The longstanding advice to new writers was that if they had any hope of a successful career in publishing, they absolutely needed an agent. Myriad books and blogs have been devoted to the topics of how to pitch agents and how to find the right agent. Unfortunately for most authors, winning an agent is easier said than done, and rejection is the rule rather than the exception. With the growth of indie publishing and of presses that will consider unagented work, entrepreneurial authors are starting to ask how relevant agents are in today’s publishing world.
Are agents worth their fifteen percent? The 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Survey asked more than 2,800 published authors (those in the sample who had started, completed, or published a manuscript) their opinions on various ways that agents help authors. While the survey is a voluntary sample and may not be representative of the population of authors, the responses reported here reflect the opinions of a large number of authors on different publishing paths: 1,563 indie-only authors, 674 traditional-only authors, and 597 hybrid authors.
Overall, the published authors in the survey were quite positive in their estimates of what agents offered authors. Asked whether they strongly disagreed, disagreed, neither agreed nor disagreed, agreed, or strongly agreed with several statement about what agents do, the majority of authors agreed or strongly agreed with each of the statements presented with one exception. Authors were unsure whether agents were helpful to authors who are self-publishing, with 47.6% neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the statement.
The appraisals of the value of agents was indeed quite high, with over 80% of published authors agreeing that agents are worth their commissions. However, a minority of published authors in the sample, only 9.3% currently had an agent.
Authors who had only traditionally published were the most likely to have an agent currently, 16.1%, and authors who had only indie-published were the least likely, 1.6%. Hybrid authors, who are both traditionally published and self-published, were more likely than the other types of published authors to have had agents in the past but to have parted ways, 20.6%.
Given the rosy estimates of what agents can do for authors, one might expect the proportion of published authors seeking literary agents to be quite high. However, just over a third of unagented published authors, 37.7%, are actively seeking agents: 35.2% indie-only, 45.5% traditional-only, and 37.13% hybrid.
In total, 39% of the published authors in the sample have discarded the prevailing wisdom and opted out of the agent search, never having submitted their work to literary agents and not seeking one at the time. Of these, about two thirds, 67.5%, were indie-only authors.
In Part II of this series on agents, I will examine the contribution that having an agent may make to the income authors received from their most recently traditionally published and indie published books, respectively.
Dana Beth Weinberg, received her doctorate from Harvard University and is Professor of Sociology at Queens College – CUNY, where she directs the MA Program in Data Analytics and Applied Social Research. Her research focuses on organizational behavior, work, and occupations. Inspired by her own personal experiences as a novelist, her current research examines the way that digitization is changing the book industry for readers, writers, and publishers. Find Dana at danabethweinberg.com or @DBWeinberg or https://www.facebook.com/danabethweinbergwriter