It's possible these days for an author to write, publish, and sell their books internationally without an agent, with some authors making a multi-six-figure income without going anywhere near a traditional agent or publisher.
We can do ebooks, print books and audiobooks, we can license foreign rights, and some indie authors are getting movie deals. Remember, both 50 Shades of Grey and The Martian started out as self-published books.
So what is the role of an agent in a world where authors can get on well enough without them?
In today's article, literary agent Mark Gottlieb answers some questions and I'd like to commend Mark for approaching me about this Q&A since he's clearly open to the idea of working with indies 🙂 I don't agree with everything he has said, but many authors do still want an agent to work with, so I'm happy to have his point of view on the blog. You're welcome to leave comments and questions at the bottom of the post.
Mark Gottlieb attended Emerson College and was President of its Publishing Club, establishing the Wilde Press. After graduating with a degree in writing, literature & publishing, he began his career with Penguin’s VP. Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. Mark was EA to Trident’s Chairman and ran the Audio Department.
Mark is currently working with his own client list, helping to manage and grow author careers with the unique resources available to Trident. He has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on PublishersMarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other categories.
How has the role of an agent changed in the last 10 years since the Kindle first launched and digital publishing started to change the environment?
It has become all too easy for an author to feel discouraged and turn to self-publishing or small indie publishing. However, many successful self-published authors eventually go into traditional publishing to take advantage of having a team of professionals who help them take their work to the next level.
A literary agency with industry knowledge and expertise can bring a huge value add to the table for an author, evidenced by many of the success stories we’ve created for our clients, the bulk of which are award-winning and bestselling authors. We’ve actually built a lot of self-published success stories into mega-bestsellers, giving authors a Godzilla-like footprint in the industry.
Trident Media Group is a full-service literary agency for authors, handling accounting, legal review, management, foreign rights (books in translation), book-to-film/TV, audio books, etc. We’re also a literary agency with tremendous clout in the industry, so we can get many things for authors from publishers and film / TV buyers that an author otherwise would not be able to get on their own.
I’d like to think that a literary agency would save an author a lot of headaches to help the author focus in on their own writing, thereby allowing the author to become more prolific.
Meanwhile, the literary agent would work in concert with their subsidiary rights people and departments within the literary agency. In looking at a literary agent and considering paying them a commission on a deal, an author should be asking what they stand to gain in having a literary agent.
What do agents think of authors who self-publish?
The self-publishing/indie sphere has become something of what the farm league is to major league baseball, but the odds of that success can be lower than were an author to try and approach a literary agent as an author attempting to make their major debut in trade publishing.
What level of success would an indie have to have to attract an agent? How should an indie author pitch in the most effective way?
The bar is quite high in terms of self-publishing to attract an agent or publisher. An author usually needs to have sold at least 50,000 copies at a decent price.
Are agents interested in working with indie authors on subsidiary rights only?
It is difficult to be in business with an indie author who only wants their agent handling their subsidiary rights. Such authors are missing out on the world of print and the distribution channels a major trade publisher could afford them. Selling subsidiary rights and film/TV is also made easier once there's a tradition publication in place.
Agents and publishers are increasingly using self-publishing as a way to expand revenue streams from authors.
This includes the agent-assisted publishing model through Amazon White Glove, as well as publishers starting services like Type & Tell (Bonnier) and Macmillan buying Pronoun as well as Thomas Nelson's Westbow Press and others.
Do you see this as a conflict of interest or a way for agents and publishers to expand their business?
I view all of this as complimentary when conducted in the right way.
For instance, most publishers aren't open to novellas and story collections from authors, so sometimes the eBook space is a good place for projects outside the box to take place.
Other times, what a hybrid author is doing in the eBook space can benefit what's going on for them in the traditional publishing space and vice versa. With a hybrid author, though, timing is key as it's not advisable to release two novels in the same month or so since that can result in the cannibalization of book sales.
I don't view this as a conflict of interest if a literary agency helping and author in that space remain in their role as a literary agent, taking their usual commission, rather than becoming a rights holder.
How do you think publishing will change in the next 10 years? What will the role of agents and authors be?
For example, IPR License just launched a Buy Rights button so rights sales can be done online instead of through relationships.
Don’t believe the hype. You can’t believe everything you see and read. I remain a firm believer in that no matter how far technology takes us, there’s always a need for the human element, and I’m not talking about a “ghost in the machine.”
It is no lie that an author receives a larger share of royalties in the digital space in self-publishing, but there’s still a common misconception. In self-publishing, authors sell in smaller numbers than a literary agent and publisher could do for an author.
Authors that self-publish are primarily in the digital format, rather than being in the other revenue tributaries of major trade publishing. Overall, it’s better to diversify one’s publishing portfolio with a major trade publisher, offering various publishing formats, online and physical retailers, etc.
One day I see traditional publishers having an even bigger presence in the digital sphere for books in terms of placement among online retailers in buying co-op deals, key site placement, and more, exactly the way music and movie companies originated subscription services and digital access.
Print won’t become a thing of the past but perhaps a nostalgia, much like the way in which music aficionados appreciate vinyl records. Like the LP, the hardcover book is a technology that has been perfected and is ideal for the experience of reading. Regardless, readers will always opt for their preferred format, whether that be print, audio or ebook.
If an indie author has a number of titles that they have self-published successfully in a specific genre e.g. romance or fantasy, and wanted to pitch a new book/series to an agent in a different genre e.g. thriller, would it be better to pitch with a different name and attempt to be a debut? Or would an agent prefer to see an existing platform?
I’m of the opinion that an author who can write successfully in one genre might be able to do so in another. I wouldn’t recommend a pen name unless there was worry that the new genre writing might harm the success of the current genre in terms of sales track record.
The only other reason to encourage a pen name would be to protect the authors brand in not confusing fans. Usually I think it is better to replicate success wherever possible, writing within a successful genre again in major trade publishing, before turning one’s attention to a new or different genre with a traditional publisher.
What would the average advance be right now in publishing? We hear of the outliers, the multi-six-figure deals, but what is the reality for a new author?
There really is no average book advance since there are so many types of authors, books, literary agencies and book publishers, but not every book deal is in the six-figures. It’s probably easier to garner a six-figure+ advance for an author with a proven track record of success or with an author who is vied for in a hotly-contested bidding war among publishers.
Do you think that contract terms like ‘non-compete' clauses will evolve to allow authors to self-publish at the same time as traditionally publish? Or have limited term licenses for English as well as foreign rights?
These types of contract changes would be much more attractive to business-minded authors.
As book publishing’s leading literary agency, we get the very best contract terms for clients, so most of our non-compete clauses afford hybrid self-publishing opportunities for our clients. The same cannot be said of every literary agent or literary agency.
How can people pitch you?
I can be contacted via tridentmediagroup.com where we have a submissions/contact us page
Have you ever considered trying to work with a literary agent? Do you have any questions for Mark? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.