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”?