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.