Agents are More Important than Ever in a Digital 'Change Environment'.

Susan Farrell-Lewis, an MA student in Professional Writing at the University of Falmouth, gives details of her survey, to which Andrew Lownie contributed, into the role of agents in the new digital age. Did you see the Coen brother’s film Oh Brother Where Art Thou? The Soggy Bottom Boys (George Clooney and his mates on the run from a prison) sing into ‘this ‘ere old tin can ‘ere in this new-fangled radio station and git 10 dollar’s each.’ They laughed so much: money for singing the music they loved! Of course it all worked out in the end, the Coen brothers apparently have studied the Classics; Clooney gets the girl and the money. So how many writers, old and new, are going to ‘sing into this ‘ere old tin can’ to upload their beloved manuscripts? As part of my MA in Professional Writing with Falmouth University I have been required to carry out an analysis of the industry. My contention is that the role of the agent is more important than ever in this digital change environment. Their task: to steer a clear path for their writers ensuring that quality is maintained, money made (we have to eat for goodness sake) and we are not all swallowed up by the ensuing confusion about what a book is going to be. Electronic transmission of data, after all, is only another media that follows on from paper, vellum and rocks. Consequently I have approached a sample of agents in the UK and Ireland to discover their views on electronic publishing, how it will affect them, writers and the future of the printed word. The current publishing industry environment has been described as a ‘Wild West’ by Mary Kole. but in contrast to what feels like near hysteria from the US web postings, blogs and industry updates regarding these developments the individual agents I spoke to in the UK and Ireland gave an impression of a wonderful laid back calm. They responded as follows: Positives of digitisation The efficiency of digitally produced material; it is quick, easy, and cheap and can go round the world. The possibility of engaging the next generation via digital media into literature. The potential via the digitisation of educational materials to engage increased learning within schools. Readers as consumers need agents as much as writers re screening, filtering for quality and market information to assist in selecting books, digital or otherwise. Writers could get a bigger percentage of royalties as the costs of digitised publishing are lower. More democracy for authors on the web. Blogging, twittering and online publications will grow new writers. New writers have been picked up as a result of their blogging. Blogging is just another form of published writing. Self publishing is a growth area. Digital publishing levels the playing field for small agents. eBooks will expand the market. eBooks will be a growth area in addition to book sales. Digital potential of new authors is now a criterion. Illustrated, reference and travel areas present exciting possibilities for e publishing. There will be more retailing opportunities. Digitisation allows an agent in London to operate worldwide. Negatives of digitisation. The loss of the physical presence of a manuscript, its progress into print and the loss of the excitement of receiving the finished product. The loss of the old rites of passage and acknowledgments as a manuscript evolves into a book are disappearing with a click. How will readers/consumers connect into an eBook market that has no shop front? Digitisation might actually narrow the market by limiting choice; there may be less exposure to range. New business models are not well developed, current models being transitory. Blogging and twittering will not work for or be suitable for everybody. An avalanche of self published books that will be difficult for readers to find their way through in terms of quality. Authors will have to engage more with independent editors, publicist, and publishers. Self publishing is not suitable for everyone. Agents could potentially become publishers but this is not their role. The big publishing houses are concentrating on established writers because of the surety of branding making the possibilities for new authors narrower. In the current environment it is harder to sell new authors. Digital sales will replace book sales not add to it. eBooks may not be good for authors when considered in the context of free books The costs of animation will limit this type of development to those who have the extensive funds required. The future of book chains is not rosy. When I surveyed agents I got a sense a quiet confidence, and confirmation that e-publishing is just another media. It is not as touchy-feely as some beautiful books, but has it uses and efficiencies. All agreed it will lead to a growth in self-publishing, but ultimately the selection, filtering and promotion of good writing is part of the equation that agents are good at. They argue strongly that the reading public, the customers, need this facilitation to be able to ‘find’ good books. The world of books is an interesting place to be at the moment. The impact of digital media is palpable. Coen brother’s film O Brother Where art Thou?’is an excellent analogy. The film is about music, and takes place during the great American depression, and where are we now? Recording and radio transmission was bringing music to the masses; now, digitised media goes round the world with a click. In the present climate new writers are told they can simply upload a manuscript to Amazon and lo and behold they are published authors and anybody round the world will buy the books. I have no doubt there will be many people like Clooney and his side kicks in the film who will ‘sing into the tin can’ for a couple of dollars. However a successful book involves a lot of people and processes and not that many individuals are polymorphs, so it seems to me there is a case that agents are more important than ever. It will be interesting over the next few years to see how this potential for self publishing rolls out, and just how democratic the web really is. I can bring my own views and experience as a sole trader; you may think you can do everything on your own because of the power of computers, you can’t. For example I am hopeless at maths. The Inland Revenue invites sole traders like me to do tax returns online, just tick the boxes and click; you’re filed for another year. To make a mistake on a tax return is fatal. The tax laws are complex, that’s why there are accountants, and that’s why I employ one. I just wish life was as simple as we are all led to believe. And as for the democracy on the web, there is no democracy. You have to pay to get to the top of the search engine pages. I did a quick survey at our small local Waterstones before writing this up. There was a desk with some e- readers attached to wires coming out of the wall. My initial reaction was: one, this is about selling gadgets, two I can scan the entire bookshop in about 15mins, and did, and also found something interesting and one or two other things I didn’t know about. I could spend hours in front of an ebook and not get the same results. For research purposes it looks helpful, but to me the presentation is linear and narrow. I think therefore the quite confidence of the agents I spoke to is justified. I also asked what an agent might look like or be doing in 5 years time. Here are some of the answers: ‘Don’t Know’ ‘More involved in the publishing process in terms of progress chasing.’ ‘Representing their authors as usual’ ‘Will have to adapt to a new market.’ ‘Same as now, helping authors develop and to protect their interests.’ ‘Fulfilling much the same role as today.’ ‘Ensuring publication of authors books, their marketing as well as the design of the cover.’ ‘Securing contracts and property rights.’ There are many protracted arguments going on in the publishing world outside of the scope of this analysis to do with money, rights, and ownership of property and I agree with Mary Cole, it is a Wild West. I also have to conclude that agents, whatever shape or form they take are a significant part of this changing environment, there’s much to be done and fought over. The blind prophet’s words that open the Coen brother’s film are worth considering. ‘You will find a fortune but not the fortune you seek.’ Post script re ‘Oh Brother.’ ‘The groundbreaking digital timing work on the film has become legendary in the industry because the technology was unproven.’