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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Agent as Publisher

In the evolving world of publishing, the roles of the author, agent and publisher are all having to evolve.

What should our role as agents be?

There's one school of thought I know I don't agree with, which says that an agent should never be a publisher. One statement of that position from a British agent can be found here, and in the US one prominent agent who's expressed his firm opposition to melding the roles is Robert Gottlieb, the head of the prestigious Trident Media Group. That's some of what he discusses in this guest blog post on the Publishers Weekly site.

My VP, Eddie Schneider, reacted very strongly to a news article in Publishers Lunch Daily this week (also the source for the above link) about a literary agency that wants to go into e-book packaging. I thought I'd invite him to guest on my blog, and italicized are his comments below:

I'm sure many of you involved in book publishing in some fashion (agent, editor, aspiring author) heard the news Monday that Dystel & Goderich (DGLM) have decided to become an e-book packager.

Here's their announcement: link

This bothers me enough that I decided to do my first ever guest post on Brillig to comment.

I think the decision to help an author self-publish a book, after failing to place it with a real publisher, is rooted in hubris. Yes, we agents hopefully have good taste, and there are client projects we all feel should have sold but didn't, but to turn around and put them out into the marketplace anyway, shows disrespect toward the editors who should be among our closest colleagues, takes up time and energy best spent elsewhere, and detaches us from reality, which can't be good.

It's really disappointing to see such a high-profile agency go this route. DGLM seems to have the support of their clients, if the comments on their site are any indication. They also seem to be trying to do their best to be forthright about everything.While it's possible that an agency, especially a larger one, could successfully keep these concerns separate (and good luck keeping it that way), it is a conflict of interest for most.

I'm not a member of the AAR, but if I were, I would move to make an active effort to kick out any member agency who serves as first publisher to their clients' books.

Good luck to everyone at DGLM. Many of you have been doing this for much longer, and with greater financial success, than I have. Maybe the rest of us will be shown the error of our ways.

If anyone reads this post, and thinks I'm the one in error (or agrees...), feel free to comment via rock with note attached, or in the comments section.


I don't disagree with Eddie on this. There are times I've rolled about in my own mind on this question. There's a book we absolutely love, we can't find a publisher, we're sure they're all wrong... And yet I haven't actually gone ahead and flipped that switch and said "darnit, nobody else wants to publish this fine book we're going to go do it ourselves."

And yet we at JABberwocky are in fact e-book publishers, with a growing list of authors and titles. Albeit all reverted backlist titles first published by major publishers and now back in the author's hands, some of the books in fact published, reverted, resold, published again, and then back a second time. We're trying to occupy some kind of middle ground that may or may not actually exist between being full-fledged publishers of electronic books and saying we can't and shan't be publishers at all. I dealt with some of our thinking on the whole e-book program in this blog post when we had our first e-book go live.

Is there a distinction, or is it a distinction without a difference, to object as Eddie and I do, to an agent who "serves as first publisher to their clients' books"??? I see in my mind a very real difference between what we are doing, what Robert Gottlieb says we should/shouldn't do, and what Dystel and Goderich have decided to do. But even if I'm right to see that different today, will it still exist tomorrow?

As Eddie says, let us know what you think. I'm not sure the rock with attached note is such a good idea, but otherwise...


brycemoore said...

This seems like something that's almost guaranteed to make an agency no longer an agency. The way I see it, it could go one of two routes. Down the first path, the agency discovers that those ebooks actually sell--and sell well. In that case, why in the world bother with traditional publishing houses? The agency starts moving more and more toward becoming a publisher themselves. Down the second path, the books don't sell well. The agency not only loses respect and credibility, but it's now actively antagonized the very people they're supposed to be making good relationships with. It seems like it would be difficult to try to sell something to someone who's also your competitor. Does McDonald's sell food in grocery stores?

But I could be wrong. One of the great things about ebooks right now is that everyone's not quite sure what they're going to do, and where they're going to end up as an established product. So you have all sorts of people throwing different approaches at them. Some of those approaches will work. Some won't. And you can't always be certain ahead of time which approaches will fall into which category.

Elizabeth Moon said...

I wrote something on this topic earlier today, when Victoria Strauss's Writer Beware blog post showed up on the SFWA site, reacting to the same announcement. (There seems no tidy way to insert a link to what I wrote there, but gets you to the front page.)

I understand the concerns expressed by all expressing concerns, but I also think that writers are not all alike, don't all need the same things (excepting money and chocolate!), and thus are not all subject to the same purported dangers in all situations when an agent may help a client writer get their work up as an e-book.

