Agents Self-Publishing and The Mysterious White Glove

5 Nov

This morning I answered an e-mail from an author whose agent has suggested self-publishing a novel that hasn’t found a traditional publishing home, and I thought I might as well share an extended version of what I told her.

The long and short of it is I don’t think you should self-publish with your agent.

The Agent’s Role

An agent’s job, boiled down to its most basic level, is to broker deals with publishers for the rights to publish your work. You write a book, the agent takes it to publishers and hopefully, finds one who is willing to publish it. They negotiate a deal, ideally starting with an advance on future royalties, and in exchange for this they typically receive 15% of everything you earn in relation to it.

My biggest concern about self-publishing in partnership with your agent is that it muddies the waters of what the agent is supposed to do for you. Let’s say the author who e-mailed me this morning goes ahead with self-publishing with her agent, and the $2.99 e-book sells 50,000 copies at a 70% royalty rate on Amazon’s Kindle store. That’s a financial return of around $104,000 before tax, or around $15,500 for the agent.

But despite this self-publishing success, the author still wants to see her book on the shelves and writes another novel in the hope of it getting published. If the best it can do is a $5,000 advance, how hard would the agent be pushing for the author to take it, when it’s in neither of their financial interests to do so? (Keeping in mind, for those of you who are wondering why the author would bother still traditional publishing at all, that money isn’t the most important thing to everyone.) Your agent might be the nicest, most honest, level-headed and clever individual in all of publishing, but surely, even if it’s just subconsciously, the lure of self-publishing success would undoubtedly affect their handling of future books.

The Point of Self-Publishing

If you are going to self-publish your book, then you should self-publish your book. When you sell a copy of your self-published book, you should be receiving all of the royalties for it. If you’re sharing them with anyone else, you’ve done it wrong.

A self-publisher has to spend money in order to self-publish, yes— they need an editor and a cover designer, at the very least. But those services are paid for outright; the editor and the designer are not entitled to any slice of future royalties. If you and your agent decide to self-publish and agree that the agent is entitled to 15% of the profits, then obviously you are sharing them. And why? What did the agent bring to the table? Just because someone is highly skilled in negotiating deals for books does not mean they know anything about self-publishing. And you can find out everything you need to know for free, online.

There is a grey area here, however. What happens if you and your agent have been working on the book for the last few months, editing and polishing and rewriting, together? In that case you may feel that the agent is entitled to a cut, but instead I’d consider what happens in a straightforward self-publishing operation: editing services are paid for outright. Perhaps you could agree to put a price on the agent’s editorial efforts, or commit to a royalty share for a specified period of time or number of books. But I am strongly against agreeing to share the profits of a self-published book on an open-ended basis.

The Ideal Arrangement

Just like we all dream of a publishing deal that comes with a six-figure advance, TV book club inclusions and Tube station ad campaigns, the ideal author-agent relationship is a partnership where both parties are totally committed to the author having a long and successful career as a professional writer. And sometimes, self-publishing a book might be a legitimate stop on the road to author stardom—it can build a platform, give an author a proven sales record and create an army of fans waiting breathlessly for the author’s next work. I’m seeing that very thing happen with a number of agented but (as yet) unpublished authors I know right now.

And so your agent might suggest self-publishing and they might be absolutely right. But it’s benefitting from the proceeds where this sunny day becomes overcast. Self-publishing is self-publishing; if you’re going to do it, you need to do it yourself. And the way to check that you are indeed doing it yourself is to look at your royalty cheque and ask, Do I get to keep all of this? If the answer is no, you’re doing something wrong, in my opinion.

The Mystery of Amazon White Glove

A few times now I’ve heard agents talk about Amazon’s White Glove program. I presume this is a hybrid of Amazon Vendor (which is how traditional publishing companies get their books on Amazon) and Amazon KDP, a sort of special KDP for agents who are self-publishing—or rather, “self-publishing”—their clients’ work.

I have to presume because there isn’t a speck of information about it online. If you google it, you only find other authors wondering what it is. Some even doubt its existence, but it does exist. We just know nothing about it. If you can shed some light, we’d love it if you did so in the comments below.

