According to this article in The Bookseller, the ethical dam that has traditionally prevented agents from becoming publishers may be about to break. At least one agent is in the process of setting up a list, with others ready to follow. This is a worrying development, as there is clearly a conflict of interest when an independent advisor enters the business on which he or she is supposed to offer independent advice.
Part of the debate centres on the wording of the constitution of the Association of Author’s Agents. Presumably, this is the line under debate:
An agency or agent who is also employed by publishers or purchasing principals, other than for selling rights, shall not be eligible for membership.
Although this refers to an agent also being employed by a publisher, it seems clear that this line is intended to avoid the same conflict of interest that arises when an agent also becomes a publisher.
It’s worth pointing out that the presence (or otherwise) of an idea in a constitution is not in itself a validation of that idea, but it does demonstrate a traditional perspective, and provide an appropriate starting point for debate.
Four questions immediately present themselves, although I suspect more will follow:
- How can an author hope for unbiased, independent advice from an agent who stands to make a great deal more money from one publishing route than from another?
- How can a publisher enter into potentially sensitive negotiations with a competitor?
- Will format fragmentation, with sales revenue potentially being split by format between different publishers, make it less possible for publishers to take a chance on new authors?
- What exactly are the agents’ motivations behind this move, and is there a more appropriate way to meet these goals, one which might benefit the industry as a whole and avoid potential ethical issues?
At some point, The Fiction Desk as a publisher will have to adopt a position on these changes. Before that happens, I’d be very interested in hearing people’s thoughts on any or all of the above questions.