Anthony Goff talks agents, authors and the e-publishing age
Some of the biggest worries facing literary agents relate to economic slowdown and the advance of digital publishing - e-books in particular.
This is according to the recently elected president of the Association of Authors’ Agents (AAA), Anthony Goff. The association exists to provide a forum for literary agents to discuss industry matters and represent agent interests as well as upholding best practice.
“The biggest challenge for agents in the coming years will probably be getting value for e-books,” he told the BookShed. “Publishers have the task of persuading consumers, who have come to expect to receive all information for free, to pay a reasonable sum for a product that looks as if it costs very little to produce. In fact, the production of a physical book represents only 10% of its total costs. Agents have to ensure that authors receive a fair slice of the digital cake. And, of course, there is piracy.”
In recent months, advances in self-publishing technology has seen a number of authors talking of ‘going it alone’- setting up their own punk publishing industry to bypass the big publishing houses. Anthony feels that this does not mean the agent’s role is redundant.
“Print-on-demand is not going to allow any authors to make a career out of writing. Publishers are there to sort the good from the bad (with rather a lot of help from agents), to market and sell books, and authors who want to make a living out of writing are still going to need them - and when you've got publishers, you also need agents. Of course agents also market their clients' work in lots of areas other than book publishing, such as film, TV and journalism. And they help to strategise their careers. They are usually their closest advisers. That's quite a substantial role.”
Aside from the big houses, there has been an explosion of smaller presses and some writers fear that agents might bypass these as viable places for their work, feeling the money to be made is too little for too much effort. Goff disagrees.
“There is no doubt that the caution of the big publishing houses is leaving gaps that the smaller publishers are filling. With their much lower overheads they are able to make a profit from books that simply wouldn't be viable for the conglomerates. The problem, from an author's point of view, is that they also pay small advances. There is plenty of evidence that being published by small presses can allow an author to build a reputation or win prizes, so an agent cannot afford to ignore this avenue. Good agents look to the long term so the small return on these deals should not put them off pursuing them.”
For all the reports of huge sums paid to celebrities to write books, for most authors, the days of huge advances and long lunches appear to be over. But there are deals to be made.
“It's certainly harder in a lot of cases to get good deals from publishers,’ Anthony notes. “People have held agents responsible for the large unearned advances that have hit publishers in recent years; but agents take advantage of a market, they don't create it. Now that the market has become so subdued, the balance has swung in favour of the publishers and it's harder to get good advances. But publishers need to understand that in order for writers to thrive and establish careers, they need to be properly paid.”
“The big publishers have invested much too much in celebrity titles in recent years and the return on that investment has been very patchy. The reason this matters is that as a result they've had less money to invest in proper books; and at Christmas their energy, and that of bookshops, has been taken up with publishing this stuff. It's using up too much of the oxygen and it's sad to see publishers sometimes looking like part of the PR industry.”
Despite seeing e-publishing as a big challenge, Goff admits some agents are still busy catching up with a fast-moving industry.
“Publishers have large departments dedicated to e-commerce and to building up expertise in this area and that's something that agencies don't have. Having said that most agents are making great efforts to keep up with the rapid changes and the AAA tries hard to provide as much information as possible to its members. All agents recognise that there are big opportunities for authors and you can't take advantage of them unless you understand what's going on.”
Again, some authors have talked of cutting out publishers when it comes to e-books, preferring to see the traditional print copies go one way and putting out their own electronic editions. It’s a trend that worries agents and publishers and one that Goff feels ought to worry writers.
“E-books need to be published, as opposed merely to be made available, just as much as physical books. Do we want a thriving publishing industry? Many people believe that e-books will represent as much as 50% of the market within ten years; if you try to take that away from publishers, they won't survive and nor will writers who want to make money out of their writing.”
On the subject of the recent battle between Amazon and Macmillan, Goff warns that everyone needs to take a long-term view.
“In an attempt to dominate the market Amazon have been selling e-books at a substantial loss but publishers and authors have been doing fine. However, this was never going to last and pretty soon the publishers'/authors' share was going to be cut drastically. In the short term the new agency model - where publishers set the price of their e-books and people like Amazon act more like distributors than retailers - brings in less money for publishers and authors but this model is sustainable and in the long term authors should benefit.”
As well as being President of the Association of Authors' Agents, Anthony Goff is Managing Director of David Higham Associates.