The Agent’s Role in the Digital Age: A Conversation with Jessica Faust

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Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is an interview with literary agent Jessica Faust(‪@BookEndsJessica‪) by Sangeeta Mehta (@sangeeta_editor), a former acquiring editor of children’s books at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster, who runs her own editorial services company.

Many writers today opt to self-publish so they can bypass literary agents. Why go through what might be an endless cycle of sending out query letters—and pay an agent’s commission—when it’s so easy to publish a book independently?

Some of the most successful authors in the indie writing community, however, do have representation. So how does an agent assist in a debut or established writer’s self-publishing endeavors? Can an agent effectively advocate for her clients’ best interests if she’s also acting as their publisher? I spoke with literary agent Jessica Faust about these topics and more.

SANGEETA MEHTA: The constantly shifting digital publishing climate has prompted many literary agents to launch spin-off digital businesses. Is this why you started Beyond the Page Publishing? How does Beyond the Page assist writers with self-publishing? Is it for clients of your literary agency, BookEnds, only?

JESSICA FAUST: Back in 2011 I realized how important self-publishing was becoming and was going to be for authors. I wanted to make sure I had something to offer those clients who might be interested in diving into that world, but didn’t want to do it on their own, so I launched Beyond the Page. We do all editing, and while we say we only offer copyediting, our editorial director Bill Harris is really wonderful and usually works with authors on a much deeper level, providing revision suggestions where needed and doing line edits. We also do formatting, conversion (including adding changed material and reconverting files whenever needed), uploading to all sales sites, marketing help and pitches, copyright filing, and we provide an ISBN and hire a cover designer.

We started working primarily with BookEnds authors, but have expanded well beyond just the BookEnds client list. In fact, I would say that most of the Beyond the Page authors have come from outside BookEnds.

What is the benefit for agented writers to create or self-publish e-books through a literary agency as opposed to going through an aggregator or uploading their book directly onto the site of an e-book retailer?

I think the biggest benefit is that the agent can help guide a writer on making decisions that will help grow a career. Whether you’re self-publishing on your own or through your agent, it’s important to keep your agent in the loop and discuss many of your decisions with her. For example, if you decide to test a new genre, the agent might be able to sell it to a publisher, or work with you to make sure you can cross-promote your other material. An agent will also make sure you aren’t getting yourself into a situation, contractually, that could cause problems down the road.

What’s an example of such a contractual problem?

Typically a contract with a publisher will have both an option clause and a non-compete. The agent will always work to narrow those as much as possible, but you still need to understand them before self-publishing to prevent putting yourself in a position where you are in breach of contract. There are so many different examples: it could involve the same characters, the timeline for which you can publish something different, the type of book or genre you can publish. Communicating with your agent and letting her know what you’re publishing can help her determine how to narrow those clauses for you and can help ensure you aren’t doing anything against the contract.

Ultimately, it’s just helpful to keep everyone you consider part of your publishing team (and your agent should always be a part of this team) in the loop. There’s nothing worse than trying to sell a client’s newest project only to have an editor call and pass because of the self-published works you had no idea the client was doing. It’s embarrassing, but also often something that could have been prevented if the agent had been kept abreast of the situation.

Some publishing professionals feel that the idea of an agent-publisher is a conflict of interest—a vanity press in disguise. What is the argument for or against this idea? Does Beyond the Page charge fees? Work with any third-party services?

Yes, and I got hit hard by this when I first started Beyond the Page.

I can understand the concerns of others, but I think we work in a business full of conflicts of interest. Some could argue that it’s a conflict to represent two authors in the same genre or to be both writer and agent.

The publishing world is a changing place, and I decided to offer something to BookEnds clients who were considering self-publishing and wanted my involvement or just wanted a publishing team to work with. Since I didn’t think I could fairly provide these types of services at the standard agent commission, I established Beyond the Page. It’s a separate company and not an arm of BookEnds. I think the only way to alleviate the concerns of a conflict of interest is to look at my track record. I’ve never pushed an author to Beyond the Page and, in fact, suspect I have some authors who don’t even know it exists.

