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In which your agent wears dueling hats

So.... I have a wee bit of a question for you guys-- one I'd like you to answer without me giving my own thoughts. I will, however, try to  get a balanced conversation going by playing devil's advocate on both sides and commenting back as needed. (Yeah, let's see how that pans out.... )

With the rapidly changing market, many agents and agencies are adapting.  And by "rapidly changing" I mean... the fastest growing side of the industry right now is ebooks and self-published authors-- many very succesful...and just as many not. I keep a very small client list and yet nearly a THIRD has expressed interest in self/e-pubbing in some capacity.

Some  agencies are opening up special departments/segments that will assist their clients in "self-publishing' their material. Some agencies actually front the costs of self-publishing (covers, editorial, formattingl..)  themselves, and then earn 15% of the sales, once their costs are recouped. Others simply allow clients to go self-publish with no input or commission at all. Some agents charge clients for their editorial input (a flat fee) and then the client gets 100% of the sales proceeds.

Sometimes an agent spends a year helping you revise, shaping the manuscript, and shopping it like crazy, and for whatever reason, it doesn't sell. If you then go self-publish it...do they deserve 15% of sales?

Being both an author AND an agent, I have many opinions. I intend to follow up with a post on that in the future-- but what I am most interested in right now is-- What do YOU think of an agent's role in the ever changing market? What do you think is fair? 

Publishers are adapting-- exploring no-advance models, exploring e-publishing only options, etc. Authors certainly are-- many ditching their traditional publishers for self-publishing, others finding success in self-pub and moving traditional. Yet agents are stuck in the middle-- there are so many things that they could potentially do and assist writers in a major way, but some of those things may leave writers crying foul over a potential conflict of interest.

So I am asking you, dear writers, to be honest. Comment anonymous if neccessary. How do YOU Think agents should change and adapt? What you are okay with...and what would cause you to steer clear of an agency?


Comments

( 32 comments — Leave a comment )
angelwingsbaka
Jun. 23rd, 2011 05:06 am (UTC)
I like the idea of agencies fronting the cost for cover/editing/etc. and letting it be earned back. I mean, how many rich authors do you know?

Do I want an awesome cover? Heck yes! Can I afford an awesome graphic designer, along with someone to put my book into ebook format, along with everything else, all at once? Um, no. No way.

Buuut. On the same token, what if the book is a flop? What if it takes FOREVER to earn back the agencies 'loaned' money? What if it never earns back? Is it like an advance, where you don't owe anything, but your writing career is hurt from it?

Either way, an agent still seems the way to go. Cutting out the publisher's percent? Who knows?
mandyhubbard
Jun. 23rd, 2011 03:34 pm (UTC)
I think the argument here is that if your agent/agency is fronting costs, they're involved in other aspects-- cover design, choosing the editor, etc, and this lends itself to a grey-area. Typically when you have problems with something you go to your agent. But if you hate your cover and your agent is the one who comissioned the design... who you go to?

And further... if you hired your agent to sell/submit your work to traditional publishers but they also self-publish works... is there a point where they start steering clients toward the self-publishing unit of the agency when maybe its a better idea to try to sell traditionally?

And I am making these comments SOLELY to play devil's advocate, not becuase they are my opinion. Just interested in a big open discussion of all elements at play.
angelwingsbaka
Jun. 23rd, 2011 10:24 pm (UTC)
I think that if the agency is fronting the cost, but the author ultimately still has to pay them back (on top of giving the agent their percentage) then the author should have the final say for approval on the cover.

Hopefully, of course, the agent and author get along, and trust each other enough to work through it. But still, in the end, if it's my book AND my money, I'd like to have the final say on my cover.

I'm not a graphic design artists, but if I hate a cover that much, why should I spend money on it?
(Deleted comment)
mandyhubbard
Jun. 23rd, 2011 03:40 pm (UTC)
*Putting on my devil's advocate hat*

I'm not sure that DVD/TV is an apt comparison to Ebook/Print book becuase-- DVDs are for movies and for television shows that have already completed a season VS TV is for new material-- and television shows at that, not movies. I watch both TV and DVDs but I watch DIFFERENT things on each. It is MORE like MP3s/Ipods VS CDs- and if you look at those, CD stores and CDs in general are going extinct.

