Fitting Literary Agents Into the Digital Publishing Equation


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The steady increase in ebook sales over the last few years has had a significant impact on the book industry, as publishers have had to rethink long-standing business models. The rise in ebooks' popularity has opened new doors for authors, especially undiscovered authors, who can now turn their manuscripts into ebooks and sell them on ecommerce sites such as Amazon with just a few clicks of the mouse. While much attention has been paid to the changing roles of publishers and authors, little has been said about the roles of literary agents as they also attempt to navigate this evolving landscape.

When Amanda Hocking made international headlines earlier this year, it became clear that self-publishing was becoming a force to be reckoned with.  An aspiring author who had been rejected by many publishing houses, she decided to self-publish her books digitally-and sold more than 1 million copies, a feat that finally gained the attention of those traditional publishing houses. A bidding war ensued for the rights to publish Hocking's books, which resulted in a four-book deal between the author and St. Martin's Press.

Traditionally, it's been the role of the agents to advocate for their clients with publishers-negotiating contracts, helping in cover decisions, and things of that nature-for a percentage of the author's earnings. In the world of self-publishing, though, it's harder for agents to find their place at the table, but that has not stopped them from trying.

In June, one literary agency, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management (DGLM), announced via its blog at www.dystel.com that it would begin offering epublishing services to its clients.  According to its June 27 blog post, DGLM will "facilitate e-publishing for those of our clients who decide that they want to go this route, after consultation and strategizing about whether they should try traditional publishing first. ... We will charge a 15% commission for our services in helping them project manage everything from choosing a cover artist to working with a copyeditor to uploading their work. We will continue to negotiate all agreements that may ensue as a result of e-publishing, try to place subsidiary rights where applicable, collect monies and review statements to make sure the author is being paid. In short, we will continue to be agents and do the myriad things that agents do."

In its announcement, DGLM emphasized that it would be offering its new services as a literary agent, not as a publisher. The announcement was met with mixed reviews in the blogosphere. Some who commented were in support of DGLM's expansion of services into epublishing, viewing the agency as "embracing change," while others disagreed with the idea of charging a commission to assist authors with digital self-publishing services. After all, part of the benefit of self-publishing is the ability to keep the profits for yourself.

While DGLM was firm in stating that its new epublishing services are in line with its role as a literary agent, other agencies clearly have crossed over into the role of publisher-a move that some view as a conflict of interest since an agent traditionally works with a publisher in the best interest of the author. One such literary agency, London-based Ed Victor Ltd., recently entered the digital publishing arena by launching its own epublishing arm, Bedford Square Books.
Starting in September, Bedford Square Books will begin to publish, both digitally and by print on demand (POD), out-of-print backlist titles by existing Ed Victor Ltd. clients.

It also has partnered with New York City-based digital publisher Open Road Integrated Media to market and release these titles as ebooks and POD volumes in North America.

"We expanded into e-publishing purely as a service to our authors," says Charlie Campbell, an Ed Victor agent, who clarifies that the agency is not charging authors a commission on books it publishes through Bedford Square Books. "Of course, there is the possibility of a conflict of interest, but we are doing all we can to avoid such a thing. We would always prefer to be the agent than the publisher, and so, if a suitable offer was made [to an author] by a publisher, we would accept that and revert to being the agent on the deal."

Campbell says that the contract between Bedford Square Books and its authors will allow for "a very swift reversion of rights to the author, at any time, at their request."

While Bedford Square Books currently only plans to publish out-of-print titles by existing clients, it is not ruling out the possibility of publishing new material. "We have no immediate plans to do so," says Campbell. "As for our long-term plans ... like everyone in this fast-changing digital environment, it is hard to predict anything concrete, except that we will continue to act in the best interests of authors.

"Our primary role is to act in our authors' interests and keep them happy-which, so far, has been their reaction to this project," he continues.For digital publisher First One Publishing, which was launched earlier this year, literary agents have not figured prominently into its ebook acquisitions. "We have gotten a couple of projects from agents, but there are so many self-published and new authors out there who cannot get an agent that we have been very fortunate to not have to worry about [acquiring] content and quality books," says Karen Hunter, who is president of First One PubliFirst Oneshing as well as an author and publisher of the Simon & Schuster imprint Karen Hunter Publishing.

In fact, Hunter says that she would not recommend that an author seeking to publish an ebook try to obtain a literary agent. "But remember, I'm an author as well and started in this business as an author. Of the 20-plus books I've [written], I've only used an agent three times," she says.

"I love what the e-book marketplace has done for authors like Amanda Hocking, who was able to test the market on her own by self-publishing, build an audience, and then was offered a lucrative publishing deal," Hunter continues. "In that [situation], an agent comes in handy because they are well-versed in negotiating major deals with publishers." Once Hocking started to be courted by major publishers, she acquired literary agent Steve Axelrod, who represented her in her deal with St. Martin's Press.

While agents have not played a large role in the business of First One, Hunter believes their role in traditional book deals will remain relatively unchanged. "Their traditional role, seeking and pushing authors who have a shot at succeeding in the marketplace, hasn't changed, and I don't see it changing much," she says. However, that doesn't mean that literary agents can ignore the digital publishing marketplace and the impact that ebooks have had on the industry, she continues. "They have no choice but to focus on it," she says, "and change the way they've done their business or be left behind."