Redefining the Middleman

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

Generate a word-cloud from publishing commentary over the past half-decade, and “disintermediation” would undoubtedly appear in large type. The jettisoning of middlemen–be they publishers, traditional retailers, book media, or agents–from the publishing value chain is a well-documented phenomenon, encouraged by the arrival of “thin intermediaries,” to use Glenn Fleishman’s term, often in the form of technology platforms that enable the kind direct production, distribution, and marketing efforts that once were the domain of large, specialized, integrated firms.

During this coming Monday’s first-ever Digital Book World agents’ morning, we’ll be talking about about the particular challenges this trend creates for author representatives. We’ll hear from a number of agents who are responding in a variety of ways to their changing role in a industry confronting rapid change.

A truth that’s emerged already from my time preparing the morning with them: there is no single solution, but a variety of contextual adjustments and personalized strategy shifts that enable agents and their firms–of whatever size–to continue to do the work of finding talent, polishing intellectual property, and bringing books to market.

But another commonality is emerging from these discussions. All of the agents and author reps who are successfully adjusting to new publishing realities are doing so by expanding what it means to be an intermediary. If all the middlemen are being jettisoned, it doesn’t necessarily mean you stop being a middleman. It means you have to be a better one.

As we shift from a few-to-many publishing paradigm to a many-to-many environment, the agent’s role isn’t only to know how to traverse the needle’s eye that is big publishing. Rather, it’s to use a wide lens to see all possible routes from ideation to incarnation, from writer to reader.

Increasingly, those routes are carved by new technologies, employ new community strategies, and rely on profit models that resist conforming to any previous agenting structures. But having knowledge of those routes, and the necessary equipment to traverse them effectively, could very much produce the kind of value that has historically made middlemen necessary and beneficial.

Millions of writers and millions of readers cannot find one another without a proper introduction, usually arranged by a middleman, be it your friendly local bookseller or your favored recommendation engine. Publishers have aggregated authors for retailers; Retailers, reciprocally, have aggregated readers for publishers. But what have agents done? Traditionally, agents have aggregated authors for publishers: finding them, segmenting them, placing value upon them, and making the masses manageable and exploitable.

In the new publishing economy, agents need to aggregate in the other direction. Agents as middlemen of the future are aggregators of opportunity, collecting platforms, segmenting and defining expertise, assessing, assuring quality. Once again writers would be confident that they needed an agent-partner to publish, not because he or she would funnel them through the narrow canal of big publishing, but because the agent, as a publishing platform and reader connection expert, would know which route to take.

The Way It Was

The Way It Was

The Way It Might Be

The Way It Might Be

Join us Monday, January 13th from 9am to noon for “Driving Agency Growth”.


5 thoughts on “Redefining the Middleman

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  5. Michael W. Perry

    It’d be interesting to see what sort of slice of the sales these middlemen are taking now that they’re doing more and a publisher is often out of the loop. If I were to suggest what the most important middleman role that publishers did and someone now much do, it’d be in the publicizing and marketing. That’s a specialized area where connections and knowing people matters.



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