Writers Tackle the Future – Agents as Publishers?

Writers Tackle the FutureJust as publishing houses are trying to capitalize on the “new frontier” of ebook publishing and redefine their business models, so too are agents. Most recently, Bookends announced its intention to offer ebook services, following suit with Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. Undoubtedly more literary agencies will follow.
Can a literary agent who represents the author (in theory) also be that author’s publisher? Is there a conflict of interest in this arrangement? If you read Bookends and DGLM’s announcements (see links above), they present their case as simply a value added service their agency would offer. Existing clients who wish to navigate the new frontier (without doing it themselves) can delegate the details to their agency for their backlists, short stories to promote upcoming releases or epub works that might not be as marketable. They offer their expertise in editing, marketing, and packaging for their usual 15% fee.
Yes, that’s 15% of all book/unit sales. And since there is no “print run” on a digital novel, this could mean 15% forever if that’s not defined by contract. Authors who have looked into self-publishing know that an author can hire one or more contractors to coordinate the effort of packaging their book with formatting, editing, cover art, and uploading said book into the retail outlets who will offer the work online. They don’t have to do it themselves. (I’ve heard cost figures of $1000 – 2000 per book, but since some of you have gone through this process, please weigh in and share your experiences on costs, level of difficulty, and what you “farmed out.”) If advertising is involved, that’s something an author always has the ability to pay for and do on their own.
If that’s one alternative, that an author hires the work done by third parties, what specifically does the agent bring new to the table in this regard? Arguably, an author can hope their agency brings years of industry experience to package the best product, but beyond their opinion (which they would bring if they represented the author as agent anyway), what value can they add to improve sales without the promo dollars of a publisher’s budget (traditionally only offered to a select few authors or book projects)? What kind of promo is required for ebook sales outside what’s already made available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, etc.? Yes, it would be nice to have the promo budget of James Patterson, but how realistic is that for the average author?
On top of the question of value derived for an agent’s 15% fee, who retains the rights for the work? Yes, typically the publisher would retain rights for a specified time, but if the agent is the publisher, who would be the advocate for the author if the agent representing their interest is now the publisher? And with no print run to determine when an author can ask for their rights back, how will the author ever reclaim their work? Who is protecting the rights of a new author who may not be aware of the pitfalls? Normally that might be the agent, but if they are now the publisher, who then?
Anyone can have an opinion about this. Realtor’s have laws regarding their representation conduct, for example. I worked in the energy industry where third party energy marketing arms had to be totally separate on paper and physically housed apart from its affiliate, the regulated utility. Operating practices had to be auditable and employees had to sign ethics agreements annually that could be grounds for termination if this code of conduct was violated. Enron became the prime example of conflict of interest that defined many of the laws that are in place today.
If this trend continues where agents become publishers, I see much harder issues ahead on contract terms, sub-rights negotiations, fiduciary obligations, and better conflict of interest policies where ebooks are concerned—and AAR must weigh in with specifics since it’s obviously not clear. In the ever evolving world of ebooks, agents becoming publishers is another strange twist. Is this the shape of things to come—another nail in the coffin of traditional publishers—or merely literary agencies struggling to be relevant in a new age?
I’ve had talks with my agent and we’ve addressed strategies going forward. We both see ebooks as a new opportunity for authors, but we recognize that the way deals are negotiated now, that will most likely change. New questions must be explored open-mindedly—for example:

1.) What’s a fair ebook royalty rate? Is 50% a more acceptable industry standard or should it be subject to negotiation deal to deal?

2.) Can a book deal be done where an author retains ebook rights to be leveraged by an agent? Would 15% agent fee be warranted then?

3.) When can an author get rights back in a digital world—from a publisher or an agent?

4.) Should any publisher get only a limited time period to said rights? If so, what royalty value would that have and is the term of the arrangement variable and negotiable?

With the future changing as fast as it is, agents can still add value and provide a real service with regard to foreign sales, audio, film and negotiating print rights on ebooks. I’ve never been much of an advocate for an agent editing a book before an editor gets their input. I hire an agent to be my advocate and negotiator. I don’t want their attention focused on a multitude of revisions with their clients that dilutes their effectiveness in the marketplace, which should be their primary concern. Some agents give editing advice as part of their representation deal, without charging a fee. Below is article 8 of the Association of Author’s Representatives (AAR) Canon of Ethics.

“The AAR believes that the practice of literary agents charging clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works (including outlines, proposals, and partial or complete manuscripts) is subject to serious abuse that reflects adversely on our profession. For that reason, members may not charge clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works and may not benefit, directly or indirectly, from the charging for such services by any other person or entity. The term ‘charge’ in the previous sentence includes any request for payment other than to cover the actual cost of returning materials.”

