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Agents as publishers--a new conflict of interest

May 17, 2011

Tags: agents, rights, POD publishing, e-books

In the UK, literary agent Ed Victor set up Bedford Square Books to publish e-book and print-on-demand versions of books that were out of print or for which rights had reverted to the author. Within days, this news (Ed Victor set up publishing imprint by Charlotte Williams, The Bookseller 5-10-11) became a trend and people in the industry began itemizing the ways in which a) it represents a major conflict of interest and b) publishing is changing radically.

Andrew Franklin wrote last summer: "The literary agent Andrew Wylie, sometimes called The Jackal, though never by authors or publishers, has announced that he has set up a company to publish e-books," and publishing was up in arms. (Parasites on the back of real books (The Independent, 7-27-10). "There is a clear conflict of interests between representing an author's case and selling their books."

There seems now to be a trend. "Literary agents Curtis Brown and Blake Friedman have said they are planning to follow Ed Victor's move into publishing, after he announced an e-book and print-on-demand venture earlier this week," wrote Charlotte Williams (More agents to explore publishing models, The Bookseller.com, 5-13-11).

WRITERS MUST PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO THIS DISCUSSION. Start here:

How Agents Can Avoid Conflicts of Interest (Passive Guy, The Passive Voice, 5-14-11, a blog about disruptive changes and change agents in publishing). "I believe the current trend for agents to sign their clients to long-term publishing contracts with an in-house agency publisher is not a good idea for several reasons." See also Agents in Conflict

Literary Agencies as Publishers: An Accelerating Trend (Victoria Strauss, Writer Beware, 5-17-11). Among other good points she makes: "Even for unimpeachably reputable agencies, adding a publishing division poses a multitude of conflict-of-interest issues . . . For practical as well as ethical reasons, agencies that are considering an expansion into publishing MUST consider these issues, and come up with policies to address them. One possibility, for agency-owned publishers that will be issuing new work as well as backlist: raising an impenetrable wall between the different branches of the business--i.e., new work by agency clients would never be contracted by the publisher, and new authors signed by the publisher would never be offered representation by the agency."

Among four good questions asked by Rob Redman (Literary agents and publishing: a conflict of interest?, The Fiction Desk, 5-14-11). are these two: "How can an author hope for unbiased, independent advice from an agent who stands to make a great deal more money from one publishing route than from another? How can a publisher enter into potentially sensitive negotiations with a competitor?"

Booknet Canada also sounded the alarm The Conflict of Interest: Agents as Publishers
. Earlier they had reported on The Fight Over Formats: All or Nothing