Nothing in the publishing world inspires more diverse reactions than the mention of agents.
For some, agents are the holy grail, the star-makers, the gatekeepers to the dream factory. Others are less kind, and I won’t repeat their opinions, but suffice to say they view agents as amoral Svengalis who, like recruitment agents, have created a need for their services where before there was none, and are an additional, superfluous barrier between writers and publishers (and readers).
The truth is somewhere in the middle, and agents, like any profession, run the full gamut of experience, ability, and propriety. There are some that can send your career into the stratosphere, and there are others where you would have been better off having no agent at all.
For those unfamiliar, agents are author’s representatives. Their primary role is to sell books to editors. They negotiate deals on the author’s behalf, and they seek to monetise the author’s work in other ways by selling foreign language rights, audiobook rights, movie rights, and so on.
For this, they take a cut of the author’s royalties, usually 15%. But because they don’t take any money up-front for their services (at least, no scrupulous ones do), an agent will only take you on if they think you are going to make them money.
Ok, so that’s the basics covered. What I want to ask today is what happens to agents in the future when most people are reading e-books? After all, you don’t need an agent to self-publish, and many writers won’t even want to seek a trade publishing deal when all the money is in digital and the royalties are that much higher going it alone.
If agents have no books to sell to editors, they have nothing to earn 15% off. So how are they planning for tomorrow? Different agents have responded to this question in different ways, and this may lead to a split in the community.
Successful indie authors like Amanda Hocking have complained that they spend 40 hours a week doing all this other stuff that makes them successful. They would happily pay someone a cut of their business if they could take those tasks off their hands, freeing them up for thing that they enjoy most (and which makes them the most money): writing.
While some indie authors are happy to contract agents to sell foreign rights or print rights while holding onto e-rights themselves, there’s only enough business here to support a fraction of the agents in New York.
But, to be honest, a lot of indie writers want agents. They want someone to make all the business decisions, they don’t want to be involved in the minutiae, they don’t want to learn a bunch of new skills; they just want to write.
Some agents have spotted an opportunity here. They are all salespeople, many are former editors, anything they can’t do they can outsource, and they know all the right people. Plus, they have all the skills and contacts to maximise lucrative movie rights and foreign language deals.
Andrew Wylie, Sonia Land, and Cathryn Summerhayes recently signed deals with Amazon, cutting out publishers, negotiating to sell their authors’ backlist direct to the public.
Others like Scott Waxman and Richard Curtis are looking at new ways for agents to earn their 15%. They see the future for agents as being some kind of ‘one-stop shop’ for successful self-publishers – organising editors, designers, formatters, marketing, and social networking. In essence, they are becoming publishers.
But not everyone agrees this is the right way to go. A simple point has been noted. If the agent is now the publisher, they may not be motivated to act in the author’s interest, especially when it may be more profitable to do the opposite.
A representative of Trident, one of the largest agencies in America, pointed out that agents have always acted as buffers between writers and publishers, whose interests are often aligned, but often in conflict. “It is a mistake for agents to become publishers. There are substantial conflicts of interest involved. Will the agent work for the author or will they work for themselves as a publisher?”
This month, literary agents in the UK began discussing removing a clause from their code of practice to allow them to act as publishers. Piers Blofeld has spoken out in favour, but others, such as Simon Trewin, have sounded warnings, saying it would be “a seismic shift” and that he was “not sure the upheaval would be worth the benefits”.
Historically, agenting has been plagued with scammers. One of the more successful measures against this was the banning of payment, by writers, of upfront fees to agents. However, if agents become publishers, the lines are blurred. This may create opportunities for unscrupulous agents to get authors to pay for “publishing packages” which are worth little or nothing.
The key for writers, as always, is to research anyone you intend to do business with, get references, check them, and be very careful before you pay anything to anyone, and certainly never, ever, pay an agent.
(All quotes were sourced here.)
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