Are agents and publishers at war?

The news of Conville Walsh’s effective acquisition by Curtis Brown invites a number of responses. Not least is the reflection that we live in a time of giants.

To a certain degree size does matter in agents. Most authors want to be represented by an agent with perceived heft and there is undoubtedly a negotiating advantage to having a number of bestselling authors in one’s stable. However, other more traditional economies of scale are less apparent.

So what’s actually going on here – is this really a trend? One clue to that may be in another Bookseller article this week about Tom Weldon’s vision for the year ahead and the need for Penguin to be “making the most of IP” and emphasising the need for 360 degree publishing.

When Jonny Geller, MD of Curtis Brown’s books division was named the 2012 Literary Agent of the Year at the Bookseller Industry Awards last year the judges praised his “360 degree” approach to agenting.

See where I’m going with this?

Publishers have long taken the view that agents are parasites contributing nothing to the publishing ecosystem – and they might have a point were it not for the fact that every single time I have ever seen a contract signed by an author without an agent it has without exception been awful.

Agents, pretty obviously, have never questioned the existence of publishers – their parentage sometimes, but not the fact of their existence. But that is changing – it is now possible to ask the question, what are publishers for? How much do they contribute?

Publishers do offer a considerable amount of value of course but do they offer enough value to justify an author giving up 90% of revenue? It is becoming increasingly hard to make that case in all instances – I never expected to have to sell the very idea of having a publisher to authors.

The access to the market that they once controlled is largely gone – and with it their ability to make stars so that increasingly they are reliant on an author’s ‘platform’ to sell books.

The talk about 360 degree publishing and agenting is fascinating - not least because it raises the question of whether the two can coexist - certainly it summons the uneasy image of authors being encircled by both agents and publishers. Not only does that not seem possible but can either publishers or agents really close the circle?

There is a clear conflict of interest for publishers – at the centre of that 360 degree wheel are authors – the creators of the IP, but publishers, for all their expertise, are beholden to their shareholders and that inevitably will conflict with the needs of authors.

Agents are (in theory) solely there to serve the needs of their clients. But, the only way they can complete the circle is by moving ever more into the publishing space. Will we see the Curtis Brown or Unitied Artists colophon on the spines of their stellar authors in the coming years? The traditional logistical barriers to that are fast disappearing.

The principle barrier is that it would involve going to war with their customers - the publishers, but if that is what they need to do in order to look after the needs of their most valued clients then how much choice do they have.

One thing is for sure, if you are going to go to war then you want to do so from as stong a position as possible.