Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
Apparently I’ve been asking a lot of existential questions lately. Do books still matter, where is the publishing industry headed, are ebook apps in the grip of death throes? And I have another one for today: with the weight of a new publishing era bearing down on us, will literary agents soon become obsolete?
A number of agents I’ve spoken to have expressed this fear. For instance, I was recently chatting with an agent who is also a lawyer, and she mentioned that she provides legal services to her authors as a way of hedging her bets, should traditional agents be headed toward extinction.
While I was quietly appalled that an agent might feel this way about the future of the profession I’m hoping to break into myself, in many ways hers are very legitimate qualms. With the proliferation of self-publishing platforms and the rise of unconventional publishing initiatives like Amazon Publishing, Open Road Media, and Byliner, to name a few, aspiring authors are less likely to submit to the extremely delayed gratification process of traditional agenting and publishing.
After all, why wait for an agent to pluck you out of obscurity, hassle you into editing your manuscript yet more, and then haggle with publishing houses who, if you’re lucky enough to get your work sold, will then proceed to draw out the process even more with all that editing, copyediting, and proofreading? Especially if getting your work out there faster also means you could save yourself money by cutting out the middleman?
One of my Emerson professors once said that it took nine months to birth a book, and that’s not including the years it may already have taken to find an agent. We’re living in the age of instant, people. We don’t gots that kind of time.
The problem with this perspective is that it neglects to take into account the highly time-consuming and specialized tasks agents undertake on a daily basis on behalf of their clients. Whether it involves corralling an uncooperative publicist or a careless editor, generating publicity opportunities for a new author, or serving as the primary editor of a work, writers—who more often than not already hold down a day job—simply don’t have the time, skills, or perspective to ensure that their baby will enter the world as rosy, powdered, and fragrant as possible.
And that’s just the beginning of what agents will be doing for their authors in this brave new world. As enhanced ebook apps and other new incarnations of the book arise, writers will need someone to protect their interests more than ever.
What do I mean by this? Case in point, the Julie of the Wolves fiasco. If you haven’t already been inundated with the facts of the case, they are as follows. As summarized in this Publishers Weekly article, author Jean Craighead George sold her book to HarperCollins in 1971, before ebooks were even a gleam in some programmer’s eye. On account of their not having been invented yet, no reference to ebooks was made in the contract. Last October, Open Road Integrated Media released an ebook of Julie of the Wolves, at which time HarperCollins slapped them with an infringement of copyright lawsuit, claiming ownership of the ebook rights.
Interestingly, last week George herself joined the lawsuit, siding with Open Road. The Publishers Weekly article quotes the statement released by George last Thursday, saying:
I have asked to intervene in this action to protect my rights under copyright and under my original contract with HarperCollins. When I signed that contract in 1971, eBooks did not exist so I could not have granted those rights. I am with Open Road all the way.
Simply put, the average writer just isn’t qualified to protect her own rights when entering into such contracts. The negotiation required for a fair deal is usually a lengthy, complicated process, and advancements of the future are near impossible to predict. So unless self-publishing is set to become the exclusive form of publishing in the years to come, agents will be needed for out-of-the-box thinking, in addition to the handholding, editing, marketing, and diplomacy they already engage in.
So don’t burn any bridges with your agents anytime soon, writers. In fact, send them a bottle of something sparkling and nice, as an advance thank-you for the day some publishing house doesn’t gank the full-immersion, virtual reality rights to your book.