Agencies Becoming Publishers–a Trend and a Problem

Writer BewarePosted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Yesterday, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, a major US agency, announced that it will be facilitating self-publishing for some of its clients.

Over the past months and years we’ve come to the realization that e-publishing is yet another area in which we can be of service to our clients as literary agents. From authors who want to have their work available once the physical edition has gone out of print and the rights have reverted, to those whose books we believe in and feel passionately about but couldn’t sell—oftentimes, after approaching 20 or more houses—we realized that part of our job as agents in this new publishing milieu is to facilitate these works being made available as e-books and through POD and other editions.

D&G is not alone. Laura Rennert at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency is also experimenting with self-publishing for agency clients. The agency’s first release, P.J. Hoover’s YA novel Solstice, came out in April.

Literary agencies as publishers is a fast-growing trend (I blogged about it last month, in connection with the publishing initiatives announced by UK agencies Ed Victor and Sheil Land). To date, however, agency publishing ventures have primarily focused on backlist publishing–bringing already-published clients’ out-of-print works back into circulation.There are some conflicts of interest inherent in such arrangements–for instance, your agent is supposed to be your advocate in publishing contract negotiations, but who advocates for you when it’s your agent who’s offering the contract? As agent Peter Cox has pointed out, “Once you become your client’s publisher, you then become a principal in the transaction [which] means you can no longer function as the client’s agent.”

However, to my mind at least, the conflicts that arise when agencies begin publishing clients’ previously unpublished works are even more concerning. If an agency can publish a client’s book itself, will it try as hard to market the book to traditional publishers? Will it give up sooner on a book that doesn’t sell right away? Where and how will the line be drawn between “this book still has potential markets” and “this book is tapped out?” How much–unconsciously or otherwise–will the agency influence clients’ decisions on which publishing route to take? According to Dystel & Goderich’s announcement, “what we are going to do is to facilitate e-publishing for those of our clients who decide that they want to go this route, after consultation and strategizing about whether they should try traditional publishing first or perhaps simply set aside the current book and move on to the next.” (My bolding.) Does this mean that the agency may take on clients whose manuscripts are never marketed to other publishers at all?

Also a question: what’s the money situation? Does the agency provide all consultation and publishing services and in return take a cut of the book’s sales proceeds? Or might there be some sort of “partnership” arrangement, where the author pays the agent for publishing services? D&G says that they will “charge a 15% commission for our services in helping [authors] project manage everything from choosing a cover artist to working with a copyeditor to uploading their work.” What exactly will that commission be charged on? (D&G has responded to some of the concerns generated by their announcement, but the payment arrangements are still unclear.)

I can certainly see the agency perspective here. Keeping up with the rapid pace of change in the publishing industry, maximizing income potential, providing the widest range of services to clients–all of that makes good business sense. And I don’t for a moment doubt that these ventures are genuinely intended to be helpful (as well as to make money).

But while I think a good argument can be made for backlist publishing as a lateral expansion of an agency’s role (yes, there are conflicts, but these are books that have already had their day), becoming publishers for clients’ not-yet-published manuscripts seems like a fundamental violation of the author-agent relationship, which is founded on the premise that the agent’s job is to sell the client’s work for the best possible advance to the best possible publisher. Being able to publish the work yourself undermines that premise in a really profound way. And even if you begin your publishing venture with the best possible motives, and a firm intention never to capitalize on your clients’ deepest vulnerability–which is, precisely, the desire to be published–what’s to prevent you, over time, from slipping away from that resolve, especially if the traditional publishing market continues to contract and your own publishing venture proves to be lucrative?

We’re in really murky territory here, and I don’t think it’s realistic to expect agencies to police themselves. Agents’ associations need to take the lead in looking seriously at this issue and amending their conduct codes to address it–rather than, as seems to be happening now, adopting a wait-and-see attitude or just going with the flow (the UK’s Association of Authors’ Agents recently decided that agency publishing ventures do not violate its code of conduct). Agencies are going to become publishers, whether we like it or not–and a pro-active approach needs to be taken now, in order to prevent abuses down the road.

One Response

  1. EMoon

    Some writers with publishing experience who want to dip a toe into e-publishing (publishing novellas themselves, for instance) do not have the time to do all that’s necessary to produce an e-book. Yes, I know the argument that it’s always better to do it oneself, but I also know the reality that writers with one or more day jobs, major family responsibilities, etc. are already pushing the envelope just getting their writing done. And some of us are simply not good at the other stuff (and telling us we have to be doesn’t give us those talents or skillsets, just adds to the stress level.) Writers have different needs and different non-writing commitments.

    Such writers will be looking for services that can lighten their load with e-book production, while not limiting them in contractual ways, as their traditional publishers have, and producing more profit per unit. The advantages to mostly-self-publishing (with the aid of a point person who coordinates the technical stuff) include a shorter gap from writing to seeing the work for sale, as well as less time lost to submission and negotiation. (As we all know, it can be months from proposing–or even submitting a finished work–to the contract actually being signed, and longer after that for money to appear, and far longer–typically over a year from a book being turned in–until publication.)

    I see little risk to *experienced* writers who choose to let their agent be the point person for this. Yes, it’s a different relationship, and should require a separate contract recognizing that. But if the writer has already decided to present a specific new work first as an e-book, not through his/her regular publisher (which is the only way those who have no out-of-print backlist can get a toe in the independent e-business end), and needs a point person, then the agent is a known quantity.

    Yes, the writer could look for someone else to be point person–someone the writer does not yet know or having a working relationship with…at a greater cost of time and effort. Some would argue this is far preferable, but I think it depends on the individual writer.