Saturday, June 25, 2016

Agents as publishers

A growing number of literary agencies are establishing in-house publishing divisions. I've been warned to avoid such agencies, because they may be less interested in submitting a client's work to other publishers. Are such warnings warranted, or are they out of touch with how the industry is changing?

You want to distinguish between agents who operate a digital imprint for their client's backlist (and other books) and agents who are running a front-list publishing concern.

Several very well-respected agents started publishing their clients back list in electronic form. It seemed like a pretty beneficial thing for clients: it wasn't quite self-publishing, each client didn't need to learn HTML and ebook layout on their own,  and you'd avoid the insanely low ebook royalties offered by the major trade houses who were just as unskilled at ebook publishing as everyone else back then.

There was some harrumphing about it but it seemed to work out ok for most of the authors who participated. (Generally these were authors who had books that predated ebooks, and whose print contracts made no mention of ebook rights)

Agents who are running a front-list publishing company (and I only know one, but maybe there are more) are clearly in violation of one of the basic tenants tenets of AAR: you can't represent both buyer and seller in a transaction.

In case you want the exact wording:

At the time this was written, I don't think anyone envisioned a legitimate agent actually owning a publishing company and also running a literary agency.

The only time anyone had seen this kind of thing was with vanity presses and flim flam artists.

The warnings to avoid this should be heeded.
I don't think there's a way for an agent to offer unbiased and objective information to an author if they have a stake in which choice the author makes.

And frankly, I'd wonder about an agent who said "well, we have a company that publishes ebooks, and here are the strengths and weaknesses, and that other company might be better for you."

I've always believed that every company I've been involved with was the best choice for people to buy from. That may not have been objectively true but I sure believed it.

And the one thing you really want from an agent is unbiased, objective guidance. It is in fact the value of an agent.

So, what to do: query as you normally do. If an agent offers, ask if they are also running a digital publishing company. Ask about how arms-length the relationship is. The ones that I know about don't steer clients to their digital arm at all. In fact, the digital arm is a wholly separate company and run by different staff.


AJ Blythe said...

Just when you thought you'd made your way through the minefield...

Great question, OP, and thanks for enlightening us, Miss Janet. I had no idea this was even a 'thing'.

Sam Hawke said...

I'd heard of agencies having editing arms, but never publishing! Just when you think you know all the things to look out for...

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Awe, Jeez-Louise something else to worry besides Global Warming, Gypsy Moths, Lyme Disease and the donald . ("the donald" uncapped is intentional)

John Williamson said...

JR - I believe your policy is that you are not opposed to corrections of minor mistakes in your own text. You spelled tenants correctly but I think the word you wanted was tenets. Closely related etymologically, both ultimately derive from Latin tenere (to hold). A tenant holds a property, and a tenet is a firmly-held view. Respectfully, JLW

Janet Reid said...

Thank you John, nice catch. And yes, I do like to fix typos and homonyms in these posts.

And yes, THIS is why you read your work aloud!
(I think I would have caught that had I done so; I hope so anyway)

Kae Bell said...

And hence the French verb 'tenir'! Such fun, I never know what I will learn here! Thx.

Unknown said...

Thank you for making the clarification between agencies that publish their clients' backlist (I have found one on my to-be-queried spreadsheet) and the others (I have found three of them so far and have removed them). I also appreciate the clarification on the ethical quandary of being both an agent and a front-list publisher. It definitely proves that writers need to look before they leap when an offer of representation is made.

Craig F said...

At times it feels like it was just yesterday. Ignorance was bliss and writing was a joyous thing.

Your friends oohed and aahed with an occasional whoa shit tossed in when they read what you had written.

Then there was the request. The request to immortalize her by publishing.

Seemed like an easy idea at first. In time you learned to watch for the slings and arrows only to step in a steaming load of dragon shit.

Julie Weathers said...

If you participate in the twitter contests very long, you'll run into some of these people. That's not to say these contests are bad, they aren't. A lot of people make connections with agents and go on to publication.

However, a person does need to be careful. There are also less than honorable people out there who will take advantage of these situations and desperate writers. It's like a feeding frenzy, to be honest. Anxious authors are tweeting their loglines in fervent hope some agent or editor will "like" it.

