There was once a golden age (by comparison) of publishing, and no, even I am not old enough to have experienced it, but everything I’m about to say is true. In that golden age, there were lots and lots of New York publishers who were not all subsidiaries of even larger publishers who were subsidiaries...well anyway, there were lots of publishers at which toiled lots of acquisitions editors, each with their own tastes and preferences that were expressed in the books they bought. And after an editor bought a book, the sales staff figured out how best to sell it. Yes, the horse actually pulled the cart in those days. Trust me; although it's no longer true, this is the way it happened in that golden age.
Editors who Edited, and Books Without Buzz
In that golden age, editors at publishing houses (who had worked their way up to that position while learning their craft reading and evaluating slush pile manuscripts) actually got to edit, while administrative tasks and editorial scut-work were handled by people lower down the company totem pole, as they had once been themselves.
Publishers weren’t subsidiaries of publically-owned multinational megacorporations and so, lacking stockholders to keep them focused on the bottom line for this quarter, they often thought far, far ahead in terms of developing authors and their careers, and developing sales for an individual book. Years ahead. In those days, strategy trumped panicked reaction to every market fluctuation, and instinct was more a factor than microvariations in book-buying statistics. Books did not spoil on bookstore shelves as quickly as they do now, so a long view could be seen as the best view for many novels, and they were often left to develop word of mouth; “buzz” hadn’t been invented yet, except as it pertained to bees.
In those halcyon days, editors and writers often felt connected by a common stake in the success of a project and of a writer’s career. It was editors who nurtured reasonably-good writers into good ones, and good ones into great ones. If Nicole Polizzi had showed up at Simon & Schuster with a great idea for a book, she'd have been shown the door, politely but firmly. If some S&S editor had come up with the idea of hiring a ghostwriter to create a Nicole Polizzi masterpiece, he would have joined her on the pavement.
In those distant decades of another century, an editor could find a promising book that was not quite ready for prime time, and dedicate himself to working with the author to make it better. Editors were mostly men in the golden age, but in time salaries would fail to keep up with the world outside publishing, and women would come to dominate the field.
Every book went onto the market with expectation and trepidation. Would this one make it? Did they have a bestseller on their hands? That's right, kiddies—there were no manufactured bestsellers, no automatic midlist titles. To be fair, there was also precious little in the way of book-length genre fiction, except for historical novels, but science fiction, romance, and westerns, among other genres, were well-represented in magazines.
There were dozens of magazines in those days that published several pieces of short fiction each month (I am NOT making this up!), so that many if not most writers learned their craft and earned their reputations learning to plot and polish for the more demanding short form, then moved on to novels. Others made a living writing nothing but short fiction, writing a western one day, a jungle adventure the next, a spy mystery the day after that. Quite a few magazines were devoted entirely to short fiction, but almost every magazine published some fiction in every issue. America, not yet habituated to television with its endlessly-continuing stories, had a big appetite for short fiction.
Editors Editing, Agents Agenting...
So while editors were editing books, often taking on authors who were not yet ready for prime time because they believed in their promise for the future, agents were agenting. They did not, at that time, function as the pubishers' first readers. They showed promising books to editors, and represented their clients in contract negotiations. There were many, many fewer of them, and virtually none of them thought of themselves as editors, because there were plenty of those just over town at the publishing companies. Publishing companies had not yet laid off so much of their editorial staff that they could no longer fulfill the function of vetting incoming manuscripts.
The conventional wisdom regarding agents was that a writer didn’t need one until he or she was selling books and making "real" money, so writers could submit their work directly to editors, "over the transom." When an editor wanted to buy a book, and was ready to negotiate a contract, he suggested the author retain the services of an agent. Well, the honest ones did, anyway. An unpublished writer with an agent was pretty much unheard of.
Instead of stranglehold agency agreements of the type we have now, the agent and author were bound only by the agency clause in the publisher’s contract, and a handshake. When the rights to the book reverted (and they usually did so without tears or threat of lawsuit), the agent’s legal interest in that book was at an end, and until he sold another, he had no legal interest in anything that author might write in the future. Nor did the publisher.
Back to the Future
So this all happened a long time ago. By the time I was ready to sell a novel, which was a shorter long time ago, it was virtually the stuff of fairy tales. By that time, most editors wouldn’t look at an unagented manuscript, and a new crop of agents who had only lately been employed as lower-echelon editors were the publishers’ new first readers—the gatekeepers’ gatekeepers. They were doing more work, handling more clients, and to no-one’s surprise, starting to charge more money. Many insisted on contracts that went beyond the publishers’ agency clauses in sewing up the author’s freedom of movement. Despite the fact that the agents were not able to put their interests first, most authors would not have dreamed of going against their agents’ wishes for their careers.
