Tag Archives: Literary Agents

Authorial Misdemeanors

From time to time an author will do something that causes me to scratch my head. I’ve compiled a list of these foibles and offer it here with a light heart. If you have perpetrated any of these transgressions I’ll let you off this time without a fine, but don’t let me see you in this courtroom again.

I must say right off the bat that among the things authors do that irk me, delivering manuscripts late is not one of them. Lateness is the medium in which agents live. We breathe late manuscripts and eat late checks and drink late contracts. And lateness in a creative person is certainly more understandable and forgivable than it is in a business organization. I have never known an author to be deliberately late with a book, but I have known many a publisher to be deliberately late with a check.

What kills me, however, is authors who don’t tell me they’re going to be late. Publishers schedule books many months in advance, and in most cases are able to pull one out of the schedule if given sufficient notice. In most cases, too, a publisher will grant the author a reasonable extension of delivery date. If, however, out of embarrassment or some other reason (such as a moonlighting gig the agent doesn’t know about), an author doesn’t level with his agent, he will not only get himself into trouble, but his agent as well. An agent who knows the truth can go to bat for his client, make excuses, concoct a fib. But if an agent sincerely assures an editor that a book will be turned in in June because that’s what his client told him, when the client knew all the time that there wasn’t a chance in hell that he could make the deadline, the agent’s credibility will be damaged.

I make very few inflexible rules for my clients, but this is one of them: no matter how embarrassing your reasons may be (one author’s dog actually did eat his manuscript), I insist that you tell me the truth so that I can make proper excuses for you. (I, of course, have never lied on behalf of a client. What kind of agent would I be if I lied on behalf of a client?)

Lying to your agent is a mortal sin, but authors commit many venial ones as well, and oddly enough, it is the latter variety that drives me absolutely up the wall.

Take authors who misspell “Foreword,” for instance. I strongly feel that anybody who turns in a manuscript containing a “Forward” deserves automatic shredding of his manuscript plus the first three fingers of his right hand. You would think I would not have to explain to professionals who make their livings with words that a foreword is a fore-word, a word that comes before the main text. But as the Forward-to-Foreword ratio on manuscripts submitted to my agency is about one out of three, I can see that the correct spelling cannot be stressed enough. It should be enough to remind you that “Foreword” is usually the very first word one’s eyes fall upon when opening a manuscript. (I hesitate, however, to criticize writers for not knowing the difference between a foreword, a preface, and an introduction, since I don’t understand it either.)

The Forward-Foreword offense is part of a larger conspiracy to send agents to early graves. I am referring to authors who don’t review their manuscripts before submitting them. An occasional, random typo is one thing, but when I realize that the author never bothered to reread his manuscript, have it vetted by a good speller, or run it through the spell-checker on his computer, a murderous rage comes over me and I am compelled to steal into the night to overturn garbage cans and scratch automobile fenders with my ring. Don’t authors understand (I growl at alley cats as I kick them) that today’s literary marketplace is so intensely competitive that a poorly spelled manuscript can lose somebody a sale?

A subspecies of the above-mentioned type misspells critical words and names, and misspells them consistently, focusing a glaring light on his or her own carelessness. I remember a Biblical novel in which the word “Pharaoh” was misspelled “Pharoah” throughout, and in a book that long, that’s a lot of Pharoahs. I have often wondered why, if the word is pronounced fayro, lexicographers have chosen to place the a before the o. In fact, what is an a doing in the second syllable at all? Such speculations do not mitigate one’s intense annoyance at having to correct such errors over and over again in saga-length manuscripts.

Speaking of repetitious errors, I’m reminded of those authors who print the title of their book as a header on every page of manuscript. I don’t know where this quaint custom arose. I suppose it has its origins in the paranoiac fantasy that part of a manuscript will inadvertently be separated from the rest in a publisher’s office.

Against this remote possibility must be weighed the not-so-remote one that the title you print on every page of your manuscript will be a lousy one. Like many publishing people I am a fanatical believer in the importance of titles: a good or bad one can significantly affect the fate of a book. All too often I’ll get a good book with a bad title, and after kicking alternate titles around the author and I will agree on a new one. I’ll then prepare a new title page only to discover that the discarded title appears on every page of the manuscript. Now what? I must now either go out with a badly titled book or have the entire manuscript reprinted just to knock the offending title off every page. Luckily, the advent of word processing makes it easier to run off modified manuscripts. Still, do us both a favor and leave the title off the header of every page.

