Transcript: A New Type of Literary Agent

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Interview With Jason Allen Ashlock
Movable Type Management

For podcast release Monday, March 11, 2013

KENNEALLY: Pitching and selling book projects to editors over lunch in Manhattan dining clubs. If that’s your picture of a literary agent’s life, it’s time for a makeover, a radical makeover, in fact. Hello, and welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. My name is Christopher Kenneally, host of Beyond the Book.

If you think about literary agents in terms fixed by Hollywood in its golden age, well, you’re forgiven. Literary agents have long occupied a place on the edge of publishing, essential somehow, yet rarely visible, and only vaguely defined. For a sharp picture of a 21st-century literary agent, we have to turn to a digital first advocate of what he calls radical mediating. Jason Allen Ashlock, welcome to Beyond the Book.

ASHLOCK: Glad to be with you, Chris. Thanks for having me.

KENNEALLY: We’re delighted you can join us today, because you gave a presentation just recently at Tools of Change talking about what you mean by radical mediating, and we’d like to walk you through all of that. But before we do, let’s tell people how you got to this point.

You were the co-founder and president of Movable Type Management, a literary management firm that fosters storytelling across platforms, devices, territories, and generations. Jason Allen Ashlock develops new books and digital properties with his company’s authors and media clients and oversees new initiatives such as Movable Type Lab and The Rogue Reader, an online bookseller for suspense fiction. Jason sits on the advisory board of a number of technology startups in the publishing space and teaches digital publishing at City University of New York City College.

Jason, I suppose this is about the position of the agent in the 21st century, and I guess we have to start with the obvious question, is the agent relevant any longer?

ASHLOCK: Chris, I get asked that question a lot given what I do for a living, and I think my answer continues to surprise people, and that is, no, at least not as the agent’s been traditionally defined, or at least not for very much longer.

As you so adequately expressed just a couple of moments ago, the agent’s role has always been a little amorphous and a little fluid, and that is to our advantage at this moment in publishing history. It’s time for us to think about our role less about overseeing a small sliver of the publishing value chain where we negotiate for the sale of rights to big media houses, and instead, think of ourselves as radical advocates for the author and their property, willing to partner with any possible advantageous ally that could get deserving work in front of the readers that are wanting it.

It used to be that the best path to do that was to license work to a big media company, but now there are so many other paths, and agents can’t be limited any longer by that little slot that they own, that little bit of real estate that they occupy between the publisher and the author in the old system.

KENNEALLY: For you, what does it mean by radical mediating across that supply chain? What are the kinds of roles you’re talking about that agents should be taking on?

ASHLOCK: Because the earth beneath our feet is shifting in publishing and everyone’s roles are being redefined and that easy, linear, very sort of static nature of the publishing value chain that moved a book from author to publisher to wholesaler to distributor to retailer and then finally to the end user, the consumer, that linear path is gone now. So authors and readers are finding each other in a multiplicity of ways, and work is being produced in multifarious forms.

So what we want to do is look at any given work and any given author and ask very honestly, without any of the residue or any of the baggage of the old model of doing business, and just simply ask, if no one else existed in the world other than the author and the reader, how would we best get this work to them? How would we best get the work in front of the people who wanted to find it, even if they didn’t know it existed? They’re sitting out there now and they want this book even thought they don’t even know it. How would we do that?

That involves oftentimes circumventing the big, traditional media players and the publishing houses by going direct to readers through digital first imprints like The Rogue Reader or going directly to readers through our clients and brands that have measureable brand footprints on the Web, whether through websites or blogs, where they actually have a direct-to-consumer relationship that publishers would be envious of.

We don’t need a big publisher to reach those readers. What we need is a technology partner. We need a delivery system for content. We need a retail component to be able to sell. And we can do all of that with players that are not necessarily attached to big publishing houses.

So sometimes, it’s about developing retail strategy, sometimes it’s about developing content delivery strategies, sometimes it’s about building new digital products that publishers aren’t even yet equipped to build. It can take a variety of different forms, but it all starts with what is the content, what is the story, and how would I get that to a reader.

KENNEALLY: Right. And it really sounds like the role is more of a publishing advisor or counselor, frankly, than simply being involved as an agent for a sale.

ASHLOCK: Yes. In effect, we shy away from the term agent, because it comes weighted with so much of that sort of predetermined, old-fashioned way of thinking about that tiny role that the agent used to play. So we talk about it in terms of management, in which we try to evoke a more expansive model where we’re not thinking about merely selling things. We’re thinking about building things. We’re thinking about servicing clients, not merely overseeing a sale of their rights.

So I do think the terminology is important, that agents begin to think of themselves not just as agents but as those that serve and manage the careers of authors. That’s multiple title, that’s thinking less about books as events and more about author careers as life spans, that will sometimes include books and sometimes include other digital and physical products. But we’re in it for the life of the author and for what the author can offer to its audience. We’re not in it merely to sell some widgets or sell some books.

KENNEALLY: Right. And convincing authors about this must take some work, because we’re at a moment in publishing when the label itself, it may be a label that also has gotten to be a bit behind the times. But self-publishing has allowed authors to feel sort of newly independent. How do you convince them of the real need for working with a management company like yours?

ASHLOCK: I find that any author who has experimented in doing any kind of self-publishing has come to understand the immense difficulty of dealing with all the many options available to them now. New technology tools for producing and for distributing and for marketing and for accounting of their work is incredibly overwhelming, and it’s difficult for them to know if they’re working with the right partner or if they’re doing anything right.

Many of them are brilliant at creating captivating stories or are gifted at coming up with life-affirming, life-changing ideas, but that doesn’t mean that they bring to the table the same suite of sort of business-minded thinking that they need to to be successful in a very entrepreneurial author environment.

