Top UK Agent Announces Publishing Imprint

There was some interesting news in The Bookseller yesterday. Ed Victor, one of the top UK agents, has announced he is setting up his own publishing division – Bedford Square Books.

We have talked on this blog before about The Digital Revolution and what the future will hold for agents. I predicted a split in the agent community as some morph into publishers and others re-focus into being authors’ advocates. I also talked about how there was some tension already.

Andrew Wylie made waves last year when he announced Odyssey Editions – his own imprint to publish his authors’ backlists (including Roth, Bellow, and Updike) – rights which had reverted from trade deals. Scott Waxman has set up his own publishing company called Diversion Books.

However, some powerhouse agencies like Trident are saying that “it is a mistake for agents to become publishers. There are substantial conflicts of interests involved.” (Scroll to the comments at the end for the quote.)

In the UK, Sonia Land walked away from a publishing deal to go it alone with e-versions of Catherine Cookson’s estate. Piers Blofeld – of the same agency – has called for a change in the code of conduct governing UK agents (it currently precludes publishers as members).

Other top agents, like Simon Trewin, have cautioned against this.

Yesterday’s move is newsworthy because Ed Victor is the first top UK agent to announce that – on top of publishing backlists as e-books – he will be seeking the stars of tomorrow.

Ed Victor is offering a 50/50 split with his authors on e-royalties. This sounds okay, but when you examine it closely, it all falls apart.

First, that split is after the retailer gets their 30% of the list price. Second, that split is after the producer of the book – a digital production company called Acorn – get’s a percentage too.

The Bookseller article also says that net receipts won’t be divvied up until “production costs” are covered, but doesn’t say if these are referring to the percentage going to Acorn, or further costs such as marketing and promotion.

Ed Victor may have the best of intentions, but there are a few reasons why I think this is a terrible deal for writers. First off, it’s absolutely crazy to be paying a digital production company a percentage of your royalties forever instead of a flat fee.

There are plenty of companies out there who do top quality work for a fee – no need to pay a percentage.

Also, the author ends up with a lot less than 50%. Once Amazon get their cut (30%), and Acorn get their cut (for the sake of argument, let’s say 10%), that leaves the writer and Ed Victor to split 60% – leaving 30% each.

Finally, if these “production costs” are not coming out of Ed Victor’s percentage (the article seems to indicate this is not the case) and are not counted for in Acorn’s percentage (the article is unclear), then the writer gets even less than 30%.

This is not significantly better than a trade house, it’s far worse than what you get in some smaller presses, and it’s less than half what you get from self-publishing.

And, the best agent in the world might know a lot about how to sell books to trade houses, foreign rights, movie rights, contracts, and royalty statements, but they might know nothing about how to produce a top quality book and get it into the hands of lots and lots of readers.

How much does the average literary agent understand about Amazon rankings, Google PageRank, Twitter, Facebook Pages, Goodreads, SEO, cover design, formatting, editing, CPC, CPM, regional targeting, AdWords, blogging, spam laws, Shelfari, or blurb copy writing?

How much do they know about tagging, proofing, pricing strategies, DRM, giveaways, digital piracy, EPUB, Kobo, hyperlinks, mailing lists, MOBI, effective back-matter, Smashwords, KDP, or PubIt?

These are just some of the many, many things a digital publisher will have to get their head around. And, looking at the production levels, the covers, the formatting, the front matter, and the Amazon rankings of some of the Catherine Cookson e-books, I would respectfully suggest that these skills have yet to be mastered.

Also, I have doubts about how much value Ed Victor will add for his 30%. He has admitted that he won’t be hiring any extra staff for his new venture.

Right now, an author has four choices with a manuscript: a major publisher, a smaller press, self-publishing, and one of these new agent/publisher hybrids.

My advice to anyone weighing their options is to think very, very carefully before going with an agent/publisher. The royalty rates are bad, and they don’t have any experience in breaking new digital authors.

Some may turn out to be good at it, and I’m sure some will, but I wouldn’t want to be the guinea pig. None of the agent/publishers, as far as I am aware, have broken a new digital star, even though some of their operations have been going for over a year.

Plenty of large trade houses have done it. Plenty of small presses have done it. Plenty of self-publishers have done it. Consider those three options first. Choose according to your circumstances.

There are plenty of companies who will provide a one-stop shop like Ed Victor is proposing, but they only charge a flat fee and they don’t touch your royalties. Telemachus is one, they charge around $1,000. John Locke uses them and he is doing just fine.

