get thee to a nunnery, get thee behind me, or get thee literary representation

This article appeared in modified form in the Maven Game newsletter. Sign up here.

I’ve previously crossed swords with my frenemesis, typographer and public intellectual Matthew Butterick, here, here, and here.

Matthew is the Moriarty to my Holmes, the Magneto to my Professor X, the Acid Burn to my Crash Override.

Now Matthew is writing his own newsletter, one he promises will always be “brief.” (Clearly, this is a passive aggressive statement on the occasional unbriefliness of my own newsletter. Point: Butterick.)

For Butterick on typography, programming, law, writing, and reading, go sign up.


If you’re a regular reader, you may think I have something against the fine people of book publishing. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, many of you rubes in the peanut gallery are book pros yourselves.

So despite everything you’ve read and may read in the future, or in this very newsletter, I love you, book industry.

awkward hug

Last week, I subjected literary agents to a little of my signature tough love. (Editors and publishers, too, but that’s just background noise now.)

Afterward, counting my stacks of newsletter money, I felt guilty. Agents, after all, are tops. Agent Smith, Agent Carter, Ancient Egypt: there’s nothing not to like.

As an editor, your success rides on your relationships with the agent community. Knowing other editors is a complete waste of your time. (Howdy former colleagues! Remember that hug?)

If a junior editor gets introduced to another junior editor at a networking event, watch both of them wilt. Watch both calculate how long to maintain polite chitchat before meeting somebody useful. Watch both struggle with that calculation. Math, after all, is not an industry strong suit. (The hug, guys, the hug!)

Dave’s Quick Networking Tip #8: If you meet a junior editor in January, the odds they won’t be in advertising by December are longer than a Thomas Pynchon novel. So don’t bother remembering anyone’s name until they’re an associate editor at least.

Now, I’ve projected doom and gloom for publishing since 2003. I still stand behind that pessimism. Digital disruption continues to pummel the book industry and YOU’RE NEXT. WILLIAM MORROW’S TRON LASER IS RIGHT BEHIND YOU!

digitally disrupted

Another managing editor being digitized in an unsuccessful bid to tighten up production schedules.

Agents, however, provide a clear and indisputable value to authors. They will not be disrupted, digitally or otherwise, anytime soon.

future-agents

Literary agent, specializing in middle-grade fiction, surveying the publishing landscape of 2026.

I often direct authors to alternative publishing routes, when appropriate. But I never waver on the value of literary representation. If you can get an agent, you should. If you can’t, get one anyway. You can. To understand how, let’s look at what an agent actually does.

christie

“I try to squeeze all the juice out of the orange that I can.”—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

A literary agent generally takes 15 percent of whatever you earn from your book. In return, they perform one key function: extract maximum value. This goes in two directions.

Externally, your agent helps you get the best possible deal. This means representing your interests with book publishers as well as with all the other greedy leeches who consider your art nothing but “content” to be “monetized.” Your agent is there to tell these creeps that you won’t be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered.

(I’m realizing that I’m going to have to be nice to publishers next week to make up for ​this ​week. Where does it end?)

Internally, your agent is there to milk you for viable intellectual property like the cud-chewing brain-cow that you are.

This latter function is the vital one.

Look, if you’ve never written a successful book before, you’re still hungry. Buzzing with ideas and ambition. You want to get out there and make your name.

Once you’ve gotten traction and Mom doesn’t have to say “I have faith in you” quite so often, you get complacent. Your agent is the one who will continue to ride you, year after year, to force you to carpe those diems:

  • That article you wrote for Slate, wouldn’t that make a great book?
  • That thing you said at lunch, wouldn’t that make a great book?
  • That tweet you retweeted, wouldn’t that make a great book?

Sure, your spouse may applaud you as a literary lion. Your agent will actually get in your cage with a bullwhip and put you back to work.

Good agents, anyway. Did I mention those are rare? Probably, no, definitely, the exact same number of agents who read this newsletter.

The thing is, 15 percent of bubkes is still bubkes. Agents have bills to pay: tanning salons, sunglasses, hair gel. It’s not like they’re rolling in the big newsletter bucks like some of us. The good ones are picky because they get behind each client.

(Figuratively. I hope it goes without saying you should never turn your back on an agent.)

agent cooper

I love agents!

If you can’t find yourself a world-class literary agent yet, assign a stand-in. Reach out to a friend or colleague who really gets you and your work. Someone who reads and responds to your blog posts and newsletters. Ask that person to be your agent. Ask them to godparent your Muse.

What does this entail? As I’ve said, milking the brain-cow. Your agent needs to get on your case every time you give one of your own ideas short shrift.

That should be a book.” Simple as that. “Expand on this. More.”

Who serves that function in your intellectual life? As that guy on the subway once screamed, you can’t milk your own brain-cow.

Each of us requires gentle but persistent reminders that every great work starts small. Many of your favorite books began as an offhand remark. An agent, or someone playing that role, picked up on it, on behalf of its udderer, and wouldn’t let go.

Authors are as blind to their gifts as they are microscopically aware of their flaws. Their best stuff gets said and heard only once. That’s why every writer needs two things: a notepad in the shower, and quality representation.