Thursday, July 01, 2010

HOW CAN AGENTS SURVIVE?

The following are two sets of remarks by commentators on today’s writing/publishing world. The first is the editor of “Writer’s Digest” who therefore sees with writers’ eyes. The standard practice for agents has been to make their bones by selling book contracts and taking a percentage. I don’t know the history of literary agents -- when the practice began but they know they are in a major crisis.

JANE FRIEDMAN

* Agents need to innovate on contracts to keep themselves, as well as their authors, alive through the transition. Richard Nash has the right thinking in this area.

* Agents need to partner and focus on the long-term goals of an author’s career rather than a specific book sale. (Though, as this post will discuss, the current agenting model does not support this.)

* Agents need to develop new business models for themselves because no one will be able to stay in business “the old way” given the greatest change in the history of media.

_______
Jason seeks to represent writers, to make his money from the writers rather than the publishers, without any need for actual sales. This is new.

JASON ALLEN ASHLOCK

* If due to the requirements of their job, editors are able to edit less, agents respond—either editing themselves or bringing in third-party consultants and co-writers.
* If due to the volume of a house’s list, a publicist is unable to discover, awaken, and motivate a title’s audience, agents respond—calling their own press contacts, designing author events, or bringing in outside publicists and media managers.
* If publishers are unable to spend the time and money to build long-term, audience-building, brand-growing strategies for their authors, agents respond—crafting multi-year, multi-book, transmedia programs for their authors, in partnership with app developers, gaming engineers, and community managers.
* And if the Bookscan numbers and a shrinking imprint destroy the chances of an author’s second or third or fourth or tenth book, agents respond—seeking out alternative means of producing work and engaging readers.

Agents are uniquely positioned to focus on authors as a venture capitalist focuses on start-ups.


If agents do their job correctly, they will know their author and his or her work more intimately than any editor or publicist or publisher. They will know that author’s realized audience and potential audience better than the author will know it himself. They will see the uneven arc of a long career more clearly than anyone at a publishing company who may or may not be around 18 months from now.

They are the only player in the game who can radically mediate.

_______

These are two quite different understandings of what an agent could or should be in the future. It’s clear that agents can’t keep operating as they are now for several reasons. One is that the publishers who have been corporatized by the German soup companies who bought them and who expect profits comparable to the selling of any widgets (10%), have reduced their costs by firing all the faithful staff editors and abandoning the “slush pile.” These mostly women, having liberal arts degrees and refined taste, moved to their kitchen tables and renamed themselves “agents.” However, their emotional ties -- represented as connections -- tilt them in favor of those “home” publishers. But publishers are not easily persuaded by low-level former employees and prefer to do “market research” to see what sold last time (as widget makers do), in order to commission something similar, or -- if necessary “package” it. No need for an agent: just a resourceful team something like those who organize TV shows. Few of these women agents (there must be some men as well) have the drive or the access to entrepreneurial funds that would allow them to start their own press. I think they may be beginning now, but I couldn’t give you examples.

Jason, on the other hand, is all entrepreneur. He’s the writer’s best friend -- the publisher’s worst fear -- an agent who shouts “show me the money” just like that movie. Except that it turns out that he’s aiming for billable hours (You know there is software that allows a lawyer to bill for fifteen-minute intervals on the phone? At hundreds of dollars an hour.) and for access to the management of the writer’s entire financial portfolio for life. That’s rock-star/movie-star thinking. It’s for the big money guys. The publishers, of course, have been all along keeping the block-buster author’s money on their own books, all the while deducting “costs” and “expenses,” and forking over the royalties at the edge of lawsuits. I’ve had twenty excited emails (with vids) from Jason in the past month, all promising to show me secret tricks. What are they? “You should advertise.” “You should create a platform.” In short, “you should spend money -- let me help you do it!”

An email ad came in for AuthorHive, http://www.authorhive.com/ saying that if I’d sign up, someone would call me on the phone to talk in a civilized and un-E sort of way. So I did it and Anthony called me. Nice guy. He’s the reason I’m putting this free mention in here. (No need to send money, Anthony.) We chatted for quite a while. He’d googled me so we had a place to start, but he didn’t hit Lulu.com where my self-published books are and he didn’t know I co-wrote with Tim Barrus. He was googling and gulping as we talked, but he hung in there. He writes fiction himself when he has time but pays the bills with these cold calls. He assures me AuthorHive is not AuthorHouse which has a bad rep for fleecing authors. I didn’t ask him why AuthorHive had not made him rich by promoting his fiction.

Authors started separately paying promoters in addition to their publishers back a few decades when the publishers stopped advertising to save money. It’s clear that you can be critically acclaimed, win prizes, be a dependable seller over the years, and still not make any money unless you can get yourself lifted up enough for the public to see you. The alternative is to start a scandal, but that can backfire as Tim found out, even though he didn’t do it on purpose. It worked better for Sherman’s movie at the time.

Anthony, a good salesman, asked me what I wanted from AuthorHive, what he could do for me. I told him to take my questions back to his selling group and get them to consider how to develop some new system that doesn’t make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Of course, the whole world is looking for that in a lot of ways besides publishing.

(to be continued)

2 comments:

Art Durkee said...

Maybe you're already going to address this question, but it's still an interesting question, for me: What then should a writer who DOES want to get into print, and get their work distributed do? How does one get in touch with an agent, these days? Since nobody seems to have slush piles anymore, what hope is there of ever being heard? What does a writer who has some of the old paradigm's values do with the new paradigm, without having to start all over again, and start from scratch? I'm too old to have to start from zero again. I've always been told that you need an agent to get connections. It's not about merit, it's all about connections. I know several writers just as good as anyone published and famous these days, but they don't have the connections.

Self-marketing is exhausting. It's my biggest weak area as an artist/writer. I produce tons of stuff, and yet marketing and selling it has always stymied me. Mostly, because I feel I have no talent for self-marketing anyway, I'd rather have my time free to make the art, and have someone else do the full-time job of marketing. Even under this new paradigm—the agent as direct marketer and publicist—somebody still has to do the marketing.

Obviously there's self-publishing. What is a blog but a form of self-publishing? And occasionally I do get asked by folks to use something of mine for their anthology, or whatever. It's hard to make any living from that, as it's sporadic, and to be blunt, most such requests seem to think that you must be willing to do it for free, and that the "exposure" is enough payment. (Lately I've been telling such requests, I get all the exposure I need. What I need is cash for my hard-made work. Then I quote them a price list and usually never hear from them again. LOL At least the honest ones ask instead of stealing it anyway.)

prairie mary said...

Thanks, Art. You always pick up on just the right thing! This won't be a blog -- this is more like the Question of the Century! It will be a thread -- already has been a thread. In fact, maybe it's a book!!

Prairie Mary