Remember when everyone had a good laugh over Bigolas Dickolas making a book a bestseller and the Swifties accidentally making a BTS oral history a bestseller? That was SO late last week.
Controversy erupted in the publishing Twitterverse in a few different directions over the weekend, summed up by N. M. Mainardi here.
The incident that got most tongues wagging was that a prominent agency, New Leaf, parted ways with a significant number of clients very abruptly by email over the weekend without giving them help to land with new agents. I don’t have any inside information, but as best I could suss out it was due to an allegedly “amicable” departure of an agent, Jordan Hamessley, who only recently sent an email to her clients about summer plans.
The injustice of quite a few authors being suddenly left in the lurch (some mid-negotiation) tapped into the always-simmering frustration the writing community has with literary agents and the traditional publishing industry writ large.
(UPDATE 5/16: Publishers Lunch and Publishers Weekly have confirmed some of the essentials. Of Hamessley’s 45 clients, 18 were offered representation within New Leaf, 27 were left to find new representation, and NL president Joanna Volpe said they would handle contracts in progress. NL literary director Patrice Caldwell said, “There was no way to do this as quickly by calling people, nor did we want people to start sharing publicly about this before we told everyone.”
UPDATE #2 5/16: Agent Jordan Hamessley released a statement on Twitter disputing the characterization of the parting as “amicable”)
In my view, this case makes for a lens into the state of the broader industry. So buckle up for one writer’s perspective on where things stand in traditional publishing these days, why this incident reflects deeper issues, and what writers can do about it.
If you’re coming across this post unfamiliar with who I am: I’m a former literary agent who published a middle grade trilogy with Dial Books at Penguin a few years back. I’m agented myself with a young adult novel that’s currently on an odyssey through the process, and I’m midway through a new middle grade novel that I’m very excited about. I’m in constant dialogue with publishing insiders in my capacity as a writer and freelance editor.
Here’s what I’m seeing and hearing.
There are fewer quality publishing spots than ever
I absolutely do not want to excuse any individual bad actors for their behavior, but I think it’s worth taking a step back at looking at some of the structural forces that are at play here.
The reality is that publishers have fewer ways than ever of breaking out new books and making new hits. Bookstore chains have largely been decimated. Barnes & Noble eliminated co-op, that front-of-store real estate that publishers used to pay for. We live in a media cacophony and our attention spans have withered.
All those record profits the industry experienced in the last few years? Largely the backlist, those already-successfully published books, which publishers have gotten better and better at mining. The new breakout hits by authors like Colleen Hoover have mainly been generated by bottom-up word of mouth rather than a publisher’s marketing campaign.
The publishing industry has consolidated and an entire swath of mid-tier publishers has completely disappeared. Small presses are often in a constantly precarious state, to the point where they can struggle to properly manage their successes, which makes many agents reluctant to submit to them. The pandemic hangover of postponed books and supply chain issues is still reverberating, and now there’s inflation (think: paper costs) and burnout to contend with.
This has all kinds of trickle down effects, but it’s coalescing into this: there are more books competing for fewer (good) slots than ever.
Things are absolutely brutal for young agents especially as they try to make a career in an industry with shrinking opportunities. But everyone is contending with the trickle-down problems that stem from this reality.
Industry norms are shifting
Unless you’ve managed a slush pile, it’s difficult to fathom what it’s like to have 50-100+ new queries coming in 365 days a year. There are more books floating around than ever, particularly given how many people took advantage of the extra time the pandemic freed up to write novels. And, again, all these books are competing for a shrinking number of good slots in the traditional publishing world.
Much to the frustration of the writing community, agents have inexorably shifted to a “no response means no” policy for rejections. They don’t want to deal with the hassle or suffer the zillions of follow-ups they get from authors either taking out their frustration or asking more questions.
So what’s changing? Editors at publishing houses are increasingly moving to “no response means no.” One prominent agent described it to me as more of a Hollywood-esque “we’ll get back to you if we’re interested” approach.
This was another source of consternation for authors this weekend, who noted the irony in agents responding to an editor that “no response means no” is bad for agents when most agents have this exact policy in place for query letters.
It used to be that even the lowliest agent could send out a novel or book proposal to a publishing house and be able to get responses. There were spaghetti agents who would send out a bunch of stuff that wasn’t ready just to see what they could get to stick.
