Wise Words from … Me. Discussing the state of publishing today with an agent.
- 34 Comments
I wrote a comment on a well-known blog one day a couple months ago, giving my opinion about the role of agents in the publishing world. Just after it happened, I was contacted by the agent who wrote the blog article who wanted to get my thoughts on the matter, and we had a nice back and forth via email. He asked me to contribute my thoughts on certain topics to his blog, which I agreed to do, and sent him the info on November 9th. Well, he never published it or did anything with it, so I’m going to just put it here (with his blessing, of course). Why? Well, because I think it has some good predictions about our future as far as publishing goes. And also for the reason that I’m seeing some of my words out there being used by industry pundits. Maybe I’m brilliant, and I didn’t even know it! I predicted the future writings of famous people in famous publications! I just saw a couple things I wrote actually mentioned in an interview of his boss.
So here they are, my comments about publishing and the role of agents today. They are LONG and WINDY, but I hope you take the time to read them anyway.
The AGENT comments are in blue. Mine are in black/gray.
You said that slush piles aren’t on agents’ desks anymore but in the Amazon bestseller lists. Certainly there are books becoming major bestsellers online that go on to be cherrypicked by publishers as you mention, but where I differ from you is in that I don’t know if that model can last.
Why can’t it last? Each day an author uploads a potential bestseller to Amazon. Authors who’ve built a big following from scratch (like Samantha Young) can drum-up hype for an upcoming release and rocket their newest work to the top of the charts, just like traditional publishers have been doing forever. And then the publishers can pluck writers like her away from the fray and give her a place in bookstores, while also snagging the rights to the guaranteed bestselling sequel to that book. It’s genius and so, so simple.
I believe that the most successful authors have a team to work with (that includes an agent—and I fully acknowledge my bias) who can help them plan a career over the long term.
With respect to a traditionally-published work and author, I would agree. Agents get more money in the trad-pubbed deals, and they know the right people to call to set up a bidding war. We are writers by passion, but business people too. The money is important. Wouldn’t it be nice if agents would sign up anyone who has talent plus a group of dedicated readers? But the reality is, they don’t. They cherry-pick based on submissions and ignore the great candidates right under their noses, sitting in the Top 100 at Amazon. I honestly don’t know why more agents aren’t trolling these lists to find new clients. Some are, but not enough in my opinion. There are plenty of writers like me who have never queried an agent. But do I need an agent to sell ebooks? No. What can they do for me that my fellow indie authors aren’t doing?
My suspicion is that those authors being cherry picked will get agents [I completely agree, and this has been borne out in all the recently-acquired formerly indie properties that I know of] and that those who choose not to work with them will be more subject to shifting whims of the marketplace.
An agentless writer who considers an offer from a traditional publisher has the option of getting an agent, getting an attorney, or going it alone. Shifting whims in the marketplace have nothing to do with the end result, the contract. If you go without the agent, either you or your attorney know how to get the best deal and you get it, or you take a lesser deal than you could have gotten with an agent representing your interests. The deal is done, and you live with the consequences of your negotiations (or lack thereof). So, I don’t see how a writer can be subject to shifting whims here. Now, if you’re talking about the value of an agent’s guidance over a writer’s career, that’s a different answer. You say “shifting whims”, I say “a revolution”, that to be fully exploited requires an ability to make changes on the fly and adjust to reader needs in a moment. Sometimes its good to be unfettered, unchained, and totally in control of what you do with your intellectual property. Indies without agents can do this and are generally more flexibly-minded, willing to try new things. Trad publishers can’t or won’t make change easily, especially when it comes to adjusting pricing, and agents toe the line with publishers most of the time, from what I’ve observed and learned from author-friends. Very few agents are willing to try new things or to push the envelope with publishers, so I’d say they’re less flexible and can stifle the growth of an author in some cases. There’s a conflict of interest with publishers and agents, that agents can try to ignore, but writers won’t anymore. Some brave agents are going to break free of it one day, realizing they should be 100% on the author’s side – partners (true partners, not lip-service partners) with them; but only when they stop buying into the fear the traditional publishers are selling. Hugh Howey’s and Bella Andre’s sales of paperback-rights-only are proof someone’s thinking outside the box, willing to push publishers to the limits and try new things. But they are the exception to the rule right now.
I just don’t know that I believe authors becoming bestsellers online through word of mouth will have the same sustaining power as those with agents behind them.
