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.