Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A New Hat For A Literary Agent?

Eleven months ago on April 28 in a blog here about the new digital economy, I made a prediction. I said:

What I suspect is going to happen is that the lines between publisher, distributor, bookstore and author are going to start blurring. Unusual contracts among the different parties are likely to emerge.

While I still believe that comment was on target, I left one element of the equation out: the agent.

I was interested to read in The Bookseller on Saturday that a well-known UK literary agency is planning to start its own print-on-demand (POD) service for its authors' backlist.

PFD plans to design new covers for out-of-print books by their clients, list them on Amazon and then fulfill the orders that come in via Lightning Source's POD operation. The books will be priced at £10 and £15, and the authors will be paid a flat royalty of 10%.

On the surface, everyone wins. Readers can access out-of-print books by favorite writers, authors may be able to develop an audience of new fans and, because PFD is using POD technology, the books won't be printed until there's an order received so there won't be any messy returns to deal with.

What's not to like?

For starters, the new initiative is meeting with resistance from the Society of Authors, the UK equivalent of the U.S. Authors Guild. The first reason they give is the one I usually offer to people who are considering self-publishing. The Bookseller quotes the Society of Authors' Kate Pool:

". . . sitting back and saying you can find this book listed on a website is very different from trying to find a publisher who'll take these titles on and bring them back into print . . ."

Newbie writers often believe that all they need to have is a physical copy of their book to put up for sale on Amazon or their own website. They forget that selling books requires a mechanism to drive traffic to that listing on Amazon or their website. In the cacophony that is the Internet, their books will be competing with the nearly 300,000 titles printed each year. Without something to make that listing stand out, they will be lucky to sell one or two copies--and those will probably be to their mothers and their old elementary school teachers.

But the Society of Authors didn't stop there with their objections. "[PFD] seems to be taking 90% of the money for no work."

I think that's a wee bit harsh. After all, PFD is acting as the book packager, putting together the author, cover designer, Amazon and printer. The designer and printer will need to be paid. And Amazon is going to take a nice chunk of change for their role in the process.

On the other hand, a 10% royalty does seem absurdly low to me--unless PFD is going to undertake an aggressive marketing campaign to drive traffic to those POD books. Nothing in the story I read indicated that was part of the plan.

But all this ignores a central point. Is there a conflict of interest in PFD acting as both the author's agent and his de facto publisher?

The Society of Authors certainly seems to think so.

Marcella Edwards, who is overseeing the program for PFD, disagrees. She told The Bookseller, "once the agency has proved there is a sustainable demand for a particular title, it will then try to re-sell the book to a mainstream house. 'We will still be actively trying to get deals with publishers'."

It remains to be seen how PFD's new business will be regarded. They report several of their authors are signing up for the new program, including the "VS Pritchett estate, the Storm Jameson estate and author Angela Huth."

You can read the entire article here.

Interestingly enough, today's edition of The Bookseller reports that "US agent Andrew Wylie has . . . snatched Evelyn Waugh's literary estate from PFD, the agency that handled it for the past 80 years . . ."

In a related story in today's Times here, it's reported:

The loss of Waugh from its stable is the cruellest of many recent blows inflicted on PFD. Although it had lost Ruth Rendell, the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion and the children’s novelist Anthony Horowitz, the company had at least retained a sturdy backlist of departed [note: deceased] writers, including the estates of authors such as V.S. Pritchett and Roy Jenkins. But Waugh was the jewel in their crown. The Waughs’ loss of faith in PDF is more devastating since the relationship dates back so far.

We all know the publishing industry is changing. Digitization, POD technology and the Internet are having a huge impact on what was. It remains to be seen what will come next.

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