Now? Good luck. Even top agents can struggle to get all of their projects read and responded to. If there’s a hot property (usually either a shiny debut or an established bestseller) publishers can move quickly, but previously published authors who sold “fine,” who in previous years would have been able to count on another deal, are increasingly falling through the cracks. They’re often not even getting responses.
This is compounding the pressure on the agents who don’t have an established roster of top selling authors who can churn out books on a regular basis. (But many of the agents with a roster like that are doing just fine).
Everything is taking longer than ever
Fewer spots. More difficulty getting projects considered. Even books that sell take more time because publishers have under-invested in support staff. And publishing calendars thrown out of whack by the pandemic and supply bottlenecks have still not totally unwound and returned to a normal cadence.
An industry that already took forever to do anything is taking even longer to do anything.
This trickles down to the way agents work with unpublished authors. There is a real glut out there, and agents must be pickier than ever taking on projects.
And remember: agents work on commission. Any time they’re spending on something that will not make them money (such as sending rejections) costs them. This is making agents less likely to take on something they’re on the fence about, and more likely to either work with the author on edits or encourage them to seek outside editing before submitting.
Agents are stretched. They’re in an environment that incentivizes them to be more ruthless and pull the plug faster if something isn’t working, and for agencies holistically to take a hard look at where their resources are going.
Among other things, my impression is that agents are less likely to submit to small presses than they used to be and submit outside of the majors. Given the 15% commission, an agent is not really going to make any short term money on a deal with a small press, particularly when you factor in that the deal might actually be more time consuming to negotiate than a deal with a major publisher, where boilerplate contracts are in place.
Given the fewer spots to place a client and the pressure to prioritize time and energy where it can generate income, this means agents are often ending submissions sooner than an author might expect.
What should happen if an agent leaves
One of the worst days of my life was the day I called all my clients to tell them I was leaving the business. It was seriously like going through twenty breakups right in a row.
I don’t doubt that some of my former clients still curse my name, but I did everything I possibly could to help them land on their feet. I worked really hard to connect the authors with other agents at Curtis Brown and nearly all of them remained. Some are to this day still with the same agents I steered them to, others have become big bestsellers elsewhere.
To me, that’s what agencies owe their authors. They should do what they can to help them land with other agents within the agency, and, failing that, they should provide the author with resources to help them land elsewhere. Taking into account the anguish and uncertainty authors will face losing their champion, communications should be handled with great care. As the Authors Guild notes, agents should have succession plans in place.
But realistically, there’s only so much agents can do to soften this particular blow. What no one should want is for an agent to take on an author they aren’t enthusiastic about out of a sense of obligation, unless it’s merely a custodial role to manage contracts and royalty statements.
This situation absolutely sucks, but unless we’re going to pass laws to force agents to be in the business forever and also become immortal, some suckage is inevitable here.
Does it really have to be this way?
I personally wish agents and editors would take a bit more of a broader view of the overall ecosystem. For instance, “No response means no” makes sense as a policy if you look at the bottom line, but it’s dehumanizing to authors and not what you would do if you valued the overall health of the creative community.
But you have options at your disposal if you want to avail yourself of them.
Remember that you can choose who you submit to, and if you come across disquieting stories about agents when you research them, you absolutely do not have to submit to them. Have good quality conversations with agents before you sign with them.
I’d also really recommend that you prioritize submitting to agents who are members of the Association of American Literary Agents (formerly the AAR), who abide by a canon of ethics and have mechanisms for disciplining bad actors. It’s a great organization. Not all reputable agents are members, but they should be, and the more authors prioritize AALA agents, the more the whole agent community would be incentivized to be members and abide by their ethical standards.
And lend your support to organizations who are working on systemic solutions to the problems in publishing, like We Need Diverse Books.
But also remember that you can’t stamp out all uncertainty. For instance, lots of people on Twitter this weekend said you MUST talk to a prospective agent’s clients before signing, but I don’t agree with this advice. When I was an agent I respectfully declined to make my clients available (I didn’t want them to have to take time to speak on my behalf), and I don’t think those calls are very helpful to begin with because the clients have every incentive to sugar coat.
The process is inevitably uncertain. At some point you’re going to have to trust your instincts, take a leap of faith, and know that things might not go perfectly to plan.
And if all of this sounds awful to you, self-publishing is an option.
