There’s a popular idea that regularly floats around the bookosphere that literary agents and some prominent published authors not only like publishers, they’re actually working for publishers or are in bed with publishers (that’s a popular one) or are hopelessly beholden to publishers or have been kidnapped and brainwashed into thinking that maybe publishers aren’t insane conniving Monster McMonsterpants.
Secondary myth: that agents like publishers more than their clients.
For the most part? Everything works relatively smoothly in publishingland. And yes, sometimes agent/author/publisher interests align to the extent that agents and authors even agree with publishers’ vision for the bookselling marketplace.
Many agents agreed with publishers and wrote dissenting letters to the DOJ over the collusion lawsuit, an object of some Internet derision, at the same time that agents are also increasingly working directly with Amazon and selling books to them. How do those things go together? Because it’s up to agents to look out for the clients both in the short term (selling books) and the long term (keeping an eye on the future publishing marketplace).
Art: De geldwisselaar en zijn vrouw by Marinus van Reymerswale
But agents also have great incentive to please publishers because they hope to place many additional authors with them. So they may not submit a manuscript with an editor to whom they've just given another client's manuscript so as to not overwhelm the editor. They may tread lightly when the author objects to the publisher's lack of marketing or other problems, so as not to be regarded as a pesky agent. And since they get only 15 percent, they may not fight too hard about the amount of an author's advance. An increase of $1,000 is a big deal to the author but only nets the agent $150; and the agent doesn't want to be seen as difficult over such a small amount of money (to her, not to her client), so she may tell the client to take the deal. Etc., etc.
Mr. D says
But agents do like to promote the idea that they are buddies with publishers, so that potential clients will gravitate in their direction. I've learned, however, that agents are no more "friends" with publishers than the school nerd is with the in crowd.
Mike Mullin says
Is there a difference between the way an agent views a new or midlist author and the way she views a bestselling author? While I agree with your post in that agents' interests are well aligned with those of bestselling authors, don't editors represent a bigger flow of potential profit to an agent than the weaker-selling authors in her stable?
Nathan Bransford says
That hasn't been my experience. Agents have different styles – some prefer to cajole, some prefer to fight – but they're both means to an end, which is to get what their clients want. And every agent I know will fight for the last cent.
It's more important for an agent to please their clients and keep them. It's way way way harder to find good clients than it is to try to keep them happy.
" And since they get only 15 percent, they may not fight too hard about the amount of an author's advance."
Uh. What? No, that's totally incorrect. It IS in an agent's best interest to get their client the best deal possible. That often goes hand in hand with the largest advance offer they're able to obtain from a publisher (though not always). Agents, you know, DO need to make a living. And agenting is often so time consuming that it makes it more difficult and less sustainable to have jobs on the side. So I have no idea where you got that misinformation.
Nathan Bransford says
No, because there is not an endless flow of potentially profitable clients, so it pays to keep everyone happy. Most agents are looking to build their new and midlist authors into something more.
Mike Mullin says
"there is not an endless flow of potentially profitable clients"
Didn't you used to get tens of thousands of queries per year?
Nathan Bransford says
Yep. And every one of them thought they were a potentially profitable author, which sadly isn't the case. There's a very small sliver of those that I would be able to sell to a publisher, a smaller sliver than that that I was the right agent for. I think everyone imagines agents choosing between potential best seller after potential best seller – I know I did before I started agenting. That's not how it works though, unfortunately.
Authors: money is money is money. And? an agent's biggest motto is Time Is Money. The ONLY reason to tread carefully around publishers is for the publisher to not think YOU, the author, is a problem child. They already know we're difficult and bellicose. It's our job. And mid list, small, front list? all authors that are profitable, dependable, and sane contribute to that thing agents call "rent." The Agent is Friends with Publishers idea is valid insofar as it speaks to reputation: if an agent consistently submits worthwhile, and accurately aimed material to a publisher, is known for his/her taste and ethics, is known NOT to be vicious and dangerous just for sport, and is known not to play dirty? Such agents are valued more among publishers, and will garner more of their attention. Period.
Deborah J. Ross says
Nathan, thanks for this voice of sanity. I've been selling professionally (to major New York publishers) for about 30 years now — gosh, that's an embarrassingly long time! — and have seen enormous changes over the years.
I've been with my agent for two of those three decades. He knows the editor with whom I do most of my work very well — which has nothing to do with "liking" and everything to do with knowing just how hard he can push and on what issues, and where the deal-breakers are. We've walked away from offers, and we've also accepted others because they supported my overall career goals.
