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.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time he spends outside. He writes fiction under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.