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The Evolution of the Literary Agent

As publishing models change, so must the agent-author relationship. So what should you be prepared for? Some of the industry’s most innovative reps speak out. Compiled by Jane Friedman

THE ROUND TABLE Richard Curtis, Richard Curtis Associates,
Founded in the 1970s, Richard Curtis Associates reports more than $8 million in annual sales for its authors. In 1999, Curtis’ interest in emerging media and technology led him to start E-Reads, now a leading e-book publisher. Wendy Keller, Keller Media,
Since its founding in 1989, Keller Media has sold more than 1,000 rights deals worldwide. In addition to traditional literary representation, the company offers services to authors and speakers to improve their skills and build their marketing platforms. Scott Waxman, Waxman Literary Agency, Waxman founded the Waxman Literary Agency in 1997 and has represented numerous New York Times bestsellers. Earlier this year, he launched Diversion Books, a publisher of e-book originals. Paige Wheeler, Folio Literary Management,
An agent since 1997, Wheeler became a founding partner of Folio Literary Management in 2006. She sells both domestic and foreign rights, as well as offers the services of a marketing department, a licensing arm and a speakers bureau.

Given the magnitude of change underway in book publishing, the evolving role of the literary agent is a hot topic in industry circles. Agents have become editors as well as marketing coaches for their authors, and are likely to invest far more time in making those final sales than ever before—and possibly for lower advances.

Can publishers’ royalties and sales continue to support the agency business model? Is it allowable for an agent to find other ways to make money from clients, aside from selling books to publishers?

Some innovative agencies are now pursuing alternative ways of serving authors. In this roundtable, we ask four of these forward-thinking agents how they see their business changing, and what writers can expect from the agent-author relationship in the future.

Advances are shrinking, and there are reportedly fewer traditional deals to go around. How has this affected your business?

Wendy Keller: It’s horribly true that advances are down and so are the number of books publishers are buying. Dramatically. In the long run, this is a good thing because we’ll return to publishing fewer, higher-quality books, in whatever format in which they are released. In the short run, it’s a great wake-up call for all would-be authors and agents, and even self-published authors. Now we all must concede that great content plus fabulous, stupendous, inspired, wonderful marketing work together to increase the chance of any one title becoming successful in the tsunami of words being published annually.

Paige Wheeler: Personally, I haven’t found [advances] shrinking, but for the midlist author, they certainly aren’t growing. I think publishers are being more selective, and their offers are more in line with their enthusiasm for a project. That stated, I find I’ve had to explain to my midlist authors to prepare for a decrease in advances for subsequent books if the first few books didn’t make a huge splash. We’re working harder to grow these authors and develop bigger book ideas.

Richard Curtis: I’m blessed to represent a core group of successful authors whose advances have held steady or even increased. We also handle many genre books that traditionally are more resistant to downward pressure than “softer” kinds of literature, such as general fiction. Where we definitely feel the “shrink” is in the resistance to new authors. The wall is far higher than we’ve ever seen it, and sadly that means we must turn more newcomers away than we want to.

Scott Waxman: It has made us more selective on what we will submit to publishers. It’s also one of the reasons we started Diversion Books, an e-publishing imprint. Through Diversion, we can publish some of these books and therefore offer authors a new alternative. Instead of relying entirely on the big houses, authors now have a real opportunity to pursue a different road, one which gives them more control over their book as well.

Given the volume of agents today, it doesn’t seem likely they can all continue to make a living under the traditional commission-based model. What do you anticipate will happen?

Curtis: It is absolutely true. There are too many agents for not enough business. What will happen? There are many scenarios, most of them grim. Here, with apologies to Darwin, are some: 1) The unfit agents will not survive; 2) Mergers and acquisitions among agents will thin the herd and a smaller number of super-agencies will evolve; 3) The old breed of agents will have to learn new skills to keep up; 4) The “commission basis” you refer to will transform into something closer to the Hollywood model, in which the talent pays managers to handle such business as public relations, website management and contract negotiation. Such an agent-manager might even be called upon by a client to help the client self-publish a book.

Keller: Many of us “old timers” saw this change coming at least five to 10 years ago and made adaptations. We certainly did. I told a rowdy gang of agents at the Maui Writers Conference nine years ago that in 10 years we’ll be out of business or substantially different. A heated discussion ensued. Only a handful of agents agreed with my prognostication, but here we are, and faster than I predicted.

For example, my agency has been working since 1991 to not only sell books, but also train people to become paid professional speakers and to become the type of self-promoting, marketing-savvy authors whose books actually sell. Most important, we teach authors how to test their content before it is turned into a book, so that all possible risks are reduced in advance.

