Horror Roundtable 9 – The Future of Agents

When: June 10, 2013
Time: 3pm EST (use the Time Zone Converter to find your local time)

The Future of Agents

Do you think all the recent technological advances in publishing are sounding the death knell for the literary agent? Agents used to be the gatekeepers in the classical publishing model, deciding who gets through and who remains in obscurity, but that barrier seems full of holes now. If literary agents are to remain part of the publishing process, how will they need to adapt?

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You can follow the Roundtable discussion in the comments section of this post.

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Special Guests:

Joe McKinney Doug Grad Richard Curtis Robert L Fleck

Joe McKinney has been a patrol officer for the San Antonio Police Department, a homicide detective, a disaster mitigation specialist, a patrol commander, and a successful novelist. His books include the four part Dead World series, Quarantined, Inheritance, Lost Girl of the Lake, Crooked House and Dodging Bullets. His short fiction has been collected in The Red Empire and Other Stories and Dating in Dead World and Other Stories. In 2011, McKinney received the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel. For more information go to http://joemckinney.wordpress.com.

Doug Grad spent 22 years as an editor with Pocket Books, Ballantine, New American Library and ReganBooks/HarperCollins. He edited numerous bestsellers in fiction and nonfiction, including the historical novelists Jeff Shaara and John Jakes. He left the corporate side to become a literary agent in 2008, and has sold books to publishers big and small—mysteries, horror, sports, business, true crime, military, music, history, memoir and humor. In 2011, Doug formed an ebook company, Antenna Books, publishing both frontlist and backlist titles.

Richard Curtis, president of Richard Curtis Associates, Inc., is a leading New York literary agent; founder of E-Reads, an electronic book publisher; and a well-known author advocate. He is also the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction including several books about the publishing industry. His interest in emerging media and technology has enabled him to help authors anticipate trends in publishing and multimedia. He has lectured extensively and conducted panels and seminars devoted to raising consciousness in the author and agent community about the future of communications. He was president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives. His popular blog about publishing appears regularly on http://curtisagency.com/blog/.

Robert L. Fleck has spent most of his adult life in the publishing business. In 1990 he joined AE Press and Midnight Zoo Magazine, rising to become the managing editor. After two years there, he became the personal assistant to author and editor Janet Berliner-Gluckman. Between 1992 and 2004 he worked with Janet on novels and anthologies, including work with illusionist David Copperfield, and authors Kevin J. Anderson, Peter Beagle, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Jack Kirby, Joyce Carol Oates, F. Paul Wilson, and many others. In 2004, following Janet’s extended hospital stay and the retirement of her prior literary agent, Robert Fleck reopened the agenting side of Professional Media Services, where he represented Janet as well as many other writers with whom he’d developed relationships over the years as well as exciting new authors. Following the passing of Janet Berliner-Gluckman in 2012, Bob reformed the agency as The Fleck Agency.

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71 Responses to “Horror Roundtable 9 – The Future of Agents”

  1. Robert Fleck says:

    I’m signed in and ready when everyone else is.

    • Robert Fleck says:

      Okay, I’m back signed in. Are we being moderated? My first comment is awaiting moderation.

  2. Richard Curtis says:

    Though they’d had more than a decade to prepare for the Digital Revolution, too many agents have been caught unprepared for it. They are still thinking in the narrow traditional mode of licensing rights to buyers, but they don’ realize that the Internet has disintermediated buyers and sellers, squeezing agents out as their clients go around them and sell directly to readers. Agents need to reinvent themselves by providing services that authors still need including social networking, creation of websites, and other management activities. Many agents are reluctant to spend their own money on these services, not realizing that if they ask the author to do it, the author is going to wake up one day and say to the agent, “What do I need you for?”

    • Doug Grad says:

      Agents may need to help out with social media and such, but I think can still supply valuable work editorially. After all, it all starts with the words on the page (or screen). When I was an agent, I can’t tell you how many sloppy manuscripts came in, full of typos, unintelligible sentences, ill-conceived plots, inane characters. Agents still need to keep authors from being their own worst enemies.

      • Richard Curtis says:

        Agents today must have so many more skills than they had a decade or two ago. They commonly write jacket copy, critique cover art, edit clients’ texts, and help them with technical issues like creating websites and developing social media. Agents are much more like partners to authors. But paradoxically they are also more like partners to publishers.

