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Agents as Publishers

There’s been a fair amount of discussion in writing circles about agents taking on the role of publisher, stepping in to help clients self-publish their work. When I published Goblin Tales [Amazon | B&N | Lulu], I did the majority of the work on my own, but my agent posted it for sale at Kobo and iBooks (taking their usual 15% commission on sales through those outlets).

Joshua and Eddie at JABberwocky have a post about the issue here, wherein Eddie says, “I think the decision to help an author self-publish a book, after failing to place it with a real publisher, is rooted in hubris.

Keep in mind that JABberwocky has e-published several books already. The difference being that JABberwocky is publishing out-of-print backlist titles as opposed to releasing original work. Is that a significant difference? I think so. Does it eliminate any ethical conflicts or problems? That’s a better question.

Joshua asks about the agent’s role in the ever-evolving world of publishing. Personally, I want my agent to do several things for me:

  • Negotiate with publishers on my behalf for the best possible deal.
  • Work on those lovely foreign sales of my work.
  • Help me build a long-term and successful career.

That first point is huge, especially when agents go into self-publishing. If an agent e-publishes a client’s original work, is that really the best possible deal? Personally, if I have a book that doesn’t sell, I’d be tempted to wait a few years and come back to it. For the most part, I’m skeptical that self-publishing an original book through your agent is the best possible deal for the author.

Some of the questions I’m asking as I try to sort out the ethics and potential conflicts of interest for myself…

  • Is the agent charging an up-front fee for self-publishing, or are they working on commission?
  • Is this service limited to clients, or are they offering to self-publish the work of non-clients as well? (The latter suggests they’re moving much more into being a publisher, and I want my agent’s primary focus to be representing clients.)
  • Does the agent threaten former clients with legal action for describing the agency’s “assisted self-publishing initiative” as digital publishing? (Read this one and draw your own conclusions.)
  • Is the agent pressuring clients to use their self-publishing service? (This would push me toward “Run away” mode.)

People have asked, “Why give your agent a cut for something you could do yourself?” But that holds true for agents in general. If you’re savvy enough, you can represent yourself, negotiate your own deals, sell your own work overseas … all it takes is time and expertise.

Some of us don’t have the time. Others lack the expertise. While I enjoyed putting together Goblin Tales and Kitemaster, I want to spend most of my time writing, not publishing. That means hiring someone else to do the work.

There are services out there that will do it for you. Is it better to keep those services entirely separate from agents? Maybe … here are a few things to consider in any case.

  • If the agency is acting as publisher, is there a contract? Who’s negotiating that contract and checking to make sure your interests are protected?
  • What happens if you and your agent part ways?
  • Has the agent demonstrated that they can do this job well? (Being an author doesn’t mean you can typeset or do cover layout or the rest. Neither does being an agent.)

I think it’s an important conversation, and as always, I’d love to hear thoughts and discussion from other folks.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 46 comments — Leave a comment )
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Aug. 2nd, 2011 01:54 pm (UTC)
I am extremely uncomfortable with this new direction. If an agent feels a new manuscript deserves to see the light of day and everyone in NY has turned it down, there are ways to handle the situation without compromising the author/agent relationship. The agency can recommend sources for e-book publishing (editorial, copy editing, cover design, formatting) that have NO DIRECT TIE to the agency and do not kick back money for recommendations.

At issue with this scenario is that the agent doesn't make any money off the e-book sales. However, each new book builds the author's platform which, in turn, should make that author more marketable to the folks in The Big Apple. If the author is comfortable doing so, they may pay their agent 15% of their e-book income as a retainer (as it were) for such issues as foreign rights negotiations, contract review, etc.

I never liked the notion that a realtor could act in behalf of both the buyer and the seller. I dislike the agent as publisher trend even more, no matter how they spin it.
Aug. 2nd, 2011 01:59 pm (UTC)
To be clear, you're referring to agents publishing *original* works here? Or do your objections also apply to agencies helping to e-publish backlist work?
(no subject) - crazywritergirl - Aug. 2nd, 2011 02:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 2nd, 2011 02:08 pm (UTC)
As discussed elsewhere, I remain ambivalent. A lot will depend on actual contract language.

I do know that epublishing is work, having put up a novelette myself. I also know that "traditional" publishers have a spotty record on the subject. "Trad Publisher" bought electronic rights to my four novels with them, and I only know of two actual electronic editions that they put out. Which they priced the same as a trade paperback, and which sold maybe five copies. Their ebook royalty rates also looked abysmal, compared to what the Amazon, B&N, and Smashwords sites offer.