But we’re writing a new story now about a new golden age, one that came on us so fast that many writers don’t believe it’s actually happening, while others fear it might be, and that might mean the sky is falling. Those writers are still living in the fairy tale that stopped being true before they ever sat down to a keyboard.
A New True Story
In our new story, writers have a wide range of choices about their careers, and publishers, while sometimes desirable for particular projects, no longer control the only means of distributing books. Agents no longer control access to subsidiary rights such as film and TV deals, foreign language publication, or audiobooks. Writers build their own platforms and publicity campaigns, hire other professionals to do whatever they can’t do themselves to get their books ready to publish, choose their own publication dates and price points.
Smart writers weigh their options, make their own career decisions, and walk away from bad contracts. When they deal with publishers, they insist on being treated with the respect they deserve as creators of the content that drives the business. When they publish their own works, they enter into it as entrepreneurs who learn from the past, live in the present, and keep a flexible future in front of them.
Tempted to be nostalgic for that golden past of publishing? Don’t bother. Any age takes on its coloration from the lenses we use to view it, and our future as writers is more golden than ever before if we want it to be. I like this new story best of all, and as we go into a new and promising year, I’d like to invite anyone who fancies it to make it your story, too.
NEWS: The conversation branches over at The Passive Voice, where Passive Guy reblogs this post, and more writers chime in. We now return you to the original post:
Imaginary agent and clients
Over on The Passive Voice
a few days ago, Passive Guy re-posted a blog from earlier this year: “Your Agent Isn’t Your Mommy
,” in which he quoted some of “...the extreme reactions of some authors to any criticisms of the business practices of agents.” My head is still spinning after reading a quote from one author: “I would trust him/her with all my future endeavors. All. Even if they seemed, excuse the turn of phrase, sketchy as hell.”
I can’t even begin to say how foolish that sounds. But that’s just me...and lots of other writers I know who are paying attention to what's been going on in publishing the past couple of years.
There are also some remarkable comments from very savvy writers on both the original post
and the re-post linked above.Why an Agent?
So why are so many writers so enamored of the very notion of having an agent that they are willing to trust their writing careers and incomes to people they’ve never met? Why are they renouncing advice from people who've been there and done that, and told us about it over and over, like Kristine Kathryn Rusch
and Dean Wesley Smith
? Because not to put too fine a point on it, blindly turning your writing income and prospects over to someone else seems to me, especially in today’s rapidly changing publishing environment, like a really dumb idea.
But it wasn't always
a really dumb idea. In fact, when I wrote my first three novels, it was a terrific idea, so climb into the Wayback Machine™,
and let's go on a trip into the not-so-distant past.What's Past is Prologue
Back in 1991, I'd been selling short fiction for a few years, and now I had a novel to shop around. I wanted an agent like a six-year-old wants a pony under her Christmas tree. In the publishing environment of the time, a writer with a book to sell needed
an agent. We needed agents because we needed publishers to get our physical books distributed to physical bookstores (remember those?), and you couldn’t deal with a publisher without an agent. If you could get an unagented book to an editor—and that was and still is possible if you're ballsy—you'd still need an agent to negotiate the contract. Agents, or so we thought, knew everything about IP law, and pretty much everything about publishing, too. Oh, and they also knew all the editors in New York, and what they wanted to buy. That was a lot to put on anyone, but it was the prevailing conventional wisdom among writers.
Within a few months of finishing my first novel, I had an agent. This was due less to my dazzling talent (far, far less, actually) than to the fact that an author of my acquaintance messaged me online (Prodigy
, in case your memory goes back that far) and said she’d told her agent to expect a call from me, and not to embarrass her. The agent and I had a conversation in which he asked a lot of intelligent questions about my career. I sent the ms; he liked it a lot. We shook hands, as it were, from a distance of 3000 miles. And I gained the privilege of using that heady phrase "My agent..." I hope I didn't overdo it, but you know....
A couple of months after that, I had a deal for my first novel and two unwritten sequels. How Do You Spell Success?
I ask you, what could make a late-20th-century writer’s heart gladder than that? What could make a new novelist any surer that her future was laid out before her like the Yellow Brick Road, with the Emerald City of literary success clearly in view? Now I had an agent AND a multi-book contract! Did I break out the champagne? Oh, hell yes! My education in publishing, contracts, and yes, agents, was yet to come.
At the time I joined up with my first agent, the commission on domestic sales was 10%. Soon after, he gave himself a 50% pay raise to the now-standard 15%, at least for small-potatoes clients like myself. The deal you get is not always the deal best-sellers get, but that's just business, and never forget agents are in business. At any rate, I was never in a position to make either of us rich at either percentage.
