WSJ reports Laurence Kirshbaum, who announced his departure from Amazon in October 2013, is headed to the Waxman Leavell Literary Agency. Kirshbaum’s career path has become emblematic of the twists and turns of the book industry over the last 20+ years.
In the ’80s and ’90s, it was all about mergers and acquisitions. Veteran librarian Mary Munroe identified “sixty merger and acquisition events in the years of 1998 and 1999, with more than $20 billion spent by companies to buy other companies” in a 2001 article by Carolyn E. Lipscomb. As the former CEO of Time Warner Warner Book Group, Kirshbaum presided over one of the biggest such companies, created when TIME, Inc merged with Warner Communications in 1990.
In 2005, he left, and shortly thereafter, started his own literary agency LJK Literary. At the time, the New York Times noted Kirshbaum was “part of a steady stream of editors and publishers who, over the last two decades, have jumped to the agenting side of the business.” In the piece, Kirshbaum lamented the publishing industry’s increasing lack of ability to support authors:
“The demands of publishing and marketing a book today have grown to exceed the ability of a publisher to cope,” Mr. Kirshbaum added. “I felt very keenly that we were leaving so many good marketing ideas unexplored because there were too many authors and too little time.”
That, Mr. Kirshbaum said, has put more of the burden for selling a book onto authors. “The author has to be more involved in choosing the book jacket, in promotion, marketing, dealing with retailers,” Mr. Kirshbaum said. “A nonfiction author has to bring a platform with him – radio, a TV show or some kind of recognizable vehicle to help launch them. And the agent is really necessary to represent all of the business interests of the author.”
He added: “The name of the game is not to make a quick buck for the author and make the publisher take a write-off” on a big advance, he said. “What really matters is what happens after the deal. If the books are selling, the money will follow.”
In 2011, Kirshbaum joined Amazon, two years after the e-tailing giant launched its book publishing arm. Amazon had been — and continues to be — stiff competition for book publishers and bookstores, and Kirshbaum’s role in signing bestselling authors like Tim Ferris served as a major test of Amazon’s power in the book publishing ecosystem. Barnes and Noble refused to carry Amazon Publishing titles, effectively stymying Amazon’s influence with writers (for the meantime).
If Kirshbaum’s return to agenting can be seen as a barometer of where the power is going next, it seems agents are the ones that will come out the best. But if trends continue as they have been with publishers’ power waning as authors take advantage of self-publishing distribution channels, and trusted curators of literary talent becoming more important because so many more writers can enter the market, we might see Kirshbaum taking a role as a book reviewer. We’ll see.