By Jason Allen Ashlock, Founder, Movable Type Literary Group
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 agent’s 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?
When one charts the path of a work of literature from ideation to incarnation in the marketplace, one hardly remembers who first matched the artist with her publisher. But recently, the agent has taken his turn in the spotlight, awaiting the judges’ critique. In a couple of thoughtful posts by Victoria Strauss and Jane Friedman, and in a particularly lively Twitter conversation initiated by Colleen Lindsay, the industry mused about the possible adjustment of an agent’s compensation, due to the possibility that in Publishing 2.0, an agent might bring quite a lot of value to a property after all.
With agents now in the conversation—as they were effectively during the Digital Book World conference earlier this year—it’s important that we state what really constitutes the agent’s problem: Though the agent’s function in the publishing value chain has changed considerably, the agent’s 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 agent’s compensation. And as long as there is no substantive adjustment of that compensation—whether in terms of increased commission percentage or openness to alternative means of payment for author services—there can be no wholesale, widespread augmentation of the agent’s activities to better match the industry’s needs.
And the industry is badly in need of what an agent—freed from the previous paradigm’s constraints—can offer.
Rather than resting, invisible, alongside the content in the acquisition category of the chain, the agent must evolve into the work’s inseparable acolyte, accompanying the work across subsequent categories in the chain—development, marketing, promotion, and branding. While publishing is grappling with the consequences of disintermediation in the value chain, I recommend an Agent’s role is one of radical mediation in that same chain.
To make my point, I’ll risk overstatement: the agent—more than the publisher, even more than the author—is best suited to stand alongside the work through a variety of categories along the value chain, to ensure the work’s 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 respond—either editing themselves or bringing in third-party consultants and co-writers.
- If due to the volume of a house’s list, a publicist is unable to discover, awaken, and motivate a title’s audience, agents respond—calling 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 respond—crafting 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 author’s second or third or fourth or tenth book, agents respond—seeking 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 author’s 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 abberant 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 you’re 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 you’ll love.
I don’t claim to know how best to adjust the payment schedule to better compensate an agent for his or her considerable efforts; that’s 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 entrepreunerial spirit less reliant on past conceptions of the agent. But before we can determine what should change about an agent’s compensation, we must interrogate our shared assumptions about an agent’s function and consider adjusting the limited—or non-existent—position an agent has held on the publishing value chain.
If this happens it will be because a number of agents are stretching farther than their compensation currently supports. Like a new hire anxious to win a promotion, we will do more than our current job title requires of us. But by doing so, we are gathering industry influence, and building brand equity for ourselves and for our clients, and developing audience loyalty.
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.