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It’s just upsetting

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.

and

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.

Originally posted at Stacia Kane. You can comment here or there.

Comments

( 11 people said — Say something )
ex_naomi_ja
May. 7th, 2010 09:19 pm (UTC)
This is very sad and worrying for all the reasons you've listed. Having followed the Ravenous Romance story and found the whole set-up rather skeevy, I'd be sad to see a good agency tarred with the same brush for reasons I just can't fathom. I'll be keeping an eye on this one with some concerns.
brian_ohio
May. 7th, 2010 10:31 pm (UTC)
Thank you for such a detailed summation, I had only heard little blips about this on Twitter. To me it feels like the Waxman Agency (which I HIGHLY respect) has dirtied its image a little. We'll see how it plays out, I guess.
david_bridger
May. 8th, 2010 08:59 am (UTC)
It smells bad, doesn't it? For all the reasons you've examined so fairly here. A development to watch carefully.
(Anonymous)
May. 9th, 2010 11:53 pm (UTC)
Worse, to me, is on another blog I read that some publishers are starting to "outsource" their editors. The blog said soon we could be required to have our novels professionally edited BEFORE a publisher will buy and publish it.

I read so many blogs right now (I really need to cut back on some of them) that I can't for the life of me recall who's blog it was. Otherwise I'd provide a link. But if this is true, then it could seriously curtail the ability of most writers to get published. Who can afford the cost of a professional editor with no certainty of selling their project.

And now agents want to get into the publishing business, too. Times are changing. It all makes me wonder what kind of model we'll all be operating under in ten years.
tom_gallier
May. 9th, 2010 11:56 pm (UTC)
Sorry, that was me. I thought I was logged in.
stacia_kane
May. 10th, 2010 12:17 am (UTC)
I'd be extremely interested to see who wrote that blog post, Tom, because it sounds like the kinds of lies scammers tell to get authors to pay to publish. I've heard that one for years now; it's not true. :-)
tom_gallier
May. 11th, 2010 01:51 am (UTC)
I wish I could find it. It was a link I clicked on within a blog. I spent the weekend reading countless blogs, and researching query letters, and such, and for the life of me I cannot remember where I found it. Shame, because I'd like to read it again to ensure I understood it. Maybe I found it so disturbing I am blocking it. LOL

I've spend the last hour trying to find it. I give up.

Sorry.
tom_gallier
May. 11th, 2010 01:52 am (UTC)
I do recall that Kim Harrison commented on it. So since all UF writers are the bestest of best friends, maybe you could ask her? LOL
ext_224935
May. 11th, 2010 01:09 am (UTC)
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's probably talking about companies like E-Reads, which specialize in putting out e-book editions of reprints. (It was also started by an agent -- Richard Curtis in this case.) But the fact that he doesn't know that most e-book publishers put out original work is scary. E-publishers like E-Reads are the exception, not the norm.
scottwaxman
May. 12th, 2010 06:19 pm (UTC)
Diversion Books
I want to thank all of you for your thoughts and concerns regarding Diversion Books. With any new venture and during a period of transition, there will be varying opinions. Each and every one is important.

As for the chief concern that Diversion Books, a new publishing company, poses a conflict of interest for the Waxman Agency, it is important to understand that Diversion is a separate corporation from Waxman. It has its own staff, shareholders and interests. The agency does not own Diversion, and has no equity in Diversion. Additionally, there is an established policy that the Waxman agent is still the agent. In a case where an Agency client decides to publish with Diversion (we also will publish non-Waxman authors) and is represented by a Waxman agent, such as Holly Root, they will be represented by Holly Root. Holly will do what's best for the client -- period. She is not an equity partner in Diversion, she would never negotiate on behalf of Diversion Books. Her role has not changed; however, now, she has a strong relationship with a new publisher - an epublisher, Diversion. This relationship will offer her clients an additional option. That's one of the missions for Diversion -- to help authors that deserve to be read, but require a different sort of opportunity for a particular project. It's important for authors to research and know their options. No one knows more about what you want in your career than you.

As for the comment that Diversion does not have experience in "technical skills, typesetting, design or layout," that's just not accurate. We've put together a strong team of traditional publishing professionals who have experience in editorial, marketing and publicity. This is not self-publishing; this is publishing with high standards and specific goals to help authors sell quality books with ambitious sales goals.

The original poster and commenters here have great points--we appreciate having an open discourse, and as the industry grows and changes, questions and comments will help make Diversion an even stronger publishing force. Yes, Diversion Books has a relationship with The Waxman Literary Agency, but it should be looked at for what it is -- an opportunity for an author who's interested in trying a new approach. Not a potential conflict. Both parties are all about full disclosure, high ethics, and getting fine books out into the market place so they can be read. That's a good thing.
stacia_kane
May. 12th, 2010 06:58 pm (UTC)
Re: Diversion Books
Mr. Waxman,

First, thank you for commenting. Your thoughts and input are very much appreciated. I realize how busy you are, so again, thanks for taking time out of your day to address this here.

Second, may I have your permission to repost your comment as part of the original blog post, or in a new post? And on Absolute Write, where a discussion of this situation has also taken place?

Please feel free to email me, also, if you like. Staciakane AT gmail DOT com.


I'm certainly very pleased and relieved to hear about the division between the Waxman Agency and Diversion books, so thanks for that. I admit, though, it's left me slightly confused, and I apologize for not getting it, but what exactly is the relationship, then? Is it simply that you own both entities? I hope that isn't too personal a question; I'm genuinely trying to understand the situation.

I also wanted to ask, if I may, about the staff? You say they all have extensive experience in the print publishing world, and I believe you, but I wonder if you have anyone who knows the epublishing world? It is in a lot of ways a very different animal.

I apologize if I seemed to be referring to Diversion as a self-publisher, btw. I certainly didn't intend to. What I meant was that a lot of scam agents do push their clients to vanity presses, and from the outside, especially for someone who doesn't know or understand the publishing industry, a publisher owned by an agency, and the idea that the purpose of that publisher is to get the books NY didn't want "out there," can legitimize the scammer's claims (and requests for cash). Do you know what I mean? It's not that you're encouraging your clients to self-publish, it's that scammers can claim you are with much greater ease than they could with an agency which has no public connection to a publisher.

Again, thanks very much for commenting; I really appreciate it, and I'm very glad to hear about the division between the two entities. I'll be updating this post or doing a new one later this evening or tomorrow to reflect that, but do let me know if I have permission to quote you in the posts and elsewhere or if I need to simply link to your comment. And do get in touch via email if you feel you have anything more to add or want to discuss the Diversion employees privately; I will keep the names and specific experience confidential if you so desire, but I'd love to be able to talk about their experience a bit, even just to say I'm satisfied.

Have a great day, and I wish you the best of luck.
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