Literary Agents in the Digital Age

Gray-eyed Athena sent them a favorable breeze, a fresh west wind, singing over the wine-dark sea. – Homer, The Odyssey
My friend, literary agent Wendy Lawton, recently wrote an intriguing post wondering about her own obsolescence. It is an honest and open look at the current state of affairs in traditional publishing and what that could mean for agents in the future.
This prompted a few musings of my own, from a writer’s point of view. To begin, I dip into the realm of myth.
The traditional publishing industry has long been a Forbidden Kingdom. Writers on their journey toward publication had almost no hope of entering the gates alone. They had to find someone willing to show them the way, someone with influence within the walls.
Enter the agent as mentor. That word comes from a character in The Odyssey who guides Telemachus through the dark world. It turns out later that Mentor is really the goddess Athena in disguise. She has special powers to help, and so do agents seeking to get writers their own set of keys to the Kingdom.
But here is the question: what if a new kingdom is discovered by Telemachus? And what if access to this kingdom is open to all? Does Telemachus need his Mentor anymore?
If he still wishes to enter the Forbidden Kingdom, the answer is yes. But there have been reports flown out via carrier pigeon that this Kingdom is in turmoil. There is chaos and infighting and confusion and bonfires. At the same time, word is that in the new kingdom a revolution is underway. It has no walls or gatekeepers. Writers are dancing through tulips and earning gold sovereigns all by themselves.
Why should Telemachus tarry outside the forbidden walls when he can join that dance on the other side of the river?
This is the question of the moment for writers: pursue the “forbidden kingdom” of traditional publication? Or go join the rebels?
If the former, which is certainly a free and legitimate choice, you need a mentor, a guide. You need someone who: knows who is buying what, can brainstorm a project with you, can negotiate a contract, can collect your money, can buck you up when you’re down, can feed you valuable information about the industry.
If you decide to go solo, you will need to fill your own gaps in “quality control,” and believe me, you’ll have them. You’re on your own, and not every adventure into the forest ends happily. Start the journey with your eyes wide open.
As e-books continue toward becoming the primary delivery system (you no doubt saw that Amazon sold four times the number of Kindles on Black Friday this year than they did last year). agents become crucially important in the negotiation of contracts. For example, the agent should fight against draconian option and non-compete clauses. There should be real give and take with a publisher, keeping the long view and the writer’s best interests in mind.
But as we all know the traditional publishing industry faces challenges of major proportions, and that has affected agents. Advances are low and not as many deals are being struck. Thus, some agents have become de facto publishers, which has raised concerns about conflict of interest. Others are actively seeking to secure the best e-rights options for their clients.
Agents are human. Not all of them are good. I’m fortunate in that my own agent, and the agents I know personally, are superb professionals. But there are lemons out there, so know this: having no agent is better than having a bad agent. And the best agents will see the value in the author having a platform-building presence on the indie publishing side of the valley.
Like everyone else in the publishing game, agents are going to have to explore ways to adapt to the increasing rate of change. But they will continue to have a role to play because traditional publishing still exists.
What do you think the future holds for agents? 

20 thoughts on “Literary Agents in the Digital Age

  1. Agents are more important than ever. As the publishing landscape changes, the rights that publishers offer (or try to retain) are in flux. Whether authors self-publish or go the traditional route, they need someone to guide them through the process and look out for their interests. Otherwise, authors stand to lose tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention countless hours of their time, which could be better spent writing.

    If you just want to see your name in print, fine — upload that file to Smashwords and hope someone reads it. But if you want writing to be your business, then enlist the help of a professional. It doesn’t have to be an agent. If you self-publish, you can hire a literary attorney, an editor, a publicist, a graphic artist to design the cover, etc. Just remember, everything you do yourself takes time away from your writing.

  2. Timely topic for me, Jim. My agent recently announced her retirement. She represented my co-author for 20 years and 11 novels, and me for 6 years and 5 novels. We believe that we still need an agent–things have not changed so much in the industry yet that we can go it alone. A lot revolves around our international publishers–something we just can’t manage by ourselves. So we are gearing up for agent-hunting season and will soon venture into the dark woods.

  3. A realistic perspective. My only published novel did not have the benefit of an agent’s representation, not for my lack of trying to acquire it. My small publisher folded and gave me my rights back, so the novel’s back out there as a self-published offering but only because I still wanted a presence while I shopped a second novel with agents. Representation is key, for all the reasons mentioned here.

  4. As technology revolutionizes the way writing is delivered to readers, nimble agents will be able to add value by providing curated content to the public. In the past, agents screened manuscripts for publishers, in effect serving as the intake phase of the publishing process. In the future, an agent’s role as curator will remain the same, but her process options will greatly expand. She may sell some manuscripts to traditional publishers; publish others under her own imprint; or help authors self-publish their work. I think the future is bright for agents who can adapt to the technology changes that are revolutionizing the book business.

