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The changing role of the agent 2

22 August 2016

Beyond the changes we discussed in last week's News Review, The changing role of the agent, there are several other trends emerging - the increasingly editorial role of agencies, the spread of support areas and other opportunities for writers' work and the ever more international approach agents take to selling their clients' work.

Agents have realised that publishers want to acquire books which are ready to be published. The careful supportive role of the editor is not much in evidence any more in most publishing houses, the editors are expected to devote their time to acquisition rather than editing. With this gap, agents have in some cases stepped into the editorial role, especially the independent agents, although some bigger agencies do retain editors to work on the agency's clients' books. This makes simple good sense from their point of view, as the end result is a manuscript which is likelier to sell.

For some years the bigger agencies have tended to have their own film, tv and perhaps theatrical specialists, often because they have acquired them by buying other agencies. For independent and smaller agents it has become important to be able to offer this expertise to their authors through another agency. The advantage of having a fuller range of writers who work on tv and film scripts, for instance, is that the agency might also recruit scriptwriters looking for representation for their book projects. Book sales can rocket if the book is a tie-in to a successful tv series. The sale of film rights can transform a writer's career, although too often authors have discovered that a film option may disappointingly not lead to anything further.

The internationalisation of the agency world is another trend. Publishing has always had a global orientation but these days it is vital to make sure your agent can reach the international market, not just publishers in your own country. Obviously there is the potential for selling UK rights, if you're an American author, US rights if you're a British writer, both sets of rights if you're Australian and so on.

Even more important though is the translation market, which for a major international book or author can at best amount to dozens of potential editions in other languages. Selling a book with this potential requires real skill, understanding of the market and good contacts in other countries. Agents increasingly book out the agents' centres at big international fairs such as Frankfurt, the London Book Fair and the Bologna Children's Book Fair. They are there because the direct personal contact is a vital part of their selling role. Email can be a very efficient way of doing business, but nothing replaces the personal enthusiasm of the person selling a book, especially in the midst of a sea of wonderful manuscripts and book projects.

There is so much more to say about agents and how to find one that next week's What's New will again be devoted to this subject.

From our Inside Publishing series, The relationship between publishers and agents.