The whole system is in a state of flux. If not chaos. And if history is any guide, the final result is not likely to benefit the author. I mean, "content provider." We're the weakest players in the mix. Unless your name is Stephen King or J. K. Rowling . . .
Aug. 2nd, 2011 02:13 pm (UTC)
I don't know what the "right" price is for e-books, but from everything I've seen, pricing them to match trade paperbacks or hardcovers is a much harder sell. On the other hand, I know that they don't want to undercut their hardcover/TP sales, either...

I figure I'll continue working to get my collections out there, and I'd happily e-publish my backlist when and if the books go out of print. Overall though, I agree with you that things are changing a lot right now. I'm trying to keep up with the conversations, and I'll wait and see what happens.
(no subject) - jhetley - Aug. 2nd, 2011 02:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
E book pricing - (Anonymous) - Aug. 3rd, 2011 12:08 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 2nd, 2011 02:33 pm (UTC)
Just when you thought things couldn't get more complicated...
Aug. 2nd, 2011 02:35 pm (UTC)
Never think that :-)
Aug. 2nd, 2011 02:34 pm (UTC)
It seems like an unnecessary middleman to me. I'm sure the agents aren't hand-coding the .doc files into the formats for electronic publishing. I'm sure the agents are not creating the cover art. They are hiring that work out.

So why doesn't the author just hire the work out themselves?

I'd rather pay a one-time fee now than 15% forever. Ebooks never go out of print and forever is a long time.
Aug. 2nd, 2011 02:38 pm (UTC)
1. My agent has access to publish my work on iBooks and Kobo. I don't.

2. See my question above about a contract. Never, ever sign a contract that gives your rights away forever.

3. As for hiring the work out themselves, sure, you can do that. It's more time and more work, but there are authors out there who are willing to do that, and that makes sense to me. Having contracted cover art for Kitemaster though, it *is* a serious investment of time, not to mention money up-front.
(no subject) - margaret_y - Aug. 2nd, 2011 02:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Aug. 2nd, 2011 03:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - margaret_y - Aug. 2nd, 2011 04:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Aug. 2nd, 2011 04:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jhetley - Aug. 2nd, 2011 05:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 2nd, 2011 02:48 pm (UTC)
I am very, very uncomfortable with this new direction. I'd not been leaning toward pitching agents before now, focusing on publishers instead, and this latest bit only continues to fuel this caution on my part.

That said, I'm also devising a multi-pronged publication strategy. I need to do self-marketing for my education consulting business so I am also figuring out how to use that website/organization to also promote my writing and I think I've stumbled across a good intersection of the two. I have some novels/ideas that I think might be worth sending to the big guys, so that's what is happening with that MS. I have several that are going to be coming out with my self-publication venture because they're rather niche-y (ski bum neuropunk romantic suspense--informal test marketing shows good connectivity but limited market). I also have several novels/ideas that are distinctly small-press/self-pub, so they're going the small press route.

Note that none of these ventures involve an agent. At this point, I think I'm borrowing from Laura Resnick's and Dean Wesley Smith's advice and getting an IP lawyer should I get a contract offer.

Plus I'm thinking that my self-pub ventures would be good for the more experimental short fiction I'm writing....so we shall see.
Mark Terry
Aug. 2nd, 2011 03:23 pm (UTC)
I've self-published as well as put up out of print books up and you can get layout done quite inexpensively as well as decent to great cover art at a reasonable price. My agent had a client turn to being an e-book publisher and told all her clients she had no involvement with them, but they were legitimate, and we should check them out ... then she threw out the comment that, of course, if we did, she'd negotiate our contracts for our usual fees.

Which begs the question: why wasn't our agent marketing to that publisher?

(I have an answer, but I'm not going to go into it here).

My objection to the 15% fee for e-book publishing is that it's largely an unnecessary expense.

As for end-dates, well, not all contracts are created/negotiated equal and not all e-book rights have end-dates, sometimes being folded into an "out of print" definition that is largely meaningless now in the world of e-book publishing. Again, not all contracts are created equal (or agents who negotiate them, etc).
Aug. 2nd, 2011 03:50 pm (UTC)
E-books and print-on-demand made "out of print" tricky for a while, but I think most agents and authors -- at least the ones who've been paying attention -- have learned to specify a certain number of sales/month or sales/year to qualify as "in print" these days. At least, I hope so...