        • Robert Fleck says:

          I think we either need to have the skills, or understand what’s needed and know who to put our clients together with to get those things done. In many ways, agents are the lubrication that keeps the processes running. We chase after deadlines and editorial and production and promotion both from the client side and the publisher side.

          • Doug Grad says:

            Good points, Richard and Robert. Yes, sometimes it seems that agents are more aligned with the publishers than with their clients. But then again, agents and publishers have worked on hundreds of books, and authors…maybe just a few. An agent can provide the big picture.

          • Richard Curtis says:

            I ran out of lubrication a long time ago. I now chase authors with a stick. :-)

      • Doug Grad says:

        I meant when I was an editor…

    • Robert Fleck says:

      Also, as I noted above in response to Doug, there are still plenty of places where authors need to contract with other people. There are a lot of places where a knowledgable partner will ease the road and avoid roadblocks and problems that an author on their own may not even see coming.

  3. Joe McKinney says:

    Okay, so this is the HWA’s 9th Roundtable discussion, and I’ve been asked to kick off the conversation (and perhaps prod it with a stick from time to time should the dialogue start to lag, which I’m sure, given the talent we’ve brought to the table today, will not happen). Today’s topic came from an offhand comment I made on a previous Roundtable devoted to ebook publishing. I wrote: “Do you think all the recent technological advances in publishing are sounding the death knell for the literary agent? Agents used to be the gatekeepers in the classical publishing model, deciding who gets through and who remains in obscurity, but that barrier seems full of holes now. If literary agents are to remain part of the publishing process, how will they need to adapt?”

    First off, I have to confess to a bit of hyperbole. I don’t believe that it was ever really true that agents were the lone guardians at the gates of publishing. Certainly authors got published without an agent way back when, just as they do today.

    Secondly, we are in no danger of losing literary agents as part of the publishing industry. My own experience has driven that point home again and again. Authors need advocates, and agents are without question the best source of good counsel because, after all, what’s good for the author is good for the agent.

    But the truth is that the publishing world is changing rapidly, and ebooks are a big part of that. All three of our guests today have done significant work with epublshing, so I anticipate some good insights on that front. And that makes for a logical stepping off point. There is a myth today (and yes, I believe it is a myth) that authors can make it big time through self-publishing. Epublishing has created something of a pioneer attitude in the Indie community that an author can fend for himself. But can he or she really fend for himself or herself? If you want to be a professional writer, someone who does this for a living, can you go it alone?

    • Doug Grad says:

      An interesting point to make is that the major houses are probably in the process of divesting themselves of, shutting down, or converting their mass market paperback lists to ebook original lists. Mass markets were once the B-Movies of the book biz, and it’s where I cut my teeth, so I’ll be sorry to see them go. Without going into the why of it, let’s just say that the Big Six now has ebook original imprints. They’re no more likely to publish books on the ebook lists from the slush pile now than they were in the print only days. Again, they can turn to agents for books of a certain quality level. Right now, they’re more or less profit-sharing deals, though.

      • Joe McKinney says:

        How long do you think the mass market paperback has? Five years? Ten? Or is coming sooner than that?

        • Doug Grad says:

          It depends how long Kensington can hold on! :-)

        • Richard Curtis says:

          I wouldn’t write mass market paperbacks off quite so soon. Though they are no longer a place for new authors (unless a new author writers a blockbuster), they are still vital for the reprinting of bestselling authors – the so-called airport model.

          The key to the future of mmpb is distribution. We can’t sustain a business model with returns as high as 50-60%. Not when we now have technology for printing books on demand where the return rate is close to zero.

          Anyway, I’ll bet you you’ll see mmpbs ten years from now when you go to the airport.

          • Doug Grad says:

            I hope you’re right. Unfortunately, the old distribution model for mmpb dried up about 15 years ago (wholesalers, jobbers, etc.) and haven’t been replaced by anything. We went from something like 300 wholesalers nationally to about 6 in the span of a couple of years through mergers and buy-outs. There also used to be great diversity in mmpb regionally. No longer.

