Literary Agent: Authors Don't Need Middlemen, They Need Partners

from the picking-fights-in-your-own-backyard dept

One of the false impressions our frequent detractors seem to pick up from the stories covered here is that Techdirt hates middlemen. This couldn't be further from the truth. Mike Masnick has often stated that middlemen can be extremely useful. The problem is, most middlemen aren’t. Most middlemen in disrupted industries continue to stake a claim to territory that is no longer theirs, insisting that their presence is still needed, or at the very least, that they be paid their tribute regardless of their actual worth. In essence, they attempt become gatekeepers, something no industry truly needs.

Nate Hoffelder sends over a story highlighting the difference between useful middlemen worth their pay and position and middlemen whose claim to a slice of the pie is solely based on an overestimation of their own indispensability. Jim McCarthy, a literary agent for Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, gives his account of a recent writer’s conference, one in which several agents fiercely guarded their disappearing territory.

A week and a half ago, I had the opportunity to go to the Novelists, Inc. 23rd Annual Conference. And on one of the panels I sat on, all the growing tension and dissatisfaction came to a head…

[O]ne of my co-panelists went after someone on the panel for “denigrating” agents and said he wouldn’t stand for it. So I grabbed the mic and offered, as an agent, to denigrate agents for them. I believe very strongly that good agents are incredible partners and can bring authors more success (I’ll get back to this). But more importantly at that exact moment, I was just suuuuuuper pissed. It was disgusting to watch another industry professional demean an author simply because they seemed to be chiseling away at his pedestal.

That’s a strange way for a group of people to treat potential clients, especially when the creation of legitimate self-publishing platforms have made the run-of-the-mill agent largely superfluous. If the agent cares for nothing more than finding a way to insert himself between the author and his earnings, then naturally he’ll feel threatened by the many recent routes to success that completely bypass him.

But there are agents who actually understand that their role, and the role of the publishing industry in general, is no longer what it once was. McCarthy explains:

Here’s my take. The role of agents in the marketplace is changing dramatically. At DGLM, we’ve always prided ourselves on being a full-service agency. In the past few years, we’ve been aware that what “full-service” means is changing. As authors have more access to self-publishing and more success in doing that, agents need to be able not only to guide their clients through that process, but to be aware of the pitfalls, potential gold mines, and ways to strategize that are best for an individual project but also an author’s entire career.

McCarthy notes that simply because a good agent can be beneficial to authors, it doesn’t mean that everyone needs an agent, especially not a bad (or simply an average) agent. However, many in his field believe the latter to be the case, even as their confidence level has shifted from “This is how to get us” to the more desperate and demanding, “You need us.” Even as he spoke to several others in his same field, his message was greeted with anger and defensiveness. McCarthy’s point wasn’t that agents are unneeded, but that agents unwilling to accept their new responsibilities and let go of their old habits have nothing to offer today’s writers.

Rather than feel threatened and become openly hostile and dismissive towards any writer that utters the phrase “self-publish,” McCarthy is actively working to become an essential element of a writer’s career.

What we’re seeing is a balancing of power. Authors have more control of their careers and can be more demanding. Does that make my job easier? No. Does it make it more exciting? Yes. Because it’s one thing to bandy the word “partner” around and make yourself sound friendly, which seems to be happening a lot. It’s another thing to actually act like a partner.

Middlemen can be extremely useful, but they can’t simply remain in the “middle” for no other reason than that’s where they’ve been historically. No middleman can honestly state categorically “You need us.” It simply isn’t true anymore. But, if they’re willing to recognize their new role in various content industries, they can be the best thing that’s happened to their clients.

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Comments on “Literary Agent: Authors Don't Need Middlemen, They Need Partners”

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anon says:

Re: The key

As the change from physical to digital grows faster and faster many authors are looking for people with specific skills to help them get a book onto the top 20 list.

I do not see Publishers disappearing any time soon, but I see there jobs changing and there demands of huge cuts from the authors works having to be cut.

An established Author can do everything himself if he has taken the time to learn what an editor does.
The new author just needs to hire someone with the skills to proofread his book and do an editors job, with one simple payment per book or a very small cut of the profits.

BentFranklin (profile) says:

Reducing costs by cutting out the middleman is a hallmark of gold old American capitalism at its best. Copyright maximalists, being property rights advocates, cannot help but recognize this. For the good of the country, let’s take those people off corporate welfare and put them back to work in productive roles. Of course, they can stay where they are, if they can justify their existence in the supply chain through added value. Of course the value of what is added is in the eye of the purchaser.


Lord Binky says:

In the past, this is separate from giant publishing firms that churned out books and ate through authors, you had author’s that were already wealthy. These individuals would hire or collaborate with a friend/acquaintance with good business sense, to handle matters such as publishing to allow the author more time to work on well, writing.

The agent was a tool of the author to provide him more time to write, he was an assistant, a friend, but NOT the boss.

In contrast our typical arrangement is that publishers and their agents, are the boss of authors.

The reaction and flailing we see from publishers is expected of people when the rank of their position is being swapped with their subordinate. It is a sign of a poor relationship between the two and hints at a feelings of superiority over the authors.

Ellie (profile) says:

Re: Agents and Authors

Yes! That is my impression too, regarding literary writers, as well as authors of scientific works, of the past. I guess this was 50 or more years ago. I was surprised how complex (congenial, or even colleagial) the relationships were, between the agent-editor and the writer. It was nuanced, i.e. an agent was not necessarily an employee of any publishing firm. Now, I see writers who go with giant publishing firms, with minimal benefit. Even well-known authors, experts in their field, may receive little or no editorial guidance. The same is true with production support, for charts or graphs.

EVERYONE needs editorial guidance. If one self-publishes, then turn to a friend or establish a contract arrangement, if necessary. It is preferable to have an experienced editor, with a firm hand though. I don’t understand big publishers at all! They don’t even provide this to big-name authors, let alone those who are not. Yet editorial input is so important for a publication’s success! It is also one of the few ways of demonstrating a traditional publisher’s competitive advantage over self-publishing e.g. through Amazon.

Do publishing firms still employ editors? An editor and an agent might or might not be the same person. The editorial function is for the book content, and the agent is for marketing and negotiating payment, is that how it works? Might you know, um, Lord Binky?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Agents and Authors

“EVERYONE needs editorial guidance.”

Many of the big publisher think that modern word processors with their spelling and grammar checkers largely eliminate the need for editors and type setters. Also the would be author has to be accepted before ant editorial input is available if they can find a publisher with good editors.

For those that can deal with the criticism, putting a work up on the Internet, either in text form or as an audio book will get the criticism that allows an author to develop, so long as they through out the comments by the trolls, and build a base of fans that they trust.

Loki says:

I just sent this article, as well as a link to DGLM’s website, to several authors I know.

I suppose the (copy)right way to do things would be to demands if they get deals, I should be paid a “commission” of some sort for all of my “hard work”.

Being the ungreedy bastard I am, I’d likely just politely ask for a free copy of their first books.

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