Friday, September 3, 2010

Jane Friedman on how literary agents are adapting to survive

Today we're talking about the changing role of literary agents with Jane Friedman, until recently publisher of Writer's Digest, who is the author of a number of excellent pieces about the business side of writing in “The Complete Novel Writing Handbook."

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.
HALLIE: How do you think this is good or bad for authors?

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.


  1. Thank you, Jane! Last night, I read your article in WRITER'S DIGEST and found it fascinating. With your questions, you were able to clarify and highlight important publishing trends. Very helpful!

  2. Hey Jane! So fascinating--I would love to hire someone to handle my "e-career."

    (Or maybe I should start a company like that on my own.)

    It does seem like there's a whle new learning curve for authors..and a little bit of control we're going to have to take.

    If agents could be true "partners"--brainstorming and facilitating all aspects of their client's careers and not just focusing on selling the next book--wouldn't that be great? (I know mine always talks to be about the big picture, as well as the next ms.)

    But one reason to have an agent is to help navigate the waters authors can't possibly have the time to understand fully. And whoa, those waters are getting deeper every day.

    Your new job sounds fantastic!

  3. Thanks Jane (and Hallie). Very interesting information regarding this fast moving, evolving environment!

  4. Thanks for this look inside, Jane. I love my agent and worry about his longevity in the traditional sense, but can see a way he'll still have a job to do that will be satisfying AND useful to me.

  5. Fabulous, Jane and Hallie. And I like the comment about the learning curve authors are going to have to embrace. The evolving book, the evolving agent role, the evolving author--it makes one think that Heraclitus' maxim, "The only constant is change" rings true.

  6. @Rebbie - Sounds like you saw the most recent round-up I did with innovative agents. (Highly recommend for everyone who just read this post -- check the October 2010 agent issue, now on newsstands.)

    @Hank - Yes, in fact, I'm starting to see a lot of startups focusing on helping authors establish themselves online, and to develop their brand. Here's one about to launch that I'm keeping an eye on:

    @Bob - Thanks for reading!

    @Marni - No matter what happens to the agenting industry, a good relationship with an agent will always be a plus for any writer's network and your career.

    @Dave - Excellent attitude.

  7. I had no idea about Scott Waxman and Diversion Books. I've heard agents sometimes like a particular manuscript, but think it will be difficult to sell. Having an agent be more tempted to take on a client because s/he has a way to make that manuscript an ebook is good news. It can only be beneficial for us writers.

  8. @Theresa - Glad I could bring attention to Scott's venture. I look forward to seeing how it grows/develops.

    Some people think agents starting publishing ventures is a conflict of interest. That is: What motivation would an agent have to sell your book to a traditional publisher if they can make money some other way?

    But publishing is not an easy thing to undertake, and agents most of all know the investment required. I think they're looking for more ways to sincerely and honestly serve their clients.

    Plus, in today's industry, we need to let go of some of those old rules that aren't helping anybody.

    Besides, I think an agent's traditional business would fall off fast if word got around they were no longer making regular/notable sales to publishers.

    And if that DID happen, perhaps it would be because an agent and his authors are profiting MORE from the quality of the agent's publishing venture, and so maybe the agent's real talent lies in ... publishing!

    Bottom line, it's good to experiment right now.

  9. Jane, I always say to writers, if an agent asks you to pay a fee, run the other way. Sounds like this is changing? And if it is, how does can an author tell if the "agent" is on the up and up?

  10. @Hallie - Excellent question. I'd say that this is changing to some extent.

    For instance, I think it's still a red flag if an agent asks for outright payment to represent you or your book.

    But it's not necessarily a red flag if an agent tells you they want a higher cut of your advance if they can't earn at least X dollars through a 15% commission. (This protects an agent from wasting their time on a book that might only get a few thousand dollars as an advance, but you as the author might still greatly benefit from the agent selling it and would be willing to pay a higher cut.)

