But Why Would You…Ever Hire Your Agent as Your Publisher?

Starting this new series as I promised. This will be made up of short, sometimes very short questions and puzzlements about publishing.

For any of you who missed my last post about agents, just remember I told you to wait two years before hiring any agent. Imagine last week when I did that post you had hired an agent at Trident Agency. Then you woke up this morning and realized that the Trident Agency had just this morning (Monday morning, September 26th, 2011) stepped over the ethical line and became a publisher.

Now Trident has never been known for ethical behavior in publishing, but they are large, which is why this is surprising.

My handy Oxford American Dictionary defines publisher as “A person or firm that issues copies of a book to the public.”

Yet Trident is claiming they will not be a publisher, even though they will, for their clients, both front list and backlist, issue books to the public by launching them on Kindle, B&N, Smashwords, and into print form. Also, they will handle all the money.

Not a publisher? Uhh, how stupid do they think writers are?

Actually, they think and know for a fact that as a class, writers are as stupid as it goes.

Which is why they can become a publisher, do all the things a publisher will do, exactly, and yet say to their writers, “Oh, we are not a publisher.”

And writers will believe them.

Why? Because, as a class, a writer can’t open the dictionary and look up the word. And then think.

So now writers will be hiring a stranger to sell their books to publishers, get all the money and the paperwork, and at the same time be hiring a stranger to publisher their book, get all the money and the paperwork.

So a writer has a book, gives the book to their agent to sell.

Agent has two options: 1) Agent can make 15% by selling book to Pocket Books. Or 2) agent firm can make 15% PLUS publishing fees by publishing it themselves and make a ton more money (and have more opportunity to keep some of the money that the author doesn’t pay attention to). Hmmmmmm……… Which way will the agent go????

Oh, yeah, to the money. Duh….

They certainly won’t care anymore about selling your book to a traditional publisher. Not when they can simple tell the stupid writer “You book isn’t sellable to New York, why not let us publish it?”

In no other industry, to no other group of humans, would such behavior be allowed. Yet I have zero doubt that stupid writer after stupid writer will go for this.

So my basic question is very, very simple. Why would any writer hire their agent as their publisher?

Instead of giving an agent 15% plus other fees, why not just do it yourself? Or hire flat fee services to do your cover or proofing or what you need?

My suggestion on this:

Simple.  If you do not have an agent, just keep doing the work yourself, keep learning, and stay away from agents for at least two years until all this settles and these agents get put out of business by the court system. (Courts can read dictionaries and do know agency law…honest…)

Second, if you have an agent who is becoming a publisher, FIRE THEM!!  They no longer can represent your interests in a clear fashion. And you do not want your books tied up in their mess and coming legal struggles.

Go without an agent for a couple of years until this settles.

Think, people.

Just think.

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23 Responses to But Why Would You…Ever Hire Your Agent as Your Publisher?

  1. Deborah says:

    Great post as always, Dean. Thanks. It’s truly truly sad that it’s so very necessary to state the obvious like this.

  2. K. W. Jeter says:

    Dean, I think you’re greatly underestimating the degree to which Trident will be constrained from unethical behavior. If you peruse the online list of Trident’s clients, included there is, I kid you not, “The Vatican.” So obviously, if Trident were to try any funny stuff, they could wind up excommunicated. A possibility such as that obviously weighs very heavily on the decision-making processes of publishing industry professionals. :)

  3. Carradee says:

    My mother is not a business person. Nor is she a writer. She loathes writing, actually, and knows little about the industry.

    When I described the current trend of literary agents also acting as publishers, I barely had to explain agents’ jobs before my mother stated, “That’s a conflict of interest.”

    She isn’t the only one, either. I’ve alerted friends of this, too, and they give me odd looks and tentatively suggest the same thing. (“Tentatively” because they tend to trust whatever I say on the industry, which is scary in and of itself.)

    It saddens me to see that people with minimal knowledge of publishing can smell something fishy. But maybe that’s because those too deep in the pond got used to the fishy smell long ago?

