Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Greatest Challenge Agents Will Face: Standardization of Terms

I want to emphasize up front that the views here expressed are completely my own and may not reflect the views of my previous employer.

You know that phrase about how a combative person could start a fight in an empty room? Well, agents could start a negotiation in an empty room.

And because of that, despite what you may hear in some circles, I really, truly don't think agents are going away in the new era of publishing. Agents are way too important to the business, authors need advocates, and whatever frustrations the unpublished may have with the whole getting-an-agent process, I think it's pretty telling that authors don't just ditch their agents the minute they finally get a deal.

Agents are not just gatekeepers, and they are very important for authors who want to maximize their revenue and stay in the publishing game. They serve as an important point of continuity, they are great at getting the most out of an author's potential, and heck, I was an agent in real life and I still have an agent. She's a crucial and indispensable part of my career as a writer.

But even if I feel very strongly that agents will survive into the e-book era, the times are definitely changing, and old systems are facing new challenges.

And what's the biggest challenge agents will face? I wonder if it's standardization of terms.

The unpublished often believe that agents exist because of the publishing funnel, and to be sure, that has helped cement agents' central importance to the publishing business. But what really enables agents to exist is the fact that up until recently, every deal, big or small, was up for negotiation--the size of the advance, the terms of the contract, the rights up for discussion. As long as there were complex facets to a publishing deal and those elements were up for discussion, authors needed an experienced advocate to get the best terms.

But technology and scale are increasingly facilitating one-size-fits-all deal models that are fair for all parties. And that, I think, is potentially a threat to the future of agenting as we know it.

Apple's iTunes and App stores have been revolutionary in many respects, but perhaps the most revolutionary is the one-size-fits-all 70/30 revenue split for all apps and content. Big companies, small companies, in between companies, it's a 70/30 split. That's the deal. That 70/30 split is so powerful it even caused most major publishers to adopt the model across the board for e-books.

Don't like the 70/30 split? Well, too bad. It's not up for negotiation.

And what happens if/when this is applied to the publishing world? You're already seeing this essential model utilized by e-book distributors like Smashwords, who take a standard percentage cut for e-distributing your book. If you sell 5 copies or 500,000, it's the same split. Everyone gets the same deal, and there's no room for negotiation.

And if there's nothing to negotiate, do you really need an agent?

Well, you might actually! There are still subsidiary rights to consider, like film and foreign rights (assuming you're big enough to be offered foreign rights and film deals), and thinking about the various elements that go into making a book, having an agent can provide some of that crucial cachet that can help a book's success.

But I wonder if the old agenting model of taking 15% commission is increasingly only going to be viable for agents representing the biggest of authors: the writers who have enough clout to have publishers fighting to offer them large advances and who, therefore, have the ability to negotiate their own terms, and who are generating sufficient revenue.

But everyone else? In the e-book era, I think you'll increasingly see advances give way to a more standardized split in revenue based on actual copies sold. And when that happens, agents will have their traditional role challenged and will have to find new ways to stay relevant if there are no significant terms to negotiate. And if the trend of polarization between blockbusters and everyone else continues, you could see this squeeze even further.

If there's nothing meaningful to negotiate, an author may well need someone to help them navigate the ins and outs of the publication process. So will some agents then move to some sort of billable hourly rate or a consulting model or some other flexible combination? We shall see.

I really truly don't think agents will go away, but I wonder if agents of the future may have to adapt to an unfamiliar new foe: standardization.

Image source


Jennifer Jackson said...

More and more agents are becoming diversified in the services they provide their authors so I don't believe they will ever "go out of style."

While it is true standard percentages can take out some guess work, it really helps to have an agent in your corner when considering things not just in contract. If I tell an editor I (without being contrary at every turn) despise the book cover and she is wanting to push to print, she'll tell me tough cookies but if I have an agent on my side who also feels strongly about my book well, it could help change things for me.

I also know a fair amount of agents who are expanding into publicist territory at least in an unofficial capacity.

Sherri said...

From my limited perspective, I find it hard to believe there will be a standard applicable to every project. Though certain aspects may be standardized in the future, we will need still agents. Unless every publisher signs an ironclad agreement not to negotiate, period, there will always be someone willing to sweeten the deal for coveted projects. Don't you think?

Nathan Bransford said...


For coveted projects, yes definitely. But for unknown projects, I'm not quite as sure.

Jen Albin said...

