What Agents Are Doing These Days

Asleep under deskIn this age of rapid change in publishing and expanding options for writers, I hear the question “Do authors need agents anymore?” more often than ever. While I can’t answer the question for any individual author, I can tell you that agents are busier than ever helping authors find their readers — one way or another. Here are some of the things we’re doing:

1. Business as usual. Agents are still selling books to publishers for traditional publication, and this remains the major part of our business. Along with that, we’re managing authors’ careers, advocating for our clients, and sometimes talking them off ledges. It’s also important that we nurture strong continuing relationships with publishers, despite our occasional adversarial positions, since we’re all in this changing landscape together and we can learn a lot from each other.

2. Protecting authors’ rights in contracts. While this has always been a major responsibility of agents, it is becoming more important as many publishers tighten up their contracts to protect their own long-term interests. Agents are diligently working to ensure authors receive fair terms especially related to things like non-compete clauses and reversion of rights.

3. Helping authors navigate new options. Many of our clients are not only publishing traditionally with major houses, they’re utilizing a variety of new options including self-publishing, subsidy publishing, or publishing through new digital publishing companies, and agents play various roles in these pursuits.

4. Selling sub-rights for our self-published authors. Some of us have clients who have self-published, and we’re working on selling sub-rights including print, foreign, film, and audio rights.

5. Staying informed. With the daily changes in our industry, it feels like a full-time job keeping up with all the developments. But more than ever, it’s a necessary part our job. We are constantly reading the trades, the important blogs, and networking with our colleagues to stay on top of all the latest news.

What value do you think an agent can bring to the pursuit of publishing? Do you think agents’ roles have diminished, or simply taken different form?


  1. Jan Thompson says:

    Funny photo!! To me, the most important item on your list is #2. I can’t imagine publishing without an agent for that reason. I gather that also includes film and foreign rights.

  2. I’m not sure how much an agent’s role has changed vs how much *I* think the agent’s role has changed. I think of my (fabulous) agent much more as a career advocate-guide than as someone who can get my manuscript in front of editors (and sold). I know several self published authors who wish they had an agent. Regardless of the publishing path, savvy (ie keeping up with the changes) agents are important.

  3. For me, I’d love to have an advocate and a wise guide to help me navigate through my career. Already, I’ve had numerous occasions where I could have used the sound advice only an agent can deliver. I look at an agent as a partner. We’re both working toward the same goal: my books in the hands of as many readers as possible.

  4. Angela Brown says:

    Unless or until there is a grand scale call that every publishing house in the world will accept unsolicited manuscripts offering contracts that are easy peasy to understand, agents will continue to have a purpose. Some may be adjusting to accommodate the changing times, but the list you detail is still in play, and so…agents are agenting :-)

  5. Agents still have a major role to play, but point five is key. It seems a few agents out there are still in denial about e-publishing, or at best are unwilling to learn the new skills required.

    But the idiot-brigade celebrity self-publishers who say agents are not necessary and any individual can do an agents’ job are living in cloud-cuckoo land.

    An agent’s primary value is always going to be their hotline contact to the people who matter. Commissioning editors, film producers, foreign publishers, etc, are not going to want to wade through tons of emails from wannabe-writers on the off-chance there’s a gem among all the NaNoWriMo first drafts being sent in. That’s an agent’s job.

    When an agent they respect emails to say they have a hot prospect those same commissioning editors, film producers and foreign publishers will sit up and take notice.

    Worth noting that almost all the successful hybrid (trad-published and self-published) writers have agents. Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler and Catherine Ryan Hyde among them.

  6. June Bourgo says:

    All five points have merit, but I think No. 3 is most important and goes hand in hand with No. 5. They represent the biggest changes to an Agent’s job and yes, Agents are still needed and if they adapt to the changing publishing world, they will survive.

  7. Being published but unagented, I think that an agent is indispensible.

    The process, both pre- and post-publication is a lot harder and lonelier than I had thought it would be. Being associated with someone experienced in the field would light quite a bit of that “darkness”, and give purpose through understanding to tasks and endeavours that I sometimes find baffling.

  8. Walt Mussell says:

    There are many avenues that are closed to the authors that don’t have an agent. That point goes to #2 as much as to #1. As long as that is the case, agents will be needed.

