Why Every Creator Deserves an Agent

A new kind of agent could help creators navigate and negotiate a rapidly evolving landscape

‘Diogenes With Lantern at Market Square’ by Jan Victors (1619–1676)

Part of making it as a creator is the luxury of having an agent — someone who pitches your talent to others, advocates for your rights in contract negotiations, and makes sure the value of your talent is captured to the maximum extent possible in every situation.

Having an agent’s representation has long been the privilege of elite actors, authors, and athletes. But an agent’s core service — representing and amplifying a person’s talent to others — is something everyone should have the opportunity to benefit from.

One stellar literary agent was a game-changer for me as a writer and led me to believe that every creator — whether you are writing, illustrating, making NFTs, speaking, podcasting, or exercising any other creative talent — should have one too.

Not very long ago, the vast majority of the U.S. population didn’t have a personal computer; they fell behind the few who did when it came to getting and creating new jobs and companies in the information economy. Likewise, back when having a tax accountant or tax software was far more expensive than it is today, those who didn’t have the luxury of using them risked leaving a lot of money on the table by trying to navigate the ridiculously complex tax system on their own.

Today, the complexity of the rapidly changing creator economy is making it necessary to have someone in your corner who knows what they are doing and can help you make sure your work is reaching the right people. Those who don’t have such an ally risk getting left behind.

Venture capital is flowing into new social platforms like Substack and Clubhouse, which just announced a monetization system. Foundation.app has popped up to allow creators to monetize non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

Other creators are claiming their y.ats. Here’s the three-string emoji that represents my new book about mimetic desire: y.at/🎈👀👀. The irony is that I bought the y.at purely out of mimetic desire.

Every single day, new tools and apps are released to help creators do more and get paid more. If you’re reading this, you’re one of the few humans in history who have had the opportunity to decide whether or not you want to opt into an entirely new, decentralized financial system that rewards creators who know how to operate within it.

Creators need someone to help them navigate this new ecosystem. Otherwise, even the very best creators risk getting lost in a sea of competing options with no way of knowing the best “creator stack” for their needs or how to find and serve the kind of audience who will resonate with their work.

Creators who are extremely business and tech-savvy might not see the need for an agent. But even those few creators who don’t mind navigating the system on their own will end up spending less time creating and more time trying to keep up with the latest developments. I don’t think that’s the best use of their time.

If you’re a creator who is serious about doing your best work and maximizing its value in the marketplace over the coming years (aka the Soaring Twenties), you have to get someone else excited about your work—someone with the right skill set that’s complementary to yours and can help you take your talent to the next level.

A new kind of agent

Until now, agents haven’t had incentives to set up shop in the long tail of the creator economy. Not many of the book agents I know, for example, would invest their valuable time and effort to sell a book for only a $10,000 advance — which would yield them the customary 15% cut, or $1,500.

But with the rising popularity and sophistication of instruments like income-sharing agreements (ISAs) and NFTs, a new market for talent representation is about to emerge that will allow people to bet on talent and tie their bet to the development of that talent.

The seeds of what I am attempting to describe have already been sown. A market for fan support is emerging with the tokenization of musicians. In 2017, artist and producer Gramatik (GRMTK), aka Denis Jašarević, raised $2.48 million in under 24 hours by tokenizing some of his intellectual property.

But most tokenization efforts to date don’t reward people for actually developing or representing the talent personally, the way an agent does.

My agent invests his time and talent in selling my work and helping me become better at the craft. We have broken bread together. We’re developing a long-term relationship so he can propose new ideas and see opportunities in the market that I wouldn’t see myself. He just hasn’t bought my token.

The token economies that have emerged so far are almost all fan-based. While fans may be great advocates of someone’s music or writing, they do not engage in a professional relationship with the artist.

What I’m interested in is the idea of people being compensated based on the value they add to a creator’s work or career. This is why I see a new breed of talent agents who will take on a new and important role in the creator economy. There are now hundreds of thousands of creators largely going at things on their own, figuring it out as they go, and leaving a lot of opportunity on the table.

When someone else is willing to invest their time and energy into developing your talent — especially when they have skin in the game for doing so — they unlock both economic and personal potential.

A substantial portion of this new value creation will be captured by the coming wave of talent agents, and they will deserve every penny (or ether).

Genius Bar talent

Last week, while traveling, I had to make an emergency trip into the Apple Store to fix a broken phone. The young man behind the Genius Bar was an artist in his spare time. He was toying with the idea of selling his digital art as NFTs while also trying to get a Substack newsletter off the ground — but he was overwhelmed.

When he learned that I write a Substack and books, he grilled me about the process of going from idea to sale to publication. The truth is that I could never have gotten the particular book deal I did without a literary agent. I didn’t have the time or interest to learn and decipher the intricacies of the publishing world. More importantly, I didn’t have the connections or knowledge of how the process works to even make a start.

