The Role of Agents in the Modern Publishing Landscape


I was asked to do a talk this past weekend on the role of agents in the modern publishing world, and it seemed like a great blog post topic as well, so I figured that since my notes were already prepared…

In many, many ways, an agent’s role hasn’t changed at all from when I first entered the business over twenty years ago.  We’re still authors’ advocates—first, last and always.  We’re still business managers and advisors, negotiators and networkers.  But to be specific, here are some of the things we do and some of the ways in which are roles have changed and expanded.

Agents still read submissions and fall in love with books we want to champion.  We still read synopses, partials and fulls for our authors, providing feedback and critique, sometimes through multiple iterations of the material, whether we’re preparing these works for submission or publication.  We guide careers and discuss options with our authors even before work goes out on submission to anticipate where a book would fare best—a traditional house with an advance against royalty structure?  A small or specialty press?  In digital first or self-publishing?  We weigh the pros and cons, not only monetarily, but in terms of distribution, freedom, planned publication timelines and intervals between books.  There are more options and more points to consider now than ever before, which means that it’s increasingly important to have someone who’s up-to-date on all the aspects of publishing to advise and brainstorm.  This is especially true for hybrid authors, a relatively new term for those who are both self and traditionally published.  In this case, just as with any author writing in multiple genres or series for different houses, it’s important to have a business representative to keep on top of things like publication dates, non-compete clauses, option clauses, etc. so that no problems arise and no one’s publication or promotional efforts get short shrift.  But more than making sure that no one gets in anyone else’s way, we want to make certain that all aspects of a writer’s career nurture each other, so that special pricing and promotions, for example, will lead to greater name recognition and sales for an author across the board.  Short fiction, like stories and novellas, particularly strategically released, can also help drive readers toward a series.  An author might do this on his or her own or through the publisher’s digital imprint (or even as part of an anthology*), in which case back ads, teaser chapters and buy links can be added.

Agents still submit.  We refine our pitches, we keep up with the editors through meetings, e-mail, conventions, trade magazines.  We know what they like based on what they’ve bought in the past and the things they’ve pinpointed as problematic in recent rejections.  We know their taste.  We keep on top of imprints as well as editors—what they’ve come out with, what they’re most successful at marketing.  And because of regular dealings with the publishers, we also know the quirks of their contracts.  No contract is universally loved.  It’s a negotiation and ultimately a compromise, sometimes even when you’re a #1 New York Times bestselling author, so that generally in the end everyone’s happy enough for the deal to go but no one’s gotten EVERYTHING they want.  Some publishers won’t separate account without thumbscrews being applied.  Some want more rights or take longer to publish or offer lower royalties or….  These are the kind of things your agent will know.  There are a ton of other variables as well, including the energy and innovation of publicity departments, the strength of their distribution, the aggression of their subrights departments….  The list is practically endless.  And we don’t just know departments.  We know people.

All this and I haven’t even gotten into the part where agents play bad cop.  We chase checks and contracts, bring up issues that arise over royalties and statements, underwhelming covers, situations where the authors want their rights back to books that are no longer selling in sufficient quantities to be considered “in print” and yet the publisher wants to hold on to them.

Agents are huge networkers, not just with the publishing people, as you’ve gathered from what’s come before, but with other agents, particularly for film and foreign rights.  We maintain a global network of subagents who specialize in various fields and territories, who represent our lists within their specializations.  We go to international book fairs, either in person or by proxy via our subagents, and prepare rights lists, highlights sheets and mailings.  We keep our film agents, subagents and the foreign editors who work with our people updated on great quotes and reviews, award nominations, wins and sales numbers.  We also keep the money flowing by making sure that all foreign tax forms are processed so that the authors can get the exemptions they’re due.