          • Joe McKinney says:

            Perhaps this is a naive question, but can’t mmpb take advantage of print on demand technology.

          • Robert Fleck says:

            I think you’re right. As things like the Espresso Book Machine go from being a very expensive novelty to a standard item in whatever the modern bookstore/cafe/community meeting place becomes, we’ll also see more stability in the business. There will always be an important place for the BIG books, but reducing the cost structures will increase the place for the midlist that has been squeezed out over the last two decades.

          • Richard Curtis says:

            @Joe

            Right now, mmpb on demand are unfeasible because of the cost. It has to do with scale. If you run off 200,000 paperbacks on a press you can reduce the unit price to maybe fifty cents a copy. But you get no such savings with POD, which costs about five bucks a copy. And there’s no economic way to distribute PODs in bookstores.

          • Doug Grad says:

            I don’t think POD will replace mass market. It might replace HC or trade paperback, but MM carries with it some of that “instant gratification” like purchasing a magazine. No one wants to wait a day, half a day, or even an hour for their purchase.

  4. Doug Grad says:

    Hi All. I have an interesting perspective on the “future of agents” question, having been an editor at four of the big NY houses for a long time, and now having put in a number of years as an agent. Do agents have a future? Yes, I think they will. Agents may be seen as gatekeepers by unpublished writers, but by editors they are seen as professionals who a) will recognize good work when they see it; b) will know who at the publishing houses to target for said work; and c) will effectively negotiate a contract without feeling the need to question boilerplate clauses or rewrite the contract out of ignorance. From the author’s side, many an author has told me tales of being ripped off in a contract because they didn’t have an agent, or contentious dealings with an editor when there was no agent to run interference for them. Agents are both marriage brokers and marriage counselors–the figure that both sides can scream at without spoiling the author-editor relationship. That said, there are good agents and bad agents, knowledgeable agents and novice agents, but the main thing that everyone wants is an agent who knows the business. Sure, sometimes you can do a minor plumbing repair in your house, like getting hair out of a clogged drain, but often it’s best to call in a professional plumber who knows what he’s doing. You’ll pay for that service, but you’ll get superior results. So you see, agents are really like plumbers!

    • Robert Fleck says:

      My version, rather than plumber, was auto mechanic, but the same idea. You COULD learn to tear apart your entire car yourself and put it back together, but most people don’t have the time, inclination, or background to do that.

      I’m not sure if I agree with Richard that we primarily need to turn to a managerial role, as it’s pretty clear that throughout the chain from writer to consumer there are going to be people with whom the writer needs to contract to get the product through. Foreign rights, film rights, audio rights, all sorts of adaptations.

      • Doug Grad says:

        Agreed, Robert. The agent isn’t going to be left out in the cold. Somebody has to do all that work. Writers generally just want to write–they’re happy to leave the other stuff to someone else. Hell, many writers don’t even like promoting their own books.

      • Joe McKinney says:

        This is very true. As an author with a full time job, a full time writing career, and a full time family, I find it hard to find the time to research foreign rights, film rights, audio right, etc etc. I look to my agent for guidance here.

    • Joe McKinney says:

      I love the marriage broker/counselor metaphor. That’s perfect.

      • Robert Fleck says:

        It’s a good rule of thumb as an agent to tell your authors that, when they’re mad at their editor, they should write a letter, and send it to the agent. Saves a lot of editorial relationships. The process can be difficult, but it shouldn’t be adversarial.

        • Joe McKinney says:

          Excellent suggestion!

        • Richard Curtis says:

          Yeah, agents speak publishingese, and they’re more diplomatic. An author will write me saying “I want to rip my editor’s face off”. I convert that into, “My client has raised a number of concerns….” :-)

  5. Joe McKinney says:

    Yep, we’re live. Richard, thanks for that. You’re absolutely right about the industry savvy author who thinks he or she probably doesn’t need an agent. I am not one of those authors, though. I sometimes work my agent to exhaustion in making him explain the finer points of contracts. This alone is proof enough for me that agents remain a vital part of publishing. Left to my own devices I might very well sign my life away and not even know it.

    • Doug Grad says:

      I have an author who is trying to get the rights back to one of his old titles from a small press. So he gave me a copy of the contract to look over (he didn’t have an agent when the deal was made). Lo and behold…there’s no reversion clause in the contract. The book is out of print and the publisher doesn’t have to revert the rights. THAT’S why agents are necessary.

