Monday, May 09, 2011

The Once and Future Literary Agent

There’s quite a bit of buzz going around about the metamorphosis of the role of literary agents in the publishing paradigm. It’s an intriguing topic, as so many debut authors feel the necessity to have one. Being an reformed literary agent, I can see many roles agents could fill in the 21st century publishing world, but before the profession truly finds its way, attitudes will have to change.

There are groups of writers who believe that an agent's singular role in life is to do what they have done since the beginning of time—take on clients and get them published. They read queries, reject or order a manuscript, and then reject or offer representation. Once the ink is dry on the agency agreement, the agent's role changes from gate-keeper to salesman, and he or she shops the book around until it's placed or until it fails to attract a sale in a reasonable length of time.

At this point, if the book is placed, the agent's role again changes and he or she becomes a negotiator. After negotiations, the agent of record processes client monies, tries to sell more of the client’s books, and works subrights as needed. That's it. Anything beyond this is felt to be a conflict of interest. Anything more could give an agent the opportunity to make money outside of commission, and this is a big least to some.

So it can be seen by this short trip through an agent's part in the publishing process that the agent's role is mostly on the front end. Although most agents have traditionally had little participation in what happens later in the publishing process--revisions, edits, printing, distribution and those tasks taken care of by the acquiring publisher—the outlook on this is changing. The question is not simply whether an agent can do more, as most have always been able to, but instead it will be whether they will be allowed to do more.

I bring this up because, as an agent in a small agency, I often had to deal with one of the very unpleasant parts of the business that no one really talks about. Everything our agency did was scrutinized beyond rational measure, constantly monitored, and reported on by writers’ advocacy groups. Then, when I became a member of the AAR, what I could and could not do was delineated by the AAR Canon of Ethics. Even though the Canon's wording is relatively broad and some parts can be interpreted in more than one way, it was still very restrictive.

A few years ago something happened that began to change the way readers could receive their reading materials. Ebooks arrived? No, Ebooks have been around since the Internet began in one form or another. What happened is that a device arrived on the scene called the Amazon Kindle. At first it was shrugged off as another toy, but when readers began buying them faster than they could be produced, print publishing, which had been declining for years anyway, finally saw a real threat not produced by their own incompetence (I'll save the incompetence part for another post). When print began going south, writer's agents began seeing a decrease in lunches that editors offered, an increase in turnaround and an increase in rejection. Bottom lines began to be bothersome because agencies have rents, utilities and staffs, too. Many began thinking of other ways to fill the coffers, and it’s become a topic of interest on Twitter that keeps popping up.

About this time, some agents, including us, suggested considering the reinstatement of reading fees, which was, of course, met with suspicion and disdain. Others suggested raising commissions, while some saw the hand-writing on the wall and turned in their agent spurs and headed for new adventures.

The discussion continues, and discussion is a wonderful thing. So what will happen to the agent's role? Having been an agent for as long as I was, I can say this much: It’s a relief to know that those who held us to those tight standards over the years will cease to have a voice in the new role agents can play in publishing. They are simply not relevant anymore in the new order of things. I can see agents filling roles that I was called to task for doing just a few years ago, such as offering editorial services. It’s also quite possible that they could take over the packager's role, hiring authors to write on a work-for-hire basis, finishing the rest of the process then offering the completed package to publishers, both in E and in print.

In fact, I see the packaging role the one an agent could most easily fill. I don't see agents disappearing, which has also been bandied around. I do, however, see some literary agents morphing into other areas like managing sports figures, singers or other entertainers, like the Robert Morris Agency has been doing for years. It would be a big waste, would leave too big a void for literary agents to completely go the way of the horse and buggy, or even the gasoline driven automobile.

Think about it. What role do you see literary agents filling in the future? Post a comment and let’s get a discussion going. J


Barry said...

Some agents will be watching ebook sales to find fresh talent who are achieving success without an agent on the e-market. However, what is missing in the e-market us a serious review model. Maybe agents could fill this niche?

jenny milchman said...

I dearly hope that my agent will continue to fill the traditional role, in addition to wielding her considerable flexibility in whichever roles may come. My suspicion is that traditional publishing will remain, even if it is reserved for an increasingly rarefied group. Probably writers won't query or be on sub for ten years, honing their craft and hoping for that lucky conflagration, when e publishing offers such an easy beginning, relatively speaking.

