As I get ready to give up my Dead Guy slot in January, I’m going to spend the next three weeks looking back on the past ten years in publishing. As I thought how to do this in a limited amount of time, I decided to devote this week to some changes I’ve seen in the ways editors and publishers relate to agents; then talk about agent/client relations next week. Then, to wrap up, I’ll give some figures about my own journey from sports executive to partner in a growing literary agency.
Ten years ago, when I joined Writers House as a very old assistant to two excellent (and patient) agents—Simon Lipskar and Dan Lazar—Viking Penguin and Random House were years away from merging. There was no such thing as a Kindle (or ebooks in any real form). We still periodically submitted manuscripts in printed form, via mail or messenger (though most of it was by email, to be sure). There were really no restrictions to speak of in terms of how many editors at a house an agent could submit a book to—if you thought six editors in different imprints at Random House could like a book, you could send to all of them and if more than one liked it, they would fight it out to see who would buy it.
Ten years ago, there was also just the beginning of a sense by publishers that literary agents could be productive forces in the process—that we were not simply sharks looking to gum up the works. More and more agents had editorial experience (as I did), and more and more agencies had active internship programs, so the population of English majors thought of both the buy and sell sides when trying to figure out how to enter publishing and not make any money. But there were also still many editors who treated me with skepticism—I remember a pretty venerable editor at a literary imprint of one of the Big Six ask me what, exactly, I thought I was adding to the publishing process beyond trying to fleece him for a ton of money for substandard novels. On some level, I thought of publishers as my opponents, and my assumption was that I was looking to defeat them.
As I left my office this afternoon almost ten years later, with 60 clients and a group of seven working together at the agency where I’m a partner, Publishing has undergone several intense disruptions. Digital publishing emerged, first as an existential threat to print book publishing and brick-and-mortar bookstores, then eventually as an incorporated and accepted form of distribution and format. The financial disasters in 2008, just as I was submitting my first list of manuscripts, meant that publishers were forced to cut what was probably a bloated population of editors and support staff—logical and probably necessary from the business side, but incredibly difficult to watch when those layoffs meant that a quarter of my friends lost their jobs in numbers squeezes. The folks who remained, as advances went down for many (though certainly not all) books, Borders went out of business, and contraction took hold, actually became substantially more congenial and collaborative.
After the financial crisis, Publishers also became more selective about how agents were permitted to submit books. Instead of unlimited access to the editors at Random House, for example, we were restricted to three: One each from the Crown, Knopf, and Random House Groups. (Again, this was probably logical, but made life somewhat more difficult for us, and limited competition—I’ll come back to this.)
Also, as time has passed, publishers established digital imprints in (mostly) genre books (mystery, science fiction, romance), closing imprints and establishing new models of paying authors, sometimes with low or no advances but slightly better royalty splits, to mixed success. (To be fair, in the past year or so, I’ve started to see these models begin to catch hold, so while the initial forays were pretty meager, there is greater hope now.) I am not going to get into the seismic changes that the Amazon/ Agency Model lawsuits caused to contracts and the business side of the industry as a whole, since there are many people (most notably Mike Shatzkin, Hillel Italie, and Michael Cader) who have done it brilliantly. Finally, I’m not going to get into self-publishing in any detail. When HSG began in 2011, we thought it possible that we would be spending a significant amount of our energy assisting our clients in independent publishing efforts. While we’ve done some, with different levels of success, it’s not emerged as a significant aspect of our business.
But the biggest difference I’ve found in the past ten years has been my relationship in the editorial and marketing aspects of my clients’ publishing experiences. Rather than being the guy who picks out a book, formats it, sends it to a publisher, negotiates a contract, and gets out of the way, agents need to play a very different role with publishers: that of partner.
Because lists have shrunk over the past ten years, but the barriers of entry to submitting manuscripts have been lowered to almost nothing with email subs, publishers now rely on agents to be true first layers of defense. We must be that much more selective because publishers will be even MORE selective. We must get manuscripts into extremely clean form—most of the time I do two or three significant reads of a book, with either a detailed editorial letter (with accompanying calls to explain and discuss) or full-on line edits before I will consider starting to submit a manuscript that starts out extremely strong. And once I sell a book, I am much more involved in the strategy sessions for publicity and marketing. And instead of a suspicious or antagonistic relationship with my counterparts at publishing houses, there is much more of a spirit of collaboration.
Now before we all sit in a circle singing Kumbaya, there are also some less-exciting aspects of the process which have evolved. I certainly miss the days, for example, when if an editor began to read a book and enjoyed it, she would call me and say “Don’t you DARE do anything without telling me first,” or “Oh my God, this is amazing—I’m taking it to ed board next week.” More often, I’m getting lovely, polite passes after long waits, with regretful statements like “Well, I had three reads, we were really excited, but just couldn’t get it through Acquisitions.” This serves to a book’s detriment in two ways: It means I can’t help an editor answer potential challenges that come up in editorial meetings; and not knowing that an editor is interested means that I can’t tell OTHER editors that there is action, thus allowing there to be momentum to the submission. It works against excitement to keep cards too close to the vest. That’s really a significant issue I’ve seen.
Another is a growing insistence, in the interest of a “360-degree worldwide business,” for publishers to insist on retaining foreign and translation rights for smaller books with little potential of being sold abroad by the overwhelmed foreign rights pros at publishing houses—who are going to make their nut on the big books. If agencies had greater opportunity to retain those rights, we could concentrate on them more explicitly—we have smaller lists, and each title is a bit more of a special individual flower than at most publishers.
This is a half mile wide and an inch deep, but it does illustrate in its own small way just how dynamic the relationship has been over the past ten years between agents and publishers. It’s only speaking from my own journey, and others surely have had different experiences and feelings about these aspects of the business. But hopefully it gives you a little idea of this piece of the job of a literary agent in late 2016.