According to their announcement, Bookends explains that their 15% fee provides their editing expertise as a part of the package. “For the work we are doing with them we are getting paid a 15% commission… we also provide revisions and edits for those books that might not have been published before.” How is this different than a vanity press? And how is this in keeping with AAR’s Canon of Ethics as stated above?

Bookends and DGLM’s announcements justify their 15% agent fee with a list of services that can easily be obtained elsewhere by third parties who aren’t also charged with advocacy on the author’s behalf. In an effort to sound forward thinking, these agencies are ignoring the potential for conflict of interest and undermining the relationships they already have with publishers by competing with them.
Another concern I have are the people querying agent/publishers who are desperate to be represented. If Bookends, DGLM or other agents, find a marginal book that would be a tough sale to a traditional house, they can “offer their services” and take money from people who don’t know better. The countless folks in a slush pile become a gold mine, the gift that keeps on giving. And if there is no a delineation in who offers these services—with a definitive separation of companies—an agent’s existing author clients could get ignored because an agent is too busy cashing in on people bent on being “represented” by a real agent.
On the subject of conflict of interest, agent Jessica Faust in a comment to her Bookends blog post stated, “My feeling is that whether or not it truly is a conflict of interest comes down to how a situation is handled by the agent, and in many ways, that’s for the agent and the agent’s clients to determine.”
What do you think? Should a conflict of interest be done by consensus between an agent and client? Or should more definitive guidelines be established by more objective parties, without a personal stake in the answer?

47 thoughts on “Writers Tackle the Future – Agents as Publishers?

  1. A few years ago, I had gone through all the houses with my agent. She worked tirelessly on my first book which she loved but could not find a fit for. We kept getting back the encouraging “good story, but not marketable”.
    After a year and a similar letter from every house she brought up the fact that her husband was a publisher and was interested. She was very up front about this being a conflict of interest and something I would have to think about.
    Long story short, I went with her husbands publishing company (Norlightspress) and couldn’t be happier. Together we have put out two books, that turned out to be extremely marketable. I like that it is all in house, so to speak. I now have a team to work with and everyone is working towards the same goal.
    It may be different with the straight to e-publishing agent/house, but in my case, the agent still needs to believe the book will sell to make any money. She has to believe in the project, probably even more so, as her husbands business is at stake, too.
    I have found this conflict of interest to be a good thing.

    Victoria Allman
    author of: SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain

  2. Good questions to ponder as things are in such flux, and will be for a long time. Right now the only certainties are: a) nobody knows what things will look like in the months and years ahead; b) everything’s up in the air; c) everything’s negotiable.

    The well informed writer has choices. Some can self publish all on their own, like a guy who wants to landscape his house goes down to the nursery and then the hardware store, buys his tools and works the project.

    Or he can turn that all over to a professional landscaper. Only in this case, the landscapers will take a percentage of sales.

    The agent role in all this is still evolving. It doesn’t necessarily have to constitute a conflict of interest, but each situation will have to be assessed on its own. Information is the key currency here, but the information is only going to be gathered over the course of time, through trial and error.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Victoria. I’m happy that your situation worked out. I firmly believe there are projects publishers pass on that would find footing with readers if they were given a chance to discover them. I suppose that’s why I find the new direction in self-publishing to be an exciting opportunity for authors to get works directly into the hands of readers.

    It sounds as if your agent built a rapport of trust with you and got you a deal you were ultimately happy with. That’s great.

    Agents are trying to find a way to stay involved with their clients so the industry doesn’t shift away from their services. This is understandable.

    What I’m suggesting by this post is not to question any individual’s integrity, but to explore whether an agent should realistically represent a client AND be their publisher, without any separation between the two businesses.

    On top of the 15% agency fee, it’s my understanding that this agency/publisher also receives 50% royalty acting as publisher too. (The term for holding rights is 3 yrs.)

    Given what I have heard about self-publishing cost through independent subcontractors (companies who are a one-stop shop for all bundling), that seems like a hefty cut, even though it IS for a limited time, but if you had any dispute with your publisher, who would you go to?

  4. Hey Jim–Thanks for your comment. Information is important to share and discuss. That’s why I wanted to post this development and talk about it. We certainly have more options and that’s always good. And I can certainly see that some authors who are with this agency might LOVE a familiar face to guide them through the rough waters of a changing world. They trust them and for fees that are typical, or maybe slightly better at 50% ebook royalty, they can have what they’ve always had. Agencies can justify this as another service, but I think authors should be aware of their options.

    I’ve found so many wonderful authors who give away their ebook publishing advice for free because they genuinely want to help. The author community can be a wonderfully nurturing place in that regard.

    And because I love my agent, I’ve kept her in the loop on my way of thinking and trying to find ways to keep her active when I get my backlist rights or explore how she can take advantage of any ebooks I may do on my own as a promo tool. Like you, Jim, I hope any ebooks I do (hopefully in the near future), will also benefit my current publishers where readers might want to find other books I’ve written. I just think it will take time to sort these issues out with the appropriate contract terms and negotiable items to be better defined.