“I’m one of the lucky people who has a stellar literary agent,” I said. Jim Levine, founder of LGR, is one of the best in the business. He saw the importance of my book, Wanting, based on an extremely rough draft of a book proposal, then helped me polish it and navigate the strange and circuitous route of selling it to a major publishing house.

Before Jim, I had very limited access to good publishing houses. The major publishers wouldn’t even look at my material unless a known entity had submitted it. People like Jim are not only developers of talent; they also provide access and connections to others who might not otherwise find your work.

“I see no reason why you shouldn’t have an agent, too,” I told the kid at the Genius Bar. “Everyone should. If I could, I’d rep the barista at my local coffee shop.”

I like betting on people. I like investing in them even more. I don’t mean merely cutting them a check or buying their artwork. I mean investing my reputation in their work — recommending and selling it to others and helping connect creators to the people, tools, and clients that will create positive flywheels for them.

The problem is that we don’t yet have a market for people who wouldn’t do this kind of work for free but would be stellar at it if there was a way for them to be rewarded.

This market needs to exist, and I suspect we’re about to see one emerge. The best agents don’t work for free; they invest their valuable time, effort, and reputation in selling someone else’s work, and they deserve to capture some portion of the success they help create.

The agent as advocate

The phrase “call my agent” used to conjure images of arrogant athletes or movie stars. It still reminds me of the time I tried to secure a second-string NFL player to speak at a charity event and couldn’t get past his middleman—the agent—who told me with a straight face that the player needed a $100,000 speaking fee and first-class plane tickets for an entourage of six.

Journalist and author Marina Krakovsky ’s book The Middleman Economy: How Brokers, Agents, Dealers, and Everyday Matchmakers Create Value and Profit identifies six categories of middlemen, or six ways they create value: as a bridge, certifier, enforcer, risk-bearer, concierge and insulator. The names are descriptive enough to be largely self-explanatory, so I will not explain them further here. (The NFL player’s agent seemed to be primarily playing the role of an insulator.)

While I’m against the idea of middlemen who extract value or rudely limit access to people out of a puffed-up sense of self-importance, there is at least one more critical category an agent fulfills: advocate.

The first six roles are largely functional and practical. The advocate is all of those things and more.

An advocate specializes in developing potential and making sure the creator is getting the kind of exposure they deserve — and that they are getting a fair deal. For instance, my literary agent, Jim, has negotiated so many book deals that he has a good sense of what’s a fair deal and what’s not. This is a function of this new kind of agent in the creator economy, too. I have interacted with far too many creators representing themselves who, not knowing better, have taken deals that drastically undervalue their work.

The advocate goes to bat for somebody when they won’t advocate for themselves — perhaps because they don’t know that they need to or don’t know how to.

While many creators take great care of (and some even relish) the business-building and sales part of the process, most are simply too close to their own work to represent it well.

They lack the perspective that an agent can bring. An agent is constantly in the market, kicking tires and looking at diverse works while maintaining some level of critical distance and objectivity that is impossible for any true artist.

An agent advocate as I envision it does not even have to be a middleman per se. An agent need not stand between an artist and a customer; an agent can simply be a partner — someone who stands shoulder to shoulder with an artist and amplifies their voice and work, watches their blind side, expands their network, offers encouragement and a deft hand when it comes to minor improvements, and helps buffer some of the communication overload.

An agent is everything you don’t necessarily want a friend or fan to be: consumed with maximizing the value of your talent without being overly concerned about your feelings.

In the creator economy, these agent advocates will fill the gaps and cover our blind spots to help reach as many true fans as possible.

Photo: Anthony Delanoix on Unsplash

The creator economy

“Though digital shelf space is unlimited, consumers’ time and attention remain finite, so creators have to spend more and more resources to try to stand out.” — Marina Krakovsky

In the creator economy, where it’s Me LLC — people creating their own Substacks, their own art, their own personal brands — it takes more and more effort to stand out. How are people going to get noticed? Those with an agent advocate will have a huge advantage.

I’ve been building things long enough to know that you can build the greatest thing in the world and nobody will come if you don’t know how to sell it.

Even for those who have truly unique businesses, have carved a niche for themselves, and seem to be really good at representing and selling their work—like Jack Butcher, founder of Visualize Value—there’s a good reason to have an agent.

Time spent managing your deals is time lost creating.

Some have told me that the creator economy is about not having intermediaries. But this is a version of the romantic lie — the idea that there is a direct line between people and the objects of their desire. Humans are social creatures. In a world of billions of possible objects, we rely on other people to guide some of our desires — they act as signposts for what’s worth paying attention to and what is not. There is no way around this fundamental human trait.

Everyone relies on intermediaries. Not everyone knows it.

The anti-algorithm

The best intermediaries are not algorithms—they’re humans. The role of an agent advocate is part of the antidote to the algorithmization of our preferences and desires.