  5. I think that as guides, there is potential for agents, but agents have long considered themselves the gatekeepers. While the battle goes on, the walls are breached and it makes one question whether there is any point of the gatekeepers remaining at their posts. But I suspect that the walls will be rebuilt. In the past, publishers existed because they provided printing and distribution. In the new system, I think there will be publisher who stand out because readers will recognize that everything they publish is of stuff they want to read. I think people will begin to purchase books based on the imprint rather than simply looking throught the pile and finding something that looks interesting. The pile is too big for that, so they will turn to specialists. The agents who succeed will be those who are able to help the specialists find the books they fit within their specialty.

  6. Yes, this post confirms that it’s “all Greek” to more than just me.

    Agents are still needed to vet work, pitch the book to a marketplace they know, get an author’s foot in the door of houses only accepting agented submissions, & negotiate contracts. Where things have really changed for them seems to be the ala carte menu of rights.

    Subsidiary rights have greater value. Deals aren’t bundled like they used to be where digital was “thrown in.” And rights reversion language has turned ala carte too and should give agents a second life on the back end of a deal. Digital can’t go “out of print” so it shouldn’t be thrown in with print language. A publisher should only get 2-3 yrs to make money on digital before those rights revert back to the author to self-pub or the agent to resell somewhere else for the author.

    The best agents will be the ones who redefine their role with imagination & aren’t afraid to work harder for these ala carte morsels on the front & back end of a deal.

  7. Yes, yes, and yes there will always be a need for agents. I know with small pub they still use agents for different reasons – to fetter out new talent, to find ways to sell their subsidiary rights and much more. Lit Agents don’t just work for authors – some service pubs too. Not to mention all authors are not interested in publishing their own work. Why should authors pick one or the other when now both doors are open. Lit agents can help authors figure out which work would be best sold to other venues prior to going to market and what work is best served direct.

  8. Ah, the trade-offs…

    I’ll focus on one of Jim’s points in the article: If you cross the river and join the rebels, you best have your running shoes on, and a sturdy shield, (and some magic potion).

    Indie publishing is busy work, and while I’m finding a platform for my WISHES CHRONICLES series, (one of the reasons I made the decision to go it alone at this point), I wonder if all the time and energy I’ve expended would have been better spent writing the next book.

    I just posted the second novel in the series on last night.

    I’m proud of my work, but I’m also proud of what I’ve learned throughout all of this. I’m way too motivated (or too OCD) to sit by and wait for TPI to gather me into the fold.

    Quality matters, folks, and the time it takes to write a novel, edit it, learn how to format it so it reads appropriately, design cover art, and market it is important, and exhausting.

    But, I jumped.

    And while the wood is dark, I’ve set my characters free to find word-of-mouth, the place I wanted them to be all the while.

    Will another agent pick them up for traditional publishers?

    I hope so, one day. Until then, and maybe even after that, it’s my job to see that readers find them and love them as much as I do.

    Joe, with your quality of writing you and your co-author will come home with your tag filled, no doubt (and you won’t need near as much of that magic potion that some of us do).

  9. Once again, an enjoyable post, James. You should lecturing at a university. You would put posterior in the seats of the lecture hall each day.

    I see more and more authors chasing fewer and fewer agents in the future. In turn, I see those same agents chasing fewer and fewer editors. One question in this brave new world is how agents are to be paid. With fewer advances, large or otherwise, I see agents having to do the same work for more clients for less money. Will agents continue to be drawn to the profession? Or will they have to take another vocation out of professional necessity? Will it be financially advisable for an agent to take a percentage of one sale at a time if he guides, advises, and represents self-published authors who are selling their wares at $2.99 per book? I agree that authors will continue to need agents; I also think that it’s going to be more difficult to find one, due to economics.

  10. Thoughtful comments. It’s so hard to make predictions because the landscape is in so much flux. A couple of points seem particularly apt for reflection.

    1. The role of publishers. Will some, as Timothy suggests, manage to become an imprint (viz., web hub) of consistent and reliable content, enough so that they can start making money again? Will the organizational infrastructure required to become such a hub (talented editors being the most important part) be sustainable? I think the jury is still way out on that one. The business cycle is so brutal right now it’s hard to make confident predictions.

    2. @LM, certainly one of the marks of a great agent is the ability to “help authors figure out” where to place work. One has to be careful here if there is also a publishing aspect to the agency, for conflict-of-interest reasons. The challenge for agents is also sustainability as the above mentioned business cycle is driving down income.

    The economic dust storm is blowing over every aspect of the publishing world right now, with each part affecting every other part. The moment you try to nail one corner of your tent to the ground, another is uprooted. Hang onto your camel, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

  11. Most of my agent acquaintances are pessimistic about their future because they tend to be realists. Publishing has been a very complacent business for decades and few people looked to the horizon, among them many agents.
    Most agents subsist on their commission from advances. That incomes is rapidly dropping. In fact, many new publishers are going with profit sharing, which is difficult to determine, never mind pay the bills.
    Agents could have a strong role in subrights such as audio (although Audible’s ACX program is a no-brainer), foreign rights, print rights and distribution, media, and gaming.
    The new buzzword in media is transmedia, and once more, publishing is way behind the times embracing that model. This is a place where a savvy agent might thrive.

