Outside Frankfurt’s LitAG: A New Report on Agenting

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Porter Anderson

A new survey on American literary agents’ experience surfaces concerns about the business model’s viability, diversity, and burnout in a demanding job.

In Frankfurter Buchmesse’s LitAg, 2014. Image: FBM, Alexander Heimann

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘An Industry in Flux’
This year’s Literary Agents and Scouts Center has been a quick success, with all 584 tables sold out long before the fair opened.

With its tables and chairs turning quickly between rights meetings, a lot of lore—almost a romanticism—has made itself part of the mystique of Frankfurter Buchmesse.

Easily one of the biggest smiles in the LitAg this year will be on the face of Gina Winje, the literary agent whose Winge Agency in Porsgrunn, Norway, represents Jon Fosse, who recently won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Winje was touched, she said, to be hearing from co-agents, scouts, co-publishers and others in the industry: “I’m overwhelmed by the warmth and happiness,” she told Publishing Perspectives.

But as much as the industry understands and appreciates the LitAg as “the beating heart” of the world’s largest international book fair, a report that arrived early this month indicates that many literary agents may be struggling in their work as the industry evolves, many markets’ economies go into flux, and making ends meet gets harder.

Literary agents—so critical to the international industry’s viability and health—could use some attention, as members of the profession report they’re experiencing more burnout than before, not least because the job entails so much “invisible labor,” for which agents aren’t paid.

Developed as “one of the most comprehensive studies to date regarding the role of the literary agent in the modern publishing landscape,” the report was released at the beginning of this month by the Association of American Literary Agents (AALA). While the United States’ delegation might be a big one compared to representatives of smaller markets, the sorts of difficulties some agents now are reporting may well be impacting the job in virtually any publishing market in the world.

‘They Have To Keep It Together’

To be sure, there’s good news. For example, this biennial survey of the agenting sector indicates that today’s agents are younger as a group and more diverse in the States, thanks in part to new membership categories and other efforts on the part of the association.

Image: Association of American Literary Agents

But even in those diversity considerations, there are red flags: Agents who are Black, Indigenous, and/or people of color (BIPOC) report much more experience of burnout. BIPOC agents also tell AALA that their income levels tend to run lower than those of agents who self-identify as white.

Among the activities of agenting, reading manuscripts and reviewing queries is high on the list. But the report from the new survey indicates that the sheer workload in that part of the job may be larger than some realize it is, and is something that many agents face without assistance.

“In addition to their usual client load,” write the survey authors, “22 percent of respondents report receiving more than 100 new queries per week. Only 20.1 percent of respondents have an assistant who is dedicated to them and their work.

“A sizable number of respondents (43 percent) indicate that in addition to their responsibilities as agents, they are also responsible for sub-rights, contracts, accounting, and/or office management.

“Despite being overwhelmed, agents say they “have to keep it together for their clients” but “it can be exhausting to be responsive and positive on a constant basis.”

In fact, it’s burnout that seems to be most on the minds of many agents responding to the new AALA survey. Concern about burnout is “cited by three out of four respondents and more than eight of 10 respondents who are 30 to 40 years old,” the new report says. “Agents report working long hours; more than 40 hours per week is the norm: 37.4 percent report working 40 to 60 hours; 15.2 percent work 50 to 60 hours; and 9.6 percent work more than 60 hours per week.

“Furthermore, half of respondents say they often or always work over the weekend. One respondent puts it succinctly: “I do not have a healthy work/life balance.” Perhaps most concerning in this area: More than 10 percent of respondents are reporting that they worry they “will not be able to remain in publishing due to their current level of burnout.”

Client responsibilities also factor in, “38.6 percent of respondents saying they represent 30 or more authors, with 16.2 percent representing more than 50 authors. On the question of agents and their editorial work with authors, 92.9 percent of respondents say they offer editorial feedback to their clients as a part of their author-agent relationship, with only 2.8 percent saying they do not focus on editorial feedback with their clients.” 

The survey “portrays an industry in flux,” its authors write, with concern around trends in publisher consolidation and the basic agency business model are growing more pressing.

“Agents are questioning whether the commission structure is a viable compensation model,” the report points out, “especially for newer agents.

Overall Conclusions

Image: Association of American Literary Agents

It’s important to remember that the AALA’s report is focused on the United States, a comparatively very large market of literary agents, and that business models, working conditions, trends in services offered clients, and even demographic details can vary considerably from market to market.

But it’s also worth remembering that while Frankfurt is a place in which much discussion goes into various elements of the business—from distribution and technological trends to retail pressure points and consumer data development—the industry may not be taking the time to “take the temperature” of the agencies and their highly valued personnel.

The new survey is reported without emotional overtones or fearmongering. It simply points out that its results deserve attention because the people in the agencies—and the LitAg—may be having a rougher time of it that professionals in other parts of the business realize. The survey “portrays an industry in flux,” its authors write, with concern around trends in publisher consolidation and the basic agency business model are growing more pressing.

This may be a good year to check on your favorite agent at the LitAg. Buy her or him a drink. Thank a team for what they’re doing. Ask them how it’s going. The community of industry pros at Frankfurt is a big one, and a warm one. And the idea that everything is always one big happy “sell, sell, sell” in the LitAg might be due for a level-headed review to be sure the agents among us are able to manage their careers healthily and with the support that everyone certainly wants them to have.

A version of this story is in our 75th Frankfurt coverage from our Frankfurt Book Fair Magazine, which is available through the trade show in print.

The magazine has more interviews with fellows and grant-program recipients from international publishing markets, as well as previews of programming from our Publishing Perspectives Forum at Frankfurt including our Executive Talks with Penguin Random House worldwide CEO Nihar Malaviya and Nanmeebooks’ Kim Chongsatitwana; highlights of key events at the 75th Frankfurter Buchmesse; and coverage of Frankfurt’s upcoming guest of honor programs (Italy, the Philippines, the Czech Republic) and this year’s Guest of Honor Slovenia.

There’s also news of literary agents and agencies; award-winning books from guest of honor markets; focus articles on artificial intelligence, sustainability; and a forthcoming effort to get more Korean literature into world markets; as well as 75th-anniversary “Frankfurt Moments.”

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.