I participated in a cookbook conference last Friday and sat on a panel with four other agents who also represent practical nonfiction, including cookbooks. The discussion centered around the agent’s role in the current market and how that role has changed with the shift into electronic publishing.
It was a really thoughtful and informative conversation that lasted almost an hour and a half. We had a lengthy talk about the cookbook as object and whether that is something that will continue into the future or go the way of the VHS tape. We all agreed moving away from the book is a long way away, if it ever happens at all, and that there is still a great benefit to holding a book in your hands, cooking from a book rather than a computer screen, and sharing books as gifts with friends and family.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion centered on the agent and author relationship, and the question of how important is it to have an agent in a market where so many writers, bloggers especially, are going it on their own. I strongly believe that (and I think, based on feedback, made a persuasive argument for) authors need agents now more than ever. A savvy agent who understands the nuances of the market’s language and culture is critical as they oversee every aspect of an author’s entire career, focusing on the big picture, as well as the smaller details that can go astray at any point in the process.
What really jumped out at me, though, was the concept of how much book negotiations have changed in the recent past. Each and every negotiation now, even with publishers we’ve dealt with for many years and have boilerplate contracts with the best negotiated terms possible, is fraught with challenges that include new and changing digital royalty rates, author deliverables that previously didn’t exist (one agent mentioned a major publisher had asked that the author deliver along with their manuscript 20 minutes of the author on tape), and which rights will be retained by the author versus the publisher.
This might sound simple, but believe me when I say it is not. The landscape has been described as The Wild West, and we are using our collective years of experience to secure the best deal and contract terms that are possible in a market where publishers are pushing so hard in one direction to keep rights in their control and agents are pushing so hard in the other.
The good news is we are making progress with every deal. Each new contract offers an opportunity to renegotiate contract language we aren’t happy with, or get an author an improved digital royalty, or at least the ability to renegotiate the royalty in the future. We are always striving to protect our clients and maintain a positive working relationship with all the publishers we do business with. I’ll admit it can be precarious, but we have leverage because publishers know the value of our long, successful client list.
All this to say your agent is your friend and will be there to guide you through this sometimes messy and difficult process of being a book author. I’d love to know your thoughts on the agent-author relationship in this new market and also on cookbook as object and its future. Do you think cookbooks are going to go away, or will there always be room on your shelf to display your favorite stain-filled tomes as a badge of cooking honor?