Friday, July 8, 2011

The Role of Agents in the Post-Publishing World

This subject has come up a couple of times this week in various blogs.  Scott Nicholson calls agents Unnecessary Evils in Self-Publishing Agents: Unnecessary Evils, and Debbi Mack says she can do everything any e-stributor might do in The 15 Percent Solution.

In some ways, I agree with both.  Services provided by traditional agents are now something of a rip-off, especially if you're a well-rounded person with an eye for design and the ability to make contacts and do business.  Agents have an upper-hand, and this gives the profession a reputation of haughtiness.  They're not any kind of solution because they're part of the problem that we're fleeing, right?  So who needs 'em?

But I do see a role for something.  Let's face it -- not all writers are comfortable with certain aspects of the business-side of writing.  Moreover, even those of us who are comfortable with it, may eventually find some of those detailed tasks distracting... in other words, it may end up being more profitable to shell out 15% so we can focus on doing what we do better -- writing.

We may not call them agents -- though I think there's nothing wrong with using this term.  (As Debbi points out, an agent is “one who is authorized to act for or in place of another; a representative.”)  In this sense, agent is the perfect word.  He may not be trying to sell your book to an editor any longer, and instead may himself be editing your book, hiring a proof-reader, lining up a cover artist, and writing marketing blurbs for Amazon and Smashwords, but these are still representational activities.  To help eliminate confusion, let's call this new breed "indie agents".

Whatever it's called, there is a niche -- something writers will be willing to pay for, and people willing to do the work -- so it will be filled by someone. 

As a self-publishing indie author, I've made a list of activities I might personally find valuable enough to pay 10-20% of my earnings for.  This list is not all-inclusive.  There are many activities I haven't thought of, that other authors need help with, and those would be added to such a list of services.
  • Career guidance - Keep a general eye on the markets and offer advice on things like trends in genres, which books to push and which to let go for a while, movements in pricing, trends in marketing, etc.
  • Help with marketing, or at least marketing advice - For example, she could submit things to review blogs, or even just tell me which review blogs are worth the time. An agent may even have connections that could accelerate marketing efforts or lend me credibility.
  • Editing and proofing. That's right. I've read that many agents are doing editing now instead of editors anyway. If they don't do it themselves, they could farm it out.
  • Lining up cover artists, designers, formatters, copywriters for the blurbs, etc.  Negotiating the contracts.
  • Handling the business and legal side. Someone to fill the role of "Talk to my agent".  Looking over any miscellaneous contracts to make sure they're legit.
  • Eventually some of us indies are going to reach the level of Neil Gaiman, and have speaking engagements all over the world. You're going to need an agent for that. Likewise for film deals, etc.
  • Support - Some agents fill the role of emotional support and encouragement. Given the drastic ups and downs of this job, this is helpful for some of us. Where are you going to find an on-demand therapist or life coach (besides in a spouse)? But some agents fill this role for authors.
In a way, you're getting two services for cheaper than the price of one: Editor and Agent.  Instead of costing you 80%+15%, it costs you 30% (Amazon's cut)+15%+misc direct fees for outside services.  Let's do a little thought experiment with some rough math, and see where it leads.

It's common knowledge that the more novels you have available, the more you sell.  (That's the topic of another blog post.)  If you spend all your time marketing your one book, and never write books two, three, and four, you're not spending your time efficiently.  The same would go for the other distracting activities I've listed above.

Let's say I currently have three books for sale on Amazon for $2.99 each.  I sell 100 copies a month, and spend 40% of my time on the "business" side: marketing, studying the markets, lining up services, formatting my own work, and so on.  Let's say I also spend more time editing my own work than I should, when after a while I just can't see past my own mistakes.  And I have a bad eye for art, so I pick a poor cover designer, and can't explain to them what I want.  I'm making about $200/month, and am making slow progress on my next novel.

Now let's say I get an indie agent and agree to pay 15% for them to do the distracting things.  For now, I pay them $30/month, but the more money I make the higher that number will go.  But that's a good thing, right?  Because if the indie agent is helping me make more, then it's a fair deal, right?

Now I still have to spend some time doing the business side.  I need to approve cover art, integrate the suggested edits and proofs, make decisions about any movie deals (ha!), and so on.  But now I have an adviser, who is keeping up on the industry, who is doing the most boring aspects, and giving good advice about what I should do.  Now I only spend 10% of my hours on the tedium, and have twelve extra hours per week to write.  Not only that, but the quality of that time is improved -- I don't know about you, but for me, the little distractions get my mind off my story and depleate my energy beyond just the house consumed.

That means my next novel comes out sooner.  Not only that, but my agent, who can focus on this kind of thing, is doing a great job writing blurbs, which is helping my existing three novels to sell faster.  And she got me a couple of interviews on blogs, and a few extra reviews, and now momentum is starting to pick up.  Not only that, but she knows a really great editor who fits my style of writing, who has suggested lots of great changes on my new novel, which makes me a better writer.

Now it's a year later, novel four is released, and I'm selling 500 copies a month.  That's $1000 -- $800 more than I made before.  The agent gets $150, but so what?  Even then, it's $650 more than I made, plus I'm that much father ahead for when book five comes out.

I'm not completely sure I'd make this wager.  But it is compelling.  And I happen to have a good eye for art and can make business deals when I need to.  I know how to do the marketing, and know where to look for trends in the industry, etc.  I can do it, I just don't want to.

But I do know for sure there are a lot of great writers who want nothing to do with the business side.  Ever.  They're not good at it, and they never will be.  They couldn't tell a good cover from a stain on the floor, and can't read the first line of a Terms of Service contract without bursting into tears. 

For that reason alone, I am confident that this role is going to exist, and plenty of writers will be willing to pay for it.

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