Lazy Literary Agents In Self-Publishing Money Grab via Argo Navis

argoI was at the London Book Fair last week – and I’ll be blogging about that soon – when the news broke that David Mamet is to self-publish his next book.

His reasons? “Publishing is like Hollywood—nobody ever does the marketing they promise.”

While I think it’s great that someone as high-profile as David Mamet is self-publishing, I was very disappointed to find out the way he’s doing it.

Self-publishing is big business. By my estimates, self-publishers have captured 25% of the US ebook market. It can be lucrative on the individual author level too, with writers getting up to 70% royalties if they publish themselves.

The reason why those percentages are so high is that self-publishing allows you to bypass the traditional middlemen (agents, publishers, distributors) who each took their own slice of the pie before the author saw any money.

Literary agents in particular must be worried about what that means for their future, which explains their ludicrous reactions when someone like Barry Eisler states the above. However, a company called Argo Navis – a publisher-owned distributor – has come to their rescue, providing them with a way to re-insert themselves in the chain between self-publishing author and reader. And get their cut of course.

Mamet is represented by a major literary agency – ICM Partners – who are just one of many agencies to have signed a deal with Perseus Books-owned Argo Navis.

What Do Argo Navis Offer?

Essentially, Argo Navis are a distributor. They offer a portal through which authors’ work can be distributed to all the various retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo.

In exchange for this relatively trivial service, Argo Navis take a 30% cut. You read that right. After the retailer takes their standard cut (usually also 30%), Argo Navis take another 30% before passing on payments.

Obviously, this is massively overpriced compared to distributors like Smashwords or Draft2Digital, who only take 10%, and especially so when you compare the cost of going direct to retailers like Amazon (it’s free). But the problems with Argo Navis don’t end there.

Services like cover design, editing, formatting, scanning, and conversion are not included in this hefty price tag – but are available for a premium. Who provides those services? According to their website, it’s “third party specialists.”

In other words, Argo Navis outsources those tasks, just like any self-publisher. Except presumably they get a piece of that action too. Their price list for these services is not publicly available – and only distributed to literary agents (who won’t be picking up the tab, of course).

As the price list is hidden, I can’t speak to its contents, but I strongly suspect it’s not competitive (charging for cover design by the hour and formatting by the page is usually an indication that fees are high). From what I’ve seen of the covers and formatting though, the service provided certainly isn’t premium.

Why Are Literary Agents Using Argo Navis?

Argo Navis has been very clever with how they market their service. It’s pitched as agent-curated self-publishing – hey, it’s a step up from assisted self-publishing. Argo Navis don’t (and won’t) deal with authors directly, and will only accept titles for distribution submitted by literary agents.

This in turn allows agents to tap into what I call The Myth of the Segregated Marketplace – where authors believe that the visibility challenges resulting from the open nature of digital distribution are exclusively faced by self-published authors. Of course, those challenges are faced by all authors – however they publish. And given the abysmal rankings of books published via Argo Navis, it’s not a challenge that they are handling well.

But what’s in it for the agent? For starters, royalty checks come to their offices first (after Argo Navis have taken their considerable bite). This allows the agent to deduct their 15% before the author sees any money. Of course, it allows unscrupulous agents to take a little more – something enabled by Argo Navis only providing sales reports to agents rather than directly to authors – but I digress.

Many authors have mixed feelings about agents moving into publishing – and for good reason. But at least (some of) those agent/publishers are providing nominal value for their 15% cut – arranging cover design, editing, formatting, and handling the distribution in-house by uploading to the various retailers.

However, the agencies using Argo Navis are taking the lazy approach to locking down their cut. They aren’t uploading. They aren’t optimizing metadata. They aren’t arranging for cover design. And they certainly aren’t paying for it.

Instead they are simply passing the manuscripts from the author to the distributor, billing the author for any services they need and taking their 15% cut. And what have they done for that cut? Put them in the hands of a crappy distributor who is taking 30% of their royalties (on top of the 30% the retailers take and separate from the 15% agents are getting).

At this point you would be forgiven for thinking that no reputable literary agency would go for this. Well, I wish that was the case. Here’s a list of agencies that have signed up with Argo Navis:

  • Writers House
  • ICM Partners
  • Carol Mann Agency
  • Cynthia Cannell Literary Agency
  • The Hartnett Agency
  • Paul Bresnick Literary Agency
  • Pinder Lane & Garon-Brooke Associates
  • Curtis Brown (US)
  • April Eberhardt Literary
  • David Black Agency
  • Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency
  • Folio Literary Management
  • Levine Greenberg Literary Agency
  • Liza Royce Literary Agency
  • Melanie Jackson Agency
  • Janklow & Nesbit Associates
  • Joëlle Delbourgo Associates
  • Arcadia Literary Agency
  • Harvey Klinger
  • APA Talent and Literary Agency
  • Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency
  • Irene Skolnick Literary Agency
  • FinePrint Literary Management
  • Donald Maass Literary Agency

These are some of the biggest names in the business. These are some of the most respected names in the business. And they all have a fiduciary duty to their clients – a legal obligation to seek the best deal for their authors.

I’ll leave it to you to decide if they are fulfilling that duty.

What’s In It For Authors?

There’s no upside to being funneled into this program. Participating authors get lower royalties, no sales reports, slower payments, and lose the ability to make quick changes to things like pricing – which is essential for marketing.

The money is the big one though, so I’d like to focus on that:

  • An author self-publishing direct with KDP will receive up to 70% of list price.
  • An author who self-publishes via Argo Navis will receive 41.65% of list price.

In real dollar terms, that looks like this:

  • A self-publisher with a book priced $4.99 on Amazon receives $3.49 per sale.
  • Argo Navis clients with a book priced $4.99 on Amazon receive $2.08 per sale.

Instead of getting their authors a better deal, these literary agents are ensuring they get a much worse deal. If I had self-published with Argo Navis, I would have forked over five figures in commissions to them and whatever agent lured me into the scheme. That’s crazy!

But maybe we should look at how books published via Argo Navis are actually performing. Maybe they have some special tricks up their sleeve to get books noticed. The operation was launched in October 2011, so we have a significant track record to look at.

Well, this is the highest ranked Argo Navis book I could find. It’s at #58,822 in the Kindle Store. That’s the best performing book! It’s selling 1 or 2 copies a day. This is the second-highest ranked book. It’s at #90,978 – selling just 1 copy a day (and look at that awful cover).

Unfortunately for authors already funneled into the program, those books are outliers. Most Argo Navis books are selling 1 copy a month (or less!). Some haven’t sold a single copy ever (like this or this). One of those has been out for three months!

It’s easy to see why these books are underperforming. Some of the covers are terrible and are saddled with uninspiring blurbs. Some of the books are only put in the generic Kindle eBooks category, rather than something more granular like Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers > Police Procedurals – where they might actually get discovered. Some of have even misspelled the authors name (this).

The sad thing is that it’s the authors who suffer most. I’m sure some of these books are great – I can see glowing reviews from places like Kirkus – but they just aren’t getting a chance.

Why Am I Targeting Literary Agents Instead of Argo Navis?

Argo Navis is awful – overcharging for basic services and hugely underdelivering on basic competency – so why am I focusing on the literary agents?

It’s simple. Argo Navis isn’t an open platform. Authors can’t deal with them directly. Only agented writers can self-publish through them. Only agents can submit books to them.

Literary agents – who are supposed to be on the side of their clients – are the ones funneling authors into this program. This is on them.

But what do the agents think? Here’s what Amy Berkower of Writers House said:

After reviewing many of the digital publishing options available, we concluded that the service provided by Argo Navis was the best fit for the majority of our authors.

Really Amy? Argo Navis is the best you can do? How is Argo Navis taking such a huge chunk of authors’ royalties the “best fit” for your clients?

But hey, it’s not all about money. April Eberhardt of April Eberhardt Literary was asked about Argo Navis and explained her motivation for signing up:

Most self-publishing is not of high quality. There has been a disregard of publishing standards and that needs to change. I’m looking at a new way of doing things, a model of agent-led self-publishing where authors get guidance to bring their self-published work to a professional level.

April, don’t make me link to those god-awful covers again. I beg you.

There must be some other reason to sign with Argo Navis. Maybe Carol Mann of the Carol Mann Agency can help. She said:

I like the idea of an imprint available to our clients that singles out agent-curated material in a sea of self-published titles.

Have you seen the rankings, Carol? The Argo Navis titles seem to be drowning in that “sea.”

What’s In A Name?

Where did that awful name come from? According to their promotional copy, the company “was named for the constellation Argo Navis, formed, according to mythology, from three parts (sail, deck and keel) of the famed ship Argo, sailed into history by Jason.”

Funny, I thought it was because of the golden fleece these guys are pulling.

UPDATE (May 16): It has come to my attention that one of the literary agents mentioned in this piece is emailing commenters calling this a “misinformed and one-sided article” and inviting people to a Skype chat there they can “learn more about what I do for authors, as well as how and why I do it.”

