Secret Agent 110New and disruptive (often technology-based) business models have wreaked havoc on a host of traditional businesses over the last several decades. One of those is publishing, with the Internet providing the technology, and Amazon providing the disruption. Much of this disruption has been a boon for authors. But what about the rest?

If you go back to my last post in this series, you’ll see that I compared the services provided to authors by traditional publishers with those available to authors in today’s world of self-publishing. Only a few of those services are missing, but they include access to reliable information about how to self-publish, quality editors and effective marketing services – all crucial to an author’s success.

In this post I’ll address the need for a new type of marketing assistance that really works. To see how that assistance might work best, we’ll start by taking a look at another player under the old publishing ecosystem whose role has also been disrupted: the literary agent.

Under the old world of books and publishing, the literary agent was a critical intermediary between the source of content (the authors) and the means of promotion and distribution (the publishers). Let’s take a look at what agents do for authors, the same way we did last time with publishers:

1.  Agents acted as a filter between authors and publishers, only bringing work to the attention of publishers that the agents considered to be publishable. This helped both sides of the equation: an author that was successful in getting a respected agent to sign her on was thereby credentialed to the world of publishing. And publishers could spend less time reviewing manuscripts in order to find the ones that interested them.

2. The agent made it her business to know the proper staff of publishing houses as well as they could, thereby learning the publishing preferences of these gatekeepers as well as possible. Both sides of the equation once again benefited in the same way. By establishing a personal relationship, agents also increased the likelihood that someone they contacted on an author’s behalf would pay appropriate attention to her manuscript.

3. Agents coached authors on how to make their books more salable to publishers, based on their knowledge of what the publishers were looking for.

4. Agents advised the author on which specific publishers would be best for the author’s book, taking into account not only the preferences of the publishers they knew, but also factors such as reach, enthusiasm, suitability and availability of particular editors.

5. An agent helped the author negotiate the best publishing and movie rights deals possible for the author’s.

Now let’s take a look at the world of self-publishing, which, by definition, means that there’s no need for an agent to approach a publisher on an author’s behalf at all, unless they’ve adopted a hybrid publishing approach. But most authors will still need help marketing and selling their book, and many would be happy to pay someone else to do as much of the marketing for them as possible.

Indeed, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals and businesses out there right now that are ready and willing to sell marketing services to authors. The problem is that the vast majority of them are at best all selling only pieces of what the author needs (e.g., public relations, a website or  social media training).  At worst, they sell a package of services that are highly unlikely to have any impact at all.

And in every case, those that are selling the services are doing so for fixed or hourly fees. They will get paid whether they have helped an author sell a single book or not. Sadly, the flow of information in the world of self-publishing is poor enough (another shortcoming that I’ve highlighted) that many authors don’t learn which products and services are valuable and which aren’t, or which service providers are most helpful and which aren’t, until they’ve already paid the fees.

The result is that new (and old) authors need to go through a very difficult process of self-education, picking up tips through blogs, discussions and other highly dispersed sources in order to figure out how to promote their books themselves. Some will find that they are good at what it takes, and will flourish. Others will find that they aren’t, or will become terribly frustrated at the demands that self-promotion places on their time.

As one result, authors continue to buy marketing goods and services that don’t work, or which will only be helpful if the author goes on to do other things that they don’t have the time or the knowledge to accomplish. Another result is that the service providers have little motivation to improve the effectiveness of what they sell. In other words, the financial interests of today’s marketing  service providers at best are only loosely aligned with those of authors.

So while marketplace disruption has dramatically assisted authors by making self-publishing possible, it has disadvantaged authors by making the role of the interest-aligned role of the agent irrelevant, making way for the proliferation of inferior, and non-aligned replacements – the various current flavors of marketing service providers.

The answer to all of these questions, I believe, can be found in the creation of a new type of professional which I’ll call an “author marketing agent.”

The concept of an author marketing agent is that an author still needs someone to represent them. Not to the world of promotion and distribution, but to the world of promotion and sales. And that world is much broader, much more granular, and far more dynamic than the world it is replacing.

Most important, an author needs someone on her side that once again has financial interests that are aligned with her own.

Going back to the  “old world” list of what an agent isn’t as help here, because the landscape has been so disrupted in this area, but let’s give it a try:

1.  Literary coaching. Knowing what is salable and what is not will always be critical. The agent can help an author write consistently to genre norms if that is her desire, or come up with a strategy for maximizing the appeal of a book where an author doesn’t want to be straitjacketed by norms. The agent will also know high quality, reasonably priced editors, book and web designers, and others the author will need to support their efforts.

2. Acting as a filter. Due to the decentralization of market influencers today (blogs, twitter accounts and so on), this role has been diminished. But that will change, because markets tend to consolidate, and new respected thought leaders and venues tend to be noticed and become very popular. As the world of self-publishing evolves, some review sites, discussion sites, and other centers of influence will emerge. As this happens, the  role of respected marketing agents should become more important.

3. Knowing the marketplace. This role will remain critical, to save the author from a long learning curve, from making critical missteps, spending money unproductively, and from wasting endless amounts of time on marginal activities that could be better spent writing. A self-published author is awash with theoretical opportunities – social media channels, myriad sites to post their books at, blog strategies, and much more. Having someone that is intimately aware of what will work best, and in what order, and in what way (e.g., in connection with launching a new book) will have a huge impact on the success of the author.

3. Addressing the marketplace.  The agent would design and manage book launches, blog tours, and advertising, approach reviewers, and otherwise manage the promotional campaign for the author’s books. Ideally, the agent would have staff that handle the details, thereby assuming the traditional role of a publicist as well, and allowing the author to work with one service rather than two.

4. Advice on traditional publishers. Many authors are using a hybrid model today, and at least some publishers can be expected to change their traditional ways to remain competitive with the self-publishing model. The ideal marketing agent would therefore also play the role of a traditional literary agent. Since they would be familiar with both models, they could provide authors with the best advice on how to play both games to best advantage.

5.  Terms. Self-published authors still need help optioning their books for movies, and hybrid authors will need advice on publishing contracts as well.

If one accepts the logic that many authors would prefer to have a market savvy, interests-aligned partner on their side instead of a service provider, the question remains of how to work out the compensation arrangements to ensure that such a partnership would be attractive to both sides.

Particularly in the beginning, I would expect that a range of contract terms might be necessary. Successful marketing agents acting purely on a contingent basis would presumably operate the way literary agents do today – by being very selective. Those that were trying to become established would presumably be less so. And for first time authors, the agent might require a hybrid contract: a modest fixed, or monthly fee, plus a success element.

Whether individuals and firms decide to become author marketing agents remains to be seen. Certainly there are some service providers out there already that are providing major pieces of the profile developed above, although not on a financially aligned basis. But as more and more authors opt to self-publish, the opportunity to make a living in this way will increase. If it does, a more orderly and efficient marketplace will evolve that should make the world of self-publishing a more efficient, enjoyable, and rewarding one for authors than it is today.

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