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Default Position: Agent on Tightrope

Yesterday my agent confessed that she “messed up royally.” Actually,  Rachelle’s post was a clarification of her previous post entitled Will My Publisher Let Me Self-Publish Too? This post stirred up lots of pushback, most notably from self-published authors who felt she was siding with “Big Pub.”

Frankly, I thought it was an overreaction on the part of many of the commenters and reminded me a lot of THIS POST where I suggested that waiting to self-publish was a good idea, was linked to some guerrilla self-publishers, called bad names, and ended up doing a lot of back-tracking. I felt a similar (over-) reaction occurred toward Rachelle’s post.

Don’t get me wrong. There was lots of reasonable, civil, compelling arguments for why self-pubbing is better than traditional publishing and how big publishers can and do take advantage of authors.

Perhaps the big bat was the one swung by James Scott Bell in his lengthy comment, which began:

I found the very form of the question somewhat disconcerting. “Will my publisher LET ME?” Like I’m in third grade? Rather, the question should simply be, “How May I Self-Publish Successfully?” I’m not owned by a publishing company. I am not begging for Kibble. I am a writer who knows what he’s doing, who can deliver the goods, and to whom readers pay because of said goods.

Writers who are “gung ho” to write more and make more money are doing what writers only WISHED they could do in the “old days.” And our mantra is, we can work with publishers, too, as long as a mutually beneficial deal can be worked out. Which is how it should be.

The comment thread is actually very informative. It clearly gives you the sense that the tide is turning (has turned?) and the chips are on the side of the “underdog.” And, frankly, some of the anger is warranted. I mean, I’ve invested far more time and money to market my books and further my brand than any publisher has. This doesn’t mean I will, henceforth, forgo traditional publishing. It means I’m going in with the realization that I still need to work my ass off.

What I found most interesting, however, was the insinuation that Rachelle’s post showed she was on the side of big publishers and not being an advocate for her clients.

I thought this was absurd.

Granted, this could be because I actually know Rachelle, have worked with her, and have never gotten the sense that she does not have my best interest in mind or that she’s a shill for the evil “Big Pub.” In fact, I’ve self-published two books since joining her team. No strings attached. And she’s been nothing but encouraging along the way.

Which is why I appreciated what Ramona Richards, a novelist and acquisitions editor, said on Rachelle’s follow-up post:

Rachelle, your posts don’t often surprise me, but this one did. Anyone who would think you would be on the side of a publisher over a client is either 1) new; 2) not paying attention; 3) never negotiated a contract with you. As a “traditional” publisher who HAS done that last one, I know from personal experience that you are an excellent advocate for your clients. The industry is undergoing a sea-change right now, and there are a lot of unknowns. Your devotion to your clients is not one of them.


I think Rachelle was right to issue a follow-up, apologize for her “royal mess-up,” and clarify her position. I couldn’t help but wonder if her mea culpa is indicative of the tenuous author / agent relationship created by the new world of publishing. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see many similar “clarifications” in the near future on the part of agents assuring clients and potential clients that they are not lapdogs for traditional publishers and can play a legitimate role in an author’s career.

Which means that the default position for literary agents will be teetering on the tightrope somewhere between those “evil” publishers and us newly empowered, and quite ready for payback, authors.

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{ 30 comments… add one }
  • Mark Carver May 9, 2013, 7:30 AM

    I can imagine that a strong author/agent relationship can be a great source of encouragement and comfort to a writer, in terms of creative feedback, networking, and just the feeling that someone is “in your corner.” When I was shopping my first novel around last year, I queried agents and publishers, and the publishers were usually the first to respond, either positively or negatively. It was only after I had received some offers from publishers and accepted one that I received an offer from an agent, and by then it was too late.

    It is nice to be able to go straight to the publishers (though if one wants to get attention from the mid- to upper-level houses, an agent is usually required) but I think an agent is beneficial in many ways, and not just as a key that opens doors.

  • Kat Heckenbach May 9, 2013, 8:11 AM

    I went back and read Rachelle’s original blog post (the one she apologized for) and I didn’t see it as her advocating for big publishers at all. Other than the one highly misinterpreted “if they allow you” statement, she speaks of traditional publishing as a partnership, not some sort of slave-ownership as is being implied by commenters.

    Maybe it’s because I’m with a small press and therefore more involved in the process of publishing with them. I see all the stages even when I’m not actively participating in them. I’m in constant contact with the publisher, with the editors, with the cover artists (me being one of those artists) and I see all the work and time put into that book–and the effect it all has on the publisher. Rachelle is justified in warning against trying to just do it all on your own…not because you don’t have a right to, but because you don’t have a team of editors and cover artists and whatnot ensuring that what you put out yourself meets the standards of your other works that have been trad-pubbed. In many ways, she’s saying that authors need to not sabotage *themselves*.

