« Editorial

An Argument Against Agent-Publishers

Literary agent Jason Allen Ashlock asks, “Can an agent act in an author’s best interests when they are also acting as their publisher?” His conclusion: “No.”

Editorial by Jason Allen Ashlock

Jason Allen-Ashlock

Jason Allen-Ashlock

Nearly two thousand years ago, Plutarch wrote of a great ship that bore Theseus home from Crete. As its planks decayed, the plucky Athenians preserved it by replacing each rotting board in turn, until eventually nothing was left of the original vessel. Was it then the same ship? Plutarch asked. Or was it something wholly new?

What began last winter with Scott Waxman’s Diversion Books and continued this spring with Ed Victor’s Bedford Square, has extended this summer to Dystel & Goderich, BookEnds, The Knight Agency, McDermid, Levine Greenberg, and Objective. Each of these agencies have announced distinct digital publishing arms that will publish their clients’ works, and in some cases non-agency writers as well. As this emergent Agent-Publisher construct grows into a mainstream strategy, it brings to the surface a set of concerns that deserves interrogation. Can an Agent effectively represent an Author’s best interests in such a dynamic? If you remove the central plank of an Agency and replace it with the central plank of a Publisher, is it still the same ship?

A Crisis of Professional Ethics

The duty of agents, and their special virtue in exigent times, is to think beyond the present, lead their clients wisely into new opportunities, and build the most well-equipped team to get them there. I want to believe this is the calling that leads agents to develop digital publishing arms for their clients: a call, as I suggested at Digital Book World earlier this year, to radical mediation.

Yet even if Agent-Publishers hold such noble intentions, there is one party with whom they cannot mediate on their clients’ behalf: themselves. An agent representing a client’s works to licensees cannot realistically maintain his or her unwavering allegiance to that client when the licensee is the Agency itself — however the “digital publishing arm” of the agency is described. This conflict is unavoidable, and has repercussions across the relationship, from an Agent’s signing of a client, to the preparation and pitch to publishers, to the decision to publish independently, to the terms established for profit and expenses, to the rights grant and term and beyond. Every instance of the relationship is brought into question if the agent’s primary position as author advocate is compromised. This concern is not adequately addressed by claiming good intentions. Nor by gesturing toward a trusting agent-author relationship. Nor by claiming we are in a time of experimentation. Certain principles do not evaporate in the face of innovation.

Any publishing professional with an appropriate knowledge base has the right to become an agent or publisher — one can even be both at the same time, as the brilliant Richard Curtis has proven for longer than I’ve been an adult. But one cannot be both at the same time for the same client. The self-dealing temptation, and danger to a writer that results, has long been understood by Hollywood, where agents have a fiduciary responsibility that is overseen by the state. The boundaries are clear — agents are disallowed from producing their own clients’ works; managers are disallowed from negotiating on behalf of their clients whose work they are producing. There are loopholes and creative manipulations, of course (and the entertainment attorneys on Wilshire may reap the most benefit from this structure), but the talent—the writers—benefit from a degree of protection.

But this is not California, the recent earthquake notwithstanding. Here, literary agents abide by no union regulations, are under no legal jurisdiction. But the case law exists in parallel industries, and we ignore it at our peril. (Why the AAR, the MWA, RWA and other professional organizations have not addressed the Agent-Publisher phenomenon publicly and boldly, I do not know.)

The self-evident ethical concerns may or may not at some future time lead to litigation between authors and their Agent-Publishers as it has led to innumerable collisions between agents and managers and artists in other industries. But we are actively creating an environment for such a storm. And by so doing, we agents, who have struggled to maintain a fragile sense of trust with writers, only deepen the chasm between our professional community and the artistic community we serve when we introduce more doubt into the relationship, and when we wave off real conflict of interest questions like they’re unsolicited queries.

A Crisis of Expertise

The plethora of impressive non-traditional publishing and marketing tools now available lead authors with backlist titles and fresh content to grow as dissatisfied with traditional agency methods as they are with traditional publisher methods. The approaching threat: along with publishers, agents face disintermediation.

The Agent-Publisher initiatives we’ve seen represent a proactive move to avoid this, though perhaps an ironic one: if attempting to avoid disintermediation, it doesn’t seem wise to simply swap places with another threatened party. I would imagine many agencies who currently entertain the idea of publishing their clients’ work but have yet to take the leap are hesitating because they acknowledge the immense gap between the idea and its implementation, between the huge number of hours and any return on investment, between the promised land of John Locke’s millions and a single author’s first venture into non-traditional publishing. They hesitate with good reason.

