Special guest perspective from literary agent Jason Allen Ashlock
July 2010 Edition
In the past few years, across dozens of publishing and media conferences, each category along the publishing value chain has been interrogated-content development, product design, marketing, promotion, and (perhaps above all) distribution-and each has been found to be ripe for re-engineering.
The function of the agent has arrived late to that disruptive discussion, I suppose because the agents function has traditionally fallen outside the publishing value chain, a vaporous figure who hovers over the content at its acquisition and inconsistently emerges thereafter. After all, what value does an agent actually bring to a given property?
With agents now in the conversationas they were effectively during the Digital Book World conference earlier this yearits important that we state what really constitutes the agents problem: Though the agents function in the publishing value chain has changed considerably, the agents position in that value chain has remained the same.
I would suggest that before we can discuss how better to compensate an agent for his or her ever-expanding work, we must fundamentally alter our placement of the agent in that value chain. As long as the agent continues to be seen as taking primarily a sales position, there can be no more than a nominal adjustment of an agents compensation. And as long as there is no substantive adjustment of that compensationwhether in terms of increased commission percentage or openness to alternative means of payment for author servicesthere can be no wholesale, widespread augmentation of the agents activities to better match the industrys needs.
And the industry is badly in need of what an agentfreed from the previous paradigms constraintscan offer.
Rather than resting, invisible, alongside the content in the acquisition category of the chain, the agent must evolve into the works inseparable acolyte, accompanying the work across subsequent categories in the chaindevelopment, marketing, promotion, and branding. While publishing is grappling with the consequences of disintermediation in the value chain, I recommend an Agents role is one of radical mediation in that same chain.
To make my point, Ill risk overstatement: the agentmore than the publisher, even more than the authoris best suited to stand alongside the work through a variety of categories along the value chain, to ensure the works proper development and shape, and to shepherd its arrival into the communities ready to appreciate its virtues.
If due to the requirements of their job, editors are able to edit less, agents respondeither editing themselves or bringing in third-party consultants and co-writers. If due to the volume of a houses list, a publicist is unable to discover, awaken, and motivate a titles audience, agents respondcalling their own press contacts, designing author events, or bringing in outside publicists and media managers. If publishers are unable to spend the time and money to build long-term, audience-building, brand-growing strategies for their authors, agents respondcrafting multi-year, multi-book, transmedia programs for their authors, in partnership with app developers, gaming engineers, and community managers. And if the Bookscan numbers and a shrinking imprint destroy the chances of an authors second or third or fourth or tenth book, agents respondseeking out alternative means of producing work and engaging readers.
There is a lot of slack in publishing these days, and agents are picking up most of it.
And they should. Agents are uniquely positioned to focus on authors as a venture capitalist focuses on start-ups.
If agents do their job correctly, they will know their author and his or her work more intimately than any editor or publicist or publisher. They will know that authors realized audience and potential audience better than the author will know it himself. They will see the uneven arc of a long career more clearly than anyone at a publishing company who may or may not be around 18 months from now.
They are the only player in the game who can radically mediate.
For many years, agents have been engaged in many of these activities on behalf of their clients, but now such work cannot be aberrant or occasional or haphazard. It must be regular and required. Radical mediation must become an agenting methodology.
It will mean a better publishing world for everyone: for authors, it means representation that is not deal-centric, but career-centric; for editors, it means engagement with agents that is not antagonistic but collaborative; for publishers, it means less pressure to do what youre not good at and more freedom to do what you are good at; and for readers, it means more publishing minds better focused on finding you and introducing you to a book they know youll love.
I dont claim to know how best to adjust the payment schedule to better compensate an agent for his or her considerable efforts; thats not what this post is about. An increase of commission to 20% sure seems like a start. An openness on the part of the trade organizations and keen watchdog groups to alternative modes of income seems a good beginning, too.
And we agents would certainly discover some ballast in our endeavors by embracing an entrepreneurial spirit less reliant on past conceptions of the agent. But before we can determine what should change about an agents compensation, we must interrogate our shared assumptions about an agents function and consider adjusting the limitedor non-existentposition an agent has held on the publishing value chain.
For now, and for a while yet, that will have to be compensation enough.
Jason Allen Ashlock is the Founder of Movable Type Literary Group, a literary agency that seeks to meet the needs of an industry in transition by serving authors and publishers at each point on the creative continuum, that long line that leads from an inchoate idea to its incarnation in the marketplace.
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