Competitors and Collaborators: The New Age in Agenting

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Editorial by Jason Allen Ashlock

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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

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

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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.