Literary agent Peter Cox has offered to review "any" contract given to an author by an agent for free in order to ensure that the author has "impartial advice". The move is a response to agents setting up their own publishing imprints, which Cox sees as a fundamental conflict of interest between the principal and the agent.
“The author whose agent becomes their publisher effectively loses an agent”, said Cox.
The service, called Project FreeAgent, will be run out of his Redhammer agency, whose clients include Michelle Paver, Martin Bell and David Yelland. The service is aimed specifically at authors whose agent proposes to digitally publish the author's work himself or herself, but Cox said he would also encourage publishers to send their authors to his firm in order to have their contracts assessed, if the author is tempted to appoint their agent as publisher.
Cox said Redhammer expected no compensation, nor any commission on the deal. "There are zero strings attached", says Cox. "We feel this is simply the right thing to do. For authors, it's like getting a second opinion - a confidential check to make sure the advice they've received is sound... and not heavily biased in the publisher-agent's favour."
"I'm sure we'll lose money providing this free service," added Cox. "But if we succeed in jolting a few agents into realizing that they can't just plunder their authors' publishing rights willy nilly - it will be worth it."
The provocative gesture is certain to rile rival agents, and follows a strongly-worded blog written by Cox on the Redhammer website, which condemns agents who have begun to publish their clients' work. Cox wrote that the development was "mostly about lining their own pocket" and was "both ethically wrong and legally very dangerous".
In the blog Cox added: "Agency law makes it clear that an agent must not engage in self-dealing, or otherwise unduly enrich himself from the agency. Nor must an agent usurp an opportunity from the principal [i.e. author] by taking it for himself. I really doubt whether any agent can legitimately claim that it is in the author's best interests to be published by their literary agent."
Agents have claimed that they will only publish their clients' work when a publishing deal isn't on the table. One agent, speaking to The Bookseller ahead of this story breaking, said: "I think we'd all prefer it if we could just sell books to publishers but given their acquisitions policy and e-book royalties there are times when it does not makes sense: the best interests of the author outweighs the conflict of interest."
But in his blog Cox dismissed this argument. "The fact is, the internet is full of digital publishers, both large and small. Digital publishers are everywhere, and they are keen for our business."