HALLIE: Jane, there’s no doubt that seismic changes are underway in the publishing business. So many agents I’ve talked to are thoroughly discouraged. Many say they just can’t survive. And when survival is at stake, people change.
Is the agent’s traditional role as link between author and publisher going the way of the dodo?
JANE FRIEDMAN: I'd rather say that the agent's limited role as link between author and publisher is going the way of the dodo. Most authors will always need someone to assist (and trust) in contractual negotiations, licensing deals, and other facets of the business side of authorship.
But I think it will be tougher for agents to sustain themselves on the 15% they earn selling a book to a publishing house—and I'm thinking especially of those agents who don't yet have a strong client roster and profitable backlist sales.
HALLIE: What are some of the new “agenting” (I put it in quotes because I don’t yet know what else to call it) models that are emerging?
JANE FRIEDMAN: I can see three distinct models so far:
- Full career management. Many of the best agents have already been acting as partner in forming an author's long-term brand and online presence. Agents might more often assist in marketing campaigns, publicity, website builds, and social media. Of course, publishers can be responsible for (or assist with) these things, too, but they tend to focus on a single title. An agent is in a better position to manage these aspects with a more holistic vision. Also, some powerful agents (as we've seen with Andrew Wylie), may also be able to strike powerful partnerships with retailers and distributors.
- Fee-based services. Agents are industry insiders, and as such are in a position to professionally assist all kinds of writers, whether their work is New York publisher worthy or not. Normally, agents' code of ethics would prevent them from building a business on anything but sales commissions, but this will change. (See this write-up I did of an agent panel, at Digital Book World, where the president of AAR allowed for this possibility.) But, everyone agrees: Transparency is key.
- Publishing services. The big example here is agent Scott Waxman, who started Diversion Books. Diversion publishes e-book originals, and he's focusing on works that don't have a place in the current commercial market. I've talked to several other agents who are also looking at how they might assist in publishing their clients' work in a meaningful way. Many of the ideas are niche or community based, since that makes it much easier to market and reach a readership.
JANE FRIEDMAN: So far, I think it's excellent. Most unpublished authors would love an opportunity to pay a known professional for assistance, and/or work more closely with an agent on developing their career. I foresee stronger partnerships and better advocates for authors.
On the other hand: It does open up opportunities for scamming. It might be harder for a writer to identify when a service is worth the cost. However this situation isn't so different from the one we're in today.
HALLIE: What about the impact on booksellers and publishers?
JANE FRIEDMAN: The big problem all publishers and booksellers (and agents) are dealing with right now are e-book rights and other multimedia rights. What is the right price for e-book editions, what should the release schedule be like, how should the royalties play out, and how about international rights for e-books? (For a summary of these issues, check this summary of a Digital Book World panel.)
Even though it seems like common sense that publishers should pay higher royalties on e-books—since there aren't the physical production, inventory, and distribution costs—publishers still have the legacy business and products to support, and continuing production challenges in creating and distributing e-editions.
HALLIE: Does this mean authors won’t need agents any longer?
JANE FRIEDMAN: Not at all. While some savvy authors, especially those with a direct connection to their readership (think: JA Konrath) may have less need for an agent, most authors (especially those completely new to the industry) need someone to serve as a trusted business adviser or partner. I believe agents with powerful connections, or the ability to negotiate compelling partnerships with major retailers or media companies, will be in a stronger position to attract the best and most profitable authors.
HALLIE: Congratulations on your new job! Tell us what you're going to be up to in the coming months?
JANE FRIEDMAN: Thank you! I'm very excited to start teaching full-time this fall as a professor of e-media. While I loved my role at Writer's Digest, and still serve as a contributor, I'll now be able to spend more time on the things I'm most passionate about: teaching, speaking, writing, and reading—as well as pondering the future of publishing! Keep an eye on 2 of my blogs (aside from No Rules) for some fun developments: my personal blog and my e-media blog.
HALLIE: Jane will be checking in today so please, if you have any comments or questions, join the discussion! This is your chance!
And tune in tomorrow when we welcome (and congratulate!) Robert Daniher and hear what it's like to get a first story accepted by Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.