by L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers
Every year I think about going to Thrillerfest, but this time my reason for not attending is different. In the past, it was always a financial issue—an expensive conference and an expensive flight. But now that I can afford it, I've decided to pass for ideological reasons that recently become more pressing. The short answer: Agentfest, a sub-conference within the larger gathering.
Last year, I was invited to teach a workshop at Willamette Writers conference, and I turned it down because the conference is focused on writers pitching to agents. Agentfest is the same thing: hopeful authors trying to sign contracts with agents. This choice, of course, is for the author to make, but I can't, in good conscience, support a program that encourages new authors to sign with agents. (For established authors, it's a different decision.)
I don’t have anything against agents personally. But their role in publishing has become mostly obsolete. Yet, the 15% forever commission hasn’t changed. What has changed is how they earn it. Now many agents are helping their clients self-publish by performing tasks that authors can do for themselves or contract to professionals for a flat fee.
This practice seems unscrupulous. And that perception has been supported by recent blog revelations. Barry Eisler posted about the nasty reaction of agents to his self-publishing talk, where he sought to empower writers with specific information about the changes in publishing.
And David Gaughran recently blogged about the pitiful performance of Argo Navis, a digital distributor favored by agents who steer their clients into those contracts. Agents talk about how the Argo Navis distributor is a guarantee of quality independent publishing because it only deals with books submitted by agents. Yet, according to Gaughran's research, Argo Navis books don't sell. Hundreds of real indie authors sell more books in an hour than agent-supported Argo Navis clients do in a month. And the distributor takes 30%...in addition to the 15% paid to agents and the 30% to the retailer.
I would discourage authors from signing with an agent who makes self-publishing deals. I encourage authors to take charge of their careers and self-publish…in a way that allows them to keep most of the profits.
So for me, it doesn't feel right to attend—and spend money on—a conference that matches new authors with agents who may steer them into bad financial decisions, which, in my opinion, includes most contracts with traditional publishing as well. Especially now that big publishing owns the most notorious author-scamming vanity presses out there.
The main reader part of the Thrillerfest conference takes place on the last two days, and it would be great fun to hang out with thriller writers and readers. But spending my money on Thrillerfest indirectly supports Agentfest, and I just can't do it.
I would love to see Thrillerfest drop the agent portion of the conference. Many of the conference founders are now self-publishing, and it surprises and disappoints me that they still offer the old model to new writers. I hope it's only a matter of time before agent-based conferences become obsolete. They're a disservice to authors.
Readers, writers: What do you think?