Someone needs to listen to what authors want, and respond. Someone needs to help them navigate a complex and challenging publishing landscape.
Clare Alexander, Agent, Aitken Alexander Associates, London
Best Fit , The Bookseller Blogs, January 24, 2013
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Do you know the splendid term impresario?
Humor me: say it aloud right now: Em-preh-SAAAAH-ree-o.
You could sing it, an aria in a single word, couldn’t you?
And at the ballet? A danseur noble performs this word in a turning leap, the tour jeté. He ramps up in a springing vault, turning impossibly en l’air—saaaaaah—before landing with spongy precision, retro-hamstrings deployed, somewhere near center stage.
Impresaaaaaario. So Italianate you want another Campari  every time someone says it. Thank you for saying it. Cin-cin.
Of whom do you think?
I think of Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929), impresario of the great Ballet Russes. He collaborated with Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, Coco Chanel. He staged Nijinsky, Pavlova, Rambert. He hired Gide, Apollinaire, Cocteau. He worked with Picasso, Braque, Matisse, De Chirico. He slept with some of them. He was tough on a lot of them. He was called “Sergypops” by one of them. He discovered them, cultivated them, trained them, disciplined them, befriended them, presented them, partnered with them, bowed beside them, made them better, made them famous, made them Them.
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing a modern-day impresario, a Brit. You’d know his work. They don’t all sleep with you, you’ll be gratified to learn. Or maybe they just don’t sleep with all of us. Remind me to ask.
Impresario. So much music in the word.
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[pullquote]While corporate publishers become larger, and their search for the latest phenomena encourages many to think only in the short term, then surely more than ever agents should be the ones who promise long-term loyalty to their clients.
Best Fit , The Bookseller Blogs[/pullquote]
Now, of course you know the word agent. Not so musical, maybe. Not so dancerly, either. As words go, it thuds on touchdown, a matinee understudy who needs more time at the barre.
Cin-cin. Oh. Sorry.
But in our digital recitativo—the story told by this chattering village of busybodies who make up publishing’s opera chorus (“the industry! the industry!”)—this stock character, the agent, is morphing in the most interesting way.
Morphing into? A manager.
I had a long, memorable conversation with agent Clare Alexander  in London last month, she’s wonderful company.
She’s advising her agent-colleagues these days that mergers of agencies may not make much sense. The “best fit” of her Bestseller  post’s headline means that whatever bigger-is-better mentality may play out in the publishing-house scenes of I Publiacci, the agencies get no benefit from scaling up.
For more and more agents, it’s becoming the thing to include on the client list self-publishers and those AC-DC “hybrids” who publish both ways. What are agents doing for self-publishers? For one thing, international deals.
- As Curtis Brown’s (UK) co-CEO and Managing Director agent Jonny Geller  says, “You don’t want to be up at 3 in the morning talking about Latvian rights.”
- Agent Rachelle Gardner  at Books & Such of Santa Rosa clearly sees guidance as one of the most pressing elements of her client service. On Tuesday, she’s self-published How Do I Decide? Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing , the first in a series of “field guides” for authors she’s writing with Michelle DeRusha .
Don’t miss the gentle irony here: Gardner has just this week become an agent who’s a self-publisher. Give yourself a moment to consider how outlandish, even scandalous, that would have sounded a few years ago. (Chorus: “Scarlet letter! Scarlet letter! SCAAAAARlet letter!”) And yes, she uploaded the manuscript herself, she told me so.
- Agent Jane Dystel , whom I saw earlier this month at Digital Book World  (DBW), was interviewed earlier by Jeremy Greenfield , and told him in Agents Unwilling to Adapt Won’t Last :
We’re all here to help writers find their audiences. Maybe in the indie world that might not always be the readers in the U.S. market, but we also enable them to sell foreign rights, translation rights, audio rights…We also can free their time so they can sell their own books and do what’s most important and that is write more books. That’s what a good agent does.
Whoa, that last bit. Did I hear the string section march back into the orchestra pit? “Free their time,” the good lady said. So writers can “do what’s most important and that is write more books.”
- There’s agent Jason Allen Ashlock , of course, about whom I’ve written a great deal, actually, because he and his partner Adam Chromy have reconfigured the former Movable Type agency as a true management firm of bicoastal strength.
And in their partnership, they’ve developed one of the first agency-curated and -operated author collectives, The Rogue Reader , featuring a very few carefully selected writers of creative noir.
Ashlock, by the way, is being added to the Author (R)evolution Day conference produced by O’Reilly’s Tools of Change (TOC) on February 12, to do a special session with authors on the topic of today’s post here, the evolving nature of the agent and relationships with writers.
And, of course, in the biggest development, we’re now seeing more than one successful ebook self-publisher get a major publishing contract from a Big Six publisher that allows those authors to retain their e-rights. The publishers get print rights only. (And I’m calling S&S a “Big Six” publisher until the Penguin Random House merger is approved and gives us the Big Five.)
- The breakthrough was Wool  author Hugh Howey , who with his agent Kristin Nelson sweated down Simon and Schuster until (to hear Nelson tell it at DBW), the publisher volunteered the offer. (I’ve covered that here , in case you missed it.)
