I was at the London Book Fair last week – and I’ll be blogging about that soon – when the news broke that David Mamet is to self-publish his next book.
His reasons? “Publishing is like Hollywood—nobody ever does the marketing they promise.”
While I think it’s great that someone as high-profile as David Mamet is self-publishing, I was very disappointed to find out the way he’s doing it.
Self-publishing is big business. By my estimates, self-publishers have captured 25% of the US ebook market. It can be lucrative on the individual author level too, with writers getting up to 70% royalties if they publish themselves.
The reason why those percentages are so high is that self-publishing allows you to bypass the traditional middlemen (agents, publishers, distributors) who each took their own slice of the pie before the author saw any money.
Literary agents in particular must be worried about what that means for their future, which explains their ludicrous reactions when someone like Barry Eisler states the above. However, a company called Argo Navis – a publisher-owned distributor – has come to their rescue, providing them with a way to re-insert themselves in the chain between self-publishing author and reader. And get their cut of course.
Mamet is represented by a major literary agency – ICM Partners – who are just one of many agencies to have signed a deal with Perseus Books-owned Argo Navis.
What Do Argo Navis Offer?
Essentially, Argo Navis are a distributor. They offer a portal through which authors’ work can be distributed to all the various retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo.
In exchange for this relatively trivial service, Argo Navis take a 30% cut. You read that right. After the retailer takes their standard cut (usually also 30%), Argo Navis take another 30% before passing on payments.
Obviously, this is massively overpriced compared to distributors like Smashwords or Draft2Digital, who only take 10%, and especially so when you compare the cost of going direct to retailers like Amazon (it’s free). But the problems with Argo Navis don’t end there.
Services like cover design, editing, formatting, scanning, and conversion are not included in this hefty price tag – but are available for a premium. Who provides those services? According to their website, it’s “third party specialists.”
In other words, Argo Navis outsources those tasks, just like any self-publisher. Except presumably they get a piece of that action too. Their price list for these services is not publicly available – and only distributed to literary agents (who won’t be picking up the tab, of course).
As the price list is hidden, I can’t speak to its contents, but I strongly suspect it’s not competitive (charging for cover design by the hour and formatting by the page is usually an indication that fees are high). From what I’ve seen of the covers and formatting though, the service provided certainly isn’t premium.
Why Are Literary Agents Using Argo Navis?
Argo Navis has been very clever with how they market their service. It’s pitched as agent-curated self-publishing - hey, it’s a step up from assisted self-publishing. Argo Navis don’t (and won’t) deal with authors directly, and will only accept titles for distribution submitted by literary agents.
This in turn allows agents to tap into what I call The Myth of the Segregated Marketplace - where authors believe that the visibility challenges resulting from the open nature of digital distribution are exclusively faced by self-published authors. Of course, those challenges are faced by all authors – however they publish. And given the abysmal rankings of books published via Argo Navis, it’s not a challenge that they are handling well.
But what’s in it for the agent? For starters, royalty checks come to their offices first (after Argo Navis have taken their considerable bite). This allows the agent to deduct their 15% before the author sees any money. Of course, it allows unscrupulous agents to take a little more – something enabled by Argo Navis only providing sales reports to agents rather than directly to authors – but I digress.
Many authors have mixed feelings about agents moving into publishing – and for good reason. But at least (some of) those agent/publishers are providing nominal value for their 15% cut – arranging cover design, editing, formatting, and handling the distribution in-house by uploading to the various retailers.
However, the agencies using Argo Navis are taking the lazy approach to locking down their cut. They aren’t uploading. They aren’t optimizing metadata. They aren’t arranging for cover design. And they certainly aren’t paying for it.
Instead they are simply passing the manuscripts from the author to the distributor, billing the author for any services they need and taking their 15% cut. And what have they done for that cut? Put them in the hands of a crappy distributor who is taking 30% of their royalties (on top of the 30% the retailers take and separate from the 15% agents are getting).
At this point you would be forgiven for thinking that no reputable literary agency would go for this. Well, I wish that was the case. Here’s a list of agencies that have signed up with Argo Navis:
- Writers House
- ICM Partners
- Carol Mann Agency
- Cynthia Cannell Literary Agency
- The Hartnett Agency
- Paul Bresnick Literary Agency
- Pinder Lane & Garon-Brooke Associates
- Curtis Brown (US)
- April Eberhardt Literary
- David Black Agency
- Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency
- Folio Literary Management
- Levine Greenberg Literary Agency
- Liza Royce Literary Agency
- Melanie Jackson Agency
- Janklow & Nesbit Associates
- Joëlle Delbourgo Associates
- Arcadia Literary Agency
- Harvey Klinger
- APA Talent and Literary Agency
- Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency
- Irene Skolnick Literary Agency
- FinePrint Literary Management
- Donald Maass Literary Agency
These are some of the biggest names in the business. These are some of the most respected names in the business. And they all have a fiduciary duty to their clients – a legal obligation to seek the best deal for their authors.