Authors must recognize now that the primary value of their content may not be in selling the book per se. There are many rights within any piece of content, and the book may or may not be the most valuable. Agents must adapt to recognize, nurture and grow people who have the drive, moxie and ability to become dynamic content marketers. All parties must stop being attached to two covers and a spine. Keller Media has always striven to stay on the cutting edge, forcing our authors to build websites or blogs long before most people knew what that meant. Now, we push them to do YouTube shorts, vlogs and sometimes iPhone apps. Unless you have and can hold onto an audience, you won’t sell a book, even if you somehow manage to get it published.

I’ve taken a lot of heat because I charge money to consult, train and develop [clients], like with our online training courses or private consulting. Of course, if an A-list author with a huge platform walks in our door, we don’t charge a dime. And there are still some first-time authors whose work [we] fall in love with, and my editorial director will develop their proposals with them at my expense.

Wheeler: I believe a number of people may decide to explore other options in the e-book and private press business. … In terms of a change to the commission-based fee model, there are a number of alternatives that could be explored, but whatever happens, I imagine there will be quite a bit of resistance—both from writers and agents.

What’s the most important change happening in publishing right now that’s impacting the future of the agent-author relationship?

Wheeler: The change in delivery mechanism is huge. Barriers of entry to publishing are down, and authors are able to make [their work] available to anyone with an Internet connection. It’s still a very small percentage of the business, but it’s growing. If this continues, the two biggest obstacles to success seem to be spectacular editorial content and the marketing capability to reach a vast audience. At Folio, we’ve been exploring opportunities [for] providing outside services (marketing, speakers services, licensing, apps) to really service [authors ’] needs.

Agents are intermediaries in a disintermediating world. Agents must provide far more services today than they ever did, or even imagined, a decade ago. If the definition of “Author” is blurring, then so must the definition of “Agent.” In the movie business, when you sit down at a meeting you’re asked, “What is your position?” The parties want to know: Are you a buyer, a seller or a hybrid? This question will eventually be asked when a literary agent attends a meeting.

Waxman: The emergence of e-publishing, for sure. Agents need to make sure they’re able to present their authors with more opportunities for distribution besides big print publishers. They need to understand the landscape and advise authors on their options. It’s a great opportunity for agents if they embrace it, and they don’t at their own peril.

Keller: The most important change is not the format in which books are being published. The most important change began with the fact that a million books published in 2009—and 774,000 or so of them self-published. That many “unsupervised” books will definitely tip the ship in the reader’s favor. When all the people who have written and self-published books that don’t sell—and when all the junky books publishers have thrown against the wall using the old “see if it sticks” model have been exhausted—then there will emerge from this desolate landscape a new breed of books that are excellent, well-thought-out, well-formulated, actually useful to the reader (inform, educate, inspire or entertain). In other words, the pendulum will have completed its full swing, back to quality over quantity. Like publishing was before any of us were born, when the last American “classics” were published. There’s just no bleedin’ way for the marketplace of readers to absorb 1 million titles annually. Things must change and I am part of that change, as are you, the hopeful author who is reading these words right now. Quality over quantity is what will emerge from this debacle. But for now, the best, brightest marketers will win the skirmishes.

Wendy, you’re involved in traditional agenting as well as fee-based consulting. What’s the fastest-growing area of Keller Media?

Keller: Our fastest-growing segment is people who come to me for private consulting, actually. I didn’t expect that to be an outcome of this shift, but it is.

How do you help clients as part of your agent role, versus helping them on a fee basis? I imagine you need distinct boundaries between the different areas of your business.

Keller: I am so grateful for this question. It comes up a lot. When I take on a book from a first-time author, I don’t really do much until the proposal is ready for sale. I have a brilliant gem of an editorial director named Alex Schnitzler. … If I like an idea and believe I can sell it, I “interview” the author. If they have some awareness that all authors must market themselves these days, then I send them to Alex for a thorough working over of their proposal—at my expense.

When Alex and I think the proposal is as perfect as it will get, I sell the book. When I do, I call the author to give them the details of the deal and tell them how I’ll help them from here forward: 1) I will intervene if anything with the publisher isn’t going the way they’d like; 2) I give specific tips on writing a book—which is a lot different than writing a proposal; 3) I offer them a free scheduled one-hour call after they deliver the manuscript; and, I will spend an initial hour helping them prepare to market their book (and if they take immediate action on my advice, I’ll gladly give more at no charge!).