My goal is to help a client build a career in the way she wants. If Beyond the Page can help achieve that, great. If not, that’s fine too.

Beyond the Page has not worked with any third-party services. We don’t charge any upfront fees, but do share in the profits.

Hybrid or partnership publishers—which do charge fees—are becoming increasing popular. Unlike vanity presses, however, hybrid publishers have relationships with respected review journals and are often able to secure bookstore placement.

Again, some would say that publishers should never charge writers up front—that the hybrid publishing business model is unethical. But in light of the benefits these publishers provide—and the challenges other publishing paths may present—are they worth considering?

I think, as with anything, you need to be careful before making a commitment to anyone. You need to do your research and really understand what the company is going to offer you.

When making any publishing decisions (signing with an agent, a publisher or self-publishing), I think it’s important to have an idea of what you want out of your career. That can change, of course, and likely will, but knowing what kind of team you want, if you’d like a team, and what your goals are now and in the future can help you make the decisions that are right for you.

Would I encourage an unagented author to consider hybrid publishing? That depends entirely on what an author is looking for in her career. I think most authors choose hybrid publishing because they like the idea of turning something over to a publisher or a team and having their guidance and feedback. Self-publishing is entrepreneurship. It’s a lot more than simply throwing a book on Amazon.

A publishing career is a very personal thing. There are authors who want to solely self-publish and who have great success doing that, there are others who would prefer to stay in a traditional publishing relationship, and there are those who want a little of both. I don’t think any of those decisions, or how you choose to go about achieving them, is wrong. I think publishing is a business, and how you choose to run and grow your business depends on you.

Back in 2004, you placed Debbie Allen’s self-published book Positively Fearless Selling with the Dearborn Publishing Group after it sold over 30,000 copies. How has pitching self-published books to traditional publishers changed in the last decade? Would 30,000 copies in sales for a business/finance book still be enough to attract the attention of a traditional publisher? When considering self-published nonfiction books, what are traditional publishers looking for in terms of the author’s platform?

I have to confess that I’m not representing nearly as much nonfiction as I used to, so I haven’t tried to sell a self-published book in a while, and fiction and nonfiction would be very different when it comes to selling a self-published work to a traditional house.

The thing to note is that Debbie sold 30,000 copies of her print book at print prices ($14.99 or so), which is a lot different from selling an ebook at varying price points, or giving it away for free.

When considering a platform, publishers want to know how many books the author can potentially sell. I don’t mean actually sell, but what her reach is. Does she speak to hundreds of people each month who will potentially buy the book? Will she purchase the book for giveaways at such an event? Does she write popular articles or blogs? Does she have an already proven audience? Again, though, the platform has to make the author stand out, and the subject of the book will make a difference too.

Who is the best candidate for self-publishing? Established authors who have been dropped by their publishers—or who want leave their longtime publishers (Cornelia Funke)? Bestselling authors looking to experiment outside of their brand (Jane Green)? In what cases is self-publishing the right choice for a debut author looking to gain a mainstream readership?

We don’t always know why readers gravitate to a certain kind of book or an author, but it is always more difficult for a debut author to be discovered. I think bestselling authors or authors with a track record will have an easier time finding success. In many ways, self-publishing isn’t all that different from traditional publishing.

That’s an intriguing point. Will you elaborate?

We still can’t guarantee a book will sell. Some of the best-written books struggle to find an audience, while another book will become an instant bestseller despite any attempts to market or publicize it. I think one of the things many self-published authors have learned is that it’s not easy, there is no simple formula to making a book a success, and what works for one author doesn’t necessarily work for all. Readers are fickle and unpredictable, and in some ways that’s what is so amazing about this business.