Nowadays manuscripts are submitted as email attachments. But many agents still prefer to read submissions in printed form. The peeve potential here is very high. On occasion an author will send me a manuscript ring-bound like a scientist’s notebook. I ask myself what terrible thing I did to this person that he should avenge himself on me so cruelly. Am I supposed to read his manuscript standing up at a lectern, or remove the pages from the binding rings knowing that I will have to reassemble it when I am finished?

I think it’s time that writers understood something about literary agents: their standard reading posture is supine, head elevated sufficiently to glance at a baseball game or sitcom on television. Now that I’ve revealed this tightly guarded secret, perhaps you’ll be more considerate and submit your manuscript unbound. And is it too much to ask while I’m at it that it be double spaced in 12-point font and printed on one side of the page only?

And when you do post it, may I ask you not to have it bound or specially boxed or wrapped? Just a loose manuscript in a typing paper box wrapped and taped securely enough to get safely through the postal system. There seems to be a law of nature that the quality of a manuscript declines in inverse proportion to the elaborateness of its package. When I receive a manuscript bound by brass screws with a plastic embossed cover, lovingly wrapped in chamois cloth, set in a velvet-lined cedar box, shrink-wrapped, packed in turn in a fireproof strongbox secured with iron bands, I am prepared to stake my career on the likelihood that this book is one colossal dud. And in all likelihood it will be sent via Fedex or courier with the expectation of an overnight response.

There is a particularly lukewarm place in my heart for foreign authors who are obliged to use typing paper of different dimensions – approximately ½ inch too long and ¼ inch too narrow – from the standard American 8½ by 11 inches. I realize how chauvinistic it must sound to deplore the paper that was probably good enough for Thomas Mann, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Graham Greene, but because agents usually place manuscripts in submission boxes to protect them and present them attractively, it drives us crazy to get a misshapen manuscript from the Continent requiring Procrustean measures to package the submission.

Authors who submit their only copy of a manuscript are, to say the least, an intense source of curiosity to me. They brazenly challenge the immutable law guaranteeing that that manuscript will get lost in the mails. The advent of computer document management and cheap photocopy services has stimulated a rise in lost manuscripts, for authors who used to type an original and carbon now type an original only and bring it to a photocopy shop, where another immutable law causes it to get mixed up with somebody’s master’s thesis. Again, the development of computers will eventually make the question of lost manuscripts academic, but computers can crash. So keeping a hard copy is definitely a good idea.

Then there are the authors who administer tests to their agents. Some try a cute trick of turning one page in their manuscript upside down. If the agent returns the manuscript with that one page still upside down, it proves he didn’t read the manuscript page for page. There are authors who quiz their agents about specific scenes and characters. A typical dialogue might sound like this:
AUTHOR: Did you like my book?
AGENT: Oh, yes, loved it, loved it.
AUTHOR: Great. What did you think of my character Pflonk?
AGENT: Pflonk? Terrific character. Nicely developed.
AUTHOR: Hah! Gotcha! There was no such character in my book!

I assure you that when it comes to an important book your agent reads your manuscript carefully. With so much riding on it, he has to. But most agents I know don’t have time to read their clients’ work page for page, nor do they need to in order to get a sense of its quality, organization, and pace. In fact, they don’t even need to in order to sell it. With certain kinds of material, such as books in a series, a light once-over is enough to satisfy your agent that all is in order and the work follows the original outline.

Plainly, the evil that authors do may be categorized as Class B Misdemeanors, punishable by groans, rolling eyes, sighs of frustration, and indulgent smiles. I would like to think that you are as tolerant of your agent’s foibles. Agents do have them. (I know this only from talking to authors). There is one extremely successful agent who likes to boast he’s never read anything he’s sold. And there’s another who, every time he makes a big deal for a client, gloats, “That will pay for a new set of radials for my sports car,” or, “Now I can put that new wing on my house.”
I consider myself truly fortunate in not being possessed of any personality traits that irritate others. Well, maybe one or two. All right, maybe a few more than that. Okay, okay, so I’m riddled with them. But at least I know how to spell “Foreword.”

