I’m a writer searching for an outlet for my memoir, querying agents, gathering information on independent presses, thinking of going indie—indie, the cool way to say self-publish. I want an audience for my book, and that’s why I’ve driven nearly seventy miles to hear Jason Allen Ashlock’s talk, Agents For Today’s Author, a talk sponsored by Grub Street of Boston.
Jason stands at a podium inside a YMCA on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s a warm March evening. I shed my sweater, pull my blouse from my skin. Jason is young, probably in his early thirties, looking younger, vibrant and energetic. Intelligence and understanding pool in his deep brown eyes. He greets us, warmly, then asks: “Is the traditional literary agent still viable?” A brief pause before he answers. “No. Or not for very long.”
All of us in this audience know publishing is in crisis, smaller catalogues, fewer bookstores, fewer books sold. The industry is top heavy, investing somewhere in the range of $300,000 to bring a book to market. What if the book doesn’t sell? Returns flow back to the warehouse. No wonder agents tell me they’re only selling celebrity memoir or memoir with a strong enough hook which generally translates to drug addiction, alcohol addiction or dead babies. Why? Because they’re pre-sold.
And that’s where the digital revolution comes in. “Digital,” Jason says, “shifts the value chain to a value web.” The agent used to be the way a writer reached her reader. The chain was linear, writer, agent, publisher, distributor, book store, reader. Now, a writer can reach her reader in multiple ways, and because of this, agents are squeezed. Some have left the business. Some are charging fees. Some are serving as their clients agent and publisher. Others, like Jason, are changing the look of the traditional agency, becoming involved with design and marketing, moving from the background into an open explosive force. Jason says, “An agent’s job is to manage the possible in the digital space.”
And in this shifting digital world, Jason tells this audience of writers that we will need to become our own agents for a while. This is a spin on the advice we’ve been give for a while now with a difference. Jason is suggesting that agents get involved in helping writers launch their books in a new way. Is that way really new? Take my memoir. I’ve published excerpts, one winning a prestigious prize, in my quest for audience and a platform. Jason is suggesting that before an agent takes a book to a publisher, that agent might find digital ways to launch a writer’s work, perhaps by asking that writer for an eBook or perhaps an excerpt on various sites to create a buzz. Not so different from my traditional publishing in the literaries. But—in order for Jason to take on a client who writes a literary memoir, such as mine, he said when we spoke briefly after his talk, he needs to believe there’s a large audience out there for that book. The old catch 22? Not quite. I believe there’s more flexibility in this new model. So, Jason, expect my query.