A good agent can cut through the mimetic noise in the market to tell me what they know I should be looking for. We can’t outsource the discovery and representation of creators to technology alone. Technology should augment the work of a human agent, never replace it.

What will this new agent advocate model look like? What will the economic arrangement be? A typical book agent keeps 15% of what they sell. Will these new “micro-agents” enter into a simple ISA with the creators? Will the commissions be vastly different? And what other roles might these agents play in the sales and marketing process? Will new schools will pop up that train them to be more effective? And will creators themselves go through this training in an effort to cut out the middleman, as people tend to do?

I don’t have the answers to all these questions. But I have seen the value creation of my own agent, and I know what I’ve done for a few of my students and close friends.

I enjoy the work of advocacy — and I will continue doing it — but I wish there was a model for monetizing it. I am one person. I know others will be far better at this job than I am. I’d like to see the creation of a market for these services.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931) was a spokesperson and advocate for women in the workplace, fighting for equal opportunities and helping women create a name for themselves.

The most important uses of this agent advocate model are for people who traditionally have not been given a fair shake: people like women in business or those who have been marginalized as artists, actors, or creators due to racism, sexism, or some other form of discrimination that keeps them constantly feeling like they are running from behind against a strong headwind, or worse.

Today, so much money in the creator economy is channeled through spaces that are still very white and very male — the world of venture capital and the executive level at creator companies. And wealthy people of any color or gender have easier access to advocates and the “right” connections than poor people of any color or gender.

Sometimes marginalized creators simply need a voice other than their own: an advocate, someone who will stand up strongly for them and amplify their voices.

When I say that everyone deserves an agent advocate, I mean everyone. But some of us have a much greater need than others. For some, it’s not just about maximizing the value of their work in the market—it’s about gaining access to that market in the first place.

Having an advocate sometimes means the difference between feeling like we’re going it alone and feeling like we have a team.

As a creator, I can tell you that this path is often a lonely one. I’m grateful for my agent. I’m grateful for those other people who are my advocates. I wouldn’t have been able to do the creative work I’ve done without them.

I’m convinced that everyone would be better off if we viewed ourselves as midwives and advocates to the talents of others and if we lived as if we had a responsibility for our neighbor’s flourishing. There’s practically nothing more satisfying than developing someone else’s talents and seeing them thrive, knowing that we had some small part to play in it.

The funny thing about desire is that we fulfill our own by helping others fulfill theirs.

The future of agency

Matching creators with agents is a problem that still needs to be solved. Initiating a conversation about representation can be awkward for both creators and agents. And striking these one-off business deals is hard and time-consuming even for seasoned entrepreneurs.

Here are a few things I think are needed to overcome these barriers:

  • Fiduciary standards and protections.
  • Systems for mediating disputes.
  • Some level of standardization of contracts between creators and agents. There are norms in the book industry, for example.
  • A safe payment portal for deals.
  • A system for tracking reputation. Agents who put their hat in the ring and choose to represent a stable of creators will be judged on the quality of talent in their stable. An agent’s reputation will rise or fall with performance. The marketplace will have to take reputation into account with a “judgment score”: Every time an agent makes a bet on talent, their judgment will also be judged. Of course, we do this naturally and implicitly all the time without necessarily realizing it; on the platform, though, judgment would be explicitly rated.
  • And most importantly, a place where creators and agents can meet: a central marketplace where agent advocates can build their cohort of creators and where creators can find the best agents to partner with — the ones who understand their work the most and have received trusted reviews from other creators.

I wish I could point you to a good model of this kind of marketplace, but nothing strong has emerged yet. One company trying to solve the problem is Stable, which is still in stealth mode. (Full disclosure: I’m involved.) I was sold on the idea because I wanted to help a young writer whose work impressed me but who didn’t know how to find a larger audience — and not just a larger one, but the right one. I thought the world would be missing out on something valuable, so I offered to help. But rather than learn from scratch how to be a sort of agent to this person, I was looking for some kind of framework within which to operate. This is particularly important when it comes to scaling. Alas, I couldn’t find one. And when I can’t find anything, I start building it.

A final word

The present creator economy is hyper-individualized. To take it to the next level, we’ll need include the kind of teamwork that I’ve attempted to describe here.

I’ve already identified a handful of creators I would love to represent if and when I have more time. But because we lack this kind of market, they don’t even know it yet. I hope to change that.

Are you a creator who wants to spend more time creating and less time navigating the ever-changing landscape of the creator economy?

Who wants someone to look out for your best interests and present you with new opportunities, even while you sleep?

Who wants the peace of mind of knowing you’ll have an advocate in your corner, reminding you of what you’re worth?

There’s someone out there who wants to fight for you.

Give them the opportunity.

And if you’re a person who knows a creator whose work you’d like to represent, let them know about it. Tag them here or on social media.

Let’s start the conversation.

Author of “WANTING: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life.” Find more at read.lukeburgis.com

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