“Sitting up in the dark, he took a deep breath and scented a familiar, beguiling trace in the air…”

Deep Green Leaves, Alex Clark

New Ghost Stories IV

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:

  1. 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?
  2. How can a publisher enter into potentially sensitive negotiations with a competitor?
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

9 Comments on “Literary agents and publishing: a conflict of interest?”

  1. Charles Lambert Says:

    Well, one of the agents who might be following in Ed Victor’s footsteps is mine, apparently, so I’m very interested in this, but I’ll need time to think before before making any comments other than to note that a book that’s out of print is earning no one any money, and doing no one any good, so a POD or e-book edition is probably a good thing, regardless of who’s behind it. The conflict of interest will depend on the extent to which agents decide to publish work from scratch, or not. Or am I being contractually naive? (Which is quite likely, and one of the many reasons I need an agent!)

  2. Agents in Conflict with Authors | The Passive Voice Says:

    […] Link to the rest at The Fiction Desk […]

  3. Livia Blackburne Says:

    Charles — The thing is, it’s out of print right now, but there are many ways to monetize an out of print book. Having the agent publish it is only one way. The author could easily publish it himself and get 100% of proceeds, or sell the rights to another publishing house that specializes in reprints. And agents who publish will have a conflict of interest when advising their clients.

  4. cindie geddes Says:

    Or a writer can you use a freelancer (such as Lyn Worthen) or a flat-fee press (like mine – Lucky Bat Books) that does any and all of the publishing work without taking any rights or royalties. There are many options out here in the world.

  5. Charles Lambert Says:

    You see! I said I was naive…

  6. Carole Blake Says:

    As one of the agents quoted in the original Bookseller article, I can say that we will only publish (e or POD) when our clients request it and all costs and income will be transparent. As were the details quoted by Ed Victor.

  7. dirtywhitecandy Says:

    Instead of agents putting out authors who could already self-publish their own backlists and reach a good audience, what they could do is use a self-publishing model to promote new authors whose work is worthwhile but difficult to sell to conventional publishers. Too long to go into here, but here’s a post where I suggest the Discovery Imprint – http://bit.ly/hp7LVZ

  8. Rob Says:

    Hi Carole,

    Thank you for commenting.

    As far as I know, nobody is suggesting that agents would be less than transparent about the financial aspects of any publishing route. The question seems more to be whether there’s a conflict of interest that would make it impossible for an agent to offer impartial advice when they stand to make more money from one route than from another.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say that you would only take the e/pod route when the author requests it. Do you mean that you would never recommend it unless asked? Surely, if it’s the right route to take, you’d have no qualms about suggesting it yourselves. And if it’s the wrong route, you’d advise against it regardless of who suggested it? Or am I missing your meaning?

  9. Carole Blake Says:

    My aim is always to sell my authors to publishers. We will only be publishing out of print, reverted, titles as E or POD, and only if an author wants us to. I don’t see it as a moneymaking route because marketing will be difficult. And I don’t have time to discuss it endlessly, except with my clients! I was a publisher once but I prefer being an agent, and I intend that the largest portion of my day job will remain that way.

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