I’m not sure if you saw the #SchmagentRedFlags hashtag on Twitter this week, but if you’re a writer who is agented or querying agents, you should check it out. For those unfamiliar with the term, a “schmagent” is short-hand for agents who are not very legit or respected in the industry. I wrote about them a while back in this post: Shady Business.
The hashtag shared some good insights and tips to new writers. But then I got involved in a conversation that made me pause. An agent – a legit, respected agent (not a schmagent) – said if an agency hasn’t done a deal with every Big 5 publisher, they aren’t legit. I agreed and disagreed with this, but it didn’t sit right with me and I couldn’t figure out why. Twitter was not going to be the right venue for me to say things without thinking first, so I left it alone.
My initial response was that some agencies are just super small and niche, but I kept circling back to new agents (which are not the same as schmagents, as you’ll see in my older post linked above!). So, I conceded her point and let it go because I did agree with her. Mostly, anyway. But I kept thinking about it after. Do agents need to have an established boilerplate with every Big 5 publisher in order to be considered legit? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed outdated to me.
It is 100% an advantage for an agent to have established relationships with as many bona fide publishers as possible, especially the Big 5 (Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster). If you’re a writer who gets an offer of representation, you should ask that agent who they have established relationships with and where they’ve sold projects similar to yours. If they don’t mention the major players at all, that might be a problem.
But, not every agency is the same, nor are the needs of all writers the same. Such as:
A 10-year-old agency specializes in only children’s literature. They’re known for several award-winning books and a few bestselling authors through publishers like Scholastic, Candlewick, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and have had success with a few imprints at Big 5 publishers. But, for whatever reason, they have never sold a book to Hachette. Maybe they got close, but never got an offer from them. Maybe they went with another publisher during an auction. In any case, after 10 years, they still don’t have a boilerplate with one of the Big 5. Are they considered a schmagent? I would hope not, and I would hope that a children’s book writer getting an offer from an agent with that agency would jump on the opportunity.
A similarly hypothetical agency could be one that’s been around for about 5 years and focuses on romance, and maybe some erotica and NA too. In only a short period of time, they’ve established important relationships with places like Harlequin and Kensington and are known for a few successful series within those genres. They might also find they work with mostly digital publishers these days because that’s where the market has shifted. Therefore, they might not really have had a need to sell to all 5 major publishers. A good agent follows the market they’re trying to sell to. They keep up with industry trends. Agents need to be open and adaptable, and if certain genres aren’t as big in print anymore, we need to adjust accordingly.
One last example I was thinking about are the quiet literary novels. Not Franzen or the big splashy Great American Novelist literary novels. I mean the ones that get critical acclaim and are brilliantly written, but the average reader probably hasn’t heard of them, nor do they care. You see these novels with places like Graywolf Press, Melville House, National Book Award committee discussions, and, well, these novels, basically. There are a few dedicated and amazing imprints with Big 5 publishers who still seek quiet literary fiction. They publish it well and put marketing dollars behind them, but an agent can’t rely on a few imprints to sell a book and then call it a day if that handful of editors pass on it. Sometimes books like this are a labor of love, and writers should want an agent who knows how to effectively sell their work even if it isn’t a 6-figure deal with Penguin Random House every single time.
So, those were my larger-than-Twitter thoughts about this and I’d be curious what others think in the comments. Mostly, I just think the industry has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, and the fact that we say The Big Five instead of the The Big Six should be evidence that agents can and should diversify their submission lists and establish new relationships in the industry.
Like I said before, a relationship with the major players is still a key component to being a good agent. But maybe it’s not everything after all. Maybe it’s not a red flag so much as a pink flag. Maybe in another five years we’ll have The Big Four, and even if we end up with The Big Three it won’t mean publishing is dying or dead or any other nonsense like that. It just means everyone involved needs to look outside the “model” and realize it might not exist anymore, so what’s next?