“Agent-Assisted Publishing”: An Interrupted Debate

In Digital by Porter Anderson

Porter Anderson will be guest editor on Publishing Perspectives for this week, July 15–19, 2013.

15 July 2013 iStock_000004249761XSmall photog Blu-Flame

By Porter Anderson

Shipping Out With a Sequence of Articles

Like an ocean voyage long stalled by calm seas, the question of “agent-assisted publishing” for authors was all but dropped a couple of years ago, at least in many polite industry conversations. A hot potato of a subject, it had shallowed out in awkward, unsettling questions. It was left as a topic listing queasily toward perceived potentials for conflict of interest.

And yet, as entrepreneurial authors today make ever more assured strides in the marketplace, the position, purpose, and problems of literary agents need open examination.

Kristin Nelson

Kristin Nelson

High-visibility examples of newly configured efforts are put into the spotlight, of course, by news-making events including agent Kristin Nelson’s ability to parlay author Hugh Howey’s self-published ebook success with the Silo Saga (Wool) trilogy into print-only contracts with Big Five publishers.

But it was also Nelson who, at the Writer’s Digest Conference East in April in New York, was candid enough to tell the assembly that she’d never seen an international bestseller without the engagement of a traditional publisher.

It’s that “on one hand / but on the other hand” stance that seems so hard for many to handle. The gray area of developing trends rattles us. Yes, Howey is a formidable self-publishing talent, but — also yes — he stands to benefit from a major’s involvement in part of his career.

In an industry that doesn’t handle the “yes, but also” clause easily, agents can be thrown out with the “dirty gatekeepers!” bathwater. Many authors never consider what agents could do for them in their digital drive for new modes and models of independent publishing.

This week at Publishing Perspectives, we’re going to unfurl the canvas, run up the rigging, reopen the conversation and get this topic moving again. We’ll revisit some of the issues and listen to some of the voices in and around the literary agency community.

Our goal here isn’t to announce resolution where there is none, but to listen to how that muted debate sounds today. No great consensus is yet in place on the high seas of digital transformation — and maybe never will be. But you’ll find experimentation, eloquence, and a what may be a growing collective realization that the charts and maps used for so long by agents, like all else in publishing, simply cannot stay the same.

Today, we open the subject with commentary from the present, after a quick look back at a bellwether opinion piece from two years ago. We see a publisher created by an agent for other agents. And we hear, in our related Discussion piece, from a self-styled “literary change agent,” openly and determinedly testing the boundaries of what’s considered appropriate in author advocacy.

Tomorrow, we look at two leading agencies in London working on different models but toward common goals for their authors.

Wednesday, we get the perspective of a highly articulate author who is the star attraction of an agency-created publishing effort.

And Thursday, we come full circle with new commentary from a major publishing player, a North Star guide of conscience for a tortured industry’s journey of upheaval.

Setting Sails

Jason Allen Ashlock

Jason Allen Ashlock

Literary agent and Movable Type Management President Jason Allen Ashlock wrote his highly regarded and infuential essay, An Argument Against Agent-Publishers, for Publishing Perspectives here in September 2011.

In it, he cautioned that agencies’ evolution in the digital dynamic might recall Plutarch’s question about the ship that bore Theseus home from Crete. The great Athenian crew, Ashlock wrote, preserved that ship “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?”

On a riptide of digital disruption, was the literary agency community staying afloat by becoming “something wholly new?” If so, was it replacing one time-honored principle after the next…with something else?

Ashlock could see the shoals clearly:

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.

But he warned that practical realities made the idea of the agent-publisher challenging:

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.

And, most critically, he raised the alarm of “a crisis of professional ethics”:

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.

Ashlock wrote of “radical mediation” as the duty of agents on behalf of their author-clients. He reminded us that one could be both publisher and agent at the same time, “but one cannot be both at the same time for the same client.”

And that’s when things got quiet.

We’ll hear today from one agent he mentioned by name in that article, agent Scott Waxman, who founded the publisher Diversion Books three years ago.

First, a little ground work.

When Books Still Had Spines

Semantically, “agent-assisted publishing” is not new — a literary agent’s work has always been a matter of assisting the client-author in being published.

In fact, let’s start by setting a baseline here against which we can gauge what’s happening to literary agenting today.

The classic, fundamental scenario casts the literary agent as the discoverer of a talented writer’s manuscript, typically through being queried by the author. Once, manuscripts were said to come in “over the transom,” a wonderful old idiom evoking random bundles of paper hurled by unseen authors into the agent’s office through that horizontal window over the agency’s doorway. More recently, snail-mail deliveries and email inboxes have replaced the proverbial transom.