I’ll be blogging about this in more detail on Friday, but it speaks volumes that this agent is approaching people in this manner rather than publicly addressing the concerns I have raised. If you have received such an email or any similar communication, please get in touch with me at david [dot] gaughran [at] gmail [dot] com

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

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

183 Replies to “Lazy Literary Agents In Self-Publishing Money Grab via Argo Navis”

  1. This is a question for David. I signed a contract with Argo Navis through my agent Carol Mann.
    The book is a biography about the late-singer songwriter Harry Chapin, who was a good friend.
    The book has been out in hardcover and trade paperback for many years and I wanted to get Harry in digital form – ebook format. Carol Mann suggested Argo Navis and I signed the contract. But after reading your article and the responses here, I feel like this may be a mistake. I have not submitted the book to Argo Navis yet. Now I’m wondering whether I might be better off self-publishing with Kindle Direct. What are your thoughts? If anyone else has any recommendations, thoughts here, please speak freely. I would appreciate hearing what you have to say

    Thank You.

    Peter M. Coan

    1. Yes, absolutely run a mile from Argo Navis. It’s a terrible way to publish your book, which will make it harder for readers to find you, make you less money, and has all sorts of other drawbacks which will hamper its success.

      If you want to publish this book yourself (which you should, by the sounds of it), then remember that the actual “publishing” part is the easiest part of the whole process (and Argo Navis and similar services give you no help with the marketing part).

      It’s a set of rote steps which pretty much anyone can follow. I cover the basics here:

      In short, go direct to Amazon (and the other retailers). You will make more money, get paid quicker, and it will be easier for readers to find your book.

      1. Thanks David. Your honesty is refreshing. Quick Question: Are Smashwords and Draft2Digital worth considering? Do they have distribution capability like AN? Or are they
        just editorial prep shops for creating the ebook?



  2. Hi David, you clearly know the background to the publishing field, have you ever considered becoming an agent yourself, and secondly do you know of anyone who is prepared to buy books, full rights for cash?

  3. Traditional agenting is becoming more and more worthless as the publishing industry continues to transform. Nevertheless, there actually IS a place for agents in the future if they buckle down and change the way they operate. Instead of being middlemen who just make connections and survive as “introduction makers” between authors and publishers, they have to get up to their eyeballs in e-publishing and fill the huge gap that nobody else is filling. Today, indie authors can do everything themselves, but marketing a book is often a full time job and sometimes it just doesn’t fit very well with the type of personality that lends itself to writing great books. Publishers are slowly sinking toward worthlessness as well as they refuse to actually market the books they publish, focusing instead on one or two really “big” (usually shlock) titles every year that they think are guaranteed sellers (the Hollywood model). Today indie authors often do pay third parties on a one-time basis to get their title listed on aggregator sites that feature Amazon’s “free sales day” specials and similar promotions. Authors pay out of pocket for advertising and do a lot of experimentation to find out what actually works. They spend hours and hours building, maintaining, and promoting author sites. Many indie authors would happily hand over a cut of sales to someone who would focus on the “cradle to grave” marketing side of things, shepherding the book through the hurdles of distribution and really working as an online marketing specialist. This is the space that authors are often not well geared to fill and which traditional publishers refuse to fill. It would require agents to really go to school and become VERY tech-savvy and up to date. They would have to figure out best practices in the evolving game of marketing, and stay up to date as the internet continues to change. They would have to actually work for that percentage instead of just making a couple phone calls. Nevertheless, somebody will start doing this because there is a gap in the marketplace for these kinds of online marketing specialists who will represent an author and a book and really push it in an effective way.

  4. Thanks for the excellent info David. Frightening to think that I actually queried some of these people on your list. I’m on the lookout for a new agent after ditching my first one due to the very reasons you cite, i.e. Lazy Greedy Agent Syndrome. Now I’m having second thoughts about bothering with them at all. More Power!

  5. Thanks for staying on top of this nonsense. One of the best things I am learning from reading your blogs is always consult a good old calculator. A little math pretty much reveals where one’s loyalty lies.

  6. I have just been accepted into Trident Media’s epublishing programme. And, yes, it was a case of “being accepted”: they took a month to consider. It’s an out of print book first published in the UK in 1999, and never in the US. It’s like a second life for this book.
    I chose the agent-assisted way, rather than going it alone, deliberately. People keep saying “but you can do it all yourself” but that’s not quite true. As Nathan suggests above, I believe that the agent’s name will add a bit of oomph when it comes to the marketing, which they promise to assist me with, and in which I have zero experience and zero interest. I also have zero time for marketing, which I understand can be very time-intensive.
    I don’t mind at all the 15% royalties they will get. It’s like having a business partner with more clout than myself, a nobody. I will pay for a new cover, and that’s the entirety of my expenses.
    We will see.

  7. While I don’t think Argo Navis offers optimal services for indie authors and obviously they have failed to market books properly, I don’t think that agents’ involvement with Argo Navis reflects as badly as you have described. I have it on good authority that Argo Navis approached the agencies you have mentioned and a source from one of the agencies you have listed states that the agency never signed a deal. Authors are not being funneled or milled into this program but are given a self-publishing alternative if their manuscript doesn’t sell. It’s simply a way for agents to dip into the growing self-publishing market and agents are in the business of making money, just like everyone else. It would be foolish for them not to take advantage of self-publishing. Are their better ways they could go about doing this? Of course. Anyone who has read ‘Be the Monkey’ (Eisler and Konrath) would know their views on the role of literary agents going into the future. Literary agents may have to change the way they operate and become creative partners to indie authors. What if literary agents began offering e-distribution services? It would certainly allow indie authors to spend more time writing if they didn’t have to contract out or perform tasks like cover art, formatting, and uploading themselves. What if literary agents became a one stop shop for these services? What if they did all this and more by offering editing and publicity? Would that be worth a percentage of your royalty? There are lots of ways to make an egg: scrambled, poached, over easy, boiled. Just like there are lots of ways to go about publishing and marketing your book. However, I imagine that if Argo Navis doesn’t improve its performance then agencies such as Writer’s House and ICM Partners won’t continue to send them projects. It’s a business and if Argo Navis doesn’t make the cut, I don’t think they will continue to get business from these agencies.

  8. Hi all,

    It has come to my attention that one of the literary agents mentioned in this piece is emailing commenters calling this a “misinformed and one-sided article” and inviting people to a Skype chat there they can “learn more about what I do for authors, as well as how and why I do it.”

    I’ll be blogging about this in more detail on Friday, but it speaks volumes that this agent is approaching people in this manner rather than publicly addressing the concerns I have raised.

    If you have received such an email or any similar communication, please get in touch with me at david [dot] gaughran [at] gmail [dot] com


  9. Thanks for the very thorough vivisection, David! I saw the announcement on Mamet when it first came out and thought, “Why, he’s not self-publishing at all!” These companies and agencies are preying on the authors. I hope Mamet reads your post!

  10. Excellent article! As a new author still on the fence concerning agents, this info gave me a chill, then made me mad. I’m mentioning this outrageous development in my next podcast episode (Sundown Lounge); some of us are still on the outskirts of the publishing world and desperately need the heads-up. Thanks!

  11. Excellent article! Thanks for posting it. Looking the above list makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Why? Because those are some of the same agents I queried a lifetime ago! I was turned away and decided to self-publish. I did everything myself or found another independant artist to help me (e.g cover art). And I’m so glad I did! 🙂 BTW: I just have to repost this for all the “newbies” out there who might be taken in.

  12. In less than ten years there will be no trad publishing. The fees they like to charge are simply suicidal. If you sell 10 books on line at $2.99 you need to sell 50 via the trad shop route to get the same return when it sells for $12.99. It’s a no brainer.

  13. David, I looked over the list of literary agencies you cited in this article, because I recognized some of the names. Fine Print Literary Management is one of them. I checked their website. There is no indication on their ‘news’ section that they have signed with AN, which means that they are concealing an arrangement from their current client authors, and any future authors, one that can be detrimental to the author’s potential income.

    In light of the recent news that Patricia Cornwell was bilked out of $51 million by her financial management company, this is a rather serious form of deception. Thank you for bringing this to light. It is appalling.

  14. Interesting blog post; thanks. I’ll be self-publishing my backlist title through Trident Media’s assisted epublishing department within the month. I wonder how it will go.

  15. Hi folks:

    I was just reading there are 100,000 new book titles annually with the self publishing revolution. No wonder those of us who are authors feel like it is difficult to stand out in the crowd. And no wonder my TBR list is horrendous and growing.

  16. Thank you again David for your in-depth analysis of the IHT/NYT article (it was also published in China Daily on 28 April 2013). The sea of self-publishing is filled with sharks. Some nights I can’t sleep seeing the results of having gone along with Authorhouse…

  17. I argue that these authors are “self” publishing. I self-publish. I work one-on-one with my cover artist to fine tune my covers until I’m happy with them. I schedule my editors and formatters to align with a desired release date. I scan the formatted files for errors. These authors are just using their agents to help them bypass the traditional route to publication, so I have a strong distaste for the word self-publication in reference to this practice. I know that’s off-topic, David, but I felt compelled to speak my mind. True Independent authors have paved the hard road to make self-publication a respected and viable option — using an agent to send your work off to a third party involves nothing of “self” except to send an email and say “do it.”