I find this troubling as a first time writer who plans to query in the spring. I know I want to work with an agent, so when I read things about how much e-books are changing the name of the game I wonder what all of us industry newbies will do if we don't secure an agent quickly. If agents become increasingly interested in established clients with a proven publishing history will that edge out those of us looking to get signed? Will we suffer from neglect in favor of older clients if we do? I don't want to negotiate terms myself, so standardization concerns me.

Connie Pilston Shoemaker said...

I am new author. (have been published in periodicals for years but books I am finding are a different animal) First book done. Beginning that whole to find an agent or not dilema. I think for the novice writer agents will always have a market. It seems the more experienced and widely published authors I talk to think going it alone is an option. Ebooks are forcing everyone in publishing from authors to agents to redifine the publishing fields. For those of us who find the waters a bit muddy or trecherous, it seems agents are almost a non negotiable necessity. I doubt that will change much.

Jayme Stryker said...

I cannot imagine wanting to navigate the world of publishing on my own, since there are many facets of the process that I don't understand as you mentioned. Even if the contract was not up for negotiation, I feel there is a benefit to working with a professional, someone who has made it their business to know the industry. Experience is invaluable, and I would still prefer to have someone in my corner with the experience I lack.

In regards to agents being gatekeepers, I think I would rather have someone minding the gate. If I can impress an agent enough that he or she will champion my work, awesome. It may prevent my imaginary herd of cattle from escaping and leaving cow pies all over the place. Ideally, a good gatekeeper could prevent heavy shoveling work later.

Reena Jacobs said...

I don't think agents are going anywhere and the royalty split might not change. However, I do think agents will start taking on different roles as authors look to other avenues for publication. Amanda Hocking is an excellent example. Of course her results are unusual, but her choices set the stage.

Last month she sold over 100k copies in eBooks by going the indie route. She received an offer from a publisher which she declined. HOWEVER!!! she still has an agent (Steven Axelrod).

Why would she need an agent if she's turning down publishers? Her answer is she doesn't have the know how to deal with contracts for foreign rights, audio, translations, etc. So rather than deal with herself, she turns to an agent.

In the end, the deal works out far better for her, I think. She still deals with the 30/70 split by working directly with the distributors (Amazon, B&B, etc). Yet she gets the bigger cut (70% instead of 25%) by continuing to go indie.

Of course she's still responsible for other aspects (editing, cover art, etc). However, it's not going to eat up that 50% gap in profits. Good deal.

In terms of the agent, perhaps it'll work out better for them also. Bypassing the publishers and going directly the distribution channels means more profit for them too. I don't know the rules for foreign, audio, etc. But if agents can negotiate directly with the distributors instead of the publishers, it's a win for agents and authors. Who wouldn't want a cut directly out of the 30/70 model versus 6-10% of the 30/70 model?

Anony said...

Sure, we can all post our "ohmigosh I love agents and I HAVE TO HAVE them in order to sell my book--it's too hard on my own."

But this is just not the case. Through blogging, twitter, and other social media pretty much everyone has the same opportunities to get to know editors at major publishing houses as agents do.

And, if the fee for publishing a book becomes standardized, and there's nothing like that to negotiate, then why on earth would we need agents?

Foreign rights? Ebooks will render those a thing of the past. Film rights? Yeah, that's still a possibility, but those could potentially be negotiated after the book's been published and had a successful run.

Sure, it's nice to have someone "in your corner" and all that, but it won't last forever. It sucks to have your career determined by someone else--agents quit the business, move on to editorial positions, or whatever... but you and only YOU will always put your own story as the number one priority.

S. Kyle Davis said...

I agree with you Nathan (and the other commenters) that agents will go away. However, I also wondered about advances.

Do you see advances going away? Or do you see advances standardized? If not, then I think there will always be a place for agents in that part of the negotiating process, even if the rest of the agent's role transitions into editing, prepping, advocating etc., being the bulk of the actual "work."

I personally can't see royalties going away (not that you said that). Too many authors are dependent on that initial income as payoff for the years of work they put into it. Perhaps, if we moved into a more standarized culture, the royalties could be lower overall (as not selling through an advance is a major source of financial loss for the publisher). However, I can't see them going away completely.

Lexi said...

There's a small but increasing band of authors, turned down by agents, who have successfully self-published.

We are demonstrating that actually, an agent isn't essential. Or a publisher either. And you know, making your own decisions isn't that scary, and it's certainly empowering.

Roll on the revolution :o)

S. Kyle Davis said...

@Anony: You are forgetting the whole "gatekeeping" aspect of an agent's job. It's an important role, and one I don't see going away. Besides, agents also often provide invaluable editorial service for their clients, and help make a manuscript publish-ready before submitting to an editor. They also know which editors to submit too, which is important. I can read a blog and say hi to someone on twitter, but that's not the same thing as going out with the person, having a drink, and saying, "Oh hey, here's this manuscript I rep."

