#FutureChat recap: Agents of change

Image - iStockphoto: Jurkos
Image – iStockphoto: Jurkos

Illuminating the landscape

Getting a piece of the action has not, historically, been the way literary agents portrayed their services. Maybe at the breakfast table. Or over a quiet Campari. Rarely for the record.

And despite several years of rapid digital-driven experimentation and a growing number of “agent-assisted” approaches to publication, the idea that the best thing to do for a client may be just that — to get yourself a producer’s role in a client’s business — can come as one jarring pronouncement. For all the disruption that the industry! the industry! has endured, knuckles still go white, eyes widen, change still crackles and surges through publishing.

Jonny Geller
Jonny Geller

So we learned when Curtis Brown’s Jonny Geller gave us his blog post Joined agency at The Bookseller. A lot of attention went to his call for consolidation. His point there was that 300 or more agencies in the UK industry alone presents a broad but potentially shallow field of support to authors by agencies, many of which are too small (he proposes) to handle the new complexities of multi-platformed properties.

But the dicier point he brought to the table lay in that piece-of-the-action idea: the Gellerian view is that it may be not only feasible but imperative for an agent to function as a player in a client’s business. Here’s how he puts it:

Where I think our industry falls down is the fear of participation. We need to be part of the deal, not just negotiating it. We need to be in partnership with the talent we believe in and create opportunities in every media for them. This is not simply being on their side when we broker the complex relationships with publisher and producer, but driving the deal as a partner, a stakeholder in our clients’ success. There are many ways to structure a deal and many ways of being a literary agent.

Piers Blofeld
Piers Blofeld

While not run out of town on a rail of righteous indignation, Geller was, of course, answered by Shiel Land agent Piers Blofeld in a rebuttal post, Disjointed agency.

And Blofeld’s point of entry was the conflict-0f-interest question: where does an agent’s engagement as “a partner, a stakeholder” cross a line into something more about profit than advocacy? He wrote:

Those “conflicts of interest” are called that for a reason. It’s all very well saying that “there is rarely a conflict if the deal is fair and advantageous to the creator” but if the deal is more fair and more advantageous to others then there is a conflict of interest. Agents exist solely to protect the interests of their clients. The danger of the management route is that it opens up the possibility that the interests of the agency might be perceived as superceding the interests of authors. That is dangerous territory indeed.

And when we took the issue to The FutureBook digital publishing community, which convenes each Friday in the tweeterie as #FutureChat, one of the early and best comments came from Los Angeles, and from a source who knows something about what he’s saying.

James Scott Bell
James Scott Bell

You’ll see author and writing instructor James Scott Bell’s tweet below, in which he writes “One problem is anyone can claim to be an agent, and will have dozens of anxious writers sign up.” This reality has dogged the agenting sector relentlessly and, indeed, becomes more glaring in the light of “author services” scams that crop up, as Jane Friedman said to me the other day, “like toadstools.”

Bell is a particularly astute observer of this point because he is not only an author (and authors, too, work without industry credentials, after all), but also an attorney. Attorneys operate under regulations. He can see both sides.

On one hand, an unregulated industry can debate just such worthy issues as Geller has raised and Blofeld has decried.

On the other hand, per Bell’s mention of those “anxious writers” — a creative corps that is, perforce, primarily amateur — goes to the heart of the dilemma. It is traditionally the prime directive that the author-client’s interests come first. That being the fundamental aim, the question, then, is what can be done with the model that’s both fair and supportive of the author but also progressive and sustaining for the agency?

To Geller’s point, can we expect a loose net of hundreds of one- and two-room agencies to survive in a scenario of falling advances, stubbornly low royalties, and increasingly sophisticated demands of cross-discipline representation?

Dave Morris
Dave Morris

Not for nothing has author and game designer Dave Morris (who also joined our #FutureChat) been quoted frequently around this debate saying not only that the author’s best friend (if you want a career as a pro) may be a large agency, but also the agenting job is getting harder, responsive to more fields, some quite technical:

Increasingly, publishing deals draw on experience of other industries. Mine is in videogames, for example. Your agent won’t know as much as you may do about those new fields. Be ready to act as their consultant as much as they are yours.

So to #FutureChat we went. You’ll see me quote an extended volley between Tim Lewis and Jane Steen — their back-and-forth is instructive because it hinges, as they agree, on a new imprecision to many terms. Uncertain jargon seems to be a part of the upheaval in some areas of the business these days.

And Bell was waiting for us, at 8 a.m. Pacific time.

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By Porter Ander­son

The FutureBook: #FutureChat recap: Agents of change

Read the full post at: TheBookseller.com/futurebook


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