There’s something new going on in the literary world these days: Some literary agencies are starting up their own publishing divisions. If a literary agent can’t sell a client’s book (or if a client’s book goes out of print), a literary agent can then help his or her client to keep the book on the market in some form. Sometimes an agent will partner with an existing digital press, subsidy publisher, or a self-publishing company. Other times, the agent will start his or her own publishing arm from scratch. “Publishing a book” can mean anything from giving a project a page on Amazon (and nothing more) to national distribution and marketing in physical bookstores.
Is it ethical for a literary agent to also be a publisher?
Some arguments FOR agents who publish:
- They help authors do what authors would want to do anyway.
- They help their clients make a little more money.
- They themselves make a little more money.
- Agents are intimately familiar with their clients’ projects and, therefore, can be an important contributor to packaging, marketing, and distribution strategies.
- Literary agents have an insider’s view of the publishing industry that a writer alone might not have.
- Books that would have gone out of print or would have never been published are accessible to the public.
- Any book publicity is better than no book publicity.
- Agents can use their public profiles to sell books.
- Having an agents’ help (for the equivalent of self-publishing) is better than no help at all.
Some arguments AGAINST agents who publish:
- Agents should represent a writer. But when an agent is a publisher, agent and writer are on two different sides.
- An agent is supposed to protect a writer during a contract negotiation—but when the agent is the publisher, contract negotiations become a conflict of interests. Redhammer Management’s blog says “It’s like the ref in a game of footie being paid by one of the teams playing.”
- In theory, a good agent—an agent who is serious about making a sale—shouldn’t need to fall back on publishing their clients’ books. That’s what publishers are for.
- Agents make money from publishing their clients’ work. This may detract from an agents’ primary commitment to get their clients’ work published with third-party publishers.
- If a writer is locked into a contract that will name the agent as publisher in the event that the agent can’t sell the book, the writer could end up settling for a less favorable publishing deal than if the author had simply self-published with a different company or independent press.
- Being a literary agent and being a publisher are two different professions. There’s some overlap, but ultimately, being an agent OR being a publisher can be a full-time job. There’s danger that an agent who is publishing is spreading himself/herself too thin or overestimating his or her ability to do everything.
- It’s a bit of a gray area when an agent who represents a work also holds the rights to it. Ethical (and financial) questions can arise.
What you should do:
Know what you’re getting into. If you don’t want your agent to publish your book, be very clear about that up front. If you don’ t like a literary agents’ policies, get a different agent. But if you like the idea of having help with publishing an out-of-print book or a book that didn’t find a home at a big publishing house, then just be sure that you take an active and attentive role in your book’s publication with your literary agency cum publisher.
What do you think? Is it ethical for agents to help writers manage the process of publishing their books (as opposed to representing their books)? Post your comment!
I’d rather have an agent help negotiate book deals for me than be both. It does seem like a conflict of interest.
Thanks for posting! I didn’t know agents were doing this. But I guess it’s not that much different than major publishing houses that are starting a self-publishing arm. Everybody’s just trying to make a little extra money on the fact that anybody can publish a book.
I would hope the agent must really believe in what the author has written and had diligently tried to place the book prior to becoming the publisher. If this wasn’t done, then it is just a money making gimmick.
A conflict of interest for sure; I am not even sure a fair contract could be drawn up in this situation. No matter what the contract spells out, the literary agent simply has to want the best financial package for himself as well and that means using his own publishing house. Frightening trend.
They’re trying to make that dollar! Remember what Kevin Trudeau says,”It’s all about the money.” IF you haven’t figured it out by now, that’s what America is all about. We don’t care about each others rights and responsibilities. No, we just care about the money,
The best agents will begin providing self-publishing service options to their authors. Good agents are those who represent the best commercial interests of their authors. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The more successful the agent is at commercializing the property that is the author and their books, the more successful the author and agent. There’s a vast middle ground between DIY self-publisher and full-service traditional publisher, and agents have the opportunity to provide services in this middle ground entirely consistent with the services they’ve always provided authors. Agents are beginning to realize that traditional publishing is not always in the best interest for their authors. It’s tougher to sell books to publishers, advances are declining, and publishers are expecting agents and authors to assume more of the responsibilities (editing, post-publication marketing, platform building) once fulfilled by the publisher. When publishers start acting less like publishers, authors and agents wonder what the publisher can do for the author that the agent and publisher can’t do on their own. Yet all authors don’t want to assume the essential responsibilities of a good publisher (editing, book production, cover design, formatting, distribution, sales, marketing, distribution, backoffice receivables and payments), thus the need for this new breed of publishing services provider.
Traditional publishing vs. self-publishing is no longer an either/or proposition. Smart agents can help authors successfully straddle both worlds.
Mark, Thanks for lending your expertise and perspective to the discussion!
I think there’s a lot of information out there today on how to self-publish and how to post and market a book on Amazon.
My purpose for seeking an agent is to have a facilitator between me and a third-party publisher.
Sure, I can see how an agent-as-publisher could bring opportunities for self-dealing. But it’s not so simple as it might appear at first blush.
In an agency contract, it’s not normal for the agent to spend his own cash on the client. It’s not normal for the agency to do (or facilitate) heavy editing. It’s not normal for the agent to get deeply involved in marketing. But when an agent acts as publisher, ALL of those things become his responsibility. Either to do himself, or to pay someone else to do it. And like any publisher, he’s entitled to get paid for his labor and recover his investment.
With or without an agent-as-publisher, it’s your responsibility to learn the business.
When an agent also becomes your publisher, is it ethical for the person to want to own the books copyright?
Why would a publisher want to own a book copyright in the first place?
Hi Ann Marie,
We are not lawyers, so we are not authorized to give legal advice. We recommend speaking with someone who specializes in copyright law.