Sure, there may be more avenues to market, and more avenues to publishers directly, but people are people, and they'll still be looking for ways to fight the slush. Agents are, and I think always will be, a way to do that.

Jen Albin said...

Anony, as a former small business owner who "did it all" myself - twitter, blogging, production, marketing, design, pr, I think you underestimate the value of having someone in your corner. Writing is a business, and there are many things we are responsible for accomplishing, so, word to the wise, delegate what you can. It really does not benefit your writing to not have an agent. Sure, you can spend all your time on self-promotion, but I'd rather spend it on my craft.

Mira said...

Fascinating article. Thanks, Nathan. You're dead on target about the standardization of terms, that makes total sense.

My predictions: In a way, I believe agenting will survive, but it won't be called agenting, and it will be optional.

For awhile, agenting will continue simply because authors are used to them, are used to thinking that they need them and because it is scary to go it alone without guidance.

Over time, though, e-publishers will begin to offer the same services. If an author wants certain things, like subsidary rights representation, marketing guidance or editing, they will either offer that up-front or as a part of an additional service.

The smart literary agencies will morph into one of these e-publishing agencies and take their current client load with them.

The smart agents wihtout agencies will redefine themselves as 'career builders'. They will be competing with e-publishers who offer the same service. So, they may become a luxury item hired (not by blockbuster authors per se) but by those who have the money. Hiring an agent, with all of their experience and saavy will be attractive to those who can afford it.

So, that's what I think. Could be wrong, of course, but those are my predictions, for what it's worth.

Stephen Duncan said...

Sometimes, it's hard to remember the business aspect of this biz, whe you're so focused on the creative.

When I had an agent (single tear), and Nathan might not feel the same having worked in the business, one of the things I was so thankful for was how connected my agent was. Relationships are vital to doing good business, and building them takes time and energy. Sometimes who you know can be a benefit. And, for an author, wouldn't that time and energy to write, anyway?

While a homogenization of terms might cement the 'how' of a business deal, having an agent can help you negotiate the 'who,' 'when,' and if he or she is a participating part of your editing process, the 'what.' For these reasons, I can't ever imagine trying to navigate this biz without an agent.

Porter Anderson said...

Picking up on Reena's good comment, I think I see the lifespan of publishers shortening faster than that of agents, Nathan. This is because an agent's role is morphing into something that includes vehicle design, not just content. The agent already is doing the work of acquiring editors, often of publicity departments, and is advising and negotiating pathways to distribution, more and more of which lie outside traditional routes.

While offshore and film rights negotiations, of course, may remain closer to current patterns, the the future of smart agenting lies in the transmedia efforts being tracked by Digital Book World's Guy LeCharles Gonzalez ( ), by Jane Friedman ( ) and by rich-media developmental specialists like Dan Blank of We Grow Media ( ).

In the same way that authors are hustling to embrace and capitalize on the potentials of the e-phenomena, a clever agent can become, him- or herself, an enabling mentor and impresario, guiding authors to recast and envision projects to achieve their transmedial possibilities.

As Jimmy Cramer ( ) loves to say, there's always a bull market somewhere. An agent's job is rapidly becoming that of the experienced scout who can get to the top of the hill, see where the new markets are rising, and signal back down to her or his authors the best concepts, techniques, and evocations of storytelling to deploy.

Cheryl said...

It's definitely changing but I agree with you, agents will always play a role. Even if all the major houses start PODing their books and e-publishing, someone still has to negotiate the other rights. I think that even a self-publisher would love to have an agent shopping their work for licensing.

A big question that I have is what happens now? Are publishers going to try to keep erights in perpetuity? And will they do the same to the pub rights if all houses start PODing? What are the potential problems with signing over these rights in perpetuity?

Agents are rather important, not just in selling a book to a publisher. But there are only so many film options to be negotiated which leaves a large hole where the agent's income used to be. Will they need to branch out into more areas like actively trying to make larger merch deals? Will expanding licensing effectively move up the priority list?

Munk Davis said...

I "really truly" think you are right. In the future the best "agents" may be the best editors and e-marketers. I would be more than willing to share my (currently non-existent) earnings with a crackerjack editor. Especially one who was vested in "our" product.

Steve said...

What percentage of published books in the US get international sales and film rights sold? Is it more than 1%?

JES said...

