Sorry I have been absent. I handed in a book early this week, and I have been playing catch-up ever since. This blog has long been neglected, and it is only getting unneglected today because I am going to say something I shouldn’t say.
There is an unspoken rule in publishing that you should not criticize publishing professionals. I am going to criticize publishing professionals, and I am going to do it because I think that what is happening is wrong and unethical. Some of the people I am going to criticize, I will say in advance, I have heard glowing things about–marvelously awesome things–and so please keep this in mind. Even marvelously awesome people do things that cross ethical boundaries.
The Association of Author’s Representatives has a canon of ethics, which states (among many other things): “Members shall not represent both buyer and seller in the same transaction.”
The basic idea is this: If you advise someone, and you are in a position of trust, you should not compromise that position of trust by steering them towards options where what you want and what they want do not coincide. For instance, a financial adviser should not steer her clients to invest in a company owned by her brother-in-law: The clients just want to make money, but the financial adviser is emotionally involved with the company, and perhaps will not be able to emotionally separate herself from the prospect of helping her brother-in-law get his company off the ground. Even if the financial adviser believes she is operating on a perfectly rational level, and is willing to invest her own money to get the company off the ground, she can never be sure that her emotional involvement does not color her picture. The end result is that to avoid any appearance of ethical lapses–and to protect herself from emotional influences that are so subterranean that even she can’t detect them–a wise adviser avoids such issues entirely by never, ever steering clients towards investments where she, or her loved ones, will profit personally.
The same is true for agents. An agent is an author’s most zealous advocate. She fights for every aspect of her clients’ careers. A great agent monitors print run, coop, marketing. She pushes for foreign sales. When you go back to contract, she asks for more money, better royalty rates, a bigger push in marketing. An author trusts her agent explicitly–and it’s easy to do so, because an author and an agent have interests that are wholly aligned. You want to make more money as an author; your agent wants to make more money as an agent. She gets 15% of what you get. Her interest is your interest: to sell as many books to as many people as possible.
When we were deciding between publishing houses, my agent helped lay out the pros and cons for me of all my options. We talked about our biggest worries with each one, and I believed that she was pushing to get the very best offer we could from every house, so that I could make an informed decision. I knew that she wanted to get the best for me, because (a) my agent is the kind of perfectionist who would never let anything stop her, and (b) it was never in her interest to do anything else.
This stops being true if your agent is either a publisher herself, or is so intertwined with the publisher that you cannot distinguish between them. And, sadly, this is the second time this year I’ve seen agents who have morphed themselves from agents. The first is Lori Perkins, whose clients are sold to a publisher in which she holds a financial interest, Ravenous Romance. Lori Perkins has explained that she doesn’t take a commission on those sales to Ravenous from her clients–but all that this accomplishes is that now she truly has no financial interest in doing what is right for her clients. She has no interest in fighting for an extra 2% royalty rate, or a higher advance for her clients, because now she isn’t even getting paid for that.
The second is the Waxman Agency, which recently announced Diversion Books, an electronic press. Diversion Books has already published books written by Waxman Agency clients. And I have to ask: Really? If your agency owns a publishing house, do you really think you won’t be biased–just a little–in negotiating contracts with your clients? Will you really be able to tell your clients, “Yes, I think that it’s best if you publish with us, versus a more established e-publisher like Samhain?” without having the teensiest bit of bias? Can you evaluate your chances of success–logically and dispassionately, the way you would for an author choosing between publishing houses? Will you fight yourself for the best royalty rate? Will you be asking hard questions of yourself? If you produce a horrendous cover, will you call yourself up and say, “Honey, no. We have to lose the mullet,” or will you be the one to placate the author? Can you really wear both those hats?
Don’t get me wrong. I have several friends who have Holly Root of the Waxman Agency as an agent, and they universally sing her praises. I have heard nothing but good things about her. But for me, this would be an instant deal-breaker.
I don’t think these people mean to screw their clients. I honestly believe that the Waxman Agency really does think that this is, in fact, a good thing for their clients, an additional opportunity that their clients can avail themselves of. None of the people I have named are bad people. None of them are perfidious jerks, trying to do their clients wrong. But all of them have put themselves in the way of temptation. They have complicated straight-forward interests. And smart people who zealously represent their clients don’t do that. That’s the point of rules of ethics: to steer you away from temptation, even the ones that are so subterranean you might not recognize them.
I understand that publishing is changing and that the role of agent will see revamping over the next few decades. But the one thing I can say for sure is this: If the role of agent morphs into the role of publisher, the person needs to stop calling themselves an “agent.” If there is anything–anything at all–that stands in the way of an agent zealously representing her client, that person has ceased to be an agent. They may be a publisher. They may be a full-service book-packager with editorial add ons. They may still be something very valuable in the publishing world–don’t get me wrong–I understand where all of this is coming from. They may be visionaries in publishing.
But what they are not doing is zealously representing their clients’ interests. If there is any financial issue that stands as a roadblock between your client’s best interests and your own, you’re not 100% an agent any longer, and that is a problem.
So, what do I think you should do about this, if you’re looking for an agent? My best advice is to look for an agent who is a member of AAR. The Association of Author’s Representatives has a smart canon of ethics. It’s not a guarantee–there are always liars, or people who bend the rules–but look for someone who values that canon.
I know that this post is not going to make everyone happy. I’m sorry for that–but the truth of the matter is this. If you’re going to pay someone 15% of your work, you deserve full value for your money. And someone who is conflicted about that–or is willing to enter into such conflicts–in my mind is not worth the price.