      • Robert Fleck says:

        I’ve also had similar occasions. I’ve had times when neither the small press publisher nor the author had any clue what some of the terms in the contract meant and I had to explain them. The publisher had found some boilerplate and figured that was fine.

        • Joe McKinney says:

          So is a situation like this fixable?

          • Doug Grad says:

            It may be. But in this case, I told the author to just let it go and concentrate on his new books.

          • Robert Fleck says:

            It’s only fixable if you either get to it before the contract is signed or have a reasonable publisher who is willing to talk about amending the contract. But you don’t have much leverage in the position Doug was talking about. As he said, sometimes you just walk away.

          • Richard Curtis says:

            Money helps. If you want the book back badly, make your publisher an offer. You’d be surprised…

  6. Joe McKinney says:

    Let’s talk about agents as career managers. Being a Spurs fan, I’ll put it basketball terms. Do you ever find yourself acting as Greg Popovich to the author’s Tony Parker?

    • Joe McKinney says:

      There is misconception among writers (who aren’t already in a working relationship with an agent) that the agent will hunt down work for them, find them invitations to anthologies or offers to write film novelizations and so forth. Just to clear the air, is this part of the author/agent relationship as you see it?

      • Robert Fleck says:

        Mostly, no, though it can happen that an editor will come to an agent to ask if they have a client who can write a particular type of book, and sometimes things will just come up in conversation, but on a daily basis I certainly couldn’t add on chasing down short fiction invitations to the overload of things I’m already doing. ;-)

    • Robert Fleck says:

      What’s a Tony Parker? ;-)

      There can and often is a measure of career management as an agent. You try to give your clients the best information you have based on your experience and what you see day-to-day in the business. Then you work with the choices the author makes the best you can.

      • Doug Grad says:

        It’s awfully hard to “find” work for a writer when you’re trying to juggle the careers of 50-75 clients. Sad to say, but usually the “earners” get more attention than the non-earners. I had an author demand that I get him a cowriting job for a big memoir signed up by a major house. All I could do was contact the editor and tell him that my author deeply wanted the cowriting/ghostwriting job, send in the writer’s CV, and then hope for the best. Needless to say, my guy didn’t get a call. And I think he blamed me for that, when all I did was put him in the running. No good deed goes unpunished in this business… And I wish Tony Parker was my client!

  7. Doug Grad says:

    What I like about epublishing is that now authors have a choice, whereas they barely had one before. Some authors become very savvy with their marketing and put their self-published ebooks on the bestseller lists (until those nefarious publishers swoop down and throw bushels of money at them). But then don’t they usually “agent up”? It’s very rare that established authors go the other way–foresake agents and do it all themselves, but for some, it’s now a viable option. It’s a lot of work doing anything in this business–it’s a very labor intensive biz. I’ll put in the same amount of effort for a six-figure advance as I will for a book that doesn’t sell at all. Ouch!

    • Robert Fleck says:

      Yes, a lot of people have the misconception that agents are sitting on their yachts sipping umbrella drinks on the backs of their poor, slaving clients. We put a lot of time, energy, and emotion into prepping books for sale and finding the right editors and doing everything we can to convince those editors that they need to pick up this book. I don’t think most of us look at the books from our clients as the equivalent of a head of lettuce.

      • Joe McKinney says:

        Yes, and I think authors need to know that it is their responsibility to take advantage of their agent’s talents in this capacity. If you don’t involve your agent in the process you can’t very well blame him or her for not getting involved.

        • Robert Fleck says:

          And keeping your agent in the loop. It’s very hard to come in and fix a problem when you weren’t in the conversation to begin with, but as an agent we often see things from enough of a different perspective to head off problems before they happen, but only if we’re part of the conversation.

      • Richard Curtis says:

        I work 80 hours a week. If you ever get an email from me at 2 AM there’s nothing wrong with the clock on your (or my) computer. I’m up and working!

  8. Joe McKinney says:

    Okay, let’s take up the most basic question unagented authors ask. How do I get an agent? (I can’t tell you how many times I get an email asking this very question.