I don't think I'd want to do without an agent.

As some people have said (not just here), "Whatever an agent does, I can do in the brave new world! I can tweet, blog, and update FB with the best agents around!" Er, yes, and maybe so can I. But I don't want to do all that. The most valuable commodity I've got access to is time: time to write, time to read, time to belong to a family and a circle of friends.

Translation: damn right I want an agent.

Standardized terms? I don't know. To me, this has the feel of other "book publishing is just like music publishing!" analogies. I mean, maybe such terms are becoming a de facto standard, in which case que sera, sera. But I don't get why it makes sense to standardize, even for unknown authors. Publishers tell us the all-digital future won't necessarily mean cheaper books, because of all the, um, analog costs (people, especially). Unless the analog costs suddenly get into lockstep for every book (which I really really cannot see happening), why should the contracts standardize?

Anonymous said...

This was an enlightening post.

I'm one of those bestselling e-book authors you hear about from time to time...not self-pubbed, I work with publishers...and my sales aren't bad at all. But I go it alone and I'd rather have an agent. The only problem is the agents I've queried don't seem interested. No reply at all. I query with valid information, links to sales ranks, and they don't seem to be interested in 15% of my sales. Maybe they are all looking for blockbusters? Are they too good for a lowly e-book author?

I know, agents are only interested in reading queries about finished works, singularly. I've read all the posts about this rule. They don't care about anything else, past or future; just the most recent work. However, when a published author with over fifty bestselling e-books that are constantly making money each quarter sends a query you'd think someone would be interested in making 15% and helping the poor distressed author figure it all out. Or, at the very least, send a reply.

I hope you're right. Some changes should be happening soon.

You know, Nathan, this might be a good sideline for you. I'm just talking off the top of my head right now. But there are a lot of other authors like me who would be interested in getting representaion in all the new ways you described. I'm contracted for at least ten books a year, at least a year in advance, so that part is easy. Gather a stable of writers like me together as a client list and it might be an interesting concept.

Yat-Yee said...

WHo knew that something as benign-sounding term as "standardization of terms" can hold so much in its hands. It is not easy to figure out what all these mean objectively. Is it just part of the general doom-and-gloom-prediction-of-publishing,an attitude I know you don't subscribe to. Yet.

So much unknown. Keep us posted, Nathan

Leila said...

It does sound like, as many people have already said, that agents will still have an important role to play in the future. It's just that the width, depth and breadth of that role will need to be redefined and realigned with the way industry and environmental need evolves.

But isn't this what happens to all/most roles in all organizations over time? A business need or direction changes, so the organization and its people have to change to accommodate the new direction and deliver the new/refined business outcomes. Sometimes it's a shift in job focus, other times it's developing new capabilities, and other times again it's about integrating technology into the mix. Or a combination of all of the above.

Whatever the case, it seems like a natural thing that as the nature of publishing and technology shifts, so should the roles of the people working within it.

Perhaps the trick is not to be scared by it, but, as Nathan seems to be suggesting, redefining one's place within it to remain a viable service provider and valued/key player in the mix.

Maybe agents might adopt a consultancy model, and offer modularized products within an overall suite of services. It would make sense, and caters for people at any stage of the process. The more I think about it, the more it seems that they could actually draw in wider income streams by offering services that were previously part of the 15% in small modular packages.

There is also, of course, the effect of the 'theory is always different to practice' experience. Who knows what the total result of all these changes will be in one, three, five years time? There will always be unexpected 'side effects' or new avenues arising out of a new process that weren't anticipated or were anticipated to go in a different direction. Opportunities for agents could arise out of these unforseen challenges/changes.

Regardless, I wish all agents well. It seems like such a tough industry to be part of, and they are facing challenges on every side of this equation.

D.G. Hudson said...

In technology, the pat phrase is that as old jobs become outdated, new ones are created. Not necessarily true. But some positions will have to reinvent themselves to work around new paradigms.

I'd prefer an agent to work with, and would prefer that they aren't boxed in by too many restrictions. A lot of jobs are morphing these days, usually to the detriment of the person doing the work.

I can see the Robot Revolution coming. (Perhaps a R2D2-Nathan-vintage agent model? Kind of a clone of the old agent Nathan.)

Lisa Aldin said...

