There was some interesting news in The Bookseller yesterday. Ed Victor, one of the top UK agents, has announced he is setting up his own publishing division – Bedford Square Books.
We have talked on this blog before about The Digital Revolution and what the future will hold for agents. I predicted a split in the agent community as some morph into publishers and others re-focus into being authors’ advocates. I also talked about how there was some tension already.
Andrew Wylie made waves last year when he announced Odyssey Editions – his own imprint to publish his authors’ backlists (including Roth, Bellow, and Updike) – rights which had reverted from trade deals. Scott Waxman has set up his own publishing company called Diversion Books.
However, some powerhouse agencies like Trident are saying that “it is a mistake for agents to become publishers. There are substantial conflicts of interests involved.” (Scroll to the comments at the end for the quote.)
In the UK, Sonia Land walked away from a publishing deal to go it alone with e-versions of Catherine Cookson’s estate. Piers Blofeld – of the same agency – has called for a change in the code of conduct governing UK agents (it currently precludes publishers as members).
Other top agents, like Simon Trewin, have cautioned against this.
Yesterday’s move is newsworthy because Ed Victor is the first top UK agent to announce that – on top of publishing backlists as e-books – he will be seeking the stars of tomorrow.
Ed Victor is offering a 50/50 split with his authors on e-royalties. This sounds okay, but when you examine it closely, it all falls apart.
First, that split is after the retailer gets their 30% of the list price. Second, that split is after the producer of the book – a digital production company called Acorn – get’s a percentage too.
The Bookseller article also says that net receipts won’t be divvied up until “production costs” are covered, but doesn’t say if these are referring to the percentage going to Acorn, or further costs such as marketing and promotion.
Ed Victor may have the best of intentions, but there are a few reasons why I think this is a terrible deal for writers. First off, it’s absolutely crazy to be paying a digital production company a percentage of your royalties forever instead of a flat fee.
There are plenty of companies out there who do top quality work for a fee – no need to pay a percentage.
Also, the author ends up with a lot less than 50%. Once Amazon get their cut (30%), and Acorn get their cut (for the sake of argument, let’s say 10%), that leaves the writer and Ed Victor to split 60% – leaving 30% each.
Finally, if these “production costs” are not coming out of Ed Victor’s percentage (the article seems to indicate this is not the case) and are not counted for in Acorn’s percentage (the article is unclear), then the writer gets even less than 30%.
This is not significantly better than a trade house, it’s far worse than what you get in some smaller presses, and it’s less than half what you get from self-publishing.
And, the best agent in the world might know a lot about how to sell books to trade houses, foreign rights, movie rights, contracts, and royalty statements, but they might know nothing about how to produce a top quality book and get it into the hands of lots and lots of readers.
How much does the average literary agent understand about Amazon rankings, Google PageRank, Twitter, Facebook Pages, Goodreads, SEO, cover design, formatting, editing, CPC, CPM, regional targeting, AdWords, blogging, spam laws, Shelfari, or blurb copy writing?
How much do they know about tagging, proofing, pricing strategies, DRM, giveaways, digital piracy, EPUB, Kobo, hyperlinks, mailing lists, MOBI, effective back-matter, Smashwords, KDP, or PubIt?
These are just some of the many, many things a digital publisher will have to get their head around. And, looking at the production levels, the covers, the formatting, the front matter, and the Amazon rankings of some of the Catherine Cookson e-books, I would respectfully suggest that these skills have yet to be mastered.
Also, I have doubts about how much value Ed Victor will add for his 30%. He has admitted that he won’t be hiring any extra staff for his new venture.
Right now, an author has four choices with a manuscript: a major publisher, a smaller press, self-publishing, and one of these new agent/publisher hybrids.
My advice to anyone weighing their options is to think very, very carefully before going with an agent/publisher. The royalty rates are bad, and they don’t have any experience in breaking new digital authors.
Some may turn out to be good at it, and I’m sure some will, but I wouldn’t want to be the guinea pig. None of the agent/publishers, as far as I am aware, have broken a new digital star, even though some of their operations have been going for over a year.
Plenty of large trade houses have done it. Plenty of small presses have done it. Plenty of self-publishers have done it. Consider those three options first. Choose according to your circumstances.
There are plenty of companies who will provide a one-stop shop like Ed Victor is proposing, but they only charge a flat fee and they don’t touch your royalties. Telemachus is one, they charge around $1,000. John Locke uses them and he is doing just fine.
There’s only one thing in that article that made sense to me. Ed Victor said that in this turbulent future, what he will bring to this table is that he will be “lighter on his feet”. That’s true; there are advantages to being smaller and nimbler in changing times.
But you can’t get smaller and nimbler than a self-publisher. And if you don’t want to go that way I would take the experience, marketing power, and advance of a trade publisher over an agent/publisher hybrid anytime.
Also, there is one final problem with Ed Victor’s venture.
The UK-based Association of Author’s Agents (AAA) have a constitution which specifically precludes members from acting as publishers.
Part of the reasoning for this is that the agent is supposed to be the author’s advocate. And, the publisher’s interest isn’t always aligned with the writer’s. Blurring those lines makes it difficult to be an independent advocate.
There are conflict of interest issues here. If you have an agent, and she becomes a publisher how do you know that they will seek to get you the best deal for you, when the best deal for her is publishing it through herself?
We will see a lot more of this in the future. Writers need to be on their guard, and please, don’t give away a percentage of your future earnings unless it’s for a trade deal you can’t say no to.