I've spent the last few weeks divulging all my publishing secrets and giving away a slew of first chapter and query critiques to get you all on your way. But there's something else I think needs to be said.
I remember how excruciating it was to have manuscripts out with agents. Here's me waiting. And here's me waiting some more. I was so excited when I got "the call," as evidenced here, here, and here. It was only two years ago, but things were different then. There were some basic questions I needed to ask the agents who offered rep: What was her submission plan for my book? What sort of revisions would she want? What was the agency's commission structure? Did the agency sign the author, or the project? What were the terms of the agency agreement?
What I didn't have to ask is if the agency was involved in self-e-publishing.
Here's the thing. Another literary agency has announced they're opening an e-publishing arm to "assist their clients who wish to self publish." This is the largest agency I'm aware of that has taken this step. It makes me sad.
I get that things are changing in the publishing world. They're changing faster than many people anticipated. But the one thing that should never change is that the purpose of a literary agent is to advocate for his/her client (which is the author, in case I lost you). The harsh reality is that not every novel will sell to a traditional publisher, and self-publishing is becoming a more viable option as that market expands. If a agent has exhausted all traditional avenues and a project hasn't sold, whether to self-publish or not is a personal decision that an author needs to make in consultation with his/her agent.
But, here's the rub.
If my agent's agency has a self-publishing arm, where they stand to make at least the same 15% commission (which is the standard commission most agents charge when they sell your project to a traditional publisher, and which seems to be what they're charging to self-publish your project in their self-publishing arm) then, when my agent comes to me and says, "We gave it the old college try and it just didn't sell. I think you should consider our self-publishing option," how do I know he/she actually gave my project 100%? How do I know he/she tried his/her hardest to sell it to a traditional publisher? They stand to make money either way, so why knock themselves out? It all comes down to how much you trust your agent, but, knowing myself, I'd always wonder.
The bigger problem is that there will always be issues that need to be resolved between an author and his/her publisher, whether it be a traditional publisher, or a self-e-publisher. Most of these issues are things a new author could never anticipate. Some are small and some are major. What's supposed to happen is that an author takes the issue to his/her agent, who acts as an intermediary between the author and the editor. You are paying your agent 15% of everything you make to be your advocate, and that is money well spent. But what happens if your agent is also your publisher? When your agent is the one you have an issue with, who's going to advocate for you? No one, that's who.
As a published author, I find this disturbing and alarming. As an aspiring writer, I'd find it downright terrifying.
So, a word of caution: To get an offer of representation is like hitting the jackpot for most aspiring writers. It's easy to get all, "SQUEE!" and "OMG! I'M GONNA BE THE NEXT STEPHENIE MEYER!" But don't get so excited that you forget to ask that perspective agent what happens if your book doesn't sell. And if, in the end, you decide to go the self publishing route, your agent's going to take their 15% either way, so I'd encourage you to seek out a publisher unaffiliated with your agent or his/her agency to avoid a serious conflict of interest. If they arm-twist you into staying in-house, I'd question whether they have your best interest at heart. You need your agent to be your agent and nothing else (except maybe your friend).
Good luck and happy writing!