This one time at Writer's Camp…
First: I don’t have a dog in this fight, just an opinion and a genuine fear. If you’re an agent, please feel free to browse my wares. I do have some stuff that is looking for a home.
Second: This is something that has worried me about agents since ebooks took off.
I mentioned back in May (twice, actually — here and here) about how I felt authors were being subtly (and not-so-subtly) subverted as various agenting houses began to turn into epublishing venues. I was worried about the potential conflict of interest and how you would never be certain whether or not the agent will be shopping for the best deal for your book because the agent was now the “publisher” as well. I voiced my concerns but, since I’m a relative nobody in the game still, nobody really heeded what I said. A few people commented and that was it. Issue dropped (for the moment).
Sarah Hoyt politely explained why she ended her relationship (read more here) with her agenting house the other day (agent’s response, here) and it caused a messy Hollywood divorce (Sarah’s next post, here). Really. It has, oddly enough, become the feces-hit-the-rotary-impeller-and-spackled-the-wall sort of divorce. In fairness, I’m biased because I consider Sarah Hoyt to be a friend and a good example of how perseverance pays off in this industry and I consider her to be one of the four mentors I’ve had since I became an author (two of them would be flabbergasted that I consider them mentors). She’s also one of my favorite authors.
Now, when someone goes off on someone else, the recipient of the… explosion usually has two human emotions. Either they become terrified and STFU, or they get really, really pissed. Sarah, to me, has become more and more professional while she’s wrapping up her latest book (Darkship Renegade, for those of you wondering). I’m guessing that she’s furious because she’s become very, very polite. A woman who becomes very polite like that scares the ever living hell out of me, that’s for certain.
But that got me to thinking… why would an agency fly off the handle like this? Is it the fear that their name is being tarnished? The worry that people might complain about their latest business model (which could mean, theoretically, that they would be the ones sending out your book… to themselves) and stop submitting novels to them?
If it were the first one and I was the agency in question, I’d be a little annoyed and send a letter off to the author in question clarifying myself. I’d make sure I’d be as polite and reasonable as possible because hey, it’s the internet. Nothing’s safe here. I wouldn’t threaten a lawsuit, especially if it were a misunderstanding. Once the air were clear (as it were), we could both go about our professional careers and not worry about it. End of story.
I’m not going to explain the second route (which includes a lawsuit) because that is a dark and winding road that I do not wish to travel.
Look, I’ll reiterate my point from May. A literary agency exists to get the best deal for their clients, acting as an intermediary between the author and the publishing house. It’s a code of honor between the agent and their client about whether the agent got the best deal or not. You have to trust the agent to be shopping around your novel or series and making money for both of you (agents get paid on a percentage of the sale, which motivates them to get you the best deal). When the agent becomes the publisher, suddenly that motivation to shop the novel becomes moot. The motivation becomes to print the book, make money for the company, and, oh yeah, pay the author eventually (once publishing fees like proofing, cover art, and so on are handled…). There’s no way that an agent who is also a publisher can, in good conscience, say they are 100% trying to find your novel the best deal.
I also mentioned back when (last year maybe, I forget) about the agent/author individual. I worried that the agent wasn’t going to be able to focus on selling your book because they are too busy finishing and trying to sell theirs. This fear led to some harsh emails from others (no, not saying who because I’m not that big of an ass) and my conviction that I was going to stay away from an agent who was also an author. The same rule applies now to an agent/publisher: I’ll be avoiding them until I see evidence that contradicts my worries.
Is this dangerous for me? In the short term, yeah. Agents will look at me and think “Give us a bad name, will you?” and delete my novel from file. In the long term, though, this is a wise precaution for me to take. With the way ebooks are going right now, the industry is changing very rapidly, and I believe that we’ll have a better grasp of the balance between agent and publisher in the next few years.
Of course, I do invite you to read all the posts Sarah has made regarding the subject and draw your own conclusion. This is just my two cents worth, which ain’t much (curse you inflation).