I agree with what is being said about relationships. An agent has connections to editors that I wouldn't have, no matter how many times I Google. It's the relationship and guidance that also matters.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Perhaps, but many careers are changing, especially as digital technologies become more prevalent. It's happening like mad in libraries. As for agents, they will still be needed/desired for their connections to editors, as many authors will still want to get signed by big publishers for the potential marketing opportunities and brand recognition, if nothing else. They'll still be desired for editorial suggestions to make books strong and marketable before they are presented to editors at publishing houses. And like Jennifer Jackson said in the first comment, agents may adopt more duties of publicists. (On a literary festival I staff, we contact some authors directly, and for the rest, there seems to be an equal split between having the agent or publicist as the contact person.)

Dan said...

E-books are eating a chunk of the market, but it's still not clear anything about e-books renders paper books obsolete.

However, let's assume, for the sake of argument, that e-books take enough market share to so it is no longer profitable for bookstores to exist. In that case, publishers as we currently understand them also stop existing.

A big part of their role is to produce the objects, sell them into the stores, deliver them, and take them back if they don't sell. If none of those things matter anymore, all they are is acquisitions, marketing and editorial, and that sparks a huge transformation in their business. In a world without distribution, publishers can no longer justify the share of the cover price they currently command. And in a world where sales contacts with accounts are no longer relevant, smaller operations can compete with big publishers.

What we'll see in publishing is probably what I think we're seeing in music; big studios with extensive sales and distribution operations were replaced with smaller labels fronted by visible producers who have personal "brands" that unknowns want to be affiliated with.

Since many agents are well-connected and their tastes are trusted, and since they are capable of being editors, the agents may cut-out or replace the publishers, rather than vice-versa.

However, I still think e-book sales are likely to plateau, because I don't think the experience of reading a book is improved at all by the devices.

Reena Jacobs said...

@Jes who said, As some people have said (not just here), "Whatever an agent does, I can do in the brave new world! I can tweet, blog, and update FB with the best agents around!" Er, yes, and maybe so can I. But I don't want to do all that.

Regardless of having an agent or not, the author still takes on quite a bit of responsibility when it comes to marketing and social-networking. Yes, your agent might tweet once or twice something new about your work, but the tough job of marketing lands in the plate of most author.

Publishing companies have really cut back on marketing campaigns and reserve the funds they do have for the big names. So be prepared... you might find yourself taking on a hat other than just writer if you want your works to succeed in the market place. :)

Anonymous said...

Yep. You are correct. A similar situation occurred with financial industry. Before my time mutual funds charged a flat fee, period and it was high, something like 8% off the git-go. Then it was regulated down and then the discounter mutual funds like Fidelity got into the act driving fees down. Then the brokerage firms and their financial consultants were challenged with the rise of the brokerage discounters like Charles Schwabb, etc. and the demise of the stock broker was loudly predicted. We are still around. Though the industry has adapted. It is what will transpire with literary agents. They won't go away, but they will have to offer 'value added' services to justify their existence and fees. It is the way of the world.

Cheryl said...

I think *if* publishers were to become obsolete because of the lack of bookstores, it would only be in the sense that they downsized significantly. I'm already envisioning POD machines all over the place, like DVD rental machines right on the sidewalks of gas stations and next to the soda machines at the malls. Books through brightly lit, plexiglas veneered vending machines with a color touchscreen just waiting to be poked by germy fingers. Maybe even a POD machine that will actually print the darn book right then and there (true print on demand). That might be stretching it but who knows what technology will bring. But there will always be a market for print books, even if it shrinks.

Anne R. Allen said...

The Anonymous stockbroker above gives a great analogy. Thanks. That really makes sense.

Having sold two books without an agent, I know I do NOT want to do that again. I've learned a lot about the business since, but I still want a pro in my corner, just the way I want a financial advisor to guide me through the investment maze.

Geoff said...

Great post, Nathan. I've been arguing the price/cost comparisons of e-books and hardcovers all day on FB. The question of agents throws another wrench in the gears, especially when considering self-pub.

So many transitions and questions in the e-book era!

Erick Pettersen said...

I actually wrote a blog on the changing roles of literary agents in the age of e-books several months ago. All in all, I don't see them becoming obsolete, but they will need to adapt.

As a to-be published author, my perception of the role of literary agents has been that they traditionally handled the ins and outs of everything from signing contracts to setting up tours to scheduling interviews.

Now, with social media as the industrial revolution of the 21st century, that adds a whole new monster. I see the author as needing to take on a more direct role in the process and the agent taking on more of the role of a consultant. That doesn't mean the agent won't help in the process of signing contracts, etc. I believe it means the agent and author will find themselves collaborating with each other more, rather than the agent holding the author's hand. At least for newer authors.

Here's that link:

Nathan, I'd love your thoughts if you have a moment.