What to do if your agent leaves
The most important thing to know about losing your agent is that your career is not over by any stretch of the imagination. It absolutely sucks to feel like you’re starting over, but you’re not starting over. You don’t have a black mark adjacent to your name and it’s not a dark secret you must keep.
Hold your head high and just tell agents you’re querying that you’re seeking new representation and that you were previously represented by X. Assuming you don’t have horror stories about working with you trailing in your wake, it is going to be a plus in most agents’ eyes that another agent invested in your work enough to represent you.
I also thought this thread by Ryan La Sala was helpful to give you ideas about how you might frame your previous experience.
Tons of authors have lost their agents and gone on to have wildly successful careers. Brush off your shoulders and keep moving forward.
Keep your head up and practice toughness
I know how much you want to succeed. I know how much you’d rather be making a living as a writer. I know, particularly if you’re in a financially precarious position, you have to justify the time you’re spending writing to yourself and others.
I have been there.
One of the most exhausting things about being a literary agent, however, is being a vessel for authors to take out their frustrations that their dreams aren’t coming true. I never really got used to being a constant bearer of bad news or for the vitriol that came my way when I was just trying my best to do my job.
I don’t want to diminish the very real frustration and anguish authors have experienced, and lord knows my complaints about the industry are legion (and I don’t even have the compounding factor of being a BIPOC author). But some of the “horror stories” I’ve seen on Twitter over the weekend that are unrelated to this particular controversy feel a lot to me like… pretty everyday “working in a creative industry in a capitalistic society” stuff.
Some knocks and bruises and false dawns are an inevitable part of the process. If you choose to walk down this path, you gotta be tough.
I don’t really know anyone who has had a totally smooth path to publication. Virtually all of my writer friends have had more than one agent. Rejection is baked in. Nothing is going to progress in a straight line.
No matter how awesome you and your book are, no matter how hard you worked on it, nothing is really owed to you at the end of the day. The more you can treat anything positive that comes your way after you finish a book as a nice bonus, the better off you’ll be.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Astrologer observing the Equinox by Domenicus van Wijnen
Melissa Maygrove says
How long does it take to copy and paste a standard rejection letter and email it from a ‘no-reply’ email address? That’s still crappy, but it could be a time-saving solution. Gah. I’m so glad I self-published.
Nathan Bransford says
I agree. It’s not *that* hard to respond.
Jenn Hubbard says
This industry is full of difficulties, rejections, disappointments. Most of us know that, even if we don’t always cope with it that well. But basic professional courtesy goes a long way toward cushioning the blows, and not adding pointless insult to injury. As one of the writers who got that call when you left agenting, I had been reflecting–while reading recent online threads–how grateful I was that you provided that professionalism and courtesy. Your clients got notice, a human conversation, a discussion of our options. Not an email dropped on us without warning. Business realities may require an agent to drop clients, but they don’t require that dropping to be coldly done.
Nathan Bransford says
Yeah, the real issue seems to be a form email dropped out of nowhere on a Friday night. I’m sympathetic that it’s trickier to manage in the social media era without word getting out, but a warmer touch would have gone a long way.
And thanks for the kind words!
Brent Hartinger says
This is really great. I do think there are problems, structural and otherwise. But I also think the life of an artist is hard, and it always has been and always will be. Having made my living writing fiction for 25+ years, I think that in some ways this is the best of times (and also the worst of times). At least there are many, many options now, and it FEELS like more people, overall, are making a living doing what they love. There more diversity too, in every sense. But the fact is, waaaaaaaaaaay more people want to make their living writing fiction than the world could ever support, so there is, by definition, going to be lots and lots and lots of heartache and frustration and disappointment.
My sense is that *most* people in publishing are decent, trying to do the right thing, but that people are also human, generally selfish, seeing things from their own POV. So much of what people call “toxic” is just…humans disagreeing and misunderstanding each other, and some *seriously* unrealistic expectations about a life in the arts.
That said, we could probably all stand to be nicer, trying harder to understand how things look from the other side.
Nathan Bransford says
Ernie Zelinski says
Over the years I have had many rejection letters sent to me by both agents and publishers. Rejection is good for you whether you get a rejection letter or not. It builds character. I have managed to get three agents and had the pleasure of firing a foreign rights agent who was incompetent. Over the years I have managed to get three US publishers and one Canadian publisher. But most of my success has been in self-publishing and then selling the foreign rights by myself.
