Thursday, October 02, 2014

Rant: can agents be replaced by a service like Submittable

I've conquered the query hurdle and secured representation only to find that being on submission is ten times worse! After years of hard work, research, diligence, and above all, patience, I have to think there must be a better way for writers to find publishers that would be less frustrating and more transparent. It feels like the open waters out there and lots of talented writers are getting eaten alive! You've been very disparaging of some of the referral services that have popped up, perhaps rightfully so, but it seems to me that a service like Submittable could eventually replace the job of an agent.

So my question to you is, do you think the current agenting model is the pinnacle of publishing or is there a better way? What would that way look like?

You'll pardon me please if I get a little hot under the collar about the idea that you think I can be replaced by an Excel spread sheet.

For starters, even asking the question tells me you don't have a clue what an agent really does. The question implies that all we do is send manuscripts and wait for replies.

Here's a brief list of some of the OTHER things I do:

1. Make sure the author knows where to meet his editor at ComicCon to get his badge.  I do this because my author has never been to ComicCon, and never been to the Javits Center and didn't know that "I'll meet you there" is the same thing as saying "I'll meet you in Seattle."

2. Edit proposals

3. Re-edit proposals

4. Review books in a new category to prepare for submission of a project in 2015.

5. Review royalty statements.

6. Call royalty departments to get information on line items that are unclear.

7. Explain royalty statements to authors.

8. Call editor to nudge about getting publication date in a particular month because of client's career commitments.

9. Call editor to nudge about timely payment

10.  Call editor to follow up on manuscripts.

11. Call client to update on manuscript submission.

12. Reply to a "good news" email from client with suggestions on how to leverage that good news.

13. Consult with colleagues about contract language that isn't in author's best interest and determine strategy for negotiating.

14.  Nudge editor for information missing from royalty statement.

15. Update author on information missing from royalty statement.

16. Facilitate lunch meeting with client and colleague who solicits his work for anthologies.

17. Attend reading with client.

18. Answer email from fan about how to purchase client's books.

19. Follow up with client about expired website domain name.

20. Send submissions to editors.

And gentle readers, that's just what I can remember from Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.  And you'll notice that doesn't including writing this, or any other, blog post. Or reading submissions from queriers.

I'm not sure why you find the process of being on submission "frustrating" or why you think  it isn't "transparent."  I've said this before, I'll say it again now: you should be able to get a list of where your project is on submission from your agent in five minutes.  Ten if she's busy. A day if she's in the middle of follow ups.

And what's frustrating? The wait? Trust me, sending your work to someone via Submittable doesn't cut the wait time. I'm very familiar with Submittable because many of the lit mags I send my clients short stories to use it to manage submissions.

Do I think think the agenting model is perfect? No, of course not. Nothing but Our Risen Lord is perfect, and He doesn't work in publishing. Trust me, we've called for him enough.

Do I think it works pretty well? Yes I do. Not every agent is good at his/her job, and not every good agent is a good fit for every writer.

But if you think for one tiny second that what I can do can be replaced by some fucking spread sheet, well,  think again.


Suzanne said...

Janet, your response? Pure awesomesauce!

As an agented author, I agree that being on submission is a peculiar kind of torture, but there's no way that a spreadsheet, clever piece of software or even a highly evolved automaton could ever replace my agent and everything she does for me.

Susan Bonifant said...

Did everybody get that? The answer to "Agents are the same as f-ing Excel spreadsheets" is FALSE.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I can't imagine sending to submittable a 90-100k word story one has worked on for 3 years. Flash fiction yes but there's no agent and FF is written in a day at most, plus most ezines don't pay.

Self publishing sounds better than submittable if waiting in a sea of sharks is the stress.

'F-in spread sheet' Made me think of nutella on toast. I hate nutella.

Elizabeth Lynd said...

I've queried two projects in the past eight or so years, got requests for fulls but no representation in the end. I'm getting ready to query another project. Is this a lengthy process? You bet. Am I impatient, do I feel like it's unfair? Of course not. There's a limited amount of ink at publishing houses, and it hopefully goes to the best. Not always, I know we can agree, but generally so. An agent is the best way to secure the notice that will earn you a share of that ink. It's not fast. Neither is getting an education, raising a kid, or changing the world.

french sojourn said...

I imagine new writers just peering into the possibility of getting representation, then hopefully getting published really should not go it alone. It's like any career path, in my last life I supervised the construction of huge estates in Bev. Hills, Malibu, e.i.e.i.o.

And there were moronic superintendents and quite capable ones, true in every professional endeavor.

Sure you can get a construction proposal in the form of a spreadsheet, good luck liaising with Architects, engineers, building inspectors, all the 30 different trades, clients, decorators, etc.

One can't even be replaced by a celibate spreadsheet either.

