Agents And Publishing: A Roadmap For Writers

I haven’t spoken much about the news this week that more agents are moving into publishing. I have already made my feelings clear here and in my book. In any event, there has been excellent coverage elsewhere, by Passive Guy, and Courtney Milan.

Also, one of the agencies in question (there was another later in the week), BookEnds, has indicated that they will be providing more comprehensive information next week, so I think it’s fair to allow them time to do that before dealing with their particular proposed venture.

Instead, I would like to suggest a potential roadmap for writers to make sense of all these different variations of agents getting involved in publishing.

I’m not going to tell you what to think. That’s up to you. I just want to provide a suggested classification of the various different approaches agents are taking, as they themselves aren’t being particularly helpful by labeling their ventures as “self e-publishing”, or “assisted self-publishing”, or “managed e-publishing”, or whatever.

As always, I am not a lawyer and this should not be considered advice in the legal sense. While I have been, on occasion, in the same room as lawyers, I absorbed neither their legal training nor their earning prowess.

1. Traditional Agent

A Traditional Agent is not engaged in any type of direct publishing activity. They don’t assist their clients directly with any self-publishing ventures, and they certainly don’t publish anything: they don’t license publication rights from authors, they don’t arrange for designers, they don’t upload e-books, and they don’t market them.

They may encourage their clients to self-publish certain projects, but they don’t take an active role in the publication process or the promotion of the book. As such, they don’t demand 15% of the author’s self-publishing royalties.

They may seek to sell subsidiary rights on the back of self-published sales, they may seek to spin off a print deal to a publisher, but they have nothing directly to do with their authors’ self-publishing projects.

Some Traditional Agents may not want their authors to self-publish at all. Others may scour the Amazon rankings for successful indies they can then shop to publishers.

2. Project Managing Agent

A Project Managing Agent has a more hands-on role in their clients’ self-publishing efforts for which they take their standard agency fee of 15%.

Their duties could include arranging cover designers, editors, and formatters, marketing, blurb copywriting, getting reviews, organizing blog tours, uploading the files, updating the back-matter, and even eventually things like arranging print versions, translations, and updating blogs and Twitter accounts.

Some of these services may be included in the 15%, others may be levied on a flat fee basis. But, the author retains control of the rights, and doesn’t license them to the agent. As such, the agent is not a publisher, but a Project Managing Agent.

They may also carry out much of the same role of a Traditional Agent by shopping manuscripts to publishers, exploiting subsidiary rights, and providing their authors general advice and counsel.

3. Publishing Agent

A Publishing Agent has set up a full-blown publishing company. They assume control of the rights. There is a publishing contract. They pay for covers, editing, formatting, and marketing, and in return, the author receives royalties on sales.

The percentage that the Publishing Agent retains will be far in excess of an agent’s standard 15%.

They are a publisher. There can be no argument about that.

A Publishing Agent may seek to continue to carry out the role of a Traditional Agent, but there are potential conflict of interest issues in doing so.

But My Agent Is Honest

If you think there’s no big deal in your agent continuing to represent you and publishing you at the same time, if you aren’t worried about a conflict arising because you know your agent for years and they are a good, honest person, then you really need to read Courtney Milan and Passive Guy to understand why there could be a problem even when everyone involved has the best of intentions.

If you think there is something inherently wrong with even having this conversation, which is so offensive to you and that “dream agent” that you bagged, you really need to read this other post by Passive Guy: “Your Agent Isn’t Your Mommy.”

Questioning Agents

I would suggest that all writers decide how they feel about each type of agent, and act accordingly. I will outline my thoughts; you have to make your own decision.

I have no problem with #1. If I was to engage the services of a Traditional Agent, or be approached by one, I would have the usual questions about what they could do for me or my career, I would research them carefully, and I would have an experienced IP lawyer look over the Agency contract.

But I have no problem with Traditional Agents. Personally, I don’t see the need for one, certainly not at this point in my career, but others may well feel differently. That’s fine.

I have no issue with #2 either in principle. However, I would have a long list of additional questions before considering using a Project Managing Agent.

I would want to know exactly what I am getting in return for giving away 15%. I would have to be satisfied as to the competencies of the agency in question in providing those services. I would need to know that the contract was term-limited, and that I also had an “out” if the agent wasn’t performing.

Essentially, the agent would have to prove to me that they could generate significant extra income, covering far more than their fee, and free up significant time for me to write more. It’s not something that appeals to me, but I can see the logic in it for certain writers in certain situations.

