Yesterday, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, a major US agency, announced that it will be facilitating self-publishing for some of its clients.
Over the past months and years we’ve come to the realization that e-publishing is yet another area in which we can be of service to our clients as literary agents. From authors who want to have their work available once the physical edition has gone out of print and the rights have reverted, to those whose books we believe in and feel passionately about but couldn’t sell—oftentimes, after approaching 20 or more houses—we realized that part of our job as agents in this new publishing milieu is to facilitate these works being made available as e-books and through POD and other editions.D&G is not alone. Laura Rennert at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency is also experimenting with self-publishing for agency clients. The agency's first release, P.J. Hoover's YA novel Solstice, came out in April.
Literary agencies as publishers is a fast-growing trend (I blogged about it last month, in connection with the publishing initiatives announced by UK agencies Ed Victor and Sheil Land). To date, however, agency publishing ventures have primarily focused on backlist publishing--bringing already-published clients' out-of-print works back into circulation.There are some conflicts of interest inherent in such arrangements--for instance, your agent is supposed to be your advocate in publishing contract negotiations, but who advocates for you when it's your agent who's offering the contract? As agent Peter Cox has pointed out, "Once you become your client’s publisher, you then become a principal in the transaction [which] means you can no longer function as the client’s agent."
However, to my mind at least, the conflicts that arise when agencies begin publishing clients' previously unpublished works are even more concerning. If an agency can publish a client's book itself, will it try as hard to market the book to traditional publishers? Will it give up sooner on a book that doesn't sell right away? Where and how will the line be drawn between "this book still has potential markets" and "this book is tapped out?" How much--unconsciously or otherwise--will the agency influence clients' decisions on which publishing route to take? According to Dystel & Goderich's announcement, "what we are going to do is to facilitate e-publishing for those of our clients who decide that they want to go this route, after consultation and strategizing about whether they should try traditional publishing first or perhaps simply set aside the current book and move on to the next." (My bolding.) Does this mean that the agency may take on clients whose manuscripts are never marketed to other publishers at all?
Also a question: what's the money situation? Does the agency provide all consultation and publishing services and in return take a cut of the book's sales proceeds? Or might there be some sort of "partnership" arrangement, where the author pays the agent for publishing services? D&G says that they will "charge a 15% commission for our services in helping [authors] project manage everything from choosing a cover artist to working with a copyeditor to uploading their work." What exactly will that commission be charged on? (D&G has responded to some of the concerns generated by their announcement, but the payment arrangements are still unclear.)
I can certainly see the agency perspective here. Keeping up with the rapid pace of change in the publishing industry, maximizing income potential, providing the widest range of services to clients--all of that makes good business sense. And I don't for a moment doubt that these ventures are genuinely intended to be helpful (as well as to make money).
But while I think a good argument can be made for backlist publishing as a lateral expansion of an agency's role (yes, there are conflicts, but these are books that have already had their day), becoming publishers for clients' not-yet-published manuscripts seems like a fundamental violation of the author-agent relationship, which is founded on the premise that the agent's job is to sell the client's work for the best possible advance to the best possible publisher. Being able to publish the work yourself undermines that premise in a really profound way. And even if you begin your publishing venture with the best possible motives, and a firm intention never to capitalize on your clients' deepest vulnerability--which is, precisely, the desire to be published--what's to prevent you, over time, from slipping away from that resolve, especially if the traditional publishing market continues to contract and your own publishing venture proves to be lucrative?
We're in really murky territory here, and I don't think it's realistic to expect agencies to police themselves. Agents' associations need to take the lead in looking seriously at this issue and amending their conduct codes to address it--rather than, as seems to be happening now, adopting a wait-and-see attitude or just going with the flow (the UK's Association of Authors' Agents recently decided that agency publishing ventures do not violate its code of conduct). Agencies are going to become publishers, whether we like it or not--and a pro-active approach needs to be taken now, in order to prevent abuses down the road.