    As for James Scott Bell’s comment–well, he’s right. About himself. He’s an industry pro, been in the biz a long time, and would probably naturally follow all the advice Rachelle gives in her post about not conflicting with his trad publisher’s schedule and such anyway, so self-pubbing for him makes sense. Same goes for other authors I’ve heard have started self-pubbing, like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman (rumors, maybe, but I’ve heard that), who, again, are *pros*. The thing is, I don’t think she’s writing to industry pros…She’s writing to newer authors who are in danger of jumping the gun.

  • Jill May 9, 2013, 8:40 AM

    I read the article when she first posted it. Although I don’t remember the exact content, she didn’t seem to be writing as a shill for publishers. She seemed to be speaking an objective truth that is filtered sujectively through the experiences of authors. The article depressed me, which is precisely why I didn’t comment. I hate reading about this new wave of writers “choosing” to be traditionally-published or self-published or both–as if the choice is always ours for the taking. I would much rather have gone the trad route. I’m still holding out hope that I will someday, in the realm of nonfiction, and I sorely hope my attempt at self-pubbing doesn’t make me an undesirable hybrid creature. But I took a risk, and I accept that.

  • Katherine Coble May 9, 2013, 9:44 AM

    I don’t think people are angry at Big Publishing in and of itself as much as those who have been self-publishing for awhile are raw from the years of accusations about the quality of their work.

    • Jill May 9, 2013, 10:00 AM

      This is true. On the other hand, the original post seemed to be about publishers needing to protect their brands. It’s one of those “well, duh” arguments. Sadly for them, people make really bad brands.

      • Katherine Coble May 11, 2013, 1:05 PM

        Yeah, after reading the original article all I came away with was “she’s just giving sound legal advice on basic publishing contracts. Why so serious?”

  • Jessica Thomas May 9, 2013, 11:15 AM

    The post rubbed me the wrong way, primarily from a monetary stand point. I can understand a publisher requiring that much control over a writer in whom they’ve invested a large amount of money. But for a 5K advance (if lucky)? Um. I don’t think so. To me that’s basically big publishers saying, “We know you can’t make a living off the measely little salary we are giving you, but we expect full creative control over your career. Oh, and by the way, you have to do all your own marketing.” Huh uh.

    • Kim May 9, 2013, 11:53 AM

      No, that’s not why they give advances. They give advances b/c they have faith in the novel and they are expecting you to SELL $5,000 of books. You don’t get any royalties until you sell that advancement amount. As for marketing, my publisher pays for my convention appearances as long as the firm attends. She even told me if I go to a convention, she wants to know about it as they might want to attend and I have to only pay for transportation. Six months before my book is released, they are planing a huge marketing campaign. They are wanting to contact the bookstores to sell the book there, not me. So although I do some of the marketing, I don’t do it all. They are my partner, not a ‘big pub’.

      As for control? What control??? Sure my publisher doesn’t want me to include intense sexual or homosexual scenes, limit cursings, but that’s about it. There is no control over my creative process. Instead, she helps me along, giving me ideas. She lets me write the novel, but looks for my bad habit of dropping words, misspelled words and gives advice on how to improve the book. She helps me make it better. Like I said, she’s not my enemy, but my partner.

      As for Rachelle’s post, she’s right on the mark. you’ll find this same thing in ANY business. If I work for Macy’s cosmetic counter, they surely wouldn’t want me to promote my Mary Kay business, it’s a conflict of interest. So why in the world would a publisher say it’s ok to promote a self-pub book while promoting a traditionally published book by their firm? Conflict of interest. It’s not ‘control’ but good business management.

      All Rachelle is trying to say is read the contract before signing it to make sure you can self-publish if you choose and ways to make both parties happy. That’s all and she’s right.

      • Jessica Thomas May 9, 2013, 12:17 PM

        I understand the nature of advances, my point is that it’s unrealistic for a publisher to disallow a writer to branch out and pursue other sources of income from their writing. Writer’s need to eat too. Before I read Rachelle’s post, I was of the understanding the publishers allow writer’s to do that, but the tone of Rachelle’s post seemed to say differently. So, I was left feeling confused about the whole situation, which is why I’m glad she clarified herself.

        The control I was referring to was a contract that says, “The writer cannot self-publish, the writer cannot… cannot… cannot… The publisher must make any and all branding decisions, blah blah blah.” I’m not comfortable with that kind of contract. Yes, I am an unproven author, but I’ve been a business professional for over 15 years. I think I’m capable of making some of my own decisions regarding how to present my work and brand myself. If all we’re talking about is a non-compete clause within a given genre (for instance), that’s fine, but Rachelle made it sound as if publishers were requesting more control than that.

