Thursday, November 17, 2011

Smashwords Launches Ebook Publishing Service for Literary Agents

Back in August, I blogged about The Literary Agent's Indie Ebook Roadmap, an online strategy document I created to help literary agents assist their clients' e-publishing efforts.

Today, after several weeks of beta testing, we announced new features at Smashwords that give agents more control over their Smashwords listings. We created a new Smashwords account category called Agent (previous two were Author account and Publisher account).

Once an agency upgrades to Agent status, their books will appear at Smashwords as "written by author name, agented by Agency Name" in the Smashwords metadata. When the books are distributed to Smashwords retailers, the books will appear as published by the author, not the agent.

The distinction between Agent and Publisher is important. Previously, agents who uploaded books to Smashwords utilized our Publisher tools which automatically identified the agent as the publisher. Most agents consider their clients, the author, as the publisher. The author controls the rights but the agents assist the e-publishing by providing ebook formatting, cover design, uploading, metadata management, payment aggregation and promotion services.

We also created a special Smashwords home page catalog for literary agents.

Literary agents have an important role to play in the next chapter of the indie ebook revolution.

Although any author has the freedom to easily self-publish an ebook through Smashwords, many authors would rather outsource this task to their agents so the author can dedicate their time to writing the next book, or promoting their existing books.

I see three immediate opportunities for agents to assist their clients' indie e-publishing efforts:
  1. Help their clients and their estates re-release reverted-rights works as Smashwords ebooks. If the rights haven't reverted, the agents can help their authors or estates obtain clear title to the reverted rights prior to e-publishing.

  2. Help the clients publish "interstitial" ebooks, such as possibly shorter unreleased works that can be released in between or in concert with traditional book release schedules. These interstitials can aid an author's ongoing platform-building activities, and can help catalyze traditional book sales introducing new readers to the author's work (note: it's helpful for the agent to coordinate interstitial plans with publishers if a publisher holds the rights to an upcoming book).

  3. Help publish unsold works, or works where the advance offered by the publisher was insufficient to merit the author giving up their rights to a publisher.

You can read our full press release, Smashwords Launches Ebook Publishing and Distribution Service for Literary Agents in the Smashwords Press Room. Here's an excerpt of quotes from the press release:

What literary agents are saying about Smashwords:

“Smashwords has offered what many other self-publishing platforms do not, a way for agents to be involved with digital publishing without having to take on the title of ‘Publisher,’" said Abby Reilly, E-Book Project Manager at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, based in New York. “Giving our clients a space in the new and exciting world of digital publishing, while continuing to shepherd all aspects of their literary careers, is a thrilling challenge for our agency. We are delighted to be working with Smashwords to make this happen.”

“Smashwords makes it easy to begin exploring the new digital terrain,” said Beverley Slopen, whose literary agency shares her name and is based in Toronto, Canada. “It is an exciting time in publishing, a time like no other, and our authors want to be there. They are pushing us to broaden our knowledge and our skill set. While ebook publishing is not a substitute for traditional publishing, it adds an amazing new dimension.”

“I have been an avid Smashwords supporter since its inception, and over the past three years have integrated digital publishing initiatives in the career plans of all my clients,” said Laurie McLean of Larsen Pomada Literary Agents in San Francisco. “Most of my clients have both traditionally published books and ebooks in their bag of tricks, and it is exciting to see how they complement each other. While many people have been bashing literary agents as gatekeepers of the old guard in publishing, I feel that digitally-engaged agents are the perfect mentors to guide authors through these turbulent waters of opportunity. The new Smashwords Agent service has made my job even easier.”

12 comments:

TheSFReader said...

Mark,
as you may know, I'm a fervent Smashwords supporter, and will remain so. Still, this new service seems to me a little bit dodgy.

If I refer to the Publisher and Agent's doc, (http://www.smashwords.com/about/publisherdocs)you give roughly the same role to agents as you do to publishers.
I'm not sure it's in everyone's interest as it is right now.

I follow (along with a great number of self-publishers I think) closely a few blogs, among others that of Dean Wesley Smith, and of "The Passive Guy", and they BOTH concur on one point : if you have an agent, insit on "split" royalties and walk away if they don't allow that.

I think they have enough experience to grant them at least some consideration, and that you should allow that "split royalties" option in case some "agented" author wants to publish through Smashwords, but insists on split royalties.