But it seems a popular choice, despite the unavoidable reality: Agents are not Publishers. Though we Agents are forever complaining about publishers venturing outside their core competencies, we seem oddly confident that we can transition to digital publishers with ease.

Though some agents come to representation from publishing houses, without significant internal reorganization, few agencies could publish efficiently: workflow restraints, small staffs, capital concerns, and the modest revenues generated by most digital properties will prevent most Agent-Publishers from adequately managing and effectively publishing more than a few titles.

Without relationships with major bookseller accounts, an Agent-Publisher’s marketing and discoverability efforts will be nominal at best, supported by inexpert efforts in new media marketing. Most Agent-Publishers will emphasize electronic editions, yet most agents lack technical proficiency to oversee workflow, conversion, design, quality control, distribution, accounting, title management.

Furthermore, electronic sales data is available in real time and payments are made monthly from all of the publishing services companies, yet agents rarely possess the infrastructure to provide the backend support necessary to avoid a massive data bottleneck.

There will be successes, of course. Scott Waxman hit the New York Times bestseller list this summer with football coach Mike Leach’s Swing Your Sword, published by Waxman’s Diversion Books. But such successes will be rare: Waxman is as aberrant in his context as Amanda Hocking is in hers. Agents are not exempt from delusional thinking, though, and such successes will draw more agents to the bandwagon just as every Hocking, Locke and Konrath draws more writers to Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). My Amazon contact says KDP is now working with more than 60 agencies, all of which are dabbling to some degree in Agent-Publishing. But many agents will acknowledge these concerns and restrain the impulse to become Agent-Publishers — but what then? They face the growing possibility that their clients will simply publish without them. There is a better solution for them, and for us all.

Solutions

Perhaps the greatest flaw in the Agent-Publisher construct is one of imagination — as the Tragedy of the Commons always is. Needless imprints, muddied brands, mediocre design, ad hoc title management, author mistrust, Big Publishing distrust — these possible by-products of pro-am Agent-Publishing contribute to the very problems that threaten the sustainability of agenting and authoring. By further fragmenting ourselves into our private ghettos, we do little for our authors and nothing for the industry or its customers. We agents would serve better by finding creative ways to enhance author brands and exploit author rights without sacrificing the load-bearing planks in our ship.

Agents can avoid many of the pitfalls of the Agent-Publisher construct by entering their clients into licensing agreements with new independent electronic distributors who offer the highest level of digital expertise, distribution capacity and marketing relationships — and offer these only to agents. Such relationships preserve the curatorial function of agents, a significant expertise that agents have honed over many years, that is currently handicapped by shrinking publisher catalogs. Agents negotiate directly with these imprints as they would with a traditional publisher, and by so doing obtain far better royalties for clients, retain far more control over rights, and most importantly, retains a role as uncompromised representative of the Author.

Further, these relationships with third party imprints compensate for the lack of publishing infrastructure within most agencies, as well as the digital education gap and the backend support, as conversion, design, upload, distribution across platforms, updates, marketing, and data and royalty accounting — all are handled by the imprint. The Agent maintains his role as relational supervisor — much as he can and should do with traditional print deals. By leveraging B2B skills, Agents can arrange partnerships and cooperative models on behalf of their large client list, thus providing access and opportunities for digital development that an Author could not develop on his own.

This field is expanding, and at just the right time. It’s not just about Kindle Digital Publishing anymore, or any of the multitude of bare-bones conversion and upload companies. MintRight announced its impressive platform earlier this month on this site. Perseus Books now offers Constellation. My company, Movable Type Literary Group, has a slate of backlist and original content in production with Inscribe Digital, a turn-key publishing solutions venture overseen by an impressive mix of passionate, experienced booksellers and successful digital entrepreneurs, with a powerful platform and flexible terms. And later this fall, be watching for a significant new offering from Vook that will change the enhanced e-book scene for the better, and for good.

In some cases, the release of our backlist titles with Inscribe will build up to the release of a new frontlist title. In others, the digital property will follow after the new title launch, containing additional material of interest to a reader. In every case, the digital property connects to print title purchase points. But in every case, our Inscribe launch strategy works in partnership with the author’s print publisher, emphasizing mutuality, reciprocity, and integration.

Conclusion

There are core agenting philosophies, formed over decades of quality service and client support, that do not evaporate in the face of innovation. As we rush frantically toward some dazzling digital future, we cannot jettison some of the basic frameworks that were constructed to protect authors, their agents, their publishers, and the common good.

In the digital space, all things seem possible — and sometimes they are. But not all things are beneficial. Or wise. Perhaps an agent’s task at this moment isn’t so complex: we are here to manage the possible, both for our clients and for ourselves.