There’s only one thing in that article that made sense to me. Ed Victor said that in this turbulent future, what he will bring to this table is that he will be “lighter on his feet”. That’s true; there are advantages to being smaller and nimbler in changing times.

But you can’t get smaller and nimbler than a self-publisher. And if you don’t want to go that way I would take the experience, marketing power, and advance of a trade publisher over an agent/publisher hybrid anytime.

Also, there is one final problem with Ed Victor’s venture.

The UK-based Association of Author’s Agents (AAA) have a constitution which specifically precludes members from acting as publishers.

Part of the reasoning for this is that the agent is supposed to be the author’s advocate. And, the publisher’s interest isn’t always aligned with the writer’s. Blurring those lines makes it difficult to be an independent advocate.

There are conflict of interest issues here. If you have an agent, and she becomes a publisher how do you know that they will seek to get you the best deal for you, when the best deal for her is publishing it through herself?

We will see a lot more of this in the future. Writers need to be on their guard, and please, don’t give away a percentage of your future earnings unless it’s for a trade deal you can’t say no to.

About David Gaughran

David Gaughran is Irish, living in Prague, and the author of Mercenary, A Storm Hits Valparaiso, Let's Get Digital, Let's Get Visible, and this here blog.
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35 Responses to Top UK Agent Announces Publishing Imprint

  1. I’ve been reading about this agent/publisher thing with interest and concern. I see a massive conflict of interest, as you mentioned, which should be concerning for any writer. That’s before even touching the whole experience/success issue.

    I think it’s a great idea for agents to create a central hub for writers to get their stuff edited, formatted, distributed, etc. for a flat fee. But a percentage? Never. Why, when I can do it all myself (or find those who can do it for me)? Nor would I pay a publisher to do this (again with the conflict of interest). Agents need to stay out of the publishing side of things. Writers need to be smart about the choices they make.

    A friend of mind recently signed one of these rather dodgy contracts. I don’t think the publisher has ever been an agent, but she’s certainly inexperienced and her contract is a mess. She had one of those “after costs” clauses. My first question is, what are these costs and how much will they be? No answer and my idiot friend still signed the contract. Fortunately it’s a non-exclusive contract.

    My personal feeling is to steer clear of these agent/publishers. I’m sure they mean well and it’s probably my suspicious nature, but it all smells a little hinky.

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    • I think it’s a massive conflict of interest.

      If I was pursuing representation right now, I would avoid any agent who is also a publisher. How do you know they will submit effectively to all the trade houses? It’s in their interests now to publish you themselves.

      Agents could be good at this, after all, some were editors, so they will have some of the skills necessary. But do you want to be the guinea pig?

      The contracts situation is very worrying, they are getting progressively worse for most writers, especially new writers. One clause that is coming up a lot – in respected, established agencies – is that the agency gets a percentage for the lifetime of the copyright (instead of for the duration of the publishing contract). This means that if your books fall out of print, you part ways with your old agent, and you get a new deal to re-publish them further down the line that first agent, who did nothing to help you get your second deal, will still get 15%. And these guys are supposed to be on the side of the author? Astonishing.

      The costs issue you mention is another quagmire. How many writers run their agency agreement (and their publishing contract for that matter), by a real lawyer? That worries me too.

      You’re right to steer clear of the agent/publishers for now, and for forever if they keep insisting on a percentage rather than a flat fee.

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      • I know my friend certainly didn’t run hers by a lawyer! The only saving grace is that non-exclusivity clause. Vagueness is always a worry when it comes to contracts.

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  2. Hektor Karl says:

    Publishing is in a tough place. It needs to change and it needs creative ideas.

    But right now most of their “innovations” seem to force the writers to bear the costs. If they keep moving in that direction, writers (especially younger writers with fewer ties to established ways) will stop seeing them as validation and start seeing them as closer to tax collectors.

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    • You make an excellent point, Hektor. The established ways are already dinosaurs, in a few years they’ll be fossils. The next gen of writers aren’t going to go for the type of “innovations” we’re talking about.

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  3. What these agents can’t and won’t understand, writers won’t pay for anything, especially not forwardly. Writers won’t bear the costs (And many of them can’t bear any costs at all.).

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  4. Dean Wesley Smith has been making the same point for awhile now about it being ludicrous to pay ‘day labor’ a percentage of a project’s value forever. He compared it to giving the gardener part ownership of your house.

    I’m beginning to think there is something to the predictions that most agents will morph into something more akin to packagers or publicists or other strange value-added hybrids, but this iteration doesn’t seem to add enough value or change the current mode of operation enough to warrant survival in the evolving world of publishing. Next, please.