In the field of self-publishing, which many enter and which very few survive, I have done quite well for myself. Oh sure, I don’t claim to stand on the shoulders of giants such as Robert J. Ringer and David Chilton whose books have sold millions and have made them millions. Nevertheless, my books (mainly self-published) have now sold over 1,100,000 copies.
Having said that, what I am finding is that selling the second million copies is harder than selling the first million copies. Part of the reason is that it is 10 times as hard to make it in this business as it was in 1989 when I first started. Even then it was extremely hard. As the saying goes, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”
Fact is, there are no short cuts to being successful at the game of writing and self-publishing. I offer these words of wisdom from other knowledgeable people who have inspired me to attain the personal freedom and financial independence that I enjoy today:
“Good isn’t good enough.”
— Mark Coker (owner of Smashwords)
“Very Good Is Bad — It’s Not Good Enough!”
— Seth Godin (My favorite Marketing Guru)
“Even the most careful and expensive marketing plans cannot sell people a book they don’t want to read.”
— Michael Korda, former Editor-in-Chief at Simon & Schuster
“You are only as rich as the enrichment you bring to the world around you.”
— Rajesh Setty
“In the arena of human life the honors and rewards fall to those who show their good qualities in action.”
“Books work as an art form (and an economic one) because they are primarily the work of an individual.”
— Seth Godin
“Writing is the hardest way to earn a living, with the possible exception of wrestling alligators.”
— Olin Miller
“Your success and prosperity are too valuable to depend on crowd funding or lottery tickets.”
— Seth Godin
“Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to continually be part of unanimity.”
— Christopher Morley
“The amount of money you make will always be in direct proportion to the demand for what you do, your ability to do it, and the difficulty of replacing you.”
— Earl Nightingale
Aileen Stewart says
Good article. Thanks for sharing!
Joyce Uglow says
Your wisdom and kindness shine through nicely.
Laurie Smollett Kutscera says
Thank you for sharing your wisdom and perspective very helpful.
Shirley Jump says
Great article! And so true. I work as a ghostwriter for some celebs and athletes and even some of them are having a hard time selling a book. I had one that went through the whole “no response means no” thing, and she was outraged. I honestly don’t blame her because I’d feel the same way if it was me. I used to be with CB, and think I met you once, BTW, at a conference. Wise words and such a refreshingly frank perspective!
Xavier Basora says
The behaviour in traditional publishing is an ad for self publishing and becoming an independent content creator.
Holly Bush says
I can’t see the future and I can’t even make much of a prediction, but there’s no doubt that in 100 years, publishing will look different. Again. Economic models that rely on gatekeepers like publishing will most likely fade away. The internet, our constant and broad connection, to other people, ideas and most importantly, markets, help us (writers) skip the agents and the publishers and go directly to the reader. It’s not as though publishers actually do much for authors today anyway. I can’t tell you how many writers I know who have landed publishing contracts and seen those relationships end long before the hoped for marketing dollars materialize, the only thing left at the end that they are sure of is that they don’t have any rights to their own books. There’s no shoe cobblers any longer and there’s a reason for that.
Nathan Bransford says
I’ve been hearing versions of this argument for 20 years now and the “cobblers” are still around and largely unchanged. I personally think traditional publishers and agents will always have a place within publishing, they might just be serving fewer, bigger authors.
Lynne Connolly says
I’ve been around a while, had publishers, had tons of rejections, had years when I could afford what I wanted, and years when I’ve not. Solidly midlist. As a writer you have to learn to believe in yourself and your work. It’s true, it’s harder to get agented and harder to get published by the big 5 than ever, and the big 5 aren’t kind. And many aren’t selling as well as they used to. They’re taking more people with ready-made platforms, celebrities, sportspeople, and selling on the back of that. They don’t nurture talent any more, try to develop an author. And it’s all on sales. You don’t sell, you’re out.
The paper book market is in decline. The ebook market has been exploited to death, so most people have kindles full of free and 99 cent books.
If you really want to make a career from writing, try the games manufacturers. Mind you, if you think the fiction book world is ruthless, you ain’t seen nothing yet. But they want writers to develop stories, characters and worlds.
If you want to succeed, you have to be dazzlingly good, know people in the industry, or be very lucky. All three wouldn’t hurt.
But wait until the Blizzard-Microsoft deal is sorted out first, otherwise you’ll be fired before you’ve started.