J. A. Konrath and David Farland have both said you don’t really need an agent--both are wise and experienced authors with many, many books sold and many hard-won connections in the industry. I bet they’d say something like “if I knew then what I know now, I would have done it differently.” Or maybe not, times are very different now than they were when each author sold his first book. Times are much different now than they were a year ago.
In my bio I state that I am currently looking for an agent. This is true. I want an agent for the high fantasy novel I wrote. When I was working toward my MA in writing, I was taught that after you finish your novel, you go and get yourself an agent. It is the agent who sells your book to the publisher. The agent will get you the best deal; negotiate the best advance and royalty rates. Their role doesn’t end there. For a mere 15%, they are with you for the long haul. They will advise you on your career, guide your steady advance from new author to midlist and hopefully to bestseller. They have their finger on the pulse of the publishing industry. They know who’s who and have regular meetings with editors who trust their judgment on which new books to buy.
Yes, agents are a career guide for their clients, but if an author publishes ebooks there is no reason to have an agent. Therefore, the author doesn’t have that advisor. Authors who publish ebooks will have to be business savvy as well as tech savvy, or turn to their fellow authors for guidance.
With traditional publishing agents are necessary. Most publishers won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts--they don’t want the slush. So you send it to an agent who has tons of contacts with publishers. The agent gets the slush. That unmoving pile of manuscripts that may or may not contain the next best seller that will make them rich.
A few years ago I worked at a very small poetry publishing house, Alice James Books. Back then, they ran two poetry competitions a year and had about a thousand manuscripts come in for them. I had the pleasure of opening the submissions and filing them for judging. And I even took a glance at some of it. Some of it was horrid. A very small amount was amazing. There was a lot in the middle. But a thousand manuscripts are not much compared to what some agents and smaller publishers get.
I know that a lot of decent stuff gets passed because the one person who is reading it doesn’t like it, or they are so tired of scanning all the crap that came under their nose that by the end of the day nothing looks good to them. That is how I envision a full-time slush-reader’s day, and from the perspective of someone searching for an agent, it scares me.
However, if publishing goes the way of ebooks, and books are self published by the author, there will be no slush-filtering agents and editors. The Internet will be full of slush-piles-come-ebooks. And readers everywhere will get the pleasure of reading it, or only reading the first page and passing on it, like the agency and publisher slush readers. Word of mouth, via the many social networking options available, will be critical for weeding the good from the bad.
However, people won’t be too upset if they paid $2 for something moderately entertaining, and they might tell their friends about it too. Two bucks is cheap for entertainment (think movie ticket costs here), and you didn’t even have to burn any gas to get there. But even with the low cost, an author won’t make any money if their book is bad.
With e-books, a publisher’s reputation (and bank account) isn’t hanging on the book’s sales, only the author’s. In my opinion, having an ebook out there that doesn’t sell would be worse than getting a rejection letter. I like the way agent Nathan Bransford says it, "the rejection letter of the future will be silence." At least when you get a rejection letter, it’s cut and dried, black or white. You’re in! Or this sucks! Once the ebook is “published” it’s done, that’s it. There’s no opportunity to make it better before the book-buying public sees it.
What worries me the most is that agents and publishers will likely soon establish a standard digital royalty rate. If they have, I haven’t heard about it. Then, even if I publish a book traditionally, I won’t be able to keep my erights for that story. Guess I better get going…