And of course, now I'm curious about your unspoken answer :-P
(no subject) - Mark Terry - Aug. 2nd, 2011 07:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 2nd, 2011 03:36 pm (UTC)
I just put a handful of short fiction (shorts and novelettes) up for sale for the Kindle and Nook, and you know what? that took time. It was annoying and dull. Worse, just now I had to upload a file again because I made a formatting error.

It just isn't worth much of my time. So far I've sold maybe 40 stories all together, and just counting the formatting alone I would have done better as a migrant farm worker.

If my agent decides to go this route, I'll be interested in hearing her ideas. I'm not going to reject anything out of hand. Everything's changing, and the hard part, as always, is holding on to your own power.
Aug. 2nd, 2011 03:48 pm (UTC)
"Worse, just now I had to upload a file again because I made a formatting error."

Well, stop making mistakes and that should solve your problem! (I think I ended up upoading at least four versions of Goblin Tales...)
(no subject) - mtlawson - Aug. 2nd, 2011 05:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 2nd, 2011 04:14 pm (UTC)
Conflict of interest is never a good sign.
Aug. 2nd, 2011 04:14 pm (UTC)
In the present marketplace, I can see how a good agent might conclude that -- for a given project -- the best deal for the author is to self-publish that work.

It follows, I think, that said good agent would need to be aware of the various mechanisms and service providers available to authors seeking to self-publish, and that the author might reasonably seek the agent's advice on the best way to go about the process. [That being said, I am nervous about an agent charging its usual 15% commission for "selling" a work to its own author; I think that creates an odd and potentially inappropriate relationship in which the agent loses the incentive to market works to third-party publishers.]

But I do not think it follows that the agent ought to become, in effect, the co-publisher of a client's work by providing that client with the services associated with self-publishing. In doing so, I think an agent alters the client/agent relationship in ways that at the least create the potential for serious conflicts of interest -- not just between the client and the agent, but between the agent and other prospective publishers, and between the agent and other providers of publication-related resources.

Essentially, agents have a dual role where authors are concerned; they are both the author's advocate and the author's designated negotiator...and when the agent becomes a publisher or co-publisher, that agent's role as a negotiator is compromised.

Having said all that, a comment regarding JABberwocky and Goblin Tales in specific: my sense is that at least in your case, JABberwocky did not cross the line. Your description indicates that they are acting as one of several distributors for your self-published work, and taking commissions only on the sales they generate through their own distribution channel. That may raise ethical eyebrows in some quarters, but I don't think it automatically triggers the reservations I express above.
Aug. 2nd, 2011 04:18 pm (UTC)
"...a comment regarding JABberwocky and Goblin Tales in specific ... Your description indicates that they are acting as one of several distributors for your self-published work, and taking commissions only on the sales they generate through their own distribution channel."

That's correct.

Looking at the numbers, my guess is that they've earned around $5 to $10 in commission from sales of Goblin Tales through those channels.
Aug. 2nd, 2011 04:17 pm (UTC)
You say that Joshua has access to Kobo and iBooks that you don't, but I checked out both publishers and access is only a matter of signing up. You do need a mac for ibooks, but otherwise it's just register and upload, and you had already done the hard work of creating and formatting your epub file for B/N.

So what is your agent bringing to earn 15 percent of every sale? I'm confused.
Aug. 2nd, 2011 05:07 pm (UTC)
It might be that Kobo and iBooks have changed their policies and no longer require individual authors to work through a publisher or aggregator. That would be nice, and if you have links to where they now allow individual authors to publish their own work, could you please share those with me? Thanks!
(no subject) - tobias_buckell - Aug. 2nd, 2011 05:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Aug. 2nd, 2011 05:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Aug. 2nd, 2011 06:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Aug. 2nd, 2011 06:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tobias_buckell - Aug. 2nd, 2011 08:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Aug. 2nd, 2011 09:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 2nd, 2011 04:39 pm (UTC)
Agent as Publishers
I find the idea of an agent "helping" and author to self-publish as palatable as a cement pie. To me the whole purpose of an agent is to open doors I cannot open myself. The idea of self-publishing is that the author (the "self" in self-publishing) can do it all themselves. Why give some one a cut of your book when you're doing all the heavy lifting? Once the book is published you still have to do all the self promotion and marketing and you've just thrown away a percentage of each sale to someone who did... twelve hours of work?