Anonymous said...

Yup, it's the haves vs. the have nots model extended to every possible type of business that exists in the U.S., including publishing. If you get really, really successful and make a lot of money for the publishing company, then you're a have and the company will pay you even more to keep you. If you're a midlist author, you're not that valuable as a commodity and you can just suck it up and be thankful for your 30%. The positive side of self-publishing on the Internet is that, if you don't mind not making money for a while and you want to speak out independently in the way that The Huffington Post does for Internet news, you now have a way to do that. The same goes for books - if you have a meaningful book that the big corporation publishers aren't interested in publishing, you can publish and market it yourself.

One caveat is that big distributors will censor your book and refuse to sell it if it might lower their profits, e.g. Amazon withdrew an ebook that explained how to manipulate Amazon sales rankings. Oh, the irony.

Pen and Ink said...

I have three published ebooks and there are foreign rights. My publisher has been approached by other countries wanting to publish there e books. (But gotta tell you- no one I know is making a aliving off ebooks)
I don't have a agent but in my mind, to compete properly in the area of bound boond, it is a necessary thing. Now that I have product to offer,I am going to start looking. I come from the acting field. Without an agent on the film side, you have no access to any kind of roles.

Anonymous said...

Stephen Duncan, what do you mean, you had an agent? Hope you don't mind me asking.

Anonymous said...

Any time you have individuals dealing with large businesses, there is a market for those individuals to have professional representatives--representatives who know the business and can act as the individual's advocate. Call them agents, managers, whatever. Agents might become less necessary if every contract became standard and stayed that way, but inevitably, if the big ebook publishers got that kind of power, they would then almost certainly change their standard contract to try to grab more and more rights. And then, somebody new would come in to offer authors a better deal, and there goes the standard.

Ebook publishing is very new. Right now it's dominated by a few players. Those will not necessarily be the same players who dominate the market in ten or fifteen years. Everyone standardizes terms--until they don't. What's to stop a brash young startup from deciding they'll deviate from the 70-30 split by just 5%, to entice more authors? Or to tweak any of the other "standard" terms to undercut the giants of the moment? Or maybe switch to a work-for-hire/book-packaging model, as is already the trend in some places?

Big companies rise and fall. Industries standardize, monopolies form--and then they fall apart. Eventually, someone ALWAYS challenges the alpha company.

All of the above also assumes that ebooks completely replace paper books, which certainly may happen. But at the moment, ebooks are still a small part of the book market, despite all the hype. If ebooks do not replace print but instead become just another market segment, that would further ensure the relevance of agents.

Stephen Duncan said...

Anony @ 12:35: I was repped by WME, but now I'm not. My former agent decided to focus on celeb memoir since the fiction market is down. Thus, now I am without representation. It was a good business decision on his part, so no hard feelings.

Porter Anderson said...

Per my earlier comment from this morning, please check out this incisive new post from one of the horses' mouths, agent Mary Kole in Andrea Brown's shop, just posted on Digital Book World by Guy LeCharles Gonzalez.

Kole says, "I’ll argue that agents should start treating their clients’ business like a tech start-up."

It's a good read at The Agent’s Role in Today’s Digital Book World

Thanks again for a good discussion, everyone. Nice work, Mary.

Anonymous said...

I don't see a set standardized agent commission or author royalty in the sweep of history, recent or past.

At one time, agent commission was close to a biblical tithe, ten percent and open to negotiation. Some agents today are asking for and getting up to thirty percent.

A blockbuster bestselling author and his or her agent can ask for and get an escalating tier of royalties based on milestones, based on economy of scale benchmarks. After any advance payoff, say, ten-thousand copy sales, ten percent of sales revenue accounted against full advance payoff, then eleven percent up to fifty thousand copy sales, twelve percent up to one hundred thousand copy sales, and so on into the millions.

I'm quite sure a similar revenue stream for digital publication will emerge. After costs and built in profit margins are met, there's no reason besides apathy and greed to not share higher profits with authors and their agents.

Anonymous said...

Stephen Duncan - Celeb memoir? Ugh. Glad you and your agent parted on positive terms with no hard feelings, though. Good luck with your writing!

Whirlochre said...

We all need water, light, heat — which is why there are reservoir musterers and pumpers, sparky guys and beings of flame rather than fountains from eyeballs, luminous noses and moral disinclinations to incinerate family mebers.

Ditto agents for artistes.

If you're a multitaskin' artiste/thrusterforther of your own talents, then fine.

But I've not got time for that shit.

