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WARBeat the Reaper: A NovelThe Hellhound of Wall Street: How Ferdinand Pecora's Investigation of the Great Crash Forever Changed American FinanceThe Evolution of Bruno LittlemoreThe Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, Red HarvestGlengarry Glen Ross

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The Evolution of the Literary Agent

There have been a couple of fascinating pieces written recently that focus on the ever-expanding role of the literary agent. Though I’m relatively new to the profession, which means it’s impossible for me to provide firsthand knowledge of how things used to be, I certainly believe that a good modern agent is responsible for far more than finding you a publisher.

Jofie Ferrari-Adler, an editor at Grove/Atlantic and the man who brought readers the illuminating Agents & Editors series, contributed a fascinating new piece to the July/August 2010 issue of Poets & Writers. It focuses on the different ways an agent can advocate for a book in that crucial period between the contract signing and first publication, and it presents valuable perspective from a variety of sources on both sides of the book deal. Here is an excerpt:

This is where a good literary agent comes in. An agent who understands that at a time when there is an industry-wide blockbuster mentality that makes it harder than it’s ever been for editors to find the institutional support it takes to publish serious work well, it is more important than ever for agents to be fearless, savvy, and relentless advocates for their clients after their books are under contract. An agent who understands that the long and winding road to publication is fraught with trouble, and that her role has evolved into a symbiotic partnership with your editor. An agent who understands that in today’s publishing industry, your editor needs her constant presence and support—needling, brainstorming, cajoling, and sometimes even harassing. An agent who understands, in short, that your editor needs her help.

Jason Allen Ashlock, Founder of Movable Type Literary Group, approaches the same topic from an agent’s perspective, and makes an incredibly compelling argument in his piece for Digital Book World. Here is an excerpt:

…the [publishing] industry is badly in need of what an agent—freed from the previous paradigm’s constraints—can offer.

Rather than resting, invisible, alongside the content in the acquisition category of the chain, the agent must evolve into the work’s inseparable acolyte, accompanying the work across subsequent categories in the chain—development, marketing, promotion, and branding. While publishing is grappling with the consequences of disintermediation in the value chain, I recommend an Agent’s role is one of radical mediation in that same chain.

To make my point, I’ll risk overstatement: the agent—more than the publisher, even more than the author—is best suited to stand alongside the work through a variety of categories along the value chain, to ensure the work’s proper development and shape, and to shepherd its arrival into the communities ready to appreciate its virtues.

Let’s start the discussion by honing in on a key facet of the publishing process that has traditionally fallen in the publisher’s domain: marketing. Do you think it’s reasonable today for the agent to work in concert with the publisher to develop the marketing plan for a book?

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11 comments to The Evolution of the Literary Agent

  • Thanks Chris,
    I’m really looking forward to being that guy with a first novel sold.
    I’ll market my ass off!

    Greg Gutierrez

  • Tommy

    What Agent and book-lover could resist the wild journey a great first novel creates, marketing, ideas for editors, brainstorming, you name it. Isn’t that what it’s all about…?

  • Hi Chris, love the revamp of the site!

    I put just as much energy into marketing my books as I do writing them. Knowing the publishing houses invest very little in terms of time and expense to market a new writer when they have to budget for their top sellers I like to take matters into my own hands. Afterall, who loves my baby more than I do?
    That being said to have your agent get behind the development and oversee key facets to push the novel as far as it is capable would be a great asset and a desirable agent to have.

    • Chris Kepner

      Hi Cynthia,

      I’m glad you like the new look! I don’t think it’s fair to generalize with statements like, “the publishing houses invest very little in terms of time and expense to market a new writer.” In fact, I think in most cases publishers do invest a significant amount of time and resources to establish debut authors. In some cases, probably a disproportionately large amount of time and resources if you are using advance size as a barometer. Publishers are constantly investing in the future in order to find tomorrow’s brand name author or backlist stalwart.

      The point I’m trying to make is not that publishers are incompetent or uninterested or even that they’re spread too thin. My point is simply that there’s no such thing as enough when it comes to marketing. No matter how much is being done by the publisher, there is room for those efforts to be augmented by the agent and author. And in order to effectively augment those efforts without redundancies, the publisher and agent/author need to collaborate.

      Thanks for your comment!


  • Ray Fuentez

    Hi Chris,
    Would there a downside to having an agent participate in every stage of marketing and promotion? As a stakeholder with a clearly defined interest in the project and in depth knowledge from both sides of the author-editor continuum the agent is in a unique position to contribute. Why shouldn’t he or she be welcomed? Seems like a no-brainer.

    • Chris Kepner

      Hi Ray,

      Welcome to the site, and thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!

      From my perspective, and knowing my own intentions, I don’t think there’s a downside to having an agent participate in every stage of the publication process, including marketing and promotion. My colleagues in the publishing houses have varying perspectives on this issue, and while I’ve experienced viewpoints from both ends of the spectrum and in between, I’d say at this time that the more common sentiment is one of being wary toward an agent being involved. Part of it, honestly, is pride. There is a feeling from some that the agent is trying to tell them how to do their job, and these few are unlikely to even entertain the notion of collaborating with the agent. But the fact is that, as you and Mr. Ferrari-Adler and Mr. Ashlock all expound, the agent is in a unique position to contribute. I venture to say that the more forward-looking at the publishing houses are coming around to this way of thinking.


  • Hi Chris,

    I think when the agent, publisher, and author all work together on the same page then magic can happen. But you’re right, there’s no such thing as enough for marketing.

    Are they any specific marketing angles you find work better than others?

    • Chris Kepner

      Hi Cynthia,

      The marketing strategy depends on the type of book, of course. In general, I tend to like more grassroots-style campaigns to build word-of-mouth buzz both online and offline. This also seems to be, in my opinion, the type of marketing that an agent can most readily contribute to.


  • I agree, the grassroots-style seems to work best as an author as well. Thanks for the input!

  • as usual I am late to the party, but I still have two cents burning a hole in my pocket. If you look at the music industry you’ll see it is moving in a very similar direction. gone are the days of a band waking up at 3p.m. for their sound check. more and more bands are being asked to handle more of the marketing and promotion efforts. in turn it seems the bands are leanings more on agents and managers to help organize and often spearhead these efforts. having that voice able to guide the bands from recording, to contract, to release, to touring, to press is a key element in success. the same can be said for the publishing world, and I hope authors, agents, and publishers alike embrace this. working together and feeding off each other like bikers in a marathon race do can be a useful and powerful tool to push the book to its greatest heights.

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