Rarely a week goes by without a PW or Publishers Lunch announcement of a newly formed, merged or expanded literary agency. Larry Kirshbaum‘s well-publicized move from TWBG to form LJK Literary Management last fall drew attention to publishers-turned-agents, and both Gawker and MediaBistro consistently blog about who’s merging with whom to spawn the newest so-called superagencies. With this growth, more and more agents are enhancing their array of services and advice, even outlining (and occasionally undertaking) publicity, marketing, and branding campaigns. (In further expansion, several agencies noted that they’re interested in acquiring other agencies and their backlists.)
“As the business of publishing has changed, the role of an agent has changed with it,” David Black said. “But it has always been the agents’ business to manage their clients’ careers.”
The only difference is that recently agents – and their authors – have pushed the definition of what career management entails.
Marketeers Cum Agents, Agents Cum Marketeers
Ex HC‘s Cathy Hemming & Stephen Hanselman of Level Five Media have been in business less than 6 months, and already have 36 clients signed up – an impressive number that includes Michael [E-Myth] Gerber, Louisa Ermelino and Charles Kimball. When the agency started, the duo announced that they were planning to create a company that would close the gap between agent and publisher by offering “holistic author services.” The reaction from agents, says an amused Hanselman, was that Level 5 would show publishers how to publish more effectively, while some publishers said their approach would show agents how to understand the agenting process better.
Most clients signed up by Hemming and Hanselman are nonfiction authors who have a platform of some kind, as well as extensive networks to draw on for e-marketing, seminars, even affinity deals.
“There’s a new kind of author-client that is personality driven, a brand,” Kathleen Spinelli of Brands to Books said. “The idea of ‘management’ is not only looking at their track record in books, but also looking and managing their entire brand.” Spinelli, who founded Brands to Books with Robert Allen in early 2004, was previously VP Marketing at Ballantine, while Allen was Publisher of RH Audio.
Like Level 5, Spinelli spoke extensively about the necessity of platform building. “For me, it’s more important to go to a licensing show than a writer’s conference,” she said. “I need my clients to be thinking about what they can do to sell their book from the second they walk through the door. When I shop books, I put an entire marketing plan into the proposal. Publishers love it.” Some of Spinelli’s recent deals include designer Temple St. Clair‘s A Passion for Jewelry to ReganBooks, and the magazine branded TV Guide: TV on DVD to St. Martin’s Press.
Hemming and Hanselman work directly on the development of most authors’ proposals and marketing plans as well, and Hanselman’s wife, Julia Serebrinsky (formerly at Ecco), is also working for the agency. Before a book is submitted, the author is interviewed extensively about his or her work and third party providers of e-marketing, website development and other services are lined up, with as many as seven drafts being written. By the time a proposal is ready to be submitted, a full marketing plan – much of which will be undertaken by the author – is in place. Although all the major houses are seeing most submissions, the agents are also interested in publishers with unusual marketing programs, like Hay House, Adams Media and New Harbinger.
At Trident Media Group, agents involve themselves with everything from marketing to cover design and branding. Chairman Robert Gottlieb gave Janet Evanovich‘s latest book Eleven on Top as an example of author branding that was undertaken by publisher St. Martin’s, but guided and advised by Trident. “Twenty-five years ago, very few agents spoke about jacket design or marketing,” Gottlieb said. Today, he added, the majority of agents are involved in the entire, extended publishing process, and if they aren’t, they should be. Trident will move an author from one publisher if they see a greater commitment to selling, branding and promoting a book at another. Gottlieb gave the example of Elizabeth George who they moved from Bantam to HarperCollins, with a subsequent 60,000 copy increase for her latest book With No One As Witness. “There isn’t a marketing and/or sales program that we haven’t seen,” Gottlieb said. “We’re helping to shape a publisher’s marketing program, but the publishers have to be on board – at the end of the day the publisher plays a crucial role.”
Amy Berkower, President and CEO of Writer’s House, made the point that one of the reasons Writer’s House hasn’t moved into branding and franchise publishing as much as some of the newer agencies, is that they just haven’t dealt with the kinds of “very specific commercial non-fiction” that warrants such a plan of attack (high-profile business, cookbooks, self-help, etc.). Berkower, who referred to herself jokingly as a “backseat publisher” said that for an agent to come to a publisher with a marketing proposal is interesting, but in the end the publisher is the publisher and the one making the decisions.