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    • Spot on Margo.

      DWS has been a lonely voice for a long time. He’s not alone any more. With all the writers now that have experience of self-publishing, that’s one group who won’t put up with any of this nonsense.

      What really shows me that this particular agent might not be caught up with the new digital world is that he is talking about paying a percentage to the book producer. Absolutely crazy. A percentage for formatting? Are you kidding me? I learned it myself in less than a day. I don’t know of any cover designer that charges a percentage. Or editors for that matter.

      Show me one of these agents that guarantee me 100,000 readers that I can’t get myself, then we’ll talk percentages.

      Have Diversion Books had a big hit with a new author yet? Not that I’ve heard of. Have you seen those Catherine Cookson e-books? As bad as any I have seen.

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  5. Doh. Dual Dean Wesley Smith comments. I was a milisecond too slow with the enter key!

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    • Don’t worry – I have to manually approve first comments, then whatever you say goes straight up. Filters out a lot of the junk, but now you are “trusted” and can go wild.

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  6. josephinewade says:

    Thanks for the article.

    I find how to approach agents as an ‘indie’ a little tricky. I would like one to peddle my short works around to the different ‘zines and also to handle things like foreign rights, but that’s not much incentive for an agent.

    I’ve thought maybe just getting a contract lawyer for the foreign rights and smaller contracts might be a way to go and direct submission for the smaller works, but I don’t know how feasible an option that would be either.

    I’m hoping to stumble into a solution. I’ve also thought about multiple series where one I self pub and one I offer to the agent as a placating tool.

    Just thinking out loud .

    Josie

    Like

    • Hi Josie,

      Dean Wesley Smith was advocating just that on his blog today (just hiring a lawyer). Others, like Joe Konrath, have an agent they can trust and leave them to handle just foreign rights, movie rights, and so on.

      And anyway, with smaller magazines, does an agented submission help? I have heard many editors say that it doesn’t make a difference, the only thing that matters is the story in front of them. After all, they reject top writers all the time.

      Dave

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      • josephinewade says:

        Today I’ve heard Dean Wesley Smith’s name mentioned a lot. I’ll have to check him out (that’s a really long name to type though and it reminds me of the tv series Supernatural for some reason — I digress).

        I don’t think an agent so much helps you get into the magazines, but… and this is kind of where my ego comes into play… I am hoping one or more of my stories could win awards (blushing at my own audacity) and I think you need an agent to get submitted into those kinds of things.

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      • Dean’s blog is amazing. (Warning: after reading his blog you may not want an agent anymore).

        Start with this to get where he stands on stuff: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=4081

        Then read this to get his take on the news in my post: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=4096

        Then, if you don’t think he’s full of it, if you think there is something to what he is saying, go back to his site and read his Killing The Sacred Cows of Publishing series.

        It’s eye-opening.

        Re. the awards – can’t the editor of whichever magazine it was in nominate you? I bet that nomination means a lot more than the agent’s. Best way to get in a magazine (any magazine)? Read lots of copies of it. Learn what they like. Submit a story that they will like.

        Getting published in magazines is tough. Super-tough for the top markets. Pros with a long list of publishing credits get rejections every day.

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    • josephinewade says:

      Wow! Thanks for taking the time to post those links. I’ll look them over soon.

      Your the best.

      Like

      • josephinewade says:

        Ok, Dave. I finished my writing (actually revising) for the day and then went and read the links you mentioned and the one by Rusche (sp?). ..

        Honestly when you said you may not want an agent any more I was like, hmmm….

        But now I’m really ill.

        I realize I’m too old to be this naive, but still… this is really horrible. I wasn’t expecting agents to be generous, not even fair, but the tricks they are pulling now either from greed or ignorance is just base.

        Thanks again for the links. I’m feeling better about the indie thing more and more.

        Like

      • I don’t think any of this means you should never pursue an agent or a trade deal – hell, I have 3 fulls out with agents, and I would certainly listen to anything they had to say. Just make sure you are going into it with your eyes open. Always have a lawyer read your contract (both with the agency and the publishing house).

        But the great thing is, we don’t have to do it that way anymore, if we don’t want to.

        Personally, I think the most successful writers in the short term will be those who combine indie publishing and trade publishing. Print is still 70% of the market. And trade houses can do wonderful things for you if they get behind your book.

        The point is, there is another way. And as self-publishing grows, some of these bad things for writers will have to change, or else they will say “screw the system” and go indie.

