“The problem is that there are many more writers than the market can bear, and to most publishers writers are about as important as farmers are to Tesco – they know that there is an endless supply of produce,” writes Martin Wagner. “Of course most of the unsolicited writing that lands on agents’ desks is rubbish, but how can we be sure that the occasional gem will be discovered? The short answer is that we can’t and, sadly, neither agents nor publishers lose any sleep over it. The undiscovered writer is the acceptable victim of a system which, ironically, works for everyone concerned except for the very people who are its lifeblood.”
This article could be nothing more than the standard writer’s lament–of which I’ve written many myself. But at the end, Wagner makes an interesting point. “For most writers even having an agent who does nothing for you is better than not having one,” he advises. “Apart from the kudos, having an agent is also a safety-blanket that absolves writers from the responsibility of taking care of their own careers. I’ve been most successful since I stopped waiting for others – agents, producers – to do things for me.”
Now, obviously you are limited in just what you can do. I can’t call up Random House and offer to represent myself. And the self-publishing option is a valid one in some cases, but not all. So admittedly, there’s only so much you can do to take care of your own career. But you should still do all you can.
The most successful writer that I can call a good friend says he doesn’t depend or rely on anyone. “I don’t expect my editor to edit the book,” my pal says. “I turn in a copy that is designed and polished and clean as I can possibly get it. Any changes he suggests are just bonus in my mind. I don’t expect my agent to get me deals. I make those connections myself and he hammers out the contract stuff. I plan on handling the vast majority of my own publicity. If the PR department can and will help, that’s great. But in short, I prepare for doing everything myself. Any help I get from those other people is much appreciated, but I don’t expect it.”
Ultimately, the article is too harsh in it’s assessment of literary agents. It makes for good headlines, but the situation isn’t nearly so dire as the author says. But I still like his point of self-reliance. Even though you can’t truly go it alone (unless you’re Rupert Murdoch or someone who owns a media empire), preparing to do so will put you in control of your career. If you’re willing to do whatever it takes to help your career, then a adding good agent is going to be like installing a turbo-boost to an engine.