With the advent of indie publishing, there has been much speculation about the demise of traditional publishing and the role of the literary agent. Laurie McLean, Senior Agent at Larsen Pomada Literary Agents, shares her views on her profession and the changing industry. Check out her agent blog, www.agentsavant.com, for tales of the agenting life, and the agency’s site, www.larsenpomada.com, for valuable information and links.
- Can you tell me a little bit about your background in publishing?
I entered publishing from a sideways path, not the traditional one of being an intern at a publisher or agency having gotten a creative writing or MFA degree from college. I was a journalist first, then worked in public relations, eventually starting my own PR agency in California’s Silicon Valley and building it into a multi-million dollar business. When I retired early, I was too young to sit around and do nothing, so I wrote a novel. Got a literary agent (Elizabeth Pomada), got involved with the San Francisco Writers Conference, and never looked back. Less than two years after I retired I was a full-time literary agent, author, and on the management team of the San Francisco Writers Conference. Today I am also the Dean of the newly created San Francisco Writers University found at www.sfwritersu.com. And this year I am starting two ePublishing companies with two of my clients to make out-of-print vintage romance (JoyrideBooks.com) and children’s books (AmbushBooks.com) available to a new generation of readers.
- How would you describe the role of the literary agent?
I find authors with promise, work with them to improve their manuscripts and try to sell them to a large New York-based publisher, a smaller indie publisher or help them self-publish their work. But agents do so much more than that. (see next question)
- In your opinion, what are the most important things that you do for your authors?
An agent is:
- A scout who constantly researches what publishers are looking for
- An advocate for an author and his or her work
- A midwife who assists with the birth of a writing project
- A reminder who keeps the author on track if things begin to slip
- An editor for that last push before submission
- A critic who will tell authors what they need to hear in order to improve
- A matchmaker who knows the exact editors for an author’s type of writing
- A negotiator who will fight to get the best deal for an author
- A mediator who can step in between author and publisher to fix problems
- A reality check if an author gets out of sync with the real world
- A liaison between the publishing community and the author
- A cheerleader for an author’s work or style
- A focal point for subsidiary, foreign and dramatic rights
- A mentor who will assist in developing an author’s career
- A rainmaker who can get additional writing work for an author
- A career coach for all aspects of your writing future
- An educator about changes in the publishing industry
- A manager of the business side of your writing life
- What skills and qualities should literary agents possess?
An agent must be organized, intelligent, multi-tasking, a good negotiator, have excellent time management skills, love books, know marketing and sales and be well versed in the mechanics of writing/storytelling/character development/plot/pacing and social media. He or she must also be relentless in keeping up with developments in publishing contracts, editorial taste and digital publishing.
- How do you think the role of the literary agent has changed in the past ten years?
Two things: digital publishing and social media marketing. These are disruptive technologies that are transforming one of the oldest businesses on the planet. The rapid rise of eBooks is truly changing the industry and opening opportunities for writers and new eBook-only publishers never before seen. By solving the twin headed dragons of accessibility (through self-publishing) and discoverability (through social media), authors will be free to experiment, broaden and enjoy the control they have over their creativity and careers for the first time in hundreds of years.
- What would you describe as the biggest threat to literary agents?
The biggest threat I see is not keeping up with the changing landscape of publishing. If an agent doesn’t dive in and integrate digital publishing into every client’s career planning, he or she will cease to thrive and eventually be out of business.
- Is your agency doing anything specific to overcome that threat?
In 2011 we created San Francisco Writers University (www.SFWritersU.com), an online and live place of learning for authors that is a 24/7/365 resource for writing. We have created tracks at the non-profit annual San Francisco Writers Conference (www.SFWriters.org) for social media for authors and self-publishing. I have spent four years immersing myself in digital publishing to understand its wide-ranging implications and impacts. And this year I am launching two eBook-only publishing companies with two separate clients-Joyride Books for previously published romance books, and Ambush Books for out of print children’s book backlist titles. No original works, so I won’t face any conflict of interest accusations…only good, out-of-print backlist titles that deserve to be reissued and now they have a chance.
- What is your opinion on some of the new agency business models emerging (e.g. full career management, fee-based services, consultant and publishing services)?
As you can see from my answer to question 7, I love the fact that agents are looking at their specific tangential talents outside the core agent competencies and offering this expertise to their clients, and sometimes to authors who are not their clients. It is an exciting time to be involved in the publishing industry.
- Is there a business model that you think will become standard?
I doubt a standard business model will emerge within the next decade, if ever. Agents are as individual as authors, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. I am a serial entrepreneur and I bring my business and marketing strengths to any new venture I create. Other agents are more comfortable offering indie editing services or book-to-film advice. Some are assisting their clients with indie publishing…going so far as procuring cover art, editing, formatting, etc.
- Do you see the 15% commission continuing as the standard payment for literary agents?
For traditional publishing deals, absolutely. And I don’t see traditional publishing going away. Like the myth of the paperless office, we will not abandon paper books altogether. There will be shorter initial print runs with quick follow-up runs if a book sells well, print on demand services will thrive (could we possibly see an Espresso Book Machine leased by publishers to booksellers so they can make a book while you wait…I hope so!), and people will read more books in more formats than we ever dreamed possible.
- Do you have any thoughts on what the role of the literary agent will be in the future?
If things settle down at all, I believe agents will take on more of a career management role for authors, similar to the way sports or celebrity agents work today. So they’ll negotiate deals for their authors’ print, ebook and subsidiary rights, but they’ll also make more things happen themselves along the way.
Laurie, I found your talk at the Rainforest Writers’ Village in Feb/March this year to be inspiring, and this blog post is, as well. Thanks for your thoughts!
Ah yes, the business part of the writing career – planning, placement (with the right publisher), marketing, understanding all the aspects which support and sustain authors – these are daunting when all most writers want to do is write! So when I read your list of the things you do for an author, I see the agent’s role is more like that of a business partner – how awesome!
Laurie, the biggest hurdle for a new writer used to be getting a foot inside the publishing door. With the increasing respectability of self-publishing, anyone can put themselves out there now, whether their book is of a publishable standard or not, and it seems a lot of writers don’t particularly care – they’re just happy to be published, however it happens. So what would you say is the biggest hurdle these days for the new writer who wants to carve out a serious career? Is starting out with a well-edited, self-published book a bad move?
The publishing landscape is in so much flux right now that I think it’s difficult to know what role having an agent will play in the future. Only one thing’s for sure – everyone from writers to agents to publishers will have to change and adapt. Those who don’t soon won’t have any base in the market(or at least so little base that they no longer matter).
As an Indie author with a book coming out soon wi am so glad to read this. Perhaps agents will begin to join with Indie writers to market, publicize and share revenues. I would love to have an agent partner with me.