    I’m just in the shallows, myself, but it seems like those who trust the deepest reaches of the industry are the most likely to get eaten by sharks.

  4. Suzan Harden says:

    Sorry, Dean, already thought it through. Ship has sailed. Doing my own s*** and quite happy with it.

    Now, the folks who really need to read this–won’t.

  5. JR Tomlin says:

    You’ve got to admit that’s the kind of shit Trident is known for, but not hiring an agent right now looks like good advice.

  6. Anne Kinsey says:

    I just read the official announcement, and they seem to be implying that they can negotiate better royalties for their clients than clients can get on their own.

    Does this mean Amazon and Barnes and Noble might really pay higher royalties if clients come bundled in a impressive list?

    • dwsmith says:

      Anne, better than 70%?? Not hardly. And even if they could get a client to 75%, when you take off the 50% of net, the writer ends up with 50% of 75%. Let me think? Oh, yeah, that’s 37%, so a write could get 70% or 37% with an agent getting a better deal. Snort… Gottlieb and his minions really do believe writers are too stupid for words. And they are correct. Writers will buy into that silliness of getting more and never once do the math. Sadly.

  7. Aye Aye, sir! No agents for two years. Got it.

    :)

    Yeah, that’s all I’ve got for this one. I concur with your assessment. This agents as publisher bit is so bad, so shady, it’s astounding. Call me a clueless newbie, but I can’t fathom the level of lunacy required to think this is a good idea.

  8. This is particularly interesting because exactly two months ago–just two months!–Robert Gottlieb, the head of Trident Media, said the following in Publishers Weekly: “As for agents setting themselves up as publishers I view this as conflict of interest. I have no problem selling ebooks for authors directly as an agent but partnering with them is another matter.”

    You can find the full piece here:
    http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/PWxyz/?p=738

    A sea change like that is a good example of why I completely agree with your advice to writers not to seek an agent for two years. Of you’re a writer who has any problem at all with your agency exercising a blatent conflict-of-interest in its business structure, then your unavoidable dilemma these days is that, when approaching an agency–ANY agency!–you have absolutely no way of knowing or foreseeing whether they’re going to turn around a month or two after you hire them and announce that, in addition to being an agent, now they’re becoming an epublisher or (cough) epublishing facilitator.

    Meanwhile, further to the points Dean makes here about why that’s a PROBLEM, I wrote this post about it for the Ninc blog in August: http://www.ninc.com/blog/index.php/archives/literary-agents-self-publishing

  9. Anne Kinsey says:

    One more response from me, Dean. I will take your title literally and give you an answer.

    1. Beginning writers pick up a book, read it, and notice that, in the acknowledgments, the author has thanked her “fabulous agent who made it all possible,”

    2. Absolute write, the main board geared toward beginning writers fosters an attitide of agent worship,

    3. Publishers marketplace routinely posts sales in which literary agents sell debut novels for six figures and nobody has heard a story of a writer doing that for herself,

    4. I just put up my first novel. I followed your advice, spent less than 50 dollars total, my husband happens to be an IT guy, and it was still really hard. People without resources really do feel daunted.

    I have no intention whatsoever of hiring an agent, and I have tried to send friends to your website to help them see the light. I just wanted to take your question literally and give some answers so you can address the reasons a person would eagerly sign with Trident Media today if they had the chance.

  10. I have a feeling that agents leaping across the ethical boundary without a backward glance to turn themselves into e-publishers will reach a tipping point and go the way the jump from 10% to 15% commissions did in the 1980s-1990s–first a few, then a lot, then all of them.

    One more reason to be glad that I quit the agent-author busines model entirely more than 4 years ago.

    BTW, heard today from another longtime pro writer who has also quit working with agents in the past year… And (no surprise by now) this writer immediately saw income/earnings -rise- and business -improve- as a result of this decision.

    • dwsmith says:

      Laura, yup, that’s what I have been hearing as well. It worked that way for me and Kris, but thought we were exceptions. Now I also have been hearing from many authors that they too are making more money and getting more deals without agents.