I’ve been known to spend more than 10 consulting hours with a client without charge, even one whose book sold only for a pittance, because I believed they would take my marketing advice and apply it to their goals. In the case of the author I’m thinking of, he quickly built a six-figure speaking/consulting practice directly from my advice and thanks me profusely every time we talk. The agency made only $1,500 commission, paid out 50-50 over 10 months, on his first book. I’m tough, but I care.

Richard, since 1999, you’ve been publishing and selling e-books through E-Reads, which is separate from your agency. What kind of growth have you seen?

Curtis: E-Reads’ revenue doubled last year and is on track to double again this year, paralleling the soaring growth of the e-book industry. That said, the ratio of E-Reads revenue to agency revenue is around the same as the e-book industry to the print book industry—a small fraction.

My agency, Richard Curtis Associates, and my publishing company, E-Reads, are two separate corporations, and though E-Reads publishes some Richard Curtis clients, we have built walls to prevent conflicts of interest. … As for originals, E-Reads has already published some and will publish more, but right now our strategy of publishing previously published, reverted books is working handsomely and will remain our core business model.

Scott, you just launched Diversion Books as a publisher of e-book originals. Tell us more about what it offers authors.

Waxman: We bring a strong combination of editorial experience combined with a knowledge of the e-publishing world. We’re putting a lot of energy into original books and thinking of ways to embrace an “e-book” as unique from a “book” in our packaging. For instance, we recently published a short book in time for the French Open in less than a week. Our contract is a profit-sharing model, with the author receiving 50 percent of net. We’ve grown our staff to include people in editorial and marketing, and will continue to do so to keep up with demand. The author has a great deal of control as well as responsibility to market their book, and we work very closely with them. I’d like to see the company be a great help to authors who are trying to make a living and become a force in this emerging industry.

What’s your advice to authors who might be thinking about publishing or distributing their work digitally through a service like Amazon DTP or Smashwords?

Waxman: In these cases, you really need to have a strong social network online to sell books. Otherwise, you’ll be drowned out by the masses.

Keller: If you know what you’re doing, are willing to hire any of the brilliant recently fired editors to help you edit the thing, and most of all if you have a cogent, smart, dynamic marketing plan, do it. Even self-publish, something I used to abhor. And if you don’t have your own personalized marketing plan and the enormous drive and focus to enact it, then don’t do it. It’s black or white. Save your money and time.

Curtis: There are better options.

Do you see any benefit for an author who is self-publishing to partner in some way with an agent, on a fee basis? Should agents be open to such deals? And if so, how would you remain involved in the outcome?

Wheeler: This is an excellent question [that] I feel is at the core of this Q&A. I’m not sure what the future holds for the role of the agent (or anyone in publishing, for that matter), but one reason I started Folio was to actively partner with authors to not only sell their book rights, but to oversee their intellectual property rights.

Keller: It doesn’t really matter anymore how a book is produced. The principles of smart marketing stay the same. The ideal time to get a content marketing expert like me involved, though, is before you self publish. It’s a lot more work to get an already-published book moving than it is to succeed with one that hasn’t been printed yet. Plus, the earlier you start, the better you can prepare the groundwork—the audience, the buyers, the media, the sales forces—for your release.

For many years, I’ve been secretly helping self-published authors sell ancillary and secondary rights (foreign, audio, film, other), and I’ve been helping people build marketing platforms, and coaching them to become paid speakers so they can sell more of their books to audiences.

Curtis: In the future, authors paying fees to agents for services will become commonplace. And if an author of mine wanted to self-publish, our agency would of course assist him or her. Here’s where our expertise in the digital world comes in handy. … I hope other agents will educate themselves as we’ve had to do so they can continue to be relevant—and to make money for authors!

How do authors need to change what they do now, or change their thinking, to succeed?

Keller: The important thing is that would-be authors finally stop imagining they will just find an agent, get a six-figure advance and then sit back and wait for Oprah’s producers to call. Ain’t gonna happen. Publishing takes work, smarts and dedication.

Wheeler: Authors need to realize that the publishing terrain is changing and that adaptability will be paramount to success. What defines adaptability may shift: editorial content, marketing savvy, financial consideration/fee structure, etc. However, I believe content will remain king, along with the ability to reach an audience.

Curtis: Authors must redefine themselves, embracing unfamiliar media, new skill sets, sophisticated technology, rapidly shifting industry trends, and new opportunities. Oh yes—they’ll need time to write good books.

Waxman: All authors need to find their audience on the Web and be able to communicate with them. They can’t just write for an intended audience, they [need] to know them and be connected to them.

Learn how to land a literary agent for your manuscript with:
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