To this day I believe that particular agent is one of the good guys, and he's yet to prove me wrong, but our present business relationship is connected only with the books he sold for me back then, and only because the publisher in question is hanging on to my rights like a dog with a bone (or perhaps a penguin with a fish
). If a traditional publisher were to offer me a deal tomorrow (admittedly, getting a pony is more likely), I'd hire an IP lawyer to negotiate the contract, and keep the 15%.Doofus for Hire
And let me make this perfectly clear: not all agents are created equal. I've known some real doofuses who went around passing out business cards with "agent" on them, and some unfortunate writers who hired them. A friend of mine who's now a successful author with half a dozen novels in print went through four or five
absolutely terrible agents before finding a competent one.
And there have always been crooked agents. My first agent, like many of his generation, graduated from "the high school of literary agencies," Scott Meredith, who was famously unethical. An agent once told me that most people of a certain age in his profession had worked for Scott when first starting out, but those with any ethics left as soon as they could to start their own agencies.The Agent as Superhero
In those days before The Disruptive Innovation that Came to New York, most authors depended on their agent to know a
) everything the publisher knew, and b
) everything the publisher didn’t. We believed our agents were in the business of looking out for us and our career needs, and we believed ourselves somehow protected. Cared for. Watched over. All we had to do was write. Our agents would make everything else happen.
That wasn't exactly true even then; it was part of the lovely, if broken, illusion of being a 20th century writer. But now it's 2011, publishing has been turned on its head in the space of two years, and many agents have morphed into that horrifying chimera known as the "agent/publisher." And yet the guardian angel illusion is still very nearly as prevalent among inexperienced writers—and not a few experienced ones—as it was then. Those of us who go it alone for some or all of our writing projects are still quite the minority, despite our volume level.Author Augers In
As it happens, my career did crash and burn, but I've never thought that was any more my agent's fault than the publisher's or my own. He even kept me afloat with some lucrative work-for-hire projects I'd never have gotten without him. He did nix a couple of outlines I sent him as not having enough commercial viability, and eventually I went my own way, which included not writing much of anything outside the day job for years.
Commercial viability is a much bigger concern with agents than with writers. I mean, we may write a novel because it's a story we just have to tell, but why would an agent waste his time flogging a novel he didn't think likely to sell quickly? He's got dozens of clients, only so many hours in the day, editors he doesn't want to spam, and bills to pay. If you're off-genre, you're kinda hosed. And genres are getting narrower and fiddlier as we speak. It's much easier to say "Nobody's buying that sort of thing right now," and steer the writer toward something more profitable.My Other Agent
When I did write another novel, I hired another agent to represent it—a UK agent. To this day I think he's one of the smartest and most capable people in publishing. The book was off at least two genres, maybe three, and he didn't end up selling it. I'm pretty sure he was disappointed that I turned down one American agent who was enthusiastic about the book, but then wanted me to make substantive changes I didn't see as an improvement. But perhaps they would have made it more commercially viable—who knows?
I had no more success shopping it around on my own; no-one could decide how the hell it was supposed to fit into the existing subgenres. Odd as it may seem, when I wrote it, I hadn't thinking about fitting into anything—I was telling a story I very much wanted to tell in the best way I knew how. I'll be publishing that book myself next year, after a rewrite and a thorough going-over by my editor
Since both these agents favored the old-school ways, which say that the agent’s contract with the author is the agency clause of each individual publisher contract, I had no agency agreements to haunt me when I wanted to move on. That kind of handshake deal is hard to find today in the world of increasingly restrictive agency contracts. It's another reason I like and respect both these men, even though I'm increasingly wary of what's happening in their profession.So listen up!
Up until a couple of years ago, writers needed agents
to go the traditional route through a publisher to physical bookstore sales. And so we overlooked some basic facts about the agent-author-publisher relationship, because we could not
rock the boat we depended on to get us to that golden shore. But here are a few facts you might want to mull over, now that being agented is entirely optional:
- There are only a few major publishers, and only a few editors with whom your agent has a relationship.
- Your agent depends for her living a great deal more on the good graces of the publisher than she does on yours.
- If you're a midlist author, you're not contributing enough to your agent's financial success to make you a player in his game. He must and will sacrifice your best interests from time to time in favor of authors who make him more money.
- An author who's doing well can really help line an agent’s bank account, but every agent knows that if she pisses off a publisher, she's finished.