  9. J. Hollingsworth says:

    As I stated in my Query Letter: I need your skills to finalize the manuscript, consider the best publication platform, develop a cover, evaluate the market, and obtain best-seller status.

  10. I write a variety of literature. With some I’m heading toward self-publication. With others I’m pursuing publication by traditional means. As Angela stated, no matter how an author sells her work, agents will be needed to negotiate contracts. As insiders, they are also valuable for introducing an author to the right publisher and market. Right now, I think an agent is also vital to help navigate all the possibilities. For instance, I hope to sell my fiction in the traditional market, but with my bible studies I’m pursuing various types of self-publication. What are all the options available to me for doing both? How will the self-publication of some of my work affect my traditional sales, should I bust into that market? Is it a hindrance to have one type of work self-published? Is it a help? These are questions an agent could help answer in this rapidly changing world.

  11. Despite a series of rejections by publishers with my first middle-grade novel, my agent assured me that I would give up on my novel before he would. He also placed it in front of top New York children’s editors, one of whom gave me two pages of feedback. I’m now revising my manuscript based on what she found missing. Without an agent, I never would have gotten this far.

  12. For me, I guess I think an agent is needed more. It’s more complicated to negotiate the business without a guide.

  13. Lisa says:

    My biggest prayer and hope would be for an agent. I can’t really imagine going forward without one. Your blog and others have been priceless to me as a writer starting out.

  14. Stephanie McCarthy says:

    With regard to #3, my agent found me a small publisher after being turned down by the Big 6 (5). It’s a great starting place and all I have to do is turn out some superior writing and build my platform. From what I’ve been reading, you need quality AND quantity to really get your name out to the reading public (I’ve read 6-8 published books), so I’ve made that my long-term goal.

  15. Totally agree with all the points. I want an agent for all the reasons you highlight. Thanks for reinforcing my search. – John

  16. Dan Erickson says:

    I’ve never worked with an agent… yet. I’ve self published my first book and will be self-publishing the second in April. Agents and others can learn more about my books at http://ww.danerickson.net. And now that I’ve shamelessly dropped my info, I think every media-based industry reinvents itself in a changing world. TV didn’t kill radio. Internet has not killed traditional media either, we just learn to find specializations.

    • Dan, I agree with you, but I would like to add #6 (I know, Rachelle, readers like to stick to multiples of five):

      6. Agents give publishers creative suggestions to help pull them into the existing tech-based world.

  17. Jeanne T says:

    I definitely think that agents play a key role in the publishing industry as a representative/liaison between author and publisher. For me personally, I hope to one day be represented by an agent. Agents have a much greater understanding of the industry, they have relationship with publishers, other agents. If I was to try to accomplish all that an agent does and try to write a quality story, I wouldn’t be able to do it.

    I definitely don’t think the agent’s role has diminished. If anything, they are more important now than ever before. Thanks for sharing your list of responsibilities. It’s a good reminder of all you do for your clients! :)

  18. I have a law degree, and I’ve wondered about negotiating my own contract when the time comes. But quite frankly, contracts are boring. I don’t want to spend the time. I’d rather write. And I completely agree with all the rest. Agents, because it’s their job, have so much more knowledge and so many more contacts than I could ever have as an author. From what I read on blogs, I don’t think agents’ jobs have taken on a different form, just increased with additional responsibilities as changes happen in the publishing world.

  19. I think the agent’s role has changed. Diminished? I don’t know if I’d use that word. It probably depends on how you see the different aspects of what business partners do.

    Business partner really is, to my view, what an agent’s role is these days. In days of yore, when you had to thumb through tomes of (usually outdated) information on publishers and their submission requirements, an agent represented the only smart way to attempt to access them. These days there are a ton of small publishers who are infinitely more accessible through the Internet, so you’re really not needed there.

    As for contracts, NYC contains many attorneys who can adequately advise us on our rights as authors as spelled out in the contracts we’re considering signing. It’s the difference between a fee up front and an agreement to receive a percentage of the profits, really. Many–most?–authors don’t have the funds to hire an editor up front, much less an attorney, but then again most don’t need advice on a contract at that point either.

    I still think–and the comments I’ve read indicate that many agree–your greatest role is as a business partner. That is, after all, the justification for earning an ongoing percentage of profits rather than a flat fee for service.

  20. Imani Wisdom says:

    Awesome post!