I have a major problem with #3. I would never engage an agent who had a publishing arm. Now, I could see a potential situation where I could sign a deal with the publishing arm, given certain terms and if they had established a strong sales record in digital publishing, but that would only occur if I was looking for a publisher. And I would never let the agenting wing of a publishing company represent me.

I wouldn’t query an agent with a publishing arm, and if I was represented by an agent who suddenly became a Publishing Agent, I would sever all ties.

You may have no problem with Publishing Agents. You may think Project Managing Agents are a waste of space. You may hate/love all Traditional Agents in equal measure.

Try and pinpoint what type of agent you are dealing with, and act appropriately.

29 Replies to “Agents And Publishing: A Roadmap For Writers”

  1. I have a great cover artist and I know how to network. I’ve got a supportive critique group and have found many other resources for publishing on Kindle, etc. so I don’t feel the need to sign with one of these agencies. I could understand a computer challenged writer, who wants to focus primarily on writing, going to one of these publishing agents. However, I am skeptical of their methods. Why not just call themselves publishers?

    1. In all the agents’ announcements thus far, they all either avoided saying they were becoming publishers, or avoided the word self-publishing, saying something like “we will assist our clients’ e-publishing endeavors”. It’s quite funny to watch. They don’t want to come out and say they are publishers now, and they don’t want to be associated with the dreaded word “self-publishing”, as if we all have cooties.

  2. Self-publishing will never hurt your chances to go with a legacy publisher at a later date. NEVER. If you can sell books, it will be obvious to the world and that’s the only thing the publisher cares about. Period.They are in the business to make money and the only way you make them money is to sell books.

    As far as agents, I think you hire an agent only for the things you can’t do yourself. Sell foreign rights? Sell adaptation rights to a movie studio? Yes, you need an agent for those things. But to publish? To hire a cover designer or formatter? If you’re smart enough to write a book, you’re smart enough to do those things.

    I cannot thing of a single reason to go with a “Publishing Agent.”

    1. Either can I.

      But just playing devil’s advocate, a lot of agencies are going to have a go at this. I’m sure some will be successful. Picture this: an agent, who worked as an editor for 20 years at a publishing house, figures he knows enough people to put a small e-publishing company together. He also knows a couple of social media whizzkids that can knock up a pretty solid author platform for nothing, and has a few radical new ideas about how to sell books online. Let’s say he knocks it out of the park and virtually every writer he publishes is a hit. Let’s say every self-publisher he takes on goes from selling 20 a day to 1,000 a day.

      That could be a reason to go with a Publishing Agent, but as a publisher. I wouldn’t want them to represent me.

  3. A friend of mine was about to self-publish but she just got an agent, who told her that self-publishing might hurt her chances for a contract…. scare tactics anyone?

    1. Hmm.

      Nothing to do with the fact that the agent wouldn’t get their 15%, I’m sure. Well, at least she has a Plan B if the agent can’t rustle up a super-duper publishing deal in short order!

    2. I have two words for you.
      Co-writing team of Mark Edwards & Lousie Voss (Killing Cupid) just signed a major publishing deal. And J Carson Black (The Shop) just signed a major publishing deal. Both Indies. Both just signed a major publishing deal. Both had agents working for them. At first, the huge publishing deals for Indies seemed to be amazing. Lucky breaks! But, now, just another part of the ever-changing business of publishing.
      The two words? Not true.

      1. Right, but the agents got them Trad deals, and will take 15%.

        Fair. But not relevant.

        Were the agents getting 15% of the self-pubbing monies? And if they were, what did they contribute to earn it?

        This is the gorilla in the room for me.

        1. I don’t know the ins and outs of what deals Mark, Louise, and JCB struck with their respective agents, but it wouldn’t be normal for the agent to make any money from the self-publishing ventures. Now, certain writers may come to some arrangement with agents for a variety of reasons, but the “default” position would be that an agent only gets 15% of deals they negotiate.

    3. If she self-published the manuscript the agent was planning on shopping to publishers, then yes– that MS is no longer a suitable candidate for submitting (until/unless it proves itself with huge indie sales…) Publishers usually want proven, or virgin. 🙂

      1. I take your point, but I don’t think anyone will be submitting an MS they have just self-published. I think they will be going to publishers/agents on the back of sales, rather than in advance of them.

