By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From December 6, 2012
Part of my series of columns on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appearing Thursdays at the invitation of Jane Friedman at JaneFriedman.com
In time, there’s going to be so much self-publishing that you’ll have to invent publishing.
Never mind that David Mitchell, Ian Fleming’s estate, John le Carré, Susanna Clarke, Duncan Fallowell, Nelson Mandela, Adam Thorpe, Carl Hiaasen, J.K. Rowling and a lot of other key writers were represented at the table. Agent Clare Alexander had her audience laughing, their chuckles as rueful as merry.
Because, who’s going to be able to tell what’s any good? In time, you’ll need to create something that says, ‘This is what’s good.’”
I want to return today to some moments that touched mainly on the boom in self-publishing in our Changing Role of the Literary Agent panel from Monday’s FutureBook 2012 Conference, organized and presented by Nigel Roby’s The Bookseller with Philip Jones and Sam Missingham in London.
If anything, the digitally enabled rise of self-publishing is emblematic of the transformation that agents, like publishers, are having to contemplate. And if there’s a single term for what agents do up ahead, “manager” seems to be part of it.
These experts’ comments were as germane to US and other nations’ authors and agents as they were to UK pros. But they were also reflective of the managerial role(s) that agents are cultivating for themselves to accommodate deep and sometimes surprisingly mature shifts in their world.
It hasn’t been the sell-a-book-over-lunch business for a long time. And what do they manage? — copyrights? productions? multi-platform presence in the market? public image? private development? a mesh of both traditionally and self-published content? All that, perhaps, and more. These are not your dissertation authors’ agents.
And what we heard Monday from them were the opinions of four strong personalities — three agents (Clare Alexander, Neil Blair, Jonny Geller) and one author (Joanna Penn, publishing as J.F. Penn) — each fluent and engaged daily in her or his understanding of what’s happening.
As moderator of the panel, I had prompted Alexander’s comments on self-publishing when I brought up authors who declare themselves to be dedicated self-publishers for life but are eagerly using their self-published books to try to attract a traditional contract. She knew the type:
It’s like dating. You say, “I don’t really want to go out with you,” but you do.
A partner with the Aitken Alexander agency, Alexander made it clear she likes to warn her industry colleagues about using self-published work as a new digital slush pile for new authors. The constant scanning for material, she says, can make them seem professionally ADD:
Everyone is so frightened that they’re missing something else going on out of the corner of their eye that they’re forgetting to stick to their plan about publishing well those books they believe in.
I’m going to disagree with you on this. I think that what’s emerged from the Pearson acquisition of Author Solutions and the E.L. James phenomenon is two models of business. One is the curation and taste model, the top-down model, one that’s lasted for a long, long time, and the one we’ve made our living in. The other is — and I don’t use this term pejoratively — the bottom-up. Where you get anybody writing anything, and the best will trickle to the top.
And I assume what will happen is that Model A (top-down) will go to Model B (bottom-up) and try to monetize it at a later date. So in a way, it’s us (agents, in trying to scan for good “bottom-up” potential) doing the work for the publishers. It’s actually up to us, then, to invest money and time into developing Model B (that scanning for material that Alexander feels is the wrong focus).
Joanna Penn, the self-publishing author on our panel, jumped in here to point out that all self-publishing authors aren’t just saying “I don’t want to go out with you” at all:
It’s just that those who aren’t flocking to publishers aren’t newsworthy. “Author Doesn’t Sign With Publisher” has no ring to it. And the “tsunami of crap” doesn’t make any difference.There are millions and millions of books on Amazon that don’t suck. So for me, as a businesswoman, it’s important what ranks, what sells, and the mini-brand that all authors are building. We all grow our own email lists now (as traditional publishers do). What’s funny is that now, I’m simply a micro-publisher. There’s room for everybody in this market.
Geller’s firm has arranged to have more than 200 backlist titles published on Amazon for some of its key authors, engaged with Penn. I have more for you on that angle in a section below, Curtis Brown in Amazonia.
“So one advantage of a publisher is that it’s spread across several platforms?” he asked Penn, meaning that the publishing company has offices and specialists to handle functions a self-publisher finds more difficult. He elaborated:
It’s about your own soul, your work. You don’t want to be up at 3 in the morning talking about Latvian rights. Most self-published people I’ve met, actually do want to make the transition (to a trade publishing contract).
