Traditionally, an agent shopped a client’s book, negotiated a deal with a traditional publisher, and then focused on selling subrights. But what could an agent do for a self-published author?
I think the answer is – it depends.
The truth is, if you self-publish a book and sell only 200 copies, an agent is going to have the same (if not worse) luck trying to sell subrights than they would for a traditionally published book that’s sold poorly. And if you’re querying an agent with those sales figures, they’re going to assume that you marketed the book the best that you could, and the result was a lack of interest. Clearly, this isn’t going to be a selling point. It might mean that it’s time to relook at your marketing strategy, the quality of your product, or your distribution method before you can attract an agent.
For an author that has had good to great sales, and wants to continue to self-publish, an agent would still be able to sell the book across different platforms, including audio and foreign rights. They may or may not help negotiate your contracts with distributors.
Ultimately though, we may find the role of an agency shift. Perhaps for the self-published author, the right agent would be one that is also marketing savvy. Since a self-published author’s marketing budget comes from their own pocket and not a publisher, it would behoove them to have someone to bounce marketing ideas off of, and help them decide where their marketing budget (be it time or money) would best be spent.
The largest literary and talent agencies, like William Morris and ICM, already have publicists on staff. But literary agencies may want to consider adding a publicist as well. Of course, this could get tricky. How would the publicist be paid? Would clients opt in or opt out for service? How could you track the success of the publicist? That said, if self-publishing becomes a bigger share of the market and agencies are selling subrights for their self-published authors, a publicist would certainly have the contacts that the self-published author wouldn’t. This could benefit both the agency and author in the long run.
Agencies might also expand their list of contacts to freelance editors, copyeditors, book designers and ebook converters. Agencies would be able to help their authors find the best services for their books, and perhaps negotiate work terms as well. I know some agencies are leery of crossing the agency/publisher divide, but I don’t think that this sort of service would cross any ethical barriers.
Digital and print-on-demand has certainly changed the game for authors, agencies and publishers. But both traditional and self-published authors benefit from having an advocate in their corner, in whatever form that may be!
Tracy Marchini is the author of PUB SPEAK: A WRITER’S DICTIONARY OF PUBLISHING TERMS. Before becoming an editorial consultant and freelance writer, she worked for a literary agency. You can find her on Twitter as @TracyMarchini and on her blog, www.tracymarchini.com.