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The Agent’s Role in Today’s Digital Book World

It’s a flummoxing time in publishing right now. Most publishers, editors, developers, marketers, and creators freely admit that the digital book world is the Wild West. We don’t quite know what to expect, but most of us are hitching up and riding for the horizon.

Literary agents are among those forging new trails. Some spectators (and even some colleagues) are now wondering whether there is a place or even a need for these middlemen of publishing in the digital future. As an agent, I want to say yes, of course, and, self-interest aside, I do think there are new and exciting opportunities for both authors and agents in this changing landscape.

At the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, we’re working on concrete strategies for apps and ebooks every day. Since we’re a sales leader dealing almost exclusively in children’s books—a sector where app and game opportunities are growing rapidly—we’re seeing a lot of the changes firsthand.

My thought is this: There will always be people who want to produce writing or art and see it be made available to readers/viewers/players. There are creators and their content, and then there are the people bringing that content to market. The agent’s role will still be necessary to act as intermediary between the two parties, whether working to create an app, a film, a licensed t-shirt, or a printed book.

In fact, I’ll argue that, as publishers embrace different content delivery systems and processes, agents will take on more packaging responsibilities: editorial work, marketing consultation, design, etc. Whether we’re presenting a book to editors or an app proposal to a digital publisher, we will have had a more active hand in its reaching “market ready” status.

That’s not to say that editors, marketing staff, sales teams, and all the other hardworking people of traditional publishing will be obsolete. But already, as we saw from James Frey’s latest venture, publishers are relying more heavily on “camera ready” packaged work. It makes good business sense (as long as you don’t use Frey’s contract) to invest in a developed product ready to go to market.

My colleague Laura Rennert has recently been exploring digital options for her clients, some of whom include high-profile children’s bestsellers like Ellen Hopkins, Maggie Stiefvater, and Jay Asher. “We have to figure out digital parameters as we did with book rights parameters,” she says. “What rights we hold, what rights we cede; what royalties, revenue share, and subrights splits should be. This is the time of start-ups. We have to figure out what media or dimension a book’s content should occupy.”

Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management agrees: “The role of the agent, fundamentally, is to act as an author’s advocate and to serve as a bit of a sieve between aspiring writers and content producers. People will still be writing. And they will still want to connect with readers and make money off of what they write.” Traditional roles, in other words, are relevant no matter the medium.

Blogosphere favorite, former agent, CNET staffer, and author Nathan Bransford sees a segmented agenting community in his digital crystal ball. Agents, he thinks, will be broken up into those that have blockbuster clients and those who don’t. Agents-to-the-stars will deal primarily with major publishers and do business as usual, while others will act more like managers, consultants, and publicists to help smaller authors navigate small presses and self-publishing.

“As long as the polarization between blockbusters and everyone else continues,” Bransford says, “it’s going to be hard for agents to make money unless one of their clients should take off. There’s still a need for authors to be able to draw upon experts who can help them get a leg up and reach their readers, and smaller agents may fill that niche.” In Bransford’s view, then, it’s possible for agents to exist, but they’ll work and earn their keep in new ways. “It seems like it’s a time ripe for experimentation with new agenting models,” he concludes.

For now, I say we delve into new venues for our existing properties and experiment. We should negotiate contracts with the shifting new digital parameters in mind, hold digital rights, insert renegotiation clauses for digital deal points, monitor ebook sales, and collaborate with print publishers as they devise digital strategies for our clients’ existing books. Several of my colleagues are now developing standalone digital book or app ideas and approaching the new crop of digital publishers and developers.

In fact, I’ll argue that agents should start treating their clients’ business like a tech start-up. As a Silicon Valley ex-pat (and a former product manager for a Facebook app development venture that recently sold to Google), I feel lucky to know the ins and outs of the dot com sector from experience. The key there is relentless development, speed, novelty (Twitter, anyone?), and the willingness (and often capital) to delve into new ideas.

For clients rapidly expanding into digital, I predict that no-advance/higher-royalty sales and experiments that require start-up costs will be much more prevalent in the next two years. Agents will also have to keep a hard eye on tech and industry developments, learn the basics of the gadgets, understand tech and programming capabilities, explore what makes a good app (a good starting place is School Library Journal’s “Planet App: Kids’ book apps are everywhere.”), and be at the forefront of brainstorming digital strategy with clients who want to play in the app arena, including developing new properties to pursue. The revenue-sharing model for the agent/client relationship might also change, especially on the digital front and for properties developed mutually.

I’ll be the first to admit that seeing digital topics on our agency meeting agenda always seem to coincide with the flare of a tension headache. Just like the original frontier cowboys, though, we’ll all have to strap on our six-shooters and figure out just what kind of terrain lies over the western ridge of the great Print-Digital Divide.

The one thing we can’t do is pretend that things aren’t changing or that apps don’t exist. Things are and apps do, and that’s why I’ll be at Digital Book World 2011 in two weeks, to see what all this change means for this year and beyond.


This article originally appeared on the Digital Book World website, and I will be doing a more extensive write-up of my thoughts after I attend the conference, which is January 24th through 26th. Thanks to Guy, Chuck, and the Writer’s Digest team for the opportunity!

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