Two prominent names in self-publishing (Barry Eisler and J.A. Konrath) are presenting the case that agents have a desirable role as facilitators for authors who choose to self-publish. Barry makes a rational argument at Joe's blog, and Joe himself is trying it with his existing agent. The basic premise is the agent handles the cover, the formatting, and the uploading and derives a 15 percent commission (the same commission the agent would make selling a book to a U.S. publisher). Joe calls them "estributors" but they are not distributing the book to readers, they are distributing them to distributors, which puts them more in a wholesale role, except of course they aren't selling anything.
I respect their experience (Barry is married to an agent, and he'd probably BE a good agent if he so chose), and Joe is probably the most educated self-pubber on the planet, but I just don't see why agents should be considered ideal candidates for this task. What is an agent's current job and experience? To assess a manuscript and find a market.
In self-publishing, they do neither. Their assessment skills have zero value in self-publishing. Right now they assess with one measure: can I sell this to one of the few dozen editors in New York? Self-publishing requires no assessment, unless the agent says, "Whoa, this is crap, you can't publish this!" And who is going to lose their 15 percent to be that blunt? The agent's second role and experience is also rendered useless. The market is already there, and it's the millions of readers owning electronic devices or ordering print-on-demand books.
Presumably they aren't editing the manuscript (which is a different skill that an agent may or may not be qualified for), but it's certainly not a task the facilitator is handling. Let's assume the facilitator knows cover artists. You still have to describe the book, send suggestions, approve the cover file, and basically DO EVERYTHING you would have done on your own except make the first contact (find your own designer) and the last (upload the final file). And you're paying for it, I assume, unless the facilitator is footing some risk and cost.
Okay, the agent can format your file, or have that service arranged. Ted Risk at Dellaster Design will do a very clean epub and mobi for $89. A one-time fee with a fast turnaround time. The "facilitated" author still has to email the MS Word file to the agent/self-pub facilitator, who then sends it to a formatter or has one in-house. The author has merely saved two steps: (1) receiving the formatted file back from the formatting service and (2) uploading it to the markets.
Even if the agent/self-pub facilitator is writing the product description, that won't be written in a vacuum. The author will still have to outline it, proof it, and suggest keywords, because even IF the agent reads the book, the agent will never understand it as well as the author (this is actually true of the cover design, too). Time saved: not much. It actually sounds like more work to me.
Employing someone in this role means giving up 15 percent for the entire life of copyright, for a book remaining on sale forever, for a job not only saving the author hardly any time at all, but possibly even CREATING MORE WORK FOR THE AUTHOR!
Yes, now you have an employee/partner to manage, and account for, and play email and phone tag with, and the money that could flow straight to your bank account every month will now be held by someone else who MAY, if you're lucky, dispense it quarterly, removing their share first. In my experience in the publishing world, the biggest risk in the entire venture is letting ANYONE handle your money when you don't have to. Too many things can go wrong. I am not saying fraud is likely, but imagine how hard it would be to audit Amazon if you thought your sales figures weren't adding up. And then imagine how hard it would be to audit an Agent/ Self-Pub Facilitator when sales figures don't add up from multiple revenue streams.
No, I am not suggesting all agents are shady and that 15 percent may magically expand to 50 percent under the table. But what would you do if it did? How are you going to audit six or 10 different distributor payments every month or three? Personally, I'd rather have my money shoot straight into my bank account. And in three years, when all the agent does is trim 15 percent before sending the rest on its way, and is not adding any new value at all, an author may just get a little bit resentful, even if everyone kept their word.
(Okay, I forgot the third role and experience of an agent: handling your money. Don't forget, agents are have no certification, degree, membership association, regulatory oversight, or even uniform code of ethics. Most are self-selecting English grads who moved to New York and hung out a shingle. There aren't a lot of accountants and MBAs on the agency rosters. But you're willing to give them your money just because they once were necessary evils?)
Okay, that being said, IF I thought such a service was valuable (and I clearly don't because my overhead on Liquid Fear was exactly $6 and a few hours of time, and it's earned me more than any book I've ever written, including ones that had dozens of fingerprints on them, and I get paid regularly, and heck, sounds like I'd be a better estributor than almost every agent on the planet, except I don't want to handle your money), I would prefer to have an experienced and downsized New York editor handle the task.
While an agent has never picked out a book cover, editors have. While an agent has never handled promotion, editors have. While an agent has never assessed a manuscript's value in the true marketplace of readers, editors have. While an agent has rarely handled layout or formatting, most editors are at least aware of the process, if not having hands-on experience. Agents handle the very front end of a book, an abstract idea with no intrinsic value. Editors are solidly on both edges of the middle of book production.
But the real question is, why would you assume anyone with experience in traditional publishing knows ANYTHING about what is happening right now? Indeed, it's the outliers who seem to be the most successful, not those who are most closely imitating the old model. I am not relishing the fact that a once-respected profession may soon be on the ropes, but I don't need my blood on the canvas to keep agents in the ring.
There's a great Harlan Ellison line in his story Mephisto in Onyx: "Don't confuse a thousand years of experience with the same year of experience a thousand times." If you want to be the monkey, you'll climb higher if you don't have a gang of carnivorous dinosaurs sinking their teeth into your back.
(Update: I talked with Joe a few days ago and under his deal, the agent pays for cover and formatting, so those costs are included in the 15 percent. Makes the deal SLIGHTLY better, but I still believe it doesn't save any work at all and adds risk and complication. Joe also foresees marketing clout one day but I have to ask, where is the agent suddenly going to learn book marketing in the digital era? Picking up a primer on social media? Writers already know more than agents. We've been forced to do so.)
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