Watching the Agent Fray

Not many of my readers are following the publishing anti-trust case, but the writing/publishing blogosphere has been pretty active in the last couple of weeks. One of the most interesting developments has been seeing agents taking their positions on the matter. I would like to say I was surprised by what they said, but I can’t. More accurately, it was simply disappointing.

A number of high-ranking members in the Association of Authors’ Representatives (i.e. authors’ agents) as well as some from the rank and file and been writing to the Department of Justice in defense of the five publishers in the suit. They talk a lot about the good of the publishing industry, about the need to save brick and mortar bookstores, and the need to preserve the viability of hardcover book sales. The only point where they talk about the authors they supposedly represent is when they admit that yes, under the current e-book pricing system, their authors get less per book than they would have otherwise, but that this is a necessary sacrifice for the good of the industry.

In another case a romance agent spoke up on behalf of Harlequin’s business practices after an author complained of getting an effective royalty rate of less than 3% compared to Harlequin’s promised 6% rate. The agent was very patronizing and reminding the poor author that she signed the contract, and Harlequin was acting within its rights. In other words, you got what you asked for.

I don’t mean to cast all agents in this light, but it seems to me that these agents are no longer standing up for their authors’ interests. They are fighting instead for their publishers’ interests, or perhaps merely their own interests. They’re promoting the sacrifice of those authors’ interests for the sake of “the publishing industry”. They’re telling their clients to be careful what contracts they sign when they are supposed to be the authors’ advocates in negotiating those contracts. In short, these agents are exercising the ethics of a vulture.

I’m sure there are plenty of ethical agents still out there. I’m just waiting for them to jump into the debate and start arguing for their clients’ interests. Waiting… and waiting…

But for all the agent angst going on out there, I am watching without any personal interest. I saw this conflict of interest coming last year when I saw how some agents were handling their clients’ backlists moving to e-books. It was one of the things that drove me to self-publishing, and as such, I don’t have an agent.

That actually saddens me. It would have been nice to have someone to watch my back, to get the sage advice of an experienced hand. But I saw that I couldn’t do it. I realized that between agent ethics and increasingly harsh publishing contracts, I was probably going to be better off on my own as this settles out in the next two to three years.

In some ways it’s scarier this way. I don’t know what to expect. But sometimes fear of the unknown is less than distaste for the known.