I’ve had several people write me to ask, “How has the role of a literary agent changed in the new world of publishing?”
I was happy to get this question (and several similar questions), because I was at a conference a while back, and someone asked it of a panel I was on. As soon as it was asked, I was thinking the agents would jump in and start talking about the changes to our role… but then I realized that, on this particular panel, I was sitting with several newer agents, and I don’t know if they had the work experience to offer a good response. The microphone was at the far end of the stage, and I listened to four people say, “I think the role of the agent is still the same as it always was.”
I just sat there, shocked. But after four people had responded, I didn’t feel I could jump in and say, “Everyone here is wrong! They don’t know what they’re doing!” In retrospect, I should have found a way to say something. You see, I’ve been agenting for eighteen years now, and my role has changed completely. The job isn’t at all the same as it was when I started. I think every aspect of publishing is in a state of evolution (perhaps a state of revolution) at the moment. The role of authors has changed — they are now marketers and business persons. The roles of the bookseller, the editor, and the publisher have all been changing. So it would only make sense that the role of the agent would also have been significantly changed.
I spend a lot of my time talking with authors about marketing and platforms. I spend a fair bit of time talking with authors their careers, their indie or hybrid publishing plans. Career and list management, marketing and platform development, are all things that take up a lot of my day – and things we rarely discussed fifteen years ago. Sure, I still have to sharpen proposals, meet with editors, show them projects I think are a fit, and negotiate deals, but the role has changed considerably.
Remember, there’s no one correct way to agent (just as there’s no one correct way to edit or sell or write), but I’d say any good agent these days should be able to do several things:
–recognize good, salable writing (and help the author focus his or her time on those projects),
–know the market and have relationships with the people who are decision makers in the industry,
–be able to develop and package a proposal and manuscript,
–assist with the overall planning of a career, and offer guidance on career management (including branding and strategic direction),
–offer input into marketing and brand management,
-know contracts and be able to negotiate effectively,
-be able to sell sub rights, dramatic rights, and foreign rights,
-and step in and handle disagreements or say the hard things.
Of course, not all agents do everything (or do everything well). And not all authors need the same thing. One author needs an agent to be a coach and encourager; another needs an agent to be a business manager.
And yes, to answer the question that’s the elephant in the room, I think there are times an author doesn’t need an agent at all. I’m not an Agent Evangelist. Some people can manage this without an agent, though they will probably want marketing, career, and technical help at time. (And I think it’s only fair to note that nearly every big, successful author has an agent. Even today, in the age of hybrid authors, and with stories of authors making piles of cash on Amazon.) So for some writers, I’m becoming the indie-publishing career assistant and sometime-consultant. Amanda, who works with me, fulfills that same role with authors. I’m not afraid of it – I just think that’s the way the role of literary agent has moved.
What question do YOU have of literary agents?