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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Publisher or Agent?

There's a growing trend among agents. Dean Wesley Smith has recently gone totally anti-agent on his blog. In previous post, he'd allowed that some writers may want to consider an agent, but now he feels he can no longer recommend that anyone use an agent.

While personally I don't see myself using one in the near future, I've not been around as long as Dean and others to really have a solid opinion on this. Obviously there are agents out there taking advantage of writers, in some cases outright stealing their money and careers. And I'm sure there are plenty of honest agents who attempt to work for their clients and give them the best chance of success. I'm not intending here to solicit examples of folks who have a good agent or a bad agent.

Rather, what this is about is not the honesty or ethic of any one particular agent, but the model that is no longer working well and how it is changing for the worst as far as writers are concerned. A quick bit of history might help here.

Agents came on the scene to help writers negotiate contracts with publishers. They handled the author's legal dealings with local and foreign publishers, and Hollywood rights. And they generally knew something about it as they often came from working with publishers and knew how they worked, how publishers sometimes leaned contracts toward their own benefit without leaving much for the writer. So they had some knowledge and skills in helping an author to get the best deal on their book.

Then something happened in the early nineties that threw a wrench in the system. Publishers, in an effort to cut staff and expensive warehouse space, decided instead of having authors send their synopsis and manuscripts directly to them, they would first need to go through a gate keeper, the agent. So the rule of publishers not accepting any unagented submissions was born.

The burden of slush reading was shifted from the publisher and the editors who made the decisions on what books to put into print to the agents, unless the author was bold enough to ignore the agent requirement as just another hurdle publishers put before writers in an attempt to weed out the less persistent ones.

This was an amazing accomplishment for the publishers. Why? Because they no longer had to pay anyone to read loads of slush. Sure, they still got some, both from writers who submitted anyway and agents who submitted for the writers, but the load was cut way down. Instead, who picked up the tab for slush reading? The agent? Yes and no. The agent doesn't make any money reading slush directly. They only make money when they find an author and book that they can sell to the editors they know. When they make their money is when the book sells, and they get their 15%. Except, it wasn't a 15% cut of royalties and advances prior to this change. They upped the agent's pay in return for the tons of slush reading the agent now had to do.

What that boils down to is the writer now pays for the agent to read slush for the publisher. How messed up is that?

There are other issues, which Dean touches on, but for this post the main problem this presents for the writer is that the agent's loyalty has become divided. They are no longer working only for the author, but however subtly, also for the publisher. It shifted the author-agent relationship less from one where the author hires the agent to fight for them against the tricks the publisher might pull, to the author paying the agent for access to the publishers. In short, this shift of allegiances has created a conflict of interest, which in turn has produced more and more stories of unethical behavior in an industry that has no oversight short of the diligence of the writers themselves.

But even in the midst of that conflict of interest, some agents still behaved ethically and provided a valuable service for the writer, and still worked as much as possible on the writer's behalf even in the face of needing to also make the publisher happy.

Then came the Internet, Amazon, and the rise of POD (Publish on Demand) books and ebooks. Within the space of a few years, authors gained viable options to the old traditional publishing method. Options that could cut the traditional publisher out of the loop. At first this shift appeared small and insignificant, so few prepared for it. Now it is growing by leaps and bounds, and publishers are scrambling to figure out how to maintain their piece of the pie.

But the problem for publishers isn't so much the pie is going away. Few predict the end of the traditional publisher. But, there is the reality of the ever shrinking pie. They're base expenses for office space and salaries remain at a constant level no matter how many books they publish or sell. As the pie shrinks, as ebooks published by indie presses and authors take a bigger percentage of the revenues, the publisher's funds get squeezed.

Now, agents are another deal. This move to POD and ebooks threatens to bypass them totally. So how do they see themselves as surviving? By becoming a publisher themselves. This is what Dean speaks to in his latest post.

Now we move from a simple conflict of interest situation because agents are working for the publisher to some degree, needing to keep them happy in order to maintain their accessibility to the editors, you now have the situation where the agent has become the publisher. The whole point of agents originally was to fight for the author against the publisher. Now they are the publisher.

What does this mean for the author? Well, if you still want to use the agent model, it will now shift back to what it was originally. You will need to hire an agent to represent your interest to the agent/publisher. With the agent/publisher only sending out royalties after expenses are paid, the new "real" agent will work to demand a bigger piece of the pie so that they can get paid as well, leaving the author with even less of his royalty.

When you have to hire an agent to represent you to an agent in negotiations, it gets absurd. Anyone who continues to treat the agent/publisher like an agent is being set up for a scam. When they "partner" with the writer to get your ebook published, they are no longer an agent. They are a publisher and need to be treated like one.

What's my recommendation for agents? As if any of them would listen to me. Nonetheless, here's my advice. Go back to focusing on negotiating contracts for the author with the publishers, even if that publisher is another agent. It's the only point at which you are actually making money anyway. Why waste time reading slush and trying to "guide" author's careers. Give advice if asked, but otherwise work only for the author, and be willing to make a few editors angry because you don't let them get away with clauses that would hurt your author's career and pocketbook. Get good at that one thing, and you'll continue to have value. Go the hybrid route and you're only digging yourself deeper into an unethical conflict of interest that will eventually bite you in the rear.