Monday, June 20, 2011

What AGENTS Are Doing with Self-Publishing for Their Clients

Now, the last thing I want to do is start a debate.

So I'll join one.

I really didn't think I'd end up commenting on this blog post. A fellow agent brought it to my attention when she emailed me and a bunch of other agent buddies to glean our reactions to the whole self-publishing thing.

I'm still not really going to - I have plenty I COULD say, but really, eh. What I'm mostly concerned with is that a lot of agents (myself included) are getting a little more than frustrated with all the flak out there regarding agents who represent self-published authors - they're being called "thieves" and "useless" and all sorts of nasty, irrational and impulsive things.

Personally, my reaction to that post was to flat out laugh. Maybe my head is in the sand; but whenever I hear someone rant about how useless agents are these days and what CAN we really provide that an author can't do themselves, well, I say good luck to you then. I'll represent those who DO appreciate what I do. I have no wish to stand here and argue when your face is already blue.

Which is exactly why I haven't commented much, save my own feelings on self-publishing, on the role agents are/should/will take.

I don't plan to either. It's sort of a moot post to make, since it changes every .001 second.

But I do have a few things to say, maybe to add to the conversation as a whole, that came up while chatting with fellow agents Laura Bradford and Taryn Fagerness today.

1. Ok, so you say it's a conflict of interest for an agent to self-publish a client's work - an agent can't be publisher AND agent.

I say: so, you'd rather have an agent lie to you for their own self-interests?

Think about it; all this yelling at agents to stick with the traditional roles is really backing us into a corner of only being ABLE to offer traditional roles to clients...who may actually benefit from self-publishing. Take a mid-list author, for example, who has a NY publisher, but isn't necessarily happy with the cut they're getting. They are an incredible self-promoter, are already seeing great ebook sales...and perhaps they could make it bigger if they stick it out with the publisher, or really, just continue to flounder on the mid-list doing ok. An agent isn't going to want to shoot themselves in the face by walking away from a guaranteed advance. But this author...might REALLY make more, and become far more profitable, from e-publishing. The author may even be...happier!

The limits of ebooks and e-publishing have yet to be established - and an agent who is backed into a corner of "either you're a good agent, and keep your client in NY, or you're a bad agent, and plop a book on Amazon and take a cut of the ebook money" isn't going to be able to completely lay out the pros and cons. They're going to tell the client...what is in THEIR best interest as an agent, whether to save face or hey, to pay the bills, but not necessarily what is in the CLIENT'S best interest.

3. What if an agent signs a client, edits the book, goes out on submission, and can't sell it - is it fair game then to self-publish that *edited* manuscript without any compensation to the agent?

True, traditionally, this IS a risk agents take - we only get paid when an author gets paid, so any effort we put in CAN be for null. But DOES it still count under that traditional structure for self-publishing? After all, the author is, then, getting paid. Even if the agent doesn't do any of the self-publishing...what's the right thing to do, in terms of all the work we DID put in?

Right now, there's no standard for that - should it be a flat fee, since we DID technically serve as an editor? Should we take commission? Should we just say oh well??? That's what my agency is currently trying to figure out (and we haven't reached a conclusion).

2. So what CAN an agent offer clients that they can't do themselves, anyway, when it comes to e-publishing?

Simple: foreign rights. Do YOU have publishing buddies in Germany and Italy ready to read your book? (Ok, neither do I, but I definitely know who to go to who does). Know how to apply for double tax exemption, if you DO decide to start submitting to foreign publishers and/or self-publishing overseas? (THIS, I DO know). Know if it's even POSSIBLE to self-publish overseas?

Even simpler: access to OUR knowledge of professional cover designers, copy editors, and publicists - people we KNOW get results, who are WORTH the money you spend. After all, we meet these people at conferences too - not just editors. You can be sure I keep their cards, just in case.

And even SIMPLER: we can literally take the hassle of knowing the where and how to put your book online - and even have ins, like to OverDrive, the nationwide library ebook distributor, that YOU don't have, and can't get.

Do YOU know how to purchase an ISBN and register copyright? Know what to do with it, how much it's going to cost? Know how to format your manuscript for Kindle, Sony, or Nook? Thought all that was automatic...or starting to think that maybe it's a little more complicated than write book, pu button, see on screen??
Obviously, my view is going to be biased. And it certainly doesn't answer anything; these points, like I said, may be moot tomorrow anyway, and I'm far, far from having an answer on how the agent-author self-publishing relationship should work. If you're curious, here is a post on what a few agents ARE doing with self-publishing - and read a success story here about a client of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency that self-published with them.

But food for thought.


  1. You've convinced me. I'll stick with querying my MG sci-fi/fantasy book the traditional route. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for sharing your views on this! I guess my two big questions would be the following:

    What would an agent do if the client wants to seek a commercial publisher, even when it seems clear to the agent that self-publishing is the better option for this particular book?

    What would an agent do if the author agrees that their book is better suited for self-publishing, but wants to do everything him/herself, despite what the agent can offer?

  3. Definitely want an agent. Not because I'm lazy or stupid, but because I know enough to know it's an industry I need help in. Maybe ol' boy can do it on his own, he's been around for a long time, made some contacts and has a name for himself. Good for him. Me? Ha! But the biggest part of it is that I can't ask people to buy something I've written if it doesn't have a professional's stamp of approval first.

  4. Being knee-deep in the pit of self publishing, I can definitely see how an agent would be a great asset even for an indie. The complications are endless and torturous, especially when you're trying to take it all in the first time around. I honestly didn't know there were agents out there who took on DIY clients.

