Three Things I’ve Learned as an Agent

Just over six months ago, I became a literary agent with the Steve Laube Agency. Hoo boy. It has been some ride.  Lots o’ fun, lots o’ work, and lots o’ learning.

So I thought I’d take a few minutes (it’s all I have before the boss calls and starts yelling at me again) to reflect on what I’ve learned in that short period of time. It’s not an easy task, considering I already knew pretty much everything. But I think I can list a few:

1. A LOT of books are being sold….every day

I knew this already. Or thought I did. After all, any time I walk into a bookstore—which I try to do often because (a) I love bookstores, especially the independent ones, (b) I strongly desire to support local merchants, and (c) I love bookstores—I am overwhelmed by the number and variety of new books and even not-so-new books that I really, really want to read. And, as an author, lo, these past twenty-five years, I thought I had a fairly good handle on what’s in, what’s out, what’s coming out, etc. But since becoming an agent, I’ve subscribed to a service that every weekday morning sends me a summary email of what books in what genre have been sold by what agents to what publishers in what country.

Suffice it to say: Holy moley. A lot of books are being written, sold, published, and—I pray; Lord, how I pray—read every single day. So, while in my little corner of the world the opportunities for writers may seem discouraging and even apocalyptic at times, people are still writing and selling and publishing and buying books. Boy howdy, they are.

2. Agents read A LOT

I knew this too. And I thought, well, shoot, I love to read. I’m already doing it; I read more than a hundred books every year, books of all kinds. It’ll be fun, I said. And it has been, at times. There’s nothing better than to start reading a proposal or manuscript as “work” and totally lose track of time because I was swept up in a writer’s beautifully-crafted vision. That’s happened more than once.

But, dude! The sheer volume of emails, proposals, and manuscripts to be read has been overwhelming, especially for the new guy on the block who is committed to working with writers and sending only their very best work to editors (who, by the way, also have to read a LOT!).

So, if it seems like an agent or editor is not as responsive as you’d like, or not as attentive as you’d hoped, please keep in mind that your email or proposal or manuscript is far from the only one they have to read and respond to.

3. Far more writers hurt themselves by self-publishing than help themselves

It’s been a joy to renew friendships, meet and get to know fellow writers, and begin new relationships over these past few months. But it has also been disconcerting and more than a little heartbreaking at times to learn how often the ease of self-publishing and e-publishing becomes a negative in a writer’s career trajectory. I’ve posted before on this blog (here) about how writers often leap into self-publishing because they believe it will launch their traditional publishing career. Others (some of whom have published a book or books) decide to self-publish works that didn’t sell to traditional publishers. Sometimes their strategy works (largely because they actually had a strategy, which isn’t always the case) and they achieve success as “hybrid authors.” More often, however—much more often—their self-publishing efforts hamper and even derail their long-term success because it creates sales numbers that become a permanent part of an author’s sales history. This, by the way, is one good reason (among many) to get and keep a good agent—to counsel and guide and prevent such potentially career-ending mistakes.

Please note that I am not anti Indie publishing or self publishing. I’ve done some of that for my own writing. Note the above key word, “strategy.” Just clicking the “publish” button is not a strategy.

These are not the only things I’ve learned in this last half-year (for example, I’ve figured out that not everyone appreciates my sense of humor—go figure). I’ve learned that I love order and, thus, record-keeping. And I’ve learned not to eat trail mix while talking on the telephone. All good lessons, and I hope they bode well for my future.

39 Responses to Three Things I’ve Learned as an Agent

  1. Brennan McPherson January 10, 2018 at 4:38 am #

    Boy, that subscription service sounds terribly interesting. Is it terribly expensive? Also, is it exclusive to agents?

    #3 can be so true, and for a number of reasons. Failure to launch being the primary. But beyond that, if you sell enough as a self-published author to interest a traditional publisher, you’re already making so much money as a self-published author that you need an offer that’s quite attractive to justify going the traditional route. I’m in that area right now. Now I know the minimum $$ value of my intellectual property, and unless an advance comes along to match or exceed it, it will actually be a bigger risk for me to go the traditional route, because I’ll be handicapping my ability to market my work. I find that relationship between self-pubbing and traditional publishing very strange. Not that it doesn’t make sense (a strange sort of sense).