So anybody I feel that I work with now that has had any experience in going it alone is desperate for a shepherd, is desperate for an ally, is desperate for a partner, and that’s how we position ourselves, that just as it was once an agent’s job to look across the publishing landscape and say, to which publishers would I take this book to sell the rights, it is now our job to look across this fragmented, messy, distributed, networked, horizontalized market and say, who are the right partners here, and to vet those partners, to test them, to experiment with them.

Through the value of working with multiple clients in multiple categories with multiple types of products, our aggregate knowledge of what’s going to work and what’s not going to work is going to be really beneficial to authors who have one book or even five books or 10 books. They’re not going to have been able to learn what we learn by doing it across titles and categories.

So we think we’re bringing an aggregate knowledge. We think we’re bringing sort of instincts in terms of business development and partner relations. And I think anybody who’s tried it on their own wants the help.

KENNEALLY: It sounds like what you’re talking about, Jason, isn’t just judging a book design and a matter of taste, but these are really complex business decisions. For example, the area of rights, something we know at Copyright Clearance Center, can get very complicated very fast, and it’s on a global scale. So, an author on his or her own just really isn’t prepared for all of those challenges.

ASHLOCK: Yes, I’m glad you brought that up. That’s a very good point. We celebrate – and we truly do – the independence that’s been granted to the author, and we want to affirm the trend and affirm the artistic instinct to go it alone and to tell my story my way and to go out and find my audience independently.

But unfortunately, the term indie author that we’ve sort of latched onto as a way of describing these author entrepreneurs is just a misnomer. It’s not independent. Some things are still done better in aggregate than as individuals, and publishing’s one of those things. We do it better when we do it in teams. We do it better when we do it in alliances.

And the truth is that agencies that I hope take on this new model of management and radical advocacy have the infrastructure to do things globally, to do things across different product lines, to oversee the licensing of rights and the building of new digital properties more so than any individual might. Because the truth is, we do sometimes do things better when we do it together, and I hope indie authors are coming to that conclusion and will welcome partners such as myself.

KENNEALLY: Right. And whether you call it an agency or a management company, the author remains at the center, and I know you’re concerned that some of these changes could shift that author away from the center and put somebody else in the center. Talk about those concerns and the ethical questions that come up.

ASHLOCK: One of the great things about the indie author revolution, as we’re calling it, is that it has allowed authors to re-take their positions in the middle of things, to oversee their own creative expression instead of ceding so much ground and so much territory to big publishing companies, as they have often complained happens to them.

But I think it’s easy for someone else simply to slide into that slot. We do celebrate what Amazon has done in helping to create an e-book marketplace and helping to support authors, but the truth is, it’s easy to allow Amazon to step into the middle of the field and to be the one making all the decisions.

We want to help authors think about not what it means to game Amazon and to cede all territory to Amazon or to other retailers, but to think about using new tools to reach audiences directly.

It’s also easy for agencies who are doing things similar to ours to sort of step into the middle and feel as though they are the ones running the show and dictating what happens creatively and what happens to their authors.

I think we have to be constantly vigilant that what ground we have gained over the past few years in giving authors control and oversight over their own careers, we have to maintain some of those virtues in making sure that the author is rewarded for being the creator of that work and is playing an integral role in its expression, however it comes to the market.

KENNEALLY: We are talking today with Jason Allen Ashlock, co-founder and president of Movable Type Management. Jason, I guess I have to ask, there’s so much more work to be done for you whether you call yourself an agent or a manager. How is the compensation that authors are accustomed to expected to change as well?

ASHLOCK: The model is really shifting here. We’re seeing all sorts of different arrangements pop up with different management groups and agencies across the business. We try to stay as close as possible to what is traditionally understood to be an agent’s commission, so we’re 15 percent across the board. Sometimes we bump up to 20 or 25 in foreign territories.

When we’re doing original product builds, it’s always a conversation with the author in terms of what we’re investing and what they’re bringing to the table. So sometimes those splits will be very different. Sometimes they’ll be, say, 70-30 or 80-20 or 65-35 depending on the business arrangement that we have with them and what other partners were bringing to the table. If we bring in outside funding, there’s going to be percentage splits with outside funders. If we bring money to the table, there’s going to be a change in that split, too.

And that’s why management is such a better way of describing what we’re doing. Managers can produce for their clients as well as oversee the sale of rights, and we’re excited about the fact that the model is now open to experimentation.

What we hope, though, is that the industry as a whole and agencies like ours that are trying to experiment will be open and transparent about what they’re doing so that we can learn from each other and develop a new set of best practices. We can’t adhere to the same models that governed the way that we participated in the past. We have to come up with better forms of compensation for everyone.

And with authors going it alone, there’s more margin on the table, there’s different ways to split. With new responsibilities taken on by managers and agents, there’s different compensation rules, and only by talking about them openly and experimenting together can we come to some sort of standard.

KENNEALLY: I suppose in conclusion then, the only rule for 21st-century publishing is there aren’t any rules.

ASHLOCK: It’s not quite anarchy, although it does feel pretty chaotic a lot of the time. Again, I think we have to rely on the community to police itself and to help itself find the best way forward. So, there may not be any rules, but I think we’re coming to a place where we’re learning some things that are working and some things that aren’t, and we’ll only learn more by sharing together what we’re doing.

KENNEALLY: Well, we appreciate your sharing your views with us. Jason Allen Ashlock, co-founder and president of Movable Type Management, thanks for joining us today.

ASHLOCK: Thanks so much for having me, Chris.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, find us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at the Copyright Clearance Center website, copyright.com. Just click on Beyond the Book.

Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.