Agents, advances and the “long tail” going negative

Mike Shatzkin has an excellent piece today on the evolving role of agents in publishing. His notion of the writer and agent as business partners is important to keep in mind as authors seek the help of an agent. Business tends to be focused on the short term, quarterly results; in publishing, the advance has been the focus on the agent’s efforts, since most books never earn back that advance and it represents the only opportunity for the agent to share in revenue. That needs to change in the midst of a radical realignment of the industry. Long-term partnerships with adequate rewards for everyone involved will have the time and energy needed to solve new publishing challenges.

I’ve never used an agent and am fairly satisfied with the result, because I have not seen much creativity in deal structure in comparison to the agreements I’ve made with publishers. As long as an author is willing to pay attention to the details of a contract, up to date on the current standard for a deal in the market, and uses a lawyer to review the contract, I think the agent can be a wasted expense. However, if an agent can find creative ways to multiply revenue streams and increase the author’s share, they can be invaluable.

The alternative, of course, is to self-publish, about which Shatzkin makes an interesting observation:

But in addition to shrinking, publishing advances are taking on much more of a power law configuration, with concentration at the top and a long tail of books getting less and less (and extended by mushrooming self-publishing where the “advance” is actually negative; it’s a cost!)

The “long tail” of book publishing used to end closer to the base of the X axis of a graph and north of the $0 line (fewer authors made a minimum of positive revenue). Now, it goes on twice as far and dips well below positive revenue, with authors spending their own money to start sales of their books. Too often, when authors follow Chris Anderson’s “long tail” thinking, they envision a positive contribution to their bank accounts no matter where they fall on the power curve. The reality is that nothing is free, as Malcolm Gladwell explains in a devastating critique of Anderson’s new book, “Free,” in the latest issue of The New Yorker. How to exploit “free” transactions to drive real revenue is the problem Anderson misses and Gladwell dismisses.

For many authors today, the “advance” is their investment in the book. If they fail to embrace that investment with the support of marketing and sales efforts it deserves, they are simply throwing their money away.