In two afternoon panels at Tuesday’s Digital Book World, the evolving role of rights in the digital era were the focus. At the first panel, New Models for Agents, the changing job of agents was the topic as Scott Waxman, Steve Ross, and Jim Levine all discussed new ventures they have undertaken recently.
Ross discussed his dual role at Abrams Artists Agency, as both a traditional agent and someone who oversees a side business offering author services. Waxman discussed his publishing venture, Diversion Books, which offers an alternative to authors who don’t want to self-publish, and Levine (of the Levine Greenberg Agency) said the best way to describe his new role is as a “multimedia producer,” who looks at projects and takes them in the appropriate direction, which may not always mean print. (Levine talked about working with authors on Vooks, apps, and other non-print endeavors.)
All the agents on the panel said the key to their projects is working with, as Waxman put it, “authors who are willing to experiment.” All three agents still do traditional agenting, and noted that even in their newly expanded roles the basis of their relationships is the same—they need to be based on trust. The difference now, as Waxman added, is that there are more opportunities available for authors, in how they publish, and not all publishers are willing to explore those opportunities. It is a situation, he said, where people like him, who understand the traditional publishing space, can help authors with “mix and match business models.”
At a second panel, Will Territorial Sales Become Obsolete?, the complex topic of the open market was discussed by two foreign publishers and Perseus Book Group’s v-p of the international division Carolyn Savarese. While the Kindle has only recently taken off in Europe—panelist Andrew Franklin, who runs the London-based indie publisher Profile Books—said sales of the device had been slow until it became the #1 gift this past Christmas, all panelists agreed that the issue of the open market becomes more difficult, and potentially obsolete, in the digital era.
A handy explanation of what the open market is was not offered, unfortunately, by the panel—the open market refers to foreign territories where multiple publishers can sell their edition of a book to retailers/customers. The open market, for publishers, is most often an issue with English language editions, since there are so many readers of English throughout the globe.
For publishers, then, the issue of importing English language edition titles into foreign markets becomes much easier when dealing with digital distribution. That many publishers may try to maintain worldwide digital rights is something that will likely happen moving forward, Savarese said, but this may not always be easy. As she noted, often at the big conglomerate houses, editors in the U.S. don’t always agree with editors in the U.K. The key, she said, is, as the publisher, being able to convince the parties involved—namely agents and authors—that you’re the best suited to sell a title in the local market where you maintain control.
Franklin, while insisting that the open market is a relic of the age of the physical book, said that territoriality is key to sustaining indigenous literary cultures and industries. Noting the current collapse of the Australian publishing industry—in that country the local market has buckled as English language editions from other publishers have flooded shelves and taken away local sales—Franklin said this stands as an example of what can happen when the open market is abandoned.