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It’s reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

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How Agents Build Authors’ Careers

The following piece was published ten or fifteen years ago.  If I didn’t think it still had validity I wouldn’t reprint it here…

RC

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A literary agent’s life involves far more than reading, lunching, and deal-making. His or her services embrace the literary, legal, financial, social, political, psychological, and even the spiritual; and the jobs we are obliged to tackle run the gamut from computer troubleshooting to espionage. But because our business is a day-to-day, book-to-book affair, we tend to lose perspective. With our preoccupation with advances and royalties, payout schedules and discounts, with movie rights and foreign rights and serial rights and merchandise rights, with option clauses and agency clauses and acceptability clauses and termination clauses, it is all too easy for us to forget that our primary goal is to build careers, to take writers of raw talents, modest accomplishments, and unimpressive incomes and render them prosperous, successful, and emotionally fulfilled.

This endeavor demands the application of all the skill and experience we command, plus something else: vision. Vision in this context may be defined as an agent’s ideal of the best work an author is capable of achieving, matched to the best job his publishers can perform. An agent’s vision should illuminate the author’s path, oftentimes far into his future, if not for his entire career.

In order for our vision to be fulfilled, three conditions must be met.

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Publishing Spoken Here

Traduttore, Traditore (“The translator is a traitor”)
Italian proverb

One of the critical roles literary agents play is that of translator. We perform the task on several levels. The most obvious and fundamental is explaining the nomenclature of publishing to the uninitiated author. The writer who sells his first book to a publisher and reads his first contract is plunged into a sea of words that may be totally unfamiliar to him, or that are used in a totally unfamiliar way.

“Force majeure,” “net proceeds,” “matching option,” “warranty,” “discount”—these need to be defined for the novice author. There are many difficult concepts to be grasped, such as “advance sale,” “midlist,” “fair use,” “reserve against returns,” “pass-through,” and “hard-soft deals.” The language has its own slang, too, and our initiate hears bewildering references to who handles the “sub rights,” what is the tentative “pub date,” and what happens when the book is “o.p.’d.”

Agents patiently try to demystify these terms, but it may take many years of experience before our clients are completely at ease with them. It may well be true that what distinguishes professional authors from their amateur brothers and sisters is that the pros have undergone this linguistic rite of passage and are now able to sling around “pre-empts,” “first proceeds,” and “escalators” with the best of ’em. But there is another, and profoundly more important, job for the agent-translator to perform beyond explaining to his clients the terminology of the book industry. I’m talking about using language to forge and strengthen the bonds between authors and publishers. For, while the goals of both may ultimately be identical, they are usually achievable only after many conflicting viewpoints and interests have been reconciled.

Sometimes those conflicts become intense, and if allowed to go unresolved can cause serious if not fatal breakdowns in the relationship. An agent, standing between these potential adversaries, must find common ground for them to stand on, else all – including his commission – is lost. And though their differences may be genuine, sometimes they are semantic, and if an agent can pinpoint and settle the linguistic problems, perhaps the more substantive ones will not seem quite so insuperable. Although it’s a stimulating challenge, not all of us enjoy sticking our heads up in this no-man’s land.

You must not think, however, that editors cannot be seriously wounded. And it is important to know that fact, because a hurt editor (or art director or royalty bookkeeper) may not want to work as hard for an author who has irked him or her as for one who has been supportive, tolerant, and forgiving. This is not to say that editors are so thin-skinned they fold the first time someone criticizes them. But I do know that if an author or agent injures an editor’s feelings seriously enough, it can undercut his or her initiative, and that may eventually redound to an author’s detriment.

Some years ago I phoned a bookkeeper who had been verbally abused by an author a few months earlier. This author was owed another check, and I wanted to know where it was. “Funny thing about that check,” she said, deadpan, “it keeps falling to the bottom of my pile. Must be gravity or something.” It is therefore vital that editors and their colleagues in other departments of publishing companies be handled with a certain degree of diplomacy, and it is in the language of that diplomacy that most agents are adept. We have learned that “a soft answer turneth away wrath.” And most of the time, we are able to rephrase or paraphrase the blunt demands, the raw needs, the hard feelings, the hostile remarks, of our clients into gracious packages of civility that convey everything the author intended without damaging the fragile sensibilities of the person at whom they were directed.

