Are Agents Obsolete?

30 November, 2011

The demise of traditional book publishing and explosion of self-publishing opportunities seem to be two sides of a coin.  Many authors are questioning the value of what a traditional publisher can provide and are choosing to publish books themselves.  The availability of e-pub options make this appear deceptively easy.  It would appear that anyone who is a little bit tech-savvy or can hire someone who has the technical ability to do it for them can upload a file, and presto, is now a published author.

This is amazing and in many ways thrilling, but as an industry veteran (and a former editor and publisher), I don’t believe that it can in any way duplicate the contributions of a traditional publisher, if you have that choice.  Publishing a book is a team effort, requiring the exquisite coordination of a passionate editor/advocate who will help you to shape a book, a copyeditor, designers for the cover and the interior (usually two different people), and a host of marketing and sales people, each contributing a specific expertise honed through years in the trenches.  When the “system” works, it is a beautiful thing.  So much thought and craft go into it.

It’s well known that for most authors, finding a traditional publisher is practically impossible without the stewardship of a literary agent.  The agent is much more than a seller.  Most effective agents today curate content, through their selection, development skills and editorial polish.  Indeed, editors count on agents to bring material to a very high level before they share it with publishing houses.  An agent stakes his or her reputation on knowing who to submit to and the form in which an editor and house expects to see it.  Once a book is sold, an agent is in it for the duration, creating a bridge between the author and the publishing house, sharing knowledge every step of the way, helping an author to build a reputation and brand, as well as a book.  The goal is not only for the book to be successful, but for it to have legs so that it continues to sell (and generate income for the author and agent) for years to come.

For those who are not able to snare a coveted publishing contract, agents can still play a major role. These industry professionals can advise you on the pitfalls and opportunities as you attempt to navigate the self-publishing process, connecting you with the virtual publishing company you need to create to publish your book successfully.  Not all agents will work with self-published authors, but many more today will, and if you can get a trusted, reputable agent to partner with you in this way, you will be that much the wiser.

So regardless of the path you choose (or the one that chooses you!), consider turning to such resources as Jeff Herman’s excellent annual Guide to Publishers and LiteraryAgents, or the AAR (Association of Author’s Representatives) website to find your perfect partner.

–Joelle Delbourgo