      The jobs go to the smart I guess. (grin)

  11. Also, the jobs go to people who SUBMIT PROJECTS TO EDITORS.

    This is something we talked about many, many times during your “Killing Cows” series of posts on myths about the agent-author business model: a key problem with selling books via an agent is that, in direct contrast to all the fatuous myths about literary agents, most agents only send books to a small handful of markets before giving up entirely on the project–and a related phenomenon is that a surprisingly large number of agents won’t send a project out AT ALL.

    As I said many times in those discussions, quite a few (at least 9) of my book deals (including some of my most lucrative sales) are sales I made myself with projects that my own various former agents declined to send out, declaring them unsaleable and/or that agents whom I queried declared unsaleable when declining to represent me.

    Moreover, as the recipient of many, many, MANY privately-related “problems with my agent/former agent” anecdotes from professional writers, THE single most common factor in agent-problem stories is: “My agent won’t/wouldn’t send out my work.” REFUSING to TRY to sell book is an VERY common behaviorial problem among agents. (As also discussed in some of those “Killing Cows” discussion, my own theory is that agents behave this way because protecting their hit-to-miss ratio with editors is their top priority, not selling clients’ books, so they are terrified to send out a book they aren’t 100% positive an editor will buy–even though (as my experiences and the experiences of -many- working writers demostrates) they are often completely WRONG about what editors will buy.)

    Agents had a well-ingrained and widespread habit of REFUSING TO SUBMIT clients’ manuscripts to editors even when that was NOT profitable for them.

    NOW they’ve found a way to PROFIT from refusing to submit clients’ manuscripts to editors. By saying, “I’ll just e-publish for you and take a cut of the earnings.”

    All things considered… perhaps I should stop railing against agencies adding e-publising to their businesses. Because, as an unagented writer who wants to continue selling my books to publishers, this is GREAT for ME. I’m going to have less competition when my submissions land on editors’ desks, because agents will be submitting fewer books than ever, now that they’ve found a way to PROFIT from not submitting books to editors–whereas before, it more like a hobby for them.

    So, yes, I’m starting to think this is very good for ME.

    But it’s crap for writers who are agented who’d like to keep selling books to publishers.

    • dwsmith says:

      I have said for a very long time just what Laura is saying. The best way to sell a book is sell it yourself. Then have an IP lawyer help you with the contract.

      Now, with this new aspect coming in of agents as publishers, as Laura just said, there is another reason that if you want to sell a book to a traditional publisher, stay away from agents at all costs. They had little reason to send your book to an editor before, now they have a reason NOT to send your book. They will make more money NOT mailing your book, especially in these times of declining advances and press runs.

      And those few of you still around who have been doubting the value of indie publishing, what do you think the agent is doing? And they have less time and energy and focus on your book than you do. Just do it yourself, stay away from agents for a few years, and learn the business. You will be very, very happy you did in a couple of years as your friends get sucked into this mess.

  12. Ugh, just read the comments on that PW Trident article. Laura’s was great (of course) and there were a few others asking the same questions, thank goodness…but also at least 2 comments in the “This is great, someone will continue to take care of me!” vein. I just can’t believe how married people are to that model. Maybe it would be different if I’d entered the game earlier, but the whole agent-as-my-bestest-friend-who-would-never-ever-betray-me mythology has always bothered me, even when it was more the norm. It always seemed like a paper tiger…more about insecurity and ego than good business or reality.

    I know it was all really different when the agency model started, but now I can’t imagine any scenario that would make me want to hire one…not in these times, anyway. Even in 2 years (or 10 years), I have a feeling I will want to stick with the IP lawyer thing.

  13. Thomas E says:

    The question I have no idea of the answer to is, is it worth traditional publishing at all* ?

    Don’t get me wrong, trad publishing is still the best way to go if you hope / expect a bestseller… but if you want to write books and have a solid midlist type career…. not sure.

    If it was 2010, I’d still have no doubt that submitting to traditional publishers was the right way to go.

