Today, publishing is a different planet. There is so much opportunity. So much potential. So much agents can offer authors, traditionally-published or self-published. And it is the younger, newer generation of agents, that are best poised to take full advantage and take their careers to new levels.

As September ended, the biennial report from the Association of American Literary Agents (AALA) was released, painting a bleak picture of American’s literary agents working long hours and struggling to pay the bills, while worrying for their future, and questioning the viability of the commission model.

I logged the report on my To Do List, where of course it was promptly subsumed in the flood of pre-Frankfurt industry news and reports, and only resurfaced thanks to Porter Anderson over at Publishing Perspectives, who summarised the report during Frankfurt week, to shine the spotlight on the Buchmesse LitAg programme. Anderson took time out to remind us literary agents work hard and are not always appreciated for their pivotal role in bringing authors and publishers together, and looking after author interests.

As an industry professional, there were few surprises in the Association of American Literary Agents report. Those of us who have had dealings with literary agents will know it’s not quite the romantic dream job those outside the industry might imagine.

Ready-to-print future bestsellers rarely arrive on the desk, and those that do, unless from existing clients, go through the slush pile process of being filtered and evaluated, with the AALA reporting some agents handling over 100 submissions a week, often without an assistant.

Separating the wheat from the chaff can be dispiriting, when you know the querying author may have spent years of their life working on a manuscript that they truly believe in, but that sadly isn’t readable past the first few paragraphs. I cannot imagine there are any literary agents who relish the next stage – the rejection email saying thanks, but no thanks.

And then there’s the anguish of rejecting a manuscript that shows promise, but just needs too much work, or a well-written submission that simply doesn’t tick the right boxes for the prevailing market conditions.

All this alongside the lurking fear that the agent might have just rejected what will go on to be the next publishing industry legend. Just ask the many agents who told JK Rowling not to give up the day job.

As an author and one-time editor, being a literary agent is probably the last job I would want to choose in this industry. Although sympathy towards the plight of the literary agents’ struggles as reported by the AALA is tempered by, as always, real life.

There are plenty of jobs out there that pay less, have longer hours, zero job satisfaction, and involve exhausting manual labour. So my gut reaction whenever I see reports emerging like this from any sector of the publishing industry, is to sigh and prepare for a pity-fest of victim-of-a-cruel-world gripes.

The latest Authors Guild report, published the same week as the AALA report, is an example, with Jim Milliot reporting for PW that “Writing Books Remains a Tough Way to Make a Living“, explaining that, “A new Authors Guild survey finds that median book and writing-related income for authors in 2022 was below the poverty level.

That’s an op-ed in its own right. The idea that book authors can somehow be equated with people who stack shelves in supermarkets, make bread or cars or widgets, serve coffee or pizza, or do some other weekly-waged job never fails to amuse me. Back in the UK I spent many years sat in coffee bars all day, slaving hard to keep the baristas busy replenishing my lattes for a pittance weekly wage, while I pecked away at the keyboard between blueberry muffins, writing books that in their time sold almost two million copies, and fifteen years on, still bring in a trickle of revenue. The barista, who worked far harder than I ever did, got paid for the day’s work and then had to do it all over again the next day to get paid again. My work, all those years ago still earns me something, and if I can ever find the time away from school and TNPS, there’s probably a lot more mileage to be had from them. Real life? No thank you.

More on that another time. Here to look more closely at the plight of literary agents, per the AALA report, where two points stood out. First, it’s not a pity-fest, but an objective overview of a sector of the publishing industry that is “in flux.” And second, no mention of AI.

The survey of 221 AALA members (almost half), offers “one of the most comprehensive studies to date regarding the role of the literary agent in the modern publishing landscape, with members offering insight into business practices while expressing broad concerns about consolidations and layoffs at the major publishers, about the compensation model for agents, and about an overall industry in flux.

Before addressing the detail, a reminder that literary agents today work in a very different landscape from twenty years ago, when, if an author wanted to be published, there were only two meaningful options – query a publisher direct, or find a literary agent willing to rep you.

I tried both routes, and amid much excitement at getting initial interest and getting past the outright rejection stage, after being repped deals still failed to materialise, and two books I believed in simply couldn’t get placed.

And understandably. Shelf-space was limited. Bricks and mortar stores can only stock so many titles, and while online book sales were by then a thing, it still needed an agent willing to convince a publisher to front the very high costs of getting the manuscript turned into a real book and distributed to places where readers might find it. And publishers had no shortage of submissions to choose from, from agents who were drowning in their slush piles.

Back in the late ’90s I had the insightful experience of “observing” a London literary agency at work for a week (for a commissioned article for a newspaper). I recommend every would-be author try it.

Watching the daily delivery of unsolicited manuscripts was a revelation. At least 200 over the course of the week, and each one was dutifully opened and scanned for potential.

Sometimes the query letter was enough to warrant a rejection slip. As a writer with bookish ambitions I was initially appalled. A rejection without even looking at the manuscript? Then I read the query letters and realised the standard of English demonstrated there was more the enough to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

This in the early days of home PCs and MS Word, when many wannabe authors were still typing manuscripts through worn-out ribbons and with gallons of correction fluid.