Typically, then, the agent works with the author to prepare this promising manuscript to be considered by a publisher. Using his or her connections, the agent presents the prepared manuscript to publishers’ editors who are likely to want the book. With luck, one of those editors does want it, successfully argues for it on the publisher’s editorial board, and the book finds a home. When the sale of the manuscript is being made to the editor’s publishing house, the agent negotiates and manages the publication contract for the writer. The agent also may handle many of the author-publisher communications, serve as the author’s representative on differences of opinion with the publisher, handle sub-rights negotiations, collect royalty payments, and disperse those funds to the author-client after taking his or her agency commission.

Notice how late in the game that “taking his or her agency commission” phrase comes in.

Brian DeFiore

Brian DeFiore

One thing authors who haven’t worked in the business enough sometimes don’t acknowledge or understand is that a legitimate agent only gets compensated as a percentage of what money they can make selling their clients’ work. We can sometimes put in a year or two, editing a manuscript several times.

That’s Brian DeFiore in a telephone interview with Publishing Perspectives from his office in New York City. And what he’s talking about is something almost anybody can understand is a truly difficult business model.

DeFiore is the Founder (1999) of the eponymous literary agency DeFiore and Company. His wider purview of the agenting community comes from his chairmanship of the Digital Rights Committee of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), the professional association of literary agents. And DeFiore also has the perspective of an accomplished former member of key publishing teams. He has held editorial and managerial positions with St. Martin’s Press, Dell Publishing, Delacorte Press, Disney Hyperion, and Random House’s Villard Books..

What he’s pointing out about the essential element of literary agency work is that both agent and agency are working until there’s a sale without earning a penny and with no guarantee that the book will ever produce revenue. “Totally on spec, because we simply believe that the client’s work can sell.”

While considered by many authors to be a gatekeeper in bad cahoots with publishers, the agent, in fact, is heavily invested in his or her clients’ work and is risking a great deal of time and effort on the hope that an author’s book someday will be salable.

Here in Digital Days

In the last decade or so, major publishers have abdicated — this is my word, not DeFiore’s — much of the job of finding and preparing strong manuscripts to the agent corps. Once, acquisitions editors could be expected to handle a lot of the developmental editorial work of a manuscript, taking it from an agent at an earlier stage than is likely now.

Acquiring editors today have fewer resources with which to work on manuscripts and have to go into those editorial-board meetings with high-grade goods to convince their publishing houses to acquire a book. They require material far closer to “camera ready,” as the phrase goes in advertising, than they once did.

Therefore, the onus has fallen on the agents, as the default talent scouts and groomers of authors for the traditional industry. Agents are bombarded by submissions of work from writers on one side and running hard on the other side to cultivate and maintain strong relationships with publishers’ editors.

His own agency, DeFiore says, hasn’t engaged, as such, in much activity he’d classify as agent-assisted publishing.

“But through my involvement in AAR, I know a lot about what people are doing” in the field. And he has a healthy appreciation, he says, for the interest in the agenting community in exploring the possibilities of assisting authors in publishing.

DeFiore is speaking for himself here, not as a spokesperson for the AAR. But his observations make it seem that what once was routine and steadfast resistance to changes in the way agents work may now be softening, at least as a kind of Plan B set of approaches.

“People (agents) these days are not taking on clients thinking, ‘This is going to be a self-publishing opportunity,'” he sais. “Most people take on a client believing, ‘This is going to sell for a significant advance.’

“But for one reason or another, sometimes it doesn’t work out. It may be that your enthusiasm as an agent was off, that nobody else has the same enthusiasm for that client’s work…For whatever reason, you may have put in all this work and can’t get a sale from a publisher, but you want to continue helping the client.

“In some cases, the correct thing to do might be to figure out a self-publishing strategy.”

Could it be viable for an agency to help a client find high-quality self-publishing services in this instance, to see if a well-produced edition of the book might then turn the head of a publisher who wasn’t interested the first time around?

“Absolutely,” DeFiore says. He then talks about the apparent turn, still going on, in how these things are seen in the business.

When these options first surfaced a couple of years ago, there was a lot of discussion between AAR people and the AAR board and the whole agent community about whether this is some kind of conflict of interest. We’re not publishers. But what we’ve come down to is this: as long as what we’re doing remains helping the client come up with the best method of getting their work in front of the public…and as long as we’re doing it on a commission basis, then we’re still acting as an agent, as much as we would be in selling any other rights of the author.

This is as close as we may get right now to a traditional-industry test, then, for what’s acceptable. DeFiore is helping us by delineating two key factors.

First, the literary agent must remain, in this interpretation, as always, the advocate of the client and of the client’s work. The agent is strictly on the author’s side.

Second, if the agent is to make any money from the work, it must be as a commission on work that creates revenue, not as a fee charged to the author.

“And listen,” DeFiore adds, “we’re doing a bit more work for the client, probably” than agents might do if they’d sold a manuscript to a traditional publisher. In this model of assisted self-publishing, he says, “We’re assisting them in finding a good copy editor, finding a good cover designer, perhaps finding a good marketing person, things we would not be doing if they were being published” in the traditional way.