How does an agent bring sustaining power if not through his negotiations with a traditional publisher that gets the author’s books on a table front and center at the book store? We’re talking discoverability here, and I agree, if you have your paperback in stores you will likely find more readers, assuming you’re even put into stores which doesn’t always happen. I think we both agree that, right now, a traditional publisher will move more units than an indie can move in paperback. And an author working with a traditional publisher needs an agent, in my opinion, to get the best deal possible. I think we agree on this point too. However, with respect to ebooks, I wouldn’t agree a publisher or agent is needed. Enough indies have proven that, myself included. Most successful ebook authors have to weigh the benefit of more discoverability in paperback sales against the loss of ebook royalties, and more often than not the value remains in staying self-published.
Beyond that, as someone who has spent years reading slush, I wonder if crowdsourcing is an effective replacement for gatekeepers.
It’s happening. It’s working. And the reading material is more varied now than ever before, and readers are loving it! There are some readers who actually make it a habit of trolling the newly-published books, a treasure hunt of sorts, looking for the next big thing. Word of mouth, thanks to Goodreads and blogs, takes over from there. I don’t see this changing.
In a lot of ways, my job has always been to filter what publishers see down to a manageable amount of a higher than average quality. Do you think the public needs people [read: non-agents] to serve that same purpose?
The public wants this and yes, obviously needs this. Without them, we wouldn’t have so many great books, and I would have never become a novelist. Agents and publishers have shown us that they blew off a lot of really great writers. If we had listened to them, we’d never have Hugh Howey’s Wool, and my readers wouldn’t have what many of them are saying is their new favorite author; and that just sucks. Today we know, without any doubt, that agents and editors and committees don’t always know what will be popular and what will sell.
And if so, who is that person/entity/group?
Readers, specifically the ones with ereaders, which like it or not, are the future of books.
And now… for the long-winded explanations…
Okay, let me address these points you’ve brought up in pieces because to me, it involves more than one issue, those main points being (1) where publishers will find their best sellers and (2) an agent’s role in the process, with several sub-points within each.
First, the issue of where the newly published books will come from and the related point, who the gatekeepers should be:
DISTRESSED TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING INDUSTRY
The publishing industry is in distress right now. Proof positive: (1) The Big 6 got slammed for essentially price-fixing, which looked really bad from a consumer’s perspective (i.e., artificially fixing book prices so they’d stay high versus book budgets being generally fixed and low for consumers, so this meant less books for voracious readers … never a good thing); (2) traditional publishers are getting serious price pressure from Amazon, and of course, (3) people are buying more ebooks than paper books and trad publishing is still very heavily invested in the paper business.
I believe ebooks are more popular now, first, because they are cheaper and, second, because the ereaders make it an easier affair to carry around a bunch of books. I’m speaking as a reader here. When I used to travel on an airplane, because I’m a voracious reader, I’d buy at least three books, usually four or five, to keep me entertained on the flight (Florida to California or New York). I read fast and hate being without reading material. Those books, especially if purchased in the airport, were about $9 apiece. Now I can take that average $36 and buy more books and they won’t fill up my carry-on; and with bag restrictions now in place, that’s a serious consideration!
You can repeat that math for countless scenarios: commutes to work, waiting in doctor’s offices, on vacation, etc. With ebooks we simply get more for less. It’s basic math. But honestly, I don’t know anyone who says they prefer a digital screen to paper. If all things were equal, price and convenience, I’d bet ereaders would go the way of the eight track. But paper can never compete with digital, so now the Big 6 have a problem. They deal in paper. They have offices in Manhattan. They have large bodies of staff with the salaries to match. They have big travel budgets. And, on top of all this, they have a stable of non-performing authors who never earn out their advances, i.e., another bleeding wound. And where did these authors come from? Agents. And who picked them up from the agents? Editors. The biggest fallacy, the biggest myth that all of these players in the traditional publishing industry have been suffering under is that traditional publishers and editors and agents know how to pick winners and they’re the only ones who can pick winners. The fact is, for every winner they pick, there are probably at least ten losers, maybe more. Probably more. Ten losers who still get paid an advance. Some get paid fairly large ones compared to what their work brings in. Even the smaller ones add up.