Some writers (I know a few) are quite capable of putting out e-book-ready files, designing and making covers, and dealing with the various procedures for getting their work up on Amazon, B&N, etc. They are already completely internet and e-book savvy. Other writers are still struggling to cope with having a web presence at all. Some are childless, partnerless (or partnered with a tech genius) and have no day job. Others have a load of responsibilities that already impinge on their writing time. Some have oop backlists; some don't. There is no one perfect route to having self-published work up online with income flowing (as it should) to the writer.

For this reason I'm unwilling to be on either extreme here. I do think that since I can hire other people to do more than one job, on separate contracts, I could probably hire the same person in his/her agent role (when what I want is agent services) and in the "publishing assistant" role when I want to put a novella (for instance) on the internet. (That's assuming the agent has time to do both.)

But in the spirit of "there's not just one right way..." I don't think that's a route the inexperienced writer should take, or that agents should push this possibility on them. If the writer wants to learn all the skills needed...fine. Agent should stand back, go hands-off, and let the writer try it. But with more experienced writers, who have their wits about them, agent help with getting a backlist up online in a professional way could well be good for both. I do think it will require a formal recognition that this is not an "agent/client" situation.

I'm not at all concerned about "insulting the editors..." etc. Editors are human, know they're human, and know they make mistakes--and they also know their position in a corporation means they don't get to make the final decisions (and they get blamed for "mistakes" that were a committee's or bean-counter's error.) As well, in a pure-online context, fewer sales can easily make a noticeable gain to a writer--when they'd be piddly to a corporation. So that one's a non-starter for me.

And as mentioned by others--the whole thing is so fluid right now that nobody knows the best strategy. Many will be tried in the next few years and then we may have a clue.

Anonymous said...

It's all about an organization staying true to its core competencies. Of course, these can be expanded, but that often comes at great cost.

Joseph L. Selby said...

Not only do I think the differences can be made, I think it's important to make them. I would not feel comfortable signing with an agent whose agency offered first-time publishing solutions. It fundamentally erodes the trust I have for that person to properly represent my interests as expected of an agent.

Whereas publishing backlist titles into an eformat is a new and necessary revenue stream. Like Elizabeth mentions, not all authors are capable of pursuing this route themselves and an agency that can offer this service positions themselves and their clients well for the digital future.

Watching the discussion continue across the blogospheres, I see the slippery slope that it is becoming. The line gets a little blurrier and positions move by baby steps. People that advocated backlist publishing are now buying into the hype, thinking they can responsibly represent their clients while competing for their work as a publisher.

Janci Olds said...

I'd worry about the conflict of interest involved here. If your agent is also your primary publisher, who will negotiate that contract? With secondary publication, there's at least going to be a paper trail about how much the property has been worth in the past and what kinds of terms have been attached to the e-publishing rights. But the more agents become publishers, the more I feel like I'm going to need an agent to represent me to my agent.

Charlie N. Holmberg said...

I'm not a published author, but the announcement DGLM put up made me a little antsy. I blame Dean Wesley Smith on that one--he has strong opinions on the role of an agent that I tend to agree with, so this move as "first publisher" just seemed, well, wrong to me.

Thanks for sharing your (and Eddie's) two cents.

Brian Niemeier said...

DGLM's announcement gives the impression that they agonized over this decision, but were finally coerced into a conflict of interest by parties employing "evolve or die" scare tactics. Still, claiming to maintain professional integrity while scandalizing a fiduciary relationship is just a case of wanting to have one's cake and eat it too.

I can't solely blame DGLM, though. To an extent, they're victims of circumstances that began back in the 80s with the publishing house merger boom. Four publishers would merge, but the editorial staff of only one would be retained, resulting in a fourfold workload increase. This phenomenon was the primary reason why literary agencies increasingly became the first line of defense for acquisitions editors. The fact that most major houses stopped accepting unagented manuscripts already heralded the breakdown in division of labor between agents and publishers, a trend whose repercussions are continuing to unfold.

Maria said...

I don't think that editors can buy every good project they see. It's FABULOUS if there are other avenues.

As for the rest of it, I agree with Elizabeth Moon for the most part. An agent who has set up a business and proved he is selling many a book through a traditional route has earned a reputation for knowing a solid book. If that book doesn't sell the trad route, I think it's fine to help the writer self-publish OR for the agent to become the publisher.

Will the agent look bad if the book doesn't sell? No. Obscurity is your friend and your enemy. Will the writer? No. See obscurity.

There's more to publishing than putting a book out on a website. It has to be marketed. Price correctly. Branding (or the agent/writer creating a reputation for quality) is extremely important.

If an agent OR a writer get into publishing, they have to take on all the tasks: Cover, editing--and promotion. That last can make or break a book, no matter who puts it out, no matter how good the material.

A good agent has already learned this and can share a multitude of knowledge with a writer--whether that writer self-publishes, goes through the agent or the book sells traditionally.

The world right now is open to writers. Best to take advantage of it. Explore and never be afraid of failure. Standing still is the surest way to fail.