The Future of Agenting

Andrew Lownie gives his thoughts on the future of agenting. He will be discussing the issue at the London Book Fair on Tuesday.

The publishing landscape is rapidly changing with the growing opportunities provided by digital publishing and the growth in social media and with online and supermarkets replacing book stores. The way publishers publish and what they publish is changing and we as agents will have to respond to that change to better protect the interests of our authors.

I see the book market in the future being 5% major publishers/authors/agents, perhaps 20% middle rank agencies/publishers/authors and 75% will be self-published books in one form or another . Publishing will become more polarised between established brands, tie-in tv books and celebrity books and the rest but it will also become more fragmented as the ‘long tail’ argument makes even specialist digital publishing profitable.

There will no longer be clear demarcation lines between what publishers, agents, booksellers, authors do. Booksellers have packaged books for their outlets in the past and I see them taking a more active role in the whole publishing supply chain. Publishers have traditionally sold rights, as well as published books, but we are now seeing them selling directly off their own websites . Authors are buying in editorial and marketing expertise and combining the roles of author, agent, publisher and bookseller, and many will increasingly adopt an a la carte view towards representation splitting books between agents – sometimes several – and publishing some themselves.

As publishers buy fewer books and are more cautious about what they buy, agents will need to look for other outlets for their authors’ work, combining their traditional role with a more entrepreneurial and wide-ranging approach managing careers and ‘brands’ in the way celebrity and sports agents work. Agents will need to be more actively involved not just in packaging books with a whole host of partners outside conventional publishing but also ‘establishing’ them in the marketplace. Just as publishers are signing up successful self-published authors, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t do the same with books that agencies have already tested and trialled.

We will see many more e-publishing initiatives ranging from my own agency’s Thistle programme and Trident Media’s ebook division, only publishes existing clients and charges the usual 15% commission, to Diversion Books which accepts unsolicited submissions and splits revenue 50/50.

Authors will still require someone with knowledge of the market to help exploit the increasingly complex ways content can be sold, licensed and repackaged but remuneration is likely to change. Many authors for lucrative books which are easy to place are already choosing to simply pay fees to a lawyer rather than agency commissions. Agents may increasingly look at a combination of retainers and hourly rates as well as differing rates of commission depending on the author and the deal.

All of us in publishing will have to be more pro-active and flexible in seeking out and exploiting the opportunities that digital publishing has brought. We will also need to see how our expertise can be utilised in other ways, providing a wider range of services such as offering consultancy services to self-published authors, and offering creative writing courses, though the irony there is we will simply be making our money from telling people how to write and publish books that we may ourselves be unprepared to agent and publish.

The digital revolution has created huge opportunities for all of us in the publishing community but it will also require us all to raise our game to fully take advantages of those opportunities.