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Competitors and Collaborators: The New Age in Agenting

Editorial by Jason Allen Ashlock

jasaon ashlock

NEW YORK: In December, five of the largest magazine publishers in the United States — Time Inc., NewsCorp, Conde Nast, Hearst, and Meredith Corp — announced a joint venture. In an effort to take control of their own fates, the five will become equal partners in developing a new e-reader for magazines. These longtime competitors and fierce leaders of media empires, each working to win the attention of a finite number of eyes, emerged from behind their castle walls and met on common ground — an unprecedented cooperative effort born of an understanding that it was simply too risky to go it alone.

As publishers, editors, agents, authors, publicists, marketers, booksellers, and book buyers ponder the current state of book publishing and attempt to read the signs and map the future, we might learn from our peers at the glossies. Facing an uncertain future, we would all do well to identify our common interests and seek new forms of collaboration. Reading the recent earnings numbers, passing the empty desks where our colleagues once sat, or marveling at the rapid acceleration of e-reader adoption, we can perhaps agree: these days, it is simply too risky to go it alone.

On a recent Friday afternoon at Old Town Bar on 18th Street in New York City, I sat with five agents, discussing e-books, editors, projects, and general publishing news. My lunch partners each work with different firms (boutique agencies, mid-size firms, industry juggernauts), manage slightly different client lists, and have spent varying lengths of time in publishing. The purpose of the meeting wasn’t social — or at least not merely social. These agents are acquaintances at best; we run into each other at parties and occasionally find ourselves passing at the same time through the doors of publishing houses. Rather, the lunch was an intentional act of collaboration. We met to share opinions, ideas, information, contacts, and experience. Next month, we’ll do it again.

The previous week I sat, as I do once a month, with a very different group of a dozen agents — again, each from different firms. The topic: young adult literature. Going house by house, we each spoke of trends we’d noticed, tastes we’d seen emerging, editors we’d recently lunched with, and contractual challenges we’d experienced. Someone brought cupcakes.

These two lunches are not random moments of professional collegiality or instances of an aberrant generosity. Rather, for many of us, they are representative of a remarkable and refreshing spirit of collaboration among publishing professionals. The e-mails that pass among my agent friends regard editor preferences, conference invitations, contractual concerns, submission strategies, and, more often than we’d like, restructuring and layoff news.

On any given week, I might receive a recommendation from one of these agents — would I like a chance to read a manuscript that seemed fitted to my tastes? Maybe a question regarding an editor to whom I sold a book — could I tell them what the editor was acquiring these days? On occasion, one of us will toss out to the group a particularly frustrating or enlightening contracts matter, and we’ll engage in an impromptu brainstorming session — the e-mails piling up in a flurry of replies — as we attempt to think our way, to collaborate our way through the issue.

With fewer publishing houses employing fewer editors who are acquiring fewer books for less money, one might think that agenting these days would be more cutthroat than ever, and agents themselves even more territorial and proprietary. A posture of defense would make sense, as would a default mode of distance and silence. The walls should be higher, thicker. Since our assets are composed of personal relationships with editors, our ability to build a salable property, our knowledge of contracts and the publishing process, and our creative ideas on promotion, the act of collaboration might appear to place those assets at risk.

Surprise. Though it might seem counterintuitive, by making our individual resources reasonably available to a community of thoughtful, driven and visionary peers, each of us becomes better at what we do. Editors get better submissions. Agents make better sales. Writers get better service. By violating the traditional proprietary model, the whole room gets smarter.

Economists might call this agglomeration — when similar businesses stand close to each other and benefit from shared resources and increased traffic. Diamond stores on 47th Street, the collection of chess stores below Washington Square, all those apple farmers setting out their crates at the farmer’s market, are all examples of what I mean.  Though this doesn’t offer publishing — and particularly agenting — a perfectly clean analogy, there’s some kinship to be observed: sometimes what appears to be a competitor might be a partner-in-the-making. And like any agglomeration, our collaborations don’t add up to a flimsy idealism; we’re all of us making a living at this profession, not playing at a hobby, and there’s no trace of a juvenile utopian dream of publishing free love.  We certainly know that we’re competitors, in the simplest sense of the word. But we also know that we’re not enemies.

Appropriately, the best analogy for this kind of publishing agglomeration is the crowd-sourcing that has come to define the information gathering tactics of Web 2.0. There are major discussions happening now, and they will continue apace for many years, regarding the proper ownership and exploitation of digital rights, the complexities of micro-transactions, the effective marketing strategies for virtual communities, and the use of multimedia elements in e-books. These matters will be determined, as always, by a general consensus of contracts managers, lawyers, and dealmakers. They will be, in essence, crowd-sourced. Right now, by forming a collaborative relationship, we compose that crowd ourselves — sharing our opinions, debating various possibilities, moving through the multiplicity to a kind of consensus — and in that way we are directly influencing the direction that publishing moves. In our loose alliances, we are the Crowd that sources, the Cloud that computes.

Individuals and companies avoid collaboration for two reasons. They either feel they won’t benefit from it, or they feel afraid of the possible risks it involves. The paradigm shift (and I use that term with full acceptance of the drama it implies) happening within publishing today renders both reasons useless. No one — not Cory Doctorow, not Ron Hogan, not Mark Coker, not even Richard Nash, as insightful as each of them are — has the right answers. As Richard Charkin of Bloomsbury recently said, “this is a time for experimentation, for doing a lot of things wrong and a few things right.” Valuing collaboration helps us learn from each other’s mistakes — to get less wrong and more right.