  5. I’m happy to see that someone else experienced queasy feelings when reading these announcements. I just heard about Bookends yesterday (or the day before?) and it shocked me.

    I’m unpublished and unagented, but I’ve done sufficient research to understand the relationship between agent and author. The agent, from what I understand, acts as a bridge between author and publisher, and his job is to advocate for the author.

    I’m not saying that these agencies are trying to double dip or somehow scam their clients. I just think it muddies the waters of the publishing industry and creates an environment that will further confuse inexperienced writers.

    I guess what I’m saying, though not very efficiently, is that it makes me nervous.

  6. Very interesting post, Jordan. Like, Jim, I think it’s too soon to tell. But it makes sense for agents like Jessica/Bookends to explore new revenue stream opportunities. If they didn’t they would be living with blinders on. It’s tough to justify handing over your project to a “one-stop” service when so many of the writer’s needs can be taken care of by specialists, in most cases for a flat fee.

    But there are a number of services that an agency can supply as a value added function–one of the most important is foreign/translation rights, something self-pub authors have little or no access to. Perhaps an agency that takes an ala carte approach is the one that can take advantage of the changing landscape at least in the short term.

  7. Hey Pipe–Thanks for stopping by. Yeah, I’m nervous too for aspiring authors not as experienced or savvy as you who accept things as is. Maybe because I write crime fiction and worked with contract language for years in the energy industry that it makes me suspicious by nature. My bad. 🙂

    But as well meaning as people can individually be, there are countless others who are there to exploit folks with dreams of being published. I’ve found the author community as very supportive however, so I hope you find a place to nurture your dreams and get sage advice from your fellow writers, like here on TKZ & other organizations.

  8. Oops, Piper. The ‘r’ dropped off of my rather quick reply. Sorry about that.

    Hey Joe–I think these early announcements could have been better conceived. They send out the wrong vibe. It’s much harder to evaluate what services an agent CAN still provide and develop meatier services than just nabbing easy money. Some agencies will have to push harder on foreign rights then they presently do. And as a whole, the global market will have to look at ebooks differently.

    I think agents will be on unsure footing if they have to shift gears to actually promote and market a book or do the work a publisher does on cover art, for example. In actuality, they would probably farm this work out so they could keep their focus in an area of their expertise, so they’d be taking on the details of the subcontractors that the author is unwilling to do–probably delegating that coordination effort to a minion.

    This kind of work would get them out of their element if the same people are used in this new business venture. I simply can’t see this as a real service for existing clients that is sustainable. After authors chat with other authors and see how steep a cost 15% is, PLUS the 50% royalty rate, it might create hard feelings. I’m sure that’s not what they want.

    Eventually it would be more tempting to resort to the slush pile to get “new clients” and that doesn’t seem right to me. AAR will need to establish better ground rules and I hope they do for everyone’s sake.

  9. Victoria–I read your comment again and noticed your thoughts on your agent having to believe in your book because her husband’s business was at stake too. In the print world, I would agree. And yes, your agent and her husband were undoubtedly behind your project.

    But in the digital world, there isn’t the same risk. There is not printed inventory to store, no booksellers to find shelf space with, no co-op dollars, no real cost on cover art, formatting, and uploading online that is not deducted from the initial royalties until they are recouped. This ebook explosion has changed our industry and must be addressed to protect the rights of individuals who expect agents to be objective advocates on their behalf.

  10. I have a plan to overcome it all.

    I write my books then become an agent and represent myself to my own small publishing company. Therefore, being in a sense both self-published where I make 100% of the money and traditionally published where I the publisher makes 88% and I the writer make 12% and being my own agent where I make 15%, I end up making 215%. And since I am paying myself to do my own marketing, I can add a couple more percent based on sales bringing it up to 220%.

    This stuff is easy!

    Ponzi had nothing on me…and I didn’t even have to scam anyone but myself!

    Yeah Baby…I’m gonna be a Gazillionaire! Look out Trumpy! Logoff Gates! Go back to your drinking songs Buffet! Ba$illionaire $ands is in the house!

    who do I call to start the infomercial?

  11. Oh brother, Basil.

    You and Enron, baby. To scam yourself, is alcohol involved?

    You laugh, but I have actually seen a small publisher start from an author who couldn’t sell to an outside party. Not sayin’ any names. That company got a bad rep fast, taking advantage of aspiring authors with terrible contracts.

    So unfortunately, you are not the first to think of this idea, but the agent angle is new. Go for it. I’m sure the IRS would totally get behind you in this tough economy.

    I’ve been waiting for your post today, Basil. You dog, you!!!

  12. I consider it a huge potential conflict of interest, and the IRS agrees. There was a Reuters (?) article this month on the subject and the IRS is looking into the issue. I’d be surprised if we didn’t end getting a government opinion on this.