I’ve been keeping some notes about discussions recently conducted with editors and am happy to offer herewith a few examples of this process in action. Some of them are tongue in cheek, others are deliberately exaggerated. Still others will sound stilted, and that is because, unfortunately, that is the way I speak. Let’s take one of the commonest problems in our business, that of getting editors to make up their minds about submissions. Editors are burdened with a great many tasks that curtail their reading time. They may be inundated with manuscripts to read. They may be on the fence about a submission and wish to postpone a decision for a while. They may be soliciting opinions or sales estimates from colleagues in their company. They have many legitimate reasons for taking a long time to read submissions.

At the same time, some editors seem to have a considerably dimmer sense of the passage of time than people in other fields, such as airline management or television programming. So, one of the first lessons one learns in the agenting profession is how to translate an editor’s promises about time. “I’ll read it overnight” too often means, “I’ll get around to it in a week.” “I’ll read it in a week” means, “I’ll be back to you in a month.” And “I’ll read it in a month” may well mean that the manuscript is lost.

In order to reasonably hold editors to their promised schedules, agents use the elegant phraseology of coercion. “As I’m loath to keep manuscripts out of circulation,” I might write, “may I trouble you for a decision?” If this fails to yield a reply, I might escalate to something more pointed, like, “My client is getting restless,” or, “I’m under some pressure to determine where we stand.” Sometimes a humorous approach is in order. I’m a great believer in the power of teasing to accomplish that which solemnity cannot, and I’m not above a little sarcasm under the appropriate circumstances: “When I submitted that manuscript to you, the oceans were two inches lower.” If an editor has sat on a submission for an unconscionably long time, I will invariably get a phone call from my client saying, “You tell that sonofabitch that if we don’t have a decision by Friday, I’m personally gonna come down there and rearrange his prefrontal lobes with an ax haft! ” Justified though that ultimatum may be, it is couched in language this is terminally infelicitous. By the time I’m through modifying it, it may sound something closer to this: “As you don’t seem able to make up your mind, suppose we say that if I haven’t heard from you by Friday, I’ll put another copy of the manuscript into play elsewhere, and you may take as much time thereafter as you wish.”

And sometimes I’ll put a finer point on my message with this veiled warning: “Do let me know when your work load is down to a more reasonable size so that our agency can resume submitting books to you.” I’m certain that you must be saying to yourself, “How is an editor going to get these messages if the agent pussyfoots around that way?” The answer is, editors get these messages loudly and clearly, for unless one is incredibly dense, he pr she will have little doubt that a knife has been placed against the throat.

Another common problem for agents is, of course, overdue checks. Authors are remarkably articulate when it comes to expressing the discomforts of financial deprivation and to depicting the character and ancestry of those who conspire to keep them in that condition. Unfortunately, most editors would go through the roof if exposed to the authors’ invective. Enter the honey-tongued agent, and though that agent might love nothing better than to say, “Pay up or we’ll vaporize you,” it’s more likely he or she will say something a bit more subdued. Perhaps a subtle form of extortion: “It would be to your advantage to remit payment promptly so as to avoid scheduling delays,” In plain English, this informs the editor that unless his company ponies up the dough, the agent isn’t going to deliver certain manuscripts that the publisher desperately needs to put into production. Because a late manuscript can wreck a production schedule at fearful cost to a publisher, the wise editor will undoubtedly give the check-processing machinery an extra-hard spin when he or she gets a message like that from an agent.

I can think of lots of other ways that agents refine the harsh language of their clients without sacrificing effectiveness. For instance, though we may be thinking, “My client just turned in a real turkey,” what we are telling an editor is that, “My client thought you might like to see a first draft of his book before he starts polishing it.” Or, “My client is going to sue you into Rice Krispie-sized pieces” becomes, “My client is contemplating contacting his attorney, at which point the matter will be out of my control.” Or, “My client thinks your editor is so incompetent, he couldn’t spell “cat” if you spotted him the C and the T!” becomes, “I’m not certain that the author’s and editor’s views about the book are entirely compatible.” * “My client is so upset he’s taking big bites out of his living room sofa” translates into, “My client is finding it hard to understand why . . .” “You’ll use that cover on my client’s book over his dead body!” may be altered to, “My client is pretty determined.”

