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. This literary agent 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!