    I give the agents the benefit of the doubt, but saying there is no conflict involved ‘because they won’t let there be’ is naive in the extreme. Think of the potential disagreements with your publisher that you use your agent to handle. Now, whoops…the agent is acting as the publisher. How do you handle those disagreements now?

    With agents acting in this manner, they are of course going to try to make the venture worthwhile to them. But what if it’s at the author’s expense?

    There are plenty of cheap venues for formatting and cover creation, although editing comes a bit dearer. I just don’t see what the agent has to offer that could possibly make it worth 15%.

    Now, if the agent wanted to sell the digital self-published work to a foreign market, that would be a valid reason to part with a % of royalty.

    I think a bit less of AAR for not issuing an opinion on the matter.

  13. These are weighty questions that likely will be debated for some time to come. Personally, I think it’s a conflict of interest for an agent to become an ebook publisher. I just successfully uploaded my backlist title onto the Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords (see Wednesday’s post). All I paid was $125 to the cover artist and $9.95 to Smashwords for an ISBN. Since this was a previously published book, it had already been through editing. Nonetheless, I revised the entire work before formatting it according to the ereader site specifications. Yes, this took time, but it really wasn’t as hard as I’d expected.

  14. This is a great post, and one I’m interested in finding more about. My own agent is looking at how to redefine the agency role. I imagine there will be a lot of trial and error – but getting all the info you can before signing on the dotted line is key!

  15. Hey Kylie–Thanks for weighing in and taking time from your busy writing schedule.

    I find it surprising that AAR hasn’t issued an opinion before now, even to say they are looking into it. Not every agency belongs to AAR, but since this organization governs conduct for agents, I’m shocked they don’t have anything on their website.

    Thanks for the mention of the IRS investigation. Very interesting. I’ll have to look for that. I’ll post it if I find it.

    If agents would set up a different service group that coordinated this kind of service for their clients under a different fee structure (with auditable procedures to show they are separate), taking into account the actual costs for the book packaging not an agent’s % fee, with a reasonable profit marked up, this might be a more solid opportunity for authors of that agency who don’t want to bother with ebook details. But to use the same personnel to advocate for the client AND the publisher invites the potential for problems associated with conflict of interest, despite everyone’s good intentions.

    This is exactly the kind of thing that happened with Enron, so I would imagine the IRS to be extremely interested in this kind of thing, but policies on agent conduct should be established separately. I’m actually quite shocked that agencies don’t appear to be concerned about the appearance of impropriety. They should have given this more thought.

  16. In all honesty, with a little less cheekiness than my other idea, I don’t really see how an agent would help much in the ebook world as it exists today.

    I have three novels and two shorts up on all the various sources. Also have one of them as an audiobook at Audible and others on the way. For each book I ended up putting up about $400 for a professional editor, a donation of cover art on two (as a gift for the free podcast versions) the others I did myself, and that’s about it. For my next works I will probably pay a service to do the formatting for the various ebook outlets. Therefore with about a $1000 per title (money that could be made back in short period if the book is good) a writer can sit back collection 70% royalties for the rest of time (time of course being relative to things not chaning).

    The only reason I could think of to use someone as an intermediary in this environment would be if a writer is so prolific that they were unable to find time for anything but writing. It’s not too hard.

  17. Nancy–Yes, I loved your post yesterday. And thanks for sharing your costs. Those are very affordable. I’ve seen CE rates on some sites at $.02 per word and I believe $.03 for full edits, but they are attainable and fixed, which is key. The percentage thing should NEVER be considered in my opinion. I don’t mind people making a reasonable profit, but the unknown potential of a % fee being added to your unit sales to cover a cost that is fixed is crazy.

  18. Hey Traci–Thanks for your comment. It’s nice to hear your agent is talking with you about your future relationship. I think that’s great. There’s all sorts of potential for niche opportunities here as this gets sorted out, but an agency stepping in as publisher smacks of trouble for the future. Best wishes with your books!!!

  19. Basil–You are so uniquely qualified to be your own publisher and audio book guy, you could really find a niche in this environment. And you have great experience with all this, so I value your opinion on the time and money it takes to self-pub ebooks. Thanks for sharing. I’ve heard cost breakdowns to be $300-400 for a professional cover art design, $250-350 for formatting, CE cost of $.02/word (more expensive if you do a full book doctor kind of edit), and more design work if you offer print books (for the spine and back of book, etc.) But again, all of this is fixed. The same can be said if the author decides to pay for advertising at the various sales sites.

    You did well to keep your costs down. And with your amazing voice over work, you could probably barter for plenty of free concessions.

  20. Basil, your first comment reminds me of the Steven Wright riff. “I saw a sign at a gas station. It said ‘help wanted’. There was another sign that said ‘self service’. So I hired myself. Then I took all the money and left.”

