In 2017, there were one million new self-published books. Most of which were published on Amazon.
But let's imagine for a second that Amazon KDP doesn't exist. No IngramSpark. No WalMart books. Where would all of these manuscripts go?
It wouldn't be possible for a handful of big-name publishers like Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, or Simon & Schuster to sift through all of these submissions.
So what publishers have always had in place is similar to the world of job postings and external recruiters. The book publishing space has a network of Literary Agents - most of whom are based in New York City - who review manuscripts, find the ones they believe can sell north of 500 copies, and bring these to the publishers; similar to recruiters sorting through the vast pool of job candidates.
But since self-publishing already exists, why would I still need an agent? Why have any gatekeepers?
The question here is why can't you self-publish your book on Amazon, it gains a loyal following, then the publishers take notice and swoop in. Examples of this process happening include, famously, 50 Shades of Grey as well as The Martian and Wool.
In this scenario, book publishing would function similar to the world of tech startups. You start your company (book), gain a few customers, a few more, then go pitch investors. You don't have to ask someone for approval to launch a product in the first place.
But going back to the recruiter analogy, imagine this scenario: Your dream job has just been posted on LinkedIn. It's a company you could see yourself working at for the rest of your career.
Even better, you have a recruiter friend who knows the CEO. And one of your best friends went to school with the hiring manager.
Before applying for the job, wouldn't you want to reach out to these two connections? Have a better shot at getting in the door?
Going the self-publishing route is like foregoing the recruiter friend who knows the CEO or your best friend who knows the hiring manager. Sure, you could still apply through the company's website, still do everything on your own, but the odds of getting through becomes that much harder.
The agents and publishers all know each other. It's a small community with most of these conversations happening in New York City. It's a similar world to Hollywood agents and studios out in Los Angeles. Agents still have their advantages.
What's the benefit of having a literary agent?
A literary agent is the first step down the traditionally published path. The main advantages of being traditionally published:
You're being paid for your work
With self-publishing or hybrid publishing, you are taking on the costs to get your book out there. With an agent, they are landing you a contract with a traditional publisher (minus 10-15 percent for the agent's commission)
Editing, cover design, formatting, that's all on the publisher, nothing leaving your pocket.
Writing as a Career
If you land a part in Hamilton, every audition after becomes that much easier. If you get into Harvard or Yale, every job interview after college is that much easier.
Likewise, being traditionally published makes it easier for your second and third books to not only be published again but potentially receive higher advances/payments.
Having traditionally published books to your name helps in the pursuit of teaching at a university. It's harder to reference self-published or hybrid published works with the same academic clout.
The Bestseller Path
Landing a literary agent and then a traditional publisher doesn't guarantee your book will become a bestseller. But it does, at least, increase the chances.
The reason for this is the connections to bookstores, their experience with promoting books, and connections to reviewers/magazines/newspapers who help get the word out there.
Traditional publishing is more work upfront. It's harder to get a Yes from an agent vs. self-publishing an ebook on Amazon. But all of this hard work (potentially) pays off and makes the next 5-10 years easier in your writing career. In terms of getting the book into bookstores, reviews, being a guest on a radio show/major podcast, becoming a professor, having your second book be published faster, turning writing into a full-time career, those challenges become easier as a traditionally published author vs. self or hybrid-published. Plus you're not taking the risk of shelling out $1,000 - $5,000 of your own money, you're getting paid to write.
This is why I'd be weary of any articles saying, "Literary agents are dead" or, "Literary agents don't matter anymore." I'm not sure what publishing world those writers are looking at. It's not the one I've observed. It's kind of like when I see articles boldly declaring, "College is dead." I don't see Harvard and Yale closing their doors any time soon...
So then what are the downsides to the literary agent route?
I mentioned it's a lot of hard work upfront. And that hard work goes really slow.
It's not uncommon to send out your manuscript and not hear anything back. Or wait 6-8 weeks and then receive one of those, "Thank you for sending. Unfortunately..." responses.
It also becomes frustrating because one of the most common rejections is, "We like the book, but we're not sure you have the platform yet. Not enough of a following." Which as the writer you're thinking, "Yeah, but I thought you guys would give me the platform?" Buckle up for this sentence cuz it gets real messy: But how can you get in front of more people, if the people who get you in front of people are telling you that you don't have enough people?