The specific question at a late day panel on the Tuesday of the London Book Fair was not about whether literary agents matter, but about their future. Hosted in the LBF AuthorLounge curated by Authoright, and filled with a crowd of what looked to be predominantly self-published authors, panelist-agents Andrew Lownie (who has an eponymous firm), and Hellie Ogden (who just joined Janklow & Nesbit in the U.K.) discussed what they see as the new role of today's book agents.
Lownie, who began his career as a bookseller before becoming an agent and running Curtis Brown for a number of years, launched his own agency in 1998. Lownie's list is predominantly nonfiction and, recently, he launched an imprint at the agency called Thistle (which is similar to self-publishing units at a variety of U.S. agencies). The imprint, he said, can be used to publish books "quickly" and also a place to publish out-of-print backlist books by his authors. Given, Lownie said, that publishers have become "more cautious than ever" about taking on projects, agents need to be able to look at projects and be able to take them to market in a different route. While he recognized that it is harder than it's ever been for agents to sell a book, he thinks digital publishing "has opened up huge opportunity."
Ogden, who worked in the foreign rights department at Penguin before becoming an agent, concurred. She largely represents commercial fiction and spoke about how now, more than ever, many authors need guidance in how to handle their entire catalog of work. She said that Janklow is very focused on paying attention to its authors' backlists, as well as being evangelists for its authors' frontlist titles. As publishers do less and less in the way of marketing and publicity for titles, Ogden said it now falls to agents to be the ones to "keep on them" about the books they are publishing. It's agents now, she said, who often need to think about innovative marketing plans, and ways to break out a book.
Lownie also said agents have become more important, on some level, because there are now more rights available and contracts have become more complex. With digital publishing creating a host of new available rights, Lownie sees agents working as authors' "copyright protectors," as much as someone who can help them because of their overall knowledge of the book market. In this way, Lownie noted, literary agents have become more like, "sports agents or celebrity managers," in so far as they now need to look after their author's entire career.
So why do authors even need a publisher, if their agent can now publish for them? Lownie put it bluntly when he said that only a publisher can "get books into the supermarket." (In London, with the dissolution of many of the bookstores, the supermarket is one of the most important outlets for selling books.) To the end, Lownie said that while many authors can (and have) found success self-publishing, he thinks they will continue to need to seek out a traditional deal to "move to the next level." As examples of this, Lownie cited authors like E.L. James and Amanda Hocking, who both struck traditional print deals, after finding success self-publishing.
After moderator Gareth Howard, CEO of Authoright asked about whether the tough market would cause more agencies to merge, both Lownie and Ogden said that they think more mergers are on the horison. (In the U.K., agencies Conville & Walsh and Curtis Brown recently merged.) They also feel that everyone working in this business--authors, agents and publishers--will need to continue to become more innovative to survive. Nonetheless, certain realities of this business remain. As Lownie put, publishing it still "all about timing and luck."