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14 March
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Could we talk about e-agents?

I saw a really strange and sort of interesting panel at SXSWi called “Publishing Models Transforming the Book.” Rachel Deahl, who writes mostly about breaking deals at Publishers Weekly, which is I think the most widely read and consulted of publishing industry information and news, and certainly was in the print days, moderated the conversation between Molly Barton, Penguin’s digital director (and founder of Book Country, mentioned in the DBW article we read this week), Jefferson Raab (The Atavist), Brian Altounian (WOWIO) and Swanna MacNair (an intellectual property agent who worked on that iPad short film about books…). Here’s a pretty bad picture, but the only one I took:

Swanna MacNair was by far the most interesting and exciting person in the room, as far as I was concerned. She is a former literary agent who then worked in the film industry for a decade before returning to New York to work with intellectual property as a consultant. Her company is Creative Conduit. She is not interested in having exclusive relationships or having to call herself a literary agent (married to book publishers), but she is eager to take advantage of the cross-platform capacities of ideas and the ways an author might represent them in different media, and facilitating partnerships between people and content packagers and distributors. Connecting the written text to the app to the video. And she is very clear on the fact that sometimes we can’t charge, and others we can charge a lot. It’s this kind of nimble attitude that I think we need much more of. Especially if we want to be able to get back to talking about the content, and to stop talking about how to see it best.

I think our reading this week made the nice and important case that we probably won’t lose the old technologies, but we have to keep working on the new. And new technologies and delivery mechanisms will continue to proliferate.

How to do this? How to engage multiple industries and connect them to talent and brilliant authorship? She did emphasize the success and skill of the author are key to her and to her high powered content providing clients, like Universal Pictures or Houghton Mifflin or… any other entity clever enough to work with her. But aside from picking projects she foresees will be successful, and making connections between sympathetic entities and creators, what else does she have to do?

An awareness of the legal limitations and requirements of such negotiations is essential, as she’s responsible for contracts. A social factor, or at least awareness of social factors, are also key. And persistence, stubbornness, record-keeping. An ear to the ground. Predicting what editors will want, knowing taste, estimating what they will be able to do and how much control they have.

I think it’s quite important to start to think about how the literary agent must evolve, because it seems to me they will be key, the glue that binds across platforms.

It’s important, as literary agents seem to me to be slacking far behind (see, for example, the website for the association of accredited agents), to acknowledge that we have never just relied on publishers to create books that have been written by authors. Just as we have needed distributors and booksellers to get books to customers, agents have been important to the publishing industry for more than a century, especially in the United States and England and, I think, Spain, but also increasingly in France.

They fight for manuscripts and for writers’ rights. No ads in a book, fair royalties, higher advances, bonus remuneration when a book does really well. They keep track of paperwork, contracts, royalty statements. They’re the ones that had the most work when the first Google Book Registry settlement was handed down–contracts for orphaned books and books of deceased writers are often protected in their old filing cabinets.

Ok, so this was my job and I think it was a really great way to spend a few years, which is probably why I’m trying to glam it up. But how to move forward? I think agents have to be inventors, too. More independent agents will have to work together across industries (gigantic agencies like CAA already do this but I don’t think they’re as creative or exciting). And they will have to see beyond content needs and demands to material/media needs and demands. Not just one book or writer as a package, but to envision what packages, or intellectual property, we want or can use. But we need agents that aren’t just trying to create best sellers and Hollywood blockbusters. We need people for indie short films and novellas. I can’t stand too many more terrible book trailers.

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