Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Lil’ Kris in da House

During a brief exchange with an industry observer today, I likened publishers to travel agents. My point was that travel agents used to fill a role that anyone can now bypass thanks to the miracle of the internet. The industry observer made a reference to literary agents, which I thought missed the point, but it did get me thinking about the role literary agents might play in the publishing world of tomorrow.

We know what happened to travel agents. The internet practically eradicated them, and the same tech is now disrupting the book industry. And not just for e-books and indies. More print books are purchased online these days than any other place, and print on demand paperbacks are now indistinguishable from the mass produced variety. The power and need for publishers is eroding much as travel agents found themselves made obsolete by websites like Expedia and Travelocity. But what does that mean for literary agents?

I often look at the music industry for insight. Remember when music stores abounded? There are people who think this can’t happen to bookstores. Maybe they’re right. But surely we can appreciate the massive disruption the internet caused one industry and seek out parallels or possibilities in another. (It’s apropos, perhaps, that the Grammy for Best New Artist went to Macklemore and Ryan last night, a duo that self-produced their excellent album THE HEIST, which includes four songs that touch on the nature of going it alone as an artist.)

Looking at the music industry, I foresee a future where literary agents act like producers. Take Dr. Dre as an example, who happens to be one of my favorites in the biz. His ear for talent and business savvy have led to a stable of stars that include Snoop and Emenem. He started his own label (as many musicians and producers now do). Physical production might be offloaded to a larger label in a separate distribution deal, something we’ve already seen in the publishing world with Tucker Max and John Locke, but digital editions and touring can now take place with a producer at the helm. Music labels are feeling a squeeze as the cost of production and distribution plummet. And those costs are coming down more rapidly and to lower lows in the book industry (creating a book requires far less in the way of specialized equipment). Which means publishers are necessary only for what they can do to help a writer reach their audience. And it turns out that agents are doing more and more of these things every day.

Kristin (or Lil’ Kris, as her authors refer to her), gets our work into Overdrive and out to libraries. She handles e-book distribution to every major retailer; we just have to upload a single set of files and metadata. She plays matchmaker between her writers and editors, cover artists, formatters, and the like. How long before she sets up print-on-demand editions? How long before she facilitates audiobooks through ACX? If not her, then some other agent.

We’re already seeing authors turn to production the way Dr. Dre did: JA Konrath publishes joint works with other authors. He also spearheaded a flash-fiction outburst last year. He has other projects in the pipeline. I foresee other indie authors moving away from writing, having told the stories they wanted to tell, and using their accumulated wisdom to publish works from other writers. They could take 15% of everything an author makes and still leave that self-published artist with far more in earnings than a big publisher currently does. And they wouldn’t own any of the rights. Kristin doesn’t own my work, but she’ll make 15% in perpetuity, and she deserves every penny. This could be the future not just for agents, but for publishing in general. More freelancers and less corporations. More taste-makers with taste we trust.

In music, the curators of talent have branched out in just this way. They are now the producers of the final products that we enjoy. And we quickly learn that we like what our favorite producer likes. I trust certain artists to generate music that I’ll enjoy, even across genres. Kristin has sent me two of my favorite reads of 2013 (THE DARWIN ELEVATOR and BIRD BOX). How long will it be before readers are saying, “Yo, Lil’ Kris just produced another hit!”? Has anyone ever said that about Random House? Not within earshot of me. But the day is coming that they say it about an agent or an author who now curates new talent. At least, I think so.

28 replies to “Lil’ Kris in da House”

You have already begun this with your recommendations in social media. How many great authors would have been lost in the shuffle if you hadn’t said to your fans, “I just read this great book by…” You have certainly had a great influence on my Kindle contents, and I can’t help but think that you have, if not made, at least boosted the careers of several GREAT authors that I might not have discovered otherwise. Thanks, Hugh!

That thing about the agents becoming curators of talent is a great parallel to what happened to travel agents. They still exist of course, and some people still use them – because there are now so many online flight comparison sites, and they can be so confusing to use, and lead you through endless loops and trails of add-on fees and hidden costs etc…
Travel agents are seeing a resurgence of business because they can take the effort out of the DIY approach. They find you connections that don’t leave you hanging in the airport for 16 hours, and yet come in at only slightly more that the three-change flight I spent all night researching all the permutations of…
And literary agents can be like that, a bit. Cutting through the crap, helping quality authors be discovered by the public, and helping the public find quality books. Sounds like a perfect situation, eh!
Curators. I can see agents doing very well in this kind of role. After all, they (presumably) know their audiences, and their clients. And they can react quickly to changes and stay abreast of current trends, because they’re much smaller operations than big publishing houses. And yeah, I can totally see the day that you follow an agent on Twitter, because you like her stable of authors – you like the style of author she recruits, and her taste is similar to yours – so yeah, why not follow her? And trust her recommendations…
And then they can deal with all that ‘becoming a brand’ crap… :)

