Sunday, January 30, 2011

E-Publishing Just Got A Whole Lot Messier To My Mind

Recently, one of our talented blog followers threw a wrench into the whole e-pubbing business when she asked for advice regarding ebooks and whether they are a legitimate way "to get a foot in the door and get publishing credits." That question is pretty easy to address, even for someone like me who only studies the market as a hobby and has no better insight than your average interested party.

I was, however, quite taken by surprise when she mentioned she was in dialog with an agent who only reps ebooks.

Surely she'd mis-typed that and meant to say "editor" rather than "agent." But no, she meant an agent. In fact, she had received a revision letter from the agent and was working on those suggestions. She just wanted reassurance that she wouldn't be blowing her future chances with traditional publishing if she hopped on board the e-pubbing train or whether it would mar her record in the same way self-publishing does.

So, an observation, an answer and a couple of questions for YOU.


I'm intrigued. I haven't heard of this agent model before now. The closest one I know about is agencies that have set up their own publishing arm to handle the backlists of their clients. Think Richard Curtis and E-Reads. But an agent who makes a living subbing to e-pubs is a new concept for me. Still, if the agent is part of a larger house who can rally together to handle the work when its status changes, then this may well be the wave of the future.

Some things to consider and clarify up front, I would think:

  • Most e-pubs accept unagented subs. There are a handful of respected indies that produce mainly ebooks that do require an agent, but those are very, very few.
  • Most e-pubs have a set, non-negotiable contract regarding their advance policy and royalty payments.
  • The majority of e-books placed with e-pubs have low sell-through.
  • E-pubs make money by having lots of product. This would mean an agent would have to have LOTS of clients or that her clients would have to be extremely prolific, turning out multiple books per year.
  • Most e-pubs offer a very low advance or no advance altogether.
  • E-pubs offer a higher royalty rate than traditional pubs, but with far less sell-through, the total money is generally far less, too.
  • So how does the agent make a living? With low-selling titles, there are generally no opportunities for subsidiary rights.
  • What does the agent offer in the mix?
  • E-pubs provide cover art, editing, some promotion, and take care of electronic distribution.
  • Many of the editors operate on a commission basis. Many have complained they've wound up editing books for free or next-to-free because the books never sold very well. How long will an agent be able to stay in business in this climate?
  • How does the agency determine which books to try to get published traditionally and which to try to get e-pubbed? And will that broaden the stigma e-books have traditionally had in the industry?
  • Will working with that agent ensure your books are forever e-published? Or is the agent sort of a junior agent grooming junior authors for eventually working with other agents in the agency once the author proves themself with a couple of e-book sales?
Agents have to absolutely start looking at other models that include digital publishing. Having an arm in the agency that handles e-pub rights sounds like a step forward. But is it a step in the right direction?

Personally, I'm struggling with whether an e-publisher can do significantly more for a writer than self-e-pubbing can. Throwing whether an agent can offer anything into that mix just makes my head whirl.


As to whether or not having a book e-pubbed is wise or not, here's the answer I gave:
  • I know a lot of writers who got their start in e-books and moved on to traditional publishing, so yes, a great foot-in-the-door, and certainly a solid credit to offer up on your next book should you want to get an agent for it.
  • It's not at all the same as self-publishing and with a reputable e-publisher you get a professional edit, nice layout, pro cover, and some help with marketing -- all on their upfront dime.
  • You don't generally get an advance (which is why most agents shy away), but royalties are generally pretty nice -- averaging 30-40%.
  • Some e-pubs only request your rights for 2-3 years, after which you can renegotiate or they get returned to you. That means if you sell another book to a print publisher and it does well and you become a "name", you might be able to sell your e-book to them as well. Some e-pubs also do an occasional print run of some of their titles, in which case, royalties are usually a bit higher than traditional publishers (but still no advance, generally).
  • I also know several writers who love their e-publishers and their audience and how quickly their books can get to market compared to the 1-2 years it takes traditional publishing, and they've decided to stick with their e-pubs. They're making a living e-pubbing, BUT they're also able to write quickly and turn out 3-4 books a year.
I will caveat this with new insight that came out of the Digital Book World conference last week. I followed some of the tweets, so these observations are raw and unverified on my part, but interesting if they prove true:
  • More than half of Amazon book sales are now ebooks.
  • Random House predicts their ebook sales will reach 50% by 2015.
  • It came as a surprise to some agents/editors that romance has a lot of legit e-publishers who are doing quite well. (Are people in the biz really so ignorant as to what's going on around them, even if it's a genre they don't handle? This would tell me they aren't doing their research as the tsunami of digital publishing comes crashing against their door.)
There's a round-up at for anyone who has the patience to slog through it all.

Questions For YOU
  • What advice would you give this author about ebooks and/or about working with an agent who only reps ebooks?
  • What have YOU heard about this agent model?


Sylvia said...

I'd never heard of an agent for ebooks before but I've just read this which warns against it for mid-list authors: The Business Rusch: Bad Decisions and the Midlist Writer (Changing Times Part 15) | Kristine Kathryn Rusch

"No writer should ever ever hire an agent to do this work. If your agent decides to go into e-publishing and print-on-demand, fire that agent immediately. I am not kidding about this."

This makes more sense in the context of the full article.

Phoenix said...

@Sylvia: Wow, great link, Sylvia! Thanks.

What it seems KKR is arguing against is the Richard Curtis/E-Reads type of publishing venture, which she makes some great points about.

I guess I'm going to have to do some more research on the agent who handles e-rights for books their agency doesn't pub -- is there a conflict of interest there or a possible landmine just waiting to be tripped?

Wilkins MacQueen said...

Hi Sylvia,
Thanks for putting in the link. Amazing, eye opening information.