I really don’t…

I really don't understand something. I keep seeing in the various comment threads (and hearing from Kevin) the suggestion / prediction that authors' agents' roles will expand to fulfill the duties traditionally filled by publishers, so that the chain becomes author --> agent --> Amazon or other online distributor --> reader!

Even if you assume print goes away completely, and in the brave new world of the future, everyone prefers reading electronically, I just don't get this. An agent is an agent -- they have a set of skills that basically involve finding good stuff, convincing a few other industry people to spend money on it, and then managing the legal and financial stuff that comes along with that.

  • An agent is not an editor.
  • An agent is not a copyeditor.
  • An agent is not a proofreader.
  • An agent is not a cover designer.
  • An agent is not a layout designer.
  • An agent is not an illustrator.
  • An agent is not a marketer.
  • An agent is not a publicist. (Different job from previous, different skills.)
  • An agent is not a techie book specialist. (A new job we'll need in the brave new world.)
I don't see how you can expect an agent to learn and take on nine other professions, jobs which for the most part require years of education and experience to do well (not to mention talent -- I am a terrible cover designer, for example, and not nearly painstaking enough to be a decent copyeditor or proofreader), without also paying them nine times at much. At which point, their traditional 15% cut expands to oh, more than your book is making. Also, they have an aneurysm from trying to do the work of ten people.

And that's not even taking into account the economies of scale that a publishing house (small or large) has to offer. Once you start bundling books together, and even leaving aside the entire world of print-based bookstores, etc., you can afford to do more in terms of marketing -- pitching pieces to magazines, or radio stations, taking out ads, etc.

Given all that, I just don't get what Kevin and others are talking about, when they envision a world that doesn't need publishers. What am I missing here?

4 thoughts on “I really don’t…”

  1. What do you think about small publishing companies, or self-publishing, in general?

    I think you can say “the job that publishers do is important and valuable” without saying “publishing can only be done by huge corporations and teams of nearly a dozen specialists”. Running a web site requires an operations staff, system administrators, system engineers, network admins, network engineers, developers, testers, QA staff, facilities people, and probably a dozen other things that I’m not coming up with off the top of my head — but that doesn’t mean that you can’t run a web site out of your garage, with reasonably interesting content and a reasonable level of service.

  2. Well, I agree that an agent can’t do most of that stuff. But then I don’t think you’ll need an agent.

    (At least in the traditional sense…)

    Some of those items make sense only in the context of traditional publishing… it reads as if you’re assuming nothing about books or reading will change except for publishers disappearing. It’s almost as if you were objecting to the advent of the printing press because printers and authors have terrible handwriting, and everybody knows good penmanship is essential for selling books. Every aspect of the industry is changing; yesterday’s essential skills are tomorrow’s irrelevancies, and vice-versa.

    The exact same arguments you make in this entry apply to musicians. Record labels do recording, album design, marketing, publicity, focus groups, and who knows what else. If you believe the RIAA, artists couldn’t get by without them. And yet Jonathan Coulton makes a living — to choose one example — and there’s a renaissance of labelless talent emerging around the ‘Net.

    How has this happened? Let me go to one more example: blogs. We both started writing online journals in an era in which that involved hand-coding every page, including updating the navigational links and creating archive pages from scratch. (Even the people Kymm referred to as “pussies” created and updated every single page; they just used HTML editors to generate the actual code.) How could most people be expected to learn these skills, and wouldn’t it be too much trouble? Then came Blogger and LiveJournal and WordPress and Movable Type and… now anybody can put a blog online in a matter of minutes, with comments and widgets and pages that update dynamically.

    Musicians have been getting a similar set of tools. MySpace has been a major player in this regard, making it easy for bands to have an online presence and share their music. YouTube plays a large role as well. Other sites make it easy for them to sell MP3s or CDs directly to the public. And technology has made it easier than ever for musicians to record and edit their work. In short, the barriers for musicians to reach a mass audience with their work, without middlemen, have never been lower.

    Some of us think this is a good thing. 🙂

    How will this apply to books? The jury’s still out on the details. Possibly editors will be hired directly by the author; possibly that entire model is a relic, and the prose will be polished collectively by the readers. (Some days I think the single-author-as-godlike-auteur model is doomed.) But the details you’re asking about here are frankly small potatoes compared to the massive changes in what and how we read.

    (But briefly… if we move to e-texts, we’re likely to end up with people choosing the typeface they want to read books in, and layout design becomes a non-issue. Most likely no need for cover design or illustrations either; if one does want them, there are two obvious routes: commissions and fanart. I don’t know exactly what will be involved in marketing and publicity, but neither do the publishers.)

    I really ought to revise and expand the hypertext essay I started writing about this stuff four years ago…

  3. Interesting question. Three thoughts:
    1. What Shmuel said. A lot of these things are becoming less important now that content is going electronic. Instead, it’s about writing books that are easy to read electronically. For now, they’re analogs of paper books – but how long before this changes? Already, people are posting book trailers.

    2. The sensitivity to grammar/ spelling is already declining. I find typos in nearly every book I read. I treat them as I would a friend mis-speaking – doesn’t matter as long as I know what they mean. What’s different between reading your blog and reading your book?

    3. Micro-presses can do everything that a big publisher does, because a lot of that is automated now. (Think of Lulu.com) They can’t do the marketing – but if everything ends up on the interwebs, then marketing is hardly the issue. Anyway, the big houses do a patchy job of marketing – they really push some books, but many are left to stand or fall on their own. And anyone can set up a micropress. If you don’t care about paper editions, it’s even easier. You can do what Cat Valente did, and post your story online in installments.

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