convenience. They’re busy. Why would they ‘try out’ another option if they know something is doing a good job at making them even more successful — without them having to do a whole lot?

These are exceptions in the publishing world where authors hold more of the bargaining power but decide to remain exclusive with their agents. It’s a vicious circle. Literary agents grab on to successful authors and don’t let go. They’ll leverage the author’s fame, success and insanely large networks to make better publishing deals. It’s a good relationship for the top 4%.

Simply, some authors are more appealing than others. This is publishing and it’s probably not the lit agent’s fault. Well, ok, it’s partly their fault.

Publishing is like the Wild West. It’s everyone for themselves, and aspiring authors no longer have to — nor should they — take multiple rejections as a sign that anything is wrong with their book. Which is why book authors are now rejecting agents.

Kristyna Zapletalova: I can do this entire process on my own. I’m an entrepreneur. I learned the process through research and heard that self-publishing and kindle direct are good ideas.

Me: You’re not overwhelmed by the task?

Kristyna Z.: I have 8k followers on medium and a solid newsletter. I have a network I can leverage. I am in a good position without a lit agent.

Me: What do you believe a book will do for you? Credibility? Increase speaking rates? Bring more business? Fame?

Kristyna Z.: None, I just want to push my message. I was simply driven to do it and publish it myself. Of course, credibility and money would be great.

Me: Would you go with a publisher if they gave you an advance?

Kristyna Z.: It depends on the deal.

The most lucrative types of books are backed by entrepreneurial authors who treat their book like a startup.

Entrepreneurial authors

These are the top 10% of authors. They do their due diligence on what it really takes to spread their book and their message to the masses. They test things, learn and then test again. And the more they discover they’re playing in an industry ripe for disruption, they’re all the more motivated to succeed at it.

Entrepreneurial authors are realizing that you can break the rules of publishing, hack growth and redefine what it means to be a successful book author.

They’re realizing that a literary agent isn’t necessary — especially if the agent believes this author isn’t in the top 4%. And for that matter, neither is the publisher. They don’t need some traditional, old-school process holding them back from getting their message out there and reaping the rewards that come with it. Number one being accomplishment. Credibility, career growth, speaking rates, even money take a back seat to this feeling of accomplishment.

This is a rare breed, but self-publishing is trending upward and bigger and better authors are joining the crowd.

I’m not JUST talking about self-publishing tho. Many times, these authors don’t want the title of Self-published Author. They want to get published alright. They want the credibility, the status, higher speaking rates and of course the money. Which means they are going straight to the publisher.

Janet DeNeefe: After I pitched them my book, they knew they would sell it. And then I backed it up with a great story.

Me: How did you get a $5k advance from HarperCollins [plus another $10k at launch] without using a literary agent?

Janet: I broke down my target audience and told them venues and distribution in my network that would help sell. It was a business transaction and I gave them reason to give me an advance for it.

Me: This is not exactly hindsight for authors.

Janet: It thought it was quite easy, actually. You write a book and then figure out ‘who will buy my book?’ You have to be unique tho and you have to market it.

No lit agents

100% of publishers we surveyed said they will work directly with authors. If lit agents provide so much value, or do an amazing job at vetting their authors, then why would every publisher we talk to say they will gladly cut out the agent? Hm.

Having no basis for comparison (or knowledge of any better option), most authors don’t realize that their agent really isn’t that good or the best way to become a published author. Agents relationships and connections to publishers are usually personal and exclusive. The amount of publishers they work with are few, which means they don’t have a lot of wiggle room in the publishing world.

Publishers usually have many agents they get book ideas from and peg agents against each other. Agents take a cut of the advance that publishers give to authors, as well as royalties on sales, which are both negotiated on a per book basis, which is also why agents are so selective and don’t necessarily work in the best interests of the author when making a deal.

“We don’t take royalties because that creates perverse incentives that actually hurt both our authors and us,”

says Tucker Max, (not a lit agent) who prior to Book In A Box founded and sold Tropaion Publishing, which pioneered the current “author as publisher” craze that many bestselling authors now use (e.g. Hugh Howey). He also wrote several #1 bestselling books. Tucker is an all around badass in new age publishing.

Authors in the process of shopping their books, especially those who have the confidence that their books are good, start to distrust the idea of agents.

The bottom line

Everyone in the publishing world works in their own best interests. 96% of the time, bargaining power is passed down the chain of command until it runs out — and then it reaches the author.

It’s time to break the rules.