Friday, June 8, 2012


Let's say you send your agent a manuscript he doesn't feel is bestseller material.  Maybe it's okay. Maybe it's better than okay, but it won't stir up any excitement in New York. Say agent agrees to submit it anyway. Agent works weeks or months. Gets anywhere from no offer to… let's say 5,000.00. If I did the math right, agent's 15% cut of 5K is 750.00.  For a helluva lot of work. And it's not so much the work, it's the TIME. It's the potential bestsellers he isn't reading while he's repping your book that hurt him so much.

I think there will always be hardworking new agents who are willing to work their butts off for low offers, but once they are established…   They have to make a living. They have to make a living.

Not so long ago an agent I worked with for about five minutes told me he didn't submit manuscripts he didn't feel had the potential of bringing in an offer of at least 250,000.00.  Anything less simply wasn't worth his time.  Brutal, but honest.

Over the years I've had a lot of manuscripts and proposals turned down by my own agent.  Years ago it was romances, then suspense, then memoir, then my cat trilogy. Why? The books weren't perceived to be bell ringers. 

 What is happening is that editors are no longer seeing books they might be interested in. This really, really worries me. Writers, even multi-published, agented writers, can't get their stories into the hands of editors.  In this new world of publishing, I predict that more and more agents will handle nothing but potential bestsellers, and the rest of the manuscripts will go unpublished or be self-published.  But what about good books that aren't bestsellers?  Is there a place for them?  I wonder what would happen if major publishers brought back the slush pile.

Of course I'm painting all of this with a very broad brush, and people might argue that this is the way it's always been, but I think agents have gotten a lot more selective in the past five years because they are having a hard time surviving in this new publishing world.  An agent who used to make a living with thirty clients might now require three hundred clients to stay afloat.  Those agents might not be chasing the bestseller, but I can't begin to imagine the workload.  And every time you turn around another agent is closing up shop.

I keep seeing this wide river. Agents and writers are on one side, editors on the other. And the agent is the only person who can paddle manuscripts across the river. And he has a tiny canoe with a hole in it. And you are begging him to take your manuscript to the editor standing on the opposite bank, but he waves and says he's sorry as he pushes off, a load of manuscripts toppling like boat people as he tells you he has no more room.  He's sorry. You're sorry. The editor is sorry. But only the best and brightest can be saved.

Bring back the slush pile. I love my agent, I need my agent for those potential bestsellers, but I don't think agents (through no choice of their own) should be controlling everything editors see. 

More reading:


  1. I think part of the problem is the consolidation of the publishers. There are far fewer "mid list" houses that are nimble enough to market smaller titles.

    1. i think publishers still need and want midlist titles, but everybody seems to be focused on bestsellers since midlist doesn't sell nearly as well as it used to.


  2. And if only the best sellers get published, will more bookstores close as they no longer have the inventory to stay afloat?

  3. marilyn, right.


  4. I read that the slush pile died after 9//11 because of the possible danger of mysterious packages. totally understandable. but i do think it's odd to realize that agents, through no choice of their own, are responsible for 99.9% of everything that is being published. and agents are horribly overworked and ...maybe not underpaid, but not making what they used to. And speaking of slush piles: Kindle KDP has become the new slush pile for agents (not editors). I've had agents contact me after seeing my self-published rankings on Amazon. Some agencies have people who watch the rankings.


  5. I think your assessment of the situation is right on, and it's really frustrating. I'm an aspiring writer with a manuscript that I believe would've sold six or seven years ago. An older top tier agent told me as much, and said she would've taken it on in a heartbeat back then, but that the fiction market is so terrible these days that she really can't take on anything that's not a guaranteed sale (something that can be pitched as the next "The Help" or whatever is selling at the moment, since editors are afraid to venture outside their comfort zones).

    As much as I wanted to work with this highly-respected, established agent, I think my better bet is with a young, hungry newcomer, like you said. And if that doesn't work, it's self-publishing for me.

  6. Kerri, that sounds very typical. And sounds like you have a good plan. And twenty years ago if several agents turned down a manuscript it could have indicated that the material needed some serious work. Now it's more likely to mean that it's simply not the next The Help.