  21. Steven Wright is my kindred spirit…. and he owes me tons of money cuz my cousin Leonard met him right before his first live show. Leonard had taken my time machine back to 1979 and accidentally took my “Journal of Witty Stuff” instead of the Time Machine user’s manual, silly man left it in the green room at the Boston Comedy Connection. Apparently Steven found it and the rest is history.

    The first time he was on TV I knew something was amiss when as a twelve year old kid I saw him do a show and thought to myself, “Hey, that’s something I’d probably think of when I’m an adult.”

    And the rest is history … and yes … 411 does know where your lost sock is.

  22. “But in the digital world, there isn’t the same risk. There is not printed inventory to store, no booksellers to find shelf space with, no co-op dollars, no real cost on cover art, formatting, and uploading online that is not deducted from the initial royalties until they are recouped.”

    I don’t think this means that it’s easy to just take any book, however, put it up, and make money. It’s true that there isn’t the same risk with eBooks as print, but ePublishers don’t publish every project that comes across their virtual desks. They still need to: 1) weigh the cost of producing a project against its potential earnings, and 2) keep the quality of the books they produce high if they want readers and others in the industry to take them seriously. With respect to 1), the publishers are spending time and money producing a book and their time is better spent on projects they feel have a real chance at making enough money to make that effort worthwhile.

    There is one last point I’d like to make. BookEnds is offering three choices. Clients can self-pub totally on their own (no agent commission), they can pay BookEnds 15% commission to help, or they can go with the publisher arm of the agency. In your blog, you say:

    “Existing clients who wish to navigate the new frontier (without doing it themselves) can delegate the details to their agency for their backlists, short stories to promote upcoming releases or ePub works that might not be as marketable. They offer their expertise in editing, marketing, and packaging for their usual 15% fee.”

    But in looking at the BookEnds blog, notice that for the 15% commission, the client is still not free of these tasks, either financially or time-wise. They say:

    “The clients cover the costs of conversion, the cover, editing (if necessary), etc., and we manage all the books once they are ready to be loaded to the sites.”

    The client is still doing that work. BookEnds goes on to say:

    “We also provide revisions and edits for those books that might not have been published before.”

    They talk about editing here, but I believe they mean the high-level editing, which is great and very valuable, but the task of arranging cover design, copy-editing, etc. is still in the author’s hands.

    I just wanted to clarify this in case some authors think that for the 15% commission the agency is actually doing that work for them. There is a lot of discussion in the comments on the BookEnds blog posting about what they are doing for that commission. My take is that it’s more about the career advice they will give, but others may read it differently.

    I mentioned earlier that I am starting to self-publish in addition to my work with publishers, and you asked authors to share information. So far I have released an original short story and a previously published novella for which the rights have reverted to me. I will be putting up backlist from my original ePub in the near future. For the two stories I have already published, the costs were very low. I actually did the covers myself. (Maybe I’m a fool, but I think they turned out okay.) Thus, the cost was about $15 per book for the stock photos and a bunch of my time, but I enjoyed doing it. My husband and I are both techie types so between us we put them up on Amazon and Smashwords ourselves. I did have the original story copy-edited, but it was short (8K words), so the cost was low. For my backlist titles, I will hire a cover designer who charges $150. Thus, $150 will be my total cost per book because they are previously published (no copy-editing) and I will put them up myself.

    For those of you who don’t know, Smashwords takes 15% of your sales through them, which includes the sales they distribute to Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, etc.) I’m Canadian so can’t publish directly on B&N, but if you’re in the U.S. you can go through pubit.com directly for B&N.

    I think this is a great discussion and thank you for getting us started.

  23. This is definitely an important matter for authors to discuss.

    I started my career in eBooks, then was signed by St. Martin’s Press where I now publish regularly, but I still publish with ePubs and I am starting to self-publish. The question about an agent’s role is a critical one to me right now.

    I found your post and all the comments to be very helpful. I have several points I’d like to add, so please bear with my long post.

    “Agents are trying to find a way to stay involved with their clients so the industry doesn’t shift away from their services. This is understandable. “

    I agree. The business is changing and roles need to change with it. I also agree with one of the previous posters that an agent who is willing to work on an a la carte basis (selling foreign rights, etc. for an author’s self-pubbed works) will be offering a helpful role to his/her client.

    “to explore whether an agent should realistically represent a client AND be their publisher, without any separation between the two businesses. “

    I believe this is a conflict of interest and there was a great article by an agent that succinctly addresses this issue:


    I will be very interested to see the Reuters article if you find it.

    “On top of the 15% agency fee, it’s my understanding that this agency/publisher also receives 50% royalty acting as publisher too.”

    I was thinking the main problem is that an agent is someone the author depends on to make suggestions that best meet the author’s career needs, but as soon as the agent is a publisher, too, they have a vested interest in steering the author to their publishing company.

