Chip MacGregor

January 2, 2013

How are literary agent's roles changing in the new world of publishing?


I’ve had a number of people write to me in response to my recent post about 2013 publishing predictions, asking how I felt the role of literary agents is changing. It used to be that an agent basically offered four benefits: (1) an editing/sounding board for writing and ideas; (2) access to publishers; (3) contract and statement assistance; and (4) some type of career advice. There are a bunch of other ideas people bring up (such as “maximize the advance!” and “be the tough guy when things get ugly!”), and no doubt several other iterations of the ideas above, but I think those are the four big content areas in which agents have generally served.

But now we’re in a new era. The way books are produced, marketed, delivered, and sold to readers has changed considerably over the past few years. The sales channels are completely altered. Publishers have overhauled their staffing and methods. New jobs exist that didn’t used to exist, and old ones have faded out of existence. The advent of digital publishing has not just created this new product called “e-books,” but have helped reshape the entire industry. So it only makes sense that a literary agent shouldn’t be doing his or her job the same way it was being done ten years ago. To that end, I thought I’d try to offer thoughts on how I see an agent’s role in contemporary publishing.

First, a good agent is still doing editing, but perhaps even more book and project concepting. Idea development and packaging are an essential part of the role now. Your agent needs to be talking with you not just about “how to do an ebook,” but how various projects and packages fit into your overall business plan.

Second, I think the notion of an agent giving an author access to publishers has evolved into an agent as interactor — networking with various publishing types, as well as connecting with marketing and publicity people, serving as your advocate, and being a well-informed source to keep you abreast of what’s happening in the industry and how you ought to be participating in it. So while the agent undoubtedly is an author’s biggest cheerleader, more importantly he or she helps with “relationship management” for all those parties associated with your books.

Third, a good agent continues to deal with contracts and royalty statements, of course — something that’s become necessary in an industry that seems to have been taken over by attorneys. But more than that, agents today are essentially serving as business managers for the authors they serve — exploring ideas, looking for opportunities, keeping abreast of sales data, suggesting changes, and taking care of those things that allow the author to focus on writing. Making sense of sales data and (For all the yammering about agents that went on with some popular bloggers in recent years, it’s humorous to note that all those writers who found success immediately went out and landed an agent, in order to have someone knowledgable assist with this area.)

Fourth, most successful literary agents are still offering career advice, but are also heavily involved with platform creation, marketing plans, public relations, and readership growth. Part of the agent’s job these days is to make sure the author remains relevant in the market, which means the agent needs to remain on top of trends much more than we used to. This is perhaps the biggest area of change for agents — and the one that separates the agent who simply wants to “do the deal and disappear.”

Fifth, and one of the ways the job has evolved recently, is that agents are now actively pursuing not just subrights (foreign editions, translations, dramatic rights, derivatives, etc), but serving as a sort of clearinghouse for author opportunities. So, for example, offering advice marketing copy, or discussing how an author website reflects the overall brand, or connecting with the technical specialists who can help for a specific problem, are all elements of the job that I didn’t used to do, but that I regularly find myself doing now.

I’ve been told more than once that the role of the literary agent is fading away — but I’ve also been told that publishers were going away, the printed book was dead, and in an age of an omnipresent web we would no longer need sales people. All of those things were untrue. The industry has changed, and the role of the literary agent continues to change with it.

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  • Thanks for the clear and concise recap Chip. My novel spent all of yesterday at #1 on the Best Sellers list for Free eBooks, so when I ran across your post this morning it seemed likely something I should read. All the best to you!

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Things are indeed changing and those who can adapt to and capitalize on the changes will survive, while those who cling to the past will soon be left with nothing.

    Even more so, those forward thinkers — who go in front of the changes — will thrive. Thank you for leading the way.

  • Rachel Hauck says:

    Agents keep authors sane! Help us understand the business nuances we don’t have time to study. They are cheerleaders but a huge support system. Wouldn’t want to be without my agent! 😉


  • Becky Doughty says:

    Wow – speedy response to those questions! One thing I’ve inevitably discovered–because I AM a narcissistic writer who thinks every word I put down on paper is gold–is that there’s no such thing as a lone ranger outstanding (or out standing) in the field. As a Christian, I believe in evolution. Not THAT Evolution, with a capital E, but the one where we’re supposed to evolve. As in, be in the world but not of it. I think this applies to all walks of life, not just our spiritual walk. If we aren’t willing to evolve and adapt to the changing world around us–without compromising our beliefs, of course–we might as well sign out. Quit. Go dig ditches. Change is inevitable. Evolution is a choice. I choose to evolve and I don’t want to evolve alone. I’m glad our agents are choosing to evolve, too.


    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think we’re always needing to evolve, Becky. Publishing is not a static business — everything is changing.

  • :Donna Marie says:

    Chip, I SO appreciate info coming from “the horse’s mouth,” and you are certainly a trusted “horse” 🙂 Who better to judge the changing role of agents! It also helps us better judge the quality of an agent, too, when the time comes (notice—I don’t say “if” lol)

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