I want to emphasize up front that the views here expressed are completely my own and may not reflect the views of my previous employer.
You know that phrase about how a combative person could start a fight in an empty room? Well, agents could start a negotiation in an empty room.
And because of that, despite what you may hear in some circles, I really, truly don’t think agents are going away in the new era of publishing. Agents are way too important to the business, authors need advocates, and whatever frustrations the unpublished may have with the whole getting-an-agent process, I think it’s pretty telling that authors don’t just ditch their agents the minute they finally get a deal.
Agents are not just gatekeepers, and they are very important for authors who want to maximize their revenue and stay in the publishing game. They serve as an important point of continuity, they are great at getting the most out of an author’s potential, and heck, I was an agent in real life and I still have an agent. She’s a crucial and indispensable part of my career as a writer.
But even if I feel very strongly that agents will survive into the e-book era, the times are definitely changing, and old systems are facing new challenges.
And what’s the biggest challenge agents will face? I wonder if it’s standardization of terms.
The unpublished often believe that agents exist because of the publishing funnel, and to be sure, that has helped cement agents’ central importance to the publishing business. But what really enables agents to exist is the fact that up until recently, every deal, big or small, was up for negotiation–the size of the advance, the terms of the contract, the rights up for discussion. As long as there were complex facets to a publishing deal and those elements were up for discussion, authors needed an experienced advocate to get the best terms.
But technology and scale are increasingly facilitating one-size-fits-all deal models that are fair for all parties. And that, I think, is potentially a threat to the future of agenting as we know it.
Apple’s iTunes and App stores have been revolutionary in many respects, but perhaps the most revolutionary is the one-size-fits-all 70/30 revenue split for all apps and content. Big companies, small companies, in between companies, it’s a 70/30 split. That’s the deal. That 70/30 split is so powerful it even caused most major publishers to adopt the model across the board for e-books.
Don’t like the 70/30 split? Well, too bad. It’s not up for negotiation.
And what happens if/when this is applied to the publishing world? You’re already seeing this essential model utilized by e-book distributors like Smashwords, who take a standard percentage cut for e-distributing your book. If you sell 5 copies or 500,000, it’s the same split. Everyone gets the same deal, and there’s no room for negotiation.
And if there’s nothing to negotiate, do you really need an agent?
Well, you might actually! There are still subsidiary rights to consider, like film and foreign rights (assuming you’re big enough to be offered foreign rights and film deals), and thinking about the various elements that go into making a book, having an agent can provide some of that crucial cachet that can help a book’s success.
But I wonder if the old agenting model of taking 15% commission is increasingly only going to be viable for agents representing the biggest of authors: the writers who have enough clout to have publishers fighting to offer them large advances and who, therefore, have the ability to negotiate their own terms, and who are generating sufficient revenue.
But everyone else? In the e-book era, I think you’ll increasingly see advances give way to a more standardized split in revenue based on actual copies sold. And when that happens, agents will have their traditional role challenged and will have to find new ways to stay relevant if there are no significant terms to negotiate. And if the trend of polarization between blockbusters and everyone else continues, you could see this squeeze even further.
If there’s nothing meaningful to negotiate, an author may well need someone to help them navigate the ins and outs of the publication process. So will some agents then move to some sort of billable hourly rate or a consulting model or some other flexible combination? We shall see.
I really truly don’t think agents will go away, but I wonder if agents of the future may have to adapt to an unfamiliar new foe: standardization.
Matthew Rush says
Excellent post Nathan. Well written as usual, but also an interesting point.
I will still want an agent no matter what happens to negotiation. Honestly, and I have no idea how wise this is, I don't really care about money. Sure, it's nice, but that's not why I write or want to be published. The main reason I want an agent is because I feel that a good one will make my writing, and my writing career, the best it can possibly be.
Steven Brandt says
Actually, I think that in the coming era the biggest authors will just self-publish–get rid of the publisher and the agent and take a bigger share of the profits.
Harbinger of Truth says
Literary agents are like unattractive women on military bases, they are in high demand because there are so very FEW of them and they know this and as a result many tend to be a tad arrogant. Are they essential? Yes, but to the unpublished author they appear less the advocate and more the obstacle. It's doubtful that the publishing game will ever evolve to the point where the agent is not needed, but considering that there was once a point when one co uld send a manuscript DIRECTLY to publishers and fwe people HAD agents, agents might want to prepare themselves for a shift in the industry. We live in a nation where fewer people read and eventually those of us who read (and write) will become such a FRIGHTFULLY small minority that we won't be catered to at all.
Actually, one more quick comment about students and e-books.
The impact of e-books on University Libraries should be a major change.
No more: "There's only one copy and someone checked that out."
The long term impact of Universities potentially having unlimited copies of books and textbooks available to students should be very interesting in terms of the impact on the textbook industry and the politics that stem from that.
Gregory House says
Having just writing a very satirical look at agents and publishers and why I went epublishing on my blog. I must admit that your arguement does have some strong points. However as you know they are not valid in all cases and everywhere. In the Antipodes distance is a crippling factor. It appears (at least here)that you can only get published if you are indeed already famous. In fact one very successful Aussie writer even had to setup his own publishing company to get his books out.
The image of European history came to mind for me. You know the stories and poems in Hungarian? There is a very good writer. B Molnárr Mártaaa. If you are interested then you can watch on this basis. https://konyv-konyvek.hu/ha_lemegy_a_nap
Publishing might want to look to film contracts for creative bonuses. It's become common to have bonuses set based on box office (sales) targets reached. I've seen Academy Award nomination/win bonuses.
Breakevens might apply as well, particularly for digital where there isn't a print run. 70/30 split until the publisher recoups costs, then a 50/50.
Ultimately, of course, star authors will have to be willing to walk away from the table to keep negotiations viable.
But how do I get an iPad?