The Agency Model

by Drew Lazzara
For the last several years, Mike Shatzkin, CEO of Idea Logical Company and one of the most intelligent, prolific thinkers on the future of publishing, has collected his thoughts on the state of our industry in his excellent blog, “The Shatzkin Files.” He has been a valuable resource for the staff here at Ooligan Press as we try to incorporate the changes wrought by the digital and self-publishing revolutions into our ever-evolving approach.
But as a publishing professional just beginning my career, to read Shatzkin is to occasionally come into forehead-slapping contact with my own blind spots in regard to the industry. In his most recent installment, Shatzkin touches briefly an another important role in the traditional publishing process that of course must find itself in flux but that I had never fully acknowledged: that of the literary agent.
Shatzkin is merely teasing his involvement at BookExpo America at the end of the month, but he nonetheless makes some compelling points about the changing nature of agency. The traditional role of the literary agent is as the mouthpiece for an author, a point of trusted contact with publishers and other agents around the world, a person who understood the tastes of acquiring editors and could be relied upon to find the right manuscripts to intrigue the right press. Someone who helped make everyone a little money by not wasting anyone’s time.
Even outside the context of a changing publishing world, it seems like an old-fashioned, romantic kind of profession. A mover and shaker in the world of letters, friend of famous authors and powerful publishers. Well-read and bookish yet charming and influential, like the man in The New Yorker logo, only holding a book rather than a monocle. I think it’s the kind of person we all imagined ourselves becoming when we first fell officially in love with books.
Of course, like all romantic visions, the truth was never thus, and it’s even less so in the futurist publisher’s reality. As Shatzkin quickly points out, the advantages of self-publishing and the reliance of authors on self-promotion in the absence of publisher support are invading the purview of the agent, and understanding the tastes and business needs of acquiring editors—while still a huge part of the way books are made—must perhaps be augmented if agents wish to continue playing a part.
Shatzkin asserts that many literary agencies are quickly adapting by providing more self-publishing services to broaden the scope of their utility. This is actually an idea about which Shatzkin didn’t get the jump on me. Since I began learning and thinking about publishing two years ago, it has often occurred to me that self-publishing appeals to authors not only because it presents the opportunity for them to own and profit more from their creations, but also because the relationship between authors and publishers is generally broken. Publishers and editors used to be nurturers of writers, but the demands and margins of our business no longer allow for that.
Writers need that kind of relationship, though, and in its absence, the idea of a publisher has soured in the minds of many authors. If you add to that the appealing notion of keeping a bigger piece of what you earn, you can see why a great many authors would seek ways to circumvent publishers. Yet the need of that personal relationship is real, and helping a self-published author to do all the things they can’t do themselves (i.e. design, editing, distribution, etc.) while also supporting their work is an invaluable role. And literary agents are uniquely suited to providing these kinds of services. They understand trends and have developed copious professional networks, and this new potential role still allows them to play to their strengths as connectors and intermediaries.
Shatzkin does raise the point that such change may create a conflict of interest between agents and publishers in that it might be more advantageous for agents if they steered their clients toward the agent’s services instead of the publisher’s. Perhaps this does create a wider gulf between huge, six-figure-advance-style authors for whom the traditional role of agent is still critical and more moderately-successful self-published authors, but so what? The agent is not compromised, because the mega-bestsellers and their publishers still rely on him or her to negotiate their massive deals, and they get to provide a more useful range of services to their typical, non-bestselling clients. Self-published authors have a trusted advisor to simultaneously help them publish on their own while still shopping the through traditional channels. And publishers still get a well-curated selection of solicited manuscripts to choose from. Aside from the perception of a conflict of interest, everyone benefits.
In any case, this is what the future of publishing looks like. Services will aggregate in new places, creators will take on larger responsibilities and reap larger benefits, and publishers will either fragment into ever-narrower niches or continue to pin their success on a relatively small group of mega-selling authors. Literary agents have always kind of fit between these stages, anyway. Now, they have an opportunity to play a larger, more nurturing role, helping to make authors more money, continuing their relationships with publishers, and ensuring that readers have access to quality products. Perhaps there’s still a little romanticism left in being an agent, after all. I don’t know why I never thought of it before.