Saturday, July 2, 2011

Self-Publishing Agents: Unnecessary Evils

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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Luna Corbden said...

This is interesting. I think there may be a role for something like an agent in the future, even for indie authors. They just won't be traditional. Some of their existing tasks will drop, and new tasks will be added. I'm a little envious listening to established authors describing their agents.

If I decided to get an agent and still self-publish, here is what I'd want:

* Career guidance - They keep a general eye on the markets, and offer advice on things like trends in genres, which books to push and which to let go for a while, movements in pricing, trends in marketing, etc.

* Help with marketing, or at least marketing advice - For example, she could submit things to review blogs, or even just tell me which review blogs are more worth the time. An agent may even have connections that could accelerate some marketing efforts or lend me credibility.

* Editing. That's right. I've read that many agents are doing editing now instead of editors anyway. If they don't do it themselves, they could farm it out.

* As you mentioned, lining up cover artists, designers, formatters, copywriters for the blurbs, etc.

* Handling the business and legal side. Someone to fill the role of "Talk to my agent".

* Eventually some of us indies are going to reach the level of Neil Gaiman, and have speaking engagements all over the world. You're going to need an agent for that. Likewise for film deals, etc.

* Support - Agents fill the role of emotional support and encouragement. Given the drastic ups and downs of this job, this is helpful for some of us. Where are you going to find an on-demand therapist or life coach (besides in a spouse)? But some agents fill this role for authors.

Basically, I envy the established, published writers who can spend more time writing and less time handling all the ity-bity details of the business-side because they have an editor and agent. A 15% investment seems like a no-brainer to pay someone to clean up all the distractions while I focus on doing what I love most. It would mean I could write more, which would quickly pay for itself. It doesn't really matter if that person is called an "agent" or an "editor" and is an ex-either-one or a newbie -- this role is going to exist, and we'll be willing to pay.

Author Scott Nicholson said...

Thanks, Luna. Unfortunately, even if an agent could handle those tasks, I think what you describe is a different job altogether. Most agents do not have experience in ANY of that.

What do they know about the "markets" when the market is 20 million people with Kindles and iPads? Nobody knows anything about that market yet. Usually a star like Gaiman would have a separate business manager for personal appearances. And, frankly, an agent's career guidance is uselless at this point becuase agents know no more than you do about what's happening. In fact, I'd bet most of them know less, because they don't have the experience.

I well understand "agent envy." I used to wonder why other writers that seemed no more talented or hardworking that I was seemed to get agents. Then I got an agent. Several. And they are just human beings.

Sadly, I think many indies with sign these exploitative deals with "facilitators" just so they can finally feel accepted. "I have an agent!" And I think that's part of the impetus behind people trying to thrust them into new roles where they don't belong. It could easily be in five years that having an agent is a mark of shame on the level that self-publishing once was. Good luck no matter which route you take, Luna.

Livia Blackburne said...

Good thoughts, Scott. It's definitely important for writers to think carefully about what services they want to pay for. For me, I'm thinking that whether someone is labeled as agent, editor, or entrepenur will be less relevant in the future -- what will be important is their track record and experience.

Author Scott Nicholson said...

"Show me the money" turns to "Show me the results." I like it, Livia. Thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Scott, a most welcome and timely post.

I sense a very real militant upsurge among indie authors as they gain confidence to break with all the trappings of the old model.

At this stage in the transition both e-pub and p-pub are options. There is still a paper market and no question the old model experts are still best placed to handle that.

We're currently in discussion with a major NY agency but have had to make clear that we'd appreciate their partnership to reach the paper market. We neither want nor need them to reach the e-market, and certainly have no intention of letting them take money for doing what we are managing to do fine without them.

Our experience with agents so far is that, with the best will in the world, they know sweet f.a. about e-publishing and are too blinkered by their old world view to ever grasp it fully.

Your comments on Konrath are welcome too.

It seems far too many "new" writers are looking to Konrath as some sort of guru with all the answers, but Konrath has a foot in both camps, and is in a position to take the best from both.

