The changing role of the literary agent

By Pippa Masson, agent, Curtis Brown 



A literary agent’s role is a varied one – and now even more so. Agents guide and support authors’ careers by submitting their work to publishers, negotiating the sale of that work and subsequent contract, and then by keeping the author on an even keel all the way to publication. We sell other rights in that work – UK, US, translation, film, TV, audio and stage rights – the list goes on! And throughout this process we’re there as a sounding board for our authors, as a confidante and a shoulder to cry on. We read their work, comment on it, make editorial suggestions and rave about it to anyone who will listen. We manage their finances and decipher their royalty statements. So, broadly speaking an agent’s role involves giving financial, contractual, social, political and psychological (!) advice.

In this ever-changing landscape agents have had to look at their roles to see how we adapt. Sure, we’re still there as a literary agent in the traditional sense for most of our authors, but there are now many more variables. For example, the margins in publishing are now much smaller than ever so we having to grapple with authors not getting paid the sort of advances they used to get. We now have to consider non-traditional ways of authors being remunerated for their intellectual property and guide them on which are the most realistic ways of them making money from their work. The knock-on effect of Australian publishers losing Borders and Angus & Robertson has been keenly felt by our authors – print runs are down so sales are down, which of course means everyone’s income is down. Managing authors’ expectations and their need to earn money from other sources is becoming more and more important in this new environment.

The rise of self-publishing, mainly digital, has been another area agents have had to contend with. Whilst it’s provided many great opportunities for authors’ backlist, it’s also created much more work for the agents if they’re managing that e-book backlist. Kindle Direct, Smashwords, iBooks and all the other self-publishing platforms are huge beasts – unwieldy and difficult to navigate – and the set-up costs for an author to sell their work on those platforms can be expensive. Converting files to e-reader formats, ensuring all rights are cleared and advising authors on the best way to market their work in a quagmire of other ebooks is very time consuming. Agents have had to be prepared to put in more time, be more nimble and adapt quickly and confidently.

Advising authors on how to market and publicise themselves is another area that we’ve had to get more involved in when, traditionally, that was a publisher’s responsibility. We have to ensure the author has an ongoing platform or social media presence as it has become crucial for authors to promote themselves, and many are new to this form of marketing so need advice and information from their agents.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, as really we’re dealing with new challenges daily. Whilst this is a turbulent time in publishing we can always be sure that, ultimately, our publishing world spins around because readers love reading good stories. Our job is to manage as best we can getting those stories to the readers while ensuring authors are fully compensated for their time and effort. Easy, right?!