    • Bob Hostetler January 10, 2018 at 6:56 am #

      It is for agents and publishers, Brennan. And you’re wright about the strangeness of the interplay between self-publishing and traditional publishing. It’s complicated, and it is a rare writer who can figure it out or make it work without a lot of help.

    • LK Simonds January 10, 2018 at 8:25 am #

      Brennan, I’ve been subscribing to Publishers Marketplace for about a year, and there’s a wealth of information there about book deals, including the price range the deal fell in: “nice” deal, “good” deal, etc. My sense is this website depends on agents and editors entering the information, but I’m not sure about that. If there are better sites for those of us who aren’t publishing insiders, I don’t know about them. Bob? Thoughts?

      • Brennan McPherson January 10, 2018 at 11:18 am #

        Dang! But that’s good to know about Publishers Marketplace. Thanks LK!

      • Tisha Martin January 11, 2018 at 11:02 pm #

        LK and Brennan:

        My two very small cents on the matter: Publisher’s Marketplace is great for keeping in the know about new titles, etc. They have a free email service Publisher’s Lunch that’s wonderful. You can sign up at I love that they carry so much information in small, lunchable bites… 🙂

        As for indie authors and self-publishers–or any author for that matter!–keeping up with industry news … try to follow University of Chicago, New York Times, Kathy Ide, Joanna Penn, Justine Clay, Michael Hyatt, and your well-loved agents’ blogs.

        Is that enough to get started? I have found all of these resources and people to be simply wonderful! Each has a niche that will help any writer or creative really exceed.

    • Kelly January 11, 2018 at 11:13 am #

      #3 is good advice!

  2. Janine Rosche January 10, 2018 at 5:06 am #

    You are right about authors having to read a lot. I’m currently sloth-crawling through The Elements of Style and On Writing Well. They are both the latest in my stack of “Bob Recommends.”

    • Bob Hostetler January 10, 2018 at 6:58 am #

      That’s an exclusive list, Janine. You’re so wise.

  3. Judith Robl January 10, 2018 at 5:33 am #

    Bob, I love your sense of humor, your transparency, your honesty, and your obvious love of reading. And I am grateful that you share those qualities with us so generously. Thank you.

  4. Patricia Beal January 10, 2018 at 6:38 am #

    No pitch/conference horror stories yet? I love those 🙂 Thanks for this post and for all the hard work.

    • Bob Hostetler January 10, 2018 at 7:03 am #

      That post is coming, Patricia. Have no fear!

  5. Joey Rudder January 10, 2018 at 6:40 am #

    Thanks for letting us come on in and stand on tippy toes to peek over your desk while you’re working/learning. (Remember the cartoon character Ziggy? Just had a mental image of him.) I always find it interesting to learn what a day in the life of an agent is like, and I’m blown away at the work you all do every day. And thankful. So very thankful.

    Also, thanks for the encouragement,”A LOT of books are being sold…every day.” To that I say, “whoo hoot!” and “Pick me! Pick me!” Again, standing on tippy toes only now with arm shooting up and waving about with eager anticipation. 😉

    (Trail mix not good while on the phone? Don’t try to eat a chalupa while driving in the dark, either. It’s not pretty.)

    Have a blessed day!

  6. Bob Hostetler January 10, 2018 at 7:00 am #

    How kind of you to say that, Rebekah! I pray for that post to have a wide and long influence (see what I did there?).

  7. Bob Hostetler January 10, 2018 at 7:04 am #

    Ixnay on the alupaschay. Good to know, Joey!

  8. Paul Wilkinson January 10, 2018 at 7:05 am #

    As a bookseller, it’s disappointing to hear of a title that has great merit, only to discover it was published independently and isn’t in the distribution chain. Even some established authors have been going it on their own lately, and their followers want to read the latest title, but we either can’t get it at all, or there’s a discount/pricing structure from the indie publisher which makes it prohibitive.