So writers, whatever you choose to do with your careers, at least know a few facts going in. Do your homework. Read the blogs. Some of the best (in my opinion) are listed in the sidebar right over there. Listen to people who have been where you want to go. Don't let what was important or glamorous or sexy in publishing a few years ago blind you to what's happening now, because trust me: everything is different, and getting more different by the day
Don't expect publishing to be what it was in the last century, and don't expect an agent to be your guardian angel.
Today I'd like to give a shout out to a few of my favorite blogs for the author/publisher. These selected bloggers are overwhelmingly in favor of independent publishing as an author strategy. It's cool if you don't agree, but if you read what these very savvy people have to say, you can disagree from an increasingly informed position.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch - How Traditional Publishers Are Making Money
“Is it becoming clear why profits are up at the traditional publishers? The profit they’re making is coming out of the pocket of the writers
Read the rest at The Business Rusch
.Joe Konrath - Book Country Fail
“If you want to self-publish, read and learn all you can about the process. Hire smart people with references to do the heavy lifiting (proofing, formatting, cover art). Then keep your rights and keep all the money. But don’t take my word for it. Arm yourself with information and figure it out for yourself.”Read the rest at The Newbie's Guide to Publishing.Dean Wesley Smith - The New World of Publishing: 95% of All Authors Will Never Indie Publish At World Fantasy I had a long talk with a publisher about digital publishing and midway through, he looked at me and asked, “Do you know how I’m still in business in ten years?”
“Nope,” I said.
He smiled, “I’m still in business because 97% of authors are not as aggressive about digital as you are.” Read the rest at deanwesleysmith.comThe Passive Voice - What Not to Overlook When Reviewing Your Book ContractPassive Guy
, that most excellent curator of news relating to “Writers, Writing, Publishing, Disruptive Innovation and the Universe” passes on contract wisdom from Lloyd J. Jassin at CopyLaw.com
“It gets in the way of the fun stuff.” “Attorneys cost money.” “Most books don’t earn back their advance.” These are three common (and potentially devastating) justifications that owners of publishing companies give for not paying attention to their boilerplate contacts. Similarly, many authors lack the courage that Oliver Twist exhibited when he rose from the table and said, “Please sir, I want some more.”Read the rest
. Keep up with the latest in the world of disruptive publishing innovation
at The Passive Voice
.Joel Friedlander (The Book Designer) - Looking Forward, Peering Back
“Now it’s really happening. Authors are walking away from $500,000 publishing contracts. Authors are selling so many self-published books they’ve become media celebrities. Self-published authors have sold millions of e-books in the Kindle store.
“Agents are now publishers. Publishers have discovered readers. Retailers are publishers, even though publishers seem to be in danger of obsolescence. Yet everyone wants to be a publisher. Their own publisher."
Read the rest at The Book Designer
There's been a lot of talk recently about the level of bad feelings between people who embrace independent publishing and those who do not. Where there might be a middle ground of the "to publish my own stuff or not" discussion, there seem to be people saying they have nothing against it for you
, but a) they wouldn't stoop so low, b) they really like signing away their rights for a tiny percentage of cover price, or c) they might do it after they've paid their dues and become a "real" writer.Bare-knuckle Boys
Over on Terrible Minds
not long ago, Chuck Wendig and Joe Konrath (of A Newbie's Guide to Publishing
fame) got into a fine old punch-up over whether or not writers should be pursuing traditional publishing contracts. Chuck likes 'em (even says he likes doing work-for-hire) Joe doesn't. And Chuck didn't care for Joe's attitude. Yeah, Joe's famous for his attitude. To tell the truth, I kind of admire it. He can be blunt, but that's Joe, and I take it into account. I actually thought that for Joe he was on his best behavior over at Chuck's place, but he came out swinging, as he does, and many took exception to it.
I think both these guys are brilliant in their own ways, but I come down on Joe's side about the doom that came to legacy publishing. The publishing industry will continue, but I believe smart writers will avoid it until it removes its head from the exit orifice of its digestive system, and that goes triple for agents.
In fact, Joe Konrath is not
a wild-eyed, foam-spitting propagandist for self-publishing, but rather for doing what works to get readers and make a living from one's craft. He and Barry Eisler
have had some very clear-headed things to say
about authors making choices that work for them. It's just that when you run the numbers, traditional publishing doesn't come out on top in the works for me department. Not for Joe and Barry, and not for a whole lot of other writers, from best sellers to has-been midlist nobodies like me.But Why Would You...Dean Wesley Smith
, one of the leading proponents of author-centered publishing and the strongest voice I know calling out for staying away from agents until the pub industry dust (and ash) settles, is writing a new blog series asking "But why would you..." In the latest as of this post, he asks "But why would you not spend the time to learn indie publishing?"
