Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

Is You Is or Is You Ain’t a Publisher

Before I launch into today’s post, a few quick words. I have been on vacation for almost two weeks. Although I got back early Monday, I’ve been playing catch-up in all aspects of my life (family, household, day job) and thus haven’t had much time for the writerly side. So, hi, here I am, and I’m glad to be back.

Among the things that apparently erupted while I was gone was a brouhaha over whether or not The Knight Agency is establishing a digital publishing arm. (See here for what I think is a comprehensive run-down of the story, albeit from the perspective a one author.) Courtney Milan also posted her thoughts on the question of agents becoming publishers and the potential ethical issues that raises.

I bring these things up not because I’m going to launch into a rant on the reasons I think agents shouldn’t become publishers (I’ve already been there and done that), but because I think it’s important that we define what a publisher actually is. Only when we determine what makes an entity a “publisher” can we decide whether or not any particular agent/agency has actually become one.

Now, maybe you are going to want to argue with my definition, and that’s fine, because I think there are a lot of disagreements over what a publisher is or isn’t (e.g., are “vanity” publishing companies like AuthorHouse “publishers”?), but the bottom line for me when it comes to deciding who “publishes” a book is simple–it’s whoever the retailer/distributor pays first when a copy of the book is sold.

In the case of traditional print publishing, the publishing house is first in line. It then distributes the author’s percentage either to the author (if unagented) or to the agent, who takes his/her 15% off the top and passes the remainder on to the author. The same holds true of digital small presses–they get paid first when copies of the book are sold, then pass the author’s percentage on either through the agent or directly. And when you are self-published, YOU get the money from the retailer/distributor; that’s what makes YOU the publisher.

So, when it comes to whether agents/agencies are publishers or not, the question is–are they first in line? If they are uploading the book to the distributors themselves and in charge of managing the account, and they are the ones who get paid when the distributor cuts the checks/EFT entries each month, then as far as I’m concerned, they are the publisher. It doesn’t matter whether they’re taking a smaller cut of the proceeds than other publishers would. It doesn’t matter that they would have been “before the author” in line if the book had been sold by another publisher. The bottom line is that they have control of the account with and are first in line for payment from the distributor, and that makes them the publisher. But if the author is first in line and pays the agent a cut for services rendered, then the author is the publisher.

I have no idea what The Knight Agency means by “assisted self-publishing.” But if they are not going to be in charge of the accounts and will be paid their cut by the publisher (in this case, also the author), then I have no problems whatsoever with their claims that they aren’t opening a digital publishing arm. Whether or not the services they are offering are worth 15% is entirely up to the authors they contract with to decide.

But if what an agency does when it “assists” an author to self-publish is to open an account with Amazon and the like and upload the books (with full control of pricing, cover art, book formatting, etc.) and then receive payment from Amazon, passing on the author’s percentage after taking its cut, then I say the agency is a publisher and is, in fact, not assisting the author to “self-publish” because in no way, shape, or form does this arrangement resemble the author acting as his or her own publisher.

Agree? Disagree? Tell me about it! (Said in my worst Brooklyn accent.)


  • Jody W. August 3, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    What if my friends and I self pubbed an anthology and the payment for the 4 of us went solely into my account and I then gave them money? Would I be their publisher?

  • Jackie Barbosa August 3, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    I’d argue you are the publisher of THAT anthology, yes.

  • Jody W. August 3, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Do you think RWA would need to kick me off the loops if I did that? Do we all count as publishers since we are the publishers of our own books?

  • Jackie Barbosa August 3, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    That’s an interesting question. I’d say no, but then, RWA doesn’t consider you a published author if you publish yourself, either, so I sort of don’t know how much we need to worry about that particular problem. At least not yet!

  • Jody W. August 3, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    At the rate most PAN authors are going, for example, they’re all gonna be self-pubbed with something before it ends.

  • Jackie Barbosa August 3, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    Exactly. I do think a “self-published” author is different from a publisher that puts out works by other authors (even when the self-publishing author is putting out a multiple author anthology). But the difference between an agent’s publishing arm and a small epress eludes me, frankly. Since the agent and the epress are both in the position of accepting submissions from authors and determining which are worthy (or not) for publication, they are acting as publishers when they put out those books for sale, while the author who puts out an anthology with her friends is typically NOT accepting blind submissions and contracting work from strangers.


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