    • Brennan McPherson January 10, 2018 at 7:26 am #

      That’s no longer the result of going independent, Paul, but rather a fault with the author’s strategy. I independently published my latest novel and offer an industry standard discount (40%) through Ingram. A bunch of libraries have stocked it, and some bookstores. It’s widely available, though not returnable, which I know is a big downside for booksellers. I wish there was an easy fix to that, but traditional publishing still trumps indy publishing for physical distribution, and I don’t see that changing.

  9. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 10, 2018 at 7:27 am #

    Thank you for this, Bob. Your writing, both books and blogging, have made the world a better place.

  10. Ann Shorey January 10, 2018 at 7:29 am #

    I love your sense of humor, Bob! Keep it up.
    Excellent post!

  11. Loretta Eidson January 10, 2018 at 7:40 am #

    It’s always interesting to hear what goes on inside an agent’s office. I appreciate your sense of humor!

  12. Mark Alan Leslie January 10, 2018 at 7:52 am #

    Nice column, Bob.
    So what’s wrong with trail mix?
    : )

  13. Mark Alan Leslie January 10, 2018 at 7:54 am #

    Bob, how can I find your blog, “Your First Writing Assignment”?

  14. Linda S Glaz January 10, 2018 at 9:43 am #

    Well said on all accounts, Bob!

  15. Linda S Glaz January 10, 2018 at 9:43 am #

    And now you have to read all of these comments as well!!!! Shucks, no rest for the weary!

  16. Carol Ashby January 10, 2018 at 9:50 am #

    I resonate with your sense of humor, Bob, but maybe that should scare you. Also, as long as you stick to chocolate that melts in your mouth, you can eat it while on the phone.

    It’s good you warn people that self-publishing isn’t “easy.” To do it with sustained high sales numbers, your books have to be as well written as something an agent would want to represent. That quality is what gets readthrough with people who love one book coming back for the others. But you still have to find ways to get your books in front of new people all the time, and that can be a challenge. Growing platform haunts indies at least as much as authors seeking agents and traditional publishers.

    It’s on your own head to edit to the same level of “perfection” as the editors at a publishing house would. That’s doable with the help of a few excellent beta readers who flag everything they see. That comes first. Then it’s at least 2.5 cents a word for a professional editor. A good line editor can help a lot, but you’d better have your book tightly written and almost ready to go to print, or that will be a huge amount of money to get it even close to ready. Editors make suggestions, but they don’t fix it for you.

    Your sales will be mostly online and electronic. That’s great for international sales, but if your heart is set on large numbers of paperback copies that will hang around on readers’ shelves for years, it’s not likely you’ll reach that goal. The exception is for books that become a hit with millennials, who buy mostly paperback.

    If I knew what I was doing to market like a real business person, like Brennan does, successful indie publishing would be easier. He’s made it to #1 in his Amazon categories with his latest (I LOVE that book!!). I’ve never made it into the top 30 in my categories, but the top 100 is all right by me. Discoverability, not raw ranking, is what matters in my perspective. Good thing , since I don’t think I’ll ever hit the top 10.

    But even though all this is essential, I attribute what “success” I have as an indie to God wanting my message of the power of love and forgiveness in the hands of readers. Whether the number of readers is large or small, that’s ultimately in His hands.

  17. Deb Haggerty January 10, 2018 at 10:20 am #

    I LOVE your sense of humor. See you in February at FCWC!

  18. Robin E. Mason January 10, 2018 at 11:28 am #

    “I’ve been thrown in the deep end. Of a deep ocean. In a tidal wave. And all I want to do is write my stories.”
    That was my first blog post four years ago – #clueless! A friend directed me to Indie publishing and while i’ve seen growth in the writerly community, neither am aces in the marketing side.
    How then does one go about moving up in the writer world and repair past faux pas? Or manage damage control? I’ve teetered on remaining Indie VS seeking an agent and publisher. Meanwhile, #amwriting and about to release book #6!