I’m a little dubious about this concept, Hugh. Yes, agents can discover talent and get authors work onto the proper websites and distribution channels, but then what? How does it get promoted? At this point it’s pretty simple for an Independent writer to do these things on their own, and getting easier each year. I believe the real power will go to the distributors of the product. Thomas and Mercer for example can use Amazon as a launching pad for their authors. Certainly Apple will find a way to be a player in this market someday. I believe more realistically publishers will become the home to reality TV celebrities and Bios from movie stars, while midlist authors will find ways to bring their existing fan base into their own distribution channels.

Just my opinion.

When it comes right down to it, authors want what they’ve always *thought* publishing houses would do: pay them a decent wage to write what they love and take care of all the “other stuff”. The other stuff being art, formatting, distribution, and promotion. Some indie writers enjoy pieces of this puzzle, but, by and large, we’d be happy if we could just tap on the keyboard all day and maybe go to a signing once in a while just to, you know, see the sunshine and get some fresh air ;-)

Once writers get to a certain volume of sales and notoriety, you have to start delegating that other stuff, just as you, Konrath, and others have done, Hugh. Agents who are already experienced selling foreign and movie rights would seem like a perfect fit for this sort of thing, but can they pull their noses out from the behinds of the big publishers to see a new business model? Only time will tell, but it has been fascinating to watch the changes in the industry these past five years or so.

We don’t have to rely on existing professionals changing how they do business; I think it’s far more likely that tomorrow’s agents will come from today’s writers. Kris Rusch, Konrath, Blake Russell, people like that. Some are already doing this.

Again, look at music. Dre came from the creation side. I think most of these micro-labels will be helped by authors who got their start as self-published writers. It won’t require people changing; the game will change.

I agree. I guess I was just postulating that agents — at least some of them — would be great for this sort of thing, if they’re willing to look differently at the industry. Unfortunately, the vast majority probably won’t.

I’ve been comparing publishing to music reference digital for years now. The musicians who survived were the ones who either went on tour successfully (not likely for writers) or controlled their rights. To me that’s the monster that’s rising in traditional publishing now.

A facet of music that also happened was rights being sold and traded. David Geffen got Neil Young in exchange for Poco. Seriously. Wait until we see authors getting sold and traded (it’s already happening via some imprints and smaller houses getting eaten by larger).

As far as agents I think your concept has possibilities. The problem is most agents are still too focused on the front end advance rather than the long tail of earnings. When an author mentions “my agent” when we’re discussing working with them at Cool Gus we know the deal is probably dead. We had a prominent author with loads of backlist talk to us last year but her agent got involved, yanked the deal to a trad publisher in order to get some advance money. We’ve yet to see a single one of those backlist titles come out. Not only that, but the agent had the author sign away rights she’d earned back.

The forward thinkers and the ones willing to adapt will prosper. For the others.

Maybe I’m conflating things here – I’m still a newb to the indie publishing world – but is this potential role for literary agents also something like a writing coach? As well as what they do in helping writers navigate the many options that are open to them in terms of publishing and promotion, the great literary agent of the future would be able to mentor and coach the writer on where their writing might fit in the expanding marketplace, and provide encouragement or advice to the writer on further developing their style.

The travel agency analogy holds up too in the way that you can now do all your travel bookings yourself at the cost of your personal time and effort in navigating the options, or you outsource it to the agent for a (reasonable) fee. They’re an option, not an essential, but in some circumstances (such as complicated travel arrangements, or where regional expertise is valuable) they have greater value and can charge accordingly.

The tough thing for the publishing industry, as Hugh has pointed out in a number of different ways, is that they are still in the early days of dealing with the disruption that has come about because of marketplace and technology changes. In my day job I’m a consultant specializing in insurance technology and I regularly see companies struggling with the need to update and change how they do business. Changing the existing model takes real vision at the top of an organization, and a great effort inside the business. It certainly can be done, but organizations have so much inertia and interest vested in the way they’ve always done business that it’s like turning an oil tanker.

