Perceptive column by Dean Wesley Smith on how writers are allowing themselves to be exploited by agents.... (Thanks to Russ Crossley for bringing column to my attention.)
I have to admit, my reaction to agents turning "publisher" was very similar, though Smith writes with a good deal more verve than I could have managed. As the publishing field is revolutionized by emerging technologies, various parties will try to reconfigure the playing field to their advantage. These new 'agent' publishers are a good example of the capitalist entrepreneur trying to insert himself between the producer and consumer to skim off the profit. Given new publishing modalities, there is no need for anyone to intrude between producer and consumer in this market -- an established writer should have no difficulty selling directly off their own website, though I can see a place for distributors such as Amazon. But agents taking 50% of the 'net'? After paying out set up expenses? Smith is correct to rain down derision on such a suggestion.
As mentioned here previously, 'net' is a flexible figure, and there is a long history of Hollywood ripping off creators through creative accounting such that their work never turns a 'profit', even when it earns enormous amounts. That hasn't been a significant issue with publishers up to now, but the agent-publisher contract that Smith reviews is very clearly an example. And the agent-publisher is completely upfront that all the set up costs for the book (cover art, book design editing and so on) are to be recovered off the top -- so the question has to be, exactly what is the agent bringing to the table for his "50%" share of royalties, when the author is bearing all the costs of publishing the book in the first place?
There are two possibilities: First, the agent is acting as the contractor, bringing all the necessary subcontractors --editors, artists, designers, distributors etc.-- to bear on the project. Smith recognizes this role and correctly sneers at the need to pay such a person 50% of your lifetime profits. There are plenty of actual service agencies that will provide these services for a flat fee. Or, the author could simply take on the contractor role his or herself, and hire their own artists and designers and editors, thus be assured that the cover (for example) will meet their own requirements, standards, and personal tastes. Who needs an agent for this?
Second, and a role Smith fails to acknowledge, the agent does bring a level of branding to the product. Presumably, sufficiently famous agents provide a layer of refereeing that could increase consumer confidence. Okay, I can see that. But is that worth 50% of the book's income forever? Not convinced!
For me, the question is simple: What are you getting and what are you paying for it? I am not about to hand over the rights to my book to an agent to publish using my own money. Traditional publishers earn the right to my rights by offering to cover all the costs of publication upfront, and by providing a variety of services (editing, cover art, promotion, distribution) and (usually) by paying an advance on royalties. Their willingness to take a risk on my book, investing a fair bit of capital up front, earns them the right to reap a return on their investment. And their willingness to invest in the book provides the consumer with the assurance that somebody beyond the authors themselves thought the book worthwhile and likely to be of interest to readers. That model has worked well for a long time...Publishers who backed the wrong books went out of business; those who made good calls prospered, along with their stable of authors. I'd still be happy to sell to a major publisher and know I was going to get mass distribution, upping my odds of getting mass sales. Failing that, selling to a small press like Five Rivers or CZP makes sense to me, as they bring a whole range of services to bear, and take on all the financial risk, and provide some branding beyond my own name. But I'll self-publish before I hand over my book to one of these emergent agent-publishers.