Build something. Learn from it. Repeat.

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Jason Allen Ashlock is the Founder and President of Movable Type Management, a bi-coastal author and content management firm, where he oversees the development of new books and digital properties by the company’s more than 200 authors and global media clients.

While the DOJ suit continues apace and the chess match between the retail giant Amazon and publishers enters its next phase, what can agents and authors do?

Build something new. Learn from it. Repeat.

Whatever reshaped retail space emerges from the settlements and checkmate strategies, we want to be ready for it. We’re unlikely to get ready by waiting, but by working together to use this time to build and test new products and experiment with unusual storytelling packages.

This spring my firm initiated a series of experiments in building digital products. Instant ebooks published into trends, multimedia ebooks to accompany print editions, apps, etc. After the first few iterations of these products, here is a bit of what we’re learning.

The right partners matter.

There was a time when the relationships that mattered most to an agent were the publishers or rights developers he or she sold to. While those relationships still matter a great deal, they are no longer the singular population of the agent’s address book, or the majority of names on his or her daily call list. Now when we roll calls, we’re as likely to be dialing up biz dev VPs at dozens of startups: Ebook designers, app developers, distribution specialists, direct sales engines, digital marketing consultants, online publicists, community managers, daily deal site owners, social reading platform developers, and more.

Every agent ought to consider himself, at least in part, in a biz dev role for his or her firm and his or her clients, a role that requires one select the very best strategic partners. If the Literary Agent is going to be the instigator of experimentation, he or she must be the hub of the collaborative relationships, determining which partners to work with, at what level, and to what end. Here’s an image that will make agents feel good: agents are the steel anchor of the author’s career, but only by inviting the right bits of startup flint into your orbit can you light a spark, perhaps start a fire.

We’ve been lauding a few of our select partners over the last few months. On the Vook blog earlier this week I answer some questions about how we’re using their platform for “Just-in-Time publishing” to our client’s success and our own edification. Our first few backlist titles are out now with INscribe Digital, and the production value is extremely high. We’re diving into the remarkable fixed-layout design potential with Aerbook. We’re hooked by the content marketing opportunities evolving out of Pressbooks. We have been wowed by the technology of direct sales specialists Ganxy. We’re loving the unique reach of MaestroMarket.

The right strategic partners make what was once impossible for agents now very possible. Agencies can be just as heavily-weighted as the large publishers when it comes to change and new ventures, but there’s no reason for them to be. Typically small, always entrepreneurial, and unequivocably on the authors’ side, agents are be able to adopt a nimble, network model more than they think, and by doing so can radically expand their capacities without stretching their staff or resources.

Experimentation is the best way to learn.

While the simplest posture these days is to “wait and see” and the simplest mantra is “too soon to tell,” we’ve made a conscious decision to start shifting a portion of our time and human resources away from rights management and toward product design and launch. With the tools and expertise of the right partners available to us, and with a marketplace that’s diversifying beyond the control of the large publishers, we needn’t always be thinking about how to sell rights to someone else to develop. The development of a client’s property, and the products or experience that property grows into, can be managed by us–as long as we’re attentive to making sure our interests are always and solely aligned with the author. Sometimes the right partner will be a traditional publisher, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. And with most publishers’ aversion to risk and  resistance to the unproven, agents are poised to do become Experimenters-in-Chief. And they should. By leveraging their relationships with the right partners they can work with their authors to imagine those products, design them, build them, test them, sell them.

And learn from them.

Contrary to the title of the blog portal that this post is a part of, there are no experts. There are informed experimenters, each using a combination of the scientific method and the holy word of Eric Reis to find their way forward into new markets. And with each action in those markets, those experimenters gather data, absorb analytics, revise, adjust, and go at it again. These experimenters, us included, will have our share of failures and modest successes, but by simply acting now, the experimenters among us are learning what works and what doesn’t. By the time the marketplace for these digital goods has matured, the experimenters will be the ones who own it.

The educated author is primary.

We might embrace a less straightforward representation model, bring on the capable partners, and launch ourselves into a more networked management role, but we need the authors to bring their ideas, their insights, and their bravery. We need all the eyes on the market that we can get, all the ideas that we can produce, all the hands we can get on deck, and all the fearless enthusiasm we can muster if we’re going to experiment enough to stretch toward confidence and eventual expertise. We need our authors to be educated, curious, willing sometimes to lead and sometimes to be led.



Expert Publishing Blog
Jason Allen Ashlock

About Jason Allen Ashlock

For the past five years Jason Allen Ashlock has been founding and leading companies in content design and author management, building projects for sports legends, award-winning actors and journalists, ground-breaking thought leaders, and Edgar, LAMBDA, and Pushcart finalist novelists. Currently, he manage ambitious and innovative book packaging initiatives for media companies, entrepreneurial authors and brands, start-ups, and organizations of all kinds under the banner of The Frontier Project. He teaches Digital Publishing at the City University of New York, City College, and speaks frequently around the country on matters within publishing, technology, and author management.


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