  18. I come from a background with twenty years experience in lgbt genre fiction and over 100 pubbed works of fiction, not including European publishers. Last year I decided to self-pub a few novels and stories in digital only format. It was hard, especially because I had deadlines with publishers. Learning formatting, how to distribute to venues where all my others books are sold was hard, too. The first book kept me up late at night for weeks. But it has been worth it. I did not hire a service, but did hire a copy editor and cover artist. The cost was very minor compared to what most services charge. I also wanted to learn each and every detail about self-publishing for my own benefit so I could maintain absolute control. I guess not everyone feels this is important to do, because if they did no one would EVER advise an author to go with a service that takes so much.

  19. David, you have pointed out everything that is wrong with agency representation. Had one once, got nothing from it, decided I was better off on my own and I was right: he could not stir any interest in what I wrote, yet I had a lot of stuff published when I was in high school 50 years ago. I think people who self-publish should get an editor, simply to have a second/fresh pair of eyes on what they wrote and catch typos that we all miss (‘by’ instead of ‘be’, ‘ant’ instead of ‘and’).

    Self-promotion can be quite intimidating, but the internet is a gigantic billboard, ripe for this kind of use. We must learn to not be shy about tooting our own horns. I view this expansion of self-publishing as a change that was long overdue.

    Glad I found your blog. Keep at it, use the sledgehammer approach if you have to.

    I do admire the moustache. I have a friend with an extremely Dickensian beard.

  20. Thanks for a great article, Dave, and for being a great watchdog 🙂
    There seems to be no response from the agents mentioned in your article (except ex-agent Nathan Bransford). I’m curious – did you approach any of them for comment?

  21. I would like to weigh in on this. I am an author. I’ve had 7 novels published in various platforms including Small press, self published, and big house traditional publishing. A HYBRID author, I believe the trendy new term is. I do not and have never had an agent. I do not believe I need one at this point. My self published novel got rave reviews and made me a nice chunk of royalties, often times more than my small press novel–mostly because I do not have to split those profits with anyone.

    In an age where authors really only have agents to open doors they can’t open themselves (such as the big 6 publishers) it seems very nearly a betrayal to then shove those authors into a self publishing company who will offer services at inflated costs, severely cut authors royalties, and then provide poor services. If a publisher did that sort of thing, they’d be flayed alive on the P&E boards.

    The advantage to traditional publishing has always been in the services they provide. Editing, cover art, and distribution. What we have now is a community of writers savvy enough to do all those things themselves and the only real benefit to a big 6 publisher is the deals they can make to get an author in brick and mortar stores. And even that ability is waning with the loss of big box stores like Borders.

    So what are these agents really saying when they say this is the best path for the majority of their authors? At best they are saying that those writers aren’t good enough to be traditionally published or smart enough to self publish without assistance. At worst they are trying to ensure their own income by forcing authors into a system of self publishing where they still get to take their cut. Either way, it’s an insult and it makes me very glad I’m not represented by someone like that.

  22. I wanted to jump in with a few thoughts since I have the (dubious) honor of being the top-ranked author using AN that you found in your research.
    One of the beautiful things about the self-publishing revolution is the ability to experiment. To me, the big 3 external factors I can experiment with are distribution, pricing and promotion. Internal (to my business) are experimenting with editors, cover artists, formatters or formatting software, to name a few.

    Using Argo Navis for 3 of the 6 books (7 if you count a novella in an anthology) that I self-published in a 3 month span last fall, was experimenting with distribution.
    It wasn’t because I didn’t do my homework. I did. For a year before I published. It wasn’t because I didn’t feel I could do it myself. I can and I do.

    I felt it was worth experimenting with this venue for a lot of reasons, but the main ones being:
    • I still controlled all aspects – cover, pricing, promotions, editing
    • I was only committed for a specified time – if I didn’t feel it was giving me any advantage over my other books, either in distribution channels or add-ons, I could walk
    • The commission cost (and AN is not getting 30%, that may be their rate card cost, but it is not their negotiated rate) would be negligible to me if there was some sort of distribution break-through with these books that I could not achieve on my own. I wasn’t expecting there to be one, and so far there hasn’t been. All part of the experiment.

    My agent didn’t pressure me in any way to use AN. Totally my call. I’m doing my Worth romance series on my own and nobody has any issues with that.

    I also wanted to comment on the cover issue. I’m sorry you don’t care for my cover for Against The Spread, but I want to point out that I hired the cover artist on my own, worked with her for all 6 of my covers, and have been really happy with them. She’s Kim Killion and is doing a huge amount of self-pub (and for traditional publishers) covers right now, with the majority being in the romance genre. AN had nothing to do with my covers whatsoever, so, good or bad, that does not lie at their door.
    The cover with the typo is the option available through AN if you choose not to have one designed. Author’s call. I felt it was important to have a professional cover done and hired a professional. But, regardless, as author, you sign-off on all proofs (covers, files, whatever) from AN, so the typo making it to “press” is on the author. And, could be easily changeable.

    So, this experiment in distribution has gone about as I expected it to. My experiments with pricing and promotion on my Worth books have surpassed my expectations. By offering my first book in the Worth series as perma-free, I’ve sold over 60,000 of the 2nd two books in the series combined since Christmas.

    The journey (and experimenting) continues.

    1. Hmmm! It would appear that some of the comments here (including my own) have been somewhat overwrought. With the ability to walk after a reasonable time and flexibility on rates (which to be fair, are neither stated nor implied in anything I read on AN’s website), experimentation such as Ms. Jacobs has outlined seems a much more reasonable risk. That, coupled with the obvious evidence that Ms. Jacobs parallel DIY effort is doing well (better than most of us surely) certainly confirms she did her homework and wasn’t an unwitting dupe. I do feel that the AN program as presented (and performing) is a bad deal for authors, but Ms. Jabobs comments help put things in perspective. The insights of an actual program participant are most welcome. It is also illuminating to learn that the ‘rack rate’ is not necessarily the applicable rate. Apologies to Ms. Jacobs for any unfounded assumptions on my part and a big thanks to her for jumping into the discussion.

      1. Let’s also not forget that Mara’s books are (by far) the best performing Argo Navis books. The next set back are selling extremely infrequently. Most aren’t selling at all. I think Mara’s perspective is valuable (and shouldn’t be ignored), but her performance is atypical and her impressions of Argo Navis may also be atypical as a result. (Although it would be great if we could hear from more Argo Navis authors.)

    2. Hi Mara, Thank you very much for dropping by and commenting – it’s very much appreciated. And congratulations on the sales you have achieved with the books you uploaded to KDP etc. directly. Those numbers are fantastic.

      I’m happy to hear that you weren’t pressured into choosing Argo Navis. Can I ask what attracted you to using the program? Can you disclose what the period you have to commit for is? Can you share the commission cost? (Please only answer where you feel comfortable.)

      Regarding the cover for Against The Spread, no, I’m not a fan to be honest. I don’t think it’s as strong a cover as the first in the series, and I definitely don’t think it’s as strong as the covers on the series that you have self-published directly.

      The reason that I mentioned the ranking performance of Argo Navis books was that some writers may be of the view that some of the other issues I raised might be more palatable if the books were doing very well – but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In fact, as I see it, Argo Navis are holding back the performance of these books with a shoddy service (one example I gave was of a book being categorized incorrectly).

      I guess it boils down to this: you have been using the Argo Navis service for some time now and sales pale in comparison to your (excellent) results from self-publishing directly. Would you recommend authors to use a service like Argo Navis, or to self-publish directly? Are you going to continue using Argo Navis, or upload new titles there?

      I ask because I suspect have made a lot more money with your other series by going it alone, and that if you had published that via Argo Navis you would have forked over a significant sum (if they hadn’t botched something like your categories, harming your visibility and discoverability).

      In any event, I’m grateful you stopped by to share your experiences.

      1. David,
        Thanks for the opportunity to chime in. Although I don’t feel comfortable giving out contract specifics I do want to touch on a couple more points that you bring up, and answer some of your questions.

        The “botched” category listings by AN adversely affecting sales:
        I can’t speak to every author’s experience, but the forms I got from AN looked fairly boilerplate, and in these forms, the author chooses their categories, not AN. If they are not implemented correctly, they can be quickly changed. Again, it’s on the author. And yes, the right categories and meta data is important.

