No one is more jack-of-all-trades than the agent. Today, he or she must be everything to an author, from adept businessperson to best friend and babysitter. The past decade has seen the rise of one specialist in this field—the religion book agent—filling a niche that has grown along with the religion category.
Now the expansion of religion has met the general contraction of the broader publishing industry. Religion agents today report they are broadening their skills, expertise and services with both authors and publishers as they try to keep up with the demands of the new publishing economy. In religion as in the industry in general, "the pressures of commercial publishing have made the relationship between the author and the editor much more fragile," said Joe Durepos, agent to James Mills, Kenny Kemp, Oriah Mountain Dreamer and others. "The prime advocate for an author's baby is often there and then gone. So the agent has become a greater constant in the life of many a writer."
These days religion agents, like their general market counterparts, report doing more proposal and manuscript development, including editing. But the biggest change, most of them told PW, is that they are doing more marketing than ever before. "I am beginning to think of all of publishing as marketing," said Durepos. "That seems to be what people want to know—where does this fit, how do I hook this, give me the one-sentence description. If an agent is good, they spend a lot of time honing a marketing plan and marketing awareness on behalf of the author."
To Market, to Market
That's also been the experience of Linda Roghaar of the Linda Roghaar Literary Agency in Amherst, Mass., an agent for seven years. Roghaar, who counts Molly Wolf, Carl McColman, Robert O'Gorman, Fr. Dan Homan and Lonni Collins Pratt among her clients, said that is the single biggest change in her job. "I am more focused on who is going to read this book," she noted. "You can have wonderful books out there, but if they are not aimed at anybody, they are going to disappear."
Roghaar and her authors establish a marketing plan for the author to carry out, listing groups or organizations they can contact and events they can attend to promote their work. The new publishing economy makes it imperative the author take the helm. Said Roghaar, "There are specialty markets that publishers don't have the time to explore and the authors know about. Certainly, you can't beat the publisher for general marketing, but when it comes to the niche stuff, you rely on the author, and that can make a huge difference in sales."
Gail Ross, whose Washington, D.C., agency handles such names as John Esposito, Naomi Rosenblatt and Bruce Chilton, also said marketing has come to drive her work. Ross, who has been a literary agent since 1986, has an employee who works almost exclusively on honing book proposals, and Ross frequently asks authors to work with collaborators so their proposals and manuscripts will be as crisp as possible. "We have to make sure they are the best they can be before they leave this office," she said. "I ask my clients to anticipate the questions of a publisher, and that includes making a marketing section that sings. Nowadays, it takes so many impressions of a product before someone will buy it. So I say to my authors, 'What can you do to help create those impressions?' " Ross also has her authors outline a variety of "hooks" for talk shows, magazines, Web sites and other media. To do anything less is to risk failure, she said. "You want to give [authors and their books] the best chance possible. But you've got to make the breaks, and you can only make the breaks if you are out there working them."
With 15 years in the business under his belt, Sealy Yates may be the granddaddy of religion book agents, and several publishers credit him with author branding, a marketing tactic that has become standard for many evangelical Christian publishers. Yates, whose firm handles heavy hitters like John Maxwell, Charles Swindoll, Henry Cloud and John Townsend, said tightened belts make author branding a must. "Publishers concentrate on a manuscript at a time," Yates said. "We tell them they need to have a broader view. Author branding creates an understanding that the biggest asset the publisher has is the author, not just a book."
But author branding may have disadvantages, too. Greg Johnson, v-p of Alive Communications, the largest agency in the CBA market, worries that branding—combined with shrinking publisher dollars and disappearing shelf space in most Christian retail stores—silences new authors before they have had a chance to be heard. "Many retailers do not want to stock new names," he noted. "As a result, books that once had six months on the shelf now have three, and you can't develop a new voice in three months." Johnson, who represents such stars as Terry Blackstock, Bill Myers and Angela Hunt, proposes that retailers—with the help of publishers and agents—create "New Voices" sections, in the hope that separating new authors from established names would give them a chance to find an audience. "When VeggieTales and Left Behind have their run, who are you going to sell? But if we could convince them to stock maybe 16 new titles a month, then you have a chance to foster new voices." Still, branding is likely here to stay and will spread, said Joel Gotler, agent to the king of Christian brands, Left Behind coauthor Tim LaHaye. Brand-level status is key to getting deals outside publishing, especially in selling television and film rights. "The brand will get you in the door first," Gotler said.