    I’m very surprised that the agency would still be taking a 15% commission on top of the publisher cut. An agent setting up their own publishing company might argue that a lot of authors don’t use agents when going to ePublishers and that could be a valid argument that they don’t have a conflict of interest while acting as a publisher, but that goes down the drain if they take an agent commission, too. It seems clear they aren’t going to negotiate terms that are better for their client than they are for the publisher, which is themselves.


  24. Hello Opal. Thanks for your input. I hope all of your comment posted. And I know they are out of order, not sure why. Sorry about that.

    9 repeats got caught in the spam filter. I agree this issue requires examination. Thanks for speaking out at TKZ. Very valid points. I tried looking for that Reuters article about the IRS being intetested in agencies setting up at ebook publishers, but couldn’t find it. I’ll post if I do. Thanks again.

  25. So much going on. Kris Rusch predicted this was going to happen ans I can’t believe it came about so quickly. It’s interesting to hear everyone’s thoughts about it.

    Now I’m curious if these agents who assist in self-pubbing, will it later qualify as a writing credential vs. doing it on your own? Interesting.

  26. I am just getting started in e-publishing but I did the whole thing for under $300, and that includes getting it professionally formatted.

    But I managed to find a cover artist who worked cheap. I think my costs will go up with my next book a little, but my point is, it didn’t run me a grand.

    I would love to get an agent someday, when I’m making enough money that the 15% isn’t such a big deal. This is because if they were a good agent, I think their connections should be able to help me blow up.


  27. Hey Taylor. Thanks for sharing your cost. And best wishes on the launch of your first novella. I’m excited for you. Whoo Hoo!

    Hey Martha. If I’m understanding your question, I think the agent’s publishing house name would have to get qualified to be recognized by certain organizations. That would set the work apart from being self-pubbed, I would think.

  28. The editors I’ve worked with have been buyers of my books, or editors they assigned. I would have to find an editor freelancer with an idea of the genre, but if I can’t get a book by the editors, I’ll self-publish. As for my agent, I’d follow her to hell, and if I can include her, I will absolutely do it.

  29. I like your loyalty to your agent, John. I feel the same about mine. I’ve heard authors who like specific editors they’ve worked with for several projects can sometimes reach an agreement to work on ebooks for a negotiated rate. Trust and knowledge of the genre, especiallyworking with someone familiar with your books would be great.

  30. My writers’ group was just talking about this subject the other day.

    I have to admit, I’m a bit queasy about the actual publishing house part of the equation. However, as long as they don’t ask for cash up front, I don’t see it going across the line to vanity pubbing. Also, as long as they don’t take the Publish America route of constantly pushing people to buy their own books. Instead they are just another bit of e-noise in a noisy virtual room.

    On the flip side, I have no prob with agents lending their expertise and name to a truly self-pubbed book. I was advocating that approach in my group. Agents have amassed a huge knowledge bank that could benefit a self pubber. Bookends was being lambasted as having no more marketing knowledge than a recent grad. Not true. They have cachet and even the mention of a client’s book on a blog or website by the right agent can immediately translate into sales. Also, since they don’t get paid unless you do, there is motivation for the agent to advocate your book.

    Because of the squeeze in commercial pubbing, agents are getting squeezed as well and many are using the door. I can think of two agents with high online profiles who have left in the last year.

    They are taking their knowledge, their experience, their platform, their rolodex and heading into industry. That’s a loss to authors. Why not let them make a little helping out self-pubbers as consultants and advocates? As long as the terms are clear and the author has an out.

    But, the actual publishing house? Okay, that’s a little icky . . .


  31. Awesome comment on the DG blog post:

    “An awesome quote out of the comments on the DG announcement:

    “And of what relevance is it that someone charges for what the customer can do for free? Is this not always the case? For example, I could paint my own house or cut my own grass for free, but it’s more cost-effective for me to hire these things out so I can focus on my day job. Come to think of it, I could perform surgery on myself to save money, too, but I might be better off outsourcing that to a specialist.”

    The author of that comment was some hack named Barry Eisler . . .

    Times, they are a-changin and the smart business people will change with them. I, personally, like the idea of dealing with smart business people.


  32. Terri-I respect your enthusiasm for smart people and savvy agents and authors, but if my house painter charged me 15% of the value of my house when it sold because of the part he/she played in making it pretty–when that same job would only cost a flat fee from a painter who is ONLY painting–how is that a good deal?

    It’s not that agents don’t have something to offer in this marketplace. It’s that their jobs are evolving into something they need to fully evaluate. Everyone wants on the ebook bandwagon because there is money there. Selling subrights is an area that many of them have farmed out to the publishers (if these houses have a strong presence globally on foreign rights or have audio studios, etc), but there’s still money to be made here. And if anyone can develop a real plan to market a novel that works for ebooks, without throwing a lot of money at it, there could be a niche value there. But an agent blogging about a client’s book and pushing it online will only get that book so far. Most readers don’t follow agents recommendations, as our author community might. The average reader gets much of their reading recommendations from other reader/reviewers.