        • Kim May 9, 2013, 2:01 PM

          I don’t think Rachelle was saying that publishers wants control of the writer, it’s a partnership between the writer and the publisher. Now as a partnership, I can’t just do what I please, but I have to work with my partner on my novel, the same as a business partner must work with their partner. My publisher has no control over what I can write or not write, that’s where my audience comes in. they have more control than the publisher does.

          Most contracts don’t have Writer can’t, can’t, can’t. Mine has no can’ts. But it is a partnership contract as most are. It’s more like you have to think what’s best for you and your partner.

  • Kim May 9, 2013, 11:36 AM

    I read her post, will my publisher let me self-publish, and I personally think she’s right on the mark. I am a traditionally published writer and I don’t see myself as working for the ‘big pub’, but having a great business partner. If I succeed, she succeeds, if she succeeds, I succeed. So I am wanting to make sure that both of us look good and professional. With that said, I’m also not understanding this huge anger towards some really great advice. It’s something a writer needs to know before signing the contract and yet some self-published writers decided it was a twing towards them. Very sad. I for one would like to self-publish a novel, but I’m wanting to wait until I’m between publishers so not to mar or interfere with my current publisher.

    • Jill May 9, 2013, 12:09 PM

      If you actually believe your publisher is your partner, then there is probably no point in engaging in a conversation with you. Unless the publisher is a small indie press, the people there don’t view you as a partner. Your tone is a little bit too….congratulatory.

      • Jill May 9, 2013, 12:18 PM

        I realized this comment would come across ruder than I’d meant it. Your assessment seems to be a little off–that’s what I meant to say. Your agent is your partner, who protects you from being taken advantage of by publishers. I don’t see how both could be partners. One is more of an employee.

        • Jill May 9, 2013, 12:20 PM


          • Kim May 9, 2013, 2:05 PM

            But she’s not my employer. I don’t ‘work’ for her. She helps me to get my book to where it needs to be, then she gets it published for me and helps with marketing. That’s how all publishers work. Publishers aren’t your enemy. If they were, then no one would work with them. So I guess we can’t have a conversation as you see the publisher as McDonalds, I see my publisher as a partner.

            • Kim May 9, 2013, 2:08 PM

              Also, anyone who has a publisher will be the first one to tell you what I told you. I’ve never heard anyone who had a publisher who complained that the publisher was their task master.

              • Jessica Thomas May 9, 2013, 3:26 PM

                Check out Joe Konrath’s blog. He’s certainly of the vocal variety but he brings up interesting points. I’m sure there are plenty others. In the music realm you have Prince, the artist formerly known as ‘formally know as Prince’. That’s an extreme example.

              • Katherine Coble May 11, 2013, 1:07 PM

                Stephen King; George RR Martin; Patricia Cornwell; Patrick Rothfuss; Debbie Macomber….

                I could go on and on and on. MOST writers of popular, top-selling fiction feel (and have said publicly) constrained by the pressures of their publishers’ expectations.

      • Iola May 9, 2013, 2:48 PM

        Yes, Kim’s with a small indie press, Little Roni Publishers. Twelve books, the majority of which are written by the Editorial Director. Not exactly in the same league as Zondervan or Thomas Nelson, and it does give them more ability to have personal relationships with their authors.

        • Kim May 9, 2013, 2:53 PM

          I’ve talked to writers with Zonderman and others and they say the same thing as I do. I’ve yet to hear folks complain that their publishers are cruel taskmasters.

          • Jill May 9, 2013, 3:34 PM

            Cruel task master? It’s sad that you equate an employer with a cruel task master. That’s just weird to me. Yes, a publisher is an employer who hires contract labor. To me, that isn’t a partner, but neither is it a task master.

            • Jill May 9, 2013, 3:36 PM

              Or enemies. I’ve never viewed my employers as being enemies, either. I’ve always been grateful to be employed.

              • Kim May 9, 2013, 4:09 PM

                Jill, based on your post, you sounded like the ’employer’ is a cruel taskmaster to the writer, who doesn’t let the poor writer do as they please, that’s why I used that word. I”m only trying to get you to see the publisher’s pov, which folks here are making them seem like they are cruel to the writer. Whatever. I’m done. You seem to know more about publishers than I do, even though I’m going through the process now. So I’ll leave you to it.

                • Jill May 9, 2013, 8:01 PM

                  Wow, Kim, I don’t know what to say. I never used the word “cruel” or anything of the sort. I only balked at your use of the word “partner” in connection to publishers (and I qualified that in connection to small indies). I don’t have to know a lot about publishers to know they hire writers on contract and can conversely fire them. To me, that’s not a partnership, but neither is it cruel. It’s just business. I also didn’t disagree or take offence with Rachelle’s article (as I said in my original comment).

  • Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) May 9, 2013, 12:09 PM

    Great post, Mike. Very insightful. Thanks!

