In an announcement that is sure to cause some surprise, Dystel & Goderich – agents for Barack Obama, Judge Judy, John Locke, Joy Bauer, David Morell, and Richard Dreyfuss – have announced a move into publishing. Or have they?
I have made my feelings about agents moving into publishing quite clear on a number of occasions, and have always attempted to highlight the egregious practices that are becoming more common. However, before we grab the pitchforks and march on 5th Avenue, I’m going to ask for a moment to get a few things clear, and to take a closer look at what is actually being proposed.
First, I want to look at what this actually is, and then I will examine whether it is a good idea or not.
Why Agents Becoming Publishers Is Bad
The reason I’m against agents moving into publishing is that it’s a clear conflict of interest. To be clear, I have no problem with an agent setting up a publishing company, as long as they quit being an agent. However, they cannot maintain both roles.
The reason for this is simple. An agent is your advocate, your representative, your advisor. Their primary role is to shop your books to publishing houses, to represent you in negotiations with them, and to secure you the best deal they can. In exchange for these services they get a cut – usually 15% – of the deals they negotiate.
It is in their interest to get you the best possible deal, as they are getting a share of that deal. Because your interests are more or less aligned with the agent’s, the system more or less works, in theory (with the strong proviso that bad practices are on the rise).
However, once that agent also becomes a publisher, everything changes. Their interests will no longer be always aligned with yours because they could – personally – stand to make more if you publish with them.
How can you trust that agent will keep trying to sell your book to publishers, when they know in the back of their mind that not doing so could be more lucrative for them?
It’s like your realtor calling you after your house has been on the market for a month and saying, “Sorry, no interested parties. However, I know you are desperate to sell, and I want to help you out of this pickle, so I’ll give you $200,000 for it.”
How do you know the realtor is being honest? How do you know the realtor is passing on all offers when they have one eye on your property for themselves? How do you know you’re not being taken for a ride?
Finally, just on a practical level, do you really expect publishers to return their calls now that your agent is the competition?
We can be clear. Agents becoming publishers is bad.
Why This Might Be Different
If you read the statement released by Dystel & Goderich, and if we can take it “as is”, what they are proposing is very different to what Ed Victor is doing with Bedford Square Books or what Scott Waxman is doing with Diversion Books.
The devil may be in the detail, but on the surface, this is radically different to an agent becoming a publisher. It seems that what they are offering is to act as advisors to those out of their existing clients who wish to self-publish. For this “project management” service, they will charge their standard fee of 15%.
The reason I think this is different is this. The agent’s percentage is identical to what they would receive if they sell your book to a publishing company. So the agent is still strictly motivated, in a financial sense, to get you the best deal they can.
In fact, it could be argued that the advice you will get now will be more impartial. Instead of the agent suggesting you take a low-ball offer from a publisher because they want their 15% and are worried you will drop them to self-publish, they will run the numbers and estimate whether you will make more on your own or with the low-ball offer.
I want this to be clear, so let’s take a concrete example. Let’s say I’m represented by Dystel & Goderich and my manuscript has been on submission for six months, and I have gotten close to an offer but nothing concrete yet. Not too uncommon a situation.
Let’s say a publisher finally comes through with an offer of a one book deal and a $10,000 advance. Before, my agent would have been pushing for me to take it. They know I am getting itchy feet, and they are worried I will pull my book and self-publish, leaving them with nothing.
However, now they will run the numbers and see that I only need to sell 6,000 books at $2.99 to cover costs and beat that advance. They might estimate the commercial appeal of my book, look at my platform, and say: you will make more self-publishing.
Now, I can choose to do it on my own, or I can choose to have them project manage it for me, take 15% of my royalties, and leave me with more time to write.
The problem with agent/publisher hybrids is that they get a higher percentage if you go with them. But in this case, because their cut is always 15%, that doesn’t arise here. The agent’s interests are still aligned with yours. There is no conflict.
I know two writers who are represented by Dystel & Goderich. One is a big fan of self-publishing and the other is a little cooler on the whole thing. Neither of them have a problem with this move (as announced). Both think it’s good for the agency, and good for the writer to have the assistance if they choose.
For me, the publisher is the person who controls the rights. When you sign a deal with an agent/publisher hybrid, you sign a publishing contract with them granting them the rights to publish your work. That is why that agent is becoming a publisher.
However, on the surface, this is different because the writer retains the rights and pays the agent a fee for advice. Whether it is a good idea is another matter, but I just wanted to get it clear first what this actually is.
One of the interesting aspects of this whole thing is that Joe Konrath, the doyen of self-publishers and the bête noir of the publishing world, is represented by this agency. And, not only does he support this move, he proposed it.
This has led to consternation amongst some of his supporters whose automatic instinct is agent = bad. Now, with some of the egregious agent practices being highlighted by Passive Guy, Kris Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith, and, yes, Joe Konrath himself, a skeptical disposition towards agents is a healthy position to adopt.
However, this doesn’t automatically mean that agents should be avoided at all costs. Joe Konrath himself still uses an agent to negotiate foreign deals, movie deals, and other subsidiary rights. Many self-publishers do the same.
Others again, like Barry Eisler, either do all that stuff on their own, or hire an IP lawyer. Personally, I don’t pursue agents anymore and don’t plan to in the future, but if one contacted me, I would listen to what they had to say. And if I was interested, I would have a top IP lawyer go over everything with a fine-tooth comb.
But to return to Joe Konrath for a moment, he has long hoped that someone would put together a package deal for successful self-publishers. Someone who would manage the whole business side – arranging editors, cover designers, formatting, promotion etc. – a position he dubbed an “estributor”.
Personally, I think that’s an ugly word for someone who is really a business manager/project manager.
Now, you can argue about the finer points. Is it better to pay someone a flat fee for that role? Is it better to throw them a percentage as an incentive to grow the business? Should it be time-limited or for the lifetime of the copyright of the book?
Whatever your position on those questions, it’s completely different from an agent becoming a publisher.
Is An Agent Becoming A “Project Manager” A Good Idea?
The final question I have today is this. Is hiring an agent to be your self-publishing business manager a good idea?
Well, that depends. And I think writers should look at it as a business decision.
What are you getting for that 15%. Does that cover all the costs? Or do you have to pay for editing, covers etc. on top of that?
What promotional services will it include? Is the 15% negotiable? Can it be limited to 5 years or 10 years, or will my kids be cutting my agency checks long after I am gone?
What if I want to fire my agent? What if they are no good at the job? Where’s my “out”?
Will this agent be better at managing my business than I am? Do they have the capacity to grow the business enough to more than cover their cut?
How much does the agent understand about Amazon rankings, Google PageRank, Twitter, Facebook Pages, Goodreads, SEO, cover design, formatting, editing, CPC, CPM, LibraryThing, regional targeting, AdWords, blogging, spam laws, Shelfari, or blurb copywriting?
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?
I would want all of those questions answered before I considered hiring an agent as a project manager. I would want the contract to be performance related where if the agent is not hitting key targets in terms of operating the business and growing the business, then I have the option to dispense with their services and they have no claims to any portion of my royalties.
If an agent wasn’t willing to agree to that, I would run a mile.