What role will agents play in the not-so-brave new world of publishing which is evolving rapidly? Does a novelist still need an agent? If so, what will that agent do? If not, where will all the agents go?
Charles posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
First I would like to thank you for the work that you are doing to help newbie writers like myself to delve into the world of fiction writing. I must say if it weren’t for your website and your snowflake method of writing, which in my structured and incredibly anal opinion is pure genius, I would still likely be flailing with the first few chapters, or more likely burning them in the nearest fireplace in frustration.
All that out of the way, the question I have is probably painfully obvious to anyone in the business but has become more and more confusing to me. I have been reading your and several other blogs about publishing and the way the business is turning away from printed books and more toward digital versions. My question however, has less to do with which direction I should go than how to get there. I understand the importance of agents and publishers if I am able to go the route of the typical printed author but what about going in the direction of e-books. Should I still look for an agent and if so what is that he/she would do. Does an agent handle the editing and promotion of a digitally published book? If an agent handles such things then do certain agents specialize in this area or would any agent be open to doing it? I guess what Iím saying is what exactly does an agent do that I couldn’t do for myself if I self published in the digital realm. I for one am excited about the way publishing is going, probably because I have no idea of what I’m talking about, but none the less, if my book turns out to be a decent story, I hope to be able to take advantage of this new turn in the publishing world.
Well that was my incredibly long winded and probably overly vague question. I hope you will excuse the lavish butt kissing in the beginning but truly your methods have helped me to do something I have always wanted to do but never had the courage to start. Thanks to you I have one scene left to write in my rough draft and then God willing I will edit and start looking for that way to get my preverbal foot in the door. Thanks again for all you’re doing and I look forward to your response.
Randy sez: I believe agents will play a crucial role in the evolving book market. The reason is simple: Agents are industry pros who understand the complex blend of craft, marketing, and career planning that writers so desperately need. Your agent is on your side. The more money you earn from traditional, royalty-paying publishers, the more your agent earns.
Having said that, what about the e-book thing? Does an agent get a cut of your self-published e-books?
The answer depends partly on your agency contract and partly on exactly what sort of self-publishing you’re doing.
If you have an out-of-print book that you and your agent agree isn’t marketable as a paper book, then you are probably free to self-publish that as an e-book with no money due to your agent. You should of course check with your agent and look at your agency contract to verify that.
Likewise, if you have an unpublished book that you and your agent were just never able to sell, then probably the same situation applies, but again you should check with your agent to make sure.
If you have an unpublished book that your agent hasn’t yet had a chance to sell, then your agent probably has the right to try to sell it for you and take a cut of the profits. Your agency agreement should specify that sort of thing.
If you don’t have an agent, then before you sign on with one, you should discuss your plans for self-publishing e-books, (if you have any such plans) and be clear in advance what books are your agent’s job to sell and which ones are off the table.
If you don’t have an agent, should you get one? That depends:
Do you plan to exclusively self-publish your work and are you willing to do all the grunt work to make that happen (or hire somebody to do so)? If so, then you don’t need an agent. You might need a marketing guru or a freelance editor or a graphic artist or a career planner or some mix of all of those. But you don’t need an agent, because an agent sells your work to publishers and receives payment for that hard work.
Do you plan to first publish your work through a publisher and let the publisher do all the e-book stuff? If so, then you definitely need an agent. The publishing contracts are becoming increasingly slanted to benefit publishers. An agent will get you a much fairer deal than you can get yourself, in much less time.
I have believed for several months that agents are going to shift towards the e-book business. There are two main reasons for this:
- Publishers are not currently giving a fair deal on e-book royalties. The almost universal royalty rate paid by publishers is 25% of monies received. This is ridiculously unfair to authors. I think everybody in the industry agrees with me on this point. I believe that a fair royalty for e-books is AT LEAST 50%, and probably a bit higher. If publishers won’t budge on this, then agents can and will provide an e-publishing service that pays the author a much higher royalty rate.
- Many authors have books that are out of print and earning nothing. They would love to put these back into print as e-books, but they’re daunted by the technology. It takes time and effort to put out a good e-book. It may require hiring a graphic artist to create a new cover. Many authors would be happy to give their agent a cut of the profits to just “take care of the problem” and get those out-of-print books back on the market.
The obvious question is, “What about a conflict of interest?” If an agent has a choice between e-publishing an author and selling the author’s work to a publisher, won’t the agent take the option that earns him the most money–even if it doesn’t earn the most money for the author?
Randy sez: Yes, I suppose there is that possibility. An agent gets a 15% cut of an author’s earnings when sold to a royalty-paying publisher. If the agent were to also earn a 15% cut on the author’s e-books, it seems to me that the whole question would become a moot point. In that case, the agent’s self-interest exactly coincides with the author’s self-interest. I might be wrong here, but that seems plausible.
It’s worth noting that agents have ALWAYS had an implicit conflict of interest whenever they represent more than one author. After all, if two authors have similar work and are both represented by the same agent, then the agent has a vested interest in promoting the more salable author harder. And furthermore, an agent may hesitate to be a jerk with a publisher on behalf of one author if that would damage other authors. In both these cases, the conflict of interest is actually pretty minor, and agents have many years of experience in dealing with them. I haven’t heard that either of these issues has caused authors major grief. Again, I might be wrong, but I just don’t see that it’s ever been a big problem.
Frankly, I’m not that concerned about the potential conflict of interest of an agent who also does e-publishing. The agent is on the author’s side, more so than anybody else.
I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: The world of publishing is changing incredibly fast. E-books are giving authors power they’ve never had before–the power to cheaply publish a book and market it effectively on a global scale without interference from “gatekeepers” who decide what the market wants.
Will agents still be around in 5 years? I am very sure they will, and I believe the best agents will be earning more than ever. I do think some agents are going to transition to other ventures, such as free-lance editing, book development, and e-publishing. But I see most of them continuing on as agents.
Will publishers still be around in 5 years? I believe they will, but they’ll be smaller and leaner, earning less revenue but higher profit margins. I believe they’ll be forced out of the e-book business, though. I foresee publishers being willing to die on the hill of 25% royalty rates for e-books. I foresee that authors will simply walk away from that deal. By the time publishers cave in and offer higher rates, authors will have found better, faster, and much more lucrative deals elsewhere. And authors won’t come back to publishers, except to say, “I’ll sell you the rights to the paper edition only. Take it or leave it.”
Will chain bookstores still be around in 5 years? That’s an open question, but I suspect they will. Again, they’ll be smaller and leaner, assuming they survive. They’re an endangered species, but if they can learn to sell e-books effectively, they’ll survive.
Will authors still be around in 5 years? Now THAT’S a no-brainer. You can’t have books without authors. As long as people want story in text form, we’ll have authors to write them.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.