Monday, June 13, 2011

Agents In A Digital World


Literary Agents fulfil many valuable roles. There will always be those that are deemed better than others and those who specialise or excel in certain areas. Some are expert ‘match makers’ and have the right contacts, in the right places, to ensure that ‘perfect’ match. Some are legal eagles and have the ability to pick through the finest of legal jargon, to ensure the interests of their clients are best served. Some are like PR Managers, who know how to exploit the author’s brand and extend the profile and earnings past the book. Some are ‘shapers’ and help hone the work and its position for the market. Some are all-rounders.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses, agents fulfil a pivotal role and like many agents in other walks of life they are now built into the publishing system.

Today, we read about the agents becoming digital publishers and publishers circumventing agents on digital in the UK and US and we have to ask what the role of the agent is in a digital world and whether it has changed? Is the role one we have constructed and built out of genuine need, or is it one that that has creep up on us and is now merely been woven into the fabric of publishing?

Regular readers will know that we have just returned from an enlightening trip to Norway, where as well as speaking, we also listened to the industry and gained some understanding of how they did some things somewhat differently.

Norway doesn’t have literary agents sitting between the author and the publisher like we do in the UK and US. They do use agents but mainly for foreign rights sales and it appears to be somewhat of an ‘agent free’ zone. This may be based on the size of the market, the fact that it is indigenous, the size of the writing pool and manuscript pile, or just be down to evolving to a different way of doing things.

The vast majority of contracts in Norway are to a standard industry boilerplate contract. Yes in the main the construct of the contract is the same for all. Now that is novel and offers so much opportunity with respect to recording, managing and searching for rights.

If we step back and ask what the role of the agent should be in a digital world some would argue that by becoming a publisher agents loose their independence to represent authors and have a conflict of interest. Others would argue, that by grasping the digital backlist nettle they are in fact waking up publishers to the heritage they have all too often ignored and treated as ‘having had its day’.

An agent approached a friend only a few days ago asking about a digital deal on some print back list titles that had been reverted. They had a ‘great deal’ on the table and offered the author the industry ‘standard’ 25%. Was it such a good deal and were they merely looking at the opportunity to collect 20% on what was a dead title? Many questions ensued. Was this a fixed term licence or perpetual? How much marketing and sales promotion was to be done, or was it to merely be thrown onto a digital shelf? What were the sales expectations and pricing model to be applied? The questions went on and the answers became somewhat muffled.

Its ironic that in an on line world of instant sales, cash transfers, real time information and where digital sales are sold effectively on consignment, it still take months for an author to be paid their digital royalty and they can’t they see their digital sales in real time? Its as if everyone has forgotten about real time sales and still want to force digital sales through old print royalty systems.

Is it any surprise that many authors and agents are now taking their digital opportunities more seriously than some would suggest their publishers are?

There is no right or wrong answer to the question of whether agents are essential and what they role should be on digital. However, one has to respect those who have at least seen that merely throwing digital titles onto a digital shelf in order to just to tick a box and one that that was all too often missing in the contract is maybe not always the answer.

7 comments:

Doktor Snake said...

I think those agent dogs are doomed. Some will reinvent themselves. Most will go the way of other industries that died due to changing markets.

Also, the digital revolution in books might well destroy the author as we currently know it. Copyright work might go super-nova and burn down a black hole, lost to a distant memory.

Bear in mind the biggest deal here: The internet/ebooks/mp3s/videos are all DEVALUING INFORMATION. See all books, including novels, and music and videos, as INFORMATION.

This devaluing can be seen on Amazon - endless dire Kindle editions. You wade through the junk looking for what you need....

...of course that could provide a place for literary agents - again acting as middle-guys to sift the trash from the gems.

But I wouldn't underestimate the big DEVALUATION.

I actually do have an answer to it. But I ain't givin' it away. I'm livin' it, right now ;-)

Freda Lightfoot said...

How much marketing and sales promotion was to be done, or was it to merely be thrown onto a digital shelf?
Quite. Authors are asking 'If I have to do all the promo anyway, why would I settle for 25 per cent when I can get 70 if I publish it myself?'
Publishers have to work harder for an author if they want to keep them.

Kathy Holmes said...

I totally agree that information is being devalued. When people text, tweet, post statuses and write books all from a cell phone, it all gets lumped together psychologically. And some of the cheap prices for books on amazon reflect this. I have to seriously ask myself if writing novels is the best use of my time and talent.

Doktor Snake said...

@Kathy Well that's a good question about whether writing your novels is the best use of your talent. You could think, oh, god, this is sad...but really it's an opportunity. The world is changing, or markets are, but this allows you to go wild.

I've decided I ain't no author no more. And I hated all that Random House, St. Martin's and literary agent arrogance (mine's a good guy, though)... and I liked fifty grand advances ;-) But they ain't there no more.

But I worked out how to thrive in the burnout. And I think a lot of authors can too.

In fact, why not write a book and price it at $100 and self-publish. Or $500. Have your ad copy saying "This is the most VALUABLE book on earth... more valuable than the Bible ever was..."

Of course, yours wouldn't be the most valuable book on earth... because mine would priced at $1,000 ;-)

I think the best thing authors can do is do the opposite of all the best advice they are given.

Martyn Daniels said...

i am sorry i do not believe that agents are wrong or irrilvent but are important and the roles they play must be undertaken irrespective. There are good and bad as in any walk of life.
What i am asking is how does digital change the role and the emphasis of what bases need to be covered?
Are agents right to be publishers and respect the value of the forgotten back list or should they always seek a publisher to do the publishing?
I don't believe there is a right or wrong answer just a different set of issues.

Martyn Daniels said...

This afternoon a publisher asked me how they find those gems that can be brought back.
My answer was that it wasn't and isn't easy and its not just about processing whatever is on the shelf looking for a home. There is no registry of forgotten titles. There is no list of available rights. It takes a cerain amount of instinct and information on past sales or lending etc.
Interestingly I saw a back list book brought back to life as a app. It never sold as a print book and was remaindered and I would argue was far from low hanging fruit and the correct place to start.
Agents do know what has sold well they also have a good handle on what has legs today.

Kathy Holmes said...

It'll be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

One of my Silicon Valley technical writer co-workers said back in the '90s that she thought that in the future our jobs would be about transferring information from one place to another. We were paid well for that information so I naturally thought this would be a good thing. But now that same information transfer has made its way into all aspects of writing and doesn't seem to be as valued.

My manager likes to quote a Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times..." - and we just smile...