I first started probing the question of new business models for agents two years ago when I was organizing the first Digital Book World conference. I had been asked by F+W Media to create a program that would be (in their words) “more practical” than they found Tools of Change to be. I was in partnership with O’Reilly at that time working on a “StartWithXML” show to take place in London. I wasn’t really looking for a reason to compete with them; we were collaborators.
But as I thought about what they did (which I like) and what I might do, I realized that our approaches would be different and our shows would be different. In my mind, the clearest delineation of the difference was that I put agents squarely into the middle of our show planning. This move is a bit counterintuitive in the conference business since agents have never been big ticket-buyers for the industry’s digital education events. But I thought then — and events have subsequently confirmed — that agents were key actors in the digital transition. You can explore the tech challenges of digital change without them, but you can’t really think about the changing economics of trade publishing without bringing them into the conversation.
What seemed logical then — also confirmed by subsequent events — is that agents might become ebook publishers. This had actually happened a decade before, when agent Richard Curtis set up his E-Reads business at a time when most publishers just wouldn’t do ebooks for most titles, if at all. Richard had run into political problems with the agents’ association (AAR) which I believe he headed at the time. They have a code of ethics which could be interpreted to prohibit an agent-publisher such as he had become. In fact, I was a bit surprised (but definitely sensitized and enlightened) when a good friend of mine who is a successful and highly ethical agent told me she couldn’t possibly participate in a conversation that might be seen to endorse the idea of agents becoming publishers.
We put together a panel on “new models” for agents at DBW 2010. We repeated it last year (even though there’s a natural reluctance to repeat things year to year), and we surely are going to include the topic at DBW 2012 next January.
And that brings us to what is going to happen in London on June 21.
We have four prominent agents speaking on different panels on the program. At least three of them are likely to renew the conversation about whether an agent can become a publisher and still be a credible representative for an author.
One of the panels I’m most looking forward to on that day is called “An Emerging Opportunity: Selling into the US”. Charlie Campbell, an agent at Ed Victor Ltd., will participate on that one. We wanted Charlie on the panel based on a conversation we had with him a few months ago about the possibilities he saw for his office’s clients to capture sales in the US through ebooks. When Victor’s office announced the creation of a new publishing operation to handle their own authors’ books, our interest heightened. So Charlie will be explaining how that publishing operation will work and how it benefits the authors in their stable within the context of capturing US sales from a UK or Ireland base. His fellow panelists will be publishers.
Our last panel of the day has Michael Cader and me interviewing four leading luminaries of UK publishing. Three of them are publishers, but the fourth is the agent Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown. Curtis Brown is frequently rumored to be about to start an operation similar to what Victor has announced. (In the US, by the way, agent Scott Waxman — a member of the DBW Conference Council and one of the original participants in our conversations about this — has created a publishing adjunct to his business called Diversion.) Our focus in that panel was not intended to be on the ethics of agents starting publishing companies, but now I think the topic is likely to arise.
Why? Because a third agent on the program that day, Peter Cox of Redhammer, has placed it front and center with a post he published yesterday called “Your Agent Should Not Be Your Publisher”. Peter is on a panel about “Innovation in Marketing and Business Practice.” He caught our attention because he’s been training his authors in digital marketing for years and because he told us he was thinking that the agent’s model had to change to handle fewer clients for a higher-than-standard percentage of the revenue. We didn’t ask Peter at the time how he felt about agents becoming publishers.
It turns out he is very firmly against it and is very clear and articulate about why he thinks that. The moderator of that panel is Richard Mollet of the Publishers Association. I’m sure his membership will very much want him to invite Cox to expand on his ideas. Cox’s panel takes place after Campbell’s but before Geller’s. The juxtaposition of the commentary across the panels will probably be of great interest to the audience and should make for some very interesting tweeting. Maybe we’ll need a special hashtag just for #agentsaspubs!
It was the fourth agent on the program that we thought was going to have the trickiest assignment. David Miller of Rogers, Coleridge and White Ltd. will be discussing “Territorial Rights and Open Markets” with Richard Charkin and Toby Mundy. Since the future of both practices depends very largely on what agents will agree to as the publishing landscape changes, I had thought David had the most politically challenging conversation of the group. It turns out that he’s excused from what will certainly be one of the most controversial aspects of the day’s discussions, although in our very open format, everybody’s free to say pretty much what they want. Perhaps Philip Jones, the moderator of that panel, will want to touch on this question with his panel as well.
It might be that at Publishers Launch Frankfurt we’ll stage this more directly as a debate (but that’s a crowded program and it might be hard to fit it in). You can bet it will be aired thoroughly at Digital Book World next January. And you can be pretty damn sure we’ll be generating some news on this topic (and others too, I’m sure) out of “A Global View of Digital Change”. If you’re in (London) town on June 21, you ought to be there.