You can’t swing a remaindered copy of David Hasselhoff’s autobiography these days without hitting an article about where publishing is headed in the coming years. Though it does get a little tiresome at times, I am still glad to read all the talk and join in the conversation, because, at the very least, I’m thrilled to see that we in the publishing world are being more proactive about guiding our own destiny than, say, the music industry has been over the last decade or so. I live in Nashville, “Music City USA,” and I can’t even begin to count how many friends and acquaintances of mine have lost jobs as the music industry holed up and didn’t do much more than lob lawsuit hand grenades at the evil downloaders as digital music took off. Only in the last few years have most of the music folks begun to creatively think through new revenue models for their industry.
But one discussion that seems to only recently be gaining traction, on the internet especially, is whether and how the role of literary agent should change in the decade ahead. For example, I’ve heard more than a couple authors recently, who have been reasonably successful midlist authors, begin to question out loud whether it makes sense to continue writing books, as they’ve seen their advances shrink, copies sold dwindle, and marketing budgets dry up. As the economy and, even more ominously, the plethora of entertainment options available to consumers take their toll on the world of books, these authors are wondering whether there is really any money to be made if your name isn’t J.K. or Snooki. Certainly, some of these authors will just chuck the whole writing thing and pick up a more profitable pastime, like button collecting. But I suspect that many of them will begin to experiment with self-publishing, advertising-supported blogging, and other sorts of revenue opportunities that their writing could bring them, and they may find those opportunities to be even more profitable than traditional publishing ever was.
The question, then, is: where does this leave your friendly neighborhood literary agent? Well, if you’re Binky Urban or Andrew Wylie, with a herd of mega-bestselling authors in your stable, you probably don’t have a lot to lose sleep over in the near future. But if you’re like me, an agent with a number of fantastic “midlist” sorts of authors (who, thankfully, do hit the bestseller lists from time to time, but not as often as they deserve to!), then you can either bury your head in the sand the way the music industry folks did ten or fifteen years ago, or you can start challenging paradigms and rethinking what a literary agent might look like in years ahead.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I’m thinking more and more about my role as publishing “advisor and consultant” and “manager” than I have in the past, and how I can best benefit my author clients and still continue to live the champagne and caviar lifestyle I’m so accustomed to (my wife just read that last part over my shoulder and started laughing uncontrollably). It’s one of the topics I’ll be thinking about in my little section of Alt-Country. I may also be thinking about how to attract Snooki as a client, but I’ll keep that to myself.