He never makes decisions for me — we do it together, and I have the final say. But I think about this stuff only every few years, since at this point he's getting multi-book contracts for me — but this is his profession. He works at it every day, year after year. Not only does he have the pulse of the market in general, but he brings to the discussion what this means in terms of my long-term goals. He's not only my advocate in negotiating contracts, he's a seasoned veteran of publishing wars who loves my work and has gotten me a far better deal than I could have wrangled more times than I can count.
I think I'm in agreement with Mike. All things being equal, yes, an agent is going to go to bat for a client. But how often is everything equal? As in, everyone has the same amount to gain or lose?
A publisher that is doing pretty well (remember those days, lol) won't feel the same need to cater to some new literary author as perhaps a less-flush firm.
On the other side of the coin, if the author is big-name with multiple titles on the bestseller list and movie deals to match, then she might have enough suitors that she can actively dictate the terms to a given publisher.
A smart agent will, and should, read the situation to determine who's in the advantage here. This will determine who's going to get more stick and who's going to get more carrot.
So to sum up, I don't think agents are in bed with publishers, but I also don't think they're in bed with their clients, either. As you said, they're in bed with their 'own' bottom-line, and like anybody else, they'll put a client's interests over the publisher's or vice-versa as long as THEIR bottom-line is above both.
Nathan Bransford says
I'm not sure I understand your premise. I can't think of a single time I ever had to make a decision for one client at the expense of another client.
Matthew MacNish says
I see you deleted that guy, NB, you can delete my first comment too, because it doesn't make much sense without his.
I'm not sure I can get into the debate of your actual point though, because I've never had an agent.
With respect, I honestly don't think you can use yourself as an example. If every agent had your level of dedication to doing a good and honest job, then they'd be less horror stories floating out there.
The #QUERYFAIL debacle proved that.
Some agents, like you, will do a job right. Others, will look out for themselves only.
Nathan Bransford says
I definitely appreciate the compliment, though I think having worked in the business there are more reputable agents out there than bad, at least among the ones who are actually making a living at it. It's unfortunate there are still so many shady and bad agents out there giving the rest a bad name, but thankfully the Internet makes it much easier to weed those out.
Alex Villasante says
Not sure what made me smile more, "monster mcmonsterpants" or "publisher sorcery" I do heart you so, Nathan.
I've read more than a few views on the issue of agents writing to the DOJ. And I think your post is a focus on what many agents feel. But to take it a step further I don't think all agents are in agreement with what's going on and I've noticed that most have gone totally silent with regard to things like the letter to the DOJ.
Other issues like conflict of interest with regard to agents operating publishing services have also been extremely toned down due to the conflict of interest issue…if they have been mentioned at all. I know agents who have embraced e-publishing and digital books and I know some who still think e-books are going to ruin publishing as they know it.
The fact remains, and a judge has already stated this, that some form of collusion allegedly took place to fix e-book prices and agents should not have become involved with this. There are many facts and many good articles about this all over the Internet. It's not just a trumped up charge. And I find it frustrating when I see literary agents getting involved in something like this, especially when it involves a serious accusation like collusion. These laws are in place to protect consumers, not publisher, agents, or authors. I would imagine other agents who have remained silent feel the same way and are afraid to speak up because of possible backlash.
Nathan, my ex-agent said outright, "I could call them up and try to find out what went wrong" (we'd just lost a deal for reasons no one would or could explain, even though the book was already on the schedule and marketing was at work on it) "but I still have to work with them in the future with other clients."
Nathan Bransford says
Definitely agree with you for the most part. I do think agents have as much right to weigh in on the DOJ lawsuit as anyone else (and the DOJ actively solicited and published commentary from pretty much everyone from agents to Aunt Melva) especially to the extent that they're speaking on behalf of their clients, but at the very least, yes, I think it's important to note that even in cases where some agents agreed with publishers agents are not monoliths and opinions definitely vary.
Nathan Bransford says
I can see why they're your ex-agent.
Funny how so many in the comments here want define agent as "bad agent". That most agents aren't quality like Nathan was evidently etc etc.
Why instead is it so hard to define agent as agent. And that like in all professions there are those who are good at their job and those who aren't. Agents ought to have the relationship with their clients that Nathan outlined. If they don't, that isn't an example of typical agent behavior, but an example of bad agent behavior.
Yes, some agents behave badly, those aren't people good at their job and therefore should not be held up as a comparison
Lucky Mid-Lister says
In terms of what agents and editors do and say and what they want and don't want…
I think we writers tend to think it's all about us. It's not. It's all about our stories. I'm a mid-lister who suddenly got a six-figure deal one day. Why? Because I wrote one book which, unlike my other books, appeared to several editors to have significant sales potential.
It's not like certain authors are singled out for special treatment. Certain manuscripts are. A manuscript just hits the right note with enough people that its author gets lucky.
It's my impression that this happens fairly often. As in on a more or less daily basis, to someone.
