While there has been some grumbling in the industry about the ethics and logistics when literary agents start acting as publishers, many firms are now offering a suite of services in this area. Only a handful of agencies are actually publishing titles by their clients through in-house divisions, with more offering publishing services to clients who (usually) can’t land an offer from a traditional house. The one consistency: many of the agents working in this arena say what they’re doing is not “publishing.”

“If we were a rights holder, and acted as a publisher, that would not work for us,” explained Robert Gottlieb, chairman of Trident Media Group, in discussing his agency’s new unit, Trident E-Book Operations. The division, which has three full-time staffers (who are not agents at the firm), was announced almost a year ago, but officially launched last month. Since then it has released 13 titles and, on each project, the agency takes a 15% commission on earnings. Gottlieb said there are 200 titles in the pipeline and that, for the commission, the agency does the “heavy lifting” in the self-publishing process, helping authors with everything from jacket design and marketing, to uploading documents.

Diversion Books is more of a publisher; agent Scott Waxman launched that division as an ancillary wing of his agency, but has now spun it off into its own entity. Mary Cummings, who oversees Diversion, has one other full-time staffer and works with a regular roster of freelancers. She estimated that she receives hundreds of unsolicited submissions, but that roughly 80% of what the company is publishing has been brought in by agents.

Diversion, like many of the endeavors agents have started (or become involved with), focuses almost entirely on digital, but does offer POD. The company launched with about 12 titles and has now published more than 60. The standard royalty split in Diversion contracts is 50/50. So what does Diversion do for half the proceeds from authors’ titles? According to Cummings, quite a bit. “We spend a huge amount of time working with metadata,” she said. That attention to metadata, which Cummings believes, is one of the key ways to sell an e-book that is not being supported by a traditional print marketing campaign. Noting that Diversion is in close contact with its main retail partners—B&N, Amazon, Apple, and Kobo—she thinks self-publishing well is not a job for a lone agent. “I’m working in this so deeply, and I see all the work that goes into [digital-only publishing], and I know that agents focused on agenting can’t do what we’re doing.... Anyone can put a book up, but you need to publish it in a comprehensive way.”

Bedford Square Books, which agent Ed Victor (who also has an eponymous agency) announced last year, is one of the few other literary agency–related “publishing” units. The division launched in September with six backlist titles and, in February, published its first original book, Dead Rich by Louise Fennel. That book, said Edina Imrik, digital publishing manager at Bedford Square (and audio rights manager at Ed Victor Ltd.), was turned down by 15 houses, despite being an in-house favorite. “We all loved the novel and Ed Victor, Louise’s agent, thought, ‘why not us?’ ” Imrik explained.

The title has only been released in the U.K.—the main base of the agency—and Imrik said there are currently no plans to widen Bedford Square’s operations beyond the U.K. The reason for the U.K. focus, Imrik explained, is because many of the agency’s clients still have backlist titles in print in the U.S., and those that do not are published through Open Road. Asked why the agency would launch a publishing division instead of looking for publishing partners, Imrik said it was a natural move. “The publishing industry is in a state of flux at the moment.... Some retailers are acting as publishers, authors themselves are acting as publishers. So why not agents? Ed likes to joke that it is a great feeling to say to a publisher: ‘Will you publish this book? Because if you don’t, we will.’ ”

Although Imrik said publishing books by clients is not a conflict for the agency—“our publishing contracts with our authors are very flexible and it is easy for them to change their mind, should they wish to,” she noted—many agents PW spoke to said they were more comfortable helping clients through the e-publishing process. Agencies can also use a service for self-publishing help and digital distribution: Argo Navis. The unit, which was launched by Perseus in October 2011, has 23 agencies signed up. According to Clare Peeters, v-p of corporate strategy and business development at Perseus, although no titles have been released yet, approximately 100 are in production.

On their own, many agents are helping clients self-publish, taking their standard 15% commission in the process. In the past year, agencies such as Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, the Knight Agency, the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and Liza Dawson & Associates, to name just a few, have announced that they are offering self-publishing services.

Liza Dawson said she decided to dip her toe into digital publishing, in part, as a learning experience. “If I didn’t get my hands dirty, then I’d never understand how digital books work.” With that in mind, she offered to help one of her clients, Jean Sasson, release an e-book edition of her memoir, which is now more than 20 years old, Princess: Life Behind the Veil. For Dawson the experience was a crash course—she learned the technical end while also figuring out what contacts she needed to have at retailers—and, she thinks, a success. Behind the Veil was published digitally for the first time and benefited from press for a more recent book by Sasson, which was published traditionally last year, Growing Up Bin Laden.

Laura Rennert, an agent with Andrea Brown, has, like Dawson, helped clients release titles when a traditional contract was not in the cards. And she, also like Dawson, makes a distinction between what she’s doing and actual publishing. As Rennert puts it: “We are helping our authors self-publish; we are not publishing them. They retain all their rights.” She added that she sees these projects “as an extension of the services [the agency] already provides.” Rennert recently oversaw the digital release of a number of books by her author Catherine Ryan Hyde. Hyde has been published in the States by S&S, and her YA books in the U.S. are currently with Knopf. Rennert oversaw the U.S. digital release of two of Hyde’s books, When I Found You and Second Hand Heart; both were released traditionally in the U.K., not in the States.

While both Dawson and Rennert say they’ve had positive experiences with the authors they’ve helped self-publish, the process is time consuming, especially for someone whose main job is selling traditional books to traditional houses. Dawson said Sasson’s sales have gone up across the board as a result of the self-publishing efforts she spearheaded, but she recognizes she needs to be selective in choosing similar projects. “When the right book comes along, I’m going to do this if it makes sense. I don’t want to be an e-publisher; I still work on commission.” Putting aside the time it takes to help an author self-publish, does Dawson worry about potential conflicts of interest? “I don’t think there’s a conflict of interest when people are working on commission. The AAR [Association of Authors Representatives] canon says that our fiduciary responsibility is to our clients. As far as I can see, this is bringing them more money. And it’s doing it in a way that I think might be beyond most authors.”