On the assumption that I've got something to say, I'll take a hard-to-catch fifteen effing per cent? agent any day over having precious writing time morphed into admin.

Technology, models, standards etc will change, but unless we suddenly evolve temporal shifting fins or suckers, 24 hours in a day it remains.

I WRITE, YOU AGENT seems like a good deal from my side of the fence, even if my demands smack of unrequited megalomania.

So, I agree — agents aren't going away, but if they try to stay put, they just might.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your post - it's thoughtful, certainly - but I respectfully disagree. You've almost reduced the agent solely to the contract: it's a vibrant moment, but one bookended by so many other factors: submission, revision, managing editor relationships, the publicist, budgets for travel / appearances - which can appear at the last minute - even generating industry interest in a new writer. He has contacts and relationships I don't, and is able to massage a whole network of people that are beyond my keen. And, oh, yes, he does an excellent job of keeping my inflatable ego right sized.

There's also the basic fact that my agent's job is being an agent: he is doing something full-time that I cannot, realistically. It's been interesting seeing what services he's revealed in the publication process, too, a skill that I was completely unaware of.

In my experience, my agent's attention to the contract was a small part of what he's done for me. I can't help but wonder, too, if the 70/30 split you refer to is an element that might become up for negotiation. Not all e-readers are created equal and, clearly, the 9.99 price point isn't a sustainable number, nor as universal as people believe. Lastly, your post rests on the belief that print will become extinct when indicators point to a more complex ecology. Students, for example, are apparently NOT embracing e-texts.

Nathan Bransford said...


A couple of different ways of looking at the college e-book study. On the one hand you could say, students still prefer print over e-books. On the other hand, students prefer e-books at a rate that exceeds the general public.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@anon and @Nathan

I know a college student who specifically bought her iPad for college (she takes classes online too). She initially struggled with the e-textbooks, but now has fully embraced it.

Thanks for another insightful post, Nathan. I appreciate that you are still weighing in on the publishing world.

Mira said...

As a student, I'd like to weigh in on the student e-book debate.

I think e-books will rapidly gain favor with students over the next couple of years.

E-books are extremely new for students and there is always resistance to the new - until the current set of students is replaced by a new set who are more used to e-books......and really like the idea of not having to cart around fifty 500lb books to each class and every time they want to study.

I spent an hour in Starbucks yesterday reading my textbook on my Kindle app on my I-phone - which I took out of my pocket, held lightly in my hand until I was done, and popped back into my pocket after I checked my e-mail and other things (including Nathan's blog) on my I-phone.

I have four textbooks on my I-phone which were downloaded within seconds and cheaper than the hardcover.

Guess who told me my textbooks were available on e-book? My professor. She announced it in class and recommended the whole class get the e-book versions.

Anonymous said...

my first novel is coming out in three weeks and besides the contract and the foreign rights, my agent is my team. she is the one who helps make what i most want to happen, happen. she is the first person i go to for advice about everything from the plot line of my next book to the publicity for this book. i would feel so at sea without her.

as far as i can tell publishing is a jump in at the deep end sort of process. it has been wonderful but also an incredibly steep learning curve and it would be utterly impossible without my agent!

priya parmar

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Mr. Former Agent Man, or, should I call you, Number 6?

I think you're absolutely right, again.

Here's why: at the turn of the last century, agents were not, as we know, that big a deal. You didn't have an agent, you didn't need an agent. What you did need, and tried to get, was an editor--an employee of a publishing "house"--to read and like your stuff.

With Amazon, the deal is actually closer to 60/40 for my novels, rather than 70/30, published by CreateSpace. Because the retail price of my book covers their cost, and my royalties, since it's a print-on-demand novel. And on Kindle, we're talking now 30/70, in my favor.

I told an acquaintance when I published my first novel what my royalties amounted to percentage-wise. He'd been in the legal division of a publisher I won't name, but it's a big one. He looked at me in awe, and said: "that's better than what you'd get from my old employer."

I pay no agent. My royalties are all mine. I don't split them with anyone. And I'm not looking to get rich. I just would like people to read my books.

Now, I'm also not paid an advance on royalties. I also don't have to pay back an advance on royalties if my books don't earn enough to cover the advance.

My point is, like publishers, I think agents have been largely taken by surprise by the popularity--and ease--of print-on-demand and self-publishing, as well as ebooks, of the current era.

They argue it taints the rarified air. Though more and more publishers are asking their writers to actually do much of their own marketing.

