The Evolving Role of Agents
I don’t think the current agent model is going away any time soon, if ever. I think a lot more people will strike out on their own in independent publishing without an agent. But I’d like to see a new model for agents, a middle ground. I’d like to see a bridge between Traditional-Or-Bust and Indie-Or-Die.
I’d like to see agents who function like wedding planners.
Anyone can plan their own wedding. And a lot people do it extremely well. But it takes a lot of time. And dedication. Not everyone is cut out for that. Which is why we have wedding planners. Good wedding planners take the stress away. The bride and groom make the decisions about what they want, and the wedding planner makes it happen. Wedding planners have relationships with vendors which can lead to discount prices and often lends a guarantee of quality. They know what you’re going to be able to fit in your budget, and guide you toward focusing your time and money on the things that will be most important to you.
Traditional publishing: A very rough comparison is handing your wedding to the wedding planner saying, “Do what you can with it.” I would like a little more control over my wedding, and over my book.
Indie/Self publishing: The DIY wedding. It can either rock your socks off with all the work that went into it, or it’s not memorable – I can’t think of a more gut wrenching description than to say your wedding or your book was not memorable.
Middle ground: Your agent puts her skills to work for you, working with you. There has always been a generally close relationship between a writer and his agent (depends on the writer and the agent how the relationship works), but now the writer has more control. The writer is making the decisions on cover, title, and price. The agent is sharing their knowledge, contacts and time (as in the traditional model) to make things happen.
The Worth of an Agent
Let’s put it into real terms – money. I hire an editor. A good one. And she charges by the page. I’ve seen prices listed as $25* a page. This probably isn’t the lowest price, or the highest. And let’s say that my book is fairly short, about 100 pages. That’s $2500 for editing. And that’s all an editor will do. Edit. And that’s a one time edit. What if I need them to go through it a second time? $5000. While they’re probably worth it, I don’t have that money up front.
How would an agent be different? We’ll say our example agent has been in the business for a few years, so they’re not brand new. This isn’t an entry level job. In fact, it’s a pretty highly skilled job. At a mid-level, they’re definitely going to be making more than minimum wage. Let’s just guess at the worth of their time. $25 an hour puts them at a yearly salary of $52,000. (Assuming they work 40 hour weeks, which they don’t, and I’m hoping they average out to more than that, because that’s a horrible salary to try and live on in NYC.)
I send example agent my manuscript. She reads it through. A short, quick story might take about a couple hours. We’re going to go with the quickest, lowest estimates for this example. But, example agent isn’t just reading, she’s reading with a critical eye. She stops and makes notes and comments. This doubles her time. So we’re up to four hours.
After she finishes her manuscript edits, she composes an email to me, noting overarching problems she noticed, a summary of the edits she made on the manuscript, and anything else that is pertinent. This whole time, she’s going back and forth from the manuscript to the email. That probably takes a couple hours. We’re up to six hours.
I call her to discuss some of her edits and suggestions. Maybe I need clarification. Maybe I need to hash out a fairly major plot change. It takes me a few weeks, two phone calls, and twenty emails. Each email takes her an average of ten minutes. That’s five hours for emails. The phone calls average out to an hour. That’s a total of eleven hours.
I send the manuscript back. She reads it critically. This time, I’ve really nailed it. (We’re being optimistic here, folks.) It reads smoothly and she’s only had a few minor changes. Three hours to read, for a total of fourteen hours.
14 hours x $25 an hour = $350
Well, that’s not so bad. Much cheaper than our per page estimate. I could hire someone to edit my work for $350 flat fee, and not pay commission.
But that’s not all example agent does.
Example agent has connections with some very good cover design artists. She helps me pick one out and works out the paperwork. Because she has a relationship with this artist, I get a discount. A couple hours to help me pick my artist, plus added value of the discount. Sixteen hours.
Okay. We’re ready to publish, right? Wrong. Now I have to get my book formatted. Same deal as with the cover design, I get a discount, but it takes less time to find a good one and work out the paper work. Half an hour adds up to sixteen and a half hours.
NOW I’m ready to publish, right? Let’s say I are. I put my book out in the world, upload it myself, even, to save on costs. It’s on Kindle, Nook, Smashwords, and even some crazy little online store I’d never heard of before. Let the money roll in.
At this point, example agent has been worth $25 x 16.5 = $412. So why should we pay her a commission?
Well, that was my BEST case scenario that she only works sixteen and a half hours. More realistically, I’d have to send my manuscript back for edits another time or two and my book takes longer to read than a couple hours. At least four. That ups each one time edit to eight hours, and six for the final read through. With two edits, we’ve got twenty two hours in editing. Something between nine and fourteen hours of emails, and four hours of calls. Plus the hour and a half of contracts. $912-$1037.
Now my agent is out there pimping my book like a rock star. She’s told her friends and family about it. At lunch, she can’t help but mention it. She announced it’s release on her blog, which has four hundred unique visits a day. She sent out press releases. And she knew where to send press releases. She advised me on the best people to send ARCs to. The whole time I’ve been going through this process, she’s been there. A cheerleader when I were down, a pair of steel toed boots on when you needed a kick to get me going.
I called her in a hissy fit when the cover artist completely RUINED the image I want to portray with the story, and she calmed me down and handled the situation like a boss. She’s been working on getting my book out there into foreign presses. She has SKILLZ.
And for all this, I’m fussing that a commission would pay her too much? Example agent has been my best friend, my lifeline. She believes in my story, and she believes in me. It seems like there would be some correlation to the amount of work put into my book (by both example agent and me) and its success. So shouldn’t example agent get paid more if she works harder?
Let Me Sum Up
An agent gives us the time to focus on what we really want to do: write. A middle ground agent let’s us have more control over the finished project.
I may think my book is awesome enough to make it to the top of the bestseller lists all on it’s own. I might be right. I’m probably not. We’re not all Amanda Hocking. It may not be the right time for my genre. The book may not be as ready for publication as I think it is. I might just need help in publicity and marketing. But I still want to publish independently. Do you need an agent to self-publish? No. Is it a really good idea for a lot of people? Hell, yes. I’d love to start seeing agents who accept or specialize in self-published authors.
*Note: I have no real numbers for agent cost value. This is all speculation. I’d love to see some real data to confirm or destroy my example.