Literary Agency Sells 520 Books In One Deal, Raising Questions

Last week, Curtis Brown (UK) signed a deal for 520 of their authors’ backlist titles to be published by Pan Macmillan’s new imprint Macmillan Bello.

120 titles will be released between November and the end of the year, with 400 more coming in 2012, and the books will be available in both digital and POD formats.

Regular readers might remember that, in May, Curtis Brown were considering a move into publishing after fellow-agent Ed Victor launched his own imprint Bedford Square Books.

At the time, Jonathan Lloyd, the managing director of Curtis Brown, was quoted by The Bookseller as saying, “Where Ed Victor leads, others follow – and we are right behind him, but with a rather larger list.”

However, Mr. Lloyd may not have expected what happened next. Ed Victor’s move created a firestorm, with angry reaction from publishers, authors, and even other agents – including calls for his expulsion from the UK’s representative body, the Author’s Association of Agents (scroll down to comments for quote)

In addition, later that month, one of the first UK agents to move into publishing – Sonia Land – was dramatically cut out of a publishing deal by one of her own authors – Tom Sharpe – who made a backlist deal directly with his publisher.

It seems that Curtis Brown decided to rethink their move into publishing.

Instead, they have announced a deal to sell 520 books en masse to a new imprint owned by Pan Macmillan created especially to house these books. Naturally, with a deal of this size and nature, questions are being asked. Here is what Passive Guy (a lawyer) had to say:

This mass sale of backlist titles by Curtis Brown would seem to avoid some of the more obvious conflict of interest issues. However, PG wonders if each book and each author was given tender loving attention with respect to negotiating the best deal with Macmillan.

A mass sale like this quickly ties up a lot of books and authors before they can get nervous and move to self-publishing. It would be interesting to know if the agent disclosed the mass nature of the deal when it presented the proposal to each of the authors.

As long as we’re dealing with conspiracy theories, it is interesting to note that Macmillan set up a separate imprint, Macmillan Bello, for this special deal negotiated by Curtis Brown. Could it be possible that Macmillan Bello is a disguised version of agent-as-publisher? Does Curtis Brown have an ownership or profit interest in Macmillan Bello?

The deal was described by both parties as a “partnership” and Macmillan Bello’s homepage says they work with “literary agents, authors and literary estates to offer a new kind of deal.” [emphasis mine]

Whether that is just corporate-speak or indicates some other arrangement beyond the standard publishing deal and 15% cut for the agent is impossible to say without more details.

What we do know is that all the press surrounding this announcement – with considerable quotes and press releases from both sides – mentioned nothing about advances, royalty rates, or anything like that.

However, the big question, for me, is this: how likely is it that the offer from Macmillan Bello was the best possible deal for all 520 books (and their authors)?

It should be noted that as a digital and POD-only deal, the publisher’s risk will be minimal. As such, I would be surprised if any of these releases came with a real promotional push. With a negligible outlay, the publisher can release all 520 titles and, essentially, see what sticks.

Finally, there is no mention anywhere of an out-of-print clause, and unless the agent has negotiated one where, for example, the rights revert if a certain minimum amount of yearly sales/revenue are not generated, then these books are essentially tied up for the lifetime of the copyright.

One thing we can be sure if is that Curtis Brown will be getting their cut – seemingly without the hassle of shopping each book individually or without the danger of losing any of the titles to self-publishing (where they would get no percentage).

When I reviewed the names of the authors involved (or at least, the ones that have been made public thus far), something struck me as odd: Gerald Durrell, Vita Sackville-West, Francis Durbridge, DJ Taylor, Pamela Hansford Johnson, Andrew Garve, Gillian Tindall, and Eva Ibbotson.

All of those authors, with the exception of DJ Taylor and Gillian Tindall, are deceased. The rest are literary estates being managed by Curtis Brown.

If you are interested in being represented by Curtis Brown (UK) so that you can “benefit” from such innovative deals, don’t forget that there is a way of skipping the troublesome slush pile.

They have a $2500, 12 hour “creative writing” course where “stand-out students will be offered representation.” It’s directed by the same agent – Anna Davis – who negotiated the Macmillan Bello deal, and who is, according to Curtis Brown’s website, also head of book contracts and in charge of literary estates.

Draw your own conclusions.

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.