What Will Agents Do in the Future?

In the midst of all the talk about the changes in publishing, the question often arises: What will the role of agents be in the future of publishing?

I’ve received emails and blog comments from those who assume agents must be running scared because we’re going to be out of jobs soon. I’ve heard from others who insist I need to be changing my business right now and beginning to do things differently to reflect the changing landscape.

But everyone I know who is a full-time dedicated agent with a full client roster is optimistic about the future. We’re well aware of the ways publishing is changing, and we’re confident we’ll be a part of that. Most of us have years of experience in publishing and have held other publishing positions prior to being agents—many have been editors, published authors, or held positions in sales, marketing and other areas of publishing. Our years of expertise will be even more valuable in the new age of publishing.

Agents have always been here to help authors find readers (via publishers), and in the new age of publishing, we will probably continue doing that same thing, if perhaps in different ways.

Some agencies have already expanded so that they also function as consultants (almost like a contractor) for those pursuing self-publishing, arranging editing, design, digital formatting, printing if necessary, etc. Others are looking at beginning to function more as publishers themselves.

Unfortunately, most of the opportunities available to agents for expanding to keep up with changing times also bring potential conflict of interest or the perception that they could easily take advantage of authors. (This article from the U.K. addresses that.) So we are going to have to tread carefully as we look to shift our business practices.

However, the most important things I wanted to say today are:

1. Every agent I know is carefully making note of how publishing is changing and thinking creatively about how our roles might look in the future. We’re thinking proactively about how our unique skills could be put to use in the emerging world of publishing, and many of us are making plans toward that end.

2. Even more importantly, most of us are not making this shift yet because… we are still selling books! Things are going well for most full-time agents right now, especially as we come out of the recession. So there’s no need to jump ship when the ship doesn’t appear to be sinking yet.

Agents and traditional publishing are still going to be around for a while!

Q4U: Do you have any ideas about the role of agents in this brave new world of publishing?

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  4. Alan Yu on April 18, 2011 at 1:17 AM

    >Yes, my views are contained in a blog post a short while ago:


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  5. Nikole Hahn on April 13, 2011 at 10:02 PM

    >I wonder what they said when CDs came out, mp3s, etc? I think we'll still have agents. I believe traditional publishing is still a worthy result. Having been watching the debates about it, I don't believe people will ever want to get rid of actual books. The problem with easy access with self-publishing is all of the noise keeping the good writers from being noticed. I think the work it takes to write is worth the painstaking steps. It builds character and improves your writing. And if you're not writing for love of the craft, then you should just stop right now.
    Great blog!

  6. makeithappen on April 12, 2011 at 10:14 PM

    >Ebooks are nice. Self-publishing seems blind. I like to hold the book I am reading. I like to know that an agent had their hands in the process of making it happen.

  7. Ella Schwartz on April 12, 2011 at 9:26 PM

    >Even in the world of self-publishing, agents are a must-have! When I first learned about Amanda Hocking, I was intrigued to learn she had an agent. This surprised me. Why would a self-published author need an agent? So I sent her an email asking her this question. She was kind enough to respond. For her an agent was important because she needed professional advice with topics such as foreign rights, legal questions, marketing, etc.

    So the role of the agent may be evolving but not going away.

  8. Marla Taviano on April 12, 2011 at 9:12 PM

    >I, for one, plan on making you a ton of money in the very near future. No worries!!

  9. Stephonavich on April 12, 2011 at 4:41 PM

    >I'm going to need an agent, always! Here's why:
    1) I need someone that mirrors my own excitement about my projects, but has their own opinions and can slap some sense into me when needed. (The myth was proven "slap some sense into you" works by Mythbusters!)

    2) I need that extra resource by way of people my agent knows that I don't.

    3) I'd rather collaborate with someone who knows my projects and my thoughts on it.

    4) I'm going to celebrate when my book is on the shelves and if misery loves company, then success throws a party! and guess who's first on the guest list!

    Sure agents might change the services they provide, but really what they are paid for, you really can't buy. You can't really buy a fan or a friend. And effectively that's what an agent is. A friend who will tell you the truth and go to bat for ya.

    What do you think? Am I right?

  10. Ruth A. Taylor on April 12, 2011 at 4:07 PM

    >Oh, and I love Dave Ramsey. (Sorry Rachelle, I'm getting a little annoyed with some people's comments. As if you're asking for financial consulting by your blog post today! I'll stop reading now…)

  11. Ruth A. Taylor on April 12, 2011 at 4:02 PM

    >I think there's too much hype on self-publishing. While it's growing and legitimate, I doubt it will ever replace traditional publishing.

    I personally do not believe that literary agents or publishing houses are in any danger whatsoever. In actuality, I find it rather annoying when people claim for a fact that it will indeed happen. So people can predict the future now? Please!

  12. Lisa R. on April 12, 2011 at 2:39 PM

    >I have a question of my own which I've been wondering about for some time. I keep reading that it is harder than ever to break into print via the traditional publishing route due to the shifting landscape and the questions about whether or not brick and mortar bookstores will survive. What happens if you have a client whose book got shopped out and that client decides to self-publish, then has success? I was wondering what an agent's perspective on that scenario would be.

