A few weeks ago, literary agent Jason Allen Ashlock wrote a widely-circulated post arguing against the new breed of agent-publishers. He makes a number of salient points in the piece. An agent’s job is to serve his or her client’s best interests, not the publisher’s. When the agent becomes the publisher, who’s advocating for the author? He also points out that this venture is so new agents have yet to amass the contacts, marketing expertise, and technical proficiency to produce and distribute electronic titles. He notes that agents must work proactively to embrace the changing marketplace, better understand the possibilities of electronic titles, and work to find new avenues for their clients’ work. I agree with the points raised in his piece, but I’d take his argument a step further. I’m not sure how working with an agent benefits self-published authors at all.
Ultimately, the greatest asset of self-publishing is the potential for total control over your own career. You’re in charge of marketing, cover design, editing, distribution, layout, production—the whole package. In return, the bulk of the book’s profits flow directly to you. Working with an agency-publisher seems to me the worst of both worlds: you’re adding the middle man back in, but acquiring none of the benefits. Putting out your book through a traditional publisher gives you access to a professional marketing department and design team, an editor, and all the contacts, expertise, and experience at the publisher’s disposal. In return, the publisher earns money off your book. Working with an agency-publisher means you’re turning over a share of your profits to a third party—but what are you getting in exchange? Agents have no more experience with marketing or distributing e-books than you do, and a number of agent-publishers are charging you a commission just to help you find editorial and design services—which you’ll then have to pay for yourself. And, as Ashlock notes, you’re out of luck if you decide you’re unhappy with the terms of your agreement with the agent-publisher.
Producing and distributing an e-book can be a daunting venture, and it may very well make sense for you to invest in a package service like the ones I mentioned last week. But all of those services will charge you a one-time flat fee, whereas an agent-publisher will charge you a commission—meaning that you’ll continue to pay the agent as long as your book is earning money, regardless of whether the agent is still providing a service. Unless the agent can demonstrate marketing or distribution expertise, that kind of arrangement just doesn’t make sense.
An agent can be invaluable for a traditionally-published author looking to negotiate electronic rights with his or her publisher. But I can’t see how it benefits a self-published writer to work with an agent-publisher rather than a package editorial service or a market-savvy publicist. You don’t need an agent to put you in contact with skilled editors, designers, or publicists; all you need is an Internet connection and a few focused hours of research. It can still be difficult (or, in some cases, impossible) for self-published writers to get their books reviewed on blogs or through major media outlets, but partnering with an agent-publisher won’t help you overcome that hurdle.
You don’t need me to tell you that the world of publishing is changing rapidly, and agents, publishers, and writers alike are still figuring out what their roles will be as e-books assume a larger part of the market. I have no doubt that savvy agents will develop new strategies for working with writers, and writers will continue to combine self-publishing and traditional publishing in innovative ways. But I think self-published writers should hold out for a business partnership that makes sense—one that’s advantageous for the writer, not just the agent. In my opinion, the agent-publisher model is not that partnership.