Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Letter from a Literary Agent

I found this in my inbox yesterday:

Joe,

First off, thank you. I've been struggling with a lot of aspects of working "inside" the publishing industry lately. I found your blog following a link trail one day last week. I sat down and promptly started reading from 2009 (when you dove into self-publishing) until present. You make a ton of sense.

Unfortunately, you didn't do anything to make me feel better about my current position (although, that's not your job). I've been struggling with my role as an advocate for authors. I have been working on one contract now for almost four months. I keep going back to fight for my client and each round feels like I'm getting both closer and farther away from an agreement that will make either one of us any money. I work mainly with small presses that offer better terms that the large houses, but even those terms feel unfair to my clients.

The challenge comes in continuing to seek out contracts for my clients when I keep doubting that it is the best path for them. At the same time, I know many of my clients have no desire to self-publish. They don't want to mess with the back-end aspects, even if that costs them money in the long term. Will they change their minds after a few contracts have run their course? Maybe, but only time will tell.

I love your estribution model, but I don't think it's feasible for me. Neither I nor my agency have the kind of liquid capital to invest heavily in multiple clients when it comes to things such as editing, cover art, etc. I want to help my clients, but I don't personally have the money to invest in their careers. What I do have is time, skills and a deep desire to give my clients the best chance at success.

You have so many great ideas about publishing and I admire the way you innovate. I'm wondering if you have thought of any other models, similar to estribution, that would allow me to help a client who is hesitant to self-publish without tying up money I don't have. I want to do what's right by my clients, but right now any path feels like a loss when I know they don't want to self-pub, but are unlikely to be happy in the years to come with most traditional deals.

I know you get a metric ton of email, so I understand if you can't answer this. If you decide to address this topic on your blog, I just ask that you keep me anonymous. I do plan to discuss this with the owner of my agency, but don't want to blindside her. I appreciate your understanding.

Joe sez: I've said before that no one owes you a living. That goes for agents as well as authors.

In the past, agents filled an essential role in the legacy publishing industry. If you convinced a good literary agent to represent you, it improved your odds at getting your book read by a publisher, and consequently improved your odds at getting published.

I couldn't have gotten pubbed without my agent. And besides helping me land my legacy contracts, she has also fought to improve their terms, and sold dozens of subsidiary rights (audio, foreign, movie).

Since I began to self-pub, my agent has helped me in an estributor capacity, especially when it comes to my collaborations. I find the percentage she recieves is well worth the work and monetary investment she puts in.

But how about agents, like the one who sent me the above email, who want to work with authors but can't invest money in cover art and formatting?

I have some advice. And the advice is the same as it is for authors who don't want to self-publish:

Find another line of work.

I'm not trying to be flippant, or harsh. I'm being entirely realistic. Allow me to use some analogies.

"I want to be a mechanic, but don't want to learn how to work on engines."

I suppose you could limit yourself to just brakes, or transmissions, but you won't be able to find work as easily, and you're missing out on a big part of what the title mechanic means.

"I want my art to hang in museums, but don't know how to get it in there."

Before you create a key, study the lock. Working on something and expecting the world to embrace it doesn't happen too often.

"I want to be a surgeon, but am afraid of the sight of blood."

Maybe you can become a tree surgeon.

"I want to play poker for a living, but not with my money."

No one is going to stake you until you prove yourself. And once you prove yourself, you probably won't need anyone to stake you.

"I want to manufacture wagon wheels, but there isn't a market for them anymore."

You can still make all the wagon wheels you want to. Just don't expect to sell any.

"I want to be a contract lawyer, but my contracts are never accepted by either negotiating party."

Sounds like you won't get a lot of business.

My point is that the roles of writers, and agents, have changed. The industry has changed. Expectations have changed. What was once the norm is now the exception. 

Writers, and agents, if they want to thrive (or even survive) have to develop new skills, take on new responsibilities, and take different chances.

This means learning about the current state of the industry, doing things outside your comfort zone, and ponying up a few bucks.

I expect contract negotiations with publishers to get even harder as more and more publishers become aware that they aren't needed. Since there continue to be writers who insist on going the legacy route, publishers will make those writers pay. 

Consider the taxi cab. There are many alternatives to getting around town, and all of them are cheaper. Yet cabs can command a premium, because they provide a service for those who want it. Just like publishers.

You can't negotiate with a cab driver for a lower fare.

Consider textbooks. As a student, you're forced to pay $200 for a single book. The publishers know this, and they price accordingly. The school bookstores also know this, and they make used books almost as expensive as new books. They gouge. It's human nature. If you can get more for something, you will.

Publishing, as of April 2014, is a market still controlled by publishers. They can set the terms, because there are still plenty of eager authors willing to give up 70% royalties and rights forever. When more authors catch on that signing a legacy deal isn't in their best interests, publishers will begin to leverage everything they can from those who remain.

One might think the opposite will happen: that publishers will try to lure authors to them with better terms.

I don't see that happening. Profit margins are already too thin, and while the Big 5 keep