Why Agents May Be Opposed to Self-Publishing

As you may have read, earlier this week Harlequin announced that it has formed a new self-publishing division called Harlequin Horizons with Author Solutions. This is similar to the announcement we made several weeks ago about WestBow Press. This has created quite a stir on the Internet.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/pixalot, Image #9351815

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/pixalot

What I find curious is that much of the backlash has come from agents. Their arguments against self-publishing basically boil down to three:

  1. Self-publishing dilutes the brand of the sponsoring company. In other words, people will think less of Thomas Nelson, because we allow books to be published under the WestBow imprint. Readers will think less of Harlequin because they will allow books to be published under the Harlequin Horizon imprint.

    I admit, this is possible. We certainly debated it internally. This is one of the reasons we elected not to include some version of our name in WestBow. We wanted to make a clear distinction between the two. WestBow is related to Thomas Nelson, but it is not Thomas Nelson.

    Having said that, readers don’t care about the publisher as much as authors and agents do. I have argued this repeatedly on this blog. Several readers always feel duty-bound to tell me how much the imprint name matters to them. I am not arguing that it is not important to some. You can always find an exception. I am just saying these readers represent a very, very small minority.

    Sidebar: Take the imprint challenge. Go to a bookstore and ask one hundred shoppers—people who love books enough to make a special trip to a bookstore—to identify the publishers of the top ten New York Times Bestsellers. Report back with your results.

    I can’t speak for Harlequin—I don’t even know anyone there—but I think we are fully capable of managing our own brand. We have been in business since 1798. We understand what our brand represents. It is mostly about innovation and refusing to accept the status quo. We see WestBow Press as fully within that tradition.

  2. Self-publishing will flood the market with poor quality books. More than half the books published in the U.S. today are self-published books. Very few of these find their way to bookstore shelves. Why? Two reasons. First, retail shelf space is finite. Retailers only buy a fraction of what is published. They just don’t have any more room to display more titles.

    Second, booksellers’ time is precious. The buyers who meet with publishers and buy books for their stores do not have time to consider self-published authors. In fact, most of them don’t have time to meet with smaller houses. While publishers have been quietly cutting the number of titles they produce, retailers have been cutting the number of publishers they buy from. This is simply a function of trying to be more efficient by focusing on the 20% that deliver 80% of the results.

    Yes, online retailing may change all this, because shelf-space is unlimited. But that’s where it comes down to a battle for the reader’s attention. This is the most precious, scarce resource of all. Merely having a listing on Amazon doesn’t guarantee anything. If you can’t get attention for your book, you still don’t have squat.

    Self-published books are not going to flood your local bookstore any more than YouTube is going to take over your local theater. But why should traditional publishers, agents, and industry trade associations—which I refer to collectively as “the guild”—care? We live in an age when technology and the public’s desire for self-expression make user-generated content viable. If people want to publish their own book through print-on-demand (POD), subsidy or vanity publishing, or whatever, why should anyone else care?

  3. Self-publishing rips off the authors. I find this surprisingly hypocritical. Where is the public outcry about publishers being ripped off? We have been investing in authors for years. Most of the books we publish don’t make money. A high percentage of projects don’t recoup their royalty advances. No one is coming to our defense. Why? Because this is something we chose to do—and will keep doing.

    Why is the author any different? If they want to make an informed investment in their own career (and I realize that the word “informed” is key), why should someone stop them? I get nervous when there are so many people who want to “protect” others from making these decisions. I find this paternal attitude condescending. I believe these people are fully capable of deciding for themselves which model of publishing they want to pursue.

    Many would-be authors don’t need a traditional publishing house. That’s the dirty little secret. They already have access to an audience and can reach it without the help of a traditional publisher.

    Yes, they can go to a POD supplier and get books cheaper than through a self-publishing or subsidy company. You can also build your own house, make your own clothes, or grow your own food cheaper than having someone else do it. But this is a personal decision, based on your goals and what you want to accomplish. For example, do you want quality packaging, editing, proofreading, and various marketing services? POD by itself doesn’t provide these.

    Also, some have questioned our intention (and Harlequin’s) to use our self-publishing imprints as a “farm league.” In fact, some believe it’s a ruse—a carrot that we are holding out to would-be authors, knowing full well that we don’t intend to publish any of them. Time will tell. However, I can tell you that we are actively looking even now at the early submissions. We know for a fact that we miss lots of opportunities. So do agents. This is a way for the cream to float to the top where it can get our attention.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I find it interesting that most of the resistance to self-publishing is coming from agents. Why? The primary thing an agent sells is “access.” I fully realize this isn’t the only thing, but I would argue it is the primary thing, especially for new authors. The agent offers access to acquisition editors who otherwise wouldn’t give a would-be author the time of day.

The problem with the self-publishing model is that it takes away the would-be author’s need for access. If they are not going the route of traditional publishing, then they don’t need an agent. Could it be that this poses such a threat to the agent’s business model that some feel a need to speak out against it?

As a form of user-generated content, self-publishing is a disruptive force that isn’t going away. It is arguably the fastest growing segment of publishing. It will ultimately impact everyone in traditional publishing. As a result, publishers are having to change and so are authors. Maybe it’s time agents took a hard look at their own business model and asked how they can add value in the new publishing economy.

Question: What do you think about self-publishing? A threat or just another option?
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  • ronnepatt johnson

    I would really like to have my book read and promoted by a reputable literary agent. I would have to know if there would be a fee involved upfront or, more hopefully it would be read on.consignment. Is this possible?
    I definitely do not want to self-publish.

  • Lianne Simon

    Self-publishing may also be an option for those of us who have written something outside the usual genre markers. For instance, the protagonist in my novel is a teenager who was born with a genetic condition resulting in short stature and a sexually ambiguous body. It is written from a Christian perspective, but I have no idea how to track down the right agent and I have my doubts about finding a Christian publisher who would handle such a sensitive topic.

  • Kkroessler52

    My 89 yo mother just over drew her checking account after her third check for $680 in three months.  She lives on $1900/mo and her rent is $650.  She thinks she’s going to make big money on the book she is publishing with you.  My mother is not technically incompetent and I don’t believe in patronizing her but I think she was scammed by you guys.  She is SO happy she’s going to be a published author but really, what is the likelihood that she will make any money on this book.  I’m not impressed you provide a legitimate service when an 89 yo gets scammed.