It used to be that a writer would just have to take what was offered in a publishing deal. Now they have another option, and so many of them are taking it: self-publishing. Here the winners, the bestsellers, are picked by the consumers – the readers, and really, in my opinion, the best judges of quality writing. Consider how many books are in the top 100 over at Amazon. How many of them are, or were, self-published? Lots of them. I haven’t done a serious study, but I’d wager on any given day it’s at least ten, sometimes more. That’s 10% of the “Reader’s Choice” bestsellers – those picked by readers and ignored by editors or agents. And let’s not forget; we’re in the very early days of this revolution, before many authors have even become aware of self-publishing or have access to it or are not intimidated by it. If you drill down into the sub-genres, for example YA Fantasy where I write, you’ll find the percentage of Reader’s Choice bestsellers much higher. In YA Fantasy-Contemporary, 11 out of the top 20 are self-published! Many of these authors were told by agents that their work wasn’t up to snuff, that no publisher would want them. Some convinced agents of their worth, but the agents weren’t able to convince any publishers. In all of these cases, not only were these former gatekeepers proven wrong, but they were then victims of shot-in-the-foot injuries. These now bestselling authors either likely will never be back to them, or, they’ll cost a hell of a lot more to convince to come back.
READER’S CHOICE WRITERS
That’s the crux of it for me and for this whole movement, I believe. The best judge of any book’s worth is the reader – not an agent and not an editor. I know this as a writer, and I know it as a reader. I can’t tell you how many traditionally-published stinkers I’ve wasted my money on. For years, the traditional publishers have been deciding for us readers what we can read; but not anymore. Now the readers have been given the choice, and they are often picking books that were turned down by both agents and editors alike. And the smart publishers have already acknowledged this by trolling the bestseller lists and picking out the ones who have shot to the top, who have huge reader-support, who can sustain the sales of the next book or books. Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howey, Bella Andre, Colleen Hoover, and Samantha Young are some more or less recently-trolled acquisitions. Authors who tricked readers into buying their books with fake reviews, like John Locke for one, may not have the reader support to sustain their runs, but any smart publisher is going to do some investigation into a writer’s reviews before buying. The fake ones aren’t that hard to spot. A platform built on slight-of-hand is not support, and it won’t sell books.
Now the problem with this old machinery, this old way of doing things, manifests in many ways. Backlash is one of them. My amateur review of the industry of writers reveals a few writer categories. First, we have the traditionally published writer (TPW) who will always be with a traditional publisher. We have the Hybrid Traditional to Indie (HTI) – someone who started out as a traditionally published writer and then either bought rights back to self-publish or wrote some new books and self-published them. We’ve heard some big names going that way. Barbara Freethy has sold 2.6 million books using rights she bought back, and she’s not selling at 99 cents! We have the Hybrid Indie to Traditional (HIT) – someone who wrote a self-published book and then was picked up by a traditional publisher. And finally, we have the Indie, someone who has only self-published. Backlash is all over this scene. Why would a TPW ever go Indie if she were being treated well and compensated fairly? You don’t have to search far to find HTI writers ranting online or at conferences about how they were screwed over by their publishers.
I’m not sure I’d call it a mass exodus from traditional publishing at this point, but it’s starting to look that way. Even with all their clout in the bookstores, traditional publishers can’t offer to many what they need in terms of compensation. You don’t hear about too many HIT writers complaining. They get a load of money up front, they get a lot of creative control over book covers and even in some cases, pricing. They get treated like royalty when before they’d been rejected by countless agents and editors, some more than a hundred times. They didn’t even have to query anyone; they got emails and phone calls and bidding wars over their properties! It’s like every writer’s fantasy, and it’s happening every month now, not just once in a blue moon. And for every 7-figure deal, there’s a bunch of 6-figure or 5-figure deals that are going down, for authors who are already selling a lot of books to readers who love their work and are clamoring to buy more.
This was my long-winded way of saying that the smart publishers have already figured out that the best judges of good writing, commercially viable good writing, are readers. Readers aren’t always looking for the same old-same old. They are willing to stretch their reader wings and try new things. Hugh Howey proved this. Sarah Fawkes did too (before her publisher screwed over her readers, a story for another day). And it’s so easy to go on Amazon and look at a book’s ranking over time and its reviews to know if it’s a hit. Publishers who jump on this phenomenon and who also cut expenses (overhead) can survive, like I’ve said before, with a smaller but more lucrative stable of authors. A quantum shift in perspective is critical at this point. Not many publishers can or will be this nimble.
On the second issue you raised with your comments or question, namely the agent’s role:
WE NEED AGENTS
I agree 100% that anyone going to a traditional publisher should have an agent directing that business for the author. Unless that author is an agent herself or knows that business inside and out, it’s worth the skillset and experience this professional brings. I know from hearing other authors’ stories that their agents negotiated far more in their publishing contracts than they ever dreamed they could get. Agents have been able to bring in more participants to a bidding war, people a writer would never even know about, let alone have an in to speak to directly.
