Double agents?

In our mad dash around the new publishing landscape, there’s one group we have only mentioned in passing: agents.

Nothing in the publishing world inspires more diverse reactions than the mention of agents.

For some, agents are the holy grail, the star-makers, the gatekeepers to the dream factory. Others are less kind, and I won’t repeat their opinions, but suffice to say they view agents as amoral Svengalis who, like recruitment agents, have created a need for their services where before there was none, and are an additional, superfluous barrier between writers and publishers (and readers).

The truth is somewhere in the middle, and agents, like any profession, run the full gamut of experience, ability, and propriety. There are some that can send your career into the stratosphere, and there are others where you would have been better off having no agent at all.

For those unfamiliar, agents are author’s representatives. Their primary role is to sell books to editors. They negotiate deals on the author’s behalf, and they seek to monetise the author’s work in other ways by selling foreign language rights, audiobook rights, movie rights, and so on.

For this, they take a cut of the author’s royalties, usually 15%. But because they don’t take any money up-front for their services (at least, no scrupulous ones do), an agent will only take you on if they think you are going to make them money.

Ok, so that’s the basics covered. What I want to ask today is what happens to agents in the future when most people are reading e-books? After all, you don’t need an agent to self-publish, and many writers won’t even want to seek a trade publishing deal when all the money is in digital and the royalties are that much higher going it alone.

If agents have no books to sell to editors, they have nothing to earn 15% off. So how are they planning for tomorrow? Different agents have responded to this question in different ways, and this may lead to a split in the community.

Successful indie authors like Amanda Hocking have complained that they spend 40 hours a week doing all this other stuff that makes them successful. They would happily pay someone a cut of their business if they could take those tasks off their hands, freeing them up for thing that they enjoy most (and which makes them the most money): writing.

While some indie authors are happy to contract agents to sell foreign rights or print rights while holding onto e-rights themselves, there’s only enough business here to support a fraction of the agents in New York.

But, to be honest, a lot of indie writers want agents. They want someone to make all the business decisions, they don’t want to be involved in the minutiae, they don’t want to learn a bunch of new skills; they just want to write.

Some agents have spotted an opportunity here. They are all salespeople, many are former editors, anything they can’t do they can outsource, and they know all the right people. Plus, they have all the skills and contacts to maximise lucrative movie rights and foreign language deals.

Andrew Wylie, Sonia Land, and Cathryn Summerhayes recently signed deals with Amazon, cutting out publishers, negotiating to sell their authors’ backlist direct to the public.

Others like Scott Waxman and Richard Curtis are looking at new ways for agents to earn their 15%. They see the future for agents as being some kind of ‘one-stop shop’ for successful self-publishers – organising editors, designers, formatters, marketing, and social networking. In essence, they are becoming publishers.

But not everyone agrees this is the right way to go. A simple point has been noted. If the agent is now the publisher, they may not be motivated to act in the author’s interest, especially when it may be more profitable to do the opposite.

A representative of Trident, one of the largest agencies in America, pointed out that agents have always acted as buffers between writers and publishers, whose interests are often aligned, but often in conflict. “It is a mistake for agents to become publishers. There are substantial conflicts of interest involved. Will the agent work for the author or will they work for themselves as a publisher?”

This month, literary agents in the UK began discussing removing a clause from their code of practice to allow them to act as publishers. Piers Blofeld has spoken out in favour, but others, such as Simon Trewin, have sounded warnings, saying it would be “a seismic shift” and that he was “not sure the upheaval would be worth the benefits”.

Historically, agenting has been plagued with scammers. One of the more successful measures against this was the banning of payment, by writers, of upfront fees to agents. However, if agents become publishers, the lines are blurred. This may create opportunities for unscrupulous agents to get authors to pay for “publishing packages” which are worth little or nothing.

The key for writers, as always, is to research anyone you intend to do business with, get references, check them, and be very careful before you pay anything to anyone, and certainly never, ever, pay an agent.

(All quotes were sourced here.)

As always, please feel free to leave a comment below.  All the comments get read and responded to.  The first time you comment on this blog, the post will be moderated (which may cause a delay), but after that you should appear automatically.  Also, if you have any requests for topics to cover in future posts, or any subjects you would like me to return to, please note these below.

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.

0 Replies to “Double agents?”

  1. Informative as usual, Dave. Thanks for sharing.

    The more I learn about this business, the less control I want to turn over to someone else. Granted, I don’t want to do all the work myself. I currently don’t have the necessary skill set, though I plan to learn more as I go along. Not to mention I’d rather spend my time writing. Instead I’ve found people to do those things for me at very reasonable prices… cover art, professional editing, formatting. I already know how to do the social networking thing and I really enjoy doing it, plus I’m planning to take Bob Mayer’s online course in June on marketing.

    Why pay someone 15% of my royalties just to hire those people when I can do it myself? I’ve seen the math (I love when Joe Konrath does his math thing.) and it just doesn’t add up. Maybe I’m just a bit of a control freak, but it makes sense to me to hang onto the reins myself.

    As for international language rights, film rights and yada yada, well, that’s another story altogether. I think in those cases for most of us an agent definitely would be of benefit. However I don’t think I’d ever use an agent who was also a publisher. Too much of a conflict of interest.

  2. Hi Shea, I agree with you 100%. The way I see it, all these jobs can be done as piece-work. I can outsource everything. Why pay 15% forever for that?

    However, some writers can barely handle email, let alone twitter or formatting. I think the idea of having an agent/publisher/whoever to take care of all that stuff for them for a cut will appeal to people like that.

    I find learning about all this stuff fun too, AND it’s going to save me money. But some people don’t want the hassle.

    Unscrupulous businessmen will make a ton of money off these people. Clever businessmen will set up one-stop-shops on a fee basis (not a percentage), and blow all the others out of the water.

  3. That’s a sad fact that, yes, there will be uscrupulous so-and-sos out there who will take advantage. And plenty will fall for it.

    It’s true there are those author’s that won’t want to do for themselves what you and I are happy to do. You’re right, this sort of “ringmaster” agent would be great, but as you (and Joe Konrath) say, definitely NOT for a percent.

    It will be interesting to see what the next few years bring for this industry.

  4. What I see happening with self-pubbing e-books, is that more authors will increasingly look at the writing of books and novels as a business as well as an art. They’ll become their book’s best advocate and evangelist.

    In the process, they’ll become experienced and accomplished marketers. It’s these business-building writers who will realize the most success. In building a successful writing career as with personal finance – the saying goes, “the person best able to look after your money (business) is you.”

    When or if a self-published author realizes the type of success of an Amanda Hocking, they too may opt to go the legacy route, especially if they are as prolific as Ms. Hocking is and more interested in writing stories than marketing their work.

    Agents will also have their place for the people who are fearful at the idea of promoting their own work, and for those who are looking for the validation of being able to say, “I have an agent.” To them that’s worth 15% of their income – forever.

    1. And you know what else?

      Even though I am spending a few hours every day writing this blog and researching for the posts, as well as learning all the new stuff I have to learn, dealing with editors, designers etc., my productivity (writing) outside that has gone UP. Amazing.

      There is something motivating about all of this.

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