Seth Godin posted an interesting question about useful middlemen, like literary agents.
Middlemen add value when they bring taste or judgment or trust to bear on a transaction that isn’t transparent. Literary agents are crucial when publishers believe that their choice of content is essential but have too many choices and too little time. But publishers don’t trust every literary agent. They trust agents they believe in. Key point: anonymous agents are interchangeable and virtually worthless. Agents that don’t do anything but help one side find the other side in a human approximation of Google aren’t so helpful any more.
It always has been true that an agent with a trustworthy reputation is far more useful than a generic one. Publishers, long before the internet, would take submissions from agents that were unknown to them as just another unsolicited manuscript.
And, believe it or not, there are some “agents,” who can’t read submission guidelines any better than the worst offending writer, whose submissions never even get read.
I think what might change the game is not that writers can Google publishers, but that some literary agents are becoming far from anonymous. Judging from Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, some agents are gathering their own tribes.
And what happens when the brand of an agent has more clout than the brand of a publisher?
Translate that into a future where books are increasingly becoming digital, and the industry could look radically different in a decade.