If you're on the fence, read it. I burdened some poor guy with a reply longer than the original post about not putting his eggs in the trad pub basket, but I won't repeat it here, cos...long
. If you don't mind long, feel free to go find it
As for me, I'm hiking the learning curve to formatting books for e-book and paperback, and plan to offer a free short story here and on the 'net next week. Watch this space for "The Bard Effect," originally published in Amazing Stories
, back in the 90s when that publication existed.
I used to be as big an advocate as anyone for traditional publishing. Until recently, my advice to new writers was always to seek an agent as soon as they had something novel-length ready to shop, then let their agent sell it while they wrote the next one. Before the Revolution
As conventional wisdom went, it was not necessarily wrong in its framework: Life Before the Revolution. A good agent—one with his finger on the pulse of New York publishing—knew which editors were most likely to be interested in what he was flogging, whereas a writer might flounder around throwing darts at Writer’s Market and waste considerable time in what was already a glacially slow process. If your agent knew his business, he had regular meetings with editors, and could promote you and your book to them directly. Furthermore, agents negotiated publishing contracts, something most writers knew little about. The downside of that was that your agent represented many writers, and had necessarily to balance your needs against the needs of his agency as a whole. This was known, but like one's print runs and royalty structure, seldom discussed among writers.A Whole New WorldI'll get around to telling my publishing stories later, but meanwhile take a look around! It's been an eventful year in publishing. Borders is gone. No-one wanted to acquire their stock or their stores or their customer goodwill. Barnes & Noble remains, but will be carrying fewer books and more gifts, and also obtaining shorter leases to enable them to close individual stores more quickly. Independent bookstores are spitting up blood. Readers have largely gone over to one-click shopping, where ebooks now outsell any other kind of book. Print sales are so deep in the basement they're having daylight piped in. Traditional publishers are signing fewer new writers, and offering poorer deals to their old ones. Agents are wondering how to continue to do business. A few have come up with solutions that seem less than optimal for their clients; others watch and wait.
And what are writers doing? Well, a large number are trying to do the same thing they’ve always done in an industry that’s become unrecognizable in the past two years, and expecting the kind of results they’re not getting any more, and won’t get in the foreseeable future. Established bestselling writers—the top few percent of any publisher's stables—are probably fine for the time being, but should be considering their options. And finally, a smaller but more vocal number are seizing the means of production. Dr. Marx would be proud, I’m sure.
Okay, it’s not really that kind of revolution, but I don’t think it’s possible any longer to deny that it is a revolution. Only a couple of years ago, to publish a book without the offices of a “legitimate” publisher was a recipe for roasted fail with tasty fail sauce. Paying one’s “dues,” first to an agent, then to a print publisher (who would also demand e-rights), because publishers were the only way to get a book into the distribution channels, and agents were a faster and easier way to publishers. So what’s new? Everything. Since I started paying attention less than a year ago, the face of publishing is nearly unrecognizable from when I broke in. Oh, it has the same eyes, nose, and mouth it had in the early 90s when I was fanning the ink dry on my first novel contract, but they’re all in different places, kinda like something painted by Picasso on acid. First you have readers buying dedicated e-reading devices that get cheaper almost by the month, then proceeding to buy and read more books than they ever did before. Then you have Amazon, B&N, and Smashwords paying royalties of 70-85% (I earned about 4% on my paperback originals, and that hasn’t improved much), meaning writers don’t have to sell as many copies to realize a return on their investment in time and preparation.Author-Centered Publishing FTW And then you have writers. Writers taking a hand, taking a chance, taking charge of their own careers. Writers preparing their books for market or hiring the preparation done without surrendering a percentage for the life of the book. Writers deciding when, where, which formats, and how much. They put their books into the marketplace for readers to find, and despite the “tsunami of crap” arguments we’re still hearing, readers find the ones worth finding. Some will find their readership sooner than others, but their shelf life, once measured in months, weeks, or even hours in the case of airport sales, is…get ready for it…forever. That’s a long time compared to the approximately two years my first novel stayed in print. I don’t know about you, but I’m amazed and gratified at what’s happening now. The entire landscape has been rearranged and replanted, and I’m building a path for myself out of backlist stories and unsold novels, and I’ll see some of you out there in the hills. We’ll dish. Whether you’re a writer, a reader, both, or just curious about what happens when the people who make the content begin to exert control over it, come back and see me from time to time, and take a look at my favorite blogs over there on the right. Use the RSS button (Real Simple, like it says on the tin), or pop the URL into your Google Reader or other blog-reading gadget. Drop by Twitter or G+ or even Facebook and say hey. As time goes by, you'll even be able to buy my books.