OMG! Four publishers are interested. Three agents! Wow! Editors!!!! Oh, look, these agents are also publishers so I don't even have to shop the book.

Start reading what these publishers have published. Then you ask what do they do besides promote themselves and not their poor authors with their bright smiling faces on those books that will never see daylight? How are the books available? What is the author expected to do? What are they expected to do? It gets kind of scarey.

Vanity presses are alive and well and some of them come with agents.

I have a rule in life. When you're pretending to be normal, don't dance with too many demons. Thus I try to avoid soul-sucking bottom feeders.

Julie Weathers said...

In other news. "There are not enough Indians in the world to defeat the 7th Cavalry." Col Geo. Custer defeated at the Little Bighorn 140 years ago today. He dies while crossing a creek after being shot off his horse instead of gallantly making a last stand as depicted.

It's always good to know who a person is dealing with...and how many.

Donnaeve said...

Wow. I went out and read a bit about that book. What a doozy that must have been, and I can't imagine how anyone who got caught up in that felt knowing they'd been hoodwinked.

Like others here, I had no idea this even existed.

Peggy said...

Great illustration, Julie Weathers!

BJ Muntain said...

In this day of simple digital publishing, anyone can become a publisher. I like the idea of agents helping authors publish their backlist.

I would definitely be wary of an agency that e-publishes anything else, though I know of one that will e-publish the works that traditional publishers normally won't - short stories, etc. I'm still not sure how I feel about that.

But one way to avoid the agents who do this the wrong way is to check if any members of the agency are members of AAR (Association of Authors' Representatives). If any agent in the agency is an AAR member, then they have to follow the AAR rules, as Janet quoted.

Note that not all good agents are AAR members - for one thing, AAR membership requires a certain number of years in the business. But if any agent in that agency is a member, then you can bet the other agents follow the code of conduct, too, or it could affect the AAR member's membership.

Julie Weathers said...

As noted being a member of AAR doesn't necessarily mean an agent isn't good. Some just choose not to be for whatever reason. I've seen some agencies say they are not members, but follow the rules. Others, as BJ said, are new agents. A few are very well established veterans who just don't.

It's certainly a good place to start, though.

Now, I need to coffee up and wreak havoc on someone. Time to break out the Bonnie Blue and march to battle.

Colin Smith said...

I've said before I'm a little leery of agents who are also writers, simply because it can create (doesn't always, but can) a conflict of interest. Especially if the agent's novel is genre competition with her client's novel. Again, there are good agents who pull this off, just as there are good agents who might be able to pull off some kind of epublishing business on the side. Personally, I want an agent who's an agent. I get the idea of epubbing of client books to keep them in "print" and I can live with that. But the agents at the top of my list will be ones who I know are going to shop my book based on what's best for it and me, and nothing else.

Let's try to keep life simple. That seems to be my motto as I get older... :)

Unknown said...

From what I can tell of the agent business, agents are already overwhelmingly busy. Answering queries. Reading fulls. Attending conferences. Collecting and distributing royalties. Having lunch with editors. Writing submission letters. Writing edit letters to their clients. Plus family life and pets and loaner cats all demand time. And I'm sure there's a bunch of other stuff I don't even know about.

I'm not saying agents shouldn't have hobbies. Some may need a second job when they are just starting out. But when are they finding time to run their own publishing companies? I would prefer an agent who focuses on agenting and not running a whole second business.

Unknown said...

Julie W- In response to your comments about contests and editors and publishers who favorite Twitter pitches: Sometimes I think my 17 years as a bookseller buying both backlist, front list, and handling special orders was the best preparation for being a writer. I have a very good understanding of the book distribution system and already know which publishers I would like to work with and what to be wary of. I've said this before, but it's so important. Always ask about distribution. Ask yourself: Do I want a publisher who doesn't have a way to get their books onto the shelves at B&N and the Indies? My answer: NO. Others may feel differently, which is fine, but it's good to think about this.

Andrea said...

I came across this a few years ago, around the time I finished my first novel and started querying it. I was following several agencies online and this particular agent talked about a client's novel that she loved and strongly believed in, but she couldn't find a publisher for it, so eventually, because she loved the novel so much, she spoke to her client and they agreed to self-publish it through the agency.