I’ll leave it to you to decide if they are fulfilling that duty.
What’s In It For Authors?
There’s no upside to being funneled into this program. Participating authors get lower royalties, no sales reports, slower payments, and lose the ability to make quick changes to things like pricing – which is essential for marketing.
The money is the big one though, so I’d like to focus on that:
- An author self-publishing direct with KDP will receive up to 70% of list price.
- An author who self-publishes via Argo Navis will receive 41.65% of list price.
In real dollar terms, that looks like this:
- A self-publisher with a book priced $4.99 on Amazon receives $3.49 per sale.
- Argo Navis clients with a book priced $4.99 on Amazon receive $2.08 per sale.
Instead of getting their authors a better deal, these literary agents are ensuring they get a much worse deal. If I had self-published with Argo Navis, I would have forked over five figures in commissions to them and whatever agent lured me into the scheme. That’s crazy!
But maybe we should look at how books published via Argo Navis are actually performing. Maybe they have some special tricks up their sleeve to get books noticed. The operation was launched in October 2011, so we have a significant track record to look at.
Well, this is the highest ranked Argo Navis book I could find. It’s at #58,822 in the Kindle Store. That’s the best performing book! It’s selling 1 or 2 copies a day. This is the second-highest ranked book. It’s at #90,978 – selling just 1 copy a day (and look at that awful cover).
Unfortunately for authors already funneled into the program, those books are outliers. Most Argo Navis books are selling 1 copy a month (or less!). Some haven’t sold a single copy ever (like this or this). One of those has been out for three months!
It’s easy to see why these books are underperforming. Some of the covers are terrible and are saddled with uninspiring blurbs. Some of the books are only put in the generic Kindle eBooks category, rather than something more granular like Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers > Police Procedurals - where they might actually get discovered. Some of have even misspelled the authors name (this).
The sad thing is that it’s the authors who suffer most. I’m sure some of these books are great – I can see glowing reviews from places like Kirkus – but they just aren’t getting a chance.
Why Am I Targeting Literary Agents Instead of Argo Navis?
Argo Navis is awful – overcharging for basic services and hugely underdelivering on basic competency – so why am I focusing on the literary agents?
It’s simple. Argo Navis isn’t an open platform. Authors can’t deal with them directly. Only agented writers can self-publish through them. Only agents can submit books to them.
Literary agents – who are supposed to be on the side of their clients – are the ones funneling authors into this program. This is on them.
But what do the agents think? Here’s what Amy Berkower of Writers House said:
After reviewing many of the digital publishing options available, we concluded that the service provided by Argo Navis was the best fit for the majority of our authors.
Really Amy? Argo Navis is the best you can do? How is Argo Navis taking such a huge chunk of authors’ royalties the “best fit” for your clients?
But hey, it’s not all about money. April Eberhardt of April Eberhardt Literary was asked about Argo Navis and explained her motivation for signing up:
Most self-publishing is not of high quality. There has been a disregard of publishing standards and that needs to change. I’m looking at a new way of doing things, a model of agent-led self-publishing where authors get guidance to bring their self-published work to a professional level.
April, don’t make me link to those god-awful covers again. I beg you.
There must be some other reason to sign with Argo Navis. Maybe Carol Mann of the Carol Mann Agency can help. She said:
I like the idea of an imprint available to our clients that singles out agent-curated material in a sea of self-published titles.
Have you seen the rankings, Carol? The Argo Navis titles seem to be drowning in that “sea.”
What’s In A Name?
Where did that awful name come from? According to their promotional copy, the company “was named for the constellation Argo Navis, formed, according to mythology, from three parts (sail, deck and keel) of the famed ship Argo, sailed into history by Jason.”
Funny, I thought it was because of the golden fleece these guys are pulling.
UPDATE (May 16): It has come to my attention that one of the literary agents mentioned in this piece is emailing commenters calling this a “misinformed and one-sided article” and inviting people to a Skype chat there they can “learn more about what I do for authors, as well as how and why I do it.”
I’ll be blogging about this in more detail on Friday, but it speaks volumes that this agent is approaching people in this manner rather than publicly addressing the concerns I have raised. If you have received such an email or any similar communication, please get in touch with me at david [dot] gaughran [at] gmail [dot] com