Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
Many moons ago, I wondered whether literary agents would thrive or be cast adrift in the ever-shifting waters of the publishing industry. With the emergence of a vast array of alternative avenues, ranging from controversial e-only imprints like Random House’s Hydra to the ever-expanding cornucopia of self-publishing platforms, would the need for a front line of publishing gatekeepers remain?
As the publishing singularity—the gradual merging of different media and hybridization of roles within the industry—draws nigh, it seems that rather than fading into the mist, literary agents are beginning to take on an increasingly active role. While some agencies have formed in-house divisions or even separate business entities that function as self-contained epublishing houses, offering a suite of digital services to eligible writers, other agencies are content to act as facilitators for their own clients in instances where bypassing traditional publishers makes the most financial sense.
For instance, Trident Media’s ebook division was launched in early 2012 and promptly churned out fifty titles in its first eight months. Among its most recent releases is Deepak Chopra’s e-only Ask Deepak About Love and Relationships, which was released on January 22, 2013. Many Trident releases are backlist titles to which rights have reverted, but the speed with which Trident is able to bring its nonfiction originals to market means that its ephemerally relevant, current-event titles have also done well. Trident doesn’t accept outside submissions for its epublishing program; its services are strictly limited to the agency’s clients.
According to this Publishers Weekly article, in order to avoid conflicts of interest by acting as a more traditional publisher, the agency takes a standard 15 percent commission on the revenues received by its authors. At the same time, instead of outsourcing any of the epublishing elements, Trident claims to provide its clients with a full self-publishing package: everything from jacket design, substantive editing, copyediting, formatting the documents into epub and mobi formats, and actually uploading the finished ebooks is kept in-house. Trident books are available on Amazon and Apple.
In contrast, Diversion Books—originally launched by powerhouse agent Scott Waxman as an ancillary wing of his agency—is its own entity and behaves as more of a classic publisher. According to the same PW article, Diversion is run by a dedicated director, a full-time staffer, and a regular roster of freelance editors and programmers. The company launched with twelve titles and has now published several hundred, focusing on the following: “overlooked” books, which were originally traditionally published but sold poorly; out of print books; short format ebooks; quick-to-market ebooks; content collections by companies, brands, websites, or bloggers who want to aggregate their existing content and distribute, promote, and sell it in ebook format, and original fiction and nonfiction.
Unlike Trident, the standard royalty split in Diversion contracts is a steep 50/50. Diversion also accepts unsolicited submissions, either agented or submitted directly through their website, and partners with a wide range of literary agencies and media outlets. Along with digital publishing, Diversion Books also offers POD services, although their comprehensive e-package—which includes copyediting and designing the book interiors and jackets, formatting the book, and distributing it to B&N online, Amazon, Apple, Sony, and Kobo—forms the bulk of its appeal.
Another alternative is showcased by San Diego-based Waterside Production, which entered a partnership with Vook and its new ebook publishing program to create Waterfront Press. Waterfront is run by a team of three employees and has published only six titles so far. Vook was chosen as a partner due to the platform’s format diversity—its ebooks are available in all digital formats and are therefore device agnostic—and the ability to create enhanced ebooks on the Vook platform. Waterfront pay authors a royalty of 50 percent of the net receipts on the first 500 units sold, and 75 percent thereafter. They also require a registration fee of $500 for preparation of the ebook, and another $500 for the distribution and marketing launch.
A slew of other agencies have jumped on the epublishing bandwagon, many of them preferring to charge the standard 15 percent commission and publish only their own clients’ titles, largely backlist works and special interest releases that capitalize on briefly relevant, newsworthy topics. These agencies include:
Agencies looking to explore the publishing frontier also have the option of partnering with such outfits as Perseus Books’ Argo Navis, which caters to authors who want to self-publish but already have an agent. With Argo Navis, agents act as the liaison with Perseus, assisting authors with what is still essentially a self-publishing endeavor. Argo offers a la carte pricing and a 70/30 royalty split to authors in exchange for its all-inclusive digital services. The process is straightforward: through their agents, authors provide Argo with their books in Word document, PDF, or print book form and then choose from a menu of services, which include copyediting and proofreading, page design, jacket design, distribution to all the major retailers, POD, and marketing.
The decision to expand into publishing raises a host of questions for agencies looking to get their feet wet. For instance, should digital services necessary for
the creation of ebooks be kept in-house through full-time employees, or outsourced to freelancers? Might a partnership with Argo Navis, Vook, or BookBaby be the better way to go? Should the agency focus on publishing its own authors, or broaden its reach to writers who are not agency clients? Is the standard 15 percent agency commission appropriate for epublishing ventures, and are there legitimate conflicts of interest when agents double as publishers and enforce steeper royalty splits?
It’s early yet, and no clear guidelines have emerged when it comes to agents and epublishing, but one thing is certain: innovation has become the norm rather than the exception in the publishing world, and agencies that fail to evolve with the market will be left in the dust.