To the anonymous example with the ex-agent– There are defininetly politics involed (i.e. I do have to work with them on other clients…) but only the bad agents let you see that side of things. AND, only bad agents would look at advocating for their clients as an impedement on future dealings with a publisher. If someone cannot advocate for you without burning bridges, then I think there are some larger issues at play that transcend their role as agent and go to their role as effective business person/human.
I was thinking about the opening of your post Nathan, with the proposal that its a myth that authors are working for publishers… BUT isn't it true? When we sell a book to a publisher, does not that publisher become a "client" so far as that book is concerned? We edit to address the editor's – and not aunt Milly's – comments, because the editor is one who will ultimately accept the manuscript and who is, you know, footing the bill.
I don't think this impacts the point of your post at all when it comes to agents, but was just curious as to the opening 🙂
Bryan Russell says
I have a feeling you're colluding with some sort of mattress company and are getting a kickback.
Nathan Bransford says
I'd call it working with, not for.
Vera Soroka says
I was told that agents get 15% for the life of the project plus some subsidy so they can make some nice change.
I don't have an agent and have never worked with one.I have made the decision to self publish.It seems to suit me.
One thing to keep in mind is that a good agent who's looking out for their client's best-interest might very well play to the publisher's interests rather than the author's. Publishing is a dance; a game if you will, and a savvy agent has to know where to push and pull.
For instance, an agent's client might not be happy with the paltry advance from a given publisher, and the agent might choose to not contest it, in spite of their client's protests. The agent might do this because they know that while said publisher's advance was lacking, they have an effective marketing and promotion program, one which might render the small advance moot with a large number of sales.
Basically the smart agent isn't "in bed" with the publisher, but rather, they're choosing the publisher's interests over their client's in the short term in order to yield a long term gain for both parties.
And thus, increasing their own bottom-line.
I agree with Author and find the comment "Anon's" former agent made totally believable. I was thinking that before I saw the comment.
Bill – any examples of your hypothesis in reality?
My fiance is a sports literary agent. You should see the stuff he has to go through to get those books sold, and in his case on the shelves and online. I can't speak for others but they do all the work in "hopes" of getting a sale. They do fight damn hard for 15%- that's the only way they make a living. That 150.00 bucks pays a phone bill, buys groceries and gas money. Agents don't get paid anything until that sale and sourcing good clients takes up most of their time. Many authors don't read submission guidelines, send crap titled Dear Agent (or worse yet, typos in the first line of their manuscript) and don't do their homework- sending fiction to a non-fiction agent. You try making a living for free and see how easy that is.Even seasoned authors can make a mistake with signing a contract. An agent is skilled in negotiating for the best terms for the author- not the publisher, otherwise they aren't going to gain anything. It takes courage and guts to cold call and get deals done. I didn't know a lot about their work until I ventured deeper into the world of publishing, but I have the highest respect for literary agents. On that note there is a difference between those that work for an agency vs those that go it alone. I find that the go it alone ones are those that are willing to go the extra mile- those that you can call when your book hasn't been ordered, and those that actually pick up a phone when you need them. Research the best option for you, but know that a good agent is in the author's corner. Always.
Bonnie Doran says
I've enjoyed this discussion, especially since I recently acquired an agent. My take on it: I hired the agent. It's his job to represent me to publishers. He may recommend one publisher over another but for reasons such as marketing assistance or their quickness in getting a book into print, things that might not be obvious to the author.
Nathan Bransford says
The reason that doesn't is that if an agent accepts a paltry advance from a publisher the publisher will think they are a pushover and will lowball them the next time. There's no benefit at all to an agent to just sit back and accept a deal they know to be crappy. If anything, negotiating the heck out of low advances is a great opportunity to show the publisher not to mess around in the future.
The only reason to accept a low advance is if the agent is not confident they can get a better deal elsewhere. That's the *only* reason. Agenting is a mix of honey and vinegar, and low advances bring out the vinegar.
This is a good post. I admit that I feel/think like this. I think IF a publisher wanted my work, I"d be like "okay" and want to do things the way they want it done (in fear they'll change their mind). That seems ridiculously petty of me I guess, but I tend to try not to be "difficult" in all situations in life, so maybe its in me.
Something to think about.
Nathan, have you ever had an interveiw on another blog or site or mentioned your journey here? I'm not sure, but for your (great) books , I'm wondering :
– did you have an agent (I keep thinking you couldn't have, you're like a built-in "jack of all trades" 🙂
– how long did it take you to write the first draft of Jacob and did you plan/sit on it for a long time beforehand?
– how many novels did you write prior to Jacob?
– did your first draft change drastically from your last?