    Also, it used to be a huge red flag if an agent referred you to an editorial service - because of the danger of kickbacks and indirect profiteering off of work they could never sell or consider representing.

    But there may be many legitimate reasons for an agent to refer you to a service, or charge you for some kind of service.

    I think the key here is transparency. There should be clear policies and guidelines from the agent, in writing, which offer straight expectations for the writers on what they're getting for their money.

  11. A very interesting insight to the changing role of agents, thanks Jane.

    It is going to be a struggle for me to find an agent, but it is something I want to do. S/P is not a road I want to go down. I did it with my poetry, but I want the back up of an agent for my novel. As a new writer, I want the whole package in order to feel complete.

  12. Thanks so much Jane for coming to talk with us at JR! I'm sorry I'm late to the party.

    It sounds to me like it will be a bumpy ride for a while, as we all figure out the new dimensions of publishing. How much do you think established author-agent relationships will change, compared with those that are just getting started?

  13. As a relatively new writer, I appreciate these insights. Finding a good agent seems to be as hard as getting published, at least in the traditional sense. If established authors are having a difficult time knowing what direction to go in, us newbies are really at a loss.

  14. "Most unpublished authors would love an opportunity to pay a known professional for assistance." For affordable editing, maybe. Not all unpubbed authors have deep pockets. I looked at the Diversion web site and it looked like all they really cared about was how well known the author already was (web site, tweets, "friends," with a ready made platform.

    Color me disillusioned, cynical and still hanging in there.

  15. @Glynis - Well, try to avoid too much pressure on yourself! I think it's good to ask probing questions of yourself, as to why only the complete package will do. Sometimes authors end up more disappointed than ever after traditionally publishing. (But that's another blog post!)

    @Roberta - I don't think already established relationships will change that much, though authors should be proactively asking their agents about how e-rights are being handled; when/if it's appropriate to separate those rights out and sell elsewhere; and what flexible royalty clauses can be negotiated for e-rights. There's so much change right now that every agent/author should be able to re-negotiate e-rights with the publisher as new standards develop.

    @Latif - Well, take some comfort that all publishers, agents, and authors are in the same boat together. Sometimes it's better to focus on our common goal: to find readers and encourage reading.

    @Anonymous - I certainly empathize, and it wouldn't be a better world to see only those writers with deep pockets getting ahead in the publishing industry.

    I still have faith that, on their own, writers can accomplish meaningful things to get noticed (by readers or so-called gatekeepers), and to advance their careers.

    Re: Diversion. Well, it is a publishing operation like any other (perhaps a comfort?) and they need to ensure they're investing their time in worthwhile projects.

  16. Thanks, Jane. I follow your comments about all aspects of publishing and its interesting to get a look at what the agent's new role might involve. I also bought your handbook on novel writing. Although I've written two novels (the first one was recently optioned for the big screen), there's always more to learn. Thanks for being so generous with your knowledge.

  17. But one should be aware on the Myers-Briggs INFJ= Author. The exact opposite, ESTP is promoter.
    Huge problem there.0
    Now, what do we want our agent to be? A seller right?
    Which is ESJF. But what's the opposite of the Seller?
    INTP= architect. So I'd be a little leery of counting on an agent to help 'build' a career. They have expertise and knowledge, but an author must take charge.
    The reality is that publishing is going down a path neither side is embracing (traditional publishing is dead and eat it and die vs we can do it on our own as authors because we're so brilliant).
    Signing a deal with Amazon (non-disclosure contract) is a step back into traditional publishing, not a step forward.
    We need team building. Authors, agents, publishers and hey, how about readers?
    Readers are going to determine the future. That's my goal at my new blog Write It Forward (yes, blatant promotion, but that's also a reality and, as an INFJ I hate it, but I embrace it as the future.

  18. Authors need a partner in this business, I get that. But the idea that writers might start paying agents makes me very uncomfortable.