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.

39 Replies to “Literary Agency Sells 520 Books In One Deal, Raising Questions”

  1. Crooks. It’s obscene. I guess the families of the dead writers are happy to get ANY money, and probably have no heirs who really understand the business. It’s the literal equivalent of stealing a widower’s pension check. Sign with an agent at your own risk because they will do deals like this IN THEIR BEST INTEREST every …single…time. And if you are appended to them, and have given them the right to sign on your behalf, you have no choice but to walk the plank.

    Funny how all those years the “writing buzz” was all about how to get an agent, and all the smug strutting by authors who got agents (you can still see them proudly displayed in the Twitter bios…) And now the reality is authors need to learn how to get away from these guys as fast and far as possible.

  2. I have iPublished my backlist and added a new novel. All are doing great, especially at 70% and bypassing my agent. Just got the royalty statement from a major US publisher and the eBook section is obscure at best with 3 different prices, 2 different %–15% for some, 25% for others–even a “special sales” category with almost no royalties. This looks like another “landgrab” for intellectual real estate. Groups who really represent the interest of authors only–like the Authors Guild–need to enable authors to do this themselves for a modest fee. They were very successful with their backinprint program and this is the natural extension.

  3. Re “Draw your own conclusions.”
    Vulgar. This post reminds me of the battle scene in the movie version of “Atonement.” It sounds like these agents—atypical, I hope—are engaging in the inhumane acts that happen at the end of wars, when the losers realize it’s their last chance to grab all. I know there are honest agents bent on promoting and getting the best deals for their authors, but, for me, finally I’m convinced: the way for this writer is independent publishing.

    1. I know there are good agents out there too. However, their numbers appear to be dwindling. Several agents/agencies that I previously had some respect for have gone down a questionable path and appear to taking measures to ensure their long-term survival rather than acting in their author’s best interests (which is their job). Sad to see, but writers need to be more skeptical/wary/cynical/careful than ever.

  4. Wow, interesting. It’s going to take a few years for this new world of digital publishing to sort itself out. In the meantime, I’m guessing we’ll see a lot of unorthodox moves on all fronts. It’s a matter of change or become extinct, really.

  5. Call it what it is: backlist dumping. I checked out the Macmillan website. It’s ugly. One could do better job of selling book with a card table and a hand drawn sign on a street corner. What it actually accomplishes is ensuring those the authors and the estates are never getting any of those rights reverted. Here’s what I think is going on. Odds are, one or two of those titles will take off. All the publisher has to do is wait. For very little effort and investment, they’ll have some real money makers they can focus on. For the hundreds that are lost floating in the ether? Pfft. Who cares, right?

    Harlequin is doing the exact same thing with their immense inventory of backlist titles. I know, because eight of mine were caught up in it. No revamping, no updating, no promotion, no nothing except wait and see and even if the vast majority of titles never sell a copy, there will be a few that make the entire venture profitable. Screw the rest of them.

    As for the Curtis Brown school. I’m all for education and intensive workshops. This looks like just a tarted up version of reading fees to me.

    1. @Jay: Hear, hear.
      That desperate agents (and by this I mean all, in the present climate) would flail around for money-making opportunities is not surprising. That most authors don’t know enough to tell them to take a flying (ahem!) at a rolling doughnut is likewise, and sadly, unsurprising. But $2500 for 12 hours of instruction? I’m in the wrong business! I should hang out my agent’s shingle straight away–it’s not like I’d need any qualifications.

  6. Just yesterday we received a contract from the latest NY agency that, never having actually read our books, is desperate to represent us. Which says it all really. Needless to say the rejection letter is in the post.

    I’m sure there are decent agents out there. But as you show here, Dave, past reputation means nothing. Integrity means nothing. Their writers’ best interests mean nothing.

    Thanks for highlighting this latest sad development.

  7. Dean Wesley Smith strongly suggests not signing with an agent until some of this shakes out in a couple of years, and the more this kind of thing happens, the wiser that advice looks. This deal seriously reeks.

    1. This sounds as if signing an agent might risk landing such a poor deal… Why not? If one book in a hundred is a hit, the agent makes enough.

      I feel for the authors who will not receive back their copyrights. Books that could have been better edited and given a new cover will instead be in the ‘slush pile of ebooks.’ Worse, As the author improves their art, there will be no chance to refine these books.


  8. My own conclusions?

    I can only quote Vita, one of my favorite (if – to her regret – never one of the best) authors:

    “Authority has every reason to fear the skeptic, for authority can rarely survive in the face of doubt.”

    Vita Sackville-West

    Or perhaps:

    “Men of my age live in a state of continual desperation.”

    One quote would seem to apply to us readers/writers and another to the agent-cum-publisher.

    Make your own conclusions as to which one 🙂

  9. Wow. I’ve seen mention of this on the Internet, but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to sit down and read the details. Unless there are some perks involved, signing such a contract doesn’t seem a great deal for the authors. As you mentioned, extensive book promotion might be a good reason to sign, but it doesn’t appear that book promotion services are included.

