Some of you may have heard that the Waxman Agency, a legitimate, highly respected literary agency with an excellent reputation, has decided to open an epublishing imprint of its own. No, you didn’t read that incorrectly. It’s an agency deciding to set up a publishing arm.
This has, as you can imagine, sparked a bit of controversy in the literary world.
I’m going to blog about it, because I feel like I should. But I’m not entirely comfortable doing it, to be honest. I don’t like doing it. I am, to put it mildly, in a bit of an moral dilemma here, and I need to decide if my ethical standards are really that strong, and I’ve decided that they are. I’ve taken a stand on this situation in the past and would be a hypocrite not to do the same again; I’ve presented myself–and worked hard to make myself–someone who helps other writers and offers advice, and I would be a hypocrite not to speak out now.
Here’s the thing. Waxman is, as I said above, and excellent agency. I know a few people–one I consider a good friend–who are repped by Holly Root there. Holly is a fantastic agent. Her clients love her, and she does a great job for them. And up until yesterday I had no compunction at all recommending her to any of my friends who were looking for representation.
But I can’t do that anymore, and that makes me sad.
See, there’s this organization called the Association of Author’s Representatives (AAR). They’re basically the professional organization for literary agents; they have strict standards for becoming a member agent, and a Canon of Ethics which is designed to make sure that standards in the industry stay at a certain level, and that authors can query AAR member agents with confidence. This Canon reads in part:
We pledge ourselves to loyal service to our clients’ business and artistic needs. We allow no conflict of interest that would interfere with such service.
Member’s compensation for all transactions shall be derived solely from the client. A member who represents a client in the grant of rights in any property owned or controlled by the client may not accept any other form of compensation or other payment from the acquirer of such rights. Members shall not represent both buyer and seller in the same transaction.
In other words, an agent can’t represent both the writer and the publisher in one transaction, and an agency shouldn’t have any sort of conflict of interest, such as would occur when, say, they own the publisher they’re selling their client to.
Now, before we go any further I need to make something extremely clear. There is not a doubt in my mind that the Waxman Literary Agency and all of its member agents are good and decent people who will do their best for their clients. Not a doubt. I don’t think they’re scammers. I don’t think they’re doing this to cheat their clients or other writers. I don’t think this means in any way that they won’t still try to sell their clients’ mss to NY houses as hard and as effectively as they can. Absolutely NOT.
But I still think this is a breach of ethics, and a serious problem, for several reasons.
The first…well, historical romance writer Courtney Milan has already said it quite eloquently. Go read her post. I’ll wait here. She addresses the conflict of interest extremely well, and for me to do so would just be redundant.
The second is based on this interview with Scott Waxman about the project, on Theresa Meyers’s blog. In it Mr. Waxman–who seems like a very nice, very professional man–talks about the venture, and his reasons for it.
But the thing is, as we’ve learned, and and has been discussed in the past here and elsewhere, epublishing is not like “regular” publishing. It’s a specialized industry, with its own rules. Experience and knowledge in print publishing absolutely does not necessarily translate (Quartet Publishing, anyone? Ravenous Romance?) As I’ve said here before, ebook readers tend to stay with particular ebook houses. That may be changing a bit with the advent of the Kindle and the Nook, but the advent of the Kindle and the Nook also mean that readers have a lot more options for ebooks.
In the interview, Mr. Waxman says:
We also have a strong focus on original content whereas it seems that the majority of epublishers are looking for out of print or classic eBook rights.
I have to be honest here; I have no idea what he’s talking about. I don’t even know of any ebook publishers who primarily publish reprints. I do know dozens of ebook publishers who publish new, original content every day, or every other day, or twice a week depending on their release schedule. I’m terribly confused as to how anyone could research the ebook industry and not have seen all of those publishers.
He also says:
I like the opportunity the eBook format presents to the author. There’s a sense of being able to control your own destiny for projects that the big houses don’ t want to bother with. I’ve been at this long enough to trust my own instincts on a book. So, just because a publisher says it’s “too small”, we can now attempt to prove them wrong and still make a go of it.