I don't have a publicity machine. I could pay someone for that. I don't have subsidiary rights--I could pay someone to handle that, if it came to it (intellectual property lawyers often charge a one-time fee for such negotiations, by the way). But I don't have to pay anyone I don't want or really need to. The risk of sales or lack thereof is entirely mine, no one else's. Much like in any other art (using painting as a similar example).

So. We went from having an editor acquire a writer's work for a publisher, to an editor being lobbied by an agent to look at a writer's work, to agents only willing to first consider a one or few-line query before even spending time looking at a writer's work, to publishers willing to put out a writer's work to let the readers' decide, to publshers willing to pay unknown writers 70% royalties.

Only one reason to have an agent now--to get your book in front of a major "traditional" publisher, who then cranks up the publicity machine, to generate the sales, to pay the publisher, and the agent, and the writer for...who's risk?

Sure. I'd love another agent. Especially one that could find a publisher that would pay to distribute and market my work much more widely. Heck. I'd even be willing to let them take 15% domestic sales, 20% foreign sales (a model that has existed, by the way, since my first agent took me on in 1979).

I said it before, I'll say it again: you should have stayed in the business. You could have been my agent.

What I mean by that is, the agent of tomorrow better be a heck of a lot more active, a heck of a lot more concerned with making everyone some money, and even be open to and push risky writers, because eventually the publishers will stop paying outrageous advances on unknown quantities only to be burned when their works of devestating literary genious don't generate revenue to cover everyone.

And then the publisher's will go back to saying, "we'll decide" who to publish, or better, "we'll publish anyone as long as it doesn't cost us much and it generates revenue."

Cheryl said...

I thought this was interesting as it was written in 2008.

E-publishing and the agent: Why U.K. novelist Richard Herley thinks smart literary agents will fare well

JacquiPirl said...

I have read that agents and even editors that write usually obtain agents.

I wasn't sure I beleived it until now.

Thanks for all the useful info!

And please keep blogging!

Roberta Walker said...

I truly hope agents don't disappear - not that I have one, yet. The daunting idea of being business-woman as well as writer (though I have a hell of a lot more experience on the business side than the writer side) seems overwhelming. Multi-tasking is hard when you are driven relentlessly by your muse :)

Matthew Rush said...

Excellent post Nathan. Well written as usual, but also an interesting point.

I will still want an agent no matter what happens to negotiation. Honestly, and I have no idea how wise this is, I don't really care about money. Sure, it's nice, but that's not why I write or want to be published. The main reason I want an agent is because I feel that a good one will make my writing, and my writing career, the best it can possibly be.

Steven Brandt said...

Actually, I think that in the coming era the biggest authors will just self-publish--get rid of the publisher and the agent and take a bigger share of the profits.

Harbinger of Truth said...

Literary agents are like unattractive women on military bases, they are in high demand because there are so very FEW of them and they know this and as a result many tend to be a tad arrogant. Are they essential? Yes, but to the unpublished author they appear less the advocate and more the obstacle. It's doubtful that the publishing game will ever evolve to the point where the agent is not needed, but considering that there was once a point when one co uld send a manuscript DIRECTLY to publishers and fwe people HAD agents, agents might want to prepare themselves for a shift in the industry. We live in a nation where fewer people read and eventually those of us who read (and write) will become such a FRIGHTFULLY small minority that we won't be catered to at all.

Mira said...

Actually, one more quick comment about students and e-books.

The impact of e-books on University Libraries should be a major change.

No more: "There's only one copy and someone checked that out."

The long term impact of Universities potentially having unlimited copies of books and textbooks available to students should be very interesting in terms of the impact on the textbook industry and the politics that stem from that.

Gregory House said...

Having just writing a very satirical look at agents and publishers and why I went epublishing on my blog. I must admit that your arguement does have some strong points. However as you know they are not valid in all cases and everywhere. In the Antipodes distance is a crippling factor. It appears (at least here)that you can only get published if you are indeed already famous. In fact one very successful Aussie writer even had to setup his own publishing company to get his books out.

boros1124 said...

The image of European history came to mind for me. You know the stories and poems in Hungarian? There is a very good writer. B Molnárr Mártaaa. If you are interested then you can watch on this basis.

RSMellette said...

Publishing might want to look to film contracts for creative bonuses. It's become common to have bonuses set based on box office (sales) targets reached. I've seen Academy Award nomination/win bonuses.

Breakevens might apply as well, particularly for digital where there isn't a print run. 70/30 split until the publisher recoups costs, then a 50/50.

Ultimately, of course, star authors will have to be willing to walk away from the table to keep negotiations viable.

Anonymous said...

But how do I get an iPad?

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