My Thoughts on Seth Godin's Piece Regarding Literary Agents

Seth Godin, best-selling author and all-around successful business guru, recently posted a column called “Where Have All the Agents Gone?”  In it, basically, he talks about how “middlemen” such as stock brokers, real estate agents and travel agents are either dying or dead.  Then he wonders if literary agents are next.

The point he’s trying to make is that literary agents act as “middlemen,” too, and therefore, may be endangered and out of the picture in the future.  But the column doesn’t really give any good thoughts or observations as to why this will be.  And I wanted to throw some thoughts in on this discussion because I disagree with his basic idea, and my adrenaline is still going too much from watching college basketball to fall asleep.

First of all, unless I’m really missing something here, the number of literary agents in the country is going up (whereas the number of travel agents is going down).  Not in drastic, eye-popping numbers, but more literary agents are in the field than three years ago.  Why is this?  You already know the answer – it’s because editors are too busy to act as gatekeepers and need someone to ween out all the poor work that’s submitted. 

Key point: Someone in the literary world has to act as a judge and gatekeeper (although people hate those words).  Some group of professionals – agents – must take responsibility and look at the monstrous pile of manuscripts written each year and say, “This three percent has the potential to move on and be considered, but this ninety-seven does not because it’s bad or been done before.” Someone must review all 100% and create a big pile and a small pile.  Who’s gonna do it?  Writers?  Can they look at their own work and say, “This is unsatisfactory.  It won’t be published.  I shouldn’t submit it.”  Hell no.  Never in a million years.  Editors?  They used to do a lot of this and still do a little.  But they’re too busy to sift through the slush and find the rare gems.  They’re busy being fired and those that aren’t are churning out books like mad, hoping to God they sell.  Someone has to do it, and that’s why we have literary agents. 

They aren’t going anywhere.  As the years go by, more and more people are trying to sell their work, and more and more editors are not looking at unsolicited submissions – meaning they will only consider work submitted from literary agents (usually with whom they have a current relationship).  Add those two simple things up, and you see not only the need for literary agents, but a reason why new ones keep popping up. 

Consider this paragraph from Godin’s column:

“To thrive in a world of self-service,
agents have to hyperspecialize, have
to stand for something, have to have
the guts to say no far more than they
say yes. No, you can’t publish this book.
No I won’t represent you. No, don’t take
that flight. No, I won’t sell this house,
it’s overpriced, list it yourself.”

Am I missing something here?  This is exactly what literary agents do.  They say no 97% of the time.  They all specialize.  (Yes, they could probably stand to specialize even further, but it will all be OK).  Literary agents differ from real estate agents and stock brokers and travel agents because of their ability (the necessity) to say just that: NO.  They have the power of no, and that’s why it’s foolish to compare all these groups to lit reps.  Literary agents won’t work with just anybody.  In fact, it’s closer to the opposite. 

They are like real estate agents in that they will help you secure a better deal, act as your representative, and explain the fine print regarding contracts.  Both perform these functions.  And yes, in a perfect world, you could go around an agent and sell something yourself to avoid the commission charge (a literary agent takes 15% of what you make).  But in the publishing world, unless you’re aiming low, you have to have an agent, or else no one will even listen to you.  Agents act as needed middlemen.  They see a busy, coffee-guzzling editor on one side of the table, and a reclusive prima donna writer on the other end.  Someone needs to be part of the equation who listens to both sides and tries to figure out an acceptable deal. 

To continue on the subject of money, let’s examine why middlemen are disappearing.  Real estate agents take their cut of the deal – six percent or whatever.  Some relatives of mine are trying to sell their house and they aren’t excited at all about that big chunk they’ll lose with an agent.  They want to keep the cash.  On the other hand, have you ever met an writer who is really upset at the 15% they will lose by having an agent?  The publisher doesn’t care whether an agent is involved.  They pay the same amount no matter if you have no agent or six of them.  Sure, we writers would like 15% more, but ultimately a lot of us are so excited to see our work in print that we just shrug and thank God the number is just 15 and not more. 

Consider this paragraph by Godin:

“… anonymous agents are interchangeable
and virtually worthless. Agents that don’t
do anything but help one side find the other
side in a human approximation of Google
aren’t so helpful any more.”

Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean anything.  We all know that an agent without relationships with editors is worthless.  If they don’t have editors who pick up the phone when they call, then they’re no better than you or I as joe schmo writers.  To avoid getting a bad/ineffective agent, simply take two steps: 1) protect yourself by not paying any upfront fees; 2) ask a lot of questions before signing any contracts – such as questions regarding the contract language itself, and whether the agent has sold any books recently, and to whom, and why they want to sign you as a client.  If the agent has sales, then they have relationships and are not anonymous and worthless.

Now: Does Godin have a point?  Will agents disappear down the road?  First of all – who knows.  But if I had to guess, I would say it has to do with self-publishing.  In the next 10-20 years, we will see drastic shifts toward self-publishing your work – especially if bookstores go the way of the dodo.  If more writers are self-publishing their poor manuscripts rather than submitting them all over Hell’s half acres, then the slush pile goes down, and the need for a gatekeeper is lessened, and perhaps editors can handle the workload again.  Then he may have a point down the road.

My final thought: No, I don’t think agents are going anywhere and I don’t get Godin’s column, though, admittedly, the man is a genius and I am not. 

