There have been a few posts lately about the value of agents across the internet. Some by agents, some by writers who love their agents, and some by people who seem to think agents are on the far side child molesters on their list of favorite kinds of people.
Leaving completely aside the debate of if an agent is needed to publish a book, I’d rather talk about the value of what you get from an agent. As is my habit I’ll do it by way of wandering around the point for an innumerable measure of words on what my fifth and sixth grade English teacher called a “bird walk”.
My dad was a very competent backyard mechanic, and even over my occasional strenuous protests taught me quite a bit about maintaining and repairing cars. Over the course of my childhood and teens I learned how to change oil, do a brake job on nearly anything that rolls, replace a heater core, change a transmission, yank and repair a gas tank, replace and or plug a radiator and half a dozen things I’m afraid would come screaming back from the dark recesses of my brain if I ever had to do them again.
So yes, if my car should suddenly need to have it’s transmission replaced I can do the job. The question is: Is it worth my time?
Assuming this is right and the average American income is about $30.000 and that you drive something like a 2001 Ford Taurus, going by the prices on Ebay today as something vaguely similar to what it would cost to buy a transmission when needed. We’ll just leave aside the cost as mostly irrelevant since it would be part of the bill from the repair shop anyway. But the shipping and delivery costs are about $150-$250 depending on which place you order from. You’ll also need transmission fluid which will run about another $20. Unless you do transmissions all the time, or have done one at home in the past you’ll need a lift which is about another $200. We’ll assume you have all the other tools at hand to do this.
So far we’re at about $450 not counting your labor, time to assemble all these tools, parts, and get them to where you can use them. If you have vacation time or alternate means to work and everything else you do with your time fine, if not and you don’t have the vacation time to take off while your transmission is in transit since most parts stores do not stock them you’re either losing money from not working or spending $35-55 a day on a rental car. If it takes 3 days for the transmission to arrive, and another day for you to get it installed and tested and the car returned at say $45 per day we’ll add another $180 bringing us to $630. There will be an environmental impact/disposal fee for the tranmission fluid from the car that varies town to town but we’ll call it $20.
$650 Assuming it takes you about the six hours to remove the old one, insert the new one and test it out that is only a little longer than a repair shop might need if everything goes right. You’ve just taken six hours of your labor at $14.42 (based on the number above and a 40 hour work week, before taxes) for the actual repairs. Tracking down the transmission, the lift, assembling it, getting the fluid, disposing of it in a safe manner, returning the rental and of course finding something to do with the old transmission if the people who sold you the new one don’t want it (cheers most do) will take another 4-6 hours. So eleven hours, about $160 or a total of $810, assuming no other problems or expenses.
The repair shop would probably charge you about $60 an hour for labor. They probably know where to find it with three calls or less. They have probably replaced at least a half dozen transmissions just like yours, this year. It may still take two or three days for the transmission to arrive, as many as six hours labor to replace and test it, so about $360 on top of the cost of the parts.
All to do a job that will keep me from doing my job for a minimum of six hours doing it, and of course the requisite kvetching on social media, time spent trying to get the smell of transmission fluid off my skin, and working the knots out of muscles that don’t normally move into that position.
Given that most writers can write to a professional quality about 3 books a year at most. (There are people who do many more, but they are freaks of nature.) A writer should like any other professional maximize the amount of time they spend doing their job. Thirteen hours not writing or researching or revising is a lot of time. If you have a day job on top of writing professionally that can be a full week of writing time, possibly two for people only able to squeeze one of hour writing in at a time.
The nice thing about cars, and the car repair industry is that most things stay the same and there are only rare changes, most of them nearly invisible to the end user. In publishing, change however far removed from the end product is the rule. The editorial assistant who like your book at one publisher two years ago but had to reject it because their boss had four teenage vampire books ahead of it might be buying their own books at a different publisher this week. The editor who never got back to you at a third publisher might have left the industry entirely. The guy who edits a very popular series by a south west genre author might not touch other genre writing at all because they don’t like it, but that series is fine because it’s set in the real world. And of course their are the various submission policies of each publisher, and sometimes each editor. One should also not forget the number of imprints in some of the major publisher, and the juggling some do with their editors and organizational charts.
An agent’s job is to keep track of all this, there’s no special reason a writer can’t do all this. There are practical reasons of time, energy and focus that have nothing to do with the sales process, but are simply good resource management. Time being the resource most in need of managing as there is only a finite amount of it a writer can spend in fruitful writing having someone else keep track of the editors, the flipping over of rocks to find new markets and researching those new markets is something most successful writers find reasonable.