Kirshbaum agrees. The major trend he sees as a newcomer to the agenting side of the biz is that good agents are taking a much more active role in the whole publishing process. “The publisher and agent should work together in managing the author as a team so that there is better execution and better results for all concerned,” he said.
According to Jeremy Katz, who left Rodale last year to become an agent at Greenburger, agenting allows someone interested in the editorial and business sides of publishing to get a full expression of his skills. “I didn’t leave publishing out of frustration, but rather out of the realization that the only way to make the author break out was to join with him or her in an entrepreneurial partnership, rather than relying on the publisher to grant success as a beneficence,” he said.
On the publishing side, Tim Duggan, Executive Editor HarperCollins, hasn’t seen any difference in the way agencies are doing business during the acquisition or marketing/publishing process, but he says, “if [growth] means that agents are going to have more time and more resources to focus on the marketing and publishing of their books, and to work with us on that, then I would welcome it. Once the deal is done and the book is being readied for publication, I think the agent’s goals are pretty closely attached to the editor’s, so there’s no reason why we can’t work together even more closely.”
In order to protect their interests says Andre Bernard, Publisher of Harcourt trade, agents are more and more involved with their authors’ publishing process. As publishers grow through conglomeratization, books get lost in the shuffle and, says Bernard, agents’ efforts are increasingly welcomed.
Verlyn Klinkenborg, a writer on the editorial board at the NY Times and most recently the author of Timothy: Notes of an Abject Reptile (Knopf) said, “When my first book came out in 1986, and the second in 1991, there was no gap between the publicity that a publisher would undertake and the publicity that an author needed to do. When Making Hay was excerpted in the Smithsonian and the New Yorker I thought, great, there’s nothing more to do.” In talking to other writers and artists, Klinkenborg says all now realize that marketing and promotion are a large part of their job in a way that didn’t use to be true – mainly because there are so many new media and marketing channels. “Today, publishers have stuck with old models to a huge extent,” Klinkenborg said. “But there’s this sense of a completely inchoate media universe that is waiting to be explored.”
Folio Literary Management, one of the newest “superagencies” opening shop on February 1 (see below), notes that the marketing conundrum is one that every author faces, but there aren’t many agents or authors who are entirely happy with what their publishers have done for them on the marketing and publicity side. “This isn’t a criticism of publishers,” Scott Hoffman, principal and spokesman for the agency, said, “it’s instead a reflection of two things: First, resources are limited. Houses are publishing more and more books with the same number of people, and so the proportional amount of time spent on each author is going to necessarily become less. Second, and more importantly, the current model where publishing houses are responsible for the lion’s share of marketing and publicity isn’t entirely rational. Increasingly, we see the task of marketing fall more and more on the authors’ shoulders – which is reasonable, since the author is the brand. And the building of a brand pays dividends for a long time – longer than any author or publisher would feel comfortable being in a contractual relationship.”
“With the explosion of new media and digital life, I think what we’re seeing is an opportunity to really, really do exciting things with authors,” Inkwell’s Richard Pine said. “It’s the obligation of agents to be out there and learning what’s going on.”
Nancy Cushing-Jones, the head of Universal‘s publishing division for 23 years prior to forming Broadthink with two partners in 2002, said that she likes to look at the whole world that an intellectual property will support – books becoming movies, TV shows, products – an overarching brand. “Newer agencies especially are more focused on this way of looking at things,” she said. “It’s a different kind of expertise that requires a very specialized background.” Broadthink’s clients range from John Lithgow to the City of Los Angeles.
Merging, Converging and Growth in General
When Richard Pine Associates, Carlisle & Co., and Witherspoon Associates merged to form Inkwell Management in the fall of 2004, the industry shared a collective epiphanic moment, not unlike when Sterling Lord merged with Literistic. “It was really pretty unusual when I look back on it,” Pine said, reflecting on the fact that there wasn’t any model they were following, “Just three well established firms pulling this off to form one great one.”
Pine said that the impetus behind joining forces with Kim Witherspoon and Michael Carlisle was to build a more substantive entity. “Great agencies help a client truly understand their unique talents, goals – which ideas are their best, most marketable ideas, which afford the greatest opportunity to long term success,” he said. “With such a big vision, you just can’t do the same thing for your clients sitting in an office with two assistants.”