A couple of quick points:
- On the usual assumption that an author gets less attention in a big agency, Geller pointed out that each agent at Curtis Brown UK (which has some 80 staffers total) has three support people, giving an author more attention than a very small shop can produce.
- Neil Blair, whose still-young agency The Blair Partnership represents no less a legend than J.K. Rowling, agreed with Geller. He responded, as it happened, to a question from Pottermore CEO Charlie Redmayne on the floor about possible agency consolidation Blair said that with the complexities of the business now coming into play:
The industry won’t be able to sustain these hundreds of (small) agents as it has for so long.
- On one of Penn’s most pressing questions going in was about agents trying to take commission on self-published work. The panel’s agents were clear that this is wrong, and that transparency in contractual points is mandatory.
Alexander spoke to this one:
It sounds crazy to me (for an agent to get commission on an author’s self-published work). I think it has to do with old-style agenting agreements that haven’t moved on and reflected the different ways that authors might participate in that relationship. We do have contracts with commission income, of course, but that’s based on our doing the work, not on the author doing the work.
When I asked the agents what we’ll call them in five years or 10 years, Geller tried to get away with “older.” (He wasn’t done, either — he tried “dynamic force of good” on us a few minutes later for the agent’s future title, to the room’s loud amusement.)
I think it’s hard to find a word that doesn’t have “manager” in it…I think the author is going to want help, and to be hand-held in an ever-growing complex world. And there will be opportunities for that manager to provide advice and services in lots of different areas, and to help the author help themselves.
When I asked Blair if this didn’t mean that he and his colleagues must start with a much larger range of skills at their own disposal to cover this widening range of services, he and the other two agents quickly agreed.
And for her part, Alexander cautioned against provincialism. She described it in UK terms, but in the digital globalization, agents worldwide are having to face this reality:
I see that we’re all little Englanders. I think there are a lot of little English agencies. I think we want to be in India (as her agency is, very aggressively) where there’s fabulous writing and where there’s a growing market.
I think we want to be in Canada. I think we want to be in the United States. We want to be more open to the world.
Some traditionally published authors, including JamesScottBell, have raised warnings to their colleagues of publishers being resistant to authors self-publishing novellas or singles to bolster the sales of their major contract-published book. The answer? — the panel said transparency. Geller made his comment in a nod to Blair and Pottermore’s Redmayne.
I think where Pottermore has really had a vision — and, of course, we all keep saying that JK Rowling has special power — but they’ve said, “OK, we want to do this, heaven knows what the rights situation is, but why don’t we get them all ’round the table and sort it out? And that, surely, is the way forward, whether it’s a brand-author or a author who has one huge successful hit, or an ongoing success. No publisher will cut off their nose to spite their face if they can see a proper business plan.
As Penn had mentioned, consolidation can contribute further to a “shrinking breadth of creativity allowed in these big conglomerates,” with less and less tolerance for niche interests.
Overall, the agents were sanguine about consolidation and unafraid of it narrowing the number of potential sales outlets.
Geller had the last laugh on the question, when I pressed him about just how many publishers are really needed:
Porter, all you need is two.
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New, additional and related writings on FutureBook 2012 include:
We are at a moment where the future is not fixed; a time when what we do and how we do it can change perceptions and business models. If we fail, it will not be because we lacked the skill, or the structure, or even the finance, but simply because we lacked the imagination, and possibly the conviction to see it through.
And for contrast in terms of the agent’s role and bearing in the industry, see Paul Vitello’s New York Times Books obit on agent Robert Lescher, who once worked with Singer, Toklas, Frost and others:
Mr. Lescher epitomized a kind of Old World ideal of author’s agent — courtly, literary and invisible — reflecting both his nature and his wealth of contacts in the book world, where he began his career as an editor and something of a wunderkind. He was named editor in chief at Henry Holt & Company before he was 25.
More on the conference is in this week’s Ether for Authors at Publishing Perspectives, and in a compilation The Bookseller’s Philip Jones has posted at TheFuturebook, Living the Digital Dream. An Epilogger account aggregation is being maintained here. Please tag any tweets with hashtag #fbook12, so we can capture them.