    As an unpublished writer with a book manuscript that is ready, in 2011, I just don’t have the same certainty… there seems more options, and they are somewhat baffling. Don’t have a clue what the best way forward is.

    * with novels. With short stories, I am submitting them all to traditional markets first.

  14. What ethical issues has Trident had in the past?

  15. K. W. Jeter says:

    Just for the sake of discussion, and not because I necessarily agree with him, Bob Mayer is considerably less negative about the Trident thing:

    http://tinyurl.com/3v9bcfm

  16. One thing that I think keeps getting missed in this discussion is that 15% as an agent-publisher is not the same thing as 15% as an agent.

    Because 15% of 70% royalties is a heck of a lot larger than 15% of 25% royalties, eh?

    But somehow, supporters of the “estributor” concept miss that bit.

    Worse yet, what exactly are you getting for that percent?

    Upload to retailers? Which takes all of maybe half an hour?

    Connections to cover artists, editors, and ebook formatters? Useful, I suppose, for those writers who have not yet heard about this cool thing called “Google”. And there’s an alarming number of those…

    Because at 15%, the agent/publisher is not actually paying for the editing, the cover, the formatting. No, the author is still paying for those things IN ADDITION to paying over the 15%. I mean, yeah, it’s a better deal than AuthorHouse, but that’s like saying it’s better for a robber to just take your wallet than it is for him to take your wallet and your shoes, too.

    What a mess. Y’know, what’s really needed is more places that WILL do the work for writers, the whole thing, for flat fees. Because some writers are never going to want to learn (or believe they can learn) to do it all themselves. And so long as there are only limited numbers of people offering to do the work for flat fees, the vultures will be able to continue picking folks off.

  17. Thomas E asks: ” The question I have no idea of the answer to is, is it worth traditional publishing at all* ?”

    Well, it certainly is to me. And this is something that every writer has to decide on an individual basis (much like deciding whether to be agented, what exactly you want from an agent and how to handle your agency relationship, what to write, how to exactly to handle a self-publishing venture, etc., etc.).

    Here are some of my individual-basis thoughts for –me- on this:

    I LOVE advances. I LOVE getting the money NOW rather than spread out over years. I could be dead in ten years, so I don’t want to wait that long for my money; I’d rather have a large lump sum paid out NOW.

    Also, I know how high my current advances are, but I have no idea how high (or low) my e-earnings will be over time. I also think that any writer who assumes current e-income for any title will be a constant over time is quite mistaken; books go out of fashion and market conditions change dramatically. No one knows what an e-book earning well today will be earning in ten years—or even I suspect, in ONE year from now. So I’d rather let the publisher take the gamble that a book will earn $XX,XXX and get paid that lump sum now. As long as it’s high enough. if I felt the ratio of my advance level was no longer favorable against the –probable- (not theoretical; probable) ratio of my self-pub e-income for the same title, then my opinion about this would change, on the basis of my individual needs and situation.

    So far, though, I’m unimpressed by my self-published e-earnings as compared to my advances. Even if extrapolating and breaking down a (wholly –theoretical-) earnings average over time for the ebooks, etc. Admittedly, this is not an even contest, since my advances are for =new= books and my self-pub e-earnings are for old backlist; but until or unless I =see= MY e-earnings levels (not yours or his or hers; mine) making a run for the roses against MY advance income (not yours or his or hers; mine), I’m not throwing away the bird in hand (my advances) for a bird in the bush (the so-far-unproven =theory= that =I= (not you, not him, not her; I) could earn at least as much money per title, in a reasonable timeframe, by self-publishing my frontlist.

    Also, I am currently in the first GOOD publishing relationship I’ve ever been in (after 20+ years in the biz), and that makes a big difference to me. (I’ve been in good =editorial= relationships before, but never a good =publishing= relationship.) My current publisher packages, publishes, and promotes my books well, and they have so far kept every promise made to me. (I have never before experienced a publisher keeping promises even for ONE book, never mind for (at this time) 3 books in a row.) They’ve done a number of things for my books, in terms of marketing support, that I don’t have the resources to do. They package my books with a top (and really excellent) cover artist whom I don’t have the resources to pay for myself. I have a great editorial relationship there. They pay me very well—and very promptly. Overall, I really like working with them and doing business with them, and I am finding this a lucrative and beneficial relationship in multiple ways.