Great post, now take a lap around the cooler reefs and breath out.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Some days I've felt under-appreciated but never has it been suggested I be replaced by an excel spreadsheet.

It's amazing where that pull-myself-up-by-my-own-bootstrap mentality can lead a person. Patience seems to be a quality a writer needs to cultivate (as I sit here mulling over my first novel in its first rough draft, trying to figure out what all is missing, argh, and using diverse ways to approach the problem)

Know that you ARE appreciated by so many here on this blog and on queryshark, Janet.

Michael FitzGerald said...

Hi Janet,
As a working author myself with an insanely assiduous and dedicated (and under compensated) agent, I agree that Submittable and agents have no crossover. And I appreciate that you're just taking issue with the writer's thoughtless suggestion that you and your industry could be replaced by software. But I also think comparing a cloud-based platform that hosts millions of files and is used by hundreds of thousand of people to collectively save millions of hours per month to an Excel spreadsheet demonstrates a similar thoughtlessness or naivete. I'm assuming that wasn't your intent. But why leave that window open?

Either way, thanks for your time. I hope you're well.


Kitty said...

I wonder why the writer feels that way?

Anonymous said...

Here's my two cents: (two cups of coffee in me, this ought to be good)

If this person is contemplating Submittable as a possible replacement for Agents, well...maybe that should sum up what they think of their work. How long do ya'll think they might have to wait for Submittable to call them regarding the myriad of things the Sharkly One just listed?


John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

Your agent is the first person outside your immediate family who really believes in you (and sometimes you suspect your mother's just being nice.) I mean, sure, it can be frustrating (Oh I know it!) to wait and wait to hear from the publisher, primarily because at this point, for the first time, it's completely out of your hands. But no submission software can replace my agent, who took my movie idea to a person he knows in the business because they're in the same Skee-Ball league (there really is such a thing) or has lunch coming up with an editor who's looking for something in my genre. I had a project in submission at one house for nine months, long enough to have a baby, only to see it die aborning, so to speak. But I certainly don't blame my agent, who got me there in the first place. There's not much you can do while the wait is going on except try to forget it, and get on to the next project. But I suppose if you just HAVE to blame someone else, your agent is handy. And it's more satisfying than blaming software.

Jennifer D said...

I asked Submittable for help polishing up my query, and that a-hole blew me off.

Janet, on the other hand, helped me transform it from a soporific into a stimulant in just a few chum bucket rounds.

Submittable *wishes* it was as cool, as knowledgeable, and as charming as the shark.

And that's just the extra stuff that she does in her "spare time". If the person who wrote the question had actually read even a few of Janet's posts here, surely they'd have gained a greater understanding of just why Submittable could never replace what an agent does, and we would never have seen this question . . . right?

One can hope.

I can't help but think 'good luck to the agent who's repping someone so [ahem] knowledgeable and appreciative of their role'.

Alexandra (Ola) J. said...

I haven't read through the entire post yet because I have a pressing question -- are you going to be at ComicCon? I'd love to stop by your/your author's table! (if you have one)

Colin Smith said...

@Michael: Excel is a very useful productivity tool that has saved millions of people many hours. But if it's that useful, why do companies hire CFOs and have accountants? Why can't they all just balance the books in Excel? Because CFOs and accountants do far more than Excel would ever dream of doing. The one does not replace the other.

Similarly, Submittable may be a very useful tool, but it's not a literary agent. Janet was taking exception to the notion that ALL her job entails is exactly what Submittable does. In other words, she feels a little slighted at the notion that she's just nothing more than Submittable with teeth and fins. And, as she has so eloquently pointed out, that's just plain wrong. :)

Anonymous said...

Susan Bonifant: LOL!

I know my agent doesn't make a spreadsheet look more appealing, but I also know that there are agents out there who do. It may be the author has one of those agents.

Anonymous said...

@Jennifer Deane - Amen.

Unknown said...

Woah, that was way harsh, Tai. Literary agents have been around since the late nineteenth century, but with so many other aspects of the book publishing industry changing due to technology, I think it's a valid question to be asking.

If you're interested, some good books to check out on why literary agents came to be part of the process are:

An Introduction to Book History by David Finklestein and Alistair McCleary


The Author's Empty Purse and the Rise of the Literary Agent by James Hepburn

Colin Smith said...

@Suzy: Assuming this is a serious comment, please note: the question was not "Are Literary Agents necessary in the 21st Century?" but, "Doesn't Submittable replace the job of a Literary Agent?" The former question has been addressed on the blog, and not nearly as harshly as you might expect from a literary agent. As for the latter, well, I think *you* might get a little upset if someone suggested your multifaceted and complex job could be replaced by a computer. :)

Loretta Ross said...