  4. I’m not as up in arms about these developments as a lot of people, for a couple of reasons.

    One, I don’t think what these agents are coming up with now is going to fly ‘as is’ for most writers. Their ideas are going to have to adapt to what a majority of writers want and need, or their new businesses are going to fail to provide enough income to justify their existence. These first forays into new iterations of publishing are bad prototypes. I fully expect continued change and don’t feel pressed to participate in their endeavors until (and if) they evolve into something useful for me.

    Two, I think it’s much more pertinent to the situation most of us are in that respected agents are taking action that illustrates what quite a few industry professionals are still trying to deny (in public anyway) — traditional publishing is in trouble, unable to fund the next generation of debut authors.

    This is, in part, vindication for the people who have been warning everyone else that the ship was taking on water. Now we see what’s worth salvaging.

  5. I blogged about this and a big issue is if an agency can even BE a publisher. I’ve been doing it for two years as an indie and had to form my own company to succeed at it. There is so much more involved in this than most people realize. I’m currently selling well over 2,000 eBooks a day, yet also am working with an agent ref foreign rights and another reference a title we have at a trad publisher. Everyone’s path is different, but I think an agent has to decide whether they want to be an agent or a publisher but you can’t be both.

  6. The whole idea of an “e-publisher” makes no sense whatsoever. The only reason traditional publishers existed was their control of distribution channels, which is a meaningless concept in e-publishing. Bookstores are dying, as are traditional publishers, as are literary agencies. They’re all part of the obsolete structure that used to be called publishing. There simply isn’t any need that they can meet economically. All of them are trying to continue the old ways because that’s the only way they can survive. But the old ways are dead.

    No author nowadays needs a publisher or an agent. Any author who signs an agency contract is nuts. (Hint: every word in that contract is for the benefit of the agency, not the author.) Any author who submits a book to a traditional publisher is also nuts. Figuring on two years from the time a contract is signed until a book actually hits the bookstores, one has to ask two questions:

    (a) In two years, will there be any bookstores left, other than perhaps a few niche stores. Borders is gone, and B&N brick-and-mortar stores probably aren’t long for this world. Even now, they’re turning from bookstores into novelty stores and coffee shops. Books are already secondary, and before long it wouldn’t surprise me to see B&N stores without any books at all.

    (b) In two years, will your publisher still be in business? Chances are, it won’t, at least not if it’s a fiction publisher. There will, no doubt, be some small presses surviving, but probably not many of those, and they probably will be hanging on by their fingernails. But the big New York publishers simply have cost structures too large and too inflexible to allow them to survive. And, believe me, the last thing you want is to have your book tied up in a bankruptcy. (Hint: that bankruptcy clause in your contract is meaningless; if your publisher goes bankrupt, your book *will* be treated as an asset of the publisher rather than reverting to you.

    1. Hi Robert,

      I agree, in general, with what you said, although I would be a little more confident in some of the larger publishers surviving. With regard to e-publishers, there are a whole host of successful e-publishers (such as Samhain or Ellora’s Cave) with a proven ability to reach readers in certain genres. They have a track record of good sales, and continue to break new writers. If I wrote in those genres, I would consider submitting to them, depending on a number of other factors. Guys like them are going to thrive. Having said that, lots of e-publishers won’t.


  7. I think David has hit the only possible reason to go with an agent for e-publishing (as opposed to foreign rights) — if that person has developed a social media model that can take an author from 20 sales a day to 1,000 sales a day. That makes the 15 percent cut worth it.

  8. David and I have hashed this out a bit elsewhere. 😉 While we disagree on some details, I think we’re on the same page in principle.

    Traditional agents? If you’re looking for one, i.e.want a regular publishing deal with a big publisher and want to use an agent for it, that’s fine.

    The “helpful souls” at 15%? Iffy. It would really depend upon how much help they’re actually giving you. Also concerned about the severability of the contract. In other words, if after a year or so I think they’re not doing anything, and I want out, I want the contract to say I can get out. I have serious concerns about how the wording of these contracts will look. Based on the blog posts by some of the agencies in question, I suspect severability is not high on their list of happy thoughts. Which makes me feel like what they really want is to do as little as possible for the books they are “helping”, since if they’re doing a good job selling 15% more books for the author, severability wouldn’t matter.