    It’s not a question of a trusted agent making it easy on a client they’ve had for years and holding their hand through the process of ebook publishing. The average author would appreciate that. The greater question is whether there is the potential for a conflict of interest when the agent is now the publisher.

    1.) Who will represent real disputes once the agent becomes the market as well?

    2.) If agents have a company affiliation with a publisher, does there need to be more separation of duties in this regard–a documented and auditable process open to public scrutiny?

    3.) What services can be offered equitably where a 15% rate (a cost that rises with the books sold) is warranted when there are providers out there doing the same work for a flat fixed fee?

    Here are a few ideas where agents could provide service in this changing digital world taht does not require them to become a publisher. I’m sure we could brainstorm more.

    If agents farmed out the work for the actual cost of formatting, cover art, and editing thru 3rd party providers, these costs could be negotiated down because of economies of scale whereby the agency handles a number of authors’ works. This could be a benefit that is a real service and not muddled by the agency becoming a publisher. They could negotiate better deals with 3rd party publishers (and other service providers) because they rep a number of authors. They could also coordinate the whole process as a service for their clientele, establishing a concrete list of tangible services to promote the book, report and analyze sales, use their influence in the marketplace to get a better deal for the author in the future with a traditional house or a better deal through ebook publishers–while also managing subrights and the author’s career. Would all this be worth their usual 15% fee? I would think many authors would say YES, especially if they already have a relationship with the agency–and the agency would not have to become a publisher and risk a conflict of interest that could bring IRS scrutiny.

    But the real incentive behind this offering of nebulous “services” is money. IMO, this early list of “services” seems all fluff with no stuff–a way for agents to justify getting their 15% without putting any real work to devising a new role for themselves.

    Think about it. Does an agent have to become a publisher to support their clients’ desire to grow their careers with ebook publishing? No, but to justify getting an additional 50% royalty rate for the same book over a negotiated period of time where the rights are theirs, that’s tempting incentive for an agent to shift gears.

  33. Equating ebook publishing to brain surgery is a stretch too. My, Lord. Surgeons go through years of study, years of residency, licensing, maintain high dollar liability insurance policies, and perform countless hand-ons procedures to do what they do. Come on. Ebooks? Really?

    The real carrot in all this is that 50% or more royalty rate (for a negotiated & limited period of time, hopefully) that an agency can claim by saying they’re a publisher. This is not about an altruistic offer to help represent a client’s best needs. It’s about a business trying to expand their reach into an arena they see potential to make money and remain relevant.

    Do I blame them for trying? No, but muddying the waters between being an agent and a publisher has the potential for issues developing down the road that will draw public attention from the IRS, auditors, AAR, etc.

    If agents still want to go this route, they can, but I believe they must establish clear cut procedures & business practices on how they will operate equitably & autonomously between these two distinctly different types of services. How they operate and make business decisions must stand up to public scrutiny on any conflict of interest potential.

    IMO these early announcers leapt before they looked.

  34. We’re really not that far apart in thinking.

    I’m not the Konrath “the industry sucks” cynic nor am I “the industry protects literature from bad books!” doomcryer. In the middle is where most of the business happens.

    I’m a lawyer and we all cringe when someone decides to rep themselves. Not because it is taking revenue away from us, but because they seldom do a good job.

    However, on the flip side, standards are changing in the legal world to allow lawyers to give pro se folks a nudge and help, up to and including telling them they have no business in court. We are either paid hourly or flat fee or a percentage of what we recover. In a contingency fee, if we recover zero, that is what we are paid. The agent, like the lawyer, would be sharing in the risk.

    Also, like agents, we do a lot of stuff the client never sees. Our phone calls get answered and we get to go through the locked doors at the courthouse marked “authorized personnel only.” I can see an agent helping straighten curves and smooth paths.

    Yes, I agree, with full service pubbing there is an inherent conflict of interest. I’m no more comfortable with that than when Harlequinn started easing writers from slush to their own private vanity press. To reiterate – it feels, for lack of a better word, icky.

    However, as consultant and expediter, an agent could be a real service for the writer, including giving them the real deal about the quality of their writing. Paraphrasing an old legal quote, “half of a lawyer’s job is telling his client he is a damn fool and it is time to stop.”

    As to your questions:

    1.) Raises hand! Hey, lawyers gotta be good for something!

    2.) Absolutely – I have issues with Jessica being president of the epub and president of her agency.

    3.) It depends on what the writer needs. We’ll have to agree to disagree here because it will be up to the individual to determine what they are willing to pay.

    An hourly rate with a retainer is also an option, that’s what we lawyer types do. If you have the goods and they need the work, the agent will negotiate with you. I have a running deal with a client for plumbing repairs.

