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!

16 Replies to “The Agent’s Role in Today’s Digital Book World”

  1. Wow, very interesting post this morning. I hadn’t thought about this aspect much, but as I am in the query process and awaiting hopefully wonderful news from agents, topics like this are definitely something to be thinking about. What agents are comfortable and knowledgable about the digital medium and are open to thinking outside the box are definitely factors to take into consideration when choosing your agent. Thank you for the thought-provoking read.

    Have a great weekend, Mary!

  2. Buffy Andrews says:

    Interesting that I’m seeing the same thing in the newspaper industry. My job as social media coordinator is to expand our digital footprint, to work with new and emerging technologies to bring the news and information people want in whatever platform they choose, whether that’s a mobile or iPad app or a glossy magazine or a website or Twitter feed. We are no longer only a newspaper, we are a media company and one of the things we do is produce a daily newspaper. The world is indeed changing and those who survive will be those who embrace the change. I am a writer and what I want most of all is to share my work with others. That might be the traditional book but it also might be an e-edition. I think it’s an exciting time to be a writer in the publishing world and an exciting time to be a journalist. The possibilities are endless and my head spins just thinking about it all. But bring it on and lets figure this thing out together. Anyway…

  3. I’m excited and intrigued by the possibilities being presented by digital media. I applaud anyone who’s willing to embrace these new opportunites, it’s going to be an exciting ride. I think remaining flexible and open to change is going to be critical. The agencies and publishers who are the most elastic will have the chance to lead the way into this exciting “frontier”.

    As a Star Trek geek, I’m just waiting for the holo-novel format to arrive.

  4. In this brave new digital world, a tech-savvy agent will be worth her weight in gold. Now, off to read about them apps.

  5. Wow, good stuff. Hey, anyone have Frey’s email? (jk!)

  6. Wow. Interesting article. It’ll be exciting to see what happens in the next couple of years. The ever-changing world of publishing is never dull, huh?

    Thanks for this. Have a great weekend.

  7. Thanks for the thoughts, Mary. I hadn’t heard of Frey’s project before. It’s…um…interesting.

  8. This is a great article, Mary. I love reading your blog, your advice is very valuable to all of us aspriring writers and I often wonder what agents are thinking/feeling about the quickly changing world of publishing.

    As an indie author I would value being able to work with an agent but not necessarily to get a publisher, but more for help with marketing, editing etc etc. The 70/30 royalty split that seems to be the norm with e-books now is non-negotiable, so the agent’s part in negotiating royalties will be not be needed. They do however have so much more of value to offer authors and I wonder if there will come a time when they hire themselves out for a fee instead of a commission. Time will tell, and I for one am in one of those wagons headed west 🙂

  9. Ooh, can’t wait for the post after you’ve been to Digital Book World! I’m fascinated by the whole thing, particularly in relation to picture books.

    PS If the digital book world is like the Wild West of publishing, can you point me in the direction of the nearest saloon?!

  10. Every day I wake up and think, what can I do to get more involved with the digital world that is literally transforming our society? I don’t want to be left out. I’ve had a couple of ideas, but darn it, they still all take money to do, even in the digital age.

    I do think a lot is changing, and in book publishing it is no different. Those who adapt will do better than those who don’t. Right now, however, it’s a little tricky to know what to adapt to. Does that make sense?

    You’ve presented some interesting concepts. Thanks for your thoughtful piece. Your upcoming conference sounds fascinating. Keep us posted.

  11. Adele Richards says:

    Mary, seriously, you are one impressive woman. Please don’t leave the industry!

  12. I was always against digital books until I realized you can reach so many people all over the world which is why I decided to post an entire novel on the web. The potential for reaching an audience is massive. Of course, nothing beats a good old-fashioned hard cover novel on your lap on a rainy day … still, some prefer laptops and kindles.

  13. What an interesting, thought-provoking post. Yes, the landscape is changing, whether we’re ready for it or not. I like your approach: retaining digital rights, monitor e-book sales, etc. And I agree that agents will continue to fill an important role in the future of publishing. I too look forward to your post after Digital Book World 2011.

  14. Mary,

    Fascinating article – just bookmarked it. I’m curious whether you think the agenting world will be split into blockbusters vs. everyone else? Sounds an awful lot like “haves” and “have-nots.”

    Can’t wait to hear more from Digital Book World!

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