In the New Republic Stephen Akey has a piece complaining about how literary agents choose who to represent. "Everyone’s trying to make a buck and literary agencies can hardly be faulted for interesting themselves in what sells rather than in what doesn’t, or at least not so much,” he admits. But
The problem, as one bracingly honest agent confided to me in the course of one of my innumerable rejections, is that the notion of “sales” has narrowed nearly to the vanishing point. Almost all agencies, he told me, are looking for one of two things: bestseller potential or the possibility of media adaptations….
[A]after plowing through hundreds of agency websites, I find it hard to believe that many other good and serious books aren’t being stopped dead in their tracks…. there’s no real balance between commercial imperative and literary ambition. The writing is merely part of the package, not necessarily more important than the “platform” and maybe less so than the “brand.”
Akey isn’t exactly untested: he’s published lots of essays and articles, and already has two books out (like me!). But, he laments,
I'm not a “brand,” I don’t have a “platform,” and if literary agencies are going to insist on such things from all of their clients, some very good writing—much of it undoubtedly better than mine—will never be published in book form.
I can’t speak to the whole of the industry, but I have to say, this isn’t my experience. Of course (and luckily), my experience isn’t incredibly extensive: I’ve met several, and have only been represented by one, because she’s great. She helps me turn my ideas into serious proposals, gets my work in front of some of the best editors working today, and secures what I think of as shockingly great contracts against strong odds. During my recent trip to the East Coast, she spent a day taking me around to meetings at several houses; the next week we sold my new book, Rest: Why Working Less Gets More Done, to Basic Books. (It was tough to take a break from visiting collegiate Gothic campuses, but it was worth it.)
This is not to say that Akey is making up his complaints, nor that the concerns about branding and platforms and knowing insiders who can help promote and blurb your book aren’t real. But in my experience, they come from publishers themselves. Partly this reflects the fact that books are now tools for extending one’s fame, and partly that publishers no longer feel they know how books sell.
Do you really think movie stars of aspiring presidential candidates or shock jocks have always wanted to write a book? 99% of the time they’re capitalizing on their fame, or writing a book because the rest of the cabinet has book deals, or because that’s what you do to get that sinecure at the think-tank. These aren’t expressions of literary passion, they're projects meant to leverage The Brand of Me. And the thing is, their books are probably going to sell. They'll certainly will do better than Aker’s or mine, and will subsidize midlist authors like me. So inevitably the industry is more oriented to those books.
And then there’s the problem that, in the age of Amazon and ebooks and social media, an author’s own celebrity, and their existing personal network, becomes a hedge against the growing risks of a volatile, hard-to-predict (or manipulate) market. I certainly understand Aker’s frustration— I’ve heard the same objection myself— but I think it comes less from a desire to make more money by selling the options to Hollywood even before the book is written, than to reduce the downside exposure.
And finally, if you have a chance to sign an author who has that presence and is a brand, and an author who doesn’t, why go with the latter? Publishing is already an uncertain game, and there’s no guarantee that someone who’s shy and retiring is going to produce a book that the world will clamor to read, or that someone who understands the current media ecology won’t turn out work that’s smart and accessible.
So if there are agents who are talking about brands and platforms and social media reach, then it’s because they’re paid to know their markets, to understand what publishers want, and have incentives to deliver it. I’ve always known I got lucky with my agent; if Akey is right, I was even luckier than I realized.