  19. Carolyn January 10, 2018 at 12:52 pm #

    I love this post! It is informative and a realistic look into an agents life. Thank you for sharing it. ~Carolyn

  20. Vanessa Burton January 10, 2018 at 1:52 pm #

    It’s fun to look into the life of an agent and see what happens on the other side! Good luck with all your reading! 🙂

  21. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D January 10, 2018 at 2:14 pm #

    Bob, I love your sense of humor and congratulate you on six months as an agent. Your blogs have been encouraging and have offered great insight into the world of publishing. Thanks so much!

  22. Elaine McAllister January 10, 2018 at 6:05 pm #

    Well, let me go on record as one who loves your humorous look at life! Loved the sarcasm and wit in your blog. And, the ‘look’ inside your life as an agent. It gives a great perspective to those of us sitting in the sidelines, waiting!

    I love knowing that books are being written and sold….that’s encouraging. I’m sure the world of e-books has impacted the publishing world in a huge way. I also really needed to hear what you had to say about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. Great perspective. Thanks for sharing!

    Thanks for the view from within! Enjoyed your blog!

  23. mary hagen January 11, 2018 at 4:55 pm #

    I’m traditionally published, but I’m told frequently, I should indie publish. I’d make more on the sales of my books so I’ve looked into it. It’s a whole new ball field and expensive if done correctly. I agree, it is a tremendous amount of work. Thanks for your comments. Your blog gave me a different viewpoint.

  24. Tisha Martin January 11, 2018 at 11:13 pm #

    Bob, I have enjoyed your posts very much and have learned from the lessons shared, grown leaps and bounds by following the relationship-building advice, and laughed at the slips [okay, deluges?] of humor throughout, which, by the way, keeps a writer extremely healthy and positive–so thanks a heap! May the Lord continue to bless the next six months and thereafter.

  25. Norma Brumbaugh January 13, 2018 at 2:57 am #

    Bob, I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and enjoy your outlook. The one I appreciated the most was when you wrote about prayer. I could identify with it. I write about meditative aspects of prayer and contemplation. Loved how you addressed it.
    Now, this one hit the mark where you discuss indie publishing. I have a few WIPs that are complete or nearing completion and about as far as I can take them. I’ve been debating whether to self-publish or push in for the traditional route. I’ve been learning the craft before taking the deep plunge to secure an agent. I vanity published before I knew the ins and outs. Wish I had known more.
    It was fun reading what you had to say about what you’ve learned. I guess we’re all on a journey!

  26. Cynthia Mahoney (pen name Claire O'Sullivan) February 12, 2018 at 10:29 am #

    What about Bob? Hi — had to toss that in for fun. Welcome to SLA, a great group of crazy, I MEAN … super smart folks with a dash of goofy.

    I grew up in a family of pure sarcastic wit. Sink or swim, a now-overused phrase I learned. Your humor is appreciated.

    As the blog fills, it’s harder to reply to each entry (having to work and all, what’s with that?). Your words resonate, and phttp, darn it all, some I (literally, can I say that without being slapped?) leaned my head back and groaned. Why? How could a writer be discouraged… ever? Muuuaaaahhha, you say.

    The process is long. It’s really long. No… it can feel apocalyptic. Sigh. I do as much copy and line editing myself before even thinking about an editor. Had one a few years back who added glue words, verbs, and a host of other issues I removed when she finished. Cost? PHTTP. Quality? Nyet.

    Have question, will travel. I have a MS with SLA, and impatient me sits in the limbo of wait since the MS was delivered last August, and edits done. I have zip idea of this timeline, aware now that even edited manuscripts may drop onto the floor (flush pile?) and out the slush pile.

    I ‘think’ pro-readers go through the manuscript slush piles, then onto the agent, thus a three month turnaround. Should I tack on an editing department in SLA? I put the timeline to mid-March, as agents, readers, etc., have more than my work sitting on their desk.

    An answer I would love to know.

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