Promotion has become an increasingly important part of an agent’s job, and many larger agencies, ours included, now have publicity or marketing specialists who do various things for the authors, like help develop special giveaways and promotions, organize chats, arrange newsletter articles and bump up the signal on social media.  Because self and small press publishing has exploded, there are so many books out there.  Some, let’s face it, with little or no editing.  There’s a lot of signal to noise, so it’s becoming vital for your signal to stand out and rise above the general buzz of what’s available versus what’s sought after.  The buzz word I’ve heard for this is “social cred.”  In brief: a self-proclaimed “buy my book” falls on deaf ears, but well-known or respected authors, agents, reviewers, etc. saying “you’ve got to get this” makes all the difference. 

And finally, many agencies have started their own digital lines to give authors who don’t have the time or inclination to do everything, but want the freedom of self-publishing and playing with pricing and possibilities.  (See my article “It Takes a Village” on what all goes into publishing a book.)  In those cases, the agent is offering editorial feedback, as we do, and also advising on various aspects of publishing.  In the case of our line, which is only for our authors, we also cover the cost of formatting, cover design, digitizing, etc. and take commission based on sales.  These digital lines do what a publisher would do in terms of getting out review copies, placing ads, and generally promoting and distributing the work.

This is running a bit long, so let me wrap things up.  If there’s one big take-away here, it’s that agents are just as vital, if not more so, in this changing publishing landscape.  While our jobs have expanded in recent years, the core of what we do has not changed: we work for our authors to further their careers.


* like KICKING IT, which comes out from Roc in December and is edited by and has a story by our very own Faith Hunter.


13 comments to The Role of Agents in the Modern Publishing Landscape

  • Still need to get me one o’ them elusive agent types. Woulda been helpful on my first publication. Maybe I’ll try again for Deadboy and the epic fantasy romance trilogy.

  • sagablessed

    I knew your job was complicated, but not that much! What an effort you put out there!! I am amazed you have time for your Drivel, MW, and so on, let alone family. I am humbled. I b**h about finding time to write, and you have not one but several plates full.

  • What Saga said. And you forgot to write in that you also help authors with personal lives and personal problems when those lives / problems get in the way of a publishing schedule. A good agent has to be able to thread the needle in the haystack of the crap of an author’s life.

    And let me add, an agent also has to have the ability to hold it in and not explode and cuss out an editor when said editor is a putz. (Yes, even editors can be difficult, and agents can lose it and unload.) This personality gift is useful in not burning bridges. Agents have to be especially good at maintaining relationships that *must* be difficult.

    All this and more, Lucienne. It’s you, babe!

  • Seconding what Faith and Saga have said: the amount of stuff you do — and do really, really well — continually amazes me. With your insightful critiques of my manuscripts, your negotiating skills on contract matters, your wise counsel on my career, and all the other things you do on my behalf, I am grateful beyond words to have you as my agent.

  • Ken

    Lots of useful information here, Lucienne. Thanks for sharing this and shedding a bit of light on the ever-changing landscape. That’s a lot of irons to keep in the fire ON TOP of writing. Thanks for all that you do 🙂

  • And we appreciate everything you do, Lucienne. 🙂 This is *so* why getting an agent is currently on my to-do list, above any of the other alternatives out there. Thank you for this!

  • Vyton

    Thank you for this post. Very helpful in understanding a lot more about the agent’s role. I’m sure all of this plus publishing and marketing are beyond me at this point in time. Once I get this WIP in shape, I will start the search.

  • Razziecat

    Good lord, you’re a superwoman! All that and you still find time to write? See, this is why I really wouldn’t want to try self-publishing without an agent. There’s no why I could do even a quarter of that. Amazing 😀

  • quillet

    I am in awe over everything you manage to do. I really really really really really hope you love doing it, too!

  • Thank you all so much! You’ve really made my day. Sorry to be so late responding. I was hitting the pavement in NY all day Monday and Tuesday with meetings.

    What really helps with my job is having amazing writers, who are not only phenomenally talented, but great, savvy people who it’s a pleasure to work with.

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