The heart of it seems to me to be about what represents value in the eyes of the customer. Another part of my day job is helping companies implement Lean business practices. Lean is all about delivering a value stream to the customer. The customer defines value (what they will pay for). Anything else in the process is waste. Right now, among other things, there is a lot of waste in the publishing business. Cutting out that waste, focusing on what delivers value to the customer (and here I mean the writer as well as the reader), is the key to success. It’s just that there is so much waste in the current process that change can’t help but be painful. If you took Hugh’s description of what he’d do if he was running a publishing house (Don’t Anyone Put Me In Charge) and applied it using a good dose of Lean, you’d have a kick ass publishing house. Actually, you might not even want to call it a publishing house any more. Maybe it’s a Writing Channel, or a Publishing Superhighway, or something. You’re not the destination for the writer, you’re the enabler, one of many paths to the reader.

Sorry, rambled on a bit there. Back on point, the success of the literary agent in the future may well follow a similar pattern – focus on value as defined by the customer (the writer), and stop all the other stuff. What is there in the role that has value in the new world of publishing, and what else can someone in that position do well that perhaps is an unfilled need?

What you are talking about is more of a mentorship relationship–that’s what Dre did, that’s what other musicians do, and when I hear of legendary editors like Maxwell Perkins, that sounds like what he did for the authors he worked with.

It’s a great way to keep the business open, instead of keeping secrets in the ivory tower.

(I’m not sure how a CEO and Founder of an Imaginary Publishing Company has time to come up with so many great ideas. Don’t you have imaginary staff meetings to go to?!)

As always, a well thought out view of what is happening or could happen in the industry.

Even with publishers being fazed out, there is a need for someone to mentor/advise new authors if they are ready to publish yet or not. There is nothing worse than self-publishing early because it is easy and then realizing, after the fact, the piece wasn’t ready and embarrassing yourself…at least that’s my worry with choosing to self publish.

I’d gladly give you or Kristin 15% for your mentorship/publishing abilities ;)

Victoria Allman
Author of: SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain

Very interesting post, parts of it sound a lot like what I hope to do where I live. I’m in the mountains in Virginia, and there are loads of talented storytellers here. When we have any sort of event where folks can sell their own books, a crowd is guaranteed. The problem is so few people have any idea how the technology and the procedures of getting a book into print really work now. I know too many who have been terribly burned by some sort of “We’ll publish your book for you!” outfit. They often end up with a pile of badly-formatted and edited books they paid way too much for, and sadly many stop trying.

Where I come in is I happen to do page layout, editing, and publishing for a living, and I have for over ten years now. The projects I work on are crazy complicated, graphics-heavy, and headache-inducing, but they’ve given me a solid foundation in how to get a book or magazine ready for print. I know a good local printer if that’s needed, but more importantly, I’m starting to understand the tools that suit us indie writers so much better. I don’t particularly want to make bunches of money on this. I’d just love to give some of the writers in our small towns and hollers the chance to tell their stories without going bankrupt in the process. These local, small-market writers are the perfect group for that kind of guidance.

If that makes me a rural agent, I’m fine with that!

Cool post Hugh. Actually Liz Berry are already doing something like this with 1001DarkNights.com… while we are technically “publishing” these books our goal is a marketing one – we are using shorter fiction to build each authors brand in a unique way.

Interesting analogy, Hugh. I’ve been watching the digital music revolution with great interest. Many artists are finding their audience through youtube videos and itune uploads, without the help of a record label. As you well know, the landscape is quickly changing, not just for music but for books. Too bad New York hasn’t caught on.

[…] In his conceit, the digital spin cycle will have thrown off such large numbers of highly experienced specialists in every aspect of publishing that authors can then think of themselves as executive producers of their own work. And as a sidebar, I invite you to read Hugh Howey’s conceptualization of a near-parallel, the agent-as-producer and the author-as-maker of much more than books: Lil’ Kris in da House. […]

A terrific thought provoking post, as always. Not having an agent, I have no frame of reference, but what you envision sounds promising. The only thing that gives me slight pause is the statement about ‘15% in perpetuity,’ as that sounds like a ‘life of the copyright’ arrangement. Certainly agents would need some protection as to the length of any agreement, but personally I think anything beyond say 10 years is a bit much. Just my opinion, FWIW.

Thanks again for your blog and the encouragement you offer other writers, both new and established. However, I am a bit baffled as to where you find the time to maintain the blog and write fiction as well. I’m beginning to suspect that you and Russell Blake are on speed. :)

“The only thing that gives me slight pause is the statement about ’15% in perpetuity,’ ”

Why?

Would you rather have 100% of twenty grand, or 85% of a million ?

It would stand to reason that the folks who get theirs on the back end would have a greater vested interest in your continued success than a salaried employer of a large publishing house.

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