An agent is not only someone who will get you more money for your property, he or she is also someone who you can bounce ideas off of, brainstorm with, and use as part of your support team. A good agent, I’m sure, does all these things. Not all agents are good agents, but that’s what referrals and references are for – authors talk to each other. There’s a certain agent I now know to avoid like the plague based on his attitude towards indies. I don’t have an agent myself, but I know this support and expertise is what I’d want from mine if I did.
I agree that the majority of authors (all that I know of) once approached by a traditional publisher take on an agent to manage the relationship. I also have heard of authors getting calls from agents who found them on the bestseller list, the agent saying they think they can find a publisher for the author’s work. I know of one author who had an agent who tried to sell the property, the agent failed, the author took it back from her, self-published, and did so well that the agent was then able to sell it to an Amazon imprint. Is the author better off with the agent’s assistance here? We’ll see. But regardless, it doesn’t change my opinion that an author needs an agent if she is going to traditionally publish.
I also think an author would benefit from an agent relationship for sales of subsidiary rights, i.e., foreign rights and movie or TV options/sales. The problem is, most agents will tell you that if you won’t let them shop all the rights around, ebook included, they don’t want you at all. This makes me crazy, because I really just don’t understand this mindset of walking away from money. I’ve sold the rights to a Brazilian publisher for a 4-book series I wrote, War of the Fae. I approached two agents to represent me for this deal and any others they could find. Both turned me down. That soured me on ever approaching another agent as long as I live. I might get over that some day, but it would probably take them coming to me. I’m a successful writer. I make a good living, a consistently good living, self-publishing. I don’t need to face that kind of rejection if I don’t want to. That was never the case before this revolution, which is why I never finished my first novel until recently. I really detest someone telling me I have no talent and can’t entertain readers (crazy, I know). Thank goodness the ebook revolution came around to show that I can, in fact, entertain readers and that I do have writing talent. I probably never would have finished my book at all, and now I have 12 novels, many of which are in the top 100 or even top 20 on Amazon in various categories.
Someday, a really savvy agent is going to make selling foreign rights his or her special niche, and this agent is going to have a huge stable of authors whose work to peddle in Frankfurt and London; and some of those authors are going to hit it big with one of their books and guess who she’ll turn to, to manage that deal? The agents who turned up their noses at her pleas for help with selling subsidiary rights? Hell no. She’s going to go with the one who listened to her, believed in her, supported her, and made the decison to be a trailblazer when others wouldn’t. I have a dream …
And then here’s the one point I just flat out disagreed with you on: you say that for publishers to acquire self-published bestsellers is low risk. But we’ve seen authors who have been enormously successful on their own sell to publishers and see their sales bottom out. Part of this, I think, is that they’ve already exploited almost their entire audience. But another part is that what someone loves for $2.99 as an ebook may be different from what they’ll love for $5.99 or 15.99 as a print book. And I’m not talking about quality here. I actually just believe people react differently to some content based on the format they buy it in. Would you agree?
Oooh, pricing … We could write an entire book on that subject, and I’m not convinced I haven’t already written a short story with my answers above. But let me try and crack this nut a little, or at least, provide some insight from my own experience and observations, which admittedly come from being an industry outsider/Indie writer.
VALUE AND WORTH
I agree that a book has a certain worth to a reader and certain genres can command higher prices as can different formats. I’ll look at an ebook for $2.99 or $3.99 and say to myself, “Self, even if that book is just mediocre, you still will not have paid too much.” I’ll check reviews, I’ll definitely look at the 1-stars to see why people might hate it, and then I’ll probably buy it if I think there are some genuine lovers of the book out there. If I don’t love it after I read it, I won’t feel slighted or ripped off. I didn’t invest enough of my money in it to take it personally, assuming the reviews I read were genuine and it wasn’t a sock-puppet group that made me buy a piece of junk – because in my opinion, a piece of junk isn’t even worth free because my time has value.
On the other hand, if I shell out $9.99 or more for a book, well, it better be damn good. And at this point, that’s in any format, ebook or paper. It better keep me turning pages, staying up at night well beyond my bedtime, making me dream of the characters days after I’ve finished it.