What do you think? Is self-publishing with your agent a legitimate option? Or do you agree with me that the clue is in the term “self-publishing”?

34 Responses to “Agents Self-Publishing and The Mysterious White Glove”

  1. Stephen Warburton November 5, 2012 at 13:48 #

    Self-publishing has given me the interested of writing my first book; I cannot image going to anybody to help produce that work and lose a proportion of the royalty or joining forces to market. I can image an individual starting the “self-publishing” route, daunted by all the pit falls and sharp learning curves the easy route is to draw in some other element into the process easing the burden. Maybe, is it to heighten that you will sell at least one or two copies opposed to nothing and get the miseries for all that hard work? In my book it is then not “self-publishing” any longer as for me; it is doing and doing it all. Even finding and roping in friends to do what I cannot do, mainly the proofing. I can do my own graphics and promoting and at the end of the day; it is the achievement of just writing a book and can now claim to be an author, when finished that is. Good or bad book is immaterial even though good is better, selling one copy or 100,000 is not the point, again the latter is preferred. I am not doing this to share, why would I want to, if others can do it so can I, what more inspiration to stay solo does one need? Where better to come to get over all the unseen obstacles other than through someone who has done it. Thank you for your posts.

  2. Sally Clements November 5, 2012 at 15:39 #

    One hundred percent agree, Catherine. Now off to see what I can find out about the white glove…

  3. Laura Roberts (@originaloflaura) November 5, 2012 at 16:13 #

    Agreed. Any so-called agent trying to help you self-publish is actually a scammer. Agents help get your book traditionally published, period. Any agent who *can’t* get your book traditionally published should be fired, not hired as a co-publisher!

  4. T.K. Marnell November 5, 2012 at 16:15 #

    I agree 100%. Once agents become publishers, there’s an inherent conflict of interest. If you want to self-publish, self-publish. If you’re tempted to let your agent do it for you, then what you’re really looking for is a small independent press or a “vanity publisher.” Even if your agent is a saint, she’d have to have a head full of rocks not to notice that 15% of 70% royalties on digital platforms is a pretty chunk of change more than 15% of the 10% of net offered by the traditional publishers she’s supposed to be selling your books to (or the 0% if none of them bite).

    If an agent tries to convince you to publish with her, I think you should say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and sever those ties ASAP. Who’s to say that she will continue to fight to sell your book to HarperCollins like you asked, or if she’ll let the pitches slack, figuring that you’ll come around to letting her publish it when you’re desperate enough? She may be entitled to some compensation for all the time and work she put into it, in which case I would do as Catherine suggests here and negotiate a flat amount based on (a) what she expected to get from the initial sale or (b) the going rate for editorial services. But really, agents shouldn’t be editing and rewriting with you at all; I believe they should only take on projects they’re willing to represent as-is (or with very minimal revisions).

  5. win November 5, 2012 at 16:37 #

    Reblogged this on reflections of a writer.

  6. RR November 5, 2012 at 16:59 #

    I think if you were to go into a partnership with someone as a self publisher, it should be a publicist and NOT an agent. A good and hopefully connected publicist can help you get in front audiences to help you sell your books.

    • JF Brown November 6, 2012 at 03:51 #

      RR,

      Why should a self-pub writer “partner” with a publicist? Makes no more sense to me than partnering with an agent to self pub. A publicist is a hired hand, a contractor, who will provide agreed-upon services for an agreed-upon price. A precentage of any profits shouldn’t even be a subject for discussion, IMHO.

  7. Mary J. McCoy-Dressel November 5, 2012 at 18:08 #

    I totally agree with you, Catherine. But, I’ve head of other authors doing this. I don’t get it. Why have an agent if you’re doing all the work? Good advice.

    • catherineryanhoward November 5, 2012 at 20:11 #

      Well I think if you want to be traditionally published you have to have an agent. But that agent shouldn’t be involved in self-publishing your work.

  8. Amber Dane November 5, 2012 at 18:14 #

    I agree, if you do the work,that is where it stays

  9. jennymilch November 5, 2012 at 18:36 #

    I heartily agree, and am very glad you posted this. I think the agent muddies many different waters. At the very least, being on submission requires a great deal of the agent: time spent on rewrites, time spent on submitting and hopefully resubmitting if editors are interested, trying not 10, not 20, but 30 possibilities. And then there are the independent presses to explore. Or not.