One way to allow that would be, when a book is attached to both an author's account (no ghost) and an agent's one, for them to "fix" the "repartition". If both don't coincide, books sells are blocked .
Also, an author should have to approve a book's reassignment by the agent to an other author or ghost account before it takes effect.

Note also that this option could also help publishers by having the "royalties distribution" done at your level directly. If you don't want to allow that, a "lock" keeping an agent from switching to publisher if "split books are attached would also need to be implemented.

Of course, if the author doesn't have a real account, all the money should go to the agent, as is the case now.

Hope you don't mind (again) me giving my 2 cents and "criticizing" Smashwords, but at the moment, I don't think this new service is really on par with what you've accustomed us.

(sources :
http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=5526
http://thewritersguidetoepublishing.com/why-i-turned-down-a-new-yorkhollywood-agent
)

Mark Coker said...

SFR, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I'm a big fan of Dean Wesley Smith, but he and I disagree when it comes to agents.

I think his advice of writer-beware is sensible, and yes, authors should carefully vet and select their agent. But I also think it's dangerous and unfair to tar and feather an entire profession based on the misdeads of the few. There are bad seeds in every profession.

The future success of ebooks relies completely on trust. In the absence of a physical, tangible book which can be inventoried and tracked, ebooks are difficult to track. You trust your retailer to accurately report your sales, trust the distributor to accurately report sales from retailers, and if you're working with an agent or publisher you must trust them to accurately report their data.

There are many ways to publish a book. Everyone knows I'm a huge advocate of self-publishing. I think the umbrella of self-publishing encompasses a broad range of responsibilities, not all of which an author should assume for themselves, nor should they feel less worthy as an indie author if they utilize the services of others. There's much more to professional publishing than simply uploading a manuscript to Smashwords or anywhere else. There are affordable professionals out there to assist with essential services such as editing, formatting, cover design, distribution, marketing, etc. Some authors are supremely talented and can perform many of these duties on their own. Not all authors want to assume all these responsibilities, nor should they. If an agent can provide some of these services, or facilitate the procurement of such services, and they can do it in a way that adds value for the author and the book, then the relationship is a win-win for author and agent.

For authors who'd prefer their agents facilitate their ebook self-publishing, we now have a great solution to accommodate those agents and authors.

Re: this idea of split royalties, it's not something we'd be eager to implement. If an author doesn't trust their agent, they should find another agent. If an author is incapable of trusting any agent, then I think they're limiting their opportunities, but that's my personal opinion. The great thing about self-publishing is that everything is ultimately the author's decision. Authors have the freedom to make make their own way, and if they choose not to use an agent that's fine too.

TheSFReader said...

Oh, I completely agree about no systematic tar and feathers regarding agents, and I in no way meant to cast doubt regarding them.

I also think self-publishing authors may want someone to help them and provide every service you describe in your 4th paragraph.
If, on Smashwords, you want to call that job "Agent", of course please do, but it is not for now the one most "traditional" agents have expertise in. So, I sincerely approve your opening of a service for "online ebook sales experts" (aka agents in your nomenclature), and agree that it's a step forward.

I also understand that trust is one of Smashword's 'pillars' (in authors, readers, etc. ) and that you think providing a "split revenue" option could be a step sideways, and go against this goal. However, I stand for my idea that it would be for the best. Please note that in my proposition, authors who completely trust their agent can keep on trusting them without having them do anything.

Still, you're the man at the helm, and me only a mere passenger. I assure you that after your clear explanation of your opinion/reasoning behind that choice I'll keep on cruising on the Smashwords boat for further ebook discovery, and recommending it as I currently do. :-)

TheSFReader

(PS French reader here, please forgive incorrect style and in-precise word choices)

Livia said...

Mark,

Great news, and a great step in the right direction. One question -- under this arrangement, does the author have access to real time sales numbers, and can the author make changes to the book through her own account?

KevinMc said...

Like SFReader, I'm a Smashwords user, fan, advocate, and will continue to be so.

But I'm troubled by this move.

I believe in "calling a duck a duck". And this seems to be one of those cases where it quacks, waddles, flies, and swims like a duck - so even if it's a little different color, it's probably still a duck.