        My AN books not selling as well as my direct upload books:
        Has absolutely nothing to do with them being AN-distributed. It’s all about the genre, the series, and the perma-free. My first 2 Worth books were up for 2 months with minimal sales. It wasn’t until I got the 3rd book up and offered the 1st on perma-free that the discoverability happened and the series took off. A portion of the Worth readers have gravitated to Broken Wings as that has a strong romance element in it, and I’ve seen that in sales. Not as many have gone to the Vegas books (very little romance, pretty dark, flawed protagonist). It’s the books, not the distribution model.
        (which I know you get, and wasn’t really what you were saying/asking, but felt it important to point out)

        Why did I choose this route?
        Other than the big reason I mentioned before – distribution experimentation – there was the timing of it. I was getting 6 books ready to go at the same time, I was open to experimenting, and having AN handle 3 of them was helpful.
        I always felt the potential money-makers might be the romances, so it was nice to be able to compare/contrast the different routes. If I (when I!) get the 3rd Vegas book written, I’ll probably try the first free promotion with those books, so it might be a different comparison then, but that’s a ways off.

        Would I re-up, or do more books with AN?
        I’m not opposed to it. I’ll look at the whole situation when the time comes. Right now I’m just trying to take advantage of this wave and get the 4th Worth book written.

        Would I recommend using an agency-provided service (whether AN or others) to other authors?
        The only recommendation I would make to a self-publishing author is do your research. Watch the charts. See what’s working for some authors, and not for others. And then make the best decision for your own career.

        Again, thanks for letting me add my thoughts.

        1. Thanks for coming back again, Mara. Sorry if I seem slow to respond. I’m handing in a book to my editor tomorrow and only crawling out of the writing cave for short bursts of sunlight.

          Let’s assume I take at face value your contention that distributing via Argo Navis has done nothing to harm your books chances, even though I think I’ve made that case for other books distributed via them. Let’s just assume for the purposes of this discussion that there is no drawback in that regards.

          That still leaves the cost. While you can’t disclose their cut (and I won’t push you there, even though I think transparency is always good in these situations), I’m presuming that it’s still significant, and still substantially more than a distributor like Smashwords takes (10%). And, obviously, it’s a hell of a lot more than going direct to the retailers yourself.

          What are Argo Navis doing for their cut? What are they doing more than a competitor like Smashwords does? What advantage is there to using them rather than, say, going direct to KDP? Even if the other issues I raise are non-issues (and I don’t believe they are), why would you advocate for a service that is more expensive and appears to provide nothing in return for that premium?

          Your other (non-Argo Navis) books have sold 60,000 copies in just a few months. While that’s a fantastic performance, I presume you can work out how much you would have paid them if you had distributed those books through them.

          I don’t know what price you are selling at, or what cut Argo Navis are taking off you, so I can’t run the numbers. I do know that if I had use the service, I would have forked over a five figure sum for the privilege. I would estimate that the amount you would have lost by distributing those books through them is much higher again.

          You really think it’s worth that price tag? You really think something with that kind of price tag is something agents should be recommending?

  23. Reblogged this on Taking the road less traveled and commented:
    I wrote about the David Mamet deal a few days back. David Gaughran dissects that development in depth. Enjoy!

  24. Thanks, for an enlightening (and a bit horrifying) article. I feel sorry for those authors who are going this route. I’m so thankful to be a successful self-published author, and I don’t think self-publishing is hard.

    However, I was anxious the first time I had to upload a book on Amazon. I’m so tech-challenged, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it. I found, contrary to my fears, it was relatively easy. It took me about half an hour the first time, although now I can upload a book in half that. Ever since then, I’ve worked to educate other authors on the benefits of self-publishing, including teaching online classes. I tell people that if I can do it, they can. But I do understand the urge to stick your head in the sand and let someone else do the work that might seem (in your mind) too difficult and too time consuming and too overwhelming. It’s not, but you won’t learn that until you try it.

    I sure wish I could be a fly on the wall and overhear the conversation David Mamet has with his agent when he finds out (and understands) the information in this article. Eventually, he will. I bet he won’t be happy.

  25. I was actually directing that at David – I hadn’t even read your post. He is saying it’s free on Amazon.

  26. Quick question. Why do you say using Amazon is free, when they take 30% of each sale? Yeapp – doing it via AN with an agent in the middle is upping that percentage quite considerable.

    You are right – one probably doesn’t need a middle man to go directly to those retailers, especially not one who takes another big chunk of the royalties.

    But Amazon isn’t free.

      1. Technically, neither are there any upfront fees with AN either :). Its just that the cut the do take is rather large, that is all.

  27. Let’s do the math here. A self-pubbed author selling direct through Amazon vs. selling through Amazon using AN.
    For every $10.00 in sales, the self-pubbed author selling direct makes $7.00 (Amazon takes 30%).
    The same sales through AN is $10 x 70% x 70% (AN’s cut) x 85% (agent’s cut) = $4.16 to the author. That’s just a little more than HALF what the author would make selling direct.
    Why would anyone want such a deal? I don’t get it. OK, the author has to hump it a bit and do some work here (less what’s farmed out), but still…

  28. Hey David,
    Do you have any thoughts on Trident Media?
    Robert Gottlieb, Trident’s head, was quoted in that same Mamet piece.
    Would be interested if you happen to know which titles they’ve assisted in self-publishing and how they’ve done.

    Enjoy your blog.

  29. David, thanks for a great article. Now what? I’m a self-publisher (I do it all) and I’m beginning to think that my book covers are crap! Wow! But the reason I’m writing, I’m shocked that Donald Maass has gone with Argo Navis. He swore six or more months ago he would never join anything close to self-publishing and now he’s in the loop? Obviously he was a participant even when he made that statement. Cover help? The Liberators, by Jerri Gibson McCloud (

  30. This blog is a great resource for authors and publishers, but this post completely misses on why ICM becoming a self-publisher and teaming with Argo Navis is important. I agree with Nathan Bransford’s comment that self-publishers have a ways to go before they match the big authors, but this move is another step toward an even playing field where it won’t matter how you got published. The only thing that will matter is the work and can you generate enough PR to make it relevant.
    Is the Argo Navis deal fair? It depends how much you value premium curated distribution. I work for an indie publisher that has an ebook division, so I’ve seen the growth of ebooks first hand. I think 30% is way too much, because I don’t think premium distribution is worth that percentage, but every author has to decide that for themselves. ICM is another option for some authors and that is what we should be talking about. Authors have choices these days and they can decide if Argo Navis is charging too much. If an author does not like the 30% than they can publish with someone else. If David Mamet published his work through BookBaby, would it be less read than if it went through ICM’s new self-publishing service?
    This isn’t even factoring in why Argo Navis is even in business. How do you start a business? Demand. Then to call agents lazy is not looking at the whole picture, which in some ways is being lazy yourself.

    1. Kevin, let’s break it down. You describe Argo Navis as “premium curated distribution.” I agree that it’s “curated” in the sense that they only accept agented authors, but they aren’t doing any active curation themselves – they will help self-publish any agented author. But that’s arguing around the edges. Let’s just say it’s curated. But where does the “premium” come in? I don’t see Argo Navis books getting special promotional treatment on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. I see a list of books which aren’t selling. I don’t see fabulous production values – I see them scraping by with the bare minimum.

      So what’s premium about Argo Navis exactly? (Aside from the price)

      1. David, The part of my comment you are referring to is, “It depends how much you value premium curated distribution.” Argo Navis is defining “premium” as distributing titles to every outlet that sells ebooks. As I stated in my comment, I do not see value in their “premium curated distribution.” and this is because numerous ebook publishers offer the same thing and they call it distribution. I’m also not arguing that Argo Navis is producing excellent books or even quality books. In fact, I’ve worked with authors that have gone through their agencies ebook divisions and authors that have passed on the opportunity so they could publish the book on their own. Why did they venture out? They read great websites like yours that informed them to make a good decision. In the post I wrote for my blog, I clearly state that the interesting component of the New York Times article is what an author like David Mamet going the self-publishing route means for the book market. We’re at a very interesting time in our industry and I feel that should be the conversation instead of crappy deal Argo Navis is offering. If an author chooses not to do their research than the issue of a bad deal falls on their shoulders. I just agreed to a contract where I get 50% of the royalties for my forthcoming book. If I can get this deal, surely someone of David Mamet could do much better.

  31. David wrote: “Literary agents – who are supposed to be on the side of their clients – are the ones funneling authors into this program. This is on them.”


    If one assumes they’re operating strictly on the ethical basis of what they believe is best for their clients… then partnering with AN and recommending this program to clients represents business incompetence and inept representation of their clients’ interests.

    And if one suspects that this is just a matter of agencies trying to grasp 15% of their clients’ self-publishing income… then their self-interest at the expense of their clients is -also- accompanied by bad business judgment, since their clients’ ebooks would generate more money for them if epublished well–which seems very unlikely with AN/

  32. Thank you so much for this breakdown from an author’s standpoint. I’m going to be looking into ARGO more seriously. I appreciate the work. From this article alone I can’t wrap my mind around an agent using this service and Foreword doesn’t and hasn’t spoken to Perseus about this model as of yet. An extra 30% off profit doesn’t seem to be a good deal at all.

