A few days ago, a student asked about agents. Every writer knows this question is coming, but most are uncomfortable answering it, afraid they might step on someone’s toes, or say the wrong thing, or worst of all, get asked for a referral . The student wants to avoid making major mistakes with her first book, so it is good she asked. Poor or indifferent agents can be a major pitfall and smart writers ask around first. But I demurred. It’s not a short answer sort of topic, I said. A real conversation is in order to explain agents sufficiently for a newcomer.
Much about the world of publishing is hidden to new writers, and the only way to learn is through painful trial and error or to get an extended explanation from someone who has been through it. Perhaps I should have directed her to my standard answer, because it capsules most of what you need to know, or at least it is a good preface to the discussion. So, to my standard answer:
“It's not that there aren't some good agents. It's that you're overwhelmingly sealed off from them, because that's the way they want it. Most writers think it's about whether their work is good enough, or not. They think if their work is great, then agents will pay attention. Writers think this way because agents perpetuate a myth—that they are superb judges of work and talent and that’s what they love to find and sell. That is not true, and for writers, that's the wrong way to look at it. For agents, it's about how much money you can make them. To you it’s about the writing; to them it’s about business. Take a look at the website comments of agents and publishers today, and you'll hear the word "platform" over and over. They say you have to have a "platform" to merit representation and being published by an important press. The translation of that is: you need to have sold significant numbers of books on your own and you must already have built a fan base. Then they'll talk to you. In plain writer language: "If you can make us money, then we'll talk. If not, you can't come to the party." So here is the truth: unless you are extremely successful already and need help negotiating truly significant deals, say in the millions, you don't need an agent anymore, so why ask for unnecessary abuse?”
For more on the topic, and there is much, much more—several hours of discussion in fact—my strongest suggestion is to attend a workshop or conference that has experiences with agents on the agenda. Not just agents hocking their services, but frank and open discussion by writers about whether an agent is right for you at this time. My upcoming conference, on Saturday March 14th, is a good example. I answer questions and talk honestly about the realities of agents in the current marketplace. If some of you can make the seminar, it will be worth your time.