The Truth about Agents

When I first started writing, I had big dreams (let’s be real: they were straight up delusions of grandeur). I had a fantastic story idea, and awesome characters, and a natural talent for writing. I was going to be a star!

Fast forward four years and two manuscripts (with about 20 complete revisions each) later. No agent I had queried wanted my stories. (I can totally empathize with the guy in this picture) It was humbling. And frustrating. I believed in those stories, and it’s not like I hadn’t done everything I could to make them good. I have a degree in English, and was an editor for a living, and I’m a voracious but picky reader, so I didn’t think I was simply blind to my baby’s deficiencies. I had seriously and objectively considered every single criticism (and there were many) that I had received. I had even gotten some of my friends who terrify me with their blunt honesty to go over them.

So, what was I doing wrong?

Well, I learned some truths as I submitted and resubmitted and re-resubmitted my manuscripts to agents:

  1. Agents are people. They are just special people who hold the destinies of a handful in their hands. And they get to choose that handful of people, which is an entirely subjective process. They don’t want to represent stuff they don’t love, because then they can’t do it justice, and everyone loses. So if they don’t love your work, they don’t take chances.
  2. Agents are hardened automatons. I know, I know, that sounds like a contradiction of what I just said, but stick with me here. Agents have to be hardened because they get hit up for representation by thousands of authors every year. They can’t represent everyone, so they have to take what they consider the cream of the crop, the best of the best. And to those lucky few, agents are the nicest people alive.
  3. Agents are driven by sales. It’s tough, but true. Agents have to take what sells. And the only way they can tell what sells is to watch the market. If Gen-X vampires going on time-travel adventures is flying off the shelves, then that is what they look for. If fantasy romance involving unicorns with attitudes is hot, then that’s what they want.

Well, that’s enough to break any would-be author’s heart. After all that work, believing in yourself and your stories, and making all sorts of sacrifices to do what you love, if you don’t fit the mold then you’re not the favorite, and you’re not the best. So you may as well quit trying, right?

Well, wrong. Which brings us to #4, and why indie publishing has become such a THING:

4. Agents are not perfect. If they think your stuff won’t sell, it might simply be because no one else is writing it right now. If there’s no comparison, and it’s not exactly what they think they would like, there’s no way for them to gauge its potential. Also—and this is a pretty big deal—what’s hot now may or may not survive the two years it takes to get a book traditionally published. So while agents do their best to anticipate the direction of the market, they can’t always anticipate trends, and can make mistakes—sometimes costly ones—in their choices of what authors or what books they represent.

This is the crux of the issue. The Powers that Be have been in it for so long that they can be blinded by their own prejudice, even when they try to be unbiased. Or they can be paralyzed by fear of risk. It’s a tough spot for them (I know, poor Big Five).

But authors don’t have to be paralyzed by fear. Independent publishing has become a viable and low-to-no-cost option for anyone to try the waters if they believe their work has a market. No agents vetting their potential, no middle-men snapping up the profits, no signing away your life and soul.

If you truly think you have a gem, you can get it out there for people to read, and with very little risk. If it doesn’t catch on, then there you have it. But if it does, you have every chance of realizing your dreams.

And who knows? You might even catch the eye of a real live publisher, and then you can be the one deciding who’s good enough.