The Future of Literary Agents. Really?

It is a confusing time to be working in the publishing industry. Commentators are telling people they should forget what they know about publishing, and adapt to a digital future.  As regular readers will know, I love to find the reassuring thread of humanity that will guide us through future digital landscapes. In this article, I turn my attention to literary agents.

Traditionally, editors commissioned or discovered new titles (see my last article on the role of editors). However, during the last fifty years of mergers and acquisitions, many experienced editors left to become literary agents, and the big publishing houses started relying on  agents to find new material.

The self-publishing boom has created a new market for literary agents. When a new writer can’t sell the 1,000 copies under her bed, she looks for an agent who can sell rights or get distribution deals, and in some cases she will pay to be represented at a book fair by an agent. At book fairs, it is usually smaller publishers who buy self-published book rights. Last year, an editor at a small publishing house in London told me they had previously commissioned all their work. He was at the Frankfurt Book Fair to buy rights for the first time as a way to reduce their risk and grow their portfolio more quickly.

So the number of literary agents has been growing. They are probably finding at least half of the new material for large publishers, and a growing proportion for smaller publishers, including a greater number of international rights sales. Despite this growth the media is telling us two main stories about the future of literary agents:

  1. Literary agents will not be useful in a digital future, because writers’ ability to publish to the world directly will remove industry “middlemen”.
  2. Literary agents are becoming publishers because publishers are not doing a good job of re-issuing writers’ material in ebook format. This suggests the beginning of the end for literary agents because if they are also the publisher, then there is no one to sell to – so agents are redundant.

These stories create a stir, but agents are unlikely to disappear because the story writers fail to appreciate the economic value of each player in the publishing chain. The economic value of publishers is managing the financial risk of marketing a book. If they make too many wrong calls, they will go out of business. The economic value of agents is selling clients’ books to publishers (by lowering risk). If they don’t sell enough rights deals, they will go out of business.

Neither the financial risk management nor the sales functions will disappear in an internet world. Agents who re-issue ebooks for established writers are not taking a risk – they are skimming some cream. Most self-publishers (who have “eliminated the middlemen”) are already discovering that they are not in a good position to assess the financial risk of their project, and nor do they have the sales skills to sell their project to publishers.

I can hear some of you asking “so where does Sparkabook fit?” The value of the Sparkabook rights trading community is simply to save people time. Sellers need more efficient ways to find potential buyers, and buyers need faster and more efficient ways to find content that matches their audience.  People making risky decisions buy from people they trust, so agents will be around for a long time to come. I am pleased to report that many of the smartest ones are already Sparkabook members.

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About Lisa Buchan

Lisa Buchan is the Founder of Prato Consulting (and its imprint Prato Publishing), a company dedicated to supporting book people on the journey to a new era. If you have innovative new global services for publishers, agents or writers, Lisa wants to know!
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7 Responses to The Future of Literary Agents. Really?

  1. jeffherman says:

    Agents at heart are salespeople. Books (digital, physical, whatever) and writers are the products we sell, and those products aren’t going away. It follows that agents won’t go away either. Much has and is changing, but the art of selling lives forever. Jeff Herman

  2. artsmuklermd says:

    Fascinating info. The fact that some agents, especially those who never had the time to appreciate my book, are going out of business makes me happy! Best wishes. Art

  3. pete says:

    The role of the agent might be the same, but the job description is transforming rapidly. My own agent was the one who convinced me to self-publish the debut novel she was promoting – she felt that it served better as a marketing tool for #2, and she made damn sure that I did it right. She is investing in the author, not the individual manuscript.

    • Your agent sounds lovely! It is an interesting point you make, because the agent replies I am hearing about often ask “how many units have you sold” – which implies that your book has been self-published somewhere already. Any agents out there want to tell us how often they are recommending self-publishing as a first step as opposed to pitching a title?

  4. jeffherman says:

    Lisa, I think we suggest it to authors all the time. Just because we can’t sell something to a publisher doesn’t mean we don’t want the writer to succeed. Self-publishing doesn’t hurt agents. Jeff Herman

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