Nelson spent months sending spreadsheets on Wool sales to publishers, showing them, for example, that on one promotion, Howey had sold 20,000 ebooks in a single 24-hour setting. Now? He’s just spent a week in Los Angeles in meetings with two production companies about a film adaptation of Wool.And then just this week, Colleen Hoover’s  Hopeless —a shirtless-men-kissing-beautiful-women erotic romance—was picked up, again by S&S and also in a print-only deal that leaves her control of her e-rights. Hoover’s agent is Dystel. Who was on a panel with Howey’s Nelson at DBW.
So shut my mouth, that word “agent” just got a lot more musical on the way toward “manager,” didn’t it?
A clarification here: My original write called the Howey-Nelson-Hoover-Dystel-S&S deals “unheard of before now.” Writer Unboxed stalwart Jan O’Hara reminds us in a comment below that in October, self-publishing romance author Bella Andre got a print-only deal from Canada-based Harlequin  reported  by PR Newswire to be in the seven figures. Although that event didn’t crack the Big Six, it’s certainly highly significant. Andre is repped by agent Steven Axelrod.
When self-published authors weigh up the pros and cons of how best to reach readers, while they may not be sure if they need a publisher any more, most continue to want an agent.
Best Fit , The Bookseller Blogs
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So I recommend that this weekend, we take to heart these good noises we’re hearing from such prominent agents. Let’s orchestrate them into a grander vision, shall we?—one that might someday better fit the reality of the author-empowered, the author-entrepreneurial, the auteur newly seen as the bringer-of-the-essential-product in need of professional and career-long support.
What if agents could one day become impresari to their writers?
It’s not just the Campari talking, grazie.
Think of Nelson stonewalling the publishers: She wouldn’t hear an offer for Howey that started at less than $2 million—and yet she cleverly set up in-person meetings for him with the pinstripes.
And when the offer came in, she demanded to know whether the Simon and Schuster people on the other end had the authority to make such a proposal because once in the past she’d been misled.
Hear what the chattering villagers from Brooklyn are singing in the train-to-Manhattan scene now? Impresaria! Impresaria! Impresaaaaaaaria!
What would you like to see an author’s impresario or impresaria handle?
I’ll start us off, in hopes you’ll join me in the comments and add to the list.
I would contend that agents need to be just big enough to be fit for purpose in a changing publishing landscape, but that their offices should remain human scale.
Best Fit , The Bookseller Blogs
- Hey, those contract negotiations.
- Print-only, I’ll have what Howey’s having.
- International rights, starting with Latvia at 3 a.m. (nothing like a good telephone scene in grand opera).
- But first, how about cultivation? The agent-cum-impresario finds a young writer who will be an auteur some day but at this point isn’t writing in that marvelous vernacular because he chooses to. No, it’s because he’s spent his life orphaned from real literature and wandering the shopping-mall-and-sitcom wilderness of America. He’s dumb as a post. His impresaria finds him grammar coaching. Courses in reading #legitlit and #seriouswriting. (The triumph in the “My God, He Can Spell Dostoevsky!” octet, alone, is worth the jaw-dropping ticket price.)
Sponsorship. There’s a concept. What if up-and-coming writers could be found sponsorship by their impresari? (Can you spell Campari ? I feel an Italian translation coming on, don’t you?)
- When he begins to self-publish, he’s provided with pre-vetted cover designers so his books don’t look like amateur merda. (“Just the right shirtless man! Just the right beautiful woman!” sing the babushka-ed villagers.) So you get the idea of a partnership going on here? The investment in a writer’s future?
- Now, here come the proven ebook formatti (I made it up, Bocelli, don’t bother searching).
- Help with online pricing.
- Help with social media.
- Help with the author site.
- Help with the author headshot. (“Basta! Don’t look! Don’t look!” the villagers warn us in the celebrated “And Medusa Shall Be Forgiven” chorale.)
- Help growing that followers, the coveted community, the roving hordes of monied readers sweeping over the steppes of Goodreads.
I’ll only get so far with operatic fantasy and a few shots. Puccini had the same problem.
But what I’m proposing here is this:
If our agents, whom I consider to be not a has-been group but a true key to the entrepreneurial author’s future, are really going to come around and embrace and work with self-publishing authors, then, dudes, do it. Start your services earlier. Bring the authors you want to promote in before making them move four e-mountains all by themselves and shut down their writing in order to platform! platform! PLAAAAAATform!
I’m going to give you another line from Alexander, then I want you to help me round out this list of things with which authors could really use some impresarial help early. I said early. I said EAAAAAAAly! Ha-Ha-Ha.
Agents who believe their bargaining power with publishers will be enhanced simply by getting larger are misguided. The truth is that the clout of an agency is not about the number of agents gathered together under one roof: it is only as great as the value publishers place on their most valuable clients.
Best Fit , The Bookseller Blogs
And that, Unboxed ladies and gentlemen is your cue. Your downbeat: Agents could mount speaking tours for their clients to help gather speed for their authors’ topics and books long before a publisher came into the picture, right? Tell me more. What would you add to your impresario/impresaria’s list?
The orchestra is vamping for you now…