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November 1, 2011

Ask Jami: E-Publishers vs. Agents

Street sign with arrows pointing in opposite directions

Last week, Stacy Green asked me a question on Twitter and my fingers cramped while thinking about how to answer her in chunks of 140 characters.  *smile*  So we decided to make it an Ask Jami question here instead.

Stacy asked:

“What’s your opinion on e-publishers versus agents? … pros and cons.  I know a couple of people who’ve recently signed with e-pubs, and they’re looking far more appealing than agents right now. I’m going to do both, but would love to hear your take. Thanks!”

Great question!  But there’s not a clear “this way is better” answer because it depends on our situation.  It’s like asking, “Which is better, spoons or knives?”  Sometimes we need a spoon and sometimes we need a knife.

In my post “How to Avoid the Publishing Kool-Aid,” I listed some of the different goals we might have as published authors.  Some of those goals will be better met with agents and some might be better met with e-publishers (or with self-publishing, etc.).  Knowing our goals will help us decide which way to go.

The Pros of Going with an Agent

We should get an agent if we want to pursue the possibility of a big NY book deal.  Remember that even if we have an agent, there’s no guarantee a book deal will follow.  However, if we want the chance of publishing with one of the Big 6 publishers, an agent is the usual way to go.

Respect from other writers is more likely to follow after we sign with an agent than after we announce a book deal from a small publisher and/or e-publisher (despite the certainty of an actual sale versus a potential sale).

If our agent does sell our book, that book deal would be more likely to include print copies (versus an e-publisher) and/or show up in a bookstore (versus a small publisher).

So if a NY deal, respect, and printed books in bookstores are important to us, we should look for a good agent.

The Pros of Going with an E-Publisher

We should sign with an e-publisher if we want a book deal now rather than just the potential of one in the future.  Some of us don’t expect to hit the big time right out of the starting block.  We figure this book deal might lead to something bigger and better down the road.

Some e-publishers tap their authors for anthologies, expanding our readership.  Others publish unusual genres, or non-typical length stories.  If our books don’t fit the NY mold, an e-publisher can be a great match.

As more readers switch to ebooks, the playing field will level out between publishers.  An e-publisher who uploads their books to all the different platforms will be on near-equal footing to a big name publisher.  And those e-publishers often pay better royalty rates than the NY publishers.

So if a signed book deal, flexibility of genre/length, and higher royalty rates are important to us, we should look for a good e-publisher.

Is a Good Reputation the End-All-Be-All?

Oh, a good agent or a good e-publisher.  That’s the trick, isn’t it?

We’ve heard that it’s better to have no agent than a bad agent, and the same goes for publishers (e-publisher or otherwise).  Either way, our rights could be tied up and payments might not happen on time (or at all) if we end up with the wrong one.

Some e-publishers have good reputations.  Their editing is professional, their covers are gorgeous, their online store is effective, and their royalty rates are fair.

Likewise, some agents have good reputations.  They have plentiful contacts at publishers, they have a good eye for editing and storytelling, and they know what to look for with contracts and royalty statements.

However, both e-publishers and agents are often well-known for certain genres, and other genres don’t sell as well for them.  In other words, just because they’re a great fit for one author doesn’t mean they’ll be a good match for us.

Not All Recommendations Are Created Equal

It can be difficult to research which agents or publishers are good or bad.  Most people don’t want to complain about anyone in the industry because they don’t want to get a reputation for being “difficult.”  On the other hand, some publishers have received a “not recommended” rating based off one complaint from an author upset about low sales.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a recommendation for an e-publisher from an author who has published with other companies should mean more to us than one from an author who’s publishing for the first time.  The experienced author can compare each publishers’ contracts, editing, marketing, payment policies, etc.  An inexperienced author can be happy in a situation just because they don’t know any better.

Likewise, some agents with good reputations are now getting into publishing themselves.  Some authors don’t see an issue with this and others do.  Some agents push their authors onto social media more than others.  The line of “acceptable” behavior will be different for each person.

