Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Agents here, agents there, agents not exactly everywhere
I've kinda covered this territory already but what the hey, I'm looking for a distraction. So here's an answer.
Yes, there's a paucity of literary agencies, and that's because the business model of agenting makes it hard for people to start an agency and, these days, to stay in business. Agents work on commission, so unless an agent is independently wealthy, it's hard to start an agency from nothing knowing income won't flow, possibly, for several months, and even then it won't be much. Advances aren't that big, and agents only get a fraction of those advances. In Australia we need to take on quite a lot of clients just to break even. Moreover, those advances are getting smaller or disappearing altogether, but publishers still want agents to exist, because we do serve a role in the publishing food chain - we act as consultants, of a sort, to publishers in that we do a lot of the submission-filtering for them, and we often handle authors' concerns and queries, which means they're not calling their publishers and asking.
Agents are also, often, the ones staying abreast of what's changing in the industry and we're able to disseminate information to authors and publishers alike (and, yes, this blog is one of the ways I do that). One of the reasons this blog hasn't been updated in a while is that I'm flat out trying to keep on top of everything - all agents now have to spend a proportion of their time each day reading about the latest developments on the industry. This isn't something that was in the job description five years ago.
I can't actually imagine how we're going to get more agents in this country, although it would be great if we could. The difficulty of the business model is one reason; the fact that it requires a certain amount of experience to be an effective agent is another. It would be hard to parachute a university graduate into an agenting job if they had no prior experience of the industry.
One of the things that would be helpful is that publishers could realise that we'll all disappear if they keep squeezing the money the way they are. Yes, things are really, really difficult at the moment - more difficult than any of us can remember - but we should actually be trying to work out a way to fix it, not just all running to the corners of the ring and waiting to see who comes out fighting first. If publishers gave agents the benefit of the doubt - if their default answer to us wasn't always 'no', even if we have a lot of books with them - that would help. They want our expertise but then don't trust it enough to not make us jump through the same hoops every time (and by 'publishers' I mean the companies, not the individuals who are called publishers - the individuals usually trust us but their acquisitions meetings don't).
So that turned into a bit of a rant; it's been coming for a while (and I have more to come). And, no, it won't get more agents into the industry but right now we just need to focus on keeping the ones we have.