Literary Agents and the Changing World of Publishing

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The worldwide economic recession has taken a heavy financial toll on the world of trade book publishing. Literary agents, too, have not been spared.  For years the top-dogs among them have had the privilege of negotiating top-dollar advances for their writers, and watched with glee as publishers scrambled to outbid each other for books they hoped would become surefire bestsellers.

Sadly, the global financial crisis ignited in 2008 is foiling the good times.  Reports indicate that over the past year, book advances paid to authors have been shrinking.  

In a feature article on the publishing industry, New York News and Features magazine noted, “Authors are seeing advances reduced to a quarter of what they could have expected two years ago as publishers react to the recession by minimising risks.”

The article cites the 90’s as the period that heralded astronomical rises in books advances. The sky, it seemed, was the limit.

“The corporations began by doing what they knew how to do: acquire, expand, diversify, spend. Sign up all kinds of writers, pay some of them a ton, market the hell out of them, see what sticks … A few books sold spectacularly, but more failed, and in the last ten years, the bill has come due ..  As auctions over hot books have grown more frequent, prudence has gone out the window— paying a $1 million advance to a 26-year-old first-time novelist becomes a public-relations gambit as much as an investment in that writer’s future. That money has to come from somewhere, so publishers have cracked down on their non-star writers. The advances you don’t hear about have been dropping precipitously. For every Pretty Young Debut Novelist who snags that seven-figure prize, ten solid literary novelists have seen advances slashed for their third books.”

In recent months, money became so tight, book editors at some publishing houses were being told to cut their expenses on business lunches with agents.

One should not underestimate the usefulness of literary agents. Over the years the profession has evolved to the stage where publishers (especially the major houses) see the agents as indispensable to their businesses and would find it difficult to function without them. In addition to negotiating book deals for their authors, literary agents give them editorial advice, handle contract disputes, keep tabs on their clients’ royalty cheques and statements and shop around for the best reprint deals from paperback publishers, magazines for excerpts, and movie producers.   

In the process they’ve done well for their writers and for themselves. Throughout the realms of high-powered publishing, they have succeeded in building outposts outside the gates of the world’s leading publishing houses, forcing novice and established writers alike to come knocking on their doors to gain entry. And, of course, it’s all done with the publishers’ blessing. When it comes to granting access to the higher powers, not even priests have more influence.    

However, with the seismic changes now being wrought throughout the publishing industry, precipitated by the advance of technology, digitization and the internet, the fortified business model that the agents have built up, all of sudden is not looking as impregnable as it used to.

Mike Shatzkin, founder and CEO of The Idea Logical Company

Mike Shatzkin, the founder and CEO of The Idea Logical Company , a consulting firm that also provides data management services to the publishing industry, has an interesting post on The Idea Logical Blog in which he ponders on the changes taking place in the world of trade publishing and the effects they are likely to have on the earnings potential of literary agents and their writers. One of the highlights of his post is a comment from Anne Rooney, an author of children’s books, bewailing the unpreparedness of many literary agents to deal with the digital revolution. “In my experience (in the UK, as a writer mainly for children) many agents don’t have the first clue about digital publishing and can’t be bothered to find out. The result will be that they will be cut out of the picture,” she warned.  

 Shatzkin’s response is quite instructive.

“What many agents have to sell is not matching up with what more and more authors need to buy. But I don’t think it will stay that way; I think some veteran agents will team up with more modern author-and project-development capabilities. If they don’t, they’ll find more and more of the action taking place without them. The agents for the biggest authors in all genres are going to find themselves more and more powerful, though.”

The reality is that the advent of e-books and the rise of affordable digital publishing championed by outfits like Smashwords and Book Oven are leading to greater democratization of publishing and bookselling. The fortress walls have been breached. For better or worse, writers are becoming more empowered and, increasingly, they’re taking their destinies into their own hands.

Former editorial director of Random House, Jason Epstein

Jason Epstein, the former editorial director of Random House, and a highly-esteemed 50-year publishing veteran, made some sobering pronouncements on the future of publishing while delivering the keynote address at the 2009 Tools of Change for Publishing Conference. He warned that new technology risked making traditional publishers obsolete.

 “The [publishing] business as it exists cannot survive, but in the miraculous way such things happen, a shining future is at hand. The 500-year-old Gutenberg system in which copy is delivered to a printer who ships inventory to a publisher’s warehouse from which it is consigned to bookshops, is being displaced by the combined impact of digitization and the Internet, whose vast implications for the existing supply chain have yet to be fully exploited or perhaps grasped by today’s industry. In theory, every book ever published in whatever language can now be stored and delivered in digital form as cheaply and quickly as e-mail to be downloaded onto a variety of devices from dedicated readers, to more versatile handheld devices and to free standing machines that quickly and cheaply print and bind a selected title on demand wherever electricity and Internet connectivity exist,” said Epstein.

If anyone is uniquely placed to predict where trade publishing is headed, it’s Jason Epstein.  In 1952 he served as an editor at Doubleday where he created Anchor Books, which launched the ‘paperback revolution’ and established the trade paperback format. He was a cofounder of The New York Review of Books and in the 1980s he created the Library of America, a publisher of American classics, and also The Reader’s Catalog, the precursor of online bookselling. Epstein was editorial director of Random House for many years and was also the first recipient of the National Book Award for Distinguished Service to American Letters. He has edited several of the world’s leading writers, including Norman Mailer, E. L. Doctorow, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, and Gore Vidal, and many acclaimed writers of nonfiction.

Epstein is not the only publishing professional who is predicting an upheaval in the world of publishing. In a post on the Good Men Book Blog, Tom Matlack, a former venture capitalist who was involved in starting the Television Food Network, has an even more dire outlook on the sector. “The whole chain bookstore, publishing house, agent, author thing is bankrupt. It’s even more 19th century than newspapers and old-fashioned crank music records.”

Matlack’s demand for change is unequivocal. “The dinosaurs are dead. It’s time for everyone involved in the old book food chain to admit it and develop a holistic approach to something new and exciting.”, meanwhile, quoted a book industry expert as warning that “Online writing is like an unstoppable ‘glacier’ coming towards the world book publishing industry.” They also quoted Eoin Purcell, a consultant and writer, warning that “even the most respected names in publishing will not be able to claim any ‘right to survive’ in the new book economy.”

Further, said, “Whether it is a novel, a blog or a news report, millions of people are dying to get published, and are offering their thoughts and fiction online for free. Many are good writers: after all, every famous writer today also started out as an unknown.”,book-publishers-fear-advance-of-digital-glacier–feature.html  

Through it all Jason Epstein is upbeat about the future for writers and readers.

 “ … through today’s gloom we may discern a spectacularly bright future in which the rewards to writers and readers and even to publishers will be unprecedented as world-wide multilingual backlists expand online in a cultural revolution, orders of magnitude greater than Gutenberg’s world-changing technology generated five centuries ago.”

2 responses to “Literary Agents and the Changing World of Publishing

  1. As author of DELCINA’S TREE e-book on I am stil trying to find and procure the best Jamaican lit agent to rep novel worldwide. Does anyone have suggestions? I’ve been in contact w. Susan Yearwood in London and hope she’ll help. Peace to all striving to sell.

    c laro

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