The Bottom Line

I think some people are tempted to go the route of e-publishing because it seems easier than finding an agent.  There might be some truth to that, but if someone is less picky about what books they’ll represent/publish, is that a good thing?  That depends on our goals.  Finding a good e-publisher might be just as difficult as finding a good agent.

Michelle Davidson Argyle wrote a great blog series about small publishers (much of which also applies to e-publishers).  Check out the first post in her series, “Should You Consider a Small Publisher,” for her take on more pros and cons.  She brings up issues like distribution and personal attention.  Her series includes six posts, which just goes to show that there are many, many considerations to keep in mind.

Maybe we want to learn more about self-editing, and an e-publisher with a great editing reputation wants to sign us.  We’d get a book deal and knowledge to improve our craft for the next book.  In that case, we might sign no matter what our other goals are.

What’s best for us might change with every story, every improvement in our skills, and every shift in the overall industry.  We shouldn’t follow a path just because “everyone else” is heading that way.  We need to figure out what makes the most sense for us and our goals.

(Standard “Ask Jami” disclaimer:  I am not agented or published, so take all my “advice” in the spirit of me offering information to get people to think, and not in a “I think I know everything” way.  *smile*)

Are you pursuing one path over another?  How did you decide which way to go?  Under what circumstances would you change your mind?  Can you think of other pros and cons to add for each of the scenarios?

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Susan Sipal

All excellent point, Jami. Also, the answer can vary not only from author to author but from book to book. Some books might be perfect for an e-publisher, whereas another by the same author might be better to seek an agent with.

Carradee

I’m a self-publisher. *g* I’m also more concerned with long-term build-up than short-term snazz, so that’s something that colors how I answer.

I’m open to the idea of a small press or an agent, if I produce something that I think would fit them and my goals. Right now, a small press could help my goals; an agent, not so much.

Though I’m not interested in an agent at this time, that can always change. There are a handful of agents I would consider, because I love what they represent. (I’ve yet to be disappointed by something they’ve represented, even when it isn’t something I’d usually read.)

Stacy Green

Thanks for such a well-thought out answer, Jami! One of the biggest issues I’m having as I research/create my spreadsheet is figuring out which e-publisher is reputable and could do the most for me. I need to invest in Publishers Marketplace, I guess. But a big part of me thinks that so much of this decision is just pure gut instinct, and there’s no right or wrong answer. And you know, I want a little bit of both: I want to be published sooner rather than later and more royalties, but I’d love to be in bookstores as well.

One thing I know for sure: figuring this out is MUCH harder than plotting a book:)

Thanks again:)

Stacy Green

Eek! I just realized I added an ‘e’ onto your name. I’m sorry! I really do know how you spell it:)

Stephen T. Harper
Stephen T. Harper

Great points, Jami! One aspect to consider a little more might be the potential income each choice affords. With an agent pursuing a Big 6 contract, there is a possibility for a lot of income for a writer. But that possibility is generally far into the future and also comes with very long odds. The current plight of the mid-list author in the Big 6 makes it seem close to an all-or-nothing proposition (or at least that’s the way to seems to me). Being a star in the Big 6 is a great deal, of course. But one of the most compelling arguments for caution before signing any contract with a publisher are the warnings coming from mid-listers who aren’t earning in the Big 6, are not getting the support they need, and aren’t permitted (by contract) to earn in this new ball game that unfortunately didn’t really exist when they signed a few short years ago. It’s a scary situation. With the landscape changing so fast, one might assume that Big 6 contracts will be changing to be more in keeping with the times (which should mean more favorable to the writer). Some of those changes seem to be happening it fits and starts already. I just wouldn’t want to be one of the last to sign an unfavorable contract before they start making concessions (like e-rights, less draconian royalty percentages, and more reasonable limits on the length of the contract) With epub (either on your own if you…  — Read More »

