It really surprises me that so many writers are still trying to get agents in this day and age, automatically, immediately wanting traditional publishing instead of one of the many indie options now available. I can honestly say that I only spent so much time entering contests, querying, reading agent blogs, etc., because I was led to believe that was what I needed to do. For a long time, I didn’t have any real other avenues presented as viable.
As recently as a few decades ago, the typical writer didn’t have an agent. They submitted directly to editors or publishers, or published themselves. If a writer did have an agent, it wasn’t as a gatekeeper. The agent basically worked for the writer, instead of the other way around. It makes me sad to think about how many great books never would’ve been published if they’d been written in the era of the agent as gatekeeper. I can just think of the reasons agents would give for rejecting some truly classic literature.
I read some article which pointed out that a fairly recent list of the 100 greatest American novels of the 20th century had barely any books from the late Seventies/early Eighties onward. That’s about the time literary agents started gaining more prominence as gatekeepers, and writers gradually stopped being able to submit directly to editors and publishers. True, it takes some time for a book to become an established classic, but it does present a potential correlation between the rise of agents and the decline of great literature in abundance.
I’ve had some wonderful interactions with agents, in contests, behind the scenes, pitchfests, etc. I don’t want to paint them all as horrible. But it definitely seems like they’re becoming more and more obsolete, as indie publishing has become more viable and prominent. And it really doesn’t seem worth it to knock yourself out polishing a book to perfection, sending out a hundred or more queries over many years, constantly revising your queries, and have to smile and accept a parade of rejections and very disparate advice or opinions.
I’m acquainted with a lot of writers in the blogosphere who wrote their big “ZOMG I got an agent!” post quite some time ago, yet still haven’t been published. They’re made to rewrite a book for the mere sake of rewriting, might not have that particular book approved anyway, have to go on submission, and have to wait up to two years before finally getting in print. I’ve got too large of a back catalogue to be content with accepting a release date so far in future, and waiting perhaps two years between getting an agent and getting a publication date.
I’ve given up trying to figure out what exactly agents want. I’ve read so many recently-published books which go against the so-called rules and think it’s great such an old-fashioned writing style managed to get an agent. Then I happen upon books which wouldn’t have been published 30, 50, 100 years ago because they’re just not great literature. It’s not only about an agent’s personal taste, but also wanting commercial product. Funny how serious readers aren’t happy with a lot of what’s being published these days.
I feel bad for younger, newer writers who are led to believe it’s wrong to write anything above a certain length, use adverbs, directly tell the reader anything, use speaking verbs beyond “asked” or “said,” have an ensemble cast, or create slower-paced, character-driven stories over fast-paced and plot-centric. One agent blog had a query critique for a 110,000-word Civil War historical, and the agent wondered how such a sweeping story could take only 110,000 words. Someone in the comments rightly said that if the book were a more realistic saga length, it would be derided as way too long.
Just because many people these days have short attention spans doesn’t mean everyone does. I honestly don’t see anything over 100,000 words as “way too long” and in dire need of radical slashing and burning for no other reason than to make it shorter. A book of all of 300 pages is not an epic or saga.
I agree that when I was first querying, in 2000-01, one pretty much did need an agent to get noticed. But today, it’s much different. Agents seem to represent a dying breed and the status quo, as nice as some of them are.