by Laura Resnick
Like many writers, I started my career without a literary agent, because I couldn’t get one. After I sold eight books on my own, I went agent-hunting again. Now that I had demonstrated that I could sell books steadily, literary agents were finally interested in me.
This, I soon learned, is because most agents don't like heavy lifting.
The person whom I hired then was/is a very successful agent who is still cited often in publishing trade journals. He sent my new book proposal to five publishers. They all rejected it. He immediately dumped me, refusing to look at any other projects from me or discuss the matter. I had been a client for all of four months. (Repeat: Agents don't like heavy lifting. As soon as he realized that he wasn't going to get a quick and easy sale, he lost all interest in me. And this is a much-too-common problem in working with literary agents.)
My next agent, who was very reputable, was also, it soon turned out, very volatile—prone to tantrums, shouting, angry letters, sulking, etc. So I ended the association after about a year—during which time the agent had not furthered my career or increased my income. (In fact, as a direct result of paying this agent 15% from the career I had already established on my own, my income went down that year.)
My next agent (we're on #3 now) was/is very successful and respected. There were ways in which this association was very fruitful for me, which is why this is the only agent whom I don’t simply 100% regret ever having hired; but there were also ways in which it was professionally and fiscally very damaging. The problems increased until I eventually decided to leave. In retrospect, I should have left much sooner.
Still mired in the conventional "wisdom" of the biz that a writer must have a literary agent, I hired my next agent (#4) to negotiate an offer I had already gotten on my own from a major house. This was a senior agent at a well-established agency and someone with an impressive client list. And... collecting the commission for that on-the-table deal was the most engaged this agent ever got in my career. When things started to go south (that same publisher later dumped me) and I needed the agent to do some work (i.e. submit books to publishers), I found myself treated like a drunken leper with halitosis. (Remember? Agents don't like heavy lifting.) So I left. The agent's response: Good riddance.
For reasons which now elude me, I queried a number of agents after that… but the publishing market was by then depressed and in turmoil, and I was now a writer having career problems (weak sales and a canceled publishing contract). So no one was interested in representing me—it would involve heavy lifting, after all.
So, agentless yet again, I did what I had done many times before: I researched the market and sent out submissions to editors myself. Within a month, I accepted a good multi-book offer from a major house—for a better advance than I had been making in deals "negotiated" by my former agents.
I also hired a literary lawyer to negotiate the contract on that deal; and thus I got the best contract of my career. Lawyers—who are educated, trained, and licensed in contract law, legal language, and contractual negotiations—are typically much better at this than literary agents, who have none of the above and who all-too-often don't even understand the contracts they're "negotiating" and advising their clients to sign.
I did some math around that time and realized the following things:
* Overall, I had made most of my book sales myself throughout my career
* Even on the various occasions when I had an agent, I still had to make a number of my sales myself (which got expensive when the agents demanded a 15% commission on those deals, despite not having made the sale)
* At least 1/3 of my book sales over the years have specifically been with projects that my own agents or agents whom I queried declared unsaleable and declined to send out
My conclusion was that I wouldn't even HAVE a writing career if I had ever followed the advice of literary agents, cooperated with their refusal to market my work, or relied on them to sell my books.
All these various experiences and reflections convinced me that the agent-author paradigm was not a business model that worked well for my career. I have been working agent-free for about six years now, and my career is currently the busiest, happiest, and most lucrative it's ever been.
Laura Resnick is the author of the popular Esther Diamond urban fantasy series, whose releases include Disappearing Nightly, Doppelgangster, Unsympathetic Magic, Vamparazzi, and the upcoming Polterheist. She has also written traditional fantasy novels such as In Legend Born, The Destroyer Goddess, and The White Dragon, which made multiple "Year's Best" lists. She began her career as the award-winning author of fourteen romance novels, written under the pseudonym Laura Leone. An opinion columnist, frequent public speaker, and the Campbell Award-winning author of many short stories, she is on the Web at LauraResnick.com.