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

Mary Kole (credit: Nicole Sheikh | http://NicoleSheikh.comBy Mary Kole, Literary Agent, Andrea Brown Literary Agency

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 2011 and beyond.

Mary Kole is an agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, a former “dot commer” from the Silicon Valley, a children’s book enthusiast, and the author of acclaimed blog, one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers, 2010, according to Writer’s Digest Magazine. Originally from San Francisco, she now lives in Brooklyn.

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19 thoughts on “The Agent’s Role in Today’s Digital Book World

  1. Glynis Smy

    Agents have to survive. It is part of my dream to work with an agent! 🙂

    I have seen some rapid changes toward ebooks recently. The economy plays a large part I am sure.

    Interesting post, thanks.

  2. Thomas Burchfield

    Thank you for this. As a new independent writer/publisher, I’ve been grappling with many of these issues and have been writing a series of pieces on my this new world on my web page “A Curious Man.” An upcoming piece (publication date uncertain) will deal with my thoughts regarding agents in this new world. I will–memory permitting–allude to and link to this very helpful article.

    One quibble: Instead of “strapping on our six-shooters” we should be “saddling up and riding out for the new territory.” I don’t think gunfights are–or should be–part of the new publishing frontier . . . .

    Cheers and thanks again.

    Thomas Burchfield
    Author of the supernatural thriller Dragon’s Ark, due March 15, 2011, from Ambler House
    Author of the comic screenplay Whackers, available at
    Follow me at Blogger, the Red Room, Facebook, and Twitter
    For editing services, see my page at the Bay Area Editors’ Forum

  3. Jason Allen Ashlock

    Lots to consider here, Mary. Thanks for the post.

    “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…”

    You’re absolutely right, and I’m encouraged to see many agents being honest about what they don’t know, and taking steps to learn new skills. Much has been said about publishers needing to expand their skill sets, and hire staff with expertise in fields not traditionally valued in print publishing, but this is even more the case for agents. Humility and curiosity are so necessary right now. Many, however, still aren’t interested in that education or expansion and remain cynical about the ability of digital initiatives to accomplish any real momentum or create real revenue (; writers need to begin asking about an agency’s capacity to think digitally and act digitally in the same way they ask about an agency’s ability to sell books in their genre.

    “The revenue-sharing model for the agent/client relationship might also change, especially on the digital front and for properties developed mutually.”

    I’d like to hear more about this. Are you exploring a different kind of agreement with certain authors, in which you play more of a producorial role, and split revenue accordingly?

  4. Wendy Keller

    Very nicely said, Mary. I appreciated you bringing in other of our colleagues’ perspectives in addition to your own. At our agency, we have worked for years to help clients see their book as content that can be leveraged in many ways – paid speaking, workshops, product endorsement deals, infomercials, co-ventured seminars, audio product spin-offs, elearning programs, foreign rights, ebooks that delve deeper into specific chapters, on and on. The digital frontier opens exciting new possibilities for everyone! So many incredible opportunities for writers/content providers (and therefore agents) – even if the content never even becomes a paper “book”. The profit potential inherent in any piece of good content can be profound if packaged and marketed effectively. Thank you for this positive, enthusiastic article.


  5. Alan Gilliland

    Fascinating to read your take on the changing roles of agents.
    As author/illustrator/publisher of a children’s book with 80 pencil illustrations which has now sold well over 6,000 in hardback, rights sold to S. Korea and Israel, was made a book of year and debut of year, 2009, by Lovereading4kids website and of which Hit Entertainment wrote: “We really enjoyed the inventive witty narrative and surreal humour in the book. We can see that ‘Curd the Lion’ might work very well as a family feature film,” and tfou, “I think your book should become a film but we don’t make film here at tfou,” I am very, very curious about just what an agent could do, app-wise, with it?
    Of my efforts so far, Mike Shatzkin very kindly wrote: “What a great story! I’m glad you didn’t ask me before you undertook to do this because I would have told you it was nigh on impossible! But, having achieved this much, I think your Korea sale is just the first of many you’ll make around the world.”
    I don’t know whether this shameless post interests you, but would be glad to hear if it piques your curiosity.

    1. A. Medos

      Great perspective! We are in the business of publishing books specialized in health sciences and we find that digital world pretty exciting, because it definitely brings us a lot of new opportunities. I also think that we have to get use to, it´s not the same marketplace after all.

  6. Rodney Willett

    You mention writers presenting publishers with camera reast work. Here the problem is that there is less ‘room’ for the editorial process. I for one would be unhappy without someone checking my work before it is made public and if not a publisher’s editor then who better than an agent?

    In any event, writers need someone who they know is ‘on their side’.

    Long live agents!

  7. Dean Wesley Smith

    Mary, very well said, but from a writer’s perspective, especially an older professional writer such as myself, very scary. Your talk about becoming a collaborator is just not something many of us are going to want. And I have worked with four or five packagers with novels, and I have no intention of paying any agent 50% of net that is the normal rate most packagers take.

    So I wrote an entire post on my site about your very clear and well-reasoned article that takes the agent side. I took the writer side.

    But my question to you here is simply: What can you offer a writer that a writer in this new world can’t do for themselves?

    That basic question goes to your underlying assumption. You assume that writers want to be taken care of, and some writers do, I agree. Especially when there was only one game in town and that was traditional publishing. But now other games have arrived and among professional writers many of us are asking two simple questions: 1) What will traditional publishing in three years offer us that we can’t do ourselves? 2) What will agents be able to add into the picture that will be worth even 15% of gross of the money from a traditional publisher, let alone 50% of net that is a packager rate.

    Your very well reasoned article didn’t address either of those points without the underlying assumption that writers are too stupid to do it themselves. And that assumption will be fading with time and thus threatening what you suggest will be a rosy future for agents.

  8. Mark Neumayer

    This is an interesting, well-thought out post but it comes with the underlying assumption that a writer needs an agent. They don’t. Writers are selling e-books by the thousands, even tens of thousands, on their own.
    You want to strap on your six-shooter so I imagine you see yourself as a digital sheriff riding out to enforce a little order on this wild new land of digital publishing. That’s the wrong analogy. The present scene is more like the fall of the Berlin Wall. The barriers are coming down. The people are dancing in the streets, giddy over their newfound power.

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  11. Kevin O. McLaughlin

    Agreeing with the points raised above… Agents have, for some time now, been a nearly-essential middleman in the process of moving a work from author to publisher. When publishers farmed off the slushpile on agents, they made agents important. But as publishers become increasingly disintermediated, so will agents.

    Writers are proving to be quite adept at handling their own covers, blurbs, and book formatting. And writers have been forced in recent years to become adept at doing their own marketing. So since writers can easily find an editor for their work, get an artist to make a cover, format their own books, upload their own books to the sales platforms that matter, market their own work, and hire an IP lawyer to help with any contract issues… What, precisely, does an agent offer that is worth paying them for?

  12. Terry Burns

    Excellent comments. I know I have found myself taking more clients to small presses and I can’t help but notice the rapidly increasing percentage of royalty statements coming from ebooks, particularly Kindle. For some time I have been exploring different options for my clients and I see that doing nothing but increasing. These days it takes a lot of work to try to stay on the cutting edge or maybe even to stay in the game.

    Thanks for an excellent article,

    Terry Burns
    Hartline Literary Agency

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