I'm currently just working on my first "real" novel I guess. It's not something I''m in love with, but i'm beginner right now, so I'm not going to be too picky. It's a MG and I anticipate it will be 25,000 – 30,000 words. This might seem ridiculously low, but this kind of novel I'm focusing on my fit in the page-length of works like Roald Dahl, David Walliams, Kevin Bolger, etc…(definitely not LIKE them, because i am not in any way even remotely on the same writing planet as them, but I just mean –well, you know what I mean). Anyway. Great post!
If all else fails, read Atlas Shrugged to get a clear view of how one should approach publishers:)
I can tell this one comes from your heart, Nathan.
Peter Dudley says
While I entirely 100% purely agree with the idea that everyone in the process is looking out for their own interests every step of the way, I don't really see it as clear-cut as you suggest, Nathan.
The myths you cite are, of course, inflammatory statements that get repeated by people who haven't found their place in the system. Could be sour grapes, could be once-bitten, could be a number of things. They come from emotion, not reason. Thus, to try to reason against them is, unfortunately, futile.
Instead, we need to look at what might cause people to have that emotional reaction that then drives them to say things like "authors and agents are in bed with publishers."
We could cite the callous nature of the rejection^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H query process, for one. There is a bright line between "client" and "member of the slush pile," and many agents don't do their profession's reputation much good in the way they handle the latter. They project a very real sense of an aristocracy, where to be in you have to win their favor, and only they can broker an audience with the royalty (the publishers). In any aristocracy, no one wants to lose favor of the royalty.
So, rightly or wrongly (and I think there's a certain amount of both), the unpublished are left outside wishing they were in, and the agents are the ones blocking the doorway. No matter what an agent says to the unpublished writer at that point, it will ring hollow and condescending.
"We work for our clients, not the publishers." Sounds like, "Once you're in the party, we'll get you an audience with the king. But you're not in the party. Oh, too bad."
"Without authors, agents would have nothing to sell, and publishers would have nothing to publish." Sounds like, "Without the skills of the kitchen staff, we would have nothing to feast on at our party. Hmm. This might need more pepper. Be a dear and go pep it up, hmm?"
I could extend the metaphor, but I'm tired and you're bored.
When we think reasonably, we must conclude that there is no aristocracy, that agents are indeed looking out for their own interests and therefore trying to find and satisfy clients. But the myths that are bothering you today are built on emotions, and those emotional flames are fanned by the behaviors of the very industry that the disgruntled wish they could be a part of.
It's a fascinating cultural study, really. You say publishing is humming along smoothly… and yes, I guess it is, in its own dysfunctional way, for the few people who get into the party.
But it's still true that no one wants to piss off the king. That's why you've seen a huge uptick in the number of people commenting anonymously, I'd wager. They fear for their professional reputation and possible retaliation or repercussions if they say the wrong thing.
Evan Gregory says
The question here is do agents spend more time on clients who sell more books?
The answer: not necessarily. Authors who sell lots of books may occasionally command a bit more attention because they've got more going on (they're selling more translation licenses, they need your help with author events, they need to re-schedule delivery deadlines, and maybe they have a movie deal you're in the middle of), but in reality, the hardest work is done getting new authors off the ground.
It doesn't take a lot of convincing to sell a publisher on a best-selling author, and negotiations for a best-selling client are usually a lot easier because the agent has all the leverage. Contract renewals are usually a cinch, because you worked out the boilerplate the first go-round, and the publisher wants to please you so you don't jump ship.
It's a lot harder to convince a publisher to take a chance on an unknown author, and to negotiate a new contract that's fair and respects the value of the work. Those submissions are long and grueling, those negotiations are more fraught, and after its done selling subsidiary rights, and ensuring the publishers publicity department is on point is an uphill battle.
It is, however, necessary work, because agents can't afford to rest on their laurels. We need fresh blood. An agency can only stay afloat if it has a balanced amount of passive and active income (passive meaning commissions royalties from old books, which tend to decline the older the books get, and active meaning commissions on new advances).
Considering that authors careers peak and wane as well, an agency always needs new and unproven authors on the roster, and they spend an inordinate amount of time compared to the initial returns in income on said authors. Sometimes those relationships bear fruit (best-selling authors don't come out of nowhere, they usually have to work at it for a while) and sometimes they don't. But the reason they don't, is not because the agents are too cozy with publishers, or too busy coaxing some best-selling author to lay a golden egg. Ultimately the only thing that matters is whether people who read books want to read your book, and no amount of agent or publisher attention is going to be decisive in that regard.
Hm, Nathan, I must say I never thought of it that way.
Then again, that might have something to do with being neither represented nor published.
Ah well, lol.
Nathan, sometimes I think you missed your calling as art purchaser.
A good link to more about the DOJ and alleged collusion…which is why I wondered by any agent would weigh in on this topic at all in my earlier comment.