    For example, an agent can assist with negotiating prices on editing and design and then oversee that it is done correctly. I’ve seen manuscripts edited by someone off of Craigslist, spellcheck is a dangerous tool when used for evil.

    How do I know those “providers” that everyone talks about are competent and not gouging me? An agent can make that call way better than I ever could. I’m pretty tech savvy and very legal savvy, but I don’t know the industry. On a blog, you are not going to see the bottom layer of writers who may have talent, but use their DVD drives as cup holders. Even the basics of formatting a file for Kindle is beyond them.

    And there is that gorilla in the room of other rights. Legacy pubs, film companies, foreign rights are going to sniff around competent self-pubs as time goes by. I would want an agent to be there for me.

    There also has to be a fixed term and an out for the writer (and the agent) if the relationship goes sour. I agree, it can’t just be “for the life of the book.”

    Your comments seem to go more to the Bookends deal and I do not disagree with you on the epub problem. But as to a straight up agent-as-consultant, I think it is the next generation of services and I don’t think it is a bad thing.


  35. Hey Terri–For some reason, blogger catches some responses in its spam filter. I cleared yours and couldnt see why it would be caught.

    Yes, I agree we have common ground, for sure. Thanks for popping back to explain your thoughts. Good stuff. I twittered this post again today, because I really liked what you had to say. Thanks for your contribution.

    There are a lot of icky side businesses cropping up that make me feel uncomfortable too. Some publishers are giving me goose bumps and not in a good way. Everyone is scrambling to stay relevant in this changing environment, but it will boil down to making the new companies separate and distinct with auditable good practices.

    I really liked what you said about all the things a lawyer does behind the scenes to rep the client. That’s what I meant about an agent’s services being better defined and not linked directly to a publishing function. If they would take the time to determine a viable list of services that are real to offer the client to facilitate them navigating scary waters, that would be great, but these initial announcements don’t seem to be doing that. Their “services” are a bit nebulous, yet one thing is very clear. They want their 15% fee to stay. Plus they’d like to carve out royalty money for minimal effort. Imagine not having to pitch a project to a publisher and wait around for an answer. For little overhead and negotiable fixed costs, they can go straight to an ebook publisher and be up and running in short order. A book can get online in 30-60 days instead of waiting for months or even a year to get scheduled for production in the old model.

    Any business structure an agent affiliated with a publisher will set up, it should stand up to the sniff test. If it stinks, there’s a reason to keep working at keeping the functionality separate.

    Yeah, you gotta love the dual presidency thing. Oy!

    As for dispute handling, you cracked me up. Yes, as a lawyer, you’d raise your hand and volunteer to handle it, but that would be more money for an author to pay out. Most disputes are handled with a phone call between agent and editor, on behalf of the author. But if the agent is also affiliated with the publisher, an author can’t really know their concerns are being heard. That just seems wrong to me. I kind of feel you’d agree with me here, but hey, I’d love to use an attorney for other services like contract review and creating a will for my literary rights.

    No doubt there will be niche opportunities for anyone talented enough to come up with a good product of services. Publishers, agents, cover artists, lawyers, etc.

    >>But as to a straight up agent-as-consultant, I think it is the next generation of services and I don’t think it is a bad thing.>>

    Completely agree here. You may not have read my comment before you posted that talked about an agent not having to be a publisher to rep a client well and still deserve that 15%. But I think the real carrot here is the gravy of 50%+ royalty that a publisher gets. Everyone is trying to jump on this–publishers & agents alike–and hope that some authors will think there’s value in the same old same old, but I’m concerned for the aspiring author who doesnt have the experience who thinks the big named agent is repping them, when not everything is disclosed. That’s why AAR & other regulatory agencies should scrutinize this. We’ll see.

    Thanks again for your input. You’re awesome. 🙂

  36. Jordan – when I see the word “dispute” I immediately think of court and lawsuits. Yes, there would have to be a way to deal with the plain old everyday disagreements that are going to pop up.

  37. I believe we share the same marvelous agent and I, too, have kept her in the loop as to my unpublished works and backlist so we can find ways to maximize the return on those books. We had a lengthy chat about this earlier in the year.

    I am very uneasy about the movement of agencies into publishing in any form. An agent’s job is to watch your back. How can he/she do that when there is a direct conflict of interest? It’s like having a realtor represent both the buyer and the seller (which has happened to me). It just doesn’t fly in my book.

  38. Hey Jana. Thanks for commenting and yes, we do have a wonderful agent in common & mutual Okie amigos.

    This topic has been hot on writers’ loops with much more to come, so I wanted to bring the subject here to TKZ.

  39. HA, Kathleen. You’re the only one who mentioned that. LOL. I was beginning to think I was being too subtle–and that’s definitely not me. Ha!

    Maybe we should have ongoing WTF industry topics. Lord knows there is plenty out there to talk about. Have a good Sunday, girl.

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