But as the realities of mixed success in the e world rear their ugly heads, and as pipelines clog with content, traditional publishing will perhaps pendulum swing back to prominence.

I hope both exist in balance, and that agents play a role with writers whose careers straddle these different worlds.

Great topic!

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Dear Barry and Jenny, thanks for your comments.
Many major publishers are beginning to publish ebooks only (no print version), so I don't see this as the end of major publishers, per se. I do believe, however, that major publishers are going to have to change their attitudes if they hope to remain in business. For one thing,they are going to have to learn what readers want rather than what bookstore marketers want. Secondly, to compete, major publishers are going to have to come up with a better pricing model. When most ebooks are priced at less than $5, it's ridiculous to think print publishers can continue to price theirs at $12.95. Also, as the noose tightens, there's going to be many more discussions on large advances and bookstore returns.
As for the pipeline being clogged with sludge, I doubt that's going to make any difference. Supply and demand will take care of that issue--if it is one.

Carradee said...

Why does a book author need someone to be the packager? Freelance writers don't have packagers. Aren't authors just another form of freelancer?

I suspect that the technology shift will produce a large number of agents that are essentially acquiring editors for their self-run small press that focuses on acquiring authors rather than individual books.

MCPlanck said...

It’s a relief to know that those who held us to those tight standards over the years will cease to have a voice in the new role agents can play in publishing.

I woulda gone with "rigid" or even "constraining," personally. Complaining about being held to tight standards just seems a little... sleazy.

But hey - since I'm a hide-bound old-style commentator, I'll give you that editorial comment free of charge. :D

Liesl said...

Most agents I know of spend many, many hours editing and revising with their clients before going on submission, WITHOUT PAY. So to say that agents will have to jump into more editorial roles and charge for their services seems totally wrong. They already do it for free, or at least expecting that it will pay off in the end through their commission.

As for the e-book issue, it's about the content, whether it's online or on paper. I'm personally wary of buying self-published books, even for 99 cents. Why? I don't have time to waste on crappy books and I personally feel that when a book is published with a major publishing house, it has gone through many gates and check-points to make sure that it is quality material. I know not every book that gets published is amazing, but they usually beat 99% of what's self-published.

The world may want cheap books, but I think mostly they want good books, and if I have to pay $10 for a good book, it's worth it to me. You get what you pay for. It's as true today as it ever was.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Hi Carradee, Thank you for your comment.

There aren't many true freelance fiction authors (freelance meaning selling directly to a publisher). Freelancers mostly reside on the non-fiction side where they can sell articles, blog content, or even books on spec. Fiction authors, on the other hand, choose to have agents. Authors are freelance when they choose to go it on their own. Once they have an agent, the agent represents them to the publisher.

At the present time agents aren't allowed to be packagers. Writer advocacy groups consider this a conflict of interest. However, when bottom lines tighten, many agents will be faced with quitting or morphing into areas not considered an agent's role at present. How this will all shake out depends on many factors, including what is deemed acceptable by authors.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...


Thanks for your comment.

Some agents have always played a huge role in the editorial process, although I also personally know several who never, ever do anything editorial and just pass along what their clients write. If those books don’t sell, the client is dropped to make room for another author who can do the editorial work on his own, which makes sense if you figure that a professional writer should be able to produce something salable with little or no editorial direction. Whether or not the agent does editorial is up to how much the agent likes doing that kind of work, the types of genres she reps, and several other factors. In other words, it’s just how that agent chooses to do business.

What’s problematic is the attitude that everything an agent does will be paid for by the commission he receives, and that if he doesn’t receive a large enough commission to cover the time and effort invested in selling the novel, then it’s his fault. I know where this comes from, and it’s nice that this reasoning will soon be obsolete. I always find it interesting that some authors who expect a large upfront advance for their words find it okay that many agents who invest as much, if not more, in their work and careers can wait and take what they get. Believe me, when the pen is poised on the dotted line, most authors aren’t thinking about their agent’s commission, although I’ve been blessed to work with writers who actually thought about whether or not I was properly compensated by the commission I received on their work. They were very considerate and are absolute gems. :)

As for ebooks, you make an excellent point about readers that authors should keep in mind, and we’ve mentioned this over and over again. That is that readers like getting good reads, and this is why name recognition is so important. Readers, like you mention, do not have time to review the vast number of books floating around in print or in e, so it is VITAL that the author develop an audience.Unfortunately, most writers want to just write and leave marketing to the publisher or to fate.