You forgot wrestle Jeff Somers into pants before speaking engagements and keep Gary Corby from killing anyone with kindness and Vegemite.

You're irreplaceable. Don't ever doubt that. :)

Unknown said...


I was responding to the questions at the bottom: Do you think the current agenting model is the pinnacle of publishing or is there a better way? What would that way look like?

Just wanted to provide a little context.

Terri Lynn Coop said...


Well, back in the day, I heard plenty of "Why do I need a lawyer when I have Google?"

The answer is always, "You just go forth and be awesome."

There are plenty of small houses that take unagented subs and many of them use Submittable. Go for it.

Or self-pub, since you know it all.

Oh, you want a 6-figure contract from a gilt-edged house. Okay.

I want a long lean housekeeper who smiles Springsteen. And a margarita.

Now, there could more to this. There could be agent issues or just ranting. After all, it seems that getting agented is like climbing Everest and then it turns out that you have barely made it to the first base camp.

Not all agented work sells. Then you decide what your next move is.

Excuse me, I'm going to go make margaritas now.


Colin Smith said...

@Suzie: I think that's the wrong question. What we have gained in the 21st century is not the ability to dispense with the former ways due to technology, but OPTIONS. And the best model is the one that works for you (i.e., gets your work into the marketplace and earns you money to continue doing what you love). That may be the literary agent path. It may be self-pubbing. Or charging people to download chapters from your blog. Or any number of other methods. Each has their pros and cons, and each writer needs to weigh each option and decide what's best for them.

And what Terri said, because her comment is much funnier than mine. :)

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

I have a similar question. Is there any reason why a dental insurance salesman couldn't be replaced by, say, a toaster? Or why an Olympic gymnast couldn't be replaced by, say, an aluminum can?

Lizzie said...

Can software replace a literary agent? You are basically asking if all jobs that require intelligence (as vast as the shark-filled seas) will become automated by machines to streamline efficiency. Um, maybe. But we'll all have much bigger problems than getting a book rejected with vague quibbles like "I just didn't fall in love with the main character." Anyone who's seen Terminator knows that technological beings are way more blunt when they squash hopes and dreams.

Elissa M said...

I don't know what Submittable is, but from the post and comments I assume it's software.

My understanding of the publishing industry is: People write books. People publish books. People read books.

People connect with people, not software. Even IF all an agent did was submit projects to editors (and we all know that's not the case), the agent would still do a better job than a computer because a good agent has personal connections. She knows individual editors' quirks, passions, and dislikes. She knows how to approach each one, what bait to use, and how to dangle it. And the editors know HER, and know she's always sent them excellent work (even if they ended up passing).

No way can even the best computer program replace personal connections. Not now, and not in the future.

I'm thinking the letter writer is one of those unfortunate souls with a bad agent. As I've read time and time again: Having no agent is better than having a bad agent. In this case, software might indeed be a better choice than that agent.

Stacy said...

Stephen K., thanks for making me laugh.

Stacy said...

And anyway, saying agents should be replaced by Submittable is like saying writers should be replaced by those Edgar Wallace Plot Wheels.

Anonymous said...

@Terri Lynn Coop,

"Not all agented work sells."


Michael Seese said...

You owe me a new monitor, Janet. Because your vitriol MELTED mine when I read it.

DLM said...

This LW wanted to prove they'd read the Shark with the sneering aside about "you're disparaging about so-and-so" - but the going on to disparage JANET, here, not only on her own blog, but in front of an audience of not only admiring but GRATEFUL readers tells me: they have not read enough.

Janet's blogs are about the only place on the internet I don't fear and/or scorn to read the comments.

People with the mindset of "surely tech can replace humanity" (never mind that the tech suggested is a piece of MS Office software) generally appear to be unaware of the actual function and value of human beings.

It doesn't bode any better in an author than it does in a hiring manager ... or any other human being, for that matter.

Flowers McGrath said...

I think one of the things I look forward to most about having an agent is not being in my little writer world alone. It's such an island. I know all about that doing it all alone thing. It sounds like the most fun in the world to at least have someone else on my team. PRICELESS! IRREPLACEABLE!

Unknown said...

On September 17th, I asked you "How do you do it?" I listed everything that I thought you did, and you didn't even mention all of that, so it's clear that this isn't an all inclusive list. I would've gladly pointed him to that article post. But I wouldn't be upset at him, Janet. Ignorance cannot be remedied if ignorance is not first identified.

LynnRodz said...

And, and...what about the pep talks when you feel like a fraud for calling yourself a writer? Will Submittable do that? And who will pop the cork of a champagne bottle and help you drink it when you sign that publishing deal? (Okay, I may not need help opening or drinking a bottle of champagne, but it's always nicer to share a victory with someone.) I'm sure there are plenty of other things Janet does that I don't have time to think about right now...gotta' run!