Publishing Insiders Wrap-Up: Literary Agents and Their Evolving Role in Publishing

by | May 18, 2011 | Book Marketing Basics, Social Media for Authors

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We had a great show on the future of literary agents, featuring two great guests who are in the midst of all of these changes that impact agents, publishers and authors.

About our guests:

Katharine Sands is with the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency, founded in 1974.

Jason Allen Ashlock is the founder and principal of Movable Type Literary Group,

A rapidly changing future for agents


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Katharine says her agency still scouts authors but now also helps authors find new ways to succeed in this market. That might mean they create a publicity campaign for a book using the Internet and grassroots marketing – before shopping the project to publishers.

Today’s agents are more career-oriented as opposed to deal-oriented, she adds, bringing together elements that would allow a book to succeed. Agents don’t just place a book and then step away.

In fact, several agencies are developing publicity and marketing departments which they shop along with their proposal.

The agency has definitely changed its thinking due to the changing marketplace, such as calling books “content.” We tell clients, “You’re a contentpreneur,” Katharine explains. Any character you have, any idea you create might lead you in all different directions. Agents are so much more involved in creating ancillary projects with franchise or enterprise potential to enhance a writer’s career, working in different ways than they have before. Projects can be developed as a book, web content, graphic novels, and a number of additional formats.

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Jason says a lot of this change in agents’ roles is borne of their entrepreneurial spirit as well as anxiety at losing their clients. Authors can produce, market and distribute their work easily on their own. Agents have adapted their skill set and are working to keep themselves relevant in this fast-changing publishing environment and their knowledge base gives them many tools to help authors.

His agency looks for stories that can be told across various platforms and devices. In addition, the agency partners with experts who can share their expertise in areas like publicity, social media and marketing to help their authors when their books hit the market. The book is not the author’s strategy, but a single tactical maneuver within a larger strategy: If your book is the only thing you’re marketing it’s not likely to support you, Jason says.

Self-publishing and its impact

Agents are also taking a strong editorial role, Katharine notes; several agencies have started their own publishing divisions (some openly and some under the radar).

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Some of the rigid boxes agents were put into before are no longer helpful to agents, authors, or publishers, adds Jason. However, there are some challenging questions surrounding whether agents can serve clients as both agent and publisher.

It only makes sense with agents’ expertise, connections and market knowledge that agents should be able to offer that expertise – but only in a fully transparent way, he says. Agents are very creative in finding new markets and transferring that content to the consumer.

Many agents have varied backgrounds in publishing, which means they can be effective in helping get content out in new ways, says Katharine, who believes conflict of interest is a less significant concern given all of the information now available online about scam shops and legitimate agencies.

Even with the availability of so much information online, Jason believes the profession must remain alert to its practices to ensure authors are protected.

The ebook phenomenon

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Ebooks are a new frontier, but Katharine says they advise their authors to think about their craft and what they offer that is new, fresh or interesting (as opposed to trends alone). No matter how quickly a book can be published there will always be a need for curated content.

Jason’s agency has had several clients find success with ebooks, such as romantic suspense author Victorine Lieske. Her ebook made two bestseller lists, New York Times and USAToday. She sold 100,000 copies, and they are now talking to traditional publishers about a deal. His agency pays attention to the ereading community in general as those readers, not publishers, determines which ebooks become bestsellers and have potential.

Agents are really underestimated; they have great data and analytics and know what formats and prices work. As a result, agents are helping traditional publishers transition into ebooks, he adds.

What do agents look for in a book?

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Katharine uses the phrase duende, a word applied to flamenco dances: a special fire in the belly or spark that grows into an important work. The more moxie and marketing savvy and platform authors have, the better their chances of landing an agent.

Jason says another key is the power, control and self-determination that resides inside the artist to share an idea or story. Without that, it doesn’t matter what level of platform or marketing savvy an author has, all will be for naught. Witness the celebrity books or big, gimmicky projects that fade away.

It’s vital for authors to educate themselves, build a good team of experts and take control of their own careers.

Download the full show at


Upcoming Episode:

Book cover designed by Cliff Roberts

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Please join us May 31, 2011 for our next show, What Authors Must Know About Book Cover Design, with Jeniffer Thompson of Monkey C. Media.

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