Times have changed! I used to think nothing of paying $9 or more for a paperback. I’m sure I and a few people like me kept some bookstores in business, spending hundreds of dollars in a month on books, never even once looking at the price tags. This was before ereaders. Now I know I can get a seriously great book for $2.99 to $4.99. Why spend twice or three times that for a book that might not be as good? I’ve refused to buy several traditionally published bestsellers just because they’re so overpriced. It’s ridiculous! I buy paperbacks and will pay more for them, only for books I already know I will love, either because I’ve already read them once or I love the author’s work in general no matter what it is.
HEADS IN THE SAND
And this is the problem. This is why you as an agent feel justified in thinking that we still need agents and editors as gatekeepers for what people should read. Publishers do not get the pricing issue at all. And how can they? They have overhead to pay. They’re pushing high price instead of volume, ignoring the fact that many of these authors are selling millions of copies of their work because they have it priced reasonably. $2.99 or $3.99 may sound like peanuts to a publisher, but to many readers, it’s the sweet spot – the place where they can find great reads over and over again. A publisher who thinks it can take a book that was selling a million copies at $2.99 and then jack the price up to $9.99 or higher and have the same results is insane. You don’t even have to be a college grad to know this dog won’t hunt.
Your assumption that an author has exploited his reader base entirely and that this is the reason for the slump in sales is totally bogus in my view. Sorry for being so blunt, but I see this as an excuse coming from publishers who are still trying to force the old way of doing things on savvy readers. Publishers can try and deny the reality of reader book budgets and ereaders, and all the things that trickle down from there, but it’s not going to change anything for the consumer. Readers want quality reading material for a good price. Period. Will they pay more for an author they love, whose work really sings for them? Sure. How much more? Well, indie authors who have a big following, who write series, are getting away with as high as $6.99 right now. I don’t see anything much higher than that.
So tell me … why do traditional publishers think they know better and can sell an ebook for $9.99-$12.99? They look so greedy when they price an ebook at paperback prices. Any reader can see it, and they’re getting fed up with the whole thing. Look at the huge backlash against JK Rowling’s latest book – thousands of 1-star reviews, just talking about the price. And scathing reviews – justified if that book priced at $17.99 didn’t totally rock their socks off.
In my opinion, this is why you’re seeing sales drop off for acquired properties. Not because a reader base is completely tapped. A new crop of readers is born every day. Every day a few thousand or more new readers enter into the genre I write in. No book in the history of the world has ever totally tapped out its reader base. Want more proof? What about all those backlisted titles that are being self-published and purchased in the millions of copies? How can that happen if there’s really such a thing as tapping out reader bases? To me it can’t. But it is really easy to cause readers to pass on a book because they fail to see value at the current price.
Publishers who acquire indie properties that are already selling well need to carefully consider pricing, in a way they never had to before. Instead of trying to force the readers into their model, they need to adjust their model to meet the needs and expectations of the readers.
The first part of this examination is to ask who is buying paperbacks? They are the holdouts who don’t yet have ereaders (a smaller group every day!) and people who either really liked the ebook and want to add the paperback to their permanent collection or who love the author so much they will just auto-buy anything she writes in paperback for their collection. It’s true, many owners of digital books still buy paperbacks for books they really loved. My own readers tell me this about my books, and it’s true for me as a reader too. There are a few who will buy paperbacks just for nostalgic reasons or because they forgot their ereader and want to read something and a paperback store is handy, but that would be the minority of buyers I think; and like I mentioned, the non-ereader-owner group gets smaller every day. I have relatives who swore last year they’d never use a screen to read a book who are now getting very excited about receiving their first Kindle over Christmas or for a birthday.
Again, I have to summarize because I’ve written a short-story answer to what seemed a simple question. Essentially, publishers need to completely revamp how they acquire properties and then how they sell them, taking into consideration the popularity of the ereader and the savvy readers who know very well they can get quality reading done in the $2.99-$6.99 price range (and often even cheaper than this).
So any thoughts on these or any questions of your own—let me know!
My questions [which to date, have yet to be answered to me directly, but perhaps have been answered in other posts by this agent]:
1. What is your agency doing to address the issue of authors who are successfully managing an ebook career who may want to explore subsidiary rights and paperback rights? Will you do à la carte representation?
2. Does your agency feel comfortable negotiating things in a different way now with publishers, in recognition of the power shift (indie authors having more options now and therefore more influence on the deal to their advantage)?
3. Which publishers do you see being the most flexible now or most willing to consider new alternatives with formerly indie authors?
4. What type of support do you offer new authors you represent in this changing landscape? Anything different or unique?