Opinions abound about whether literary agents should help their authors to self-publish, as a big New York agency, Trident, comes out with the news that it is starting to do just that.
In all the flinging-up of hands in horror with allegations of greed and conflicts of interest, all the nuances are lost. For example, Dean Wesley Smith says on his blog, that the dictionary definition of a publisher is one who issues copies of a book to the public, but I think the definition is so much more than that.
I think one crucial question is: who owns the rights? When an author signs a deal with an ordinary publisher, they hand over to them the right to publish their book. However when an author self-publishes their book, they don’t give any rights to anyone – they own all the publishing rights and are making use of them. If an agent buys rights in an author’s book, then perhaps yes, they are publishing it, but if the agent does not acquire any rights, leaving the author in the driving seat, then they are not publishing it, but rather they may be helping the author to self-publish it.
Another question is: who is paying for it? Some agents pay for the production of the ebook edition themselves, and take all the risk, as a publisher does, and perhaps the “royalty” they pay the author reflects that. In other agencies the author pays for everything, paying the agent to do the work on his behalf.
And how is the agent paid – in profits, or on commission? This is another defining feature. If the agent has paid for the production and any other work such as marketing, then they will need to get that money back through sales. They would probably need to suggest a 50:50 split of the income in order to cover their outlay.
If on the other hand, the author has paid the production costs, then commission on the sales made as a result of the agent’s work is more appropriate, and would be much lower than 50%.
Dean Wesley Smith says an agent stands to make “a ton more money” on a book by charging “publishing fees” plus commission than they would if they sold the rights in the usual way, and only received commission, and he says this leads to a conflict of interest. The only thing is, an agent will always make more money selling the rights to a mainstream publisher, because of the huge difference in the number of copies the book will sell and the advance it will get. For an agented author, the self-published route is a last resort for when the commercial publishers have given up.
And anyway, in my experience, those “publishing fees” tend to get spent on production – that’s what they’re for – and it is extremely unlikely that any agent or author would make a ton of money out of a book published in this way. If they thought the book was capable of that, they would sell the rights to a proper publisher.