The description of the novel sounded interesting, so I decided to try it out. It was an o.k. read (I managed to finish it), but after reading it I had an idea why they couldn't find a publisher for it. For me, it never rose above being o.k. Of course, that could have been personal taste, but I also realised how important a professional editor's job is, because I found the novel to be pretty flawed, both on plot and spelling/grammar level)

But apart from the novel, what I couldn't understand is why a client with an agent would agree to self-publish a novel that doesn't sell to a publisher. It reeks of conflict of interest to me. I'd like to have an agent to help me get published traditionally, and if one novel doesn't get sold, well... I'll just have to write another, right? I'd like to have an agent who thinks the same way.

I've looked up the author I mentioned, and the books I found are either self-published through Amazon or published by the agency. I think it could well be the front-list publishing agency Janet mentions in her OP. I think I did query this agency with my first novel but I'll be sure not to query them again.

Julie Weathers said...

Jenny C

That's exactly the deal. Three of the "publishers" had these pictures of bright smiling faces, terrible descriptions of books and gawd awful covers. They had NO distribution other than the authors jumping through some hoops to get a print on demand and, of course, the initial order of x amount of books they were required to print and buy. I told a friend who was so thrilled to be chosen by one they were nothing more than vanity presses and she argued with me. "Read the fine print. You have to pay for all these expenses. That's not how it works."

Another agent was furiously picking up people. All right. Looks pretty good. She's new, but there's nothing wrong with that. Uh, wait, she's going to publish with her own publishing company? Isn't that a conflict of interest?

So, we got into a conversation on twitter. No, it's not a conflict of interest. She'll shop the manuscripts around, but many times they are just better with her publishing company because of her expertise. Her expertise was web design. How many books has she published. None yet. So, she gets defensive and tells me I don't know what I'm talking about. How many books have I published? Some other people get involved. It starts looking like a a Ukrainian political debate. Which is why I shouldn't be allowed on Twitter. I can't keep my mouth shut.

I haven't participated in any twitter contest recently, but I think the aftermath was this particular person felt she was so unappreciated she went out of business soon afterwards. That's not saying she didn't reopen as another entity.

DeadSpiderEye said...

I can think of one notable case where an author couldn't get a publishing deal, a news stand distributor gave him helping hand by placing a guarantee with a publisher. They shifted 250,000 copies, then ran into a brick wall because the publisher had hedged on the promised 1 million print run. Two lessons there, resistance from publishers is doggedly persistent once its established and there are or were. ways round publisher discretion. How a contemporary agent is going to have much of an impact on the market place is difficult to see though. I've done a fair bit of digging into the distribution topic and the phrase, closed tighter than a ducks posterior comes to mind.

Lennon Faris said...

Phew! another thing to think about. Thanks, Janet! (not being sarcastic, truly thank you).

Craig - your random comment cracked me up.

Hope everyone's having a good Saturday!

Judy Moore said...

I advised a friend against getting involved in "the agency is going to start publishing." Her book would be their first. My husband, a lawyer, weighed in, and also thought it was a terrible idea. I gave her the phone number of another lawyer friend who has represented authors of both book and screenplays. She didn't listen, because the agency was "reputable." And, they are. They represent a doctor who got his start on Oprah. They represent the estranged wife of the governor of California. My friend's book was published last fall, by their new "publishing arm." She's terribly disappointed and the book has sold fewer than 2,000 copies. DON'T DO IT!! If your book is good, it'll find a home. I feel bad for her, because I know how much work went into it, but she was impatient and that was the ONLY agency she queried.

Unknown said...

Julie -

Here is Twitter consisting only of people who can keep their mouths shut:

@flowersandrainbows: Does anyone mind if I express my opinion on Tide vs Cheer laundry soap?

@pinkunicorns: Yes. I have a personal preference, so I would be offended.

@flowersandrainbows: OK then! I will keep my opinion to myself! Have a lovely day!

@pinkunicorns: Shame we're expecting rain here, but I hope you have a lovely day!

I would probably have written six novels by now and have a clean house and well-fed children but life would be whole lot more boring.

That's not to say there aren't trolls and mean spirited people. :(

Beth Carpenter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.