Jason Allen Ashlock is the founder of Movable Type Literary Group.

DISCUSS: Will the Threat of Disintermediation Push Agents to Advocate Traditional Publishing?

Addendum 9/10: Removed Andrea Brown from list of agencies with intent to publish their author’s works.

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8 Comments

  1. Posted September 6, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Thanks Jason for such a well considered article that is remarkably free of ‘eau de knee-jerk’. When businesses move into new territories or apply new models, it is to acquire new business. There’s nothing wrong in that at all, although the writer is still likely to be at the end of the line when it comes to sharing the rewards of any such venture.

  2. Peter B
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    As it is in the best interest of Publishers to look after and keep their Authors, is there any real need for agents? Share the rewards between Author and Publisher and cut out the real middle man.
    Agents often cite bullying of authors by large publishing organisations but how much is true especially in today’s market?

  3. Posted September 6, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    This was a very insightful and encouraging article to read. As a writer I had begun to think the publishing world had gone haywire with no turning back. Thank you.

  4. Scott Waxman
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for taking the time to address questions about what agents can be doing to help their authors navigate the world of publishing as the ebook format becomes a larger and larger percentage of sales. These are exciting times for sure and all of these changes are opportunities.

    The reason I started Diversion Books was to bring the power of publishing directly to the author. After more than twenty years in the business, as both editor and agent, ebook publishing is has been incredible satisfying work because all of my experience goes into the mix.

    As a separate company with dedicated personnel and resources, Diversion has never once been in a position where it presented any confict of interest. We publish backlist as way to serve out authors, frontlist titles the publishers have passed on, or nichey projects they never considered. Any Diversion author goes into contract with us because they see value in it, because they are excited about the format and because we are experts in publishing. In fact it sounds like we have similar goals: “Movable Type Literary Group, has a slate of backlist and original content in production. ”

    At the end of the day we are both in it to serve authors, so they are the ones who will ultimately answer your questions simply by the publishing choices they make going forward.

  5. Scott Waxman
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for taking the time to address questions about what agents can be doing to help their authors navigate the world of publishing as the ebook format becomes a larger and larger percentage of sales. These are exciting times for sure and all of these changes are opportunities.

    The reason I started Diversion Books was to bring the power of publishing directly to the author. After more than twenty years in the business, as both editor and agent, ebook publishing has been incredibly satisfying work because all of my experience goes into the mix.

    As a separate company with dedicated personnel and resources, Diversion has never once been in a position where it presented any confict of interest. We publish backlist as way to serve our authors, frontlist titles the publishers have passed on, or nichey projects they never considered. Any Diversion author goes into contract with us because they see value in it, because they are excited about the format and because we are experts in publishing. In fact it sounds like we have similar goals: “Movable Type Literary Group, has a slate of backlist and original content in production. ”

    At the end of the day we are both in it to serve authors, so they are the ones who will ultimately answer your questions simply by the publishing choices they make going forward.

  6. Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    Not being difficult but I’m not buying that starting a separate company owned by the same people has no conflict of interest. Frankly, we all want to make a living and let’s just be honest. To keep acting like agents are being noble and aiding their authors in becoming publishers is deceptive– they’re doing it to make up for lost revenue as traditional publishing contracts. Put it on the table.
    And frankly, why didn’t agents become publishers when POD started? Because they had no access to distribution. Now they do. The same access authors do. So, again, it’s a weak argument.
    How many editors and agents have true internet marketing experience? Can they sell themselves? Have they done so? Agents and editors have experience in the traditional publishing market. They have very little in the eBook market. They certainly bring other expertise to the table that is very valuable, but not the whole package.

  7. Jennifer Laughran
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    You wrote: “Each of these agencies have announced distinct digital publishing arms…”

    I am an agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency. For the record, we have not announced a digital publishing arm, nor are we planning to.

  8. JamesHRH
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    Surprised that none identified the fundamental flaw underlying this article. Publishing supply chain will compress, almost completely, and very quickly, when consumers adopt new model.

    Tech markets emerge slowly but mature extremely rapidly. When someone clicks the tumblers on an internet service, this post will seem quaint.

    Nomenclature unimportant. Decades of philosophy crushed in nanoseconds.

    Producer. Distributor. Customer. Those are the jobs.

    Packaging will be a cloud service set of tools. Legal will be standardized. Payments will be automated.

    Separating entities will not be required, as an limited number of online cloud services will do all the distribution. Avoiding conflict will be easy, as there will not be any conflicts.

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