Role of the Literary Agent in a Changing Marketplace
(This article, originally published in the Ninc newsletter, is a report on one panel I attended at the 2012 Novelists Inc. Conference in White Plains N.Y. This article was also referenced by literary agent Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich in his blog post When Agents Attack.)
Industry Guests: Robert Gottleib (Trident Media Group), Nita Taublib (G P Putman’s Sons), Donald Maass(Donald Maass Literary Agency), Jennifer Brehl (William Morrow), Jim McCarthy (Dystel & Goderich Literary Management), Paige Wheeler (Folio Literary Management)
Authors: Jenny Brown, Vella Munn, Shirley Hailstock, Brenda Hiatt
Moderator: Karen King
If you have heard any chatter about the Ninc Roundtables, it was probably about this roundtable. Things here were lively and at times heated to put it politely. While I think the rumors about this roundtable have taken things a bit past reality, many an audience member’s mouth was hanging open on more than one occasion at things said and the passion at which those things were expressed.
The roundtable started out innocently enough with the question of what authors are misunderstanding regarding the ebook revolution.
Many of the industry professionals shared that they see agents as a value added and think authors don’t understand the partnering. These professionals believe writers would rather be writing and don’t want to be publishers or know how to explore other rights. They see agents as having business experience, contacts and an understanding of the changing market that authors need. They also see agents as being able to help authors realize which projects they should be pursuing and give them the ability to sell into formats other than digital which will give those authors the ability to succeed in a changing market.
Another professional, however, disagreed with the term “revolution.” He said that there is a feeling among authors that they are a new nation being born and that these writers see a democracy of authors where cream will rise against the evil empire. Indie vs. traditional. But ebooks are just another way to deliver books to consumers. In his opinion, if you really want to grow an audience, you need an ebook and print, hardcover and paper, audio. You need everything. Ebooks work together with print books. Print books in stores are the best advertising for your ebooks. He does not see ebooks as a revolution, but as an add-on.
Another industry professional, however, disagreed. He said that ideally agents are partners working with authors to serve them better, but he does see ebooks as a revolution. “This year alone we have seen dozens of authors sell millions of books on their own with no support. Now you don’t necessarily need an agent and you definitely don’t need an agent who isn’t good. You need to be aware of what you are bringing to the table. And be aware of services that agent can offer. Be pushy and ask questions.”
This industry professional, however, frequently seemed to be alone in his opinions with the others really emphasizing the importance of authors having access to all “streams,” meaning print, audio, foreign rights, etc. Which isn’t to say that this professional didn’t also believe in the importance of this, but he seemed to see things more through the eyes of the authors than most of the other professionals.
At this point the professional who first disagreed with the term “revolution” posed a question to the authors, asking if their goal was to reach as many people as possible or to make a living.
Across the board the authors seemed see the money as pretty important and the gross number of readers reached not as important as other factors.
One author responded that she did see this as a revolution because it had made such a dramatic difference in the incomes of many. She also said that self-publishing gave her a sense of empowerment that authors had never had before and that that in itself was revolutionary and the big paradigm shift. (Along with the money.)
Another said she liked the mistakes being made being mistakes that she had made, not mistakes of people she didn’t know. She also mentioned money and that she has made more on selling 7,000 copies than she did when she sold 60,000. She is more interested in writing to a niche market of people who want the kind of book that she enjoys writing.
A third author said that she wanted to make a living wage from her writing, but that prior to indie publishing her books only paid for vacations and conferences.
A fourth said that when it came to traditional contracts she was over her head, but that by self-publishing books that don’t have a place in the traditional market she was able to buy a truck off of those profits.
This is a point where things turned a bit ugly with on industry professional saying “Good for you” in a sarcastic manner. This professional went on to say that over a million books are available on Amazon, but the average title sells only a few hundred copies. He said some self-published authors should stay self-published because they sell so few copies.
While the audience digested this obvious slight to 99% of the room, another industry professional pushed the point of authors needing agents by asking if authors had thought about liability. (This point was later outed by another industry professional as not really being that big of an issue.)Another pointed out that his company has agreements with Amazon that allow their authors to publish in certain ways. The definite message being that without the professionals authors will never have access to certain perks from Amazon and others and thus should want to sign with these professionals.
