A changing industry

Steven Axelrod says agents used to play the role of gatekeeper. But with self-publishing on the rise, an agents role is changing. How do agents adapt to fit into a different publishing world?


What role do agents play in self-publishing?

I fit in, some of the time, not all of the time. Used to be all of the time. I fit in partially, not fully. I, you know, it’s as if you’re going into a restaurant and instead of ordering the prix fixe, whatever, you’re ordering, you know, a la carte. You’re ordering an appetizer and a glass of water. And you know, the waiter will serve you, but the waiter knows he’s not making much of a tip that night. It’s that kind of world.

The word that keeps getting bandied around is disintermediation, which means that you take what used to be an all-in-one service and you sort of pick out the parts you want.

No one’s at fault for this, you know. There’s no fault. But when Amanda Hocking, who’s been an enormous success self-publishing, came to me, it was because she had a Hungarian deal. And she had never– you know, she knew how to self publish, but she didn’t know how to do a Hungarian deal. She’s a very, very bright woman, she could have figured it out, but you know, it was more trouble than she wanted. So she came to us and said, “Will you do foreign rights for us?”

And this was the first time we’d ever really been asked to just do that. We’re not doing the really main part of her business, but we’re doing this little corner of it. And as much as anything, to see what, you know, sort of get it close up and personal, to see really what the self-publishing thing was about, because I was hearing about it and reading about it, and here was someone who was really substantially profiting from it, I agreed to do it. And then we did a Hungarian deal, and then other deals came. And then as she got more and more successful, you know, traditional publishers started soliciting her, and she brought me in to handle that, so I ended up doing much more for her.

But you know, more people have come to me over the years, the years, the last two or three years, and they said, “Can you do foreign rights for us?” And we’ll do it as a relationship builder. It’s not really profitable for us. You know, it’s– we’re not losing money, we’re not making a lot of money. It’s not really how we make money when we make money, but it builds relationships and stuff comes from good relationships, if only recommendations from other writers who might need our services.

We used to be gatekeepers, and you know, when publishers insisted that all submissions come through an agent, it was, you know, a lifetime employment act for agents. That’s no longer the case.

Personally as an agent, I would like to see things go where an agent has an ongoing role to play, value to contribute, to add, you know, and the skill set that, you know, or the challenges that attracted me to the industry are still rewarded by the industry. The only unique skill set or, the unique function that a publisher can play now, that no one can duplicate, is the ability to get books into bookstores across the country. There are fewer and fewer bookstores. The bookstores won’t take print on demand because it’s not returnable. The publishing industry did a phenomenal job in transforming itself into a digital business. You know, the publishers deserve enormous credit. They took hundreds of thousands of titles and made them available, not instantaneously, you know, but very, very quickly. So there was a critical mass of important titles, you know, deep into their back lists available, very, very quickly, and you know, that’s impressive. But there are going to be more and more challenges that are going to come in waves, and it’s going to be very hard for them to weather them.

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