Many people say the new publishing landscape makes agents irrelevant. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but it certainly seems that, except for those able to represent the biggest best writers to the biggest best publishers, agents have a hard time justifying their role. Agents often won’t take on new and unknown writers, because the big publishers only want big-name authors with big platforms. Publishing is a gamble, and they are trying to reduce their risk.
The best agents provide more than contract negotiations. They provide coaching and administrative support—what some call literary management. That’s one way some agents are answering the charge of irrelevance. Another way is by going into publishing.
The evolution came easily enough. Once print on demand and e-books made it simple for an author to publish his or her own work, it naturally followed that some would want help doing so. They’d rather be writing than learning about page design and e-book conversion.
Agents stepped in to fill the gap, first by helping existing clients publish their backlists. This stirred up some controversy at first. Some in the industry felt it was a conflict of interest for agents, who normally sell to publishers, to become publishers.
Nonsense. The agent is supposed to be working in the interest of his client. If her best interest is to self-publish her backlist, and he helps her do it by managing the administrative end, then he’s serving his client well.
At least one company that I know of, Rogue Reader, went straight into full-flown publishing. I first heard about this company through the Beyond The Book podcast. When you first visit the Rogue Reader website, it seems like a bookseller. But when you get to the bottom of its about page, you see the company is open to submissions as a publisher.
What you don’t see, but is mentioned in the podcast, is that Rogue Reader is a division of Movable Type Management, a literary management firm.
Jason Allen Ashlock, co-founder and president of Movable Type, is among those who see the old-school agent as irrelevant, and advocates for this new style of representation.
“It’s time for us to think about our role less about overseeing a small sliver of the publishing value chain where we negotiate for the sale of rights to big media houses, and instead, think of ourselves as radical advocates for the author and their property, willing to partner with any possible advantageous ally that could get deserving work in front of the readers that are wanting it.”—Jason Allen Ashlock
Rogue Reader and other companies like it seem to occupy a new space in publishing, between “traditional” publishing and a print vendor. But they are publishers—they front the cost of publishing the book—even if they don’t pay advances.
There are vast options available, and it behooves us to examine all of them to understand how they really work. This new model, where agents become literary managers and publishers, may not only help them remain relevant in the new publishing landscape, it will likely help authors as well.