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7 thoughts on “My Thoughts on Seth Godin's Piece Regarding Literary Agents

  1. Peter Riva

    I agree with the blog and Jane’s sound reply. The issue here is not so much the agents changing landscape but one of loss of testicular forttude on the part of publishers. Ever since 9/11 when decisions were switched from single editors/publishers to committees and then, worst of all, unsigned manuscripts from 2005 onwards have been shopped to Barnes & Noble for pre-approval by the marketing department in cahoots with the editorial boards (yes, they shop copyrighted material they do not own or control, yet). In several of the major houses the B&N people have an "office" to accomodate the flow of raw material review.
    Does an author really think they can navigate that labyrinth without an agent – a professional who’s already having to lobby other deparments within the trade house to ensure the submission gets a fair review?
    If anything, the current methodology is unfair to author, agent and editor. Something will have to give, and pretty soon, because the current system favors only those projects already tried, proven and guananteed (to some degree – celebrity authors, celebrities and "as seen on TV"). In the end, like supermarkets without variety, the shelves/book web portals will be replete with homogenious likeness, devoid of the very diversity which will keep the reading piblic engaged.
    What people forget is that the competition for books is both the dollar-in-the-pocket competitor as well as all the "free" media available. A reader is a precious, fragile, being – one we in publoshing should protect, not force-feed more of the same old repeat authors.
    A final thouight: Where’s the anti-trust govt. team when it comes to the 65% bookseller?

  2. Chris

    I really like the blog and find it useful in my emerging career. However, I have to say that I have had the same thoughts as Seth for some while now. I don’t think he necessarily made his points as strong as he could have but his underlying thesis is, in my opinion, prescient.

    The entertainment system as a whole (music,film and books)has been in severe denial for some time. The emergence of the internet hasn’t merely altered the landscape it has laid the foundation to obliterate that landscape in favor of something else. The book industry is very good at self-fulfilling prophecy, it gives the public what it thinks the public wants and then lauds itself for a success when they present limited options.

    MP3’s have already begun to alter the structure of power in the music industry and torrent sites are altering the film industry, it is only logical to prepare for the time when an affordable and accessible e-reader or form of electronic paper alters the publishing world. It has been said for a long time that the book business is a 19th century operation in the 21st century world. While agents will likely continue to exist in some form, I don’t believe it will be the form they currently enjoy becuase those they sell to and those they buy from will have entered a different paradigm. The industry is facing a radical change when a company such as Amazon puts out an e-reader for around 20 dollars. When a person can easily obtain a PDF copy of any book they like and read it on a screen that provides an experience close to that of paper then the industry is going to see itself losing to agentless writers publishing out of blogs. People will be reading something that came from a semi-popular blogger just as they now watch something that came from YouTube or Funny or die instead of seeing the Wolverine film which was leaked, and they Torrented and they didn’t much like on their computer.

    The industry always defends the status quo becuase it is in the interest of its psyche to do so. Self deception is something that most humans are very good at but it doesn’t prevent the emergence of change no matter how much we wish that it might. At some point, in all three of the aforementioned industries, a crisis point will be reached whereby the need for both distributor, representative and creator will become compressed. In a market where people aren’t buying the 24.95 hardcover or even the 6.95 paperback but are instead buying the 1.99 PDF (if they are paying at all)the revenue stream thins and the pie can’t be cut into so many pieces. If I am an author with access to the customer then what I need is someone who specializes in new media marketing, not someone who can sell my work to an outdated 19th century model which seems unwilling or unable to change.

    I am not suggesting that paper will entirely disappear nor that the industry will radically change overnight, but I am suggesting that emerging technology has already shown that traditional models are failing and continue to fail. If this is the case, why should we assume those who currently hold the position of gatekeeper would be those who hold an analogous position in the new model?

  3. Rebecca Thrower

    Bravo! Finally, an honest assesment of the "little man or woman" HIDING behind the curtain. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again-arrogance and cowardice make hideous bedfellows. aND EVEN UGLIER CHILDREN.

  4. Maryann

    Good points made in both your post and Seth’s. It is hard to know which way the publishing world is going and it is always good to see what other professionals think about it.

    I believe a good literary agent, as well as a good real estate agent, works as much for the person as for the cut, which means they do more than just connect dot A with dot B. And I do know that when I had an agent and a line was dropped just before my manuscript was due, he was instrumental in getting me the rest of my advance. I’m not sure I could have done that on my own.

  5. seth godin

    We need agents.

    We just don’t need anonymous middlemen.

    We also don’t need middlemen that only have a small set of ways to monetize our content. When publishers disappear, who will the literary agents sell to?

    I think there’s a huge opportunity for literary agents, but it definitely doesn’t involve going to lunch with editors from Harper Collins. It involves helping creators of intellectual property build and leverage tribes in every way that makes sense.

  6. Jane Friedman

    I don’t think agents will disappear tomorrow (or ever).


    1. Publishers are not doing well. (The industry is not doing well.) They are paying lower advances. They are publishing fewer books. So I have a feeling there will be less money out there to sustain the number of agents we now have.

    2. Writers are getting savvier. Maybe some of them will be successful without an agent, maybe some will be successful without a publisher, maybe some will be successful without both. Writers will need an advocate and partner. And the agents who are best able to do this (and do some of that specializing that Godin refers to) will likely survive the downturn in publishing.

    We already see newspapers disappearing & magazines struggling to stay afloat. Do we really think the traditional book publishing model will stay exactly the same?


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