Shifting Sands: From Konrath to…Who?

Shifting sands in the wind can both expose and cover up what we see ahead. I see the debate on whether the gatekeepers of publishing should sit at the same poker table as the ebook and self-publishing ‘riff-raff’ in the same way. When I say gatekeepers, I mean mainstream publishers and literary agencies.

For me, the shifting sands of the publishing industry have taken us to a subtle but noticeable change in recent months. It wasn’t too long ago we were all fiercely debating the moves by mainstream houses like Harlequin and Thomas Nelson into the realm of self-publishing services and imprints. Several more publishers have decided to travel down the same path over the past twelve months. Recently, the sands have shifted again, and the debate is now focusing on literary agents taking the plunge into both self-publishing services and ebook publishing imprints.
The Wylie Agency played literary poker with the big six publishers when the company decided to launch Odyssey Editions, an imprint set up to publish digital versions of their clients’ back catalogue of books. Wylie forced the issue and ended up cutting some revised deals with publishers – a case of guns at dawn at two paces apart. Andrea Brown Literary Agents and Ed Victor UK have tried similar ventures, and Curtis Brown and Blake Friedman also raised eyebrows when both agencies announced plans for similar ventures.
Remember, these agencies were all perceived as part of the gatekeeper clan of publishing, and I think it’s cynical to suggest that they are all motivated by new profit streams. Unlike publishers, agents harbour the origin, and not the bounty alone. They remain closer to the interests of the author and are more mindful of the potential for authors to connect directly with readers and sellers alike. Right now, at the top poker table, authors still need guidance, mentoring and champions. What they can do without is a large cumbersome publisher – come book packager. If anyone is about to fall off the top poker table on the next bid – it’s publishers.
I don’t know if JA Konrath is a good poker player. He has certainly made some pretty shrewd calls on the next card in the publishing pack in recent years. He proved himself in commercial publishing and drew that success across to his own self-publishing platforms. On how publishing is headed – I’m inclined to sit next to Konrath and see how much longer he turns good cards, but my worry has always been that Konrath is happy to share the poker table with players, who in the self-publishing arena, don’t know whether they are playing Texas Hold Em or Snap! Self-publishing is nothing to do with luck or the next turn of the card. Konrath is a smooth player, practiced, and smooth players make hard work look easy, and that’s always my fear about the way other writers see Konrath. Konrath is seasoned, prolific, and understands the business of publishing. These are qualities which set him apart from the common self-published author and not what he is presented as to the publishing world – a maverick or renaissance author. Konrath does all that a modern publisher does, but sometimes does it better.
On Monday, Konrath’s agent, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, announced their foray into publishing.

“Again, what we are going to do is to facilitate e-publishing for those of our clients who decide that they want to go this route, after consultation and strategizing about whether they should try traditional publishing first or perhaps simply set aside the current book and move on to the next. We will charge a 15% commission for our services in helping them project manage everything from choosing a cover artist to working with a copyeditor to uploading their work. We will continue to negotiate all agreements that may ensue as a result of e-publishing, try to place subsidiary rights where applicable, collect monies and review statements to make sure the author is being paid. In short, we will continue to be agents and do the myriad things that agents do.”

Understandably, Konrath backed his agent’s decision. The news has created quite a stir, so much that D & G responded on their blog about questions raised elsewhere before about conflicts of interests and just where publishing was headed.

“Which brings up the question posed by several of you, both here and on Joe Konrath’s blog: what are you people doing to earn that 15% commission? Pretty much what we do now to earn that 15% commission. Our commitment to this is more than just uploading and watching the dollars trickle in. In addition to all we do as agents, managing self-published properties will be part of our job: updating metadata, copy, next-book excerpts, etc. It’s not just vague managerial duties, but concrete tasks that we will be adding to our other duties.

For some authors it will be the beginning of building a publishing career which may eventually include a traditional publisher because of the success generated by the e-book. For others, it will mean making worthy books available that are out of print and which still have potential readerships. And, we will want to try to exploit subsidiary rights whenever possible, with the understanding that even with traditionally published books some of these rights do not get picked up.”

I understand what D & G say they will do for the author, but is the 15% net or retail on books sold? There is a difference here between publishers and paid-publishing services – one is a professional contract, and the other is a contract of service exposed to the rigours of customer care. It is the one area many publishing services fall short. We seem no closer to shoring up anomalies for the protection of authors’ rights.
Right now, for me, publishing is full of champions, but scarce on winners. The winds are still blowing…
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