  13. Kay Theodoratus on April 12, 2011 at 12:53 PM

    >I think agent roles will remain much the same: gatekeepers and quality control.

    How they do this is up in the air.

  14. Jacqueline Windh on April 12, 2011 at 12:20 PM

    >Because of the really unfair deal that traditional publishers offer for ebooks, I plan to publish my next books independently (not because I “can’t” get a publisher – I have four successful published books).

    Sure, their 10% to author / 50% for publisher makes sense when the publisher pays the hard costs of printing, warehousing, distributing. But their “standard” ebook deal, which – once you calculate it out – comes out to over 50% for publisher and 15-18% for the author, when the publisher does not have the hard costs of a print book is completely unfair! (Yes, there are editing and design costs for either model… but the point is that most of the hard costs of a paper book are not there for the ebook – so a publisher taking 50%, when their hard costs are minimal, is unfair and wrong).

    The industry claims that this is the “standard” split. Well, honestly, ebooks are so new that there was no standard. The publishers just made it up. Unfortunately, many authors have been very naive and signed these contracts. So, although it has never actually been negotiated between the two parties, it has kind of become the “standard.”

    So that’s one role I could see for agents – negotiating a new fair industry standard for ebooks, that actually fairly reflects how much the various parties (creator, publisher, seller) invest in the project.

    But there is so much industry inertia that I know that that probably will not happen (which is why I will stay independent). In that case, I could see using someone who has the skills that an agent has for:
    – editing of my manuscript, by someone who is experienced in thinking about market, readership and genre as well as the general writing skills
    – marketing, especially in placing my print books in bookstores.

  15. Michael Offutt on April 12, 2011 at 12:18 PM

    >People that are writing you insisting on you to change your ways and chanting "the sky is falling" seriously need to put away the crack pipe. My knowledge of the publishing industry is at most probably 1% of yours and even I know that agents are not going away. Marketing is more important than ever.

  16. Rachelle on April 12, 2011 at 12:03 PM

    >Lili: Great advice but frankly I'm ROFL at the idea of a lavish lifestyle or even the *thought* of a BMW. Ha ha ha ha ha. Whoever those real estate agents are that you're talking about, their lives clearly bear no resemblance to mine!

  17. Rachel on April 12, 2011 at 11:30 AM

    >I also want to say thanks for your consistent offering through this blog. I hope you never quit agenting or blogging. I think agents will always be necessary to help provide a firm skeleton to a writer's career. It can quickly become a watery, treacherous journey all by ourselves.

  18. Lili Tufel on April 12, 2011 at 10:50 AM

    >As a Real Estate Agent I can tell you that there are MANY Real Estate Agents who had a false sense that everything was fine and continued their lavish lifestyles squandering their income and now they can't make a payment on their BMW's. All I'm saying is be prudent because you really don't know how long the security of great clients and amazing book sales will last. Rachelle, I know you follow Dave Ramsey but many people don't and it's a false sense of securtiy to think even your corparate job is secure when nothing is for sure. I have great clients but what good is an 800 credit score when the banks fear making a loan on a condo w/ a bankrupt association?? No need to jump ship, just be prudent with the income you have now.

  19. c on April 12, 2011 at 10:19 AM

    >@ Bryce Daniels… Don't worry about misspelling Donald Maass's name. With the way things are changing, he'll be worried about misspelling YOUR name – LOL.

  20. Bryce Daniels on April 12, 2011 at 10:15 AM

    >Well. SOMEONE is certainly glad his post wasn't a query. Who's the fool who misspelled Donald Maass's name? Oh, wait. Umm. Nevermind.

  21. c on April 12, 2011 at 9:26 AM

    >I believe (IMHO), that top agents will still be around supporting top authors, but the lower level agents will disappear when lower level authors move to independent publishing.

    If agents were smart, they'd figure a way to capitalize on the e-publishing side of the business, for example: they could help indies market their books for a cut. Building a marketing network is a large, tiring part of epublishing. I'd gladly pay someone to do it for me.

    For me, I plan on epublishing first and traditionally publishing second. It just make good sense.

    See my own blog for further details on this:

  22. Maril Hazlett on April 12, 2011 at 8:43 AM

    >You sound totally on it. Not that I have any knowledge at all in the area of agenting, but generally, the best sales and marketing people I know are fabulous at reading their industry, and knowing when it makes sense to adapt strategically (versus trend-following like a bunch of scared sheep). Frankly, I think agent skill sets go far beyond just marketing and sales, and that depth probably makes the best of you even more thoughtful about how you structure your future.

    Also, I think that what works for YOU needs to be part of the equation. Integrating other services (design, etc.) into their offerings might be right for some agents, but maybe not the right choice for others.

    Thanks so much for this blog. I find it enormously helpful.

  23. Wendy Paine Miller on April 12, 2011 at 8:28 AM

    >It’s encouraging to know agents are also taking a proactive approach to how their roles might alter in this changing climate.

    This is why I’ve been on the lookout for an agent with versatility and an eye on the future.