  5. An agent offers so much. Studying the industry, making contacts, building a client list and really knowing the ins and outs of the business side of things. I have met authors who think they don't need agents...and maybe they're right. But there are no small number of publishing houses that won't even talk to unagented authors. It seems to me authors who go the unagented route close themselves off to a large number of opportunities.

    As for self-publishing, I know a motivational speaker who self-published his books. He has his own Christian talk show on a cable network. I don't think he has an agent but his books do well because he has that venue. Someone like him would do very well to have an agent -- so he can concentrate on what he loves doing and someone else can handle all the business details.

  6. I'm pretty sure most of us reading an agent's blog are going to fall squarely on the agent side of the line, but I'm curious: in the standard contract for traditionally published writers, the agent gets 15%, is that different when you represent an author who chooses to self publish, or is the cut different as the post implies?

    Regardless, it's a very interesting time for publishing in general, but it's not the first time things have changed dramatically.

  7. I wasn't aware that agents dealt with self published authors. It is good to know that even though I have chosen the traditional agent route I can find an agent that will help me pursue different avenues based on what’s best for my work.

    Another great post as always!

  8. Agents can also provide an overall professional opinion that more than a few authors really could use. . .

    Great post! Thanks :)


  9. I shouldn't say this, as I'm an unagented writer who will start querying within the month. But ...

    The only place I think agents should have a hand in self-publishing is for foreign rights--but, as you noted, many agents don't actually do this.

    The other things, though, raise a lot of questions in my mind about any agent who takes a percentage for them:

    Do I know how to purchase an ISBN ($125) and secure copyright ($35)? Why, yes, I do! Do I know how to format for Kindle and Nook? No, but I'm tech savvy and can easily learn that. None of these are things that have any sort of mystery about them. I have no desire to give 15% of my money to something that costs $160 and a few hours of annoyance.

    I want an agent for the things I can't do, like talk with NY publishers and secure foreign and (dare I dream) film rights. I don't need them for the very easy, non-mystifying mechanics of self-publishing.

  10. Hi Katrina,

    I've never had this issue arise, but in ANY case, I'd respect my client's wishes. I'd hope to have an open conversation about the pros and cons, but I would NEVER force an author, or ask them, to do something they absolutely do not want.

    As for your second question, that dives into Anonymous's post, too - and is sort of why the whole debate on agents and self-publishing is about. Which means, I don't have an answer.

    Currently, I'm not asking to be involved with my clients if they e-pub - I tell them I absolutely will be if they want me to, but if they don't, and I'm not doing these things like formatting, purchasing ISBN/copyright, etc, I'm not taking any commission. But again, that's just me - there IS a situation, however, that I did NOT mention, which I should go back and add in, and that is:

    What if we EDIT the book, spent MONTHS on revisions, the book didn't sell...and the author self-publishes it. Even if the agent doesn't do any of the self-publishing...what's the right thing to do, in terms of all the work we DID put in? Right now, there's no standard for that - should it be a flat fee, since we DID technically serve as an editor? Should we take commission? Should we just say oh well??? That's what my agency is currently trying to figure out (and we haven't reached a conclusion).


  11. If an agented writer wants to self publish, shouldn't the mutually beneficial tone of the (I'm assuming it's functional, otherwise it'd clearly be a good time to go separate ways, and the agent would, perhaps sadly, or perhaps fortunately (if the book flops spectacularly) be left out in the cold) relationship dictate that the parties agree to likewise symbiotic tasks and terms in a joint self-publishing adventure?

    I mean, it sort of all hinges on how the author and agent get along, doesn't it? Maybe it shouldn't, but it's hard to draw a line without marring the outcome sometimes, yes? Maybe. I could be wrong.

    On that note, who wants to self-publish Gena the Turquoise Unicorn Huntress? My sentence is IN!


  12. Great, thoughtful post, and thank you for the linkage. I'm been totally impressed with the Andrea Brown Agency during this whole self-publishing adventure, and I love how the world is changing as we speak. I feel like options are wide open and that my agent would support me in what paths I want to take.

  13. I like that you started with point 1, then 3, then 2. A welcome deviation from the worn 1-2-3 thing, which too many people use.

  14. My concern is with an author's backlist. It seems there's a whole can of worms when an agent starts going into an author's backlist.

    And, how long until all rights revert back to the author on an e-book?

  15. Interesting post. As someone who is querying agents and hoping to go the traditional route with a publisher, I would like to add my 2 cents.
    If I had a good relationship with my agent and she thought I should self-publish (for whatever reasons) I would respect her advice and knowledge of the industry, and any time she has put into my manuscript. Therefore, I think she should get a cut.

  16. A wonderful blog, with some great tips. I look forward to reading your posts!

  17. My humble opinion? People require payment for work done. I've hired my own editor who did it on the cheap since we had been conversing on line forever. I hired an artist out of Romania on the cheap and my cover ROCKS! Now I have a family member formatting so I can go into print on Create Space after three weeks of trying to do it myself. I AM NOT TECH SAVVY. I am no longer rich. However, people should get paid for their work and I encourage a literary agent who is progressive enough to take on a self published writer to tally their hours much as an attorney does and hit the writer up with a bill within so many years if he/she finally has income from said book.
    If I had it to do all over again, I would go through the query submissions...alot less time than I spent learning the ins and outs. And NOW I have to learn marketing skills as well. Believe me, finding the right match in a literary agent has to be easier and certainly less time consuming, which means more time for writing. Again, agents take a chance...if the books sells, they should get paid for any work done.

  18. p.s. THE INSIDERS mg/ya fantasy/adventure.

  19. Good and another post from you admin :)