Use to be in the day a writer could send their work directly to the publisher. An editor might read it, and if he liked it the work would be presented to the other editors at the house for approval. Then an offer would be made, and the author would call an agent asking for representation. In many cases the first agent contacted would agree to represent an author with publishing contract waiting. In the days of Asimov, Heinlein and others there were hundreds of publishers, all willing to accept manuscripts from authors, all hoping to find the next gem buried in the garbage. Manuscripts may have gone into a slush pile, and had to wait their turn to be read, unless a big name was attached to them. But the only job of the agent was to negotiate the contract, payments and rights, for the author.
Things changed for the worse sometime after this golden age. More people started to write, and more submissions were made. Publishers went out of business and suddenly there were fewer of them. And the slush piles grew to the size of mountains. With the exception of a handful of publishers all of them decided that the way out of this problem was to only accept manuscripts that were submitted by agents. That way they would only have to look at fairly decent submissions, and could avoid looking at the truly eye hurting junk that could end up on the pile.
So the paradigm shifted with this decision, and instead of publishers being inundated by an overwhelming wave of submissions, the tsunami shifted to agents. Oh, there are still some publishers out there that accept unsolicited manuscripts as they are called. I used to send to the three in my genre that still accept these manuscripts, and would wait a year for the reply. Some of those replies were very good, the kind of reply that lets you know they read a good portion of the manuscripts and were found a worthy product of a semi-skilled writer. But they didn’t result in sales, and in the mysterious ways of the business they said absolutely nothing that would improve the chance of a later sale. But the way to go, or so I was told, was to contact agents.
Now I respect agents and the job they do. It is not an easy job, and they catch hell from both above and below. I respect them, but I don’t always like them. In some ways they seem ill suited to their roles as the new gate keepers of the publishing world. Some are so young that I can’t believe they actually have much deep knowledge of the genres they represent. Some claim a mystic connection to the tastes and desires of the readers. And all the time I find myself reading truly awful works that agents sell to publishing houses. But my main beef with agents is the way they misrepresent themselves in their replies to writers. Terms like “careful evaluation” and “a good look” are used in replies that are returned within hours of an email submission. I understand they don’t have time to actually look at everything sent their way, but they try to represent that they did. And some replies, like “thanks for the look” or “Not for me” really seem to show how much time, or the lack thereof, they really put into their evaluations. Now not all agents reply like this, and I really appreciate the ones who say they find the idea interesting, or that I am obviously a good writer. At least they are taking a look at the material, though I am sure it is a short one. They still don’t give any kind of response that is actually helpful in navigating the maze of their creation. Nothing about what is wrong with the submission. Nothing about what they are really looking for. They must figure that there are enough people out there trying to get published that by chance the right submission will come in.
I acknowledge that agents are now the gate keepers of the modern publishing industry. I don’t think they are qualified for this role that was really thrust upon them, but they have it. And that in and of itself makes me really glad that we are in the middle of a self publishing revolution.