    Until the future gets here, keep on selling!
    ~ Wendy

  24. Laura Parker@Life Overseas on April 12, 2011 at 8:24 AM


    While I am new to the writing world, I just wanted to say thank you for this blog. Thanks for taking the time to create a space for those interested in the writing industry or for those knee-deep in it already. I appreciate the discussions, the honesty, the advice, and the links given here.

    Thanks, again, from Thailand,

    Laura Parker

  25. Olivia Newport on April 12, 2011 at 7:47 AM

    >Publishing is not changing in one bubble while agents live in another bubble. Agenting is part of publishing, so shifts will happen together. Ten or twenty years from now agents may look back at how their careers changed, but I think the shifts will be in tandem which publishing changes, not as a reaction to it.

  26. Kelly Combs on April 12, 2011 at 7:45 AM

    >I like what you said about an agent being a consultant. I also think of them as a sounding board, mentor, and hopefully, a friend.

  27. Erin MacPherson on April 12, 2011 at 7:27 AM

    >I think there is always a need for expertise in any industry, so even if publishing makes a huge shift, there will always be a need for someone to talk authors through the process– whether it's self-pub or traditional.

  28. Cynthia Herron on April 12, 2011 at 6:30 AM

    >I think the reputable agents will continue to stay the course and have a loyal following. Agents' roles may evolve and expand, but I don't think their importance will be diminished at all. I know I definitely want the right per person in my corner who will share the same vision for my work, someone who will be a caretaker of my career, and someone who will smartly weather trends, naysayers' doom and gloom, etc. Thank you, Rachelle, for being the encourager you are!

  29. Sharon A. Lavy on April 12, 2011 at 6:12 AM

    >The agent who is already a career builder for clients won't have to change much. And that is the best kind of agent to look for.

  30. Aimee L Salter on April 12, 2011 at 2:15 AM

    >I read this on John Mayer's blog a few months back and have to say the idea has stuck with me. In short: that many agents will essentially become 'mini publishers' – particularly in the e-book industry.

    Check it out. It's very thoughtful and considered:

  31. Tana Adams on April 12, 2011 at 1:06 AM

    >I'm just curious if the .99 cents authors (who sell well) have created a sort of reverse slush pile for agents? Perhaps agents could pick and choose clients with successful books and sell them to publishers. That's the way it seemed to have worked for Amanda Hocking. Although not a viable business model to create an entire client list from, it seems like a great way to find a diamond in the rough.

  32. Andrew on April 12, 2011 at 1:04 AM

    >I'll weigh in with Phyllis. There will always be publishing houses, because they have the knowledge and resources to know how to sell books…and the self-published author really can't compete. Sure, there are exceptions, but on the whole we are full up trying to balance day jobs and families and writing.

    We generally don't have the contacts (or money!) to launch a successful marketing campaign. No one's going to buy a book they never hear of. (Of which they never hear?) If all your friends on Facebook buy your e-book, you might sell 500 copies. Yee-ha.

    And so…the agent will represent us to the publishers, whatever medium they the pubs are using. Any we'll hope that we can grab that brass ring.

  33. Bryce Daniels on April 12, 2011 at 12:35 AM

    >I think an agent's survival is going to come down to his or her code of ethics. Seems that is the common denominator for how we should live, eh?

    Donald Maas hit it on the head when he talked about "story tellers" vs. "status seekers."

    Sure, there will be those who prey on the status seekers, those authors who would pay anything to see their name on a spine or screen. It's been that way for years in the poetry arena. And they will have to work harder to polish and present a product that appeals to the public. Sadly, the economics suggest that this approach will never disappear.

    The good agents, the wise agents, will stay the course and seek out the story tellers. It always has and always will boil down to the nouns and verbs.

    Keep on chugging, Rachelle. Authors who care about their readers rather than their royalties, and readers who care about a good story rather than the price they paid for it, are here to stay.

  34. Katherine Hyde on April 11, 2011 at 11:42 PM

    >Agents could function as a sort of manager/mentor for writers, helping them polish their manuscripts, make the best decisions about what direction to take their careers, how and where to publish, connecting them with other people in the industry, advising on publicity campaigns, etc. A lot of agents do many of these things already–they could continue to do them even if traditional publishing were out of the picture.

  35. Melissa on April 11, 2011 at 11:39 PM

    >I really like the idea of agents as orchestrators of a writer’s career – if that’s what the writer wants, of course. Consultant, adviser, e-publisher, etc. It would be awesome if agents had more independence apart and aside from publishing houses. I’m sure they’d be a lot happier, too. ☺

    There’s been a lot of conjecture about what will happen in traditional publishing — if it will follow the same path as the music industry. I hope not, but really … who knows? They’re still two different mediums. Which is why the “wait and see” approach is sort of necessary.

  36. phyllis sweetwater on April 11, 2011 at 11:21 PM

    >My personal experience with publishing is this: self-publishing is easy – a little too easy – easy to get sunk into a trap. Sure I could do it, it's tempting, but it won't get me anywhere. I rely on agents more now than I did before because guess what? They know a heck of alot more about publishing than I do.