    But the days of the agent walking around a writers’ conference as the cock of the walk are over. I routinely deposit checks sent directly from distributors that are bigger than any check an agent ever forwarded to me.

    One other thing: the agent becoming publisher. It takes two years to get up to speed as a digital publisher. I speak from my own experience and others I’ve talked to who’ve done it. And those agents who have proclaimed they will do it and only take their usual 15% are deluding themselves and indicating they know little of what’s involved. My mantra has been not whether agents should become publishers but whether agents CAN be a publisher. It’s a different skill set.

  12. Thanks, Bob, for the benefit of your experiences. You hit on a major dynamic, for all in the “food chain” — education. One of the big problems for the bigger publishers is that rapid experimentation, innovation, trying things out to see if they work, etc., is difficult for a huge enterprise. The concept of “Intra-preneurship” must be explored (giving innovative freedom to sub-divisions within a company). This is going to cost R & D dollars, and money is tight, but it has to be done.

  13. My ever-cloudy crystal ball shows a publishing future five years hence that looks remarkably like the structure we have now.

    Self publishing is to the book business what You Tube is to the movie and television business. There’s some good stuff on YT, but mostly it proves that knowing how to work a camera does not mean you know how to make a movie. People feel good about posting, but it’s very, very difficult to make a sustainable living off your YT channel.

    If you want dependable, quality entertainment on your television, you seek the imprimatur of a gatekeeper, whether it’s NBC, Discovery, Netflix or Hulu. The quality is there because the players all understand that at the end of the day, the public wants quality. And they want it cheaply.

    Enter a critical yet somewhat revised role for the publisher and agent.

    E-books will replace mass market paperbacks. Where we used to have of paperback only houses, we’ll see the birth of e-book only houses. Because the price point of the ebooks will be lower, so, too, will the advances, but I think that the lower price will be offset by a bigger royalty share and faster payouts. (There’s no reserve against returns for an ebook.)

    Just as hard/soft deals used to be negotiated separately with different houses, we’ll see hard/ebook negotiations in the future.

    Because e-publishing is way less expensive than killing trees, we’ll see a LOT more publishers out there, providing a LOT more opportunity for good writers. There’ll be specialization, just as there used to be in the past.

    Publishers will be willing to take the kinds of risks they used to in building an author. The novella will be reborn. Short stories will become more popular.

    When it all settles out, the publishers will bring in as much revenue, but at a higher margin and with less of the revenue concentrated on a handful of megastars. The megastars, meanwhile, will get smaller advances, but they will be offset by the quicker payout.

    Or, I could be wrong.

    John Gilstrap

  14. Brother Gilstrap, thanks for taking a stab at predictions, a notoriously difficult practice at the moment. There are so many things that have to fall into place for any certainty to happen, and I think all the key parts are going to remain movable. One example:

    Because e-publishing is way less expensive than killing trees, we’ll see a LOT more publishers out there, providing a LOT more opportunity for good writers.

    The key assumption here is that good writers will be willing to give up a hearty chunk of their e-rights for services they can contract for themselves (and even more of a chunk if an agent is involved in the transaction). A publisher will need to be able to add substantial value in areas like marketing and placement (i.e., digital deals with Amazon and B & N, etc.) But will such a push be ongoing? If the author is going to be doing the bulk of his own marketing, this may not be a good trade off in the long term.

    That’s just one example of the many factors involved in making an informed decision in the “sand storm.”

  15. I value my agent’s input in all my work so I definitely see a role for agents in the future. I also kinda like Gilstrap’s predictions…who knew we had a guru in our midst??

  16. With the way many of the e-book distributors take a cavalier attitude at “lending” ebooks, I’m thinking agents will most certainly find an e-book niche. First, however, we have to bridle the big guns in the e-book trade. For example, I recently learned that Amazon’s small print in their agreement clauses declares that they can change their terms at any time without notifying the author.

    Also, I recently removed my books from Smashwords because when I checked my account, I saw that Smashwords “lent” 100 copies of my book to readers, and sold none. Sorry. If someone is gonna give my book away, let it be me.

    I believe savvy agents will find ways to keep themselves necessary in the e-book marketplace. I know they will, and I hope they will soon. A good agent is like gold–and we authors sure could use some agents who know how to navigate the e-book kingdom.

  17. Yeah, having been both with an agent and going solo there are I benefits I think to both. But to be honest, I’d rather be agented if that meant the person was willing and able to market my works harder than I could myself.

    I do hire an editor, and hire a cover art person. But thus far, still waiting for that big agency to pick me up, I’ve been able to make more without an agent than I did with one.

    Kathleen, I’d be curious to know more about the Smashwords lending thing. I looked at my books there and didn’t see that as an option. Could you elaborate on it?

  18. I don’t know what’s in store for agents. All I do know is, with all the change & turmoil in publishing, I want one now more than ever. I have my own set of skills & yes, I can adapt and do damn near anything I set my mind to, but I’m not stupid enough to think I could their job with any real degree of success. So I’m still looking to gain entrance to that forbidden kingdom. And I need the gatekeeper to take my hand.

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