Friday, January 25, 2013

Getting Down To Business: The Changing Role of The Agent

PHS Columnist Donna Alward launches a new column this year! GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS will feature monthly posts on what's happening in publishing and things you need to know to navigate through this crazy industry. This month's column is all about navigation...

Every ship needs a rudder, otherwise it sails aimlessly. It may eventually reach its destination, but it could take a long time and a fair bit of going in circles. Or it may never get there at all.

Your rudder is expertise.

Publishing is changing faster than we can blink, it seems. Publishers close, others open or expand, markets shift, bookstores close, ebook sales explode, publishers merge...There is news every single day about what's happening in publishing. There's a saying that goes something like change is the only constant.

As a writer looking to break into publishing, maintain a career, break out into on earth do you know what decisions to make?

It's not like Publishing 101 comes with a GPS and a set of coordinates to the big time.

The first answer is to educate yourself. Now, I'm the first to admit I don't know everything about publishing and that sometimes the "noise" of the business can be downright distracting to the most important part of my job - actually writing the book. There's a difference between being a slave to the information and being informed. Pay attention. Listen to people who know what they're talking about. As writers we are also businessmen and women. We can't bury our heads in the sand.

I know a lot of people who are their own rudders and they are doing a marvelous job at it. They're smart, savvy, and successful.

On a personal level, though, I try to keep in tune with what's going on but I also trust my agent to help. She has a different level of expertise from me, and I like to think that between the two of us we have a pretty good handle on what's happening and how it applies to me and my career plan. Let's put it this way: I'm not a novice sailor who only knows how to follow the instruments. I have skills and knowledge. But my agent is my rudder.

There are those who will argue that agents are less relevant in today's publishing climate, and strong arguments can be made for that, definitely. There are many publishing options open to writers right now and most of them do not require an agent to get your manuscript in front of an editor.

But I think that as publishing has changed, so has the role of the agent.

If I look at our relationship, I think of her very much as a business manager. Yes, she reads my work, gives feedback, and helps me prepare it for submission. And yes, she still sends the proposals out, follows up... but she is so so so much more than that.

We talk about changes in the industry and different opportunities that have emerged. We talk about numbers. She's my advocate and liaison with my publisher. For example, when a big shift happened for me late last year, she called me first and we discussed the situation. Then when the "official" call came I knew exactly what was happening, and I know it made for a much better conversation with my editor as we talked about next steps.

Another thing I don't think many authors realize is that contracts are changing as the industry changes. Things like reversion of rights clauses, digital and print rights clauses, royalties and non-compete clauses are all shifting from publisher to publisher. The old boilerplate doesn't exist any longer. I'm incredibly thankful that my agent is on the task of vetting any new contracts for me and helping me sort my way through.

Agents also talk to editors - lots and lots of editors - all the time. They know things that are happening in house that we authors just can't possibly know. They know which ones are looking for what you're writing and which ones say they'll scream if they see another vampire. They know personalities and who might work well together.

You can, of course, absolutely navigate this biz yourself. You can educate yourself, you can vet your own contracts or hire a lawyer to look it over for you. You don't have to have an agent and it's a very personal decision to part with your 15%. Are agents absolutely necessary? Probably not. But their role has changed and they do have something to offer. It's not about getting your manuscript on someone's desk anymore, it's about career management.

A key to success in any field is to surround yourself with good people. I consider my agent a vital part of my team. And guess what? Trusting her to take care of biz frees up more time and mental space for me to write more books. And that sounds like a win win to me.

Just a little food for thought as we embark on a new year of publishing opportunities!

See you next month!

Donna's next release is the third book in her Cadence Creek series from Harlequin Romance, LITTLE COWGIRL ON HIS DOORSTEP. It'll hit shelves in March. You can visit her site at

And check out her more in depth TO AGENT OR NOT TO AGENT online course, April 1-5 presented by the Colorado Romance Writers.


  1. I think what you say here is really smart, Donna. I know they're not for every author, but having an agent works for me, too, for the same reasons. (I'm going to share this link with my writers group--we were just discussing whether or not writers needed agents at our retreat last weekend)

    Julie Miller

  2. "It's not about getting your manuscript on someone's desk anymore, it's about career management."

    Love this.

    Actually I love the whole article! Thanks for the insight.

  3. Thank you for sharing this, Donna! I haven't taken the steps to look for an agent yet but this makes me want to, because as things continue to change--and in a big way--it sure would be nice to have someone making certain you stay informed--someone who is solidly on your side. :-)

  4. Donna, I remember your excitement when you got the agent you really wanted. I'm glad the relationship has evolved so well in the changing world of publishing.