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