An Ebook and a Print book are the exact same thing bought/read through different avenues, and both widely sold/available the same day.

I certainly agree and believe that many, many readers still prefer print books. What I'm focusing on is that a giant chunk of readers choose to read ebooks and a giant chunk of writers may choose to forego traditional publishers in order to self-pub. Many of tohse same writers HAVE agents who have spent a lot of time working with them and guiding their career. If those writers then say, "you know what, I think I'm going to self-pub. Thanks anyways.".... what is an agent to do?

Every segment of the industry is adapting, including many agencies.
(Anonymous)
Jun. 23rd, 2011 09:12 am (UTC)
I like the idea of a traditionally published author collaborating with an agency to put out "self published" short form works - like extras for their traditional works. Or story collections from a group of authors.

BUT - I am wary of agencies publishing novels from their clients because I do see this as a conflict of interest.
(Anonymous)
Jun. 23rd, 2011 12:53 pm (UTC)
Well, let's be frank here. If a publishing company is fronting the money, and if an agent is involved, it's not self-publishing. At all. And the people who really DO self-publish their work without the help of an agent or publishing house would be right to be irritated by that.

And as far as ebooks go, if publishers aren't jumping on that bandwagon, they're fools. I have a Kindle, but I don't use it exclusively. But I want the *option* of using when I make each new book choice.
mandyhubbard
Jun. 23rd, 2011 03:30 pm (UTC)
Hmm. I'm not sure what you're getting at. I don't think anyone says that an agent selling your book to a publisher who pays in advance is ever self-publishing. . . ?
adamselzer
Jun. 23rd, 2011 01:27 pm (UTC)
I've no idea how to adapt, unless they can find a way to help market these things.

I often feel like the window in which a mid-lister like me can get anything into stores is closing (if it isn't already closed). BN's book section is going to look like Target's soon, at this rate. The kind of people who read my books probably wouldn't be caught in the YA section there these days. There's a good chance that if I want to deviate from whatever the current formula is even a little, my only options are to put out a book with the publisher putting a lot of marketing money into it, or going the ebook route. I can get my stuff onto amazon/bn just as well as the publisher can, so if there's no marketing money thrown into the bargain, there's no reason not to do it myself. That's pretty much what I'm doing with the new Smart Aleck's Guide project.

But I don't have much in the way of marketing skills, I don't know how to parlay self-pubbed stuff into school visits or make myself look "indie" versus "vanity."
lilysea
Jun. 23rd, 2011 03:58 pm (UTC)
NO.
I want agents to stick around and traditional publishers to stick around. I don't think "gate-keepers" are a bad thing. If agents start taking commission for self-pubs, they'll be less motivated to actually make sure the books they are putting out there are good books.

Yes, I know that many books out there are terrible books and just goldmines for struggling publishers--like ghost-written celebrity memoirs and the like.

BUT I still think that 90% of what's in the bookstore is at least 100% better than 99% of what's self-published.

The last thing people who might be inclined to self-publish need are more sharks out there looking to take their money to finance their dream of having someone staple together their manuscript for them and call it a book.
mandyhubbard
Jun. 23rd, 2011 04:06 pm (UTC)
You make a really good point-- that traditional publishers won't disapear, even if they adapt and change their models to be more e-book focused. An agent, then, can still sell books to traditional publishers.

The question becomes... what of clients who decide they want to self-publish after an agent has spent months, possibly years, working with them? What if your agent still believes they can sell it to a traditional publisher but you want them to cease submissions and let you just self-pub?
lilysea
Jun. 23rd, 2011 04:17 pm (UTC)
Is there typically no clause in an agent's contract preventing that? Like a timeline for exclusive rights to sell it for you? If not, perhaps that's the answer.

Though I have to say, self-pubbed books are flailing even more than traditional ones in the marketplace, right? I mean, these big-name writers are always going to make headlines but most mid-list types aren't going to have many royalties to share from self-publishing anyway.

