Literary Agents and the Changing World of Trade Publishing

This post, from Mike Shatzkin, originally appeared on the Idealog blog on 11/14/09, and is reprinted here in its entirety with his permission.

I had a lunch conversation this week with three successful literary agents, who will remain anonymous for this post. They wanted to talk about the panel we’re having at Digital Book World called “The Changing Author-Agent Relationship: How Will It Affect the Business Model?”

That panel was born when I engaged an agent last summer with my observations about digital change and tried to recruit her to join a panel discussion about it. “Suppose you work with an author to develop her manuscript so your creative input becomes part of the work. Then you can’t sell it, or you get only a token offer for it, and the author wants to self-publish. Shouldn’t you, or any agent in that spot, be entitled to something in that case?”

The agent, sensing quickly that I was going to a model of “author pays agent for consulting help” said, “I can’t participate in a conversation like that. We have a canon of ethics in the AAR, and that might well run afoul of it.”

As it turns out, the canon of ethics of the AAR only explicitly prohibits agents from charging “reading fees” to prospective clients. Other charges are explictly permitted, such as for xeroxing and messengers. And others, such as consulting on self-publishing options, aren’t mentioned.

But, still, the question of whether the business model needs to change remains. The kind of book advances that agents have made a living on for years are diminishing in number. And now that self-publishing is legitimately part of the commercial continuum, authors have a right to expect that their career business manager, which an agent is, will employ it, or suggest that they do, when it makes sense. And agents will have a right to expect to be paid for that.

Of course, that’s not what these three successful working agents do. Their business assets are their personal knowledge of and relationships with acquiring editors; their ability to shape a writer’s concept and proposal into a commercial book; their knowledge of the ins and outs of book contracts and publishers’ accounting procedures. Exploring and keeping up with the various print and electronic self-publishing options: starting with Author Solutions and Smashwords, but including many others including our client Bookmasters, lulu.com, and many others, is a fulltime job in itself. (There’s a string started on Brantley’s list today by Joe Esposito who noticed announcements for four new self-publishing startups in his email in the past few days.) And searching out the authors with the money to self-publish, let alone to pay for advice on how to do it effectively, is also not what the successful agent in the current marketplace does.

I had spoken at a Writer’s Digest conference two months ago and told aspiring writers “get an agent” but also, “make sure the agent knows about the self-publishing options.” These very professional and desirable agents did not. But they agreed that when ten or thirty or fifty times a year a project they’d developed goes off for self-publishing, they’ll want to have a way to monetize that. We agreed that the likely solution will be an alliance with somebody who perhaps positioned themselves more as a “consultant” to aspiring authors. There is no shortage of such people.

The conversation turned to contract terms, particularly regarding ebooks. The agents asked me: “don’t the big trade publishers see that the strategy of paying authors half or less of what many ebook publishers will pay on digital book royalties isn’t sustainable? that we’ll end up splitting those deals?” I told them that I had raised this point with Big Six CEOs and they all said, “we won’t buy print-only; never happen.” The big publishers are counting on the authors’ (and agents’) desire for the advance to keep them locked into the current model. (Richard Curtis made this same point in a recent eReads post.) It is clear that the idea of splitting off ebooks from print contracts is one that these agents have been thinking about for a while. The relative attraction of the advance goes down as the level of ebook sales on which you’re taking half or less of what you could get goes up.

We also spent a little time discussing “verticals” and my theory that power is moving from “control of IP to control of eyeballs.” In the past week, I’ve had two conversations with Hay House executives (they’re on the Digital Book World program too) about their business. To somebody with a trade orientation, it’s pretty phenomenal. They run between 30 and 100 live events a year for their community. They have over 1 million email addresses that drive the sales of all their books. One of the agents said he had an author for whom he sold a book to one of the Big Six houses and they sold twelve thousand copies. He sold the next title to Hay House and they sold two hundred thousand. How long will the Big Six houses be able to compete for big-potential books in Hay House’s sweet spot (mind-body-spirit), advances or no advances?

One of the agents at lunch does a lot with juveniles. “Do I have to worry about this ebook thing much?” that agent asked. Soon you will, I said. After lunch I was working with my frequent collaborator Ted Hill on a proposal we’re making for another conference on digital tipping points. One we were talking about is “when does the publishing house have editors shift their focus from developing a print book with an author, with the ebook as afterthought, to developing the best possible digital product, with the print book coming out of it?” That gave me an answer for that agent: you better have somebody on your team now who can see the digital book possibilities in every idea before you peddle it. Now that you’ve made me think about it, I realize that if you’re not fully exploring the creative possibilities for digital products for every kids book you develop, you’re already missing the boat.

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