By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From August 2, 2012
Part of my series of columns on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appearing Thursdays at the invitation of Jane Friedman at JaneFriedman.com
Agents and Self-Publishing / Penn, Ross
Maybe it’s not surprising that author J.F. Penn (we know her better as Joanna) has felt she needed to issue an extensive explainer, just south of an apology, to her readers for signing with an agent. At the top of Why I Signed With A New York Literary Agent, the London-based writer notes:
It’s quite ironic that I feel like I have to defend my decision, since in the past, self-publishing has needed the defense more!
Long a staunch and instructive figure in self-publishing, Penn has become a client of Rachel Ekstrom in Irene Goodman’s shop.
Just a reminder, Penn, author of Prophecy, promoted her novel by sponsoring the Ether here last week, for which Jane Friedman and I are very grateful.
In fact, Penn has been as busy as an Official Supplier of Kleenex to the Olympics. She also found herself mentioned in author Ewan Morrison’s widely debated Guardian tirade against most things online, and we’ll have a bit more about that later on the Ether here.
But let’s make sure we take a quick but focused look at this business about her signing with an agent.
Penn is responding in her post to sentiment, not unlike the sentimentality that overtakes Olympics fans and competitors. There’s as much unneeded emotional apparatus in the self-publishing community these days as there is damp chalk on the parallel bars. Here you can see Penn cutting flips to enumerate her very good reasons for wanting Ekstrom’s representation:
- The people of an agency, she writes, “are business partners who I will work with to achieve a mutually beneficial goal.” And
- “Being an indie author is not only about self-publishing anymore.” And
- “Traditional publishing is excellent at creating quality products.” (What’s tucked into this line, of course, is the understanding that Penn would be glad to have a traditional contract. And, as we have seen in comments from Viki Noe and others, there seem to be many in the field who think of self-publishing as a potential stepping stone to traditional publishing.) And
- “Traditional publishing will enable me to build a wider audience.” And
- “Film rights and other subsidiary rights.” And
- “Peer respect, blurbs and networking.” Interesting, huh? And
- “Entry into prizes.” She wants to win the car. And
- “Speaking opportunities at festivals.” She adds that “the festivals in the UK especially are only about traditionally published authors.” Also interesting, huh? And
- “Why a New York agent when I live in London?” Well. And the emphasis is mine:
It’s a bigger book market in the US and my current sales are about 4:1 US:UK split. I wrote for the US market and even use an American spell-check. My traffic for this site and my podcast is over 50% US so most of my existing audience is there. In publishing terms, books that make it big in the US are more likely to be picked up in the UK and in other countries.
We’re hugging it out with Penn here because these are valid points.
I am the kind of indie who wants a hybrid approach combining traditional publishing with self-publishing. After all, traditional and independent publishing are not mutually exclusive.
Notice she’s pre-empting some jeers with her hard-won right to get herself an agent if she’s fortunate enough to attract representation. And I’m sorry she has to do that.
Nevertheless, I’m glad to have this post because it shows us how even Penn has to position her moves relative to the hug-hungry self-publishing masses who sob that they’re yearning to be free of the traditional Big Fix.
Look, even if you don’t want traditional contracts, why throw agents out with the bathos? It’s a mistake to assume that agents are becoming de trop. If they, themselves play fair.
Agents can be on your side even if you pound the pulp into papyrus, yourself. Think of agents as managers who can help non-aligned writers navigate distribution and publicity options and avoid putting every egg into the enhanced-ebook basket.
And those esoteric rights issues? You’re going to do those yourself? When your self-published opus draws the attention of international publishers, right? Or (just as foreign) Hollywood. Good luck with that.
- I think we’re going to see smarter agents adjust their capabilities and services to support free-agent (pardon that one) writers.
- They may even get clever enough to tell us they’re doing it so everybody stops assuming they’ve sunk to the bottom of the pool in Lane 8.
- They may call themselves managers — I recommend it — being able to wrangle a lot of services and support that successful authors might find they’d rather not try to run out of their gym bags.
But. Hold still as the other Nike drops.
Here comes Orna Ross of the recently created Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) — and she’s waving the flag for Penn in comments on the post about getting an agent.
Congratulations Joanna, you are living proof that ‘indie author’ doesn’t just mean ‘self-publisher’.
OK, so it doesn’t have to be Ether/or. Got it?
Good. Because if an agent-manager-coach-hugger does turn up to offer to rep an author, Ross wants that author’s eyes wide open. She’s come bearing a scare story.
In How Indie Authors Can Work With Trade Publishers, Ross uncovers the kind of bad thinking some agents still are doing. She posits the case of an author offered a contract by an agent — but when the contract arrives for that author’s review (emphasis mine):
A clause states that the agent will take a commission on all of this indie author’s income, including self-published work.
That contract won’t work, writes Ross:
The agent’s logic belongs to traditional thinking, that having a trade publisher increases an author’s self-published income, but it fails to acknowledge that this works both ways. And, arguably in these technologised times, far more in the opposite direction. The agent has misjudged her prospect and shown an inherent disrespect for this writer — for her hard work to date, for her achievements, and for her aspirations and creative plans for the future.
Ross writes that the author who rejected that overreaching contract is Penn, herself, now set up with a satisfactory agreement (we have to hope) with Ekstrom.
Raising the danger of letting traditional agents and publishers view self-publishing authors as “the new slush pile,” Ross clarifies that her own organization comprises mixed formats but a unified philosophy, emphasis mine:
We have a number of members who attest that trade publishers can add value for indies but only if the author’s status as creative director of the book through all stages of the process is acknowledged. Acknowledged by contractual terms and conditions, not lip service.
So the crying games are far from over. There’s a lot more boohooing, live-streaming of tears, and dabbing around those NBC channels to go.
If you want to stick your landing, an agent-manager may help you avoid broken ankles. But only if your partnership contractually recognizes the reality of the creative work and its essential provenance.
And for getting herself such an arrangement, Penn should apologize? If that’s what any self-publishing authors think, they need to dry up.
Click to read this week’s full Writing on the Ether column at JaneFriedman.com.
@MrEwanMorrison yes, I wondered about the polemic for marketing's sake – each to their own – glad you think my post is considered 🙂
— Joanna Penn (@thecreativepenn) August 1, 2012