As I said in my google + rant about this:
No one at the Knight Agency is holding a gun to my head and forcing me to use their services to self-publish. Nor are they threatening to drop me as a client if I take a rejected project out on my own. I don't understand the anger. If I decide that it is worth 15% for a specific term for a specific book to receive career guidance, editorial services (Nephele has been invaluable in reading and offering editorial suggestions on my novels), and promotion (among other things) than that is my decision. It doesn't mean I'm lazy or stupid or letting myself be used. I just means that given my current circumstances and the current landscape, I have made the best choice for me and for now.
I read a wide swath of publishing related blogs and I think I have a good grasp of the business side of writing. In addition, I have had a 20+ year career as a physical therapist, working in large academic and corporate structures as well as in my own private practice. I understand basic business concepts and potential conflict of interest issues quite well.
Many bloggers are talking about an agent's conflict of interest in terms of not trusting that the agent will do what's in the author's best interest when it is simpler to self-publish then to submit. (Admittedly, this is an over- simplification of the argument, but bear with me.)
This argument doesn't really hold up if you make the assumption that the relationship between author and agent is a symbiotic one. It is in the agent's best interest to nurture the writer's career for long term success. That means the best living for both parties. Perhaps that means advising the writer to self-publish project A, traditionally publish project B, and sign on with a small press for project C, (etc). Remember, the agent only earns money when the author does.
Self-publishing just provides another avenue for authors to get books in the hands of readers.
Agents have always made recommendations between publishing opportunities. Self-publishing doesn't change that--not in the symbiotic relationship between writer and agent. And that relationship is based on mutual trust: The writer trusts that the agent has his or her best career interests at heart. The agent trusts that the writer will provide the creative content and work professionally with editors, etc.
If this is not the case, then the writer SHOULD NOT work with the agent.
This is an unprecedented time of freedom and flexibility for writers. For the first time in modern publishing, the writer can forge his or her own path. It only requires some minimal computer competency and the willingness to take responsibility for the whole product.
For some writers, their best career path will be as independents. For others, continuing to work with the existing more traditional model is the answer. For the majority of writers, I believe a successful career will combine self and traditional publishing in a hybrid model.
What will an agent's role be in a year? In 5 years? In 10 years? No one knows. But I can tell you, based on my own experience, that having a professional who is invested in my career, my vision, and my writing is a valuable commodity. One worth nurturing.
As for potential conflicts of interest, that's where the writer needs to assess not only each offer, but the agent relationship on a regular basis armed with knowledge about publishing.
One thing that I do agree with: the day of the passive writer, letting the agent make all the decisions is long over.