Brooklyn Ann

I think I ended up with the best of both worlds. I accepted an offer from a reputable mid-size publisher. So distribution and personal attention should be pretty good. I’m not going with an agent as of yet. I want to see how my career goes.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Great food for thought Jami!
Thanks for the pros and cons:)
Have a fantastic Tuesday,
Tamara

Anne R. Allen

Jami–Great, much needed-post. Thanks for taking over some of my favorite themes while I launch 5 books and 2 anthologies with two publishers in 2 months. (Yes, I’m insane, but you have to accept opportunity when it knocks.) I still think the agent route is the best for people who are writing in a trending genre. I’d love to have a good agent. I’ve had four, and none of them were bad, but none of them could sell my non-trendy stuff. Recently I ended up turning down an offer of representation that came with a demand that I massively rewrite my books so they could sell in a different genre. Didn’t work for me. So I went with two small publishers–one for paper and one epubber. So far, it seems to be going great, except that I’m sooooo exhausted. An essential thing to consider is how your genre is selling in the marketplace. What I write is too dark for chick lit, but too girly for noir. So it was unsellable to the Big 6, but I didn’t know that and wasted a lot of time trying to get an agent. So for me, small presses or mid-sized presses are the only way. So–if you’re writing YA, especially steampunk or zombielit, keep going for that agent dream. If you write anything that could be called chick lit, get thee to a small publisher! There are lots of buyers out there–but the Big 6 isn’t interested.

Kwei Quartey

What I’m pondering is whether there’s a hybrid of these forms: I used to have Random House as my publisher, and now that I’ve left them (uh, after they dumped me) I feel I do like the support of pub house but would like an “e-book stream” as well

Kwei Quartey

Oh, yes, I understand the difference between e-publishing and self-publishing. E-publishing can have the advantage of getting yourself faster to market (the big publishers may take up to 18 months from 1st draft to release), higher royalty rates, but may not have the track record of a brick-and-mortar publishing house. Your suggestion of a smaller publisher who could mix editorial skill and e-book capabilities. My agent is looking at that possibility.

Gene Lempp

I am not agented or published either but hope to fix at least one of those two things in 2012. The published one. For me, I’d just like to have my work out there, not interested in fame (wouldn’t turn it down but I try to dream realistically).

Much food for thought here, Jami. I noticed references to a few resources in your other comments and I’ll be taking a look at those once I’m home later today.

Thanks for the well-written post 🙂

sharon k owen

Jami, this was a really good post. You gave a good summary of the pros and cons.
I decided to go the self-publisher way because I wanted to (and felt I could) market my own book. I would still love to have an agent and would certainly not turn down a major publishing contract, but I am enjoying the process of creating my books and my social media platform.

PW Creighton

Very balanced and informed post Jami. There is a shift in terms of ‘respect’ now though. The smaller presses (good ones) have a strong reputation and extremely happy authors writing for them if they’re a modern publisher. These carry just as much respect in the community as any house, granted not the same as the 6 but they are respected. I know of one right now that has one of their authors in negotiations with 20th C Fox on a deal. The smart modern presses do carry significant clout in the community.

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Murphy

Great post Jami!

I agree that having a published author recommend a house they’ve been successful with is a major advantage.

Murphy

Julie Musil

Jami, you always make such excellent points! I went with an agent, and I’m glad I did. The editing help she’s given me is priceless. I know there are no guarantees in life, and especially with publishing, but so far I’m happy with my path. We shall see!

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Clifton Hill

Well thought out post. Filing the points mentally for later retrieval. I’ve been thinking about self-publishing lately, partly because I can control everything and partly because it’s “fast”. I figure once I have something out there, I enter a new level of street cred that will lead to greater things to come. However going the indie/small pub/e-pub route has a lot of appeal too.

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[…] contrast, I haven’t posted much about small publishers. Honestly, I don’t know as much about the issues authors face when they consider signing […]

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