Sunday, September 20, 2015

A True Agent Model

My ambivalence about the way that literary agents and publishers operate is no secret.  I think the entire system, in its current form, has become the worst form of crony capitalism, and it's foundation consists of nepotism.  Agents don't represent writers - they represent publishers and occasionally let writers to come to their parties.

This is where the indie publishing movement is so important, for it has the potential to upend the whole dynamic.  As technology allows more and more writers to gain access to the audience with quality work that bypasses the traditional publisher, the system will be forced to innovate or die.  That will mean that the system of literary agents will have to adapt as well.

Most agents are wanna-be writers themselves.  They hold a great number of literary degrees, but I want someone who can represent me in legal and intellectual property negotiations with large companies, not another book critic.  Sure, the ability to appreciate written work is a "nice to have," but it's not fundamentally necessary to the position.  What many agents don't seem to get is that publishers are exploiting them - they've outsourced their own editorial and selection processes to these agents.  Getting others to do their work at no expense to themselves is the dream of every business, for it allows more money to flow into private coffers.

That's how agents became an extension of publishing houses.  Publishers allow the agents to pick which novels are worthy.  And since agents have essentially become subsidiary employees of publishing houses, they have a vested interest in keeping publishers, rather than writers, happy.  Face it - how long would you tolerate an employee who stubbornly refused to argue only on your behalf?  By going against the grain, agents risk losing out on vital contacts within the industry, ie - employment.

If the indie movement has any impact, it can be in the way agents and publishers have to deal.  More publishers are looking to the indie market as a sort of "minor league" in finding talent that has already proven the ability to be successful.  Friends of mine who have sold well have been contacted out of the blue by literary agents with the promise of a deal with some big name company.  I promise that any agent that contacted me would get one question.  An inability to satisfactorily answer that question would lead to the end of the contact.

What is your legal background in negotiating intellectual property contracts?

For that's what an agent does.  I have beta readers I can ask for advice regarding a piece of work.  Since reading tastes are subjective, I don't view any one agent's critique as any more valid than that of a beta-reader.  However, my beta-readers lack negotiating skills and a practical knowledge of contract law, and that's the expertise I would require.  Publishers have armies of lawyers working for them to help fine tune the points of a contract in order to provide maximum benefit to the house.  They sneak in things like royalty rates that pay only every six months, exclusive rights of first refusal that limit author abilities to branch out and produce more product, and print runs that can limit reach to an audience or the writer's ability to see if his or her work can make a larger impact outside of the short window a publisher grants.  I want someone on my side who has the same level of insight in order to get a deal more beneficial to me - maybe I want to be paid monthly; maybe I want the publisher to release rights back to me if the run goes out of print for more than six months; perhaps I just want the first leg of a book tour to be paid for.  Whatever it is, I want someone arguing for me, not taking whatever is given to them.

Start looking beyond those with MFAs as potential agents.  An agent with an MFA may be able to help you write a little better, but an agent with a law degree will help you get a better deal.

No comments:

Post a Comment