The conversation at this point had a definite adversarial edge and one industry professional said, “These are the hottest discussions we’ve had in 30 years.” People laughed, but there was a sense of shock in the audience at just how heated things were and how arrogant some of the industry professionals were.
The theme continued with an industry professional saying “We can’t represent every self-published author who wants to be represented. Great thing about self-publishing is it allows every author who wants to be published to be published.”
On paper this doesn’t read too egregious, but the tone was definitely dismissive of the majority of authors who are not going to be in the upper percent of sellers and defensive, as if this industry professional expected to be flooded with queries from Ninc members with less than worthy numbers. One author later told me that she felt like she had stepped back into time where she was expected to prostrate herself on the floor in worship of this industry professional’s greatness and beg him to give her even a cursory consideration. I am sure she is not the only author who left the room that day feeling that way.
Another industry professional, however, said that there are authors who don’t need everything an agent has to offer and that there are bad assumptions being made by both authors and agents. These changing times make the agent job more exciting, but maybe not as easy.
At this point things turned to agencies who offer ebook services to their clients. Three of the industry professionals said their agencies did this in some form. Most seemed to charge the author 15%. (I believe, however, this is in addition to the cost of covers, etc. I advise you to check for more details with the various agents if interested in this.) It was also mentioned though that there are agents still charging 50% for the same thing.
When asked about authors who have had success in self-publishing but are only interested in using an agent for foreign and subsidiary rights most industry professionals said they might do it for a select few, but only if the author has the numbers to support it.
Here an author asked the industry professionals to look at the audience, saying there were many authors sitting in front of them who they (the industry professionals) would not have chosen, but who are making a living self-publishing.
One professional said that was the good thing about the ebook market.
Another said, “Yeah, there are authors who have replaced their income and make a living with self-publishing. Yes, you don’t have to sell as many units. For fiction writers, it is not a title by title business. Replacing income is fine, but how do you grow from there? You cannot buy front of the store placement. They don’t sell it to you. How do you get more readers? That is why so many of those million selling authors are looking for print publishers. Because they need to reach those readers.”
Another professional expounded on this saying, “When an ebook is ready for an agent service to rep them, certain things have to be happening. Mid list author making 50 to 60K a year, I say God Bless. Traditional publishing is not set up to help you. When I started, publishers bought books because they loved them. It’s a different world today. Not question of when an agent is needed, but when are you ready for an agent? We have to deal with buyers who run numbers.”
An author again brought up subsidiary rights asking if the agents on the panel were interested in pursuing those for indie authors.
Again, the answer seemed to be no. One professional said even if 75,000 copies of a 99 cent book sold, he couldn’t afford to take you on to just sell foreign rights.
The talk became a bit more general at this point with discussion of agents editing and one industry professional saying that no agent will push their story as hard as they can. She sees her job as to make sure the book “rocks.”
A few final points made by industry professionals were that “you get what you pay for” and that “being a 99 cent author is a factor.” Meaning on the last that big numbers as a 99 cent book is a harder sell into print.
Overall, I left this panel with some insight into what is an obvious difference between agents and authors’ thinking right now. In my opinion, authors are feeling empowered and probably in many cases are unrealistic about what the conversion of our personal success/money in our pockets could mean to industry professionals. We can make more money for ourselves, but that doesn’t change other factors that agents have to deal with. What seems like big success to many of us, may not be enough to lure an agent into partnering with us. Or at least one of these agents.
On the other hand, I think, at least based on the conversations from this roundtable, many agents are counting much too heavily on an author’s need to be in all formats. This seemed to be a theme at more than one time and while I know authors definitely want to be in these other formats, they are not willing to trade as much as these professionals thought they should be willing to trade. Money, empowerment and other factors are more important to authors than these professionals seemed to appreciate.
Will this divide close as times continue to change? Based on the very heated and often adversarial conversation at this roundtable, I really don’t know.