To be more specific - if someone takes a writer's work; has the writer sign a contract giving them the right to produce and distribute that work; produces ebooks of that work; distributes those ebooks to retailers via uploading; collects income from the retailers for sales; and then disburses some portion of that income back to writers...

...then they're fulfilling all of the major, critical roles of a publisher. They ARE publishing that ebook. Not the writer.

Someone who does your formatting for you and hands you back the work to upload yourself is "assisting self publishing". Someone who takes a writer's work, uploads it to their account, receives money from sales, and pays the author a percentage of that money is a publisher.

This change seems to me designed to continue obfuscating the fact that many agencies are now acting as publishers.

Which doesn't seem useful to anyone. I suppose it might help a few agents feel a little better about what they're doing, but it's really not fooling anyone else.

It doesn't feel like a credit to Smashwords to assist in spreading this sort of misinformation.

Unknown said...

It is to bad that Smashwords decided to sell out....agents as publishers....poor choice Mark :(

KevinMc said...

I don't think that's quite fair, Unknown. Agents could always sign up as publishers on Smashwords, just like anyone else. But before, they were labelled appropriately - as publishers.

Labeling the publisher of a book "agent" just confuses the issue.

Mark Coker said...

@livia it's possible for the agent to configure the account so you have real time access to same sales stats. Since they upload the book, they'll control the metadata.

@Kevin. Many of thise same criteria could be applied to
Smashwords, yet we're not a publisher either. Agents have different arrangements with their clients. One of the agencies using us assumes no permanent rights - they'll let the author relieve the agent of this service at any time (definitely not publisher-like). Another key distinction is the agents don't take on legal liability, such in the case where the author libels someone.

@unknown. disagree Our mission is to help authors get their works out, and if they want to use their agent we now support that with an elegant and transparent solution. Author's choice.

KevinMc said...

@Mark: I'm aware of the "on the edge" position Smashwords represents. I prefer to think of Smashwords as a distributor, rather than a publisher. Because I'm doing all the pre-production work and then uploading the resulting document, I feel that's apt.

Many publishers are not taking on permanent rights though - some reputable, like Ridan, allow writers to recover rights at will. Some less reputable publishing houses, such as the entire Author Solutions collection, also allow writers to recover rights at will. I suspect this will grow more common among publishers, not less. The fact that many agent-publishers also allow this doesn't suprise me (many are copying the Author Solutions subsidy publisher model).

And I am not a lawyer...but I would *really* not count on "being an agent" protecting one from a libel suit if the agency published something libelous. ;) Really, really, really would not. Because I believe the courts would see the duck as what it is, regardless what it wants to call itself.

J. R. Tomlin said...

So since I fired my agent to go indie as far as Smashwords is concerned I am now a second class citizen.

THANKS Smashwords.

J. R. Tomlin said...

I could simply bypass Smashwords completely, and at this point may well do so.

"...a new home page catalog to showcase agented works, making it easy for readers to browse ebooks represented and curated by literary agents..."

So you will tell all the purchaser that anything not agented is trash, and to go to the agented pages. And I should stick around Smashwords... WHY?

Mark Coker said...

J.R., with all respect, I'm afraid you're misunderstanding our intent, our implementation, and our mission.

On the home page we offer catalogs for View by Author, View by Publisher, View by Agent. There are also at-a-click filters for about 20 other sorts and searches on the home page. None of these disadvantage the others. Our introduction of the agent classification in no way makes any other books less visible or discoverable. This is all about giving authors and those who support them the ability to get their books out there, and gives customers more options for discovering their books their way.

We don't discriminate.

Back in 2009, we introduced the Publisher feature so publishers could upload the books of their authors, and at that time we added the "View by Publisher" link. Did we ever suggest to customers that books from publishers were somehow superior to those uploaded direct by authors? Of course not.

The agent feature is no different.

Our commitment to self-published authors is unrivaled. It's why I started this, and it's also why we launched the agent feature.

There are authors who want and need the support of agents, authors who want and need the support of publishers, and authors who have no need for any of the above. We support them all. If an author chooses to use a publisher or an agent, their books are no less deserving of our services than anyone else.

We're in the business of helping authors publish and distribute ebooks. The more authors we support at Smashwords, the more readers come to Smashwords to view, sample and purchase the books of all our authors, including your own. If our agent offering brings in more books and more authors, it will only benefit the entire Smashwords community of authors.