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Agenting in a changing world

7 May 2012

An article in a recent edition of the Bookseller focused on the London agency Conville and Walsh, a relative newcomer to the agency business but a successful one. How is the world of agenting being affected by the changes in the book world, and what impact does this have on writers?

What has been emerging for some time is that agents are no longer just agents, but feel they have to offer a more sophisticated and multi-tasking approach to the job.

Publishers have been retreating from providing structural editing for their authors, so agents have more and more had to take this into account when submitting manuscripts. After all, if the book is not in good shape, then editors aren’t going to be interested. In some cases agents have reacted by taking on in-house editorial advisers, some of whom are called something grander, and in others they have turned their hand to it themselves. Some are ex-editors so one can assume that this comes easily, but others are really more like rights sellers in terms of their background, so it’s not so easy.

Even when a book has been worked on and is in good shape for submission, that doesn’t mean that it will sell. One successful and well-organised agent told me last week that the agency had taken on three new authors in the last year, done the work on them and then submitted them enthusiastically to publishers, but hadn’t sold a single one. This is the reality behind agents’ current extreme caution about new authors.

This could be ascribed to what is called the death of the midlist, the middle area which in the past has been the breeding and training ground for new writers. Everyone wants books which will make it to bestsellerdom with the firs t book, rather than being prepared to go for the slow building of an author’s audience, book by book. But Patrick Walsh of Conville and Walsh says encouragingly: ‘This idea that the midlist is dying is wildly over-exaggerated.’

So what else is changing in the agenting world? Well, agents are having to become business managers for authors across the whole range of their ouput. This seems to suggest that big agencies with film and tv departments will become the norm, but actually it has also meant that small agencies are coming to the fore too, as they have the flexibility to move fast, to keep up with the rapidly-changing environment and can offer as good a service in a more focused way. Agents these days also feel they have to keep a close eye on what publishers are doing, getting involved in monitoring things like the sales promotion, marketing and publicity publishers undertake for their authors.

Clare Conville says: ‘As an agent you’ve got to be really alive to the myriad of possibilities. There is no longer any set way.’ So the best agents are fast on their feet and wide-ranging in their understanding of what is going on, and ready to use this knowledge to their clients’ advantage.

So what about the potentially competitive element of agents setting up to sell ebooks and acting in other ways in competition with publishers? The general view seems to be that there is a real conflict of interest in such activities, as agents lose their detachment and their focus on representing the author to his or her best advantage, but it’s not clear yet whether this is a trend or just a bit of experimentation.

In the meantime agents have their hands full concentrating on selling their clients’ work and looking after them, whilst keeping up with a rapidly changing environment.