You spoke earlier about how agents can be helpful to authors who want to test a new genre by self-publishing. Do you have any authors who have done this, and did they use their own name or a pseudonym? Is there an advantage to using a pseudonym if the test work isn’t intended to build the author’s brand?

I do. Definitely. Some I didn’t know about until well after it was done. In some ways, it was a shame, really, because they were books I would have loved to have had a chance to pitch to New York houses. Authors who have done this have done it both under their own names and pseudonyms.

I used to have an easy answer to the advantages to a pseudonym, but the market has changed so much that I’m not always sure it matters. I think using a pseudonym can help you try new things without potentially damaging your current brand or turning off your current audience. However, when something takes off, you lose the advantage of a crossover audience. That being said, we have taken backlists from authors and republished the material using their new, more successful, author brand.

Some writers choose to self-publish not only because of the lure of higher royalties, but also because of the transparency these platforms offer, at least in terms of book sales. How effective are traditional publishers’ author and agency portals in addressing the need for up-to-date data and analytics? Is the constant innovation on the part of self-publishing platforms and aggregators forcing traditional publishers to do the same?

Of course this depends on the author portal and the publisher. I think publishers have come to realize that this transparency makes a difference with authors and are working to do what they can to give authors all of the information they can. Some publishers have really nailed this, and others are still working on it.

Can you provide an example of a specific publisher that’s nailed its portal? Why do you think this is?

The one that first comes to mind is Penguin Random House. Not only do the authors have access to their royalty statements, but they have full access to recent sales data and can chart and graph the sales of their books. It’s also incredibly user friendly. I know the authors love it, and so do I.

You began your publishing career as an acquiring editor, opened BookEnds as a book packaging company, and then turned the company into a literary agency. How has your experience as an editor and packager informed your role as an agent? As an agent who assists clients with self-publishing?

I came to all of these positions with an understanding of how a publishing house works. I understand how decisions are made and why some decisions are made. I also know how many books are presented to the editorial board and how many of those will be offered a contract. I think all of this has helped me make my own decisions when taking on new clients and projects. It’s also helped me determine how much editing a project might need and whether or not I’m the person to do it.

On the self-publishing front, I use my knowledge of marketing, cover copy, and cover design garnered from art meetings. That being said, it was a lifetime ago that I worked at a publishing house, and so much has changed since then, so a lot of today’s knowledge has come from the work I’ve been doing as an agent.

Do you have any other advice for agented writers who are hoping their agent will assist them with self-publishing their out-of-print backlist or new works? For unagented writers who are considering working with an established literary agency that has a self-publishing arm or side business?

I don’t really. Of all the things that have changed in publishing, I don’t think choosing an agent has. You need to know what you want from your career (and understand that will likely change as your career evolves) and you need to choose an agent who has the same vision as yours. Most importantly, you need to choose an agent you feel comfortable working with and making big decisions with. You need someone on your team you trust, like, and respect.

A portrait of literary agent Jessica Faust.About Jessica Faust

As owner and president at BookEnds, Jessica Faust (‪@BookEndsJessica‪) prides herself on working closely with her authors to bring their goals to fruition. Jessica has worked with a number of bestselling and award-winning authors. Her areas of expertise are in the genres of women’s fiction, mystery, suspense, romance, and young adult. In nonfiction her focus is primarily on business, entrepreneurship, career, parenting, current affairs, and health and wellness.

A veteran of publishing, Jessica began her career in 1994 as an acquisitions editor at Berkley Publishing, Macmillan, and Wiley. Jessica has been a regular columnist with Romantic Times magazine, she has taught at New York University’s Continuing Education Program, she’s been recognized as Agent of the Year by the NYC Romance Writers of America chapter, and she is asked regularly to speak at writers’ conferences throughout the world. She is a member of RWA, MWA, SCBWI, ITW, and AAR. A native of Minnesota, Jessica now lives in New Jersey.

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