Which sounds great, and like I said, I honestly believe he thinks he’s doing the absolute best for his clients. But why start up an epublishing imprint, thus creating a conflict of interest and a breach of AAR ethics? Why not submit your clients to an existing epublisher, or small press? Just as there are dozens of established epublishers out there with ready customer bases, there are dozens of established small presses out there, with budgets and distribution and skilled editors and all of those other things. Why not submit to them, if the project isn’t right for NY? Isn’t an agent is supposed to keep trying until the project sells, even if it’s to a smaller house? It’s confusing, and I’m sure it’s simply worded badly in the interview, but I find the whole concept disturbing.
The fact is, this is a newbie epublisher, and as a newbie epublisher the chance that it will fail is something like 60%; the chance that it will actually make good money for its authors is way, way lower. So simply from a business stance, it’s something I would and do warn writers away from. The epublishing world is already crowded. When is the last time a new ehouse opened and became very successful? Samhain is the last one I can think of, and that was in, what, 2006? I know several have opened since then, but none have been really successful; most have closed and those that haven’t sort of limp along in writers-buying-each-others’-books-obscurity.
Which leads me to my last objection, and it’s the big one.
In March 2000, a self-proclaimed “literary agent” named Dorothy Deering was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison for defrauding hundreds of “clients” by, essentially, selling their manuscripts to a “publisher” she owned. (In reality “Sovereign House” was just a front, but the fact remains that she sold her clients–on paper at least–to a vanity press she herself owned, and charged them for the privilege.) You can read a short case study of it here, or buy the (excellent) book about the case, Ten Percent of Nothing by Jim Fisher.
And there have been others, less wealthy and successful, perhaps, but others. There continue to be others. The wonderful folks at Writer Beware keep a running list of them, and of course they’re often discussed in the Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Checks forum at Absolute Write (linked in the sidebar). I’m a moderator at AW and have been a member for years now. And it is absolutely amazing to me, shocking to me, how many scam agents there are out there. Agents who charge reading fees. Agents who charge other fees. Agents who sell their clients to vanity publishers (for, you got it, a fee).
Waxman is NOT a scam. Not, not, not. But when legitimate agencies do things like this, it makes it harder for writers to protect themselves from scams, because it makes it harder for those of us who try to help them.
How? Let me explain. When a scam agency sets itself up, it doesn’t come out and tell people–potential victims–that it’s a scam. The principals make shit up. They lie about sales or claim that information is “confidential.” They tell potential victims that “everyone charges fees.” Or, sometimes, they claim that “lots of agents are publishers too” or “lots of agencies change their own clients to publish” or “lots of authors start in self-publishing,” in order to convince their clients to sign those vanity deals they get kickbacks for. They tell them NO agents can afford to support themselves purely on commission, and that ALL agents have other ways–like starting their own publishers–to bring in cash.
So when a legitimate agency does something like this, it gives extra ammunition to every scammer out there. It’s like manna from Heaven for those who would defraud writers, those who would lie and cheat and steal from them, and sell them dreams plated with cheap fake gold. Now every scam agent out there can point to the Waxman agency, and say, “See? That agency, a big New York agency, tells its clients to self-publish first, and they own the publisher! That’ll be $2000.00, please.”
Of course Waxman isn’t charging its clients to publish with their imprint; I would never presume such a thing and don’t mean to imply it in any way, shape, or form. But the fact remains that they’ve just made it easier for every literary scammer in the world to line their pockets.
Yes, we can still tell writers not to query anyone who charges a fee. Or without disclosed sales (an agent who simply crows about “Made a sale!” without saying to whom is an agent to be avoided, generally; its very easy for a scammer to set up a blog, and indeed the Writer Beware blog has caught several scammers doing just that, including setting up fake blogs for their “clients” to celebrate these nonexistent “sales”).
But an agent who owns a publishing imprint? We can no longer use that as a clear-cut signal that the agent isn’t legitimate and won’t get you real NY sales. And THAT more than anything else makes me feel sad, and ill, and very, very sorry, and I feel terrible about the whole thing.