All combined, Inkwell’s pool of talent includes authors like James Patterson, Arianna Huffington, South Beach Diet‘s Arthur Agatston, Sophie Kinsella, Arundhati Roy and books like Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves.
Standard services now include outlining publicity, promotional and advertising campaigns, licensing intellectual property, and building brand names. Since its inception, Inkwell has brought in a few new hires, but the “core” for the most part, consists of agents brought over from the old agencies. But, in an innovative move, Inkwell hired Beth Davey, Little Brown‘s former VP Director of Corporate Communications, as a publicity strategist to work with publishers. An additional coup for the agency, Larry Ashmead, retired editor par excellence at HarperCollins, recently began working at Inkwell as an associate agent. Ashmead works out of the Inkwell offices part-time and is closing in on his first acquisition. “For every 15 minutes I spend with Larry,” Pine said, “I learn 15 things about publishing.”
At Trident, the development into superagent-dom has happened gradually over the past five years. Founded by William Morris veterans Robert Gottlieb, Dan Strone and Sheldon Schultz the company has expanded since its inception in 2000 both by absorbing agencies (in 2002, the Ellen Levine Literary Agency merged with Trident in what they called a “partnership deal”) and adding individual literary agents (Paul Fedorko joined in June 2003, and Eileen Cope came over from Lowenstein-Yost in June 2005). Business is booming – in the past year Trident scored with successes such as Jon Stewart‘s America: The Book and Marilynne Robinson‘s Gilead – and the agency reps everyone from Michael Ondaatje to celebrity brand Paris Hilton.
“We’re in active expansion mode,” Strone said of the staff that has ballooned to 34 from 7, noting that there are still a number of empty offices waiting to be filled. Consistently contacted by editors wanting to make the switch as well as agents who are looking to expand by joining forces, Strone said that they’re open to hiring individuals from both the agenting and publishing sides of the business, as well as possibly absorbing a smaller agency and will definitely make some hires within the year.
At Writer’s House which has been expanding organically for quite some time – most recently promoting Daniel Lazar to senior agent – Berkower mentioned that although she couldn’t go into details yet, they’re in the process of bringing in agents from the outside. “Our strategy now is to improve our core services,” she said. “We’ve added a person to our foreign rights department, hired a lawyer to supervise our contracts process, and hired a CFO to review royalty statements.” In addition to audio, the agency is in the process of beefing up their film and TV department as well.
Start-up Folio came together through the merger of Jeff Kleinman, Scott Hoffman and Paige Wheeler, the trio describe Folio’s genesis as “one of those fortunate coincidences that people talk about, but rarely experience.” Kleinman and Hoffman were each looking to leave the agencies at which they had started their careers – (Graybill & English, and PMA Literary and Film Management respectively) – and Wheeler, who was running the Creative Media Agency, was looking to expand her business and diversify into different subject areas.
“We all had a common vision of what an agency should look like,” Hoffman said. Hoffman and Kleinman both noted that they’ve set up Folio in part as a reaction to their experiences while looking elsewhere. “There was no agency that made a compelling case why we should go there, rather than to another reputable shop,” Hoffman said. “Folio tends to be much more collaborative than a lot of other agencies…we really stress the team concept, down to sharing a significant portion of the agency’s profits with all of our people. In short, when people have developed their lists and are getting restless at their first or second agency, we want to be the first place they think of moving to.
“We think that a lot of other agencies under-incentivize their employees, which is short-sighted. Are there exceptions to the rule? Of course. But the ‘standard’ deal most agencies offer doesn’t make much sense once an agent has a practice that could, conceivably, stand on its own.”
Virtually all of Kleinman, Hoffman, and Wheeler’s old clients will be joining them at Folio, including recent bestselling authors Ron McLarty (The Memory of Running) and Robert Hicks (The Widow of the South).
In the end, merging isn’t for everyone, but as Ellen Levine said of her move to Trident, “The economy of two agencies coming together just makes sense.”
Hoffman agreed, “As a solo practitioner, the only person you really have to compromise with is your accountant. But with the right combination of people, a larger agency can be more than just a shared back office and shared overhead – it can make you look at the world much differently than you have before and open up more opportunities.”