Old-Style Agents vs. New-Style

Janet Grant

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?

22 Responses

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  1. carol brill says:

    Hi Janet, as a writer who hopes to find an agent, it is comforting to know there are new-style agents who will partner with me on this journey into the evolving, confusing, exciting new world of publishing and marketing 🙂

  2. It’s always interesting to see it from the point of view of another desk. Like Carol, I want a partner to help me manage the sometimes murky waters of publishing, but I also want someone who is excited about changes in the industry. I don’t want an agent who moans about e-readers and e-books. I want someone who balances her appreciation for what the industry used to be and embraces the future too.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Cheryl, what a great insight. If someone is so busy bemoaning what used to be, that person is unlikely to be forward looking. We all need to set aside the past and press onward with vigor.

  3. I most definitely want an agent who will help me manage my career and make choices that will lead me to the right publisher, etc. I like the idea that an agent has experience in the social media waters so he/she can suggest to me how I can improve in this area.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Lindsay, we’re all pedaling as fast as we can to stay on top of social media possibilities, aren’t we? I know that Rachelle Gardner, before writing about Pinterest, spent time putting up items and figuring out what makes it so engaging. I appreciate that she wasn’t going to write about it until she had experienced it.

  4. Kate says:

    In our various business adventures my husband and I have surrounded ourselves with a core of trusted advisers: tax and contract attorneys, accountants, and contractors. Their invaluable input has allowed us to continue, even with a few bumps in the road, making progress towards our goals.

    I suppose I’d hope for an agent well grounded in the present state of the publishing world, with a hopeful eye to future changes, an attitude of trust and confidence in the Lord, and someone willing to provide reasonable counsel.

    Thanks Janet for the “food for thought” in today’s post!

    • Amanda Dykes says:

      Kate, I love how you worded your hopes for an agent- I agree with each of the four things you listed.

      So neat to know there are agents out there just as passionate about navigating the publishing world in a sensible, savvy, and servant-hearted way.

  5. Brad Huebert says:

    Thanks for quoting Seth. He’s not always right, but he’s always onto something worth chewing on. In this case, it seems to ring true. Great post!

    • Janet Grant says:

      I thought everything Seth said in that interview was right. But none of his answers was nuanced. I don’t fault him for that; an interview is about giving short answers. So I found myself nodding my head, as I read. But then I’d stop and think, “That’s right, but only on the top layer. If you look deeper, the answer isn’t as easy as that.”

  6. Wade Webster says:

    Great post Janet.
    It’s so refreshing to hear that there are agencies out there that are doing their best to stay on top of the current changes in publishing. Too often we get the epublishing slant to the point that it appears agents are only going to hinder writers.
    I pray God continues to bring gifted writers your way as you do your best for Him.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Most agents are smart enough to know they shouldn’t hinder their clients from epublishing. The trick is finding ways to facilitate that process and open up new opportunities. Keeping a firm grip on a client’s career is the key to make epublishing work for the author *and* for the agent.

  7. This is a great post, Janet! Thank you!
    I definitely want an agent that is willing to guide me in my writing career and who isn’t afraid to share their thoughts with me.

    I like how your agency does not just look for the highest advance but studies it in every angle possible and decides what is best for the client’s long-term career.

    I also like how you manage client’s careers by showing a strong interest in building a platform, understanding licensing, and how he/she builds a speaking platform.

    These are all very important to me and I am sure it is to many others.

  8. The most important thing in my mind for an agent to help me with is understanding a contract once one is offered. The agent’s ability to find the best fit for my work with a publisher is high on the list also…

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jennifer, understanding a contract is pretty tricky nowadays. When I first became an agent, the contracts were 3 pages long. Nowadays, the beasts often are 15 pages or more. They’ve grown increasingly complex and full of innuendos. I can’t imagine not being represented and facing one of them. Where would one begin to grasp what was being signed?

  9. Janet, thanks for this post. Everyone alike is learning the brave new world of publishing. My most recent agent foray ended with the nicest rejection I’ve ever received. I learned a little more the agent’s world and this particular agent, is contemporary, yet totally honest in what’s best for the author. I appreciated that.

  10. Ann Bracken says:

    Like most writers, I’m an introvert who cringes at the very idea of posting and blogging on social media sites. Because of this I’m drawn to agents and agencies who post and blog about how to go about this. I appreciate, very much, the information you provide free of charge.

    Because of this, I’ll want an agent who is patient with me as I learn. That would have far greater value than advances or royalty checks, because it would be longer lasting.

  11. Peter DeHaan says:

    If I felt I only had one book in me to write, I suppose I would want the biggest advance possible.

    However, I think I have more books in me then I will ever have time to write, so I don’t care about an advance, but rather what is best for the long-term for my career as a writer.

  12. David Todd says:

    Good post, Janet.

    It seems that reversion of rights clauses need to undergo a major reconsideration. With the advent of e-books, a publisher could abandon the print version, keep the e-version available via on-line catalog, sell five copies a year, and refuse to release the book to the author. I wonder if the solution to this is a fixed time period (X years from contract signing date) for the rights, with reversion automatic after that unless 1) waived by the author, 2) released earlier by the publisher, or 3) e-book sales per year are greater than ______ units.

    Any thoughts? I’m not sure 3) is a good one for the author.

  13. Julie says:

    This is very helpful. Thansk!