There’s a lot of anger and frustration felt by authors over literary agents brewing out there. It’s been going on for some time. Writers are so frustrated in trying to land a literary agent that they are giving up. They curse what they see as an unfair process that is imposed by what they view as a bunch of elitist gatekeepers. Authors question why their quality works are ignored or dismissed by the middle men who could otherwise make their publishing dream come true.
Authors are baffled as to why their book is shelved while other ones get the green light. They feel frustrated that agents make decisions based on limited, undisclosed metrics, few of which have to do with whether a book is actually any good. And exactly who are these agents and how did they get into such a position to be a dream-killer?
So, all of this begs the question: Are literary agents full of crap? Or authors?
Now, before literary agents put out a fatwa on my head, let me say that I know many agents, like them, and respect what they do. I think they are caught in between eager authors who don’t understand the process by which publishers are playing things so conservatively that they miss out on some gold simply because they have become risk-averse.
That said, some literary agents are lazy, uninventive, and simply not so well connected. Other agents misjudge a book or an author’s background and guess wrong, not taking a chance on a budding star in the raw. And some agents rely on failed formulas to determine the viability of an author. All of this contributes to bad feelings by authors of literary agents.
I think it’s worth clearing the air to explore what is fact or fiction here, because the myths of publishing grip the industry like a plague. Clarity may help everyone.
Let’s explore: What are literary agents looking for?
First, know that agents are not publishers. They don’t choose what to publish. They act on behalf of their boss – the publishers -- that they need to impress and sell a book to. The agents merely react to what publishers say they want. The agent won’t go out of his or her way to dictate to a publisher what should be published.
Second, each agent knows only so many publishers and has only so many relationships with select acquisitions editors. They can only take on projects that they believe will appeal to those they lobby regularly.
Third, many agents specialize in one or a handful of genres. Few are all-around generalists. An agent may simply turn you down because your book doesn’t fit the genres that they have knowledge and contacts in.
Fourth, agents don’t have the time, energy, or interest to read all that is sent to them. Think about it. If some agents get thousands of submissions, how can they read all of that content? They are looking for obvious mile markers to get their attention. They can tell after a few pages if you can write well.
Then they look at things such as:
· Your background: How are you qualified to write this book?
· Your social media: How many connections do you have?
· Past performance: Did prior books of yours sell?
· Competition: Are you in a crowded field with nothing that sticks out?
· Bank: Will you commit to offering a marketing budget for your book?
· Guaranteed sales: Do you have commitments for bulk sales from organizations? Will you be buying books to resell or give away to your network?
· Trends: Is your book part of a growing or declining marketplace?
· Media: Have you garnered news media coverage before?
· Speaking: Have you actively done seminars, speaking engagements, or book signings?
· Future Potential: Do you have more books in you? Are you young enough to produce over the next few years? Wil you only be a one-hit wonder?
· Rights viability: If it’s a novel, can it be sold to Hollywood? If it’s non-fiction, can the foreign rights be sold?
· Appearance: Do you look like the part of the author for your subject matter? If it is a book on health, do you look fit? If it is a business book, do you fill out your power suit? If it is a romance novel, do you look attractive?
· Demographics: Does your book particularly appeal to Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, LGBTQ, Indigenous People, or some other protected class of people – and are you a member of it?
· Education: Do you have the school pedigree or the right set of degrees for what you write about?
· Personality: Do you seem open to criticism, flexible, engaging, polite, friendly – or do you sound entitled, stupid, shy, dull, or rude?
· Testimonials: Any third-party validation for you or your work?
· House Broken: Can you follow instructions and provide what is asked for in the way they want it?
Of course, some times authors will feel they checked all of the boxes and still got shown the door. So what? If you are that good, try another agent. You’ll catch on if you are the real deal. Don’t bother focusing on feeling rejected or jealous of those that do get publishing deals. Only zero in on your next step and do what it takes to get published.
Now that said, some literary agents really are full of shit. They take shortcuts and only want to work with packages that sell themselves. Though they have a greater responsibility to the book world to not just see a book as a product, but as the life’s work of creative people who seek to impact society with their words, they only see a book as a commodity in a big business.
Literary agents, as you may be aware, are not required to do anything to be declared an agent.
That is right, to be a literary agent, you do not:
· Have to have a special degree or even have graduated from high school.
· Have to pass a competency test of any kind.
· Need a license.
· Undergo any type of background check.
· Have to be a member of a trade group.
· Need any special training or certification courses.
· Have to have any experience in working with authors or books.
· Need to adhere to any particular rules or regulations.
You can be an ex-con. You can have a low IQ. You don’t even need to have an office. Just claim to be an agent from your bathroom and guess what, you are one.
That said, authors should fall under the same scrutiny. Anyone can say they are an author. No credentials are required.
Some authors just want to be given a chance, to be treated respectfully, where their potential is acknowledged. But a lot of authors simply become their own enemy.
· Don’t listen to what an agent says he or she wants.
· Fail to research the agents they contact.
· Pen a lousy query letter.
· Lack true marketing plans of potential.
· Overstate how good or unique their book really is.
· Fail to show why readers will flock to them.
· Have no track record to run on.
· Fall short in showing a platform.
· Don’t commit to marketing or buying copies.
· Simply do not realize so many others books are better than theirs.
So, are authors full of shit? Are they not coming to the table with enough ammunition for the literary agent to be able to sell their work to a publisher?
Authors and literary agents need to work together and each should take some responsibility for what gets published. The more an author can convey his or her selling points – and the more an agent is willing to help and take a chance -- the better things will be.
Agents need to be advocates and lobby publishers. They have to give publishers what they say they want, but they should also convince publishers why they should want what an author has to give.
If you try your hardest and simply cannot get a literary agent to represent you, go to Plan B.
Consider hybrid publishing, where you divide costs and share royalties with a small publisher who partners as an equal with you.
Try a small press or university press. You can go to some of them directly without needing a literary agent.
Lastly, consider self-publishing. There is no harm in doing this. It is the most common form to get published today. Sure, some are self-published because they have money to do so, but their book is awful, at best. Not all self-published authors have terrific books.
No matter how you are published, the success of your book and writing career still depend on you and what you will do to promote your message and sell your book. You can’t just sit back and hope to be discovered, nor can you expect the publisher to do everything for you, should you be lucky enough to get one. Keep an optimistic view of getting published, even if some literary agents are full of shit. There are many good agents out there, looking exactly for what you have to offer.
Let the matchmaking process begin!
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Brian Feinblum should be followed on Twitter @theprexpert. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog ©2021. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester with his wife, two kids, and Ferris, a black lab rescue dog. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s The Independent. This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by BookBaby http://blog.bookbaby.com/2013/09/the-best-book-marketing-blogs and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. It was also named by WinningWriters.com as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America. For more information, please consult: .