Weighing the Value of the Literary Agent in the Digital Age
The great digital transformation has forced publishers to reinvent their business models, go direct to consumers, and reevaluate their value to authors when self-publishing provides a lower barrier to entry and sometimes greater profits. But publishers aren't the only book professionals upended by these changes. Literary agents are struggling to prove their worth to authors that prefer to forgo management fees and publish and market their works independently.
The changes brought about by self-publishing and the new role agents must play as a result were the topics of discussion during a panel at this year's BookExpo America titled "Beyond Authors: Self-Publishing and the 'New' Agents." Christopher Kenneally of the Copyright Clearance Center moderated the session which featured literary agents Robert Gottlieb of Trident Media Group, Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such, Steven Axelrod of the Axelrod Literary Agency, and agent-turned-content-strategist Jason Allen Ashlock of The Frontier Project.
Axelrod encapsulated the precarious situation in which agents find themselves, contending that where once authors went to an agent first in hopes of becoming published, they now self-publish until they ascertain a clear benefit from working with an agent. The problem, continued Axelrod, is there isn't always one. "I have a romance writer who has done the math, knowing that if she took her books to Kindle she would make much more money. It's hard for me to tell her not to because it is a better deal. The math is the math."
Other panelists emphasized that an agent's relationship with his author entails so much more than obtaining a book contract. "To define agents as transactional in today's environment is naïve," said Gottlieb, "We do marketing, design, and we form unique relationships with e-retailers so that authors can do what they want in those spaces." Above all, said Gottlieb, an agent's role is to get his author in as many channels of distribution as possible, including ebooks, audiobooks, and foreign markets. "If you are published in a variety of tributaries, you are in a much stronger position to dictate where you are in the future."
Ashlock echoed Gottlieb's sentiment by defining the new agent as a "radical mediator": a person who not only must mediate with the publisher, but with every other aspect of the value chain. "The publishing value chain is no longer a linear chain, from author to agent to publisher to retailer. It is more of a web. There are multiple ways to get from point A to point B."
This new breed of mediation should go beyond working with traditional publishing outlets, argued Ashlock. Along with film and TV deals, agents should represent their authors to organizations, such as non-profits or professional associations, that have similar audiences and have the capabilities to market and publish a work. "If anyone can produce books and market books more effectively than those doing it for decades, then we are open to that idea," said Ashlock.
The panel emphasized that much of an agent's traditional skillset is still incredibly beneficial for authors and the need for those skills are only heightened by the digital revolution. With Google Books' massive theft of copyrighted works and many readers' affinity for illegal downloads, agents' legal expertise on rights and licensing are more important than ever, said Gottlieb. "Author advocacy is based on a whole range of issues, and a lot of these issues deal with legality-issues agents are very experienced in."
Gardner agreed: "Not only are we advocating for our authors, but we're battling the zeitgeist of our culture. People believe that information should be free because they don't separate free information on the internet from people's [purchasable] work. We are battling that...making sure our authors get paid for the work that they've done."
Though all four panelists admitted agents face a hard road ahead, they were also eager to adapt. "We're optimistic," said Gottlieb, "Even though there are storms over the horizon, you still need to keep changing and adapting to your environment."
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Ellen Harvey is a freelance writer and editor who covers the latest technologies and strategies reshaping the publishing landscape. She previously served as the Senior Editor at Publishing Executive and Book Business.