The continuing education of a literary agent

Mike Shatzkin promised that Digital Book World would deliver content relevant to literary agents, not that literary agents need to be reminded that digital publishing changes conditions for everyone in the book publishing industry. Staying informed about new technology and innovative business models takes a lot of time and attention. For two days in New York, I’m completely focused on what the individuals who have already experimented and learned can teach me, and they are.

In the conference’s opening keynote, Shiv Singh of Razorfish, the social influence marketing consultants, managed gracefully and in very few words to explain an important concept that I hope publishers can appreciate. In the current online social networking space, where authors can easily connect directly with readers who will buy their books, publishers’ value exists in providing an interface between authors and readers. Most authors still want and need someone to prevent, or at least minimize the risk of, friction in their interaction with the public. It seems simple enough, but the work that goes into the creation and maintenance of this interface is much more difficult than it appears, which is a good thing, because it perpetuates the value of publishers’ skills and service to both authors and readers.

Singh used the phrase conversation mining to describe the practice of locating conversations already occurring online, which can help an author or publisher identify a new book topic or potential collaboration. I’ll use the term again. In fact, I’m a little chagrined that I hadn’t heard it before today.

Collaboration and transparency were words spoken frequently during the first day of Digital Book World. Admittedly, I focused on sessions designed for literary agents, and I was not disappointed.

Richard Curtis, whom I’ve long admired, put together a group of panelists who discussed rapidly evolving book contract language and provisions. It was incredibly helpful to be reminded of what other professionals have already confronted. I’m grateful that the panelists openly shared their concerns about the practicality of stipulating territorial restrictions that might be unenforceable; the potential for conflict among terms of ebook, print, and subsidiary rights granted to publishers; the variables that affect the real value to authors of royalties based on net receipts or on a percentage of list price; and even the often-disputed operational definition of ebook. Curtis was just as generous with his advice in person as he is on his blog.

The manner in which literary agents do business can vary as much as the agents’ individual personalities, which is oddly reassuring. It means that for every author who is talented enough to have work published for profit, there’s an agent who is the right person to negotiate the deal.

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