Here’s a brief glossary of other agently euphemisms commonly employed when tempers start to overheat: * You: “I’m thoroughly disgusted with those people.” Agent: “My client is somewhat disenchanted.” * You: “If I had that editor’s throat in my hands . . .” Agent: “I’m not sure my client is completely comfortable working with you.” * You: “They’re lying and cheating.” Agent: “My client feels he may have detected some discrepancies. * “You: “What a crummy deal?” Agent: “Some of the terms leave something to be desired.” * You: “I wouldn’t sell another book to that butcher if he were the last editor on earth.” Agent: “Let’s have lunch.”

The transmutation of hurtful language works the other way around, too, so that when we have to tell a client that his publishers hate his book so much they want to manure a cornfield with it, we may say something like, “It didn’t live up to their expectations,” or, “They found it lacking in certain respects.” Or an editor’s remark to the effect that a certain author couldn’t write his way out of a trash can liner becomes, “They don’t feel you’ve reached your potential quite yet.”

Here are a few others.

*Editor: “This material is simply lousy.” Agent: “Your editor is disappointed.”

* Editor: “What language is your client writing in, anyway?” Agent: “Your editor pointed out some obscure passages.”

* Editor: “Your client is the rudest person I’ve ever had the misfortune to work with.” Agent: “Your editor seems to have overreacted to what he perceives as a slight.”

* Editor: “Is your client crazy, or what?” Agent: “I’m not sure your editor appreciates your sense of humor.”

Of course, not all agents approach matters as delicately as this. Some of us are in fact quite plainspoken, and even the most tactful among us realizes that there are unavoidable occasions when we must unsheath a steel fist from the velvet glove. Still, it is gratifying to know that at least when it comes to the language one may still find reminders of the time when publishing was a profession for civilized ladies and gentlemen.

Richard Curtis

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It’s reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

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All Agencies Great and Small – Part 2

With the introduction of a second person into a literary agency—even a secretary with no discretionary power—the dynamics of the firm usually alter sharply. The agent can if he chooses make himself less accessible, a state that is often tactically desirable. He at last has somebody to blame, perhaps not for negotiating and other serious mistakes, but at least for some of the clerical screwups that bedevil all business enterprises. On the other hand, the operation of the business should become more efficient, a fair tradeoff for the agent’s withdrawal from the firing line. If the employee is anything more than a warm body occupying a desk, he or she can create some important opportunities for strategic games, can serve as a reader, rendering a second viewpoint on the salability of manuscripts, or as a sounding board for marketing, negotiating, and other decisions. And if that person is interested in and good at certain specialized tasks—handling movie, television, magazine, or foreign rights, for example—or has a good grasp of certain markets that the boss has no interest in or feel for, or if he or she is good at handling certain clients, then you have the makings of a potent team and the foundation for a successful agency.

From that point on it becomes a matter of adding new staff members and deploying them according to the organization that best suits the agent’s style—a style that may transmute as the agent gains experience. As a rule, the smaller the agency the less specialized are the tasks performed by its staff: in other words, everybody handles everything. As the firm grows, a structure usually emerges along lines of staff specialization. One structure might be described as vertical, with the agent at the pinnacle handling the clients, supported by a staff that services the clients’ properties but does not necessarily have contact with the clients themselves. One staff member might handle foreign rights, another movie, another serial, another bookkeeping, another filing, and so on.

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All Agencies Great and Small – Part 1

I’m not sure that authors understand the structures of literary agencies much better than they understand those of publishing companies. For those of you who are shopping for an agent or thinking of switching agencies, or who are simply interested in organizational dynamics, it might be interesting to compare agencies of different sizes and structures and to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each type.

First, but not least, is the one-man or one-woman agency. And when I say one man or woman I don’t mean one man or woman plus a secretary, for, as we shall soon see, the presence of a second person can radically alter an agent’s style, service, and clout. Most such agents start out either as editors of publishing companies or as staff members of large agencies; a few join our profession from the legal and other related fields. To agenting they bring their special knowledge and experience, and those are always big plusses for prospective clients. They can also be handicaps, however. The lawyer who becomes a literary agent will soon discover that publishing law is so vastly different in theory and practice from any other kind of law as to render his training and experience virtually useless. Agents who leave big agencies to set up their own don’t always make good agents, as they may be unused to operating outside the context of a supporting organization. Editors who become agents may know a great deal about publishing procedures, but that knowledge doesn’t necessarily make them good deal-makers.