        I think things will get worse before they get better, as certain players feel the pinch. But with whatever path you choose, be vigilant. There are ton of great resources out there to check the bona fides of any agent, publishing house, or self-publishing service provider. Use them.

        Like

  7. Shéa says:

    Thanks for the DWS article. Sooo spot on. Really awesome article.

    I was thinking about why a writer would do something so obviously stupid. I realized that over the last lo these many years we’ve been conditioned as writers to think we need to be vetted before we are “real writers”. We need some guy in a tower somewhere in NYC or London or wherever to tell us, “Hey, you’re ok, kid”. That somehow that will make everything happen for us.

    So, I do think it’s about the hand holding and things being easy, but I also think that a lot of writers have got it in their heads that they NEED this. They need somebody, this agent, to vet them and then they’re golden.

    And people keep harping on about how a lot writers don’t have the money to do it themselves. Well, I know a ton of writers on KB who do everything themselves and essentially put out their novels for zero money out of pocket. I’m paying for cover art, etc., but I found quality people at affordable prices by ASKING around. My editor has 10 years experience in publishing with the Big 6. And this is costing me less than £150 per book which I am paying to three different people over a couple of months so it doesn’t come out of one paycheck.

    Why on EARTH would you give someone 50% (more really) of your royalties for the sheer pleasure of having them tell you you’re great and hold your hand? Because that’s really what you’re paying for. I don’t need anyone to vet me but my readers.

    Rant over.

    Sorry, Dave. That sort of turned into the Second Epistle of Shéa.🙂

    Like

    • Consider this a place you can rant any time you like.

      I know exactly what your saying. My first e-book (that sounds like my first laptop for kids or something) was 2 stories – 1 had been picked up by a couple of magazines and even made an anthology. Great. The other one, I sent to 30 different magazines, and all form rejections. I think it’s the stronger story, readers seem divided. Either way, it’s holding its own out there in the big bad world.

      With my novel, the rejections were often similar – they couldn’t see a market for it. Marketing it, to me, is the EASY part. When I tried to explain how it could be done in queries, I was told not to give marketing advice to agents. Catch 22. Problem is most editors and agents are just chasing trends, whatever they may say on their websites. They all want something just a teeny bit different from the last bestseller. Problem is, by the time that book comes out two years later, the trend is probably dead.

      How many times have you heard that horror is a dead genre? Not in self-publishing. That’s why indie writers dominate the Kindle Horror listings.

      Fact is, even if indies were to play them at their own game and chase trends, indies are faster, indies will get there first.

      But there is people writing EVERYTHING, finding readers where New York said there are none.

      I look at all the guys not reading, and I wonder, are the books been written that they want to read? Maybe there’s a huge market there?

      We’ll see.

      Like

      • Shéa says:

        Horror is dead? Um, did anyone tell Stephen King? ‘Cause that’s something he might want to know. lol

        The thing about indies, too, is that even if you write in some tiny niche market that only nets you a little bit a year, you don’t care. You’re going to keep writing and selling and loving every minute because this is what YOU the WRITER the CREATOR do. No way an agent or publisher or combo is going to mess with something that won’t generate bajillions. Because for them it’s all about the money. It takes a lot less money for an Indie to be stoked because at the end of the day, we’re taking most of that green stuff home.😉

        Did you read the Kristine Rusch article DWS referred to in his article? Holy Mylanta, Batman! Makes me sooo glad I decided to self-pub, I can’t even tell you.

        Like

      • Oh I meant to say earlier: maybe it was a typo in the marketing report. They meant “undead”.

        And what made me take the leap was not the people earning Konrath or Hocking figures, it was the huge amount of writers making a nice little amount every month.

        I read all the Kristine Rusch stuff. Scary.

        Like

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  9. And the Agent Wars begin…

    UK literary agent Peter Cox has called on agent Ed Victor to be thrown out of the UK agents’ association (here, in the comments: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/more-agents-explore-publishing-models.html)

    Usually my predictions take a little longer than a few days to come true…

    Like

  10. Tony Slater says:

    Also, RE the opportunity offered by Ed Victor, the Acorn eBook publishing company has come under a bit of fire from our own Word Clouders – there’s a topic in the forum about (and including) them here
    http://writing-community.writersworkshop.co.uk/forum/topic/3077
    where the representative of Acorn displays very little knowledge at all about the self publishing world and seems to be representing not an experienced, polished company but a complete beginning looking to enter a field they know nothing about! Maybe this isn’t the case at all, but it does add weight to the argument that such deals need to be very thoroughly examined to ensure they offer more than what a self pubb’er can achieve alone.

    Like

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