Publishers welcome the marketing input of the religion book agent, now more than ever. It makes sense, said Durepos, who left agenting in 2001 to become a senior acquisitions editor at Loyola, but still represents some authors. "The agent knows the author's work better than anyone else," he noted. Zondervan's v-p and associate publisher, Lyn Cryderman, said the company now actually leans toward working with agents. "There are some we prefer working with because they see their role almost as publishing partners," Cryderman said. "They hang around after the deal and are engaged with our company in the process of writing the book and marketing it, and we feel those agents bring value to the publishing enterprise."
Not everyone agrees that more marketing is the biggest change they've seen in their jobs. Alan Youngren, an agent since 1995 who handles such authors as Leisha Kelly, Judith Weaver and Michael Rustin, admitted marketing is important—to a point. Agents market a book to the acquiring editor, he said. "Publisher marketing people don't exactly gobble up marketing ideas from agents. Marketing knowledge comes in when the agent decides whom to go to first with a manuscript." Still, Youngren noted, the agent plays a crucial role in establishing the author's worth, not only through his dealings with publishers, but in his appraisal of the author's work. "I don't want to give the impression that I think agents do for clients today what Maxwell Perkins did for Thomas Wolfe," Youngren said. "But the agent has to build trust that his or her evaluation of the author's manuscript is a significant opinion." The agent then has to carry that good opinion of the author's work to the publisher. "The real role of the agent in the long run is to establish market value."
Navigating the Slush
Youngren said one of the biggest changes he has seen in recent years is a growing reliance on agents by publishers, especially to wade through the slush pile—something many of them no longer have the personnel to do. "Many publishers have announced they no longer read unsolicited manuscripts," Youngren said. "So who is going to do that?" He does—and a good thing, too. Youngren found two topselling fiction writers among unsolicited manuscripts. Joel Fotinos, director of religious publishing at Penguin USA, said providing that kind of service is one of the most important things an agent does. "Publishers rely on agents as a type of shorthand, as a great mediator," Fotinos said. "By the time you receive a project from an agent you figure they have gone through a million projects and have picked the best one. As the number of books increases each year and there are fewer breakout books, as the publisher struggles, we need to rely more and more on the agent to bring us the best project possible." Alive's Johnson puts it this way: "Publishers are using us as the clearinghouse, for what their acquisitions people used to do. There is no value for publishers in spending their time looking for a diamond in the rough."
At Harper San Francisco, associate publisher Mark Tauber—himself once a book agent—said agents are particularly valuable in helping them find locally known authors who can be developed into major voices. "Fiction is something we really rely on agents for," Tauber noted. "It is hard to go out and discover [good fiction writers] because you kind of have to do it locally, which is much harder for a publisher."
Other religion agents told PW their relationships with publishers have become more amicable. Once, especially in the CBA market, agents were seen as a hurdle between author and publisher—a money-scrounging middleman, a necessary evil. Now, many agents and publishers say, that perception has shifted. "In previous years, agents were seen as adversaries," said Johnson. More CBA houses have come to realize "good agents will be part of the partnership between publisher and author, and work behind the scenes to build an author and not just get a book out." Where the agent once used to bang on a publisher's door, it is now the other way around. Johnson reported that in the past year, two dozen different publishers have come to Colorado Springs to meet with Alive, seeking new authors and projects. Yates also said he has an easier time with publishers. About 1995, he began insisting that he, his authors and their publishers hold regular meetings to discuss the progress of a manuscript, the marketing plan and future projects. "At first it was something I negotiated for," he said. "But now publishers are calling me and asking, 'When is our next meeting?' "
Jonathan Merkh. Thomas Nelson's senior v-p and publisher of Nelson Books, said the attitude toward agents has "done a 180-degree turnaround" in the past two years. Now agents are "clients" and "a referral source for us," Merkh noted. Merkh credits the change to Mike Hyatt, a former religion book agent and now executive v-p and group publisher for Thomas Nelson. "He made us see the value of what agents can bring to the table, and it has changed our whole culture," Merkh explained. "Now we hardly even will talk to someone unless they are represented." Nelson sends its authors' agents weekly sales reports on the titles they represent—something Merkh supposes many publishers might be afraid to do for fear the numbers wouldn't reconcile with the author's royalty statement. They have also started requesting quarterly report cards from agents, asking them to rank Nelson on a variety of things, from profitability to ease of doing business. And, most important from the agent's perspective, Nelson has shown itself willing to negotiate on contracts. "We used to force-feed our standard contract with all the agents," said Merkh. "Now we have changed to tweaking our contracts based on the needs of the agent and the client."