Then came the first chapter reads. So many authors would send the full MS despite clear instructions to only send the initial chapters, but the agents would dutifully pick up the whole thing, determined not to be the agent that rejected the next Harry Potter.

Of course many author careers stalled at this point. Some manuscripts showed no promise, some were simply derivative, some just came in at the wrong time. Agents had to judge what would be hot in the market three years down the road, not what was hot yesterday.

And then there was the actual reading of the manuscripts – not finely polished books with pretty covers, fine type-setting and all the typos edited out, but raw paper and faded double-spaced ink drowning in correction fluid on dog-eared pages that had spent days in the postal system in a flimsy envelope.

Then would come the redrafting and the re-redrafting for those that cleared the first hurdle, all while trying not to upset the prospective future bestselling author that still had a lot to learn. This over weeks or months, having to read and re-read the same manuscript.

All the time losing the will to live as the wannabe author insisted their work was already perfect and the agents didn’t deserve the commission that at this point was far from guaranteed. And all the time trying to explain to said author that being repped was no guarantee of a publisher agreeing to actually publish, let alone handing out the mega-advances newbie authors fantasise about.

This in between the existing client representation, fighting for better deals, trying to find foreign rights (and nowadays audio and translation rights – not so common back in the nineties), and the agony of having to tell a one-time bestselling author that the market had moved on, that their latest book would not earn out the advance, and that their next book would not find a publisher.

Of course there were upsides too, for the top tier agents wining and dining mega-selling authors, right down to the newbie agents getting their first client their first publishing deal. Being a literary agent is a labour of love, of passion, and I have nothing but respect for them, even if none managed to secure my books a publishing deal.

Oh, and those two books of mine they rejected, that went on to sell almost two million? That’s the reality of the business. In 2007 the US publishing landscape changed. The UK caught up a few years later. In 2010 self-publishing wasn’t an option in the UK. I was still querying. In 2011 I was topping the charts with the same book the agents rejected, that went on to top the charts in France and China.

A bygone era for me. I loved book-writing, but I loved teaching and journalism more. But if I ever finish that next book, I’ll likely turn to an agent. They have so much to offer.

Which is why I had to address the AALA report, which, a reminder in its own words, offers “one of the most comprehensive studies to date regarding the role of the literary agent in the modern publishing landscape, with members offering insight into business practices while expressing broad concerns about consolidations and layoffs at the major publishers, about the compensation model for agents, and about an overall industry in flux.”

The report speaks of the “invisible” labour that agents do and for which they often are not directly compensated. “We do a lot of work that is essentially unpaid, often for years,” per one respondent, and nothing to disagree with there.

The agents who toiled over my manuscripts that they ultimately failed to place after many months, did not earn a penny for their efforts. I have no idea what percentage of agency submissions to publishers succeed in getting a contract and earning the agent their commission, but just as for the author, no deal often means no pay. When I hear authors complain about the agent taking 15% or whatever, I have to smile. Some people seem to think agents should work for free.

Per the AALA report, “The pay structure is cited as the main contributor to the burnout felt by younger agents.”

Pay structure of course being only indirectly the problem. Pay structures are set by the agency, which is most cases is an employee role. The agency itself – and to a lesser extent the agent – usually work on commission. No deal, no commission. Maybe a low base salary, but no bonuses. It’s the incentive model that helps keep standards high, and ensures the agents will work their tales off to secure the best deal for each project. More on that below.

But agents – who usually are not publishers – are caught in the middle, between authors who may or may not deliver the goods, and the publishers who may or may not want to gamble on the project the agent truly believes in.

The AALA report offers an invaluable deep dive into its membership, but we have to keep in mind it is a members’ club, so not representing all agents, and perhaps less representative of younger and newer agents who may not yet be convinced the fees are justified.

In a publishing world where diversity is talked up incessantly, the AALA membership reflects the cold reality that there is still so much to do.

AALA membership – along with the profession as a whole – remain predominantly cis and white. More than eight of ten respondents (83.1%) say they are white/Caucasian, a notable decrease from 2021 when they made up almost nine of ten respondents.”

And of course the balance is reflected in pay, with “white” agents seemingly earning more than the rest.

On gender, “AALA Membership, indeed the profession as a whole, is predominantly female, with 82.1% of respondents identifying as cis women, 14% as cis men and 2.8% as genderfluid/nonbinary.

The survey,” says the AALA, “comes at a time of industry uncertainty and unrest.

Per the Report, “Agents wished clients knew how ‘little power (they have) over what sells.’ Despite their best efforts, ‘the market has shrunk so drastically that it’s hard to place even stellar projects.’ “

That’s interesting, at a time when the former PRH CEO Markus Dohle is telling everyone how we’ve never had it so good.

But publisher issues are impacting agents in other ways, with response times from editors a major concern.

