Changing Role of Literary Agents


In the article Literary Agents: heroes no more?Bonie Santos introduces John Saddler’s class about the role of literary agents, and how this role has changed over the course of publishing history. She lists six major responsibilities of a literary agent, including bridging between authors and publishers, advising authors, and handling issues related to marketing and rights.

Various roles were introduced into the publishing chain from the early 17th century to the late 19th century, as illustrated in the picture above. Today, the necessity of literary agencies are challenged by the emerging e-book market, which makes their role less profitable, and by the digital technology that allows authors to directly reach their readers through self-promoting on social media. There have been concerns about the loss of status of literary agent, which may potentially put authors in disadvantage during negotiation with publishers; Jason Allen Ashlock urges fellow literary agents to “retain their heroic role, which is to protect authors”. However, this concern seems much less relevant if the authors take an alternative approach — self-publishing. I believe that in digital era, where there is challenge, there is opportunity, as indicated in the Chinese phrase for “challenge” (危機/危机, wei1 ji1). As for literary agents, they may wish to seek a brighter future in honing on their consultancy and networking services rather than simply acting as a representative during the author/publisher negotiation.

Image Credit: Kingston Publishing/MA Publishing team at Kingston University


11 thoughts on “Changing Role of Literary Agents”

  1. As an author, I still feel that agents have a place in the process. Especially if you’re new to publishing, it’s nice to have someone protect your rights and your work. Also, doesn’t it make your manuscript look better if someone is willing to tie their good name to it? They can’t necessarily hurt your crusade to get published.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Diversification of roles is a sign of increasingly complex social structures. I don’t think we will see the end of literary agents, but roles will change and editors, proof readers, beat readers, social marketers etc. will probably be added in between author and reader. An author can publish an ebook, but does it mean anything if no one reads it?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Great insight, sir. Of course an author can say “I’m writing for art”, but when it comes to publishing, it’s a business enterprise, and readership/sales matter a great deal. I believe that literary agent and publisher still play a vital part in this industry, and their roles will not vanish despite of the rise of e-publishing. What I am curious about now is how the role of literary agent will change, and where the shift of focus will happen……


  3. Seems that when the “big” publishing houses controlled the book market, an author had to face squads of lawyers and layers of corporate gobbily goop. An agent was probably a good idea then. Now with just a few “clicks” anyone can buy a book without even putting on shoes and socks. Authors, talented or not, can publish their own work and market it on the same home computer they used to draft the manuscript. I guess there might be a place in there somewhere for an agent to earn their 15%.

    Liked by 2 people

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