The Competitive Edge
Bringing even more pressure to bear on religion agents is the increase in the number of them working the category. "Right now, you can't walk down the aisle at a CBA convention and swing your briefcase without hitting an agent," Johnson said. And the general structure of that market adds a few more challenges. Most CBA retailers offer more than just books, selling greeting cards, clothing, jewelry, artwork and scores of other "Christian lifestyle" products, making books compete for shrinking shelf space. "It is a bloodbath," said Johnson. "Editors tell me stories where they take proposals into meetings, and their boards just try to find a way not to publish it. So I have to make sure proposals really sing."
All that competition may be helping the market. As more agents beat a path between authors and publishers, the border between CBA and the general market blurs. "It used to be that there were agents in the CBA and agents in the ABA," said Penguin's Fotinos. "Now that line is completely muddied. Everyone is trying to cross over." And agents have been instrumental in helping general trade publishers chart the unfamiliar CBA waters. "New York houses understand numbers," Fotinos said. "They may not understand the charismatic market or the evangelical market, but they do understand what it means when a potential author has 127 speaking gigs a year. So I think the agent helps the ABA understand who an author is and why their book is important, and the really good ones will help point out how the CBA book can cross over." Roghaar, too, sees the wall coming down. "More editors are becoming generalists," she said. "People don't say, 'Well, if this is Buddhism, I don't deal with that.' They say, 'If we fall in love with this book, then we are going to do it.' That makes it easier, because everybody will look at more things." But, she continued, that means she and her authors have more competition—which makes author marketing all the more important.
Things can look a bit different from the CBA side of the aisle. Merkh of Thomas Nelson said it is still a rarity for a New York (read: non-CBA) agent to bring an author to Nashville. And when they do, they often make assumptions. He recalled negotiations with one New York agent this way: "She said to me, 'I don't know the secret handshake of religion publishing,' when there really isn't any. I think agents who represent authors who aren't in the evangelical circle are not sure how to work with us, when in reality there isn't any difference." Changing this perception can only benefit all involved. "They are missing a huge opportunity by going only to certain New York publishers that aren't as strong in the CBA market," he said. "Talking to you about this is one way of saying, guys, don't be afraid of us. I have a master's from Vanderbilt University, I am not some podunk just because I am not in New York. We need to work on changing perceptions."
Cryderman agreed there are many more agents in the religion market than there were when he began in publishing. And he believes the added competition in the field will push agents to shift their focus. "I think each of the agencies will not grow the number of authors they represent," he said. "They are going to see their role expanding with their [current] authors in terms of thinking through an overall publishing strategy." And that change may be more author-driven, as authors find they have more agents to choose from. "Either you'll have agencies adding staff or you'll have more agents dividing up the pool of author talent."
Agents themselves see several trends. Bigger advances may be on the way out as publishers and agents increasingly look to bypass risky big book deals in favor of developing authors for the long-term. Some, like Roghaar, see publishers pushing for multibook deals. "Publishers say, 'We really want this author to stay with us, we'll do this book,' but their eyes are toward the author's next book as well." Roghaar also sees smaller publishers beefing up their advances. "They have figured out that if they can fix this piece of their offer, a whole new group of authors will open up to them." Youngren said he encourages smaller advances and increased royalty rates. "If the author's stuff is good, he is going to get the money anyway," he said. "But if the publisher knows the author wants the advance maxed, that implies that the author doesn't have confidence." If the book bombs, the author's name is mud. Gail Ross agreed that publishers are less interested in backing an author with even a middling track record. "Pretty much no one buys a book today if they think it is going to sell less than 10,000 copies," she said. "But there are tons of them that sell less, and it is just getting worse. There is going to be this enormous pressure to sell people who have sold well in the past or brand-new rookies who have a clean record." But Johnson, who works almost exclusively in the CBA, doesn't see much of a change. "We have not seen less dollars," he said. "Publishers are still there to spend money on good books and take the chances they have always taken."
One thing that agents and publisher agree on is that religion is a fertile field. A December 2002 Gallup poll showed that 24% of adults were "very likely" to choose religion or theology books. Barna Research backs this up with a February 2003 poll showing that almost half of all adults and teens read at least one Christian book in the last year. Only Durepos sounded a warning note. "The business has really tightened up again. The economy is far worse than people want to admit, and getting books out there is far more challenging," he said. Add to that the specter of war with Iraq, the conflict with North Korea and the war against terror, and you have a climate in which so much is vying for a reader's attention. "I think the religion book agent really has a challenge," Durepos continued. "They are going to have to bring the houses proposals, authors and manuscripts that are just overwhelmingly good. There can't be any reason to say no to them. There is going to be a lot less chance taking and more careful appraising of authors and their ability to be heard in a noisy and chaotic time."
Still, he said, there is hope. "This may be the greatest opportunity for those of us who are in the business of selling religion and spirituality. Because the issues that drive the headlines are the issues that turn people back to faith."