Konrath's choices may well be ideally suited to his circumstances as an established author with a backlist and both paper and ebooks bringing in money.

But much of what he says does not apply to the new writer at the bottom of the ladder. They would do well to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Many writers, understandably, would welcome an "estributor" to handle the non-writing side of the new e-pub world. Not all are business minded, and some may well be happy to pay 15% to lighten the load. The author can now do it all, but not all would want to.

But as you say, agents have no special claim to expertise outside their old world model, and their blinkered views may well actually be counter-productive.

Author Scott Nicholson said...

Mark, I wish you luck but I can pretty much guarantee you no mid- to-large publisher on earth is going to accept a paper-only deal (which is actually dumb, because it's the thing they are maximized to perform). The only deal that makes sense in traditional publishing right now is a zero-advance, paper-only deal, but no one will take that and I don't know any agent with enough brass to push for it. (I can see a superstar signing such a deal if that was the only way a publisher could keep them from going full indie).

I love Joe to death but I only agree with half of what he says. But what he is really saying is "Take chances and find what works for you" but too many writers hear it as "Joe said 'Do this.'" Just like the ten thousand authors diligently copying John Locke's approach, they are missing the point that it was the pioneer and outlier that succeeded, not the method.

Any writer that wants to give up 15 percent for someone to handle all the unpleasant tasks of running a business will find out they will probably not only fail at their business, but they don't UNDERSTAND their business at all. And I don't mind, because there's already far too much competition. "Survival of the fittest" doesn't just apply to publishing methods, it applies to business and art approaches.

Ninety-nine out of 100 authors who try to hand off their indie businesses will fail. Period. And this stuff STILL has to be marketed. Find me a great market and maybe I will consider a 15 percent payout.

JAScribbles said...

15% to handle the cover, formatting and upload?? Really? I assume this means they will handle the cover file and not actually create it for an author or work with the designer.

I'll pass on this deal.

It's frustrating to see new authors fall for these things. It's interesting to see established author promoting such tactics.

There are many technical aspects to self-publishing that are time consuming and frustrating: websites, creating banner ads, widgets, twitter, blogs, etc. I think there may be a market for virtual assistants to capitalize on these to-do items. Not agents.

~ Jenna

Unknown said...

I prefer to do everything possible myself. Anything I don't do myself, you're right, I end up spending more time transmitting information than if I just had the skills.

For me, the proof is in cover design. I find the art pre-made, but then communicate what cover I want made from it to a designer. It takes way more time with the back-and-forth than if I just knew photoshop myself.

And everything else, including formatting (with 100% pure html) only takes a day.

If a person had a huge backlist to put up, maybe. That's not my problem. But if it were, I'd try to find someplace that charged a flat fee.

Author Scott Nicholson said...

thanks for dropping by, Jenna and Alan. I do think there are support roles in this new era, and for some, paying for the services is smarter than investing the time in a learning curve. My main problem is if you have someone do a day's work, or even a week's work, and they are taking money from you and your descendants for 100 years.

Anonymous said...

I think you and I are on the same page, but we've analyzed the situation a bit differently.

Basically, what it boils down to is looking at it in terms of what agents actually do. Which is what I did in my most recent post on my blog.

Author Scott Nicholson said...

Good blog, Debbi. As I said at your blog, I think the word "agent" would need to go in this situation.

What's funny is agents have ALWAYS supposed to be service employees acting on behalf of their clients (the writers who are their bosses), but you'd never know it from the way they're always dishing smirking tweets about query-letter faux pas and having aspiring writers kiss their rings at writer conferences.

That's one welcome casualty of this new era.

Sheila Cull said...

Really, really great writing, reading, love the piece.

"Their blinkered views."

Author Scott Nicholson said...

Thanks for dropping by, Sheila. Agents were a casualty of their era. They had a great run for a decade, because they were the power brokers truly running the industry. I wish them luck, because it is a tough economy. (Ask any writer!)