    As a self-published author, I find this information to be very useful. Before reading this, I wasn’t sure what an agent could benefit me – and now I know. Thanks for the tips.

  21. We definitely still need agents for their expertise and connections. I know I couldn’t go it alone in most publishing situations, and I would love to have someone guiding me through the process.

    • Elissa says:

      Yes, exactly! I couldn’t agree with you more, Dale. Good agents have dedicated their careers to understanding the ins and outs of publishing, creative rights, contracts, and more. I feel I have enough to learn just getting the writing part down. I shudder at the thought of trying to handle all the business part on my own.

  22. This post confirms that I need an agent for my next book. Navigating my first contract was daunting and I NEVER want to go it alone, again. EVER.

  23. I’m curious about #4, Rachelle. With the industry changing so quickly, at what point in a self-published author’s career would she consider querying an agent for the purpose of selling sub-rights. What kind of numbers would a writer need before this would be an attractive option to an agent? And do agents often specify in their guidelines whether they would even consider taking on already self-published authors?

    Hope you’re doing well!!

  24. Laura K. Cowan says:

    I would love to see your list of daily blog reads, Rachelle! Will you post them sometime?

  25. I thought this was a very insightful post. So much so that I had to share it on my blog.
    Thanks for your clarity!

  26. Roxanne Sherwood Gray says:

    I can’t imagine a successful writing career, while also handling the tasks you listed. If I had to manage all that on my own, when would I have time to write? Thanks for confirming why I need an agent.

  27. As a business professional, I’ve always recognized the value of professional representation. I may have the skills and gifts of writing but I know I don’t have the unique knowledge and experience of the publishing industry. I’ve been on the hunt for an agent for several years but my topic is a tough one: abortion recovery. I’m currently writing a bible study on the topic which translates into a powerful tool and substantially broadens the market so I’m eager to start sending out proposals. Working with an agent (I hear 😉 means you have someone fighting for you and your work in a realm I know nothing about. What could be better than that?

  28. I wish I would have gotten an agent to protect my rights. I’m now stuck with one publisher that refuses to return my rights.

  29. Very interesting article… though I will admit that when I saw the title, I thought you meant SECRET agents! I clicked through thinking, “hm, what ARE secret agents up to these days?!”

  30. Kitty Sutton says:

    Dear Rachelle: I am already published with a really good small publisher that I don’t want to change. I write Native American historical fiction mysteries based on heavily researched, almost unknown events that have gone unnoticed and have almost been forgotten. My series is Mysteries from the Trail of Tears, the books are Wheezer and the Painted Frog and Wheezer and the Shy Coyote. I am working on a third now. I give lectures locally on the aftermath of the Trail of Tears as well. My question is, what benefit can an agent give to someone like me? I would like to do more speaking engagements and I would want to explore film opportunities, but is that enough to attract a good agent? Thanks Kitty Sutton

  31. Elise Kinsey says:

    dear Rachael, I am as writing a bbook based upon my personal experience
    incarcerated with Texas penal system. this from the aspect of a correctional officer
    and as a wrongfully convicted felon. the raw truth!!
    I quite confided. as to what direction I should projection. my brief iZn. I
    offer some really good advise. But I understand too
    that you are selling yourself. what makes you different from all the other agents? this book is really something want to
    awccomplish. Your words give me great encourage ment to move forward. But how can I when different agents use different methods, and theyS all claim to lead to the Same finale.

  32. Toby White says:

    I have to say that most of these comments must be from writers without agents. Anyone who has had an agent knows that they really don’t do much at all. My published writer friends and myself find their own editors to contract their books and find that their agents are quite a self serving bunch, meaning they’ll look out for their interest more than yours even when deciding where to “shop” your book. However they are part of the system and even though they are none of the things people have mentioned, especially when things get tough for the writer, you need them to negotiate your contract. Try and go with a big agency. At least they have resources that somehow justify having an agent. Sorry. Not a big fan.

  33. I agree that with the ground changing almost daily, the average writer needs to keep writing, knowing that there is someone out there watching for opportunities to develop and seeding the clouds. Spending enough time to follow trends, keep up on industry shifts, personnel changes as well as legal tempests and dangers takes away from writing time. It all makes a good agent an inexpensive advocate and business partner. Wish I had one!

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