Respondents report longer-than-normal wait times on submissions, if they get any reply at all. ‘Ghosting is awful,’ says one agent. If given the choice, respondents resoundingly say any response is better than none. ‘I would 100x rather get a two-word rejection on a project—no thanks—than never hear from you about it.’ Timely responses from editors are more than common courtesy; they’re critical. ‘We can’t make a living if they don’t answer their email.'”

Nothing to disagree with there, but I can’t help thinking of the many agency websites that tell submitting authors, “if you haven’t heard back from us in three months, it mean we are not interested.” Common courtesy works both ways.

But most important from what is in the AALA report is concern about the very model that separates reputable agencies from predatory ones.

Per the AALA, 63.9 % of respondents “are paid all or in part on commission. One-third of respondents get a salary of some kind (which may be combined with commission) and 25% also receive payout as an owner, partner or shareholder of an agency. Only 9% of respondents are paid on salary only. Due to the inherent fluctuation of earnings based on commission, draw, and agency owner/shareholder pay-outs, this means that fewer than one in ten respondents can predict their exact income in any given year.”

Naturally this means newer agents will struggle, and for all agents the incentive to try their best and find the next bestselling author is inevitably counter-balanced by the reality that promising authors less likely to bring in big revenue will be given less agency time.

Per the report, “The impetus for AALA to revise the Canon of Ethics to provide for agents being paid for editorial services served to enable agents to supplement their income if needed.”

Asking upfront fees from authors may well be a necessary next step – some of course already do this, and not all do so dishonourably – but it does raise issues of ethics and professionalism. Many authors pay for editing before querying, but the line blurs when the agent themselves are wanting to be paid by the author as a condition of representation.

The report also “provides glimpses of tension between younger agents and established counterparts and between agents and agency owners. … Among those who work for an agency, sources of conflict may revolve around separation terms. ‘What happens to an agent’s commissions and unsold rights when they leave the agency’ is cited by one respondent as a point of contention. Says another: ‘There are some agents who are stuck at a toxic agency because they don’t want to have to start over from scratch.‘”

As a past and future book author I prefer the comfort of the commission model, knowing that if an agent elects to rep my work, they sincerely believe in it. Abandoning the commission model will undermine that core ethic, and blurs the line between traditional and vanity publishing and agency.

What’s really needed is a re-think of the royalties and commission model, and that needs to start with publishers, who readily espouse their sincerest concerns about author welfare, but somehow all manage to follow the same royalty structure that leaves most authors taking home very little.

No wonder so many authors opt to self-publish.

But let me just end this essay by combining that point with one note of surprise. No mention in the AALA report of the industry’s bogeyman-du-jour, AI!

The survey was conducted between May 1-August 1 this year, by which time pretty much everyone in the industry was either panicking or celebrating the long-awaited arrival of generative AI, yet it appears either the topic did not come up, or agents are indifferent.

Hopefully the former, because AI will, undoubtedly, result in a flood of new submissions that mostly will be sub-standard. But on the plus side, AI could help agents sift through the slush pile at a rate of knots, setting aside submissions with real promise for later human inspection, and discarding the dross and the unready, complete with fast-response, politely worded rejection emails.

Can the industry cope with even more submissions? Here’s the thing:

When agents express concern about shrinking market share, they need to address the reality that market share is shifting more than shrinking, with a huge volume of the market going away from corporate publishers and being claimed by self-publishers who think agents have nothing to offer them.

In August Amazon paid out almost $50 million, and the same again in September, to self-published authors putting their ebooks into the Kindle unlimited ebook subscription service.

By the end of year Amazon will have paid out over a half billion dollars to self-publishers, just from ebook subscription. This quite apart from a la cart sales.

Don’t take my word for it. This was Jim Milliot writing in Publishers Weekly earlier this year: “The most popular format in terms of units was e-books, with unit sales rising 8% in 2022, to 526 million. Unit sales of audiobooks increased 23%, to 188 million units, and print unit sales fell 1.3%, to 403 million. Self-published titles accounted for 51% of all unit sales and 34% of revenue in 2022.”

Most of these indie authors have no agent. Some really don’t need agents. They are consummate professionals in their own right, handling their IP across media. But most simply don’t believe agents will be interested in their books, or that agents can offer them anything.

Yet as the savvy top-tier indie authors know, ebooks are just one small part of a global IP opportunity most self-published authors know little of, and have no meaningful way of tapping into. This is a huge arena of unexploited potential for agents looking to expand their role beyond the traditional function of bringing authors and publishers together.

Of course, there are some agents that do already follow self-publishing closely, and many an indie-author has been signed up. I remember back in 2011 being queried by agents as my books rocked up the charts. It was a pleasure, back then, to send an agent (one of the biggest in New York), a rejection letter. Not because I disliked the agent or agency, but because they were offering nothing new. The book was already a proven success.

Of course, back then it was ebook and print. Digital audio as a meaningful sector was still in the future. As for video deals and webtoon deals, serialisation and online reading… All that was just beginning to be a thing for publishers. Many agents were still partying like it was 1999.

Today, publishing is a different planet. There is so much opportunity. So much potential. So much agents can offer authors, traditionally-published or self-published. And it is the younger, newer generation of agents, that are best poised to take full advantage and take their careers to new levels.