    All of this investment, unpaid, gives an agent a big ole conflict of interest if s/he is aware that a sum of money is to be made for doing what the author could do on her own or with a la carte help. I think that most agented authors hoped for a traditional deal, and having an agent remain in the loop is tempting. “If my book does well, I’ll still have an agent” type of thing. Or it might feel more legitimate. But that means denying–failing to embrace–the fact that the indie road is legit on its own.

    If a book does well, a prior agent will be very glad to sign an author again–presuming the author wishes to be signed. And until that point, an agented author is filling a strange netherworld, between two worlds. Why not embrace self-publishing for all its very real pros over the traditional road that isn’t right at this time?

  10. PA Wilson November 5, 2012 at 21:11 #

    So would the author hire someone to write their autobiography?
    I would be hesitant to deal with an agent who also provided publishing services. How do you know they did their best to sell your project to a traditional publisher?
    The services a self publisher needs are different for each person, but they are pay for hire, not ongoing relationship systems.

    there are a whole crop of new tiny companies being created that look like a publisher, but they are more like a service relationship – they do the grind work to get your book up and sell services if you need them. You get an imprint and don’t have to bother with the formatting, they get a share of the income. I think that’s great if you need it and many of these companies make very little money – a writer who can’t upload their own book is likely to avoid any effort to market the book.

  11. Linda Katmarian November 5, 2012 at 21:29 #

    I agree. The key word in self-publishing is SELF. If the author is doing all the work, the author should get the profits. If an agent feels entitled to anything, it should be for services rendered–and then again, which services? Better not to even go there. Too murky and complex.

  12. Tammy J Rizzo November 6, 2012 at 00:58 #

    Reblogged this on Tammy J Rizzo and commented:
    And speaking of self-publishing ….

  13. Sir Allen, Knight (@AllanDouglasDgn) November 6, 2012 at 11:24 #

    Isn’t self-publishing through your agent like going out to a restaurant where you pay them for the privilege to cook your own food? I agree: the agent’s job is to find you a publisher.

  14. Julia Hidy November 6, 2012 at 15:39 #

    I agree with you, Catherine, as well as T.K. and Laura. You’ve given your friend the best advice. The agent is not a specialist in book marketing; the agent would rely on the publisher to market and promote the book. The agent will be too interested in cutting their next deal with a publisher to pay their rent to fully and ethically market and promote her book, especially if the sales of your friend’s book don’t take off right away — which is the most realistic scenario. It takes a few months to build an audience, and the agent may lose interest and your friend would be stuck in a deal with dire longer term financial consequences and ramifications.

    Your friend needs to trust herself enough and be passionate enough about her book to take on what she knows she is really meant to do. She’ll do her own publishing 100% better than someone else, and why give even 15% of that to someone who is really looking for another income stream.

    Let’s face it, as more and more authors self publish and pull good content AWAY from traditional publishers, more agents are now scrambling to find new sources of income. If the publisher won’t pay them, why not try getting income from the author. But for what?

    Truly, get 5 friends to help vet and review her cover – there are a small handful of good cover designers on fiverr.com of all places. Have three to five other friends help with editing and tag team it. There are now tons of books and video courses out there showing authors how to upload their content onto Kindle and Kobo, etc. It is easy peasy and not much more difficult than uploading a .pdf but with a few more steps. To kindle, the file simply has to be a .mobi file – and calibre.com, which is free from cnet.com will do the job perfectly.

    If she can walk and chew gum, she can self-publish. But to toss 15% to someone who didn’t do their job as an agent? Well, that would be a travesty at best and damn foolish at worst.

    Good advice, Catherine. Tell her to buy your self-publishing book; it’s brilliant!

  15. writer2050 November 6, 2012 at 23:13 #

    I agree with you Catherine. Emphasis on self. And if one sells a book on Kindle at $2.99 or less there’s not much to go around.

  16. The Story Mom November 7, 2012 at 01:33 #

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I am just starting out on my writing adventure and I need all the advice I can get!!