I once had an agent ask me to make a list of my contacts in Hollywood and they would pitch my screenplay to my contacts. I walked out. This "agent" wanted to walk in the doors I had opened? I was trying to figure out what he was smoking. Then I thought about the poor sucker who would jump at this chance.

If an agent brings real value to the table then it's worth giving them a cut. But they need to commit to giving me more promotional opportunities, bigger reviews, more store placement, and better avenues of awareness for my story. They need to show me why they're worth 15%. If this is not in the discussion then I consider the agent a con-artist.
Aug. 2nd, 2011 06:30 pm (UTC)
Re: Agent as Publishers
The proposed services are listed here:


I would think there'd be a wide range of opinion as to whether that would be worth the royalty fee to any given author.
Aug. 2nd, 2011 05:16 pm (UTC)

I think a big question is does the agency simply offer assistance with self-publishing as an option for those clients who want it, or are they pushing it as a first choice?

If it's the former (which in most of the newest cases it probably is), isn't that something the agency should have available for clients who want it? Or are they supposed to be telling clients who for whatever reason don't want to tackle self-publishing on their own that it's not their problem? Or is the suggestion (not by you, Jim) instead just that the agency should be providing that service without taking a commission for it?
Aug. 2nd, 2011 05:28 pm (UTC)
That's a valid question, and my gut reaction would be very different if an agency was pushing their self-publishing services as opposed to simply making that option available.

Which isn't to say that the latter doesn't have some questionable aspects as well, but the former would set off much louder klaxons for me.
(no subject) - jhetley - Aug. 2nd, 2011 05:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 2nd, 2011 06:07 pm (UTC)
This is an interesting discussion, and I am watching what happens before I take any steps towards ePub myself.

That being said, I got an email from my agent recently, explaining The Knight Agency's new foray into ePub for their authors. It all seemed very well laid-out and reasonable, and there was no sense of pushing at all. And I have no time, energy, or desire to do all that stuff for myself. (It may be fun, but one more thing on my plate will likely make my head explode.)

So if I do decide I want to ePub something, I might in fact consider letting them do it.
Amity Thompson
Aug. 2nd, 2011 06:19 pm (UTC)
Sometimes I think I'm the only one who likes the 15% vs flat-fee.

With a flat-fee, once the book is up, your relationship is done. Good luck, hope you liked me for repeat services. With well-negotiated, term-set commission, the agent has a vested interest in your success. I.e., they'll go the extra mile in edits, no matter how many the book needs--and you don't have to pay $$/pg upfront for each draft, hoping the editor does as great a job on your fantasy book as she did on your friend's historical.

Yes, an agent can (& some will) toss your work online & take what floats in. Or, they can search for ways to boost sales: negotiate for placement (I heard you can pay Amazon for this...I'd rather have a savvy agent persuade them), get your books in libraries (you can't do that), get you on a good book signing tour, or arrange a booth at ComicCon. Also, if problems arise (like your book pirated on Amazon, it happens), I'd much rather give that headache to my agent.

I've complaints along the lines of, if I'm selling 100s of books a day, I don't want to fork over 15% when my agent only spent a week arranging everything. But I bet that if you're selling 100's/day, & your agent is good, he's eyeing foreign and subsidiary rights. How about audio? Film? On the other end, if you're selling only a hundred copies a year...that's not a lot at 15%. Some people impulse spend the same amount in a month at Starbucks.

I'm annoyed because I feel like authors have spent decades being screwed by publishers. Forever we've accepted 6-8% paperback royalties. 6%!!!! Suddenly we can make 70%...and we've turned into greedy monsters. Honestly, if you feel your agent ONLY puts a week of work into your book & adds no value, fire her. Then hire a decent agent. They're out there.
Aug. 3rd, 2011 04:11 am (UTC)
You're not the only one. I would gladly jump for it for the convenience of not having to deal with formatting, editing, cover art, etc. I am disabled with a condition that causes brain fog and so I don't have a whole lot of effective time to write or do various things. My finances are also crap so I don't really have the up-front money to sink into cover art or paying editors.

I'd rather just have someone take a percentage cut and not have to deal with the set-up and up-front fees. It would be absolutely worth it to me. For others, who don't have my issues, it wouldn't. But I like that there are multiple options out there for authors to consider.
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Aug. 3rd, 2011 12:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 3rd, 2011 04:16 pm (UTC)
Great post, as always :)

This 'Agent doubles as publisher' thing is shaping up to be quite a controversy. It'll be interesting to see how it all pans out.
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Jim C. Hines


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