A distinction that I should've made before:
There are two forms, as I see it, of self-publishing.
- One is the long established "Author+Amazon=BOOK."
- The rise of the "ePublisher" (we WILL talk about this more; what follows is just a snapshot)
There's a ton to be said about ePublishers but the most important things to remember:
- They're new. A lot will change.
- An ePublisher can never NEVER be monetarily associated with or a part of an agency. AAR would have our hides. So, in fact, would our authors.
Related to bullet two above: Agents and agencies make their money from AGENTING. Not anything else. You won't pay an agent to design your cover, and you won't pay them to find you someone who will (not directly, at least. Good cover=increased sales=more money from their commission, but that's sort of arbitrary.)
You can hire freelancers to do work like cover design. But if you do so without an agent, you do so without an advocate. Sure, you can get all up in your designer's grill if they don't produce something up to snuff. But you're just one client. They're not going under if you get mad, or even if you don't pay. A freelancer's relationship with an agent/agency is different. Those entities offer volume: hundreds of referrals are at stake if the agency takes their authors elsewhere. They're more likely to get it together, crash a project, or make a deal for that kind of risk.*
Point 3 about ePublishers:
- Royalty/Advance structures aren't set in stone. Some deals do have advances, others use high royalty rates to offset a no-advance deal. Either way, the agent signs up for what you sign up for: if there's no advance, we don't get paid until the first royalty statement (but, with no advance to earn back, there should be immediate money).
So, blahblahblah, that's all fine--why are we back to a publisher again?! Isn't the point of self-publishing to get away from all of that???
If you feel that way, may I direct you to number 1, above. But here's what ePublishers are offering (the ones that will succeed, at least): Distribution.
In traditional publishing, distribution is what makes the Big Six "big." It means they get your books shipped to stores with favorable rates on shipping, etc. that minimize cost and maximize market penetration, maximize profit.
But this is the Internet, right? We've all got "distribution," Sally. Well, yes. But I italicized minimize cost above for a reason. Distribution is not only about getting the book on the shelf (digital or real). It's about doing it efficiently, with the lowest cost. ePublishers can do that because (to answer Livia's question), they do have special deals with online retailers. This is similar to the freelancer/agency relationship. Perseus is the largest distributor of independent publishers in North America. You think they have clout with Amazon and Apple? You bet.
Exactly what that clout will get ePublishers remains to be completely defined. But they will have special arrangements for royalty models, and more control over book pricing, not to mention other things that don't even have to do with price, like page placement. It's the equivalent of getting your book face-out or not in a bookstore. That was the publisher's doing, you know.
The ePublishers are just getting themselves launched. They make arrangements with agencies because they need work that's 1. vetted and 2. plentiful. They need content--a lot of it--in order to have clout with eRetailers--agencies offer an aggregation of hundreds of authors, thousands of books. Even a sole proprietor offers dozens of authors and books. For you, the author, getting into that pool means getting the best deal. Getting an agent (at an agency that's thinking about these things--question to ask people offering rep.) means getting into that pool.
Agents are able to see where ePublishers are getting it right and which ones to steer clear of. And, by the way, which books just need the ol' fashioned traditional publishing treatment. Authors are brilliant. They could do the research and figure out 90% of what agents know. But then there's still 10% advance info gleaned from contacts about new initiatives/companies/etc. that you'll never have access to. Not because publishing is "so insular," but because you're not in publishing. You don't have those relationships.
Agents have the full picture. They can strategize with you. That's what made them valuable in traditional publishing and even moreso now. With so much in flux, a lot stands to be gained by having a professional advocate, and a lot stands to be lost by going it alone.
But, you know...I'm biased.
*Are the agents/agency getting a kickback from these referrals? More thank likely not, although models for becoming more full-service are evolving. Always remember: the agent gets paid if you get paid. They've got your best interests at heart because it's their best interest. If you don't feel like that, you've got the wrong agent.