  17. selfpublishingadvocate November 7, 2012 at 10:36 #

    Totally agree with you Catherine and also with Linda’s and Sir Allen’s comments. If, and only if, the agent deserves a part of the sales from publishing the book, it should be the services that the agent has given to the author. I do not consider that as a service offered when the agent just pointed out to the author to self-publish the novel.

    Though the case will change if ever the agent will commit to provide financial assistance during the self-publishing process since it requires certain amount of money for editing, proofreading, cover design, etc. If this is the case then both the author and the agent could agree on what percentage of the entire sales does the agent receives. Otherwise, the agent is entitled with nothing.

    On a side note, I am now a bit curious about Amazon’s White Glove.. Let me see if I can find any information about it and post it here as soon as I found one. :-)

    • selfpublishingadvocate November 7, 2012 at 11:09 #

      I am not 100% sure with this but I think I have found something with regard to Amazon’s White Glove Program.

      Based on the contents of this page:

      http://www.storymerchant.com/books.html

      White Glove program is a relationship between the a publishing company and amazon. Putting it in the example above, it would be between the agents who are self-publishing their client’s work and amazon. The agreement is to give limited exclusive rights to amazon to promote the book. Again, basing on the contents on the story merchant link, it seems that the author of the book will get 70% from amazon and the publishing house or the agents will get 10% of whatever the author will receive. So basically the author will receive around 60% of the sales price.

      Please correct me if I am wrong with what I understand and further enlightenment on this matter is highly appreciated so we may all have an idea as to what really Amazon’s White Glove Program is.

      • catherineryanhoward November 7, 2012 at 17:36 #

        That’s very interesting, thanks. It makes sense that it provides a mechanism for a portion of the royalties to go to a third party as of course, only one person can be paid from KDP. Thanks!

  18. Michele Gorman (@expatdiaries) November 7, 2012 at 15:05 #

    I’m a traditionally published writer who has self-published some of my books. I do it with my agent, and with all due respect, the comments above saying it’s misguided (I’m paraphrasing) are wrong.

    First of all, an agent’s job is to sell books to publishers – her own career success is measured by her ability to do that. The biggest measure of that “success” is reputation. A strong reputation for doing deals makes it easier to liaise with the big editors, and to attract the best writers, and to garner job offers from rival agencies. Every sale is noted by the industry (i.e. announced in the Bookseller, discussed between agents and between editors). Her career is not built according to the amount of money she brings into an agency. So she doesn’t further her career by helping her writers to self-publish. She does so by selling books to publishes. That means she’s exactly as motivated to sell my next book to publishers as she would have been had I not self-published. This is because her success is based on her reputation as an agent, not on my self-published revenues.

    I happily pay my agent a commission on my self-published books because a) she is instrumental in guiding my writing career by providing feedback on my books – on both the concept and the execution. Her time and effort is in each one of my books. I bounce ideas around with her, and together we decide which directions my writing should take, based on what I want to do and what the market will best support.

    We publish through a White Glove account and the hearsay about it is wrong – there is no cost to it. It is an extremely valuable service – head and shoulders above a regular KDP account.

    • catherineryanhoward November 7, 2012 at 17:32 #

      Thanks, Michelle—that’s a really interesting insight. Thanks for sharing. You obviously have a long-standing relationship with your agent and the two of you work as a partnership. I know of another writer who has been with her agent for years and she too gives her agent a commission on new self-published works—which I agree with, because the sales of her trad published books are helping the sales of the self-published ones, and because the agents works with her on editing, etc.

      My concern really (and perhaps I should’ve made this clearer) is for as yet unpublished authors who are with agents who have never got them a deal, who are submitting their first book, and then the agent, after failing to find a home for it, suggests self-publishing. In that case I don’t see how sharing the profits could be a good idea, which the agent hasn’t actually done anything for the author (yet..?).

      I’d be very interested to know what the differences are between publishing through White Glove and KDP (does White Glove, for example, enabling pre-ordering…?) because if there are significant advantages, then that would of course be a factor in deciding whether to self-publish with your agent or without.