    I have no interest in throwing over a good and profitable business relationship for what is so far, in my own experience (not yours, his, or hers; mine) only a –theory- of a potentially more beneficial, lucrative scenario if I self-published.

    Moreover, however big the e-market may become (possibly 100% of all new books sold, in our lifetime), for now, more people still buy print books than ebooks. My publisher is much more able than I to supply and cultivate that market. And I don’t think this scenario will change by the time my next book is released (in about 10 days) or even the one after that (in about 12 months), so I would =much= rather my new books be published by a company that’s good at supplying and cutivating the still-larger traditioal print market for as long as that market is an important source of readers for me.

    OTOH, having said that… I had such stressful, negative, disappointing, demeaning, and demoralizing publishing relationships (though sometimes very good editorial relationships) at every previous house I wrote for, at any other point in my career, it’s entirely possible I would have made self-publishing my frontlist career priority, had the current options been available at the time, instead of (as it is for now) my backlist and oddball-book project. And for any new books which aren’t right for my current house or for a house that treats my work equally well (if such a place exists), I would certainly consider self-publishing.

    Additionally, if I had a book that was only “right” for small press (as has been the case with some of my stuff—particularly my two nonfiction releases) these days, I’d self-publish rather than go with a small press again. My own experience has consistently been that small presses don’t have the resources to give value-added to the business relationship, and thus it woul suit me better to self-publish a book I couldn’t sell to a house with major resources.

    Publishing is like marriage, in the sense that marriage is a state of happiness for some, and a prison for others; some people are cut out for marriage and some people aren’t; and for almost anyone, WHO you’re married to and how that marriage functions is a key element of whether or not you’re happy in marriage. Just as there isn’t a blanket statement about “marriage” that’s accurate, in the sense of whether or not marriage is beneficial to people, I don’t believe there’s a blanket statement about traditional publishing vs. self-publishing that’s accurate for all writers. It always depends on one’s situation, one’s goals, one’s experiences, one current projects, etc., etc.

  18. Kevin wrote: “Because 15% of 70% royalties is a heck of a lot larger than 15% of 25% royalties, eh?”

    INDEED.

    In every announcement I’ve seen by agencies setting up as epublishers or as (cough) epublishing facilitators, the announcement has been framed as, “We’re doing this for our clients. That’s what this is all about: helping our clients.”

    The more likely and credible explanation, ALWAYS unstated, is that this is all about money. All about agencies elbowing their way in (albeit rather belatedly–jumping on the bandwagon only after it’s full and pulling out of the station always seems to be the way with literary agents) to get a much bigger piece of the e-pie than their traditional role has so far made available to them.

    Because, yep, 15% of 70% of retail price is indeed a lot more money than 15% of “25% of net.”

    And until this new trend of agents elbowing into self-publishing emerged, their clients were KEEPING ALL 70% of that backlist, self-pub, e-royalty income, the swine! Now they’ll be giving some of that money to their agents, as God decreed is the proper and just way for writers to behave.

  19. Nancy Beck says:

    Instead of giving an agent 15% plus other fees, why not just do it yourself? Or hire flat fee services to do your cover or proofing or what you need?

    Exactly right.

    After trying to come up with an idea for the 3rd book in my series, I found a ready-made one that only needed to be tweaked. (I thought it was perfect for that story.)

    But then I decided that maybe having a little branding going on the series would be cool, so I asked the artist if she’d be willing to do the other two.

    She did, and we worked out a nice little installment plan for payment. (The rate was especially good because she’s building a portfolio.)

    Win-win situation for both of us. What could be simpler?

  20. Thomas E says:

    Laura Resnick, thanks for your thoughts, they are really interesting. I’ve read them through a couple of times. It sounds like you have some good things going at the moment, so you are right – for you it would be silly to abandon things that are obviously working well.

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