Disintermediation has its merits. I’ve always been annoyed by the inefficiencies of big organizations, so I understand authors’ efforts to find easier alternative systems for book publishing. When I was younger, I spent a decade working in the research and development unit of a rigidly structured bureaucracy—a job that required me to analyze, recommend improvements in, and ultimately document workflow. I learned that the best way to get things done involved either circumventing the established order or understanding it so well that the existing system could be navigated more easily and quickly. I like both routes.
My work in R&D entailed considering the perspectives of every stakeholder in the organization’s undertaking, which included more than just the people within the organization. I took the objective seriously. These days, as a literary agent, seeing the big picture relevant to book publishing comes naturally to me, which is not to say that it’s easy. It’s a very big picture.
Let me give you just a few examples of the complexity when considering stakeholders in the book business, or more specifically, in rights licensing.
For some writers, working directly with multiple literary agents is an advantage. It can be a good strategy for an individual who is the author of scholarly works, technical manuals, screenplays, adult fiction, and children’s books to be represented by a different agent specializing in each category. Specialization and expertise tend to be found together. On the other hand, there are agencies that conveniently handle several categories, and that’s not only fortunate for the agent, it can benefit the author as well. Some editors acquire manuscripts in a variety of categories and will ask questions about all of the titles an agent is handling, so an editor and agent’s initial conversation about a novel could turn into a rights license for a technical title by the same author. Those specific kinds of serendipitous connections are more likely to happen if the same agent is handling all of an author’s work.
For the sake of efficiency, it’s typical for a writer to have a primary literary agent, sometimes called a manager, who serves as an advisor in career matters, a negotiator of book deals, and a contractor with subagents (subsidiary rights agents, or co-agents) to help license dramatic rights, translation rights in foreign territories, etc.
Let’s say an author wishes to eliminate the intermediary and work directly with literary agents in each language rather than having a primary representative who engages subagents. Doing so could give the author more control. It definitely would reduce agency commission fees and keep more royalties in the author’s pocket. The flip side is the extra time it would take for the author to establish and maintain multiple agency agreements. What many writers also might fail to consider is that it’s not a good incentive to curtail each literary agent’s potential earnings while at the same time requiring the agents to interact directly with the author, a business relationship that is more labor-intensive than the role of the subagent, who might never have contact with the author.
In another scenario, an author potentially could distribute his or her individual titles within a single category among various literary agents, so that each title had a primary agent but the author had several, all working in the same language and territory. Seems like a good strategy, causing the agents to compete against each other, right? Well, maybe not. Think about it for a minute.
Many of us prefer to represent a client’s entire body of work, to the extent that we feel capable. An agent invests a great deal of effort in finding a publisher for a debut novel. Many hours are spent explaining the publishing process to an author, who might be experiencing it for the first time. It’s natural for a literary agent to hope that, if a client’s first book is successful, the second one will be an easier and more profitable deal. If each of the client’s adult novels, let’s say, has a different agent, then the agents probably won’t have quite as much motivation to work as hard as they would otherwise. The agents might even find themselves talking to the same editor at the same time, creating an awkward situation in which two of an author’s titles were in competition with each other.
The trend toward disintermediation can be a very good thing. I’m not opposed to it. Change is inevitable, and I enjoy learning new systems. Of course, part of the effects of disintermediation will be hidden, at least initially, and not all of the results will be beneficial. That’s life. I’d like to know how writers would analyze, suggest improvements in, and structure the work of a literary agent these days—that is, setting aside the fantasy of an agent for every writer. It would be nice to have that sort of feedback.