  33. David, I applaud you for continuing to fearlessly tell it like it is. I’ve self published successfully, with some fee-based help and time consuming difficulties to overcome. There is a learning curve that takes time and concentration, but worth the effort. Nothing justifies the exploitation of authors, who are the sole reason agents and publishers had jobs in the first place. I hope you will continue to write eye-openers that could smoke the bad guys out of their caves. It’s the best time for authors now, but it’s also important for us not to let each other down by producing shoddy work that allows agents, publishers, and any others, to make disparaging remarks about our work.

  34. “Most self-publishing is not of high quality. There has been a disregard of publishing standards and that needs to change. I’m looking at a new way of doing things, a model of agent-led self-publishing where authors get guidance to bring their self-published work to a professional level.”


    I don’t blame agents for wanting to find a place in the digital market, but this is just delusional. Somehow agents are going to raise self-publishing up to “publishing standards?” Okay, how? By sending them to a publishing service? In what part of that process is the agent necessary?

    What Ms. Eberhardt doesn’t seem to know is that the “publishing quality” of a self-pubbed book is largely a matter of money. Anyone who cares to spend a few hours on Google can find a decent or better cover artist, an editor, and a formatter. The only question is, are they willing and able to pay for the services? A lot of writers aren’t or can’t, and sending them to AN does not change this fact in the least. Authors will still have to pay for all of the self-pubbing services, except they cost more, for (apparently) poorer quality, and then they still have to relinquish a giant chunk of their royalties.

    The part I think is delusional is where she mentions “agent-led self-publishing.” Sorry, madam, but people are done being led. Stop trying to think that you’re going to stand at the helm of the ship. There is no ship. There is no controlled market in self-published books. You are not going to lead anything, or anyone. If you can break yourself of this idea and start asking what kind of valuable service you can offer writers, you might find something that will work. I can’t imagine one, but you know your position better than I.

    I have a lot of sympathy for Mr. Bransford. He’s doing his best to live in this new world peacefully, but runs into a lot of anger from both “sides” constantly. His calm temper is admirable.

  35. Thank you for the list of participating agents/publishers, David. A handy reference point if the occasion might arise.

    Also was most put out by this:

    “April Eberhardt of April Eberhardt Literary was asked about Argo Navis and explained her motivation for signing up: ‘Most self-publishing is not of high quality. There has been a disregard of publishing standards and that needs to change. I’m looking at a new way of doing things, a model of agent-led self-publishing where authors get guidance to bring their self-published work to a professional level.’ ”
    Goodness, has she been under rock? I’ve never seen so many generic look alike covers than those emerging in mainstream books at the moment. And in addition, every mainstream book bought in the last 6 months has editing errors. Not only that, the stories are flaccid and unoriginal.

    I rest my case.

    1. Amen, Prue. The last best selling thriller I read from a big trad publisher by a big name author had more than 50 errors in the first 100 pages. I wrote to the publisher to complain. No reply. If that had been self published, the author would be crucified in reviews.

      1. Last week I went to a book store for the first time in months and spent about an hour browsing through the shelves. In that time, I found two trade-published books with typos in the back cover blurb (sadly, I didn’t think to note down which books they were).

        That’s about a hundred words and one of the first things a potential reader is going to read. If they can’t even get that right, what other things are they skimping on these days?

        1. I agree Edward. Standards are slipping. I recently read a best selling thriller by a big name author that had at least 50 errors and typos in the first 100 pages. I emailed the publisher about it but no reply except a computer generated response thanking me for my comments. It was sloppy editing and proofing, worse than many self published books I’ve seen and they charged me $12 for the privilege.

  36. I think it a bit ironic that the unfortunate authors in question probably got more exposure and visibility as a result of your links than they ever did by virtue of the efforts of AN. I wonder if they’ll see a blip in sales? And btw, my earlier comment notwithstanding, I’m not a zealot on the issue of indie vs. traditional publishing. To me it’s just about the numbers, and when viewed quantitatively, I think the issue is fairly clear. I doubt anyone’s going to come along and offer me a huge advance, but I am making quite a decent return by self publishing, and having a bit of fun in the bargain. Thanks again for your clear and logical posts. You do us all a great service.

  37. I was curious about the two books in your post that had never sold a single copy, so I clicked on your links to their Amazon pages. One of them, Bean Blossom Dreams, was about a Chicago family that relocated to Brown County, Indiana, to flee their stressful urban existance. Since I was born and raised in the area, I opened up the sample. Very well written by the wife/mother, an expat-British writer. AFter reading the sample, I’d certainly consider buying it. However, the cover is terrible (deserves a mention in and it’s priced to be non-competitive. Sad… it’s probably not going to do well sales-wise. If it were self-pubbed, the author could set her own price, do KDP freebies to boost WOM and paid sales, and probably do quite well over time.

  38. Dave

    Thanks for the great post and best wishes for Nathan Bransford in the next chapter of his career.

    It would be interesting to track AN releases over a period of time and see how they perform. Not to continue hurling stones but in all honesty their covers and blurbs are simply awful. First timers over on KB have better covers that are $25 pre-mades and (after some feedback) more effective and interesting blurbs. And these are supposed to be “currated” writers working with highly experienced pros.With that in mind I don’t know what I find more distrubing: their terms or the heaps of legitimacy piled onto them by the prominence of the agencies that have partnered with them.

    With a number of “us vs. them” arguments continnuing it’s interesting, I think, to look at the forrest thats being missed because of a few malignant trees and see that the issue is the question of “what’s best for writers”?

    Like you said today over at Joe’s blog:

    “I mean, it’s not like traditional publishers have been leading from the front, getting to grips with the internet, engaging readers through social media, pricing aggressively, free-pulsing, breaking down the Amazon algos, and maximising visibility.”

    All are good, logical choices for the business minds running the Legacy publishing sector to pursue, especially considering the new benchmarks that are being set almost daily by indies. Instead though, we’ve seen an unbridled adoption and explosion of pay-to-epub “services”, heightened rights grabbing and clause revisioning and now even agents are doubling down against writers.

    It really makes the flurry of recent agent articles, where they regurgitate statements about the immense value they add and about always doing what’s best for writer’s, almost comical,

  39. I say who needs them. I’m doing fine publoishign o n my own — 70% royalties and not paying agents or any middlemen. The future is self puboshing and agents and greedy traditional publishers are a dying breed. Good riddance.

  40. Excellent post, David. Agree those covers are the worst I have ever seen.

    No writer should get involved with any of the agents on your list.
    Uploading an eBook to an online outfit like Amazon or Kobo takes about fifteen minutes
    including sending your metadata to them.

    It is not rocket science.


  41. Another great Post David.
    I own a small indies publishing house and I do the computer work for a flat rate. Usually with an edited manuscript I can publish both an ebook and a POD paperback for my clients and I usually charge around $200-300, depending how much cover work I have to do, in a week. So the author can have a hardcopy of their work in hand in just a few weeks. The client retains all rights and royalties and I charge them as though I am doing computer work, which basically is what it is. I have had nothing but 100% delighted customers with my services. Business is good and I see this being a trend for the future. Many authors don’t have the time or the expertise to do the work themselves and I have found a nice little niche where everyone is happy with the final results.
    The stories about desktop publishing that have been touted by the computer industry for decades has actually become a reality for me and my happy clients. 🙂

    1. David I think it has become evident, to most who look into it, that traditional publishing is a huge, parasitic, bureaucracy that does very little for the creative talent.

  42. I don’t think they even bothered with PhotoShop on the Bean Blossoms Dreams cover. Looks more like a word document with some text boxes. Argh! My buddy’s kid could whip out something more appealing with the free GIMP program. I’m having her design my cover at a delightfully pleasing price point for the both of us. Is this really self-publishing? All the financial responsibility for half the money and no control… I don’t think so.

  43. Thanks for an outstanding post! I’m thrilled about Mamet’s decision. This makes me very happy–and I like to be happy. 😉
    Btw, when is Visible coming out? I’m signed up for your auto email list, just curious when you think it will be.

    1. Very soon is the short answer. Longer version: editor gets it on Friday, and she has the engine running ready to go. It’s a short book (about 35k), and after a thorough going over by my excellent betas (incorporating those suggestions right now) the MS should be relatively clean. Formatting this will take a touch longer than usual with all the links etc., but it should be live on Amazon in around two weeks. I’ll update you more as I get closer, and sorry for making you wait! I really want to get this as perfect as I can – and as up to date as possible – and it’s a pretty complex topic.

  44. Excellent post highlighting this travesty. I found April’s comment particularly telling as, from what you provided, this company doesn’t actually do anything about the lack of quality issue – they simply pass through and format whatever they happen to receive. Is there some hidden extra editorial review that they forgot to mention?

  45. I completely agree with your take on Argo Navis. Thank you for laying it out so completely. The book with the author’s name misspelled is particularly egregious. If a publisher wanted to pick the one mistake that best says “I don’t give a damn,” that’s got to be it.