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Let’s Have Lunch

In republishing some of my articles I’ve been struck by how little has changed in the decade or two since they first saw the light of day. In some cases I’ve scarcely had to change a word. However, I’m afraid that the following piece will not stand the test of time. When you come to the end you’ll see why the sacred ritual known as the publishing lunch date may be doomed.
RC
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When the time comes for me to lay down my sword and armor and cross into the Great Beyond after a lifetime of combat with venal publishers, crooked movie producers, treacherous lawyers, and kvetchy authors, it is my fondest hope that the gods will reward me with perpetual publishing luncheons. What fardels would I not bear knowing that such a treat awaited me on the other side! Some agents and editors feel lunches are tedious obligations at best and duck out of them whenever they can. I find them incredibly exciting, frequently dramatic, and always enlightening: I have never come away from one without having learned something useful. And, if everything comes together perfectly, the occasion can be a transcendental experience both culinarily and literarily, a sublime blend of art, commerce, and hedonism.

Most outsiders (such as authors) have a dim or distorted idea of what is involved in publishing lunches. To them, these affairs are as mysterious as royalty statements and discount schedules. So come perch on the right lobe of my brain, which in agents is the segment devoted to luncheon dates, and observe the process from the ringing of the phone (which automatically makes me salivate) to the final, discreet burp.

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Do Agents Have Clout?

Whenever authors gather to discuss the merits of their agents (it may legitimately be wondered whether they ever discuss anything else), the word “clout” inevitably enters the conversation. Clout is the measure of an agent’s influence over publishers, and though it is by no means the sole criterion by which agents are judged, it is certainly the ultimate one. What is clout? How do agents wield it? And is it everything we crack it up to be?

The definition of clout has two important components. The first is access: the enclouted agent is intimate with the most powerful men and women in the publishing industry. “They put me through to the head of the company whenever I call,” an agent might boast. Or, “I can have your manuscript on the editor-in-chief’s desk tomorrow morning.” The second component is power, the capability to effect, yea to coerce, positive decisions. The agent with clout does not merely have access to the honchos (and honchas) of certain publishing companies, he has the ability to make them say yes, and to say yes when they would have said no to some other agent.

Unquestionably, clout exists in our business as it does in any other, and there are indeed agents who can make publishers jump every time they call them on the phone, or render a positive verdict when they were originally inclined to render a negative one. At the same time, there are many erroneous impressions about clout stemming from the widely held belief that power in publishing is concentrated in the hands of an elite circle of men and women, a belief promoted by the press, which tends to quote the same people every time it does a story on industry trends. Let’s look a little closer at these impressions.

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Agents in Conflict

Seldom a week goes by without an announcement that a literary agency has launched an e-book venture. The schemes vary from agency to agency but in essence these firms have undertaken to publish or distribute e-book editions of their clients’ original works and reprints.

This development has created some tensions among their clients and unease in the author community in general.  How should authors regard it?

Seller vs. Buyer

The traditional role of literary agents is that of advocates for the authors they represent. Their clients are the sellers engaged in arms length – and sometimes adversarial – relationships with publishers – the buyers.  Agents have a legal, ethical, and fiduciary obligation to promote, protect and manage their clients’ interests, and authors rely on their agents’ unalloyed partisanship.

At least that is the theory. In actuality agents’ allegiance is rarely unalloyed, and they often find it strained or even conflicted. Friendships with editors, for instance, may compromise an agent’s impartiality. Or an agent may have to favor one client over another when awarding a coveted project.

These tensions are unavoidable, and though they may occasionally tax an agent’s relationship with an author they are rarely so flagrant as to violate the Association of Authors’ Representatives’ Canon of Ethics, whose first principle states: “The members pledge themselves to loyal service to their clients’ business and artistic needs, and will allow no conflicts of interest that would interfere with such service.”

It was owing to this injunction – which I helped to forge as a member and then president of the AAR – that I felt it best to leave the organization ten years ago when I founded E-Reads, the e-book publishing company that hosts this essay. I ask you to keep that fact in mind as you read these observations, and to discount them to whatever degree you may judge appropriate.