      • Michele Gorman (@expatdiaries) November 8, 2012 at 15:05 #

        Hi Catherine, unfortunately you can’t enable pre-ordering through White Glove (though anyone can do that for paperbacks by selling through an Amazon Advantage account. Writers interested in doing that can google ‘Amazon advantage’ and ‘preorder’ to find various blogs that explain how to do that.

        Hope that helps!

  19. Amy Knapp November 14, 2012 at 18:40 #

    What about hybrid publishers that work together with the author, split the cost of bringing a book to market and take a small percentage of royalties? Do you think there can be any sort of marriage of tradpub and self-pub?

    • catherineryanhoward November 14, 2012 at 18:59 #

      I definitely think that in some circumstances there can be, yes. My concern would be an agent who has never secured a deal for you suggesting you self-publish together. That would sound an alarm bell for me, and in those circumstances there’s no reason not to proceed by yourself, I think.

  20. Francis Hamit December 5, 2012 at 16:14 #

    As someone who has been “self-publishing” since 2004 and knows the system, I can’t see why you would have an agent involved in this except to sell other rights such as film and television or foreign language. Unless you are bone lazy and just don’t want to make the effort to learn how to do it yourself. It’s just not that hard.

  21. writenowmom December 21, 2012 at 13:06 #

    Hi Catherine.

    Firstly, as I read your article and read down through the comments, I was ready to have my say. But as I read further, I can see that your main difficulty is with agents who are encouraging clients to self-publish with their help, when they haven’t got a deal for them. I can see where you’re coming from with that. But on the other hand, there are authors who’ve been trying for a number of years to get a traditional deal and don’t want to face self-publishing alone. They may feel that 10% is a small price to pay to have somebody to help and advise them, as well as having somebody who knows the business inside out. I know this isn’t a popular opinion with the readers of your blog but I think it’s good to look at it from different perspectives.

    In relation to myself, I’m one of those authors who are taking part in the Amazon White Glove project. For me, it’s the perfect thing. As you know, I have a fantastic, supportive agent who’s got me a traditional deal. My rights have been sold to Ireland, UK and the Commonwealth as well as some translations. But the US is more difficult to break into. My agency has teamed up with Amazon for this White Glove project and are bringing my books out on Kindle in the US. As a busy mother of four, I barely have time to write my books, let alone get into the whole self-publishing thing. It’s just for a limited period and at no cost to myself. The 70% royalties are paid every month, less a small percentage which the agents take. I’m really happy to pay this, especially as it’s something I would never have had the time to do myself.

    On another note, my agent explained the whole thing to me but by no means pushed me to participate. They’ve worked really hard to get everything sorted in time for Christmas and have been really generous with their time to answer all my questions (and there have been many!) I don’t know whether the books will take off or be a success over there but the way I look at it, it’s another publishing experience for me and we can never have enough of those!

    I’m almost tempted to stick my links up here but might have to duck the rotten tomatoes…

    Hope you have a lovely Christmas.

    Maria x

    • catherineryanhoward December 21, 2012 at 14:11 #

      Hi Maria!

      I saw your lovely US Kindle covers — congrats!

      You’re absolutely right, in that my issue is with agents who sign up authors, don’t ever produce a deal and then say, “Why don’t we self-publish?” The author could do that themselves.

      But in your case, where you have a deal over here and want to get your books for sale in the US, going direct to Amazon seems to be a viable option. Other authors with UK/IRL deals have also taken their US rights and self-published to US Kindle themselves. It just depends on what’s right for you.

    • catherineryanhoward December 21, 2012 at 14:13 #

      And stick up a link! Readers might be interested to see if they can discern a White Glove listing from a KDP listing. (I don’t think they can, though!)
      :-)

      • writenowmom December 21, 2012 at 15:01 #

        Ah, go on then! Here’s the listing for Any Dream Will Do:

        And for The Terrace:

        Not sure they’ve worked.

        • Stroppy Author August 29, 2013 at 20:37 #

          If agents who *haven’t* managed to get a deal for their clients are then putting those books-that-haven’t-sold through White Glove, isn’t that ultimately going to devalue White Glove to the point where it’s not much of a sign of superior quality? it just becomes another list of ‘books no one has managed to sell to a publisher.’

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