    Here’s another way I think these agencies are doing wrong by their clients:

    Folks who’ve been traditionally published for decades may have long-established relationships with their agents. They likely feel they can’t just turn their backs on their agents and publish on their own. Even for just one book. It probably feels like too much of a slap in the face to people they consider friends or business partners. That means they’re basically a captive audience. Whatever approach their agents decide to take to self-publishing, those authors are likely going to feel they should go along with it, either because they care about their agents or because they don’t want to damage a business relationship they value. And given this captive audience of authors, Argo Navis is what these agents have chosen. It’s like giving all the nice scarves you made to your work colleagues while saving the one you screwed up for your Mom because you know she loves you and will accept whatever gift you give her, even if she recognizes it’s sort of shitty.

  46. The blurb, though. That’s reaches a level most indies can’t. Because we don’t have access to 6th grade students who will agree to write book reports for us.

    1. *snicker* I have a 3rd grader (who reads MG level books). I suppose I could use her. Then I might be at the same level.

  47. I wonder how they can even use the description “self-publishing”. This isn’t sp but the agent as publisher. We need to call these agents what they really are–publishers. Agents are disappearing and to stay in the industry, they are becoming the publishers. This is a gray area that should be setting off alarms at P&E and Writer Beware.

    Thanks for the listing of agencies. IF I ever have the notion of moving away from self-publishing, I will definitely never approach those agencies. I’ll put in the extra work and keep more of the profits, thank you very much! I’m still enjoying my success as a full-time writer, thanks to Smashwords, Amazon KDP, and BN’s PubIt.

  48. David,
    As a writer, the most exciting part of your post was the last line:
    ‘Funny, I thought it was because of the golden fleece these guys are pulling.’
    You knocked it out the park for six! Well penned.
    To get down to the more mundane topic of agents who are finally realizing they are dinosaurs: something in David Mamet’s article on his reasons for choosing self publishing disturbed me. I quote:
    ‘It also has relationships with the digital publishers that give their clients access to plum placement on sites that self-published authors can’t obtain on their own.’
    Please don’t tell me that this is true. If it is, then the commissions they are asking are cheap at the price. Is this what Amazon is doing to us? Is this what they are likely to be doing in the future?

    1. All the retailers have merchandising teams which give extra visibility to certain titles. Sometimes a lot of that visibility is automated, and open to anyone – especially on Amazon. But a lot of promo spots (or virtual co-op if you like) is either for sale to publishers as part of their general contract listing titles with their site, or hand-picked by the merchandising teams. In the latter case, those titles can be from publishers large and small, self-publishers, or, in the case of Amazon, their own imprints.

      This has been going on forever, and is the digital equivalent of publishers bidding for front-table spots in bookstores. The difference online is that a lot of those spots – especially on Amazon – are open to anyone, if their book performs well enough and gets automatically recommended by the system, or catches the eye of someone internally through other means.

      It’s perfectly conceivable that agents could use their connections to bag some of that visibility for clients they are publishing or assisting with self-publishing. However, that doesn’t appear to be happening for any of the Argo Navis titles, which are ranked extremely poorly. While rankings go up on down, a ranking of beyond #1,000,000 in the US Kindle Store is a clear indication that a copy hasn’t been sold for months in the biggest digital ebook market on the planet.

      Amazon themselves have something called the White Glove Program, which is specifically designed for agents assisting clients with self-publishing. I don’t know all the details, but there are some promo treats on the table for agents who sign up. This has been going on for a while, but it’s not like agent-published books have taken over the Kindle Daily Deal or anything. I’ve only spotted that happening once, myself.

      1. David,
        This is a minefield as well as a shark-infested sea. Sorry about the mixed metaphors there. Your book has been a great help to me and to several of my author friends who have decided to self-publish digitally after my recommendation of Let’s Get Digital. But there is another trap for UK self publishers. The USA’s IRS withholds 30% of our earnings unless we register as US taxpayers. When I tried to download an application form it came as a PDF file that I could not be printed out. The site did however say that applicants could ring their London office but did not give either the office’s title or telephone number. Can you advise?

  49. What really bothers me is the blatant lies from agents. Claiming that self publishing is filled with dross (sure, there are some terrible books out there) and that going with Narvis is the way to differentiate themselves is nothing more than marketing disguised as explanation.

    Their claim is not backed by reality. Narvis is nothing more than a portal. The actual quality of the book (formatting, editing, art) has nothing to do with them, so how do agents expect anyone to buy into their rationale? Authors who desperately want an easy way to set themselves apart from the herd will fall for this, but those who are in this for the long run will see through it.

  50. Ugh – I just threw up in my mouth a little. An all too familiar feeling. I’ve always considered my agent to be a friend, on my side etc, and in truth she’s been quite helpful in several instances, just was never able to place my books despite her being a big name in the industry. When I was in the midst of planning the self-pub of my second epic a few months back, she took me out for lunch and pitched me on e-pubbing through her agency, as she was starting up a brand new model. Part of me was intrigued – had she figured out something new and bold to revolutionize the industry? And part of me was worried – is she smiling and feeding me Cobb salad even as she readies herself to flay me around the edges? Alas, it was the latter. She offered to take care of all the e-pub nonsense for me, at a hefty premium, doing things I was already much better at than anyone in her agency. My agent! My friend! Mother confessor of all my writing sins! And, in the end, my betrayer.

    Ah well.

    I don’t blame agents trying to reinvent themselves in this fast changing industry. I just don’t understand why most of them aren’t smarter about it. Why they don’t think longer term. Why they don’t realize we’re smarter than that.

    1. I don’t like those models where you pay for each service separate and then the agent still takes 15%. I mother hen my clients :). I do the cover (a million times if need be until it is the best of my ability), editing, placement and marketing negotiations through Amazon, and promo. You have to work to earn.

  51. Great post again, David. I agree with Jaye, many of my writer friends won’t dare to self-publish because they think it’s too difficult. I tell them there’s plenty of help out there but they still prefer to get the condescending pat on the head from people they think are better judges of their work than they are.

    Don’t know how you get all this stuff, you’re like Sherlock Holmes hunting hounds. Cheers to you.

  52. I really wish we could have these discussions without the name-calling and start by assuming that the people involved are acting in good faith. Whatever is happening here, it doesn’t strike me as “laziness.” It looks more like one of the first, perhaps imperfect iteration of a new model.

    Thing is, there is some potential in an agent-curated premium self-publishing service that gets preferential distribution. Why? Because there is one important thing agents do provide the world of publishing, which is a screening process, and that adds value. People may agree or disagree with the end result of that screening, but at the very bare minimum it maintains a certain degree of quality control (show me someone who disagrees with that basic premise and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t read slush).

    Although it may not be currently working as intended, I also don’t see anything here that is untoward, including sending statements to agents directly, which is totally standard practice and is not a conspiracy. We’re really worried that ICM and Writer’s House are skimming off the top? How far are they going to get doing that?

    Most importantly, “laziness” would be not trying anything. I commend people for beginning to look for new hybrid publishing models, and I feel like it’s condescending to assume that the authors who are taking this deal are doing so for reasons other than the fact that they think it’s the best one for them.

    1. To be clear: I’m not worried that Writers House or ICM are skimming off the top, but the lack of transparency in these arrangements leave the door open for less scrupulous agents to do that.

      I will, however, robustly defend my characterization of this as “lazy.” It seems to me like these agencies have come up with a way to ensure they get 15% of the royalties from their clients’ self-published royalties with the minimum of effort on their part. (That’s why I drew a contrast with agents taking a more hands-on approach.)

      Seriously though, what are these agents doing for their cut other than funneling writers into a program which has a terrible track record and takes an astonishing cut of the authors royalties?

      A 30% cut for distribution is simply not justifiable.

      I actually agree with you that there’s potential for agents to add value here (I stress the word potential). Amazon’s White Glove program, for example, can give participating authors promotional opportunities that are difficult to obtain on their own.

      But this isn’t that. This is a crappy distributor charging triple what it’s competitors do, then upselling services like cover design on top of that with extremely questionable results.

      It’s the distributor’s job to put a book in the correct category. I gave one example where they are failing to do that, I’m sure there are plenty more.

      It’s the agent’s job to get the best possible deal for their authors. Argo Navis clearly isn’t that.

      As for the authors, I’m sure they trust their agent. If their agent says Argo Navis is the best way to self-publish, I’m sure many of those authors take that at face value.

      So I don’t blame the authors. It’s the agent’s job to research this properly and present the best options in good faith. Either these agents haven’t done their research properly (which is laziness), they are ignorant about how digital publishing works (which, again, is laziness), or something more malevolent is at work. I’d prefer to believe the latter isn’t true. Which leaves laziness.

      1. Well, I don’t have the inside experience with the platform, but I think the potential is simply that AN offers premium print/digital distribution (again, theoretically), and they’re able to provide that by offering retailers a higher level of product. So in order to maintain that AN only takes authors who are repped by reputable agents, who then are getting their authors a better deal than they would have gotten on their own and are thus justifying the 15%.

        Again, that’s the theory. It’s something I really wanted to try when I was an agent, but the infrastructure wasn’t there yet. AN may not be the best representation of that idea, but if it isn’t, I believe there will be something like it in the future.