The cooperative spirit demonstrated among the more gracious of my colleagues isn’t relegated to the world of agents. We’ve all received more invitations to attend conferences on e-books, digital publishing, and the “new publishing landscape” than we could possibly attend (or afford!). These various event offerings demonstrate that when the present is uncertain and the future unpredictable, we can do something other than collapse into gang wars.  We can build a collaborative dynamic that betters all the players.

It may be that individuals or companies avoid collaboration for a third, more passive reason: they don’t know how to do it. So comfortable are we with insularity that we blink at integration. So accustomed are we to searching for the competitive advantage, we are unable to see the collaborative one.

Thankfully, we have guides to follow. Agents like Rob Weisbach are reconceiving the traditional literary agency by partnering with media trainers, digital marketers, and specialized consultants. Simon and Schuster invites the filmmakers of TurnHere to work with them in developing extratextual content. My own firm, Movable Type Literary Group, is engaged in a project to create an expansive web of support for each of our books woven from the networks of each of our clients; we imagine a literary firm that’s less an agency than an ever-expanding tribe of influencers. Bob Miller’s fine crew at HarperStudio posits a new kind of publisher/author relationship, where risk and reward are shared more equitably. Even Google offers a nod toward openness by emphasizing its non-exclusive partnerships with publishers. Of course there are the magazine publishers, from Newhouse to Murdoch, who have acknowledged their shared interest in one another’s success.

And there is that lunch at the Old Town Bar, where the dim lighting and dark wood made our meeting feel more like collusion than cooperation. I argued that day with one of the agents about the delay of the e-book release for a particular young adult hardcover. We didn’t convince each other, but the discussion forced me to assess my position, and articulate it precisely. This is what happens when we emerge from our private ghettos of hype, fear and hope, and offer each other our best. In the new age of publishing, there is something there that doesn’t love a wall.

Jason Allen Ashlock is the co-founder and contracts manager of Moveable Type Literary Group.

CONTACT: Jason Allen Ashlock directly.

VISIT: The Web site for Moveable Type Literary Group

FOLLOW: Agents discussing their daily activities on Twitter.

DISCUSS: Is Publishing in the Recession More or Less Competitive?

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7 Comments

  1. Posted January 15, 2010 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    “…for many of us, they are representative of a remarkable and refreshing spirit of collaboration among publishing professionals.”

    Great piece, Jason. I have a love/hate relationship with Twitter and publishing’s obsession with it, but one thing I’ve enjoyed most is the spirit of collaboration amongst those I follow, and in many cases later met in person. I don’t agree on everything with most of them, but our interactions have forced me to go through the same process you noted of assessing my positions, articulating them precisely, and on occasion, even changing my mind.

    Agents have critical role to play in the transformation of the publishing business model and I applaud creative efforts like your own and the others you’ve spotlighted here.

    (Excuse the brief sales pitch, but it’s worth noting that agents represent a key group of speakers at Digital Book World, and we’ve been encouraged by the number who’ve registered to attend as well.)

  2. Matthew Perks
    Posted January 15, 2010 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Good thoughtful essay. One other thing I would add, though, is avoiding the appearance of improper collusion or price-fixing among competitors. Lawyers as we all know tend to ruin everything, and all we need is some disgruntled would-be author to come up with another reason to accuse agents of being the bad guys.

  3. Posted January 15, 2010 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Well done! I’d also like to point out that I think any reluctance to collaborate comes, in part, with success. Successful agents who have been at it for years maintain solid contacts, practices and methods – and they do it well. So very occasionally, I’ve noticed, a slight few who are slightly apprehensive about collaborations. However, groups like young-to-publishing have long been encouraging meet-ups and discussion panels for those of us who still have much to learn. At this point, I think that includes newbies and veterans.

  4. Ryan Doherty
    Posted January 15, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Interesting piece, Jason, but I believe you economic theory is flawed. I’d say the Diamond district is more Hotelling model than agglomeration. I point you to an 18 year old version of myself for explanation: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/achenblog/2005/03/the_hotelling_theory_student_j.html

  5. Posted January 15, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Great article, Jason. In response to Matthew’s comment above, I’ve found agents working together (especially younger agents) to be both good for authors and publishers. We spread the word about which editors are looking to buy what, and we help each other serve our clients better. Cooperation is a good thing!

  6. Posted January 15, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Great piece, Jason. I’ll echo what Victoria says about heeding the lawyers, but it’s this sentence that resonated with me the most: “No one — not Cory Doctorow, not Ron Hogan, not Mark Coker, not even Richard Nash, as insightful as each of them are — has the right answers.”

    I have enormous respect for each of the thinkers you mention (and would add writers like Kassia Krozser, Carolyn Kellogg, and Sarah Weinman to the list), but heartily agree with your point: even if one of those pundits were to come up with a silver bullet, we’d still need about 400 more equally silver bullets to correct our *other* problems and pull publishing fully back on track. Now is the time to leave our hubris and preconceived notions behind, and begin experimenting in earnest.

  7. Posted January 15, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    “The cooperative spirit demonstrated among the more gracious of my colleagues isn’t relegated to the world of agents.”

    Jason, I’m in full agreement.

    I have witnessed different players in this industry collaborating with competitors. Authors team to blog or network, publishers tear down walls to preserve their legacy, and other industry insiders are jumping on the bandwagon.

    These exchanges and alliances are not representative of collusion, in fact, they demonstrate just the opposite.

    We are all inside a birthing suite to assist the delivery of publishing’s new era.

    Eleanor Andrews

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