    The publisher/agent mixes? Here’s the thing some folks keep missing. Even at fifteen percent, 15% of the 17.5% you get from a major publisher might be very, very different from the 15% you get from 70% via Kindle DP. It’s not the same thing at all – and if it’s not the same, then there *could* be a conflict of interest at some point. Not to mention that I am darned sure the agent/publisher folks have cottoned to the idea that they can charge artists, formatters, editors, and such for listing in their “preferred list” of such service vendors.

    At 50%, it’s even worse. I’m thinking, and I can’t see too many reasons to give anyone 50% of net for any strictly epublished book. There’s a few really good small presses out there who do buckets of work and actually seem to be paying for themselves (Ridan looks like a good example to me). But I have a hard time seeing agents-turned-publishers putting in the sort of hours needed to make me twice as many sales as I could make on my own – and that’s what they’d need to do, in order to make their 50% cut make any sense at all.

    I can find my own cover artists, editors, and do my own ebook formatting. I can certainly spend the fifteen minutes to upload things myself. Unless these agencies are actually increasing sales on a substantial level, then what other value are they bringing to the relationship?

    1. Good points Kevin.

      Personally, I would never fork over a percentage (other than to a retailer), unless they had an extremely convincing plan for getting me lots and lots of readers I couldn’t get myself.

  9. Here’s what we (writers) need: a reputable one-stop referral site.

    Please, someone, get on that. PLEASE. And if it’s been done, someone point me the way.

    If I’m researching agents, I have forum boards, querytracker, etc. I need something for self-publishing.

    Right now, it’s scattered. Dave, you mention some good referrals. Dean does. Laura Resnick lists some. Joe does. But I have to search. It’s not in one spot. Drives me crazy, and I think it’s part of how these agents are getting writers on their side-writers don’t know where to begin to find these services.

    I need one website that lists links and allows comments/feedback about reputable companies that provide all services, lists cover artists, formatters, ip lawyers, distributors. Even blogs that focus on self-publishing or marketing.

    Someone? Anyone?

    1. Kelly,

      That’s a great idea. How busy are you right now? 🙂

      Seriously though, that would be a great resource. Preditors & Editors do a great job of some of that stuff. Absolute Write are pretty comprehensive on background checks for agents, editors, publishers, etc, but some indies – understandably – feel that place is a little hostile towards them – and it is more focused on trade publishing than self-publishing anyway.

      Kindle Boards does that a bit, but the layout of the site doesn’t really lend itself to permanent, organized information – it’s more like a constant flow of new stuff, kind of like a self-publishing Twitter stream.

      Part of the problem here is that people will disagree on thing like the “right” amount to spend on an editor. I doubt if I would ever recommend someone who edits a novel for $150 or formats a book for $30, simply because I would be skeptical that they are putting in the time to do it professionally. Experienced professionals charge a lot more for a reason. We writers have fought for so long to get a fair slice of the pie, and now that we have it with self-publishing, I don’t think we should be encouraging a race to the bottom among editors, graphic designers, or formatters, that would be more than a little hypocritical.

      So, Smashwords and other places have a list of service providers. However, they aren’t vetted. And they could easily contain people who will “edit” your novel in four hours. I can’t even read a novel in four hours, let alone imagine someone thoroughly editing it in that time.

      I would be interested in passing on recommendations of professionals who charge a reasonable price, but the problem is that many people disagree on the definition of what makes a professional and what a reasonable price is.

      However, if anyone knows of any site attempting to do what Kelley suggests, please let us know.

  10. Far too busy, and not tech-savvy enough.

    But if someone had the time and knowledge, it would be explosive. It’s a HUGE need right now that to my knowledge is not being filled. (Or, well, these assisting agents will be providing it to their clients for a 15% fee.) And it should be filled, and available to all writers.

    Again, if anyone knows of one…

    And you raise great points. Obviously, whoever created a site (if one doesn’t exist) would decide those issues, and the success of the site is going to rest on whether writers (and those referred and doing the referring) think they made the right decisions.

    As far as practicalities, I wonder how Patrick, from Querytracker, set it up. They have a standard agents must meet to be posted. Writers send in suggestions, but they vet and then post. A site would have to mimic more what he’s doing. Offering access and info and feedback on legitimate providers.

    But if writers are saying they don’t know how or where, and have to search, it’s a problem. These self-assisting agents serve the need. Which is crazy. Hopefully someone comes up with a solution.

  11. Pingback: Agents as Publishers or Loan Sharks? | El Dedo Grande!

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