Do You Still Need a Literary Agent in Today’s Publishing World?

The story of my 15 years with Literary Manager Peter Miller

The other day I was teaching a seminar for my doctoral students about ways in which they could publish their dissertation (if you’re interested, the seminar is available on Vimeo). I always encourage my PhD students to publish, for how else are they going to establish themselves as experts in their fields? At some point, someone asked: “Do you have a literary agent?”

“Yes, I answered. “My literary manager is Peter Miller. I’ve been with him for more than 15 years.”

“But,” said the student, “why would you need a literary manager this day and age? Isn’t it true that there are now lots of ways to self-publish? Can’t you just get your book out on blurb.com or lulu.com?”

It is a familiar question, and one that I get asked a lot lately. The development of Print on Demand (POD) technology has radically changed the way books are produced, published, and sold around the world. A POD system is essentially a book printing plant, collapsed into a single machine. On one end, the technician loads the digital file of the book; and on the other, a finished book rolls out. Of course, it isn’t quite as simple as that but, in essence, the technology allows a publisher to produce and distribute a book using the just-in-time model: we don’t print a copy unless we know there is a customer who wants it. Therefore, no more need for expensive volume runs, storage space, and laborious logistics.

The company that embraced POD technology and then set out to transform the industry is, of course, Amazon. Amazon’s idea was to merge this technology with a national (and eventually international) distribution system that allowed a book copy to be printed on demand, and then deliver this copy directly to the customer, without the intervention (and the sales margin) of a retail bookstore. In the case of an electronic book (or e-book) version, the model is even more disruptive. Once a customer places an order over the Internet, the book is delivered instantly to the user’s iPad, Samsung, or Kindle device, without the need for any printing or shipping.

One would think that this revolutionary system has upstaged the traditional publishing model, where a literary agent introduces an author to a publisher, and then negotiates the best possible acquisition package. And in some ways, it has. But the self-publishing model has one major drawback: it lacks an imprimatur. It lacks the stamp of a major publisher, and the credibility that a major publisher can give an author. And the only conduit to such a publisher is a literary agent, pure and simple.

Just think: in 2018, the number of self-published books jumped 40% to 1.2 million titles, according to Bowker’s annual survey of the self-publishing market, published in Publisher’s Weekly. The vast majority — some 92% — are published by Amazon. By comparison, the largest publishing group in the world, Penguin Random House (soon to also include Simon & Schuster) published 80,000 titles in 2019. That’s still a huge number, but a drop in the bucket compared to the tsunami of self-published books. Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Harper Collins (the other “majors”) together published less than 20,000 titles.

What that means is that it has become very difficult for the author who relies on self-publishing to break out from the pack and be recognized in the marketplace. Of course, there are certainly stories of authors whose self-published books were “picked up” by a major publisher, but those are a tiny percentage of the number of authors who never break through.

And this is where a literary agent can make a crucial difference. A literary agent can help an author rise from the self-published masses and get in front of a major publisher. Rather than becoming irrelevant, a literary agent is now more important than ever. The story of how I broke through as a best-selling author is a vivid example.

Peter Miller and I at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich while shooting the film “The Mystery of the Mona Lisa”

More than 15 years ago, a close friend of mine introduced me to Peter Miller. At the time, Peter ran his operation from an office on the second floor of a building in Soho, as every self-respecting agent was expected to do in the early 2000’s. When I first walked into his inner sanctum, I was intimidated. The walls were stacked with manuscripts, which an army of young interns was patiently plowing through (while probably looking for any reason to consign the work to the trash bin). Peter asked me what I had in mind, and I told him I wanted to write a book about the history of the Bible. I had just directed two programs with Charlton Heston, entitled Charlton Heston’s Voyage Through the Bible, and it had rekindled my love for biblical archaeology. But the book I had in mind would be different from everything else that was in the marketplace: as a historical document, placed in the cultural context of its time.

While few people are aware of it, individual parts of the Bible bear the clear imprint of the civilization in which the stories are set. For example, the stories of Abraham reflect the customs of the Babylonian era (and the Code of Hammurabi in particular), while the story of Joseph has many attributes from Ancient Egypt (the Second Intermediate Period, to be precise). The Books of Kings are framed by the civilization of Syria-Canaan, while the Maccabees reflect the Greek era and the New Testament is, of course, shaped by the unique conditions of the Roman Empire. That’s the story I wanted to tell.

Most literary agents would have smiled and shown me the door, but Peter believed in the concept. He proceeded to pitch the idea to a long list of publishers, who all turned it down. I could have papered my bathroom with the rejection letters we received (“While undoubtedly this proposal has great merit, unfortunately it is not a good match for our current slate….”). But Peter persevered. He continued to pursue the publishers on his impressive Rolodex (this was an era before smartphones) until one day he had lunch with an editor at National Geographic, Lisa Thomas. Lisa was intrigued, but wondered if the book should not be written by a panel of scholars, rather than just me. Peter convinced her to have me draft a proposal, which I did. In fact, the proposal grew to 100 pages. And, astonishingly, National Geographic bought it. I don’t think my feet touched the ground for a few days. The result was my first major hardcover for National Geographic, entitled The Biblical World. It became an international bestseller, which was quite a surprise for a hardcover priced at $40. That was the beginning of a 15-year relationship with National Geographic, with five more hardcovers and nine softcover books published in the years since.

My first book for National Geographic

I couldn’t have done it without Peter. Through all the ups and downs, and through all the negotiations for each new title, Peter remained a steady captain at the helm, forging ahead until each deal was closed and signed. And we didn’t just develop books together; we also produced several films that I directed, including The Mystery of the Mona Lisa.

Next year, 2021, I have three new books coming out: two with Apollo Publishers, The Dalí Legacy and Mapping America, as well as my magnus opus, National Geographic’s The Ultimate Visual History of the World (a 650 page hardcover). By then, Peter and I will have published 25 books with the nation’s top publishers.

So is a literary agent still relevant in our modern day? The answer is: absolutely! And in fact, that role is more relevant than ever, given the constant upheaval in the publishing industry. From my earliest days, it was always my dream to become an author. Peter Miller made that dream a reality.

National Geographic author, historian, and filmmaker, writing about things that lift our spirits and move our hearts.