The Changing Agent-Author Relationship

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Jane FriedmanBy Jane Friedman, Publisher & Editorial Director, Writer’s Digest

If contracts between publishers and authors are changing—and if there are far fewer traditional deals to go around—then what does the future look like for agents? What kind of business models can they adopt while still acting ethically?

Former Publishers Weekly editor Sara Nelson moderated this conversation among four agents at the 2010 Digital Book World Conference, some of whom run their business the same way they did 20 or 30 years ago, while others have adopted new methods of partnering with authors.

The panel addressed the most sensitive and timely issues that are constantly debated across writers’ communities.

[NOTE: DBW Members can access the full audio of this session here.]

Should Agents Charge?

Agent Brian DeFiore was the first to speak up and say he thought this was one thing that really should not change. The Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) Canon of Ethics prohibits charging reading fees and taking any kind of side deal from a buyer—or any kind of income that flows to an agent but does not also flow to the client. He argued that the only way to keep trust is if the agents’ and authors’ interests are completely in tandem.

DeFiore said, “There are people with more hope than talent, and those people are ripe for exploitation. It’s probably a really good business model to charge them a lot of money to give them a little bit of our expertise. … It’s just not appropriate to confuse the job of what an agent does—sell legitimate authors’ rights—and people whose work cannot be sold.”

The panel briefly touched on whether it’s kosher for agents to take a higher cut of the advance on low-advance deals. Small-time deals might not be worth the agents’ time unless they get more upfront, but some authors might not mind giving the agent an initial larger cut if it means a traditional book deal.

Gail Hochman, president of the AAR, didn’t think it was problematic as long as the agent is upfront and fair about terms. She added: “But where it can get weird is when you change it, on a case-by-case basis.” So the key seems to be consistency and a clear policy.

Should Agents Offer Additional Services?

It has long been a red flag for writers when agents offer additional fee-based services not connected to representation, especially editing or publishing. The conventional thinking is: If the agent makes money on the side from such services, what motivation do they have to make legitimate sales?

Hochman broke into the conversation in a surprising and refreshing way, and acknowledged the industry is in a transition period. She theorized how agents might be able to run a business that was not solely commission based.

“If I were to charge a special fee, other than by commission, it could be by hour or by task. It would have to be a fair price. The agent would have to have the experience to offer the service knowledgeably; the facts have to be clearly laid out. … I don’t think an alternative payment model is unfair. We have this commission model, but if I am offering a fair service for a fair price, fine. But most traditional agents are meeting traditional authors who want a traditional advance.”

Scott Waxman agreed with Hochman that if authors want a service, and you’re transparent about what you’re offering, it might be done in a way that is appropriate. He felt like the rules aren’t really the rules any more.

But DeFiore continued to argue that agents should make money in the traditional manner: “An agent’s job is helping to maneuver a client’s way through this business—to help them figure everything out about their career, not just the agent who makes a phone call and makes a deal. I don’t think that really changes the financial picture, which is that the agent can and should be able to make a living on a percentage of earnings.”

It’s Not Just About Editing Services

Wendy Keller has powerful motivations for assisting her clients for a fee: marketing and promotion of a work that’s been sold to a traditional publisher. All of the agents agreed that their authors don’t often receive the marketing support and education required for a successful book launch. So Keller helps provide it: “Agents seem to think it’s enough to tell an author these are the things you need to do. I teach them in my office, and yes I charge them, but they can go to another vendor. I’d rather have my authors spending their time building their platform.”

Waxman said that he saw the agent performing in more of a “manager” role. A manager role means closer attention to authors, and focusing on categories the agent is best at. Waxman said, “That’s going to affect the business model for an agent. You put those two things together and you have more things you’re doing besides making book deals.”

In that vein, Waxman has formed a business that complements his literary agency, Diversion Books. It is not a fee model or service, but rather a partnership with authors on different kinds of deals. He said, “You’re giving your authors other ways to publish their material that the traditional publishers don’t want. … We want to help our authors get that work out there, and if the traditional publishers don’t want it, then there needs to be a place and a way to publish that work.”

Are Agents Ready for a New Era in Publishing?

The closing of the panel revealed that agents may not be quite ready to leave the old model behind. Waxman said, “I want publishers to keep writing checks. They fund the whole business. They allow the author to work, they allow the agent to get paid, they take all the risk.”

For agents who are already established and have a full client roster, perhaps change isn’t critical. But for new and hungry agents trying to establish themselves in the industry, all options are being put on the table.

Jane Friedman is the publisher and editorial director of the Writer’s Digest brand community, where she oversees Writer’s Digest magazine, Writer’s Digest Books, and the Writer’s Market series.

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5 thoughts on “The Changing Agent-Author Relationship

  1. I have a variety of structured and less structured relationships with literary agents and publishers to teach their author clients how to take full advantage of the free, web-based marketing tools available to them.

    If a literary agency brought a guy like me in-house to provide this same service as one of their staff, the only way they’d be able to afford this added value to their clients would be to charge the author a flat fee, or some higher rate, unless the agency was willing to dip into the bottom line to pay me, further eroding their commissions by giving their clients a freebie.

  2. Dear Jane, I feel that my position is wrongly represented in this recap– particularly in the conclusion at the end. I very clearly said that change is coming and in fact is here (I said ‘anyone who thinks we’re still in the days of Swifty Lazar smoking a cigar and calling publishers to get a deal is severely out of touch’ (or close to that… didn’t tape it). The only thing I argued should remain unchanged is the fact that agents should be paid a percentage of their clients income rather than charging them fees. I believe that can lead to distrust– and has the real potential for abuse by unethical agents (of which there are a few!). I don’t believe that Mike Shatzkin or anyone else covering this industry has said that change must include agents charging their clients cash fees instead of or in addition to a commission. Only that agents must be more flexible and knowledgable about the breadth of the industry than perhaps they were in the past when it was easy to make deals. I have lived by that since I entered this business. And PS: Not only was I AT the AAR panel with Mike, the AAR committee that I chair organized it! (Also, PS: check your transcript, i am not the one who made the ‘keep writing checks’ comment.)

  3. PS: Nor did I say ‘publishers will be less necessary.’ I believe the opposite. They will be MORE necessary (but they may well not be the same publishers!)

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