An important clarification, DeFiore says, is that the typical agent he’s describing is not bundling such “author services” and selling them to the client, as is done by some self-publishing companies. “We’re not acquiring rights from a client. We’re not publishers.”

DeFiore also notes that there are “small presses you’ve never heard of” that may be good homes for work that’s not being received as expected in the bigger venues. Self-publishing isn’t the only option, assisted or otherwise, to a big-house contract.

But what still drives the process in most cases, he’s saying, is the standard dream.

“Clearly, 95% of writers want a deal from a Big Five publisher,” DeFiore says. “That’s really what we’re charged to do on their behalf.”

When an Agency Builds a Publishing House — for Agents

Diversion BooksEffectively, what DeFiore has described — again, these are not his words but mine — is a sort of PR battle that may not be going too well for agents at this point, much as it’s not going so well, necessarily, for big publishers.

The stories loved by various news media, and by enthusiastic entrepreneurial authors who are looking for alternatives to that traditionalist picture, are those suggesting that none of Old Publishing’s apparatus is needed because digital production and distribution are now in the hands of writers who want to drive their own careers.

Scott Waxman

Scott Waxman

And for a case in which the narrative of the day may not quite be accurate, you need look no further than the digital-first Diversion Books, a publisher founded in 2010 by literary agent Scott Waxman of Waxman Leavell Literary Agency.

Diversion Books, Waxman tells Publishing Perspectives, “has absolutely nothing to do with the agency. Never did. It was created to assist other agencies.

“I saw an opportunity. Agents were going to have to get involved, especially with some of their backlist authors.”

As digital publishing began to enable the reissue of backlisted titles as ebooks, “agents needed to get those ebooks out into the world. I felt they were going to need assistance and a partner. So Diversion Books was never designed as an extension of the (Waxman Leavell) agency. It was a new company with a new purpose.

“There’s no relationship, contractually or of any other kind between the companies,” Diversion and Waxman Leavell. “There’s no overlap in personnel. And Diversion doesn’t publish Waxman authors. If it does, it’s one out of a hundred. It’s an exceptional case in which the author would like to do it, and so there’s no commission taken.”

Editorial Director Mary Cummings heads the day-to-day operation of Diversion Books, Waxman says, with her own staff, and has worked “with 40 or 50 agencies” now in bringing books to market.

Waxman’s own definition of “agent-assisted publishing” is fully parallel with that of DeFiore. Waxman puts it this way: “It’s where the agent acts still on behalf of their own client and on a commission basis, and helps them publish under some sort of arrangement they create together. And there’s no exchange of rights.

“Diversion,” the publishing company, “acquires rights, like a publisher, and for a term. So it is a publishing model,” he says.

And when another agent brings an author to Diversion Books, then, that agent negotiates a deal with Diversion for the publication rights, and takes his or her commission from that deal as would be done with any other publishing house.

As a point of interest, backlist work is something Diversion only started “about a year ago,” Waxman, listed as its CEO, says about the company’s fast-growing output.

“But we’re still doing originals. We have a new book out right now called Outcast, a YA novel that’s selling extremely well. The author (Adrienne Kress) has been published traditionally in the past, but has chosen to do this one with us through her agent. I’d say our breakdown now is 75% backlist and 25% frontlist.”

This is an interesting case, then, and well worth simple contemplation for the arrival it represents of a new edition of a traditional model that would not have a place in the business before the arrival of digital publishing.

Diversion Books is created by an agent, but not run by him. It is devised to facilitate the needs of other agents whose clients need backlist publication, and sometimes first-time production, in all digital formats. It is full-service, as a traditional publishing house would be, handling production, marketing, royalties, the works.

“And it’s all profit-share,” Waxman says. “We don’t charge anybody anything, ever. And that’s why we only do the books we think will sell. So we’re all invested. We work hard at the books we have and we’re getting better and better at it…in the last six months to a year, it’s felt like we’ve developed our expertise, and that’s why the agents are coming to us more and more.”

With royalties that Waxman describes as “significantly higher than what the (traditional) publishers would pay,” he likes, he says, the partnerships Diversion cultivates with its authors.

“And for most of the agencies, it’s not time well-spent to work on that backlist,” themselves.

So what might have been seen as a conflict of interest a few years ago, today is an independent publishing company created by an agent for other agents. In three years, something has been created, developed, and is gaining traction. Waxman expects Diversion to have produced 300 books by the end of this year.

For other agents, meanwhile, something different is called for in today’s digitally disrupted business. For that story, please see our Discussion piece today, What Is a “Literary Change Agent”? And What’s Ethical?

Main image: iStockphoto | Blu-Flame 

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.