This story illustrates how the power dynamics in the traditional publishing industry are out of whack. I doubt this will change any time soon.
As I write this in late May, 2023, I’m querying my new novel, Traffic School. For people outside the publishing industry, querying for writers is the process of finding agents to pitch our books to publishers. We send query letters to agents and agonize over every word in those letters because we all want to gain their attention. Why not just query publishers directly? Because big publishers only talk to agents. It’s an exclusive hierarchy, with millions of writers at the bottom vying for attention from a few agents, who then vie for attention from even fewer publishers. As big publishers keep merging with each other and buying up small publishers, the hierarchy gets more and more rigid. The system offers a ripe environment for corruption.
New Leaf Literary is a large New York agency, and on May 4, 2023, Publishers Weekly published an article about how New Leaf reorganized itself to focus on author careers instead of single books. Music to a Minnesota bald guy’s ears trying to penetrate the publishing hierarchy. Maybe I could persuade one of these agents to help open the gateway for me. And so, I started researching New Leaf agents.
And then on Friday, May 12, 2023, a bombshell hit when New Leaf fired agent Jordan Hamessley and cut loose dozens of authors late that night with no warning. Here is one of many author tweets. New Leaf spun a story about an amicable parting, but Hamessley offered a different perspective.
Twitter exploded with horror stories about New Leaf Literary, while quieter stories appeared about how the Harvey Klinger Agency also dumped several authors with no warning. Other authors shared stories about New Leaf dumping them years earlier. One shared a story about how a New Leaf agent threatened to toss her aside unless she engaged with an editor who wanted $5000.
And then it got even uglier. After New Leaf fired Hamessley, a link to her old New Leaf page still appeared at the top of Google search results. But that link – which should no longer even exist – led to a page for an agent named Jordan Hill. Somebody at New Leaf hijacked the Jordan Hamessley link and redirected it to Jordan Hill. They gamed the Google search results to exploit Hamessley’s name and prey on unaware authors.
I don’t want to work with New Leaf Literary. How could any author trust these guys? And, given the Harvey Klinger stories, how many other agencies operate this way?
I have questions for any potential agent. The list will probably grow.
- What is your query process with publishers?
- How do we collaborate on querying to publishers?
- How can you help me build that all-important author platform?
- What holes do you see in my manuscript and how do we fix them?
- How do we fine-tune the target audience you want me to identify?
- A biggie – what happens if you leave your agency?
- If I have to bring the platform and do all the marketing, then what value do you and any potential traditional publisher add?
If an agent isn’t willing to offer honest and credible answers to questions like these, then we won’t be a good fit.
And maybe another lesson for me and anyone looking at traditional publishing – do not let anybody intimidate you. Traditional publishing is no longer the only game in town. There are plenty of hungry editors, designers, cover artists, and other professionals willing to help produce quality books. The only value big publishers add is credibility and distribution. But as my platform increases, the value from publisher credibility decreases. And with a large enough platform, distribution will take care of itself.
Of course, the problem is building that platform in an environment where the world mostly ignores pitches, because everyone has been pitched to death.
I’ll still query a zillion agents this time around and explore traditional publishing, because a real marketing partner – not a parasite, but a real partner – is worth every penny of that fifteen percent agent commission. But I’m not willing to wait forever for a gatekeeper.