Not that it wouldn't suck to be an agent who worked hard for a year and then lost the client with no payoff.
mandyhubbard
Jun. 23rd, 2011 04:22 pm (UTC)
Historically, I don't think the average contract specified anything about if YOU self-publish it, becuase it was never an issue. I can see in the future contracts being ammended so that it requires you to give your agent a fair shake at selling it before you can go self-pub.
(Anonymous)
Jun. 23rd, 2011 05:11 pm (UTC)
Hmm, I think this is exactly why it could be important to make a distinction between a client self-pubbing a novel that the agent put a year of work into and shopped around with no success....and self-pubbing a novel that was always intended to go the e-publication route and was never submitted to editors at traditional houses before being self-pubbed.

There's a substantial difference in work involved by the agent (to my mind) at least, and the commission should ideally reflect that. One thing self-publishing offers authors is a far wider range in how to get their books into readers' hands - and so I'm not sure a flat percentage or one size fits all commission model is for the best. Perhaps agent/client contracts will need to be negotiated on a far more case by case basis in the near future?
KeriPayton
Jun. 23rd, 2011 04:02 pm (UTC)
I think that an agent earns their keep and then some. Self-publishing seems like cutting out the publisher but if an agent is still behind you and your book, then I don't see how their role needs to be obliterated.

If we are talking "self-publishing" in the respect of an author taking a different route, maybe to publish short works or extras as stated above, then I think their agent would be behind them in helping them to expand their reading audience.

If we are talking "self-publishing" as in leave-them-all-behind-because-I-want-full-decision-and-royalties-over-everything, then I think that is really up to the author in question but it seems like there are a lot of errors that could be made that way if you went full-on self-publishing and left the support of your agent in the dust.
mandyhubbard
Jun. 23rd, 2011 04:12 pm (UTC)
Interesting! So you as an author, if you had an agent you valued/trusted and at some point decided to forego traditional publishing and put your own, full-length book up on Kindle/B&N/ETC, you would support the idea of sharing proceeds with your agent (15%)?

Keeping in mind that your agent would likely represent subrights-- translation, film, audio, etc. Those may be very hard to sell unless/until the book sold very well, of course.
KeriPayton
Jun. 23rd, 2011 04:23 pm (UTC)
I think if you had a good relationship with your agent, you wouldn't want to just drop it. Just because you are publishing your work in a different way doesn't mean that your agent is suddenly doing nothing, so I don't see why there shouldn't be a percentage.
lilysea
Jun. 23rd, 2011 04:03 pm (UTC)
I should add, I don't have an agent yet. But when I get one, I want it to count for something and I want that agent to get me a 3-book deal with Random House. Ya know?
mandyhubbard
Jun. 23rd, 2011 04:07 pm (UTC)
Oh, definitely. :-) As an author, I don't have any plans to leave my "traditional" publishing career. I will happily keep my own agent and continue to sell to Penguin for as long as they'll have me.
M. K. Theodoratus
Jun. 23rd, 2011 04:06 pm (UTC)
Agents Commissions if Self-Publishing
Okay. I'm in the middle of wasting too much time marketing a short e-book in my klutzy manner.

If agents took on the role of promoting books on commission, the work would be worth 15%.
mandyhubbard
Jun. 23rd, 2011 04:09 pm (UTC)
Re: Agents Commissions if Self-Publishing
Well, agents are not publicists. If its publicity/marketing you want, you can hire a private publicist. They can be spendy ($1k-2K).

That's part of what you get with a big publisher- you're assigned an in-house publicist. It doesn't mean you get a lot of PR if you're a midlist book, but you do have one that sends your books out to reviewers, at least.
(Anonymous)
Jun. 23rd, 2011 04:22 pm (UTC)
Contract by project
If an agent plays a role in the development of a manuscript they deserve their percentage, regardless of publication format. But if an author chooses not to involve the agent in the development process, then the ebook should be considered outside of their contact. If an agent or author wants a blanket contract for all works produced, then the agency should commit up front to publish as an ebook if they can't find a hard-copy publisher. Marketing the ebook then becomes the author's responsibility. To me it's a simple matter of investment and equity.
mandyhubbard
Jun. 23rd, 2011 04:28 pm (UTC)
Re: Contract by project
Well, the average author/agency agreement does cover ALL of an author's work-- not just the first one you submitted to them.

I think the big concern for writers and watchdogs is that if your agency essentially becomes your publisher, there's no one who is your advocate who does not have a conflict of interest. Your agent, by definition, is meant to be your independent third party-- someone who watches out for your best interests if your publisher isn't treating you fairly.