        I still feel like “laziness” is the wrong approach – the quality of the deal might be in question, but not the effort. If agents are just lazily funneling their authors around they’re not going to have clients very long. I certainly can’t see some of the agents on that list just resting on their laurels and calling it a day with AN.

        1. I actually don’t have a problem with what is frequently termed “assisted self-publishing” in principle – but with multiple caveats. I blogged about that in detail here:

          So I think we are more or less agreed on the theory side. But Argo Navis isn’t new. It was launched in October 2011. I actually raised many of the same concerns then:

          As did Passive Guy:

          I will point out that *none* of those concerns with Argo Navis – flagged over 18 months ago – have been addressed.

          All that’s happened since is that we have a track record of poor performance to add to the huge bite out of the royalty checks. And, of course, more agencies signed up to the program.

          You might not like my choice of words, and that’s fair enough. I’d prefer not to use them either. I’d prefer if agents were smarter about this stuff and I didn’t have to blog about it at all.

          You say that this is just one imperfect iteration of a potentially valuable model. I don’t disagree. But it’s not like these agents don’t have alternatives, and it’s not like there aren’t other companies providing a better service at a fraction of the cost.

          Which leaves us with the question of why they are choosing Argo Navis. My theory is laziness. No conscientious researcher could conclude Argo Navis is the best option.

          If you don’t agree, why do you think they are recommending this service when there are superior, cheaper services available? Argo Navis fails every test: price, quality, results. What does it have going for it exactly?

        2. Let me put it another way. Authors get such a high percentage of self-published royalties because there are less people in the middle taking a cut. An agent-curated publisher-owned distributor manages to re-insert all of the middlemen circumvented by self-publishing directly. By definition, it’s sub-optimal.

      2. I think this is different than assisted self-publishing model, which is why the self-assisted components are treated separately. What this has the potential to be in premium distribution. For instance, a premium distributor could perhaps get self-published print books into bookstores, or work with the e-tailers to get premium placement in front doors and newsletters, because the additional quality control and cachet lent by agents. For that added exposure, a greater percentage of the cut would be worth it to authors. Again, theoretically.

        I don’t know of this model in another form, actually. I do think this is the primary example of this particular model, and it’s backed by Perseus, which is a solid distributor.

        If the agent earns the author more than their 15% then they have added value for the author. The only time a middleman makes sense is when a) the people on the other side of the transaction don’t have a choice, and b) when the middle man is adding value greater than what the other two parties could achieve on their own.

        I think we can both agree that a) is not the case here. Options are not a problem. Whether b) is really true is clearly up for grabs. I’d like to do some research on how authors/agents feel AN is working for them.

      3. I want to thank Nathan Bransford for showing up here and participating in this discussion. I have great respect for him, and back when he was an agent (and I was looking for an agent) he would have been a top choice. It is unfortunately rare for the two “sides” of publishing to talk directly to each other, and this is a good example of how we can begin to put the anger or disdain aside to make sure we are communicating.

        Now that I’m on the Indie “side,” I find it very difficult to imagine anything justifying giving someone a percentage of my hard-earned ebook profits. On the other hand, I work so hard writing, editing, arranging covers and formatting–and then marketing–that I absolutely appreciate what agents used to do. I simply feel their time has come and gone.

        An example of an agent that made her client a lot of money is Kristin Nelson, who helped Hugh Howey sell his book as a film property and in dozens of different countries. Plus shepherding a print-only deal in the U.S. But there was no curating going on. This was an ebook (series of ebooks, actually) that had already made the author a million dollars directly. And it’s a rare author, indie or otherwise, who will be able to attract that level of interest.

        Keep talking, you guys. And keep reporting, Dave. What you do is extraordinary.

        P.S. So now we know what you sound like (cf. video linked above). The only mystery left is what your upper lip looks like.

    2. If someone’s lazy, Nathan, that’s the name they are called. David laid out his argument pretty convincingly. Argo’s getting 30% for doing very little, and the agents who refer their clients to Argo are doing even less. Where’s the insult?
      Your argument against David’s piece seems to be 1. that a “screening process adds value,” and 2. David’s being boorish.
      I’m not sure how a screening process adds value. If you’re talking about editing, an author can (and should) hire an editor. No need for an agent or publisher there. If you’re talking about the perception of value, as in a brand or exclusivity of some sort, I think the roaring success of self-published authors has pretty much killed any notion that the public prefers books with words like ICM or Harpercollins in their Thanks and Acknowledgements page.
      As for sending money and sales reports to agents, you’re absolutely right: that IS standard practice. And it’s part of the problem. Why can’t an author be paid directly and then give his ten or fifteen percent to the agent? Because then agents wouldn’t want to do business with outfits like Argo, that’s why.
      Look, if you feel threatened personally as an agent by reading the truth about sleazy business practices among your colleagues, I understand. But please don’t tribal-up and say self-published authors don’t know what they’re doing.
      As for David being boorish, well, he’s an Irishman. Thanks David, Guinness is on me.

      1. I’m not an agent anymore, actually, so they’re not my colleagues. I don’t have a dog in the fight and am planning to self-publish my next project. I agree that David laid out his arguments convincingly as he always does, I just disagree that this is the result of character deficiency on the part of the parties involved.

        Also, I think the “roaring success” of self-publishing still has a ways to go to match the truly big authors of the world (the James, Kings, Rowlings, etc.), who are still relying on traditional publisher’s distribution. Until that changes (if it ever does), I still see some value in a premium curated distribution option.

        Whether this in particular is a good deal? Well, I’ll confess to my own ignorance. I need to do some more research on how agents and authors themselves feel AN is working for them.

      2. Nathan, though I respect your opinion, facts and logic are (in my opinion) clearly on David’s side in this discussion. And while it may be that this is simply AN’s “first iteration,” the results speak for themselves. This “first try” (which has lasted over a year) is clearly substandard. It’s a bit like the fellow that tried to beat the train across the tracks and hit the 27th car. If this is the best alternative agents (regardless of their pedigree) cab come up with, their judgement is clearly deficient. I too, like to see ‘alternatives’ but authors deserve better than this.

      3. “As for sending money and sales reports to agents, you’re absolutely right: that IS standard practice. And it’s part of the problem. Why can’t an author be paid directly and then give his ten or fifteen percent to the agent?”

        Authors can do that, if they include it in the contract. But I bet the agent will be too scared of not getting paid…

        ” For instance, a premium distributor could perhaps get self-published print books into bookstores”

        Can already be done.

    3. ” Because there is one important thing agents do provide the world of publishing, which is a screening process, and that adds value”

      Well, from =AN’s= point of view, that’s an important thing that agents do.

      But =clients=, from whose commissions literary agencies derive all their income, don’t pay agents to gatekeep. Clients pay agents to represent their work effectively and advise them intelligently on business. Which central functions of their profession these agencies are failing to do, based on the fiscal terms described in multiple articles (and also based on everything one can see of Argo’s publishing aptitude).

      Using agents as “gatekeepers” is evidently what Argo Navis perceives as good for its business model.

      But that has nothing to do with what’s good for the clients, who are the people who pay agents.

      1. I recently spent an hour on the phone with White Glove from Amazon. Their program also uses agents as tastemakers. If we’re of any use at all, it has to be seeing the market clearly ;).

      2. To be fair, Laura, I’m pretty sure Nathan wasn’t referring to the gate-keeping itself, but the idea that a curated collection might develop a brand among consumers, which in turn would result in more sales and visibility for the client. I’m not making an argument as to whether Argo-Navis specifically is effective at this, and I don’t think Nathan is either, but I believe that’s the theoretical position put forth by Nathan here regarding the value of screening.

      3. ” but the idea that a curated collection might develop a brand among consumers, which in turn would result in more sales and visibility for the client.”

        But that’s not an argument that can be separated out, in terms of representing clients effectively, from the unattractive fiscal deal being offered, and it’s an argument that relies on the key factor of the publisher doing a good job–and so far, there’s no evidence of that with AN, which so far appears to be doing a very poor job. Even putting the best possible frame around the word “curated,” it’s irrelevant if the writers sign for bad terms and are published poorly.

  53. Is this unexpected? Where there’s blood in the water, it inevitably attracts sharks. How can any author, new or old, ever again feel safe out there, for God’s sake? On the other hand, forget God, In Gaughran we trust; everyone else pays cash.

  54. I’d like to think that these agencies who signed up for this would take a look at it with fresh eyes if there’s enough public scrutiny. If they weren’t wiling to due their due diligence initially, surely having their noses rubbed in it would send them fleeing for the hills.
    Then, I remember this is the real world, that these agencies see, if not the complete end of their business model at least a great curtailing of it. Desperate people and desperate companies do things they wouldn’t dream of doing when times are good.
    This whole thing makes me sad. And glad that I am publishing all on my own without “advisers” like this.
    Thanks for being ever-vigilant for the self-publishing community David. You are appreciated by many.

