Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Agent Conflict of Interest?

I have previously explored agents' opinions about self-publishing and noted that some are even helping authors to publish independently. One of the big questions in recent weeks has been whether this is a conflict of interest. Some people say yes, because (they claim) the agent is acting like a publisher.

Joe Konrath addressed this on his blog and made some good points against the accusations of conflict of interest. Because this is all so new, my feelings have gone through a cycle -- Yay, agents are exploring new ways to help their authors... Wait, maybe that is a conflict of interest, though it still feels like they are helping their authors more than hurting them....

My current feelings are that so long as the agent is taking the same 15 percent of income and not charging the author upfront fees, their incentive is to do the best deal for the author, and that's not a conflict of interest.

If anything, they might favor traditional publishing because of the quick advance. To take a chance on self-publishing, an agent would have to believe the long-term income would be greater than the advance plus possible royalties of a traditional deal. Plus, many agents are going with a model that has the agency paying for proofreading, layout, and cover art up front, so they risk losing money. It seems like agents will tend to favor traditional publishing deals, especially until independent publishing is proven successful for the majority. If there is a conflict of interest, it's going to be in the direction of favoring the old, familiar model.

Of course there is still the potential for abuse with agents helping their authors self-publish. If an agent charges more than their normal 15 percent commission for independently-published work, that could skew the balance so that what is best for the author isn't necessarily best for the agent. Agents could also charge an unreasonable amount for upfront services, even if these come out of initial income. For example, an agency could pay a proofreader $1000, but then charge the book's account $2000, with the extra amount going to pay the agent for the trouble of hiring the proofreader. A good agency will clearly explain what costs they expect to recoup before you start earning money.

I imagine the organization that polices literary agents will weigh in on this eventually. As always, understand your contracts, ask questions, and be extra careful with new "agencies" that might spring up to take advantage of desperate authors.

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