Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Self Publishing: The Agent

Agents today, if they have one forward-thinking bone in their body, consider self-publishing a viable option. It's a different model, for a lot of reasons (not least of which is no advance). But self-publishing has other advantages (not least of which is no advance). A decision to steer a client to self-publish involves a lot of factors.

Just the fact that there are a lot of variables sounds like a fine reason, to me, to have an expert involved. Yet I still hear a lot of grumbling about agents and earning commissions in a self-publishing model. Maybe I'm biased. Let's look at what's going on:

Before self-publishing was available, agents' most recognized "value added" was knowing the gatekeepers at a publishing house. Gatekeeper. Because that doesn't play a role, most authors chafe at the thought of paying someone a commission to handle their book.

(Now, there's a lot of other stuff an agent does, but authors typically aren't exposed to that until they have an agent. Then it's still frequently so behind-the-scenes that they don't know it's going on.)

Getting a book published, on a "shelf" (digital or real), is only step one. Self-publishing exposes authors to every single subsequent step. Distribution, for instance. Um, PRODUCTION?? Cover design? It also exacerbates longstanding challenges, like promo and marketing. Though everyone cries foul that publishers don't promote authors, they do cover some basics, like printing galleys to send for blurbs. Tweeting, even putting an author up on their site is helpful, for SEO if nothing else. Who takes on the rest of the promo effort? Agencies. Oh, and remember editing? And do you simply trust that Amazon is sending you the royalties you've earned?

^^Hopefully, that doesn't sound like too much for you to handle, intrepid self-publisher. Because it's only the vaguest outline of what goes into a book.

None of this is even getting into what I talk about as agents' "new responsibilities" as digital becomes a bigger and bigger deal. This is all what agents do on a regular basis today.

Do I need to say more?


  1. I'd love to know how the agent-relationship works with self publishing. What is the incentive for the agent? Would the author pay upfront, since there is no advance?

  2. well, um, sure, I'd liike you to say more : )
    Curiosity question for you: do you the see agents moving into the role of say, small press epublisher? Will agencies begin pairing authors with cover artists and layout specialists and so forth?
    (aka Jen McAndrews *s*)

  3. I cannot even begin to express how important it is for unagented authors to keep on querying, but I'll try.

    1) A self-published novel making any money is still a bajillion to one shot.

    2) An agent and his/her team provide you with the best shot at getting a book published. They know what flies and what fries. They know if your plot has been done to death and most importantly, they have the connections baby.

    3) The most important factor is that of a few pairs of fresh eyeballs for your project. After you've done two or three drafts of your masterpiece, your agent will go through that sucker with a fine toothed comb looking for anything that smacks of the almighty info dump, and the equally book destroying "you said this already five chapters ago..." An agent puts you through the ringer, collaborates with you, cheers you on and a so freaking much more!

    Very simply, I love my agent, I love her team and I love that she is making me a better writer.

  4. I don't believe you need an agent if you're self publishing or going with a very small publisher. They would be helpful for editing, but not all agents edit anyway (mine didn't). And you can find the extra set of eyes on your own.

  5. Still loving this series Meredith. A few questions.
    1. From what I've heard about the Internet, most of the grumblings regarding agents earning commissions in the self-publishing model have more to do with the commission structure than the fact that people are paying an agent to do stuff. The basic idea behind that argument is that most of the functions you mention in your post are services that can be bought for a flat fee (and presumably the agency would be hiring other people to do many of those functions for a flat fee on behalf of the authors – I don't expect to see the Shark sitting down to draw cover art herself). If a book ends up doing very well, the writer will end up overpaying for those services if she is paying on a commission model.
    Now I don't necessarily believe that there is anything inherently bad about the commission structure, and I think in a lot of cases if the book doesn't do well, the writer may even come out ahead when paying a commission instead of a flat fee. But it makes me wonder – do you see agents sticking to a commission structure for their payments, or might they also be open to upfront payment? It seems to me that if they only stick to commissions, successful independent authors may start migrating away from their agents for this type of work, leaving the unsuccessful authors who can't afford upfront fees with agencies.
    2. A question about Amazon royalties. As I understand it, literary agencies do not receive any special treatment or have any special arrangement with Amazon, right? So how would they know better than the author about whether Amazon is being honest?

  6. Livia, one of my freelancer friends sort of tongue-in-cheek mentioned that the people who'll really make the most money from ePublishing are eBook bundlers and Amazon. Well, to be sure, there will be more freelance work available. Some people I know who've ePublished their own work outsource as much labor as possible by finding freelancers on Odesk and such. Why pay someone in the U.S. fees in triple digits, when someone in India will do the same job for a fraction of the cost? Obviously, you don't want to seek editing services from an ESLer. But cover art and formatting can be done expediently and very inexpensively, if you're willing to make a nominal investment.