  55. Thank you for a very enlightening post. It seems the success of so many independent authors is creating a lot of businesses trying to capitalize on their success. Thanks for the analysis and the warning.

  56. Yeah, I was also disappointed by Mamet’s method of self-publishing. At that point, it’s no longer IMO *self* publishing. It’s more like *contracted* publishing.

  57. Wow. I remember reading something about Bean Blossom Dreams when I was researching other Indiana writers this past year. What a disappointment it must be to have such an error on the cover of one’s book, after all that work! And that’s her personal story, too–that’s not just some novel. This whole article made me sick to my stomach, but that one example of a poorly-done, 5 minute Photoshop cover with a typo really feels like a punch in the gut. You couldn’t find a more perfect example of why it’s important for writers to retain rights to their own work. Her name, her story, her life–her Bean Blossom Dreams–just dumped into a bin. Sad. I bet it’s a really good story, too, but no one’s reading it.

  58. Great piece David. In general the market can be a minefield for Indie writers, with some so called ‘book-promoters’ already primed to take advantage. The Author Lounge at LBF was a valuable asset, allowing writers to share their experiences. When it comes to hiring assistance, whether it be editing, cover-design, promotion etc writers need to be careful. Like in any business the sharks are circling. If you’re after a decent builder you are unlikely to to hire ‘a bloke you happened to chat to in the boozer’, so why use someone who randomly advertisers on twitter etc… it’s more or less the same thing… best ask those who’ve already had the builders in, so you can see their work… Looking forward to reading your blog re the book fair.

  59. I saw the story about David Mamet’s choice to self-publish, and I was immediately skeptical about the agent’s angle. I had no idea,however, that Argo Narvis was such a lousy company–I can’t believe that those covers were actually allowed to go to print! I’m surprised that so many agents have signed on with Argo Narvis, but given the number of reputable publishing houses have gotten into bed with Author Solutions, I suppose I shouldn’t be.
    Thanks, as always, for breaking down the numbers.

  60. David, I’m so grateful you keep up with this stuff and keep us informed. Thanks for the clear perspective. I actually like to hear when famous or established authors like Mamet turn to s/p. I’m hoping that these authors help to prove to readers and reviewers that there are quality authors, writers, and books in our current self-publishing world and many produce professional books. Do you think these successful authors joining the ranks will help to dispel the prejudice that self-publishing is still vanity press?

  61. Hi David,
    Good warnings. But I am uncertain how Marmet fits into the picture. Did his agent sign with Argo Navis? Literary agents must be wondering how they fit into modern publishing. I guess assisting theft might be the easy way out.

  62. Good grief. Just when you think the weasels can’t sink any lower to the ground…

    But. I have to put some of this on the writers’ shoulders, too, David. If they DON’T WANT to learn the business, if they can’t take one day and browse to browse the internet and at least look at the vast amounts of information available about self-publishing (pro and con), if they continue to place such a high premium on pats on the head and ‘validation’ then they will be fleeced. Willful ignorance makes them prey.

    I’ve worked with a number of writers who were intimidated by the process of self-publishing. I break it down in steps for them. Anyone smart enough to write a book can certainly handle the step by step mechanics of publishing that book. Every single time I walk them through the distribution process, the reaction is always the same: “Oh. Well. That was easy.”

    What galls me most about this is the sheer cynicism behind it. The agents don’t want to deal with the author right now but suspect (or hope) that someday, maybe, with a bit of luck, the writer will be another Amanda Hocking or Hugh Howey. Here the writer is already contractually bound with the agency–for zero cost, zero work and zero risk on the agent’s part. Turns my stomach.

    1. “Good grief. Just when you think the weasels can’t sink any lower to the ground…”

      In my experience, there’s always plenty more LOW available whenever literary agents are involved in something.

  63. It was inevitable that a go-between would come along. Thankfully, posts like your will warn others of how the middle route isn’t always the best one. Self Publishing should be left alone to run its course. Yes – we need experts, editors, proofers, designers, but not someone who will take ongoing costs from sales just because they make out that they’re ‘experts’ and have our best interests at heart.

    Excuse me while I blow a raspberry.

  64. Thanks for highlighting this David
    There was so much great information available at the London Book Fair last week (esp from organisations like the Alliance of Independent Authors) that it’s easy to forget some people still don’t know much about self-publishing. Thank you for kicking up a stink! These companies have to exposed for what they are.

    1. There was some excellent author-focused info at LBF. Some really great talks (interesting to see the self-publishers giving out far more detailed, useful information than the publishing “experts”). It was my first time at LBF, but seasoned attendees said there was a marked change in the atmosphere this year, that self-publishers were actually welcome. Joanna Penn has more on that here, including some video of a moustachioed talking head:

      1. Great post David! It all sounds really unappealing, I try & avoid as many middlemen as possible between myself and the reader to be honest. I was at the LBF too this year and found it massively informative especially Joanna Penn’s seminar. We would have been in the same room for that. Last night, I published this viz the LBF, primarily for writers who are self-publishing or who already have and are keen to see their work on screen who missed out on it or couldn’t make these seminars:

        1. Yes, me neither. I found it very hard deciding which angle to use when writing the description for Gunshot Glitter, I didn’t dwell on keywords at all. I opened it up to feedback from friends when I penned it, which I found massively helpful, especially the ones who’d already read it prior to publication. I will try and review it in light of Joanna’s advice. That was the part I highlighted most in the blog when referring to her seminar.

        2. One can’t really blame the agents. They see the handwriting on the wall and that self publishing is the future. They are trying to find ways to survive, but it may be a lost cause. Maybe they could,become writiers since they seem to be think they know what sells. While some self published books are terrible, there are many good ones, some of which are finding their way onto the New York Time Best Seller list. The SPs are the new slush pile and publishers are actively seeking out some of the hot sellers. An author friend recently signed a contract with a publisher for his book, one that previously rejected him before he self published. So even publishers don’t really know what is going to sell.

        3. What agents need to do is adapt, and some already are.The industry is constantly evolving, and whilst many are still clinging rigidly to their traditional roles some of the more progressive folk are moving with the times. We are all entering new territory, and writers are leading the way in this publishing ‘wild west’. However, some literary agents have noted the rapid rise of some Indie authors, and realise there may be ‘gold in them thar hills’. Yes there are those who seek to fleece the ill-informed, but there are those too who just want reasonable futures, for themselves and their authors.

          It was often the case that if an agent couldn’t secure a traditional deal for their client their journey together would come to an end… sometimes a rather abrupt one. However, rather like the way some music industry A&R reps adapted to change, some literary agents are now continuing to back their initial judgement, thus venturing beyond the old frontiers imposed by publishers, by helping to sell their writers directly to the public via the likes of Amazon.

          It’s up to agents and writers to forge their own ‘Indie’ deals. In the future it may well be that more successful writer/agent partnerships will find success via direct publishing.

      2. “One can’t really blame the agents.”

        James, one most certainly CAN blame the agents. I think you may have missed the overall point of Dave’s article, specifically the section where he literally asks “Why am I targeting the agents?” There has an always been an inherent conflict of interest for agents, where they purport to be–literally–“the agent” of the author, acting in their best interests, yet being beholden to the publishers that buy the books that in turn pay the agent’s salary.

        If the handwriting really is on the wall and the profession of agent is being altered, redirected, or phased out, the correct and moral thing to do is NOT to look for ways to maintain the sham and invent methods for squeezing money out of the people you claim are your clients, but to adapt to the new order…or move on.

        What makes this particularly distasteful is that I get the sense that, in much the same way that iUniverse and Author Solutions preys on those would-be self-pubbers who aren’t tech or industry savvy, Argo Navis seems to be the snake oil salesman doing the same thing on the published side of the coin…and with the collusion of many in the agent community.

        1. Valid points, Matthew. I don’t really want to defend agents. I really have no use for them since many rejected my submissions a few years ago before I got into self publishing. My first thriller novel Deadline has now sold over 20,000 copies worldwide with many four and five star reviews and a couple of one-stars. Agents and some publishers told me there was no market for Canadian-based thrillers. One even complained my chapters were too short. Wonder if they told James Patterson that? Now I’m working on novel #3and it will be self pubished too. I don’t even bother submitting to agents anymore.

      3. such a gorgeous moustache as well David 🙂
        Great post and I think a lot of the agencies don’t understand what they are getting into – I like to give them the benefit of the doubt – due diligence seems to be lacking in the industry in general. Hopefully, this will enlighten them …

        1. ’tis the source of my powers.

          I think it’s entirely possible that they haven’t wrapped their head around digital publishing and why it’s unnecessary (and even disadvantageous) to use a company like Argo Navis. But I also think it’s their responsibility to do so – especially if they are being paid commission based on their supposed expertise.

          Despite the strident tone of the above, the aim of this exercise isn’t to tar-and-feather anyone. If all the above-named agencies stopped using Argo Navis and started getting smarter about this stuff, I would be very happy indeed. This post has gone a little viral, and I’m hoping that some of these agencies will take another look at what they’re recommending.

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