Literary Agents: Soon to be Obsolete?
Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office, CA
What do milkmen, file clerks, photo darkroom technicians, typewriter repairmen and telephone operators have in common? New technology and a changing world made their jobs obsolete.
I was talking with a fellow agent a couple of weeks ago. As often happens when agents get together, we were talking about the rapid changes in publishing. She said, “Who knows if we’ll even have jobs ten years from now.” We’ve all been thinking about the future, but I was surprised by her pessimism. It begs the question: What is it that agents do? Do we add value to a writer’s career outside of selling to traditional publishers?
As my mentor and our Books & Such founder, Janet Kobobel Grant, said, “Those who are looking to the future will last. Those who resist change, who want everything to remain the same, will become obsolete.” Janet is right. If an agent is primarily concerned with “making the deal” (and there are a lot of agents in that category), he’s in danger of going the way of the dinosaur.
So let me talk about some of the things agents do and what the future may hold.
Disclaimer: It may appear self-serving to insist my job will endure. It could be argued that I have a vested interest here, but at heart, I’m a realist. If I thought my career were in danger of ending, I’d be working on a transition ASAP. (If you think I’m myopic on this subject, I’m counting on you to convince me otherwise in the comments.)
A good agent wears many hats. I picked a few that came to mind just from the things I’ve done in the last few weeks. This list is by no means exhaustive. To each activity I’ve arbitrarily assigned a number on the Obsolescence Danger Scale, with 1 being absolutely secure and 10 being on the proverbial career banana peel. The low/secure end of the scale are the jobs an author would be foolish to tackle at home or that require contacts or expertise an author couldn’t possibly have. Those on the high/danger end of the scale are jobs that may become unnecessary or that an author might be able to do for himself or hire out.
Salesperson: Yes, the agent is a salesperson. One of the things we love to do is take your project and find the perfect buyer. Dealmaking will always be part of an agent’s job, whether the deal is with a traditional publisher, an ebook only publisher, selling film rights or foreign rights. As long as an agent can think outside the box and create opportunities both within and outside traditional publishing, he’s got job security. Obsolescence Danger: 3
Editor: Many agents read manuscripts and help shape them. While agents are never meant to be the sole editor, if the industry moves away from traditional publishing, this oversight becomes more important than ever. Of course this task can be hired out. Obsolescence Danger: 8
Book Doctor: Your agent should be able to look at a manuscript and pull you up short if it is missing the mark. This job needs to be done by the agent because many times it requires a holistic approach. The book doctor needs to understand the client’s full career and see how a particular book fits in.Or doesn’t. Obsolescence Danger: 2
Brainstorm Partner: A good agent often helps brainstorm when the client gets stuck. Because this task can be performed by gifted fellow writers, it’s not something that would be of value if it were the only thing an agent did. Obsolescence Danger: 8
Rolodex Maven: Okay, the Rolodex is certainly obsolete, but I’m using the term metaphorically. Your agent knows the industry, knows important people. She’s a connector. This function is invaluable. It’s one of our greatest strengths, and we all work hard at relationships so we can leverage those for our clients. Obsolescence Danger: 1
Career Consultant: This is one of the most important tasks an agent performs. The more options there are for an author, the greater danger of missteps. Good careers don’t just happen, they are built with care. Whether an author is publishing traditionally or beaming their content onto a cloud in the stratosphere, his career needs to be carefully planned. Obsolescence Danger: 1
Air Traffic Controller: This is one of the most important functions I perform for my clients who have big careers. There comes a time with bestselling authors when the opportunities are overwhelming. A good agent will make sure all the planes stay a safe distance from each other and are successfully landed one after another. Books need to be spaced out, product needs to coordinated. One person must manage the entire calendar and product line. Obsolescence Danger: 1
Product Developer: An agent does more than just shepherd books as your career grows. We begin to talk about your “franchise.” Merchandise, films, audio. . . the sky’s the limit. Yes, there are product developers aside from agents, but your agent takes the holistic approach. Obsolescence Danger: 5
Fireman: Much of our day is spent putting out fires. Your agent can play bad cop to your good cop when a problem arises that needs a tough solution. If you had to go it alone in complicated situations, you’d run the risk of damaging important relationships. Besides, it’s no fun. Obsolescence Danger: 1
Contract Expert: An author could certainly hire an attorney to look over contracts, but no one knows publishing contracts like agents. We specialize in one kind of contract, and we’ve seen them all. We know every jot and tittle. Even if traditional publishing went away, authors need an agent to deal with distributor contracts and contracts with those who create ebooks, cover designers and editors. Obsolescence Danger: 4
Collection Agency: It would be nice if money just automatically flowed to the author, but even with traditional publishers, we often have to nudge. Your agents goes over your royalty statements looking for any irregularities and will step in with an audit if warranted. With non-traditional options this may become even more vital. Obsolescence Danger: 1
Manager: This is the change good agents are undertaking. We are trying to act more and more like managers. It’s that holistic approach I keep talking about. It may include marketing consultation and management, social media coaching, coordination of all parts of an author’s career, including appearances, media and newer opportunities like spokesperson gigs and product placement . Obsolescence Danger: 1
Lifeguard: An agent is the person who will pull you out of the water when you’re drowning and help resuscitate a flailing career. When everything is going along swimmingly, it’s easy to picture being the Lone Ranger. But if you’re going down for the third time nothing short of an experienced lifeguard will do. Obsolescence Danger: 1
Professional Worrier: As Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City said, “Leave the worrying to professionals and live your life.” This is an area in which I personally shine. Happily, I’m proactive about it. I not only worry over every detail but I know how to pray for my clients. Priceless. Obsolescence Danger: 1
I could go on and on, but I won’t. (Our fearless leader, Janet, sweetly mentioned that I didn’t need to write 900-word blogs. I think she hoped for succinct. *gulp* I didn’t mean for this one to tip the scales at 1200 words. I’ll do better tomorrow, Janet.)
So now, it’s up to you. What did I miss? There are plenty of online commentators– and agent-haters– who think otherwise. Am I kidding myself?