The AAR’s stern precept prevailed until the arrival of the digital age. As in so many other fields of endeavor, the digitization of books has had a profoundly destabilizing effect on relationships that had remained fixed for more than a century. The new technology has disintermediated all agencies – not just literary – that once stood staunchly between sellers and buyers. Now authors can – and increasingly do – sell to publishers without the intervention of an agent.

Squeezed out of their customary role, literary agents have been forced to reinvent themselves and seek new ways to be relevant to authors – and make a living at it. As I mentioned in a recent series of articles, many have developed management services such as creation of websites for clients, assistance with social networking, and marketing and public relations. (See Middlemen in Search of a Middle Part 1, Part 2)

These offices sit well within the ethical boundary defined by the AAR, the principal guild for literary agencies in the United States.

Assuming the role of publisher, however, pushes agents much closer to that boundary. And some authors believe the line has been crossed. For that reason the AAR recently reaffirmed, in no uncertain terms, its commitment to the fundamental principle that in all cases, member agents “may receive compensation only from the client for the member’s services; the member may not separately engage in any business from which the member receives separate profit/compensation with respect to the exploitation of the client’s work in any medium, including e-publication.”

Where’s the Conflict?

The obvious source of conflict is that an agent’s advocacy for the author may be tinged if not tainted by the agent’s self-interest as a buyer.  In determining the disposition of a client’s property, the agent must now promote his own publishing company as a valid candidate for publication. Is the agent’s e-book company better than Random House, HarperCollins or Simon & Schuster?  It may actually be, but the agent has disqualified himself from objectively advising his client one way or another. This puts the author in a quandary: whom can he or she now turn to for an unbiased evaluation?

Obviously the answer depends on the agent’s integrity. But it stands to reason that authors in that position should be offered the opportunity to engage a disinterested third party – a lawyer or another agent or the Authors Guild – to objectively evaluate his or her options.

As we said previously, as the publishing industry rebuilds itself from the ground up, every denizen of the ecosystem must not just adapt but reconstitute. Agents are no exception, and it is entirely possible that a decade from now their role will have only the faintest resemblance to that of hustling for commissions today.

Richard Curtis

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85,000 Titles Strong, Smashwords Pitches the Agents

Smashwords Introduces Ebook Publishing and Distribution Service for Literary Agents

Powerful, Proven Tools to Manage Ebook Publishing, Metadata, Distribution and Sales Reporting

LOS GATOS, Calif., November 17, 2011 — Smashwords, the leading distributor of indie ebooks, today introduced a new service for literary agents. The service provides literary agents simple but powerful tools to manage the publication and distribution of their clients’ indie ebooks. Service highlights include free ebook conversions, centralized metadata management, distribution to major worldwide ebook retailers, time-saving aggregated sales reporting across all retailers, and special merchandising at Smashwords.com.

“Literary agents will write the next chapter of the indie ebook revolution,” said Mark Coker, founder and CEO of Smashwords. “Agents represent the most commercially successful authors. These authors are now asking their agents to add e-publishing services to exploit the potential of their reverted-rights works and unpublished works. Although all authors have the freedom to self-publish, many would prefer to delegate the e-publishing and back office duties to their agent so the author can focus their energy on writing.”

Over 32,000 authors, small presses and literary agents have utilized Smashwords to release 85,000 ebooks in the last three years. 7,500 of these titles were released in the last 30 days.

Until recently, the Smashwords platform labeled literary agents as “Publishers,” even though most agents consider their authors the publishers of record. To address this subtle but important nuance of metadata labeling, Smashwords created this new service expressly for literary agents.

Agents have the ability to upload multiple books on behalf of multiple clients.Agented books appear as “Written by [Author Name], Agented by [Agency Name].”

When Smashwords distributes the book to retailers such as the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and Diesel, the author is recognized as the publisher, not the agent.

Smashwords has also introduced a new home page catalog to showcase agented works, making it easy for readers to browse ebooks represented and curated by literary agents.

To work with Smashwords, agents simply sign up for a free Smashwords account, upgrade the account to Agent status (also free), and then upload books and metadata on behalf of their clients. A co-branded bookstore within Smashwords showcases the agency’s clients and allows readers to view books by recent releases, best-sellers, and highest rated. When readers browse the book pages of agented books, they enjoy contextual discovery links such as “Other books by this author” and “Other books from this agent.”

