Thursdays with Amanda: The Future of Literary Agents in a Digital World
May 1, 2014 | Written by Amanda Luedeke
Amanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
All this talk about hybrid authors and self-publishing, and there’s one question that is bound to surface:
Are agents a dying breed?
Maybe. I mean some freakish thing could happen that changes everything and puts the final set of nails in the Literary Agent coffin, but the way things are shaping up, my answer would be “no.” We aren’t a dying breed, and here’s why…
AGENTS AND SMALL OR INDEPENDENT HOUSES
I’m no expert on the history of the literary agent, but it’s quite clear that the role was developed out of necessity. The typewriter, and later email, made it ridiculously easy for anyone to pound out a terrible novel and send it to the best editors the industry had to offer. Those terrible novels would fill up the queue, thus suffocating the really great publishable novels. Editors, whose time is valuable and limited…and who also have a tendency to spend much more time analyzing a manuscript than an agent does…eventually turned to agents to help weed through the bad and find the good.
While we tend to think that indie and small houses are there for the unagented, the fact of the matter is that these publishers are more than willing to work with agents. In fact, they many times welcome it. They love when someone else has vetted the material before they even have to give it a look. And consequently, an agent can many times get a faster response from them than your typical unagented author. Why? Because there is a sense of professional responsibility. The small house is usually thrilled that the agent considered them, and they want to respond in kind by offering a speedy decision.
We also tend to think that small houses have the author’s best interests in mind. While this is generally true, and they many times offer friendlier rates and terms, there are ALWAYS a few sticky points within the contract that are different than anything you’d see from a big house. This is because it’s usually a mom and pop operation and they don’t have the sea of legal advisors there to make sure that their contracts hold up against contracts from other houses. An agent comes in handy at this point, and while yes, you could just as easily hire a lawyer to review the contract, here’s a truth that I’ve discovered…
Every contract that I’ve seen that has been analyzed by a separately paid lawyer comes to us with not much changed except the wording. Nothing is ready to be negotiated. Clauses aren’t flagged and suggestions aren’t made. Nope. Instead, the lawyer has focused his/her time on striking out words and phrases here and there and occasionally adding in a few new ones. They approach is as if the contract will one day need to hold up in court, and they want the terms to be either ridiculously clear or very vague. Agents, on the other hand, approach it as if the contract is the author’s livelihood, and we need to get him/her the best deal possible. We don’t worry about the specific words used so much as we worry about what the author will come away with. (EDIT: It’s come to my attention that I need to clarify what I mean here…First, my experience does not reflect every lawyer in publishing. Second, lawyers can add value to a contract because they do care so much about the wording. Agents add value because they care about the terms. This doesn’t mean that I completely ignore wording, neither does it mean that all lawyers completely ignore terms. Third, if you decide to work with a lawyer, make sure they are knowledgable in publishing/IP law).
AGENTS AND HYBRID AUTHORS
I think most agents are willing to work with authors who publish both traditionally and independently…so long as the author is consistent about giving the agent projects to shop. So in that sense, we bring the same qualities to the table that we do in a more traditional agent/author relationship.
But is that all? I can’t speak for other agents, but at MacGregor Literary, we have a vested interest in helping our authors become hybrid authors, if that’s what they want. While some of our authors go about this on their own (we don’t take any commission in those instances), others want our help. To earn our share, we’ve launched a number of book lines (Spyglass Lane Mysteries, Playlist YA Fiction, Dusty Trail Books, Forget-Me-Not Romances), and made the process easy for our authors by helping them through step-by-step, taking on some of the more tedious tasks (such as formatting), and teaming them up so that their marketing efforts go farther.
We also are able to help with any subrights deals that may come from their self-publishing ventures. Foreign rights, movie rights, audio rights, and unique digital rights opportunities are all deals that we’ve done for some of our authors’ self-pubbed projects in the past year.
AGENTS AND INDIE AUTHORS
Many feel that the self-pub business model is the one that needs agents the least. But I wholly disagree.
There are a number of successful indie authors out there, telling everyone else that indie publishing is the best and that they should go it alone and forego agents and professionals altogether. But I’d like to offer a reality check…
Being a self-published indie author is like running a business. You’re in charge of accounting and marketing and publicity and packaging and design and editing and writing and formatting and sales and EVERYTHING. Ask any successful indie author how they spend their time, and they’re likely to tell you that managing their business takes up a majority of their day. Writing, then, is done at night or squeezed into the wee hours of the morning. It’s exhausting. But moreover, there’s a big piece of truth here that the overly anti-agent folks fail to tell you…
It requires an entrepreneurial mind and attitude to make something like this work. And most authors don’t have that. Most authors are creatives, who can’t tell you the first thing about marketing and publicity and bookkeeping and managing and … taxes. They just want to create. And when it comes to figuring everything else out, they need help.
For those who are business-minded, self-publishing and managing that business can be a great option. But for everyone else…for everyone who doesn’t have the time or the skills or the natural ability to keep such a machine going, this is where help becomes essential. (EDIT: An author could choose to learn these skills on their own, and many do. However, there are also many authors who don’t really know where to begin with taking their business to the next level. This is where professional help can become invaluable, whether it’s for the long- or short-term).
And this is also where the role of an agent will change. Some agents may take on the role of bookkeeper and project manager. Others may take on stronger admin roles or marketing roles. Some may be in charge of getting the manuscripts in shape and typeset and uploaded.
While they do these things, they’ll also be shopping rights and looking for opportunities to expand the author’s career. It all depends on the agent, their skills, and the amount of work that they can take on on behalf of the client.
AGENTS AND THE FUTURE
I’ve rambled enough (and please excuse any typos…I’m knocking this out as I’m waiting for a flight), so I’ll leave you with this…
While, yes, the agent’s role will change (we will have to adapt!), and yes you may see fewer of us in the business, I do believe that we’ll continue to be part of authors’ careers. I believe we will continue to offer value, whether it be career advice, deal negotiations, or even just bookkeeping. And I believe that we will be able to help many authors achieve their publishing goals…just like we’re doing now.
AGREE OR DISAGREE? LET ME KNOW!