But if your agent is your publisher who do you go to if there are issues?

And if your agent know they can self-publish you and still get their comission, what's to stop agents from signing up A LOT of clients and becoming the new version of a spagetti agent?
(Anonymous)
Jun. 23rd, 2011 05:12 pm (UTC)
Re: Contract by project
If an author can publish an ebook while under contract and tell the agent "sue me you get nada" what does that say about the validity of an all-inclusive contract? I understand that currently you have blanket contracts, but you're to have to change that in the face of easy digital backdoor publication of odd projects.

I'm much more familiar with publishing music, but you're following exactly the same path now with digital rights and publishing. More control falls into the IP creator's hands whether they want it or not. It's another form of the driving force on the internet: disintermediation.

-who do you go to if there are issues

If your publisher is your author, and there are significant issues, you go to your lawyer.

-what's to stop agents from signing up A LOT of clients and becoming the new version of a spaghetti agent?

How long do you think it will take for authors to blog about mistreatment by a spaghetti agent, effectively black-balling them in the writer community.
mandyhubbard
Jun. 23rd, 2011 05:24 pm (UTC)
Re: Contract by project
Well, assuming the contract is written correctly, an agent COULD sue and be awarded 15% of all book sales if a client chose to skirt around an agreement and self-pub despite a clear contract.

And by issues, I don't neccessarily mean so significant it requires legal intervention. I mean... what if you don't like your cover? What if your agent refers to you to an editor who doesn't work out so well?

And lastly, on the spagetti agent... there are "reputable" spagetti agents out there now who have not been blackballed. It's very hard to tell from the outside-- even if you are a client-- that your agent has 99 other clients all out on sub at the same time. How will you know an agent signed up 100 projects in a year? You probably won't. i can tell you now, unless the agent does something explicitly fraudulent, it's really hard to blackball anyone. There are always new clueless writers waiting around the corner for their shot.
TheLoneDeranger
Jun. 23rd, 2011 08:39 pm (UTC)
Re: Contract by project
Sorry for the typos!

Yes, you could sue for 15% of the project you didn't work on, but at that point the relationship degenerates to the point where future collaboration is impossible. One of those tough life choices.

As for issues other than legal, if the project didn't sell through traditional channels then the writer's choice is to take what they're given by the agency or not publish at all. However as to editors, that happens much earlier in the process. If the writer complains and the agent doesn't address the issue there may not be anything for anyone to publish.

Yes, there is a sucker born every minute. The music business shears those sheep mercilessly. With a little homework a writer can determine who's got a history of delivering for their clients.

What writers face in the coming years is an environment where they have to do more than just write, unless they write brilliantly. In a certain sense it's like the shift from singers and songwriters as separate entities and the maturing of the singer-songwriter in the 1960's. Things change, but one thing remains the same: you either face up to the current rules of the game or you take your ball and go home.

Thanks for posting this question, it's a really good one. People shouldn't continue to write contracts that no lack a solid basis in market-place reality.
gryvon
Jun. 23rd, 2011 04:24 pm (UTC)
If the agent/agency has a moderate or higher hand in the book, whether that be editing (of any type), cover design, formatting, marketing, etc, then they certainly deserve the 15%.

If the author is primarily doing all the work to get the book out the door, then they don't deserve the 15%.

The rise of interest in self-publishing is a definite opportunity to agents and agencies to offer similar services to a publisher, though there's certain pros and cons to that as well. But if I want to self publish and an agency can help manage all the non-writing parts of self-publishing, then there's a lot of draw to go with that agency. (As seen by Amanda Hawking's turn to traditional publishing from self-publishing when all the extras got to be too much.)
brigidkemmerer
Jun. 23rd, 2011 04:29 pm (UTC)
I landed an agent in the fall of 2009. My first book didn't sell, after she spent six months helping me revise, then pitching to editor after editor. Now I have a book deal for my next book, with a real publisher. If I went back to self-pub that first book (something that has crossed my mind), I would absolutely insist that she get 15% of the proceeds. I can't imagine proceeding otherwise. Same with recouping expenses for cover design, etc. But then again, I do see the worry that the book would never earn out the expenses. Maybe the rate could be 50% until expenses are earned out, then 15% thereafter? Then it would be more like an advance-less advance. (I hope I'm making sense.)
kalenodonnell
Jun. 23rd, 2011 04:41 pm (UTC)
Its very tricky. I intend to do both self pub and traditional pub as I think that done right they complement each other. Some of what I write is just better suited to a less defined format....i'd use epubbing to self publish novellas and short novels in genres that don't usually make publishers shout gimme gimme like superheroes. Plus one of the beauties of self pub is the timeline. In the year or more between book deal and actual publication I can put out a couple novellas or such to stay visible and grow a fanbase and at ninety nine cents not exhaust my readers. So the. Self pub model im talking about would be irreversibly entwined with my traditional career.

