Agent as Publisher

Last time I mentioned in passing that some agents are setting themselves up as publishers.  I also mentioned the term “conflict of interest.”  You may have gathered that I have some problems with this development.

Here’s why.

Let’s think about the agent’s original purpose.  You hire an agent for a single purpose, really: to be your advocate to publishers.  Your agent should back your work to editors at publishing houses.  Your agent should negotiate the best possible deal for you when the manuscript is picked up.

Now, how can my agent negotiate the best deal for me with a publisher, if he is a publisher himself?  Do you see the conflict of interest here?  Every manuscript that crosses his desk is potential money for his publishing arm.  If he sells that manuscript to a big publisher, that’s money he won’t make–even if the deal from the big publisher is better for you.  This conflict is always there, even if the agent tries very hard not to let his publishing business interfere with his agenting business.  I’m no lawyer, but I don’t believe that it’s very ethical for a person who has a publishing business to hire on to represent you to publishers.

So let’s put that aside for a moment.  Forgetting the conflict of interest, why am I uncomfortable with an agent as my publisher, even if I have no desire to shop my manuscript around to the big publishers?

This is a little more technical.  And there will be those who will disagree with me, which is fine.  All I ask is that everybody consider all of their options, and possible repercussions, before signing anything.  As always 🙂

First, I don’t believe an agent as publisher is going to offer me anything I can’t do for myself.  And I’m going to lose some things by going with this arrangement.

If I hire an agent to be my publisher, he’s going to take my manuscript, and format it for Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords (if he’s good; some of these guys only put it up on Kindle.)  Also, he may take it to CreateSpace or Lulu and make a paperback version available.  He’ll probably hire an artist for a flat fee to create a cover.

There’s nothing there I can’t do myself.  And nothing you can’t do yourself, either, even if you’ve never done any of those things before.  Is it worth giving someone a cut–sometimes a large cut–of your royalties to avoid learning these things?

I’ll also have to sign a contract with the agent/publisher.  And from the rumblings around the internet right now, that contract might have some really scary provisions in it that will make sure my grandkids are giving that agent’s grandkids a cut of any royalties those books are still making.  And considering Amazon is set up for a long-tail sales approach–it’s something to think about.

Another thing that concerns me is this: if my agent uploads my work as my publisher, my work will be under his account at Amazon, CreateSpace, PubIt, Smashwords, and anywhere else he places it.  I won’t have access to set pricing, create coupons or special promotions, or change up any descriptive text.  I can’t add editorial reviews as they come in.  (Technically, through Amazon’s Author Central, I could change text and add reviews–though Amazon warns this may cause problems if my publisher wants to change things later.  And I still can’t set pricing info, even through Author Central.)

This also means that my agent will have access to sales numbers on my books–but I won’t.  I will have to accept on blind faith that the numbers he reports to me are accurate.  Some agents are honest, and will always report everything accurately.

Some are not.

And I have no way to tell the difference, or to verify the numbers I am given.

To me, this is a big problem.  I realize this is pretty much the way big publishing has done business for decades–authors don’t usually have access to raw sales numbers.  They get their royalty statements, and they have to trust that the numbers on those statements are correct, or request expensive audits if they suspect a problem.  Occasionally, those audits turn up problems.

But now, with the reporting mechanisms in place online, you have the option of seeing your raw sales numbers.  Unless your agent loads your work through his account.  And in this model, you don’t even have the option of an expensive audit.

I know this new service agents are offering has been tempting to many authors, especially those with a large backlist they would like to offer electronically.  But before you commit to that path, make sure your gains outweigh your losses.

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