    • Robert Fleck says:

      Networking and working on your craft and a lot of persistence. It’s not a mythical labor of Hercules, no matter how much it may seem like that at times.

      • Joe McKinney says:

        Yep, that’s true. Turning in quality material is always the best way. Given that, I usually direct people to Publisher’s Marketplace and tell the perspective writer to look for authors who write the kind of books that would be next to theirs on the shelf at Barnes & Noble and see who their agents are. That is a quick way to see who represents what, and who sells to who and where.

        • Robert Fleck says:

          Publisher’s Marketplace can be good, though not every agent or publisher reports deals there or is even listed there. The old standby of the acknowledgments pages of the writers you admire is really the best starting place. That and conferences relevant to the market you’re interested in.

    • Doug Grad says:

      The first thing is to call you.

      The Literary Marketplace (or LMP) is on line, and should be in most libraries. It lists all the agents (more or less) and the kinds of books they do. Also, authors often thank their agents in the Acknowledgements. If there’s a book you love that is in a similar vein to what you’re writing, try that agent! Check out their websites, go to writer’s conferences, talk to your writer friends. Oh yes, and bribery. Bribery always works… ;-)

      • Robert Fleck says:

        Bribery is good. I accept the three Cs: Cash, Coffee, and Chocolate.

        • Joe McKinney says:

          So true. I think conventions are a great place to make connections.

          • Robert Fleck says:

            Absolutely. And contrary to popular opinion, we agents are mostly normal humans just like everyone else, so it’s okay to say hello to us and talk, as long as you observe the usual courtesies of not interrupting an ongoing conversation. :)

        • Joe McKinney says:

          So, when agents get together at the bar and talk about which conventions are the best for picking up new clients, which ones come up the most?

          • Doug Grad says:

            The best conventions for picking up new writers are the ones with the best bars. No joke! That’s when everyone lets their hair down and doesn’t have to be “on.” Otherwise, I like the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference–that’s a good one. Very well run. I also attended the New England Crime Bake (for mystery/thriller writers) a couple of years ago which was quite good.

          • Robert Fleck says:

            I’ve had good experiences with World Horror and World Fantasy conventions (notably when WFC was in Columbus at a hotel with a truly excellent bar), but sometimes smaller conventions are also very good, because you’re more likely to be able to interact outside of the confines of pitch sessions and panels. You get more opportunities to judge how well you can interact with the potential clients, which is very important.

  9. Joe McKinney says:

    An agent friend of mine once told me a story about a client of his who showed up at his house in the middle of the night, drunk as a loon, begging for the agent to give him safe harbor for the night because the CIA was looking for him. Any of you have horror stories about the crazy things authors do?

    • Robert Fleck says:

      I have no firsthand knowledge of any such events or of signing a CIA nondisclosure agreement following any such event.

      • Joe McKinney says:

        Ha! No worries here, Bob. I promise to remain sane and to never darken your door in such a way.

    • Doug Grad says:

      Aside from the usual calls on the weekends (don’t agents have families too?), I recently had to threaten a Philadelphia-based author to smack her upside the head with a cheese steak if she didn’t make the revisions requested by her editor…

  10. myoung says:

    Thank you to our special guests for providing, among trials and obstacles, a really interesting Roundtable. We really appreciate your time and effort.

    This Roundtable is now open to comments and questions from the general public.

  11. Mike Patton says:

    I feel like I have a great idea for a series and have completed ~50k towards it. Taken it to some writers groups and got some great feedback for polishing. Since work/family/life seems to drain my time, leaving me nada to work on this thing. Do you suggest trying to collaborate with a published writer who could carry this project to the end?

    Thanks for your time.

    • Robert Fleck says:

      Most working writers, who also usually have day jobs and families, already have more projects to work on than they have time to complete. The best thing I’d think for you to do is to keep working on it as you have time. Even if it’s a page a day. At 50k, you’re most of the way to a finished first book. “I have this great idea, you write it,” is never a good approach to a writer who’s already overwhelmed trying to get her or his own writing to move forward steadily. Just stick with it. It’s your idea. It’s your mountain to climb, and you can climb it.

    • Doug Grad says:

      Keep going! One page a day, and in a year you’ve written 365 pages!