When agents become publishers – consequences

There has been some serious blowback about the controversy of agents who decide to add publishing to their repertoire. The biggest problem is conflict of interest, which I blogged about here. Victoria Strauss wrote a very concise post on this subject as well. Then came the incredible blog post on According to Hoyt, where author, Sarah Hoyt, talks about the kerfluffle between her and The Knight Agency – more directly, her agent Lucienne Diver.

This particular blog post is alarming because TKA insists they are not a publisher, in spite of the fact that they’re buying the ISBN, assuming all costs for editing, cover design, controlling the pricing, and putting it out on all the online databases. Rather, they insist they are an “assisted self-publishing initiative.”


Assisted is akin to what book doctors or packagers do, for a fee, which is prepare a book to either send out to query or to self publish. TKA is going the extra mile and publishing the book. This is especially egregious because they aren’t submitting their client/authors’ books elsewhere. They are submitting it directly to the buying public.

This is pretty damning stuff for an agency who has enjoyed a lovely reputation in the industry. But moreover, what would I do if they pitched one of their authors to me?

Consequence #1 – submitting to editors

Chances are I’d avoid any agent who has a publishing arm because of the conflict of interest to their authors. Their heads are now in two competing business models, so I worry they’re not adequately representing their authors. If their focus is split, then a consequence could mean a breakdown in communication, which is the lifeblood of the agent/author/editor relationship.

Now why should I care about the agent/author relationship? Let’s say a problem arises between the editor and the author. This is where a good agent is worth their weight in gold because they become the go-between in order to preserve the relationship. If the agent is busy playing publisher, then where does that leave time for author/editor advocacy?

I am a publisher, and I know what kind of time is involved in producing a book. There is no way I could assume agenting responsibilities because there aren’t enough hours in a day or legal drugs on the market that would seduce me into working myself into a straightjacket.

I can do one job well – publishing. Are agencies trying to tell me they can do their job and my job?

Consequence #2 – Suspicion

Agencies who add publishing to their business model unwittingly create an air of suspicion because authors have to wonder whether they’ll have their agent’s full attention. Additionally, authors may wonder how aggressively their agents will pitch their books to outside editors if they stand to make more money keeping the book in-house.

It’s possible that none of these concerns are realistic – but reading about what The Knight Agency is doing, and how they treated one of their authors, I would rather err on the side of safety than become a victim to bully tactics. And yes, I think TKA has created a very large air of suspicion by claiming they aren’t publishers when, clearly, they are.

There are things that don’t mix; oil and water, the beagle and sobriety, and agenting and publishing under one roof. Both jobs are full time, and you can’t possibly do justice to both.

How do you feel about agents who foray into the publishing industry? Do you believe The Knight Agency is “assisting” or publishing?

15 Responses to When agents become publishers – consequences

  1. Kelley says:

    FYI. Other great blog posts about the conflict of interest are Courtney Milan’s http://tinyurl.com/3jd7bhv

    and the Passive Guy’s. http://tinyurl.com/3lq25hr

    Coupled with the news that there are also “legitimate” agents asking for min upfront commission fees, I think another consequence is the fact that these agents are basically saying they don’t have faith any longer in publishers succeeding or being able to sell to them in a profitable way.

    Biggest problem, though, is I see this snowballing. Meaning others are going to be jumping onboard and quickly.

  2. Thanks for the links, Kelley. This is the biggest problem I see – legit agents turning to this option and turning into the very things they used to disparage.

    What suddenly makes vanity right? The fact that they are doing it, and authors should trust them because they’re “legit”? I’m sorry, but you remain as legit as your last deal. When you cross the line and become something else, then you can’t bully your clients into saying otherwise.

  3. Alex says:

    Oh. Dear.

  4. Dan Holloway says:

    As am author I think my suspicions would be raised before the submission stage – my crystal ball gazing skills could predict the response – “we are sorry that our list is full and we are not able to take on new clients to margaritas-anonymous agency, but we really loved your script and would be delighted to recommend you to maojito-madness publishers”

    And forgive me if things are different in the US from the UK, but here in the UK the technical definition of publisher is whoever bought the ISBN. They use their ISBNs, they’re the publisher, whatever they tell you, no?

  5. Wayne E. says:

    First, given how long it takes many agents to respond to query letters, I can’t see how they now have time to be publishers. Second, how can the author expect to get a good deal if his agent is also a publisher?

  6. It’s the same here, Dan. He who buyeth the ISBN is-eth the publisher – no matter what they telleth you.

    Wayne, that’s one of the points I was trying to bring home. I know how involved my job is, and the idea that an agent can now do her job AND my job sends me into fits of incredulity.

  7. thelitcoach says:

    As a former literary agent, I feel for the agents who to this point have conducted their business relationship with their authors ethically yet feel the pull to divide their interests in order to keep their lights on. The Association of Authors’ Representatives Canon of Ethics, while recently including language that clarifies issues of packaging and other fees, still frowns upon agents receiving monies from conducting services that would directly benefit the agent financially.

    I left agenting several years ago to become an editorial and publishing consultant because I wanted to work one-on-one with authors to develop their work for publication, but I didn’t want to sell it or be in conflict with AAR’s Canon of Ethics. Full time editing and coaching takes an enormous amount of time and energy. As I see more and more agents add a consultancy and/or editorial services practice to their agency, I wonder how they’re able to service all their authors with their full attention as you suggest in your post (I know I couldn’t). Sure, there are great agents who have their clients’ best interest at heart while trying to stay afloat in today’s quickly shifting publishing industry…but there are also a lot of great agents who are doing business as usual because there are publishers still buying great manuscripts.

    Just because some aspects of the publishing industry have changed doesn’t mean ethical standards should be tossed out the window.

    Thanks for shedding light on a subject that more writers need to be aware of.

  8. Thanks for stopping by and giving a clear accounting of how it is on the agent side.

  9. Steve says:

    Time issue?

    Time issue?

    They’re contracting these services, the agents. Esp the self-assisting ones. And remember, what they’re offering is hazy at best. No one has said exactly what they’re offering, esp if it includes marketing.

    How much time does it take to hire out this work? Once these contacts are in place? E-pubbing is very different, when it comes to a time commitment. Most of the time suck is in marketing.

    After all, that’s been part of the uproar-why pay 15% for life for something a writer can do for themselves, relatively quickly and easily?

  10. Steve says:

    I should add, we’re also assuming quality here. That a quality product is going to be put out, versus quantity churned out. Not all will.

  11. Steve, their whole reason for doing this is to keep their agencies afloat. That means they can’t afford to contract it out – at least the editing part. Cover design will have to be contracted out.

    While it’s true that marketing is a time-suck, I can attest that editing is extremely labor intense.

    I doubt they’ll be doing much in the way of marketing other than to make the ebook available to all the online databases because it is time consuming and expensive – and they simply can’t afford it.

  12. Steve says:

    Word is most of the agencies are making the writers pay those uncovered contracting costs upfront. They’re just “assisting” in finding those contacts. And still taking their 15% after the fact. But again, it’s all hazy.

  13. […] Behler Blog has a good post on the consequences of Agents stepping into the publishing arena over here. […]

  14. Lev Raphael says:

    The word “assisted” in this context makes me think of “assisted suicide.”

    Just sayin’………

  15. NinjaFingers says:

    Hrm. I think I may have to take somebody off the submission list. Shame.

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