You’ve written a manuscript and you’re actively looking for an agent or publisher. You’re hoping for a contract and a handsome advance.
Instead, Agent X says, “I don’t think your book is quite what I’m looking for, but I know just the self-publishing agency that can help you.”
Or, rather than the usual form rejection letter from a traditional publisher, this time you hear, “I think this manuscript would do really well with our self-publishing imprint.”
This week, Maria Schneider of Editor Unleashed wrote a series of three articles which discuss (what I believe to be) a very disturbing publishing trend: traditional publishers and literary agents making money by referring rejected authors to their own self-publishing agencies.
In order to understand the issue at hand, you should take a moment to read these posts:
- Looking for Money in the Slush Pile
- DIY Publishing: What’s Worth Paying for ?
- Agents and the Trust Factor
Basically, traditional publishers are inundated by unsolicited manuscripts, and can only publish a small percentage of them. Some houses are looking to capitalize on would-be authors by establishing self-publishing imprints and offering expensive packages to those whose manuscripts are rejected.
In addition, literary agents may begin to receive referral fees for steering writers toward self-publishing.
Let me be clear that I’m not knocking people who actively choose self-publishing. It can work for those who have money to invest and motivation to market their book. I am also not saying people who self-publish can’t write well enough for traditional publishers.
However, in reading Maria’s posts and subsequent reader comments, I have become aware of some issues:
- Publishers who take this route are seeking to make money from writers instead of readers. Does this just seem wrong?
- A lot of people would do anything to see themselves in print, though their work may be far from publishable. Do you see it as helpful or cruel to encourage self-publishing for those who would do better to invest time and effort in learning to be better writers?
- How will writers be able to distinguish between literary agents who are honest and those simply looking for a referral fee?
- If self-publishing becomes extremely commonplace, how will readers be able to choose quality material?
I’ve personally experienced this trend in my writing. I once submitted a children’s manuscript to a publishing house and waited over 6 months to hear back from them. When I did get a response, it was positive, with some personal feedback. However, they didn’t make me an offer. A couple of weeks later I received a phone call directly from the publisher asking me how I was going with my manuscript, and offering me a handy package with their self-publishing imprint.
Let me say, I was insulted–not because I felt they should have offered me a contract, but because they either:
(a) Liked my manuscript, but not enough to pay for it themselves, OR
(b) Didn’t like my manuscript, but gave me positive feedback to butter me up for a self-publishing sale.
I will never know which is the truth, but I’m inclined to believe the latter.
How do you feel about this issue? Do you think there are pros in it for readers and writers, or just for publishers and agents?
Is this simply a necessary evil because of the changing nature of the publishing business?
Join the discussion
Jeffrey Tang says
I don't think this is a necessary evil in any way, shape, or form. I have absolutely nothing against the concept of self-publishing (in fact, I intend on trying it some time in the near future), but deceptive business practices are always bad. All the talk about the changing publishing world aside, the most important change we're going through is transparency. Letting your customers, your readers, your audience see you for who you really are.
There's nothing wrong with a publishing agent recommending self-publishing, if he or she truly believes that to be the best option for an aspiring author – but steering an author towards self-publishing through deception is just wrong. Come to think of it, I have no problem with the idea of publishing agents receiving referral fees from self-publishing companies. It's just like putting an affiliate link in a blog post – as long you're honest and disclose your intentions and possible biases, there's nothing wrong with making money for making a recommendation or endorsement.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject. I agree with most of what you're saying, but I'm still a bit unsure about agent referral fees.
Maybe I'm just cynical, but how often would an agent usually refer an author to self-publishing if there wasn't anything in it for them? Probably only very rarely, when they feel that author has the money and motivation to make self-publishing worthwhile for them. Usually they would simply send a rejection letter and be done with it.
However, if there's a referral fee attached, I imagine many agents would be more likely to suggest it (whether it's in the author's best interests or not).
Although, I see what you're saying about disclosing intentions.
Beth L. Gainer says
This was an informative post, and I was unaware of this trend. I'm not sure what the motivating factor behind it is, but could the fact that many traditional publishers are biting the dust relate to it? I'm not sure, and it still sounds like a fishy way to do business, but I wonder, with Kindle and all of the competition, if publishing houses are no longer going to be solvent and therefore self-publishing is more popular than ever.
I think the main motivation is that people are buying less books. With sales down, publishers are needing to find money elsewhere. Pretty much everyone in the world thinks they'd like to write a book at some point, so publishers are going to capitalize on it.
Thanks for dropping by!
Beth L. Gainer says
Thanks for your insights. I really am enjoying your blog!!
Thanks, Beth–I'm glad you found me!
This is interesting. I guess what it boils down to is: Are the writers suffering or losing out on anything because of this trend?
If they’re going to be rejected and get nothing anyhow, then I don’t see anything wrong with the publisher recommending self-publishing, even if they’re making money off it.
I would have a problem with this type of thing if the manuscript that’s being given a “soft rejection” (for lack of a better phrase?) would normally be accepted, and so in that case the author is actually losing out on the opportunity for traditional publishing.
Interesting topic, though, and thanks for an interesting blog.
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Veronica Purcell says
I’ve received a few rejection letters from publishers pitching their little side business. I’m inclined to reply back with my own rejection letter indicating their option has hit the top of my slush pile. Of course, if the side busincess could guarantee my money back plus profits for the first year and insure steady sales for the next five years then I might consider it.
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This article really hit home. I had a similar experience. I did choose to self-publish, but not with the publisher who originally steered me in that direction. It is something to be wary of.