HOWEVER. I admit id feel weird about giving my agent a cut....because I would want to do everything myself. I know how to find cover artists and editors and format based on my day job and from a certain perspective my entire self pub career would be a form of marketing for my traditional career ....and agents very rarely have much to. Do with an authors self marketing - to my knowledge. I wouldn't be relying on them and their advice to land or negotiate contracts, etc. That said I would want to run things by them before pubbing as they have a stake in my brand as much as I do and I want to make sure im not putting out anything that would hurt it. So I guess I do think an agent shuld be involved at least in some capacity and thus deserve a cut...but perhaps a different rate could be negotiated depending on level of involvement? Not an automatic 15% if they're not doing the same or as many tasks as they do on the traditional side but something that reflects their input on the work and process.
(Anonymous)
Jun. 23rd, 2011 05:01 pm (UTC)
(cont)

This precludes, by the way, the possibility of foreign rights sales or film deals that arise from any self-published works. Should things ever get to that point with a work I self-published, that would be an entirely different matter than what I'm talking about, and I would happily pay my agent's 15% commission, as negotiating foreign or film rights is absolutely squarely in their realm of expertise. It's just unlikely, is all, and thus I don't think it has as much bearing on the conversations as several agents I've seen discussing this subject seem to imply.

- Kalen O'Donnell
houseofegoandmadness.blogspot.com
rosefiend
Jun. 23rd, 2011 05:46 pm (UTC)
I've been wondering about your question myself. I want to go with traditional publishing, because I'd get paid AND get line-editing, but at the same time I'm intrigued by the idea of publishing some shorter materials on the side. I mean, if I did all the work myself, I'd probably want the full cut.

But on the other hand, I would want to brainstorm with my agent to speculate on what might happen to digitally-produced materials and how I could protect the rights on these from future technologies and/or some evil corporation figuring out how some devious way to do a rights grab on these things. In that case the agent would get her cut, naturally.

I'm not sure if that makes sense but I need to get back to my day job, lunch is over!
thewwaitingroom.wordpress.com
Jun. 29th, 2011 12:16 am (UTC)
I don't think I'd want my agent (if I had one yet...sigh) also self-publishing my books. I think that agent and publisher are separate roles with separate responsibilities and skill sets and, honestly, it makes me nervous if an agent resorted to self-publishing my work. Does that mean that they can't do their job to it's fullest ability and sell my manuscript to a traditional publisher? It makes me think that they're not a legit agent.
catehart
Jul. 11th, 2011 12:33 am (UTC)
What an interesting conversation. If I were to say to my fabulous agent (which by the way I wouldn't but if I were) that a project we had worked so hard on just wasn't selling to the traditional houses, and every door had been tried, then I would consider other options like epublication/ebooks. But that would only be after every revision, rewrite had been tried and I still wanted to see the work published. But at that point I do think that the agent should be compensated. They have been there providing guidance and even if the book sold to the epublisher, well, it may not be a traditional publisher, but it's still a sale. As for self-publishing, I think it depends on the work. If in the instance of a manuscript that was worked and reworked with the agent's help, then yes I think the agent should be compensated. But if it is a work that maybe the author felt wasn't high concept enough for the traditional or epub route and perhaps never worked through with the agent but wanted to put out their for their readers enjoyment, that might be an instance where the author and agent decide what would be best in regards to the angency and their contract. As for the author that wants to "Go Their Own Way" (sorry couldn't resist a little Fleetwood Mac ref) well I just don't have an answer for that one.
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