    I love having the freedom to experiment with my books that self-publishing allows. If I think a book cover might be resulting in low sales, for example, I can change the book cover. If I think the price isn’t working, I can change the price. And, by self-publishing on Amazon Kindle, I can see the sales numbers for my books immediately. If I run an ad, I can actually see within hours if the sales have increased. I don’t have to wait for a middleman to tell me what my sales numbers are, and I don’t have to split the royalty payments. Now, if a literary agency supplied a significant number of valuable services, including book promotion, for a share of the royalties, it might be worth it; but that doesn’t seem to be what’s being provided in the deals you’ve described. 🙁

  10. Thanks for the great comments, everyone.

    I just want to note one more thing. The cover you see at the top of this post is of one of the upcoming releases. As you can see, it would make a lovely print edition. However, this is also the cover of the e-book edition. Can you read the author name and/or title without a magnifying glass? I can’t. Other covers I have seen are of the same ilk.

    1. David,

      I hadn’t noticed before because the design itself looked intriguing, but you’re right – I can’t see the print words on the book cover at that size. You are right about lots of book covers being that way. It’s often difficult or impossible to read the print on the small book covers on bookstore sites like Amazon. 🙁

      1. I like the design myself. But it’s a classic case of a designer not thinking about the limitations of an e-book cover. Most people will see it in a thumbnail of an inch by half an inch, where it will be completely unreadable, and even the larger size on the book page won’t be legible without serious squinting.

  11. Maybe it’s just me, but those covers look as if they were designed by someone who has no idea how to sell ebooks. Maybe, never even shopped for books online. But, no, that couldn’t be.

  12. Just for grins, I wanted to see how Harlequin’s backlist dumping compared to Macmillan and Curtis Brown. As I suspected, Mac and CB are wannabes with their piddly 520 books. On Amazon, Harlequin has dumped 2,699 titles under the “Harlequin Treasury” brand. I sorted the list by popularity. The #1 book is sales ranked at #3028. The #100 book on the list is ranked #102,249. Yeah, so who’s making money off those books?

        1. Unfortunately, many, many inexperienced writers and not a few experienced ones will be lining up to be published by Harlequin or anyone who’ll offer them a contract. They’ll trust an agent whose interests lie far more with the publisher than with them to negotiate those contracts, and they’ll sign them eagerly, knowing they’re “arrived.” It’s heartbreaking, but true. Fortunatey, it won’t be true forever.

  13. Hello,

    I designed the covers for Macmillan Bello. The circle is now bigger and positioned centrally on the cover meaning that legibility should be less of a problem. The visuals released with the announcement were still works in progress. I think they look stronger now, albeit slightly less original.

    There are many things that can be said about the effectiveness of a book cover to communicate what’s inside it, both literally and visually. I’ve never read or bought an eBook in my life although I do buy a lot of books online, and I’ve never come across an online bookshop that doesn’t have the author name and title either below or to the right of the thumbnail. It’s always seemed to me that a thumbnail is the digital equivalent of glimpsing an interesting looking book on a table from the other end of the shop. It’s almost always the visual that works first. Back in the digital world, once the thumbnail’s got you, a quick glance will tell you what you’re looking at.

    I realise I’ve made a very foolhardy move by coming onto a comments section, but I’m not trying to defend my work, simply to explain my approach. I hope I haven’t come across as being chippy. Definitely not the intention.

    All best,

    1. Hi Jonny,

      You didn’t come across as being chippy at all. If anything, that label is applicable to my comments, not yours, and I apologize if I offended you.

      I did actually like the covers – I thought they were quite beautiful – but, as I said, the text was illegible in thumbnail size. I have no design background (or skill), so I may well be talking through my hat. However, I think that the text should be clear and legible, or removed altogether. There is a school of thought out there at the moment, which is arguing for something similar to what you are saying – and I think it’s interesting. The theory goes that, as you pointed out, every online retailer already has the author name and title right beside the book cover, and the design approach could (or should) be more akin to that of designing an icon. A well known example would be Seth Godin’s “Poke The Box” –

      Others again are playing with the shape of the cover itself. Some are experimenting with square covers, or playing with the edges of the design, like this:

      I think that we will see a lot more innovation like this. Some of it will work and some will not. We are all still figuring it out, and sorry for singling out your covers.


      1. No apologies necessary. Always interesting to see how work is received and I thought your comments were very favourable.

        Poke the Box is a very brave cover. I’m amazed it got made. Covers seem to work differently in the US on the whole though.

        And yes, it’s all a bit trial and error with digital publishing at the moment. But that’s always the most exciting bit in my view. But I can see it would be troubling as an author, seeing your work manhandled and sold in batches and not seeing any money from it. I would say it’s part of the general digital attitude that views music, film and now literature as content rather than art. That’s a large part of why I’ve yet to experience eBooks firsthand. There doesn’t seem to be the same reverence – or potential for reverence – as there is in printed media.

        Anyway, this is all off topic from the original post. Thank you for your reply. This is definitely a blog I will be dropping into occasionally.


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