  • Richard Mabry May 9, 2013, 2:19 PM

    Mike, I’ve followed Rachelle’s posts and the comments that ensued, and it makes me sad to see the schism that’s springing up in the publishing community. There’s a lot of “us vs. them” mentality abroad now.
    When I began writing, just a few years ago, self-publishing was often called “vanity publishing,” and was the route chosen by people who couldn’t get a contract from a traditional publisher. Now that’s changed, and the “hybrid” model is becoming more common, with people (like you and Jim Bell) having books out in both modalities. But there’s a vocal minority in both camps that seems prepared to take umbrage at anything written or done by the people across the fence. And that saddens me.
    The times they are a-changin’. I’m not fond of change, but I recognize that it’s necessary. I just wish it didn’t come with so much acrimony.

  • R. L. Copple May 9, 2013, 2:20 PM

    I’ve followed Rachelle’s blog for a while now, though I rarely comment. When I read that post, I knew right away it would raise some dust. Primarily the dust it raised is differing context.

    Not only in context of Rachelle’s other post, which I knew she wasn’t anti-self-publish, but also the information context between dealing with the publishing world and the typical self-publisher, of which I am one, though more than half my books are contracted with two indie presses (no non-compete clause in either though I do make an effort to not have one of my books come out at the same time as my publisher’s).

    Rachelle didn’t give us in that post an example of an “acceptable” non-compete clause, but I imagine she had one in her mind. The non-compete clauses most of us self-publishers have heard about is the trend by publishers to maintain their rights for for the life of the copyright (lifetime plus 70 years), and non-compete clauses that prevent the author from putting out their own work without their permission for the life of the copyright, at least by contract terms. Whether that is actually enforced is another question, but it is there.

    So the bulk of primarily self-published authors, especially if they’ve not followed her blog at all, or for long, heard her say, “Publishers have a right to restrict your output as long as they are publishing your book…you have to have their permission to write another book, 1, 3, 5, 10, 20+ years down the road.” IOW, if you want to make a career out of this, you’re sunk, at least with that pen name. Because you’re going to have to live off what this publisher allows you to publish, no matter the genre or outlet because any other book will be seen as competing with their books by you.

    Now, my guess was, even though this is how it sounded, that she didn’t mean it quite like that. I’m sure if she ran across such a vast non-compete clause that she would negotiate for a more equitable one that would allow the author to write and publish more books through whatever venue. My guess is most decent non-competes are limited to a small window of time, like 3-6 months after publication, and by genre. That may be what Rachelle had in mind.

    But self-publishers heard we should be happy to accept the worst case scenario, and reacted accordingly. Since there was no example of an equitable non-compete clause given, it was left for the reader to fill in the blanks from their own experience or what they’ve heard, which are mostly the horror stories.

    I admit, my first reaction was hearing her say, “This is just how it is. You’ll have to accept you can’t publishing what you want any more once you sign with a publisher. They will have complete control over what you can put out for however long they need it. And here’s why…”

    So it did sound initially like she was saying she wouldn’t go to bat for a client, that she’d be advising them this is just the way it is, they have a right to control what you can publish. Now, sign the contract if you want to be published. But, the message didn’t jive with what I’ve heard before completely, so I reevaluated, and appreciated the clarifications she offered. Not that she has to answer to me, mind you.

    But I think that is why she got the reaction she did. Differing context being read into what the non-compete clause would say.

    • Jessica Thomas May 9, 2013, 6:20 PM

      “the trend by publishers to maintain their rights for for the life of the copyright (lifetime plus 70 years), and non-compete clauses that prevent the author from putting out their own work without their permission for the life of the copyright, at least by contract terms.”

      Good analysis. And the hideous (but hopefully fictional!) non-compete clause you outline above is exactly the type of thing that jumped into my head as I was reading her post. It left me shaking in my boots, to be honest. I was ready to write off traditional publishing right then and there.

      However, based on Rachelle’s previous posts, I can’t imagine her suggesting an author sign their intellectual property away like that, especially not in this digital age. But maybe some writers actually do sign contracts like that! Not this one, unless by very unfortunate accident. 🙁

    • Lyn Perry May 21, 2013, 9:20 AM

      “IOW, if you want to make a career out of this, you’re sunk, at least with that pen name.” Thus one reason for a pseudonym. Or, simply do both – traditional publish when the terms are in your favor and self-publish for other venues. As Mike has done with his novella and short story collection. Room for both in this world – since both are here to stay.

  • D.M. Dutcher May 11, 2013, 8:23 AM

    Thinking about it, this assumes that every publisher plans to have a long term relationship with their writers. I don’t think this is the case except for a very few, and the midlist especially seems to have to go out of house to make money, either by self-pubbing older works that are no longer in print, or doing other fields of writing entirely. I’d give this more weight depending on the specific relationship a writer has with a press.

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