Old-Style Agents vs. New-Style
Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Part 1 of 3: The Brave New Publishing World
In a recent interview, Seth Godin told the interviewer, literary agent Jeff Rivera, Seth’s view of an agent’s future: “I’d start by redefining what you do. I don’t think the goal of the agent is to maximize the size of the advance (which is what it was, as evidenced by what agents talked about and how they got paid). I think the goal going forward is to represent every element of an author’s impact on the world, including their permission asset, the way they build a following, the approach to building a tribe.”
Wait, did he just say an agent’s primary job isn’t to get as hefty an advance as possible!? Yup, it’s a brave new world not just for writers but also for agents. Today I’m going to peek into what that world might look like; tomorrow we’ll look at the brave new publishers’ world, and the day after, the new world of readers.
Writers are being told ad nauseum that they need to be thinking differently about themselves. That a writer can no longer lock away him or herself and just write. That a writer has to self-create celebrity. That social media is a must-have in a writer’s turning universe.
Well, agents need to sit up and take a deep whiff of caffeine because their world is a-changin’ too.
Agenting is hard work; it’s always been hard work. I’ve been churning my way through the publishing waters for 15 years. So I can put the changes of the last few years into the context of what once was. While the work was intense, when I first became an agent, the job was pretty straightforward: help a writer to decide what the next project was and labor to build a brand; help to shape the proposal; present the project to editors. If the project had merit, it would sell eventually. Then I would negotiate the contract and oversee any issues that came up in the production process.
That’s pretty straightforward, right? (By the way, our agency has never been about going with the publisher offering the highest advance; we have a policy of taking a long-range view and accepting contracts from the publisher most likely to make the project succeed.)
Nowadays an agent needs to continue with all those tasks and has many others added to the plate. I’m spending large chunks of time on tasks that were mere afterthoughts several years ago–or not even an issue.
Managing rights. It used to be that, once the rights were placed, an agent’s work was done. Now rights are almost constantly in play. Reserving as many rights as possible is of prime importance because so much can be done with them. And, as older projects go out of print, long negotiations take place between the agent and the publisher over what the contract calls for in the reversion of the rights. Just because the contract specifies how the rights revert doesn’t mean the publisher will let go easily. This past week I dealt with at least 10 projects’ rights–film rights that automatically reverted but the publisher didn’t want to acknowledge the reversion; e-rights; contacting publishers who were offering e-books of projects that reverted to the authors years ago; receiving the paperwork acknowledging the return of rights; and even supplying copies of reversion rights letters for publishers because they couldn’t find their copies (and vice versa).
Exercising rights. It’s one thing to obtain rights for clients; it’s another to exercise them in the best way possible. I’ve seen lots of writers and agents respond in knee-jerk fashion to e-publishing, running off cliffs like lemmings rather than carefully connecting with entities likely to still be alive a few years from now. Our agency decided to proceed in as purposeful a manner as possible, aligning our clients with e-publishers with the best services and least investment from our clients. It took months of careful behind-the-scenes work to make it happen. But it’s an integral part of how an agent can serve his/her clients in this brave new world.
Social media. Not only must agents encourage their clients to be involved in social media, but if we expect our clients to have an online presence, we agents need to be there as well. We need to understand how Pinterest works rather than just suggesting our clients figure it out. Fifteen years ago, none of this mattered–because it didn’t exist.
Career management. Our agency has always been all about building a career rather than placing the next book; so we’re fortunate in that we don’t need to change our culture to match what our clients need from us in this new publishing realm. But we do have to be much more intentional about managing that career. That includes understanding licensing, how a client builds a speaking platform, and exploring new ways for authors to reach their readers. A few weeks ago, a new idea was presented to us. We thought it was exciting and put our clients who were most suited to utilize this idea in touch with the creators. None of this would have been part of an agent’s job 15 years ago.
Old-style agents who still think publishing is about making the best deal with a publisher will blink, look down and see–oh my gosh, they’ve turned into dinosaurs. Does our agency have all the answers? Nah, we’re making it up as we go along, just like the writers and publishers are.
What do you wish your agent would do for you? In what ways is your agent supportive of your shifting role as a writer? And for those of you who hope to connect with an agent, what do you think a new-style agent should do for you?