The Smashwords Agent service makes e-publishing fast, free and easy for literary agents. Service benefits include:

• Centralized metadata management – Agents control the book’s price (Smashwords retailers don’t discount), marketing description and other metadata at their Smashwords Dashboard. They make a single change once and Smashwords propagates
the update to all retailers.
• Aggregated sales reporting saves time – Each quarterly payment includes a downloadable report that makes it easy to map earnings to each of the agency’s authors. Agents can perform custom queries to provide authors granular sales reporting by title, date and retailer.
• Distribution to leading e-retailers – Smashwords distributes to the Apple iBookstore (32 countries), Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and the Diesel eBookstore. Amazon distribution is available through Smashwords on request. Books are also distributed to the native catalogs of leading mobile e-reading apps including Aldiko for Android devices and Stanza for the iPhone/iPod Touch. More distribution points in the works.
• Free – No fees for ebook conversion or setup. Smashwords earns a 10% of list price commission for books sold through major retailers (agent receives 60% list). The commission for sales through the Smashwords.com retail store is 15% net after credit card fees, with 85% net going to the agent.

Multiple literary agencies – including Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, the Beverley Slopen Agency and Larsen Pomada Literary Agents – are utilizing Smashwords to publish and distribute ebooks on behalf of their clients. Diversion Books, a publisher founded by literary agent Scott Waxman, is also a Smashwords client.

What literary agents are saying about Smashwords: “Smashwords has offered what many other self-publishing platforms do not, a way for agents to be involved with digital publishing without having to take on the title of ‘Publisher,’” said Abby Reilly, E-Book Project Manager at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, based in New York. “Giving our clients a space in the new and exciting world of digital publishing, while continuing to shepherd all aspects of their literary careers, is a thrilling challenge for our agency. We are delighted to be working with Smashwords to make this happen.”

“Smashwords makes it easy to begin exploring the new digital terrain,” said Beverley Slopen, whose literary agency shares her name and is based in Toronto, Canada. “It is an exciting time in publishing, a time like no other, and our authors want to be there. They are pushing us to broaden our knowledge and our skill set. While ebook publishing is not a substitute for traditional publishing, it adds an amazing new dimension.”

“I have been an avid Smashwords supporter since its inception, and over the past three years have integrated digital publishing initiatives in the career plans of all my clients,” said Laurie McLean of Larsen Pomada Literary Agents in San Francisco. “Most of my clients have both traditionally published books and ebooks in their bag of tricks, and it is exciting to see how they complement each other. While many people have been bashing literary agents as gatekeepers of the old guard in publishing, I feel that digitally-engaged agents are the perfect mentors to guide authors through these turbulent waters of opportunity. The new Smashwords Agent service has made my job even easier.”

Literary Agents – How to Get Started with Smashwords

Visit www.smashwords.com to sign up for a free account in the name of your agency. The confirmation email you receive will walk you through next steps. The “How to Publish at Smashwords” link on the home page at https://www.smashwords.com/about/how_to_publish_on_smashwords provides helpful links to a vast array of Smashwords resources.

For an online presentation outlining the opportunity for agents to serve the indie e-publishing needs of their clients, see this post at the Smashwords Blog and its accompanying Slideshare presentation, the Literary Agent’s Indie Ebook Roadmap: http://blog.smashwords.com/2011/08/literary-agents-indie-ebook-roadmap.html
or visit www.slideshare.net/Smashwords

About Smashwords
Founded in 2008, Smashwords is the world’s leading distributor of indie ebooks. More than 32,000 authors, small presses and literary agents publish over 85,000 indie ebooks at Smashwords. Smashwords has released over 7,500 ebooks in the last 30 days.

Smashwords makes it fast, free and easy for the world’s authors, publishers and literary agents to publish and distribute multi-format ebooks. Smashwords distributes to major online retailers such as the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and the Diesel eBook Store, and also distributes to the leading mobile e-reading apps such as Aldiko, Stanza and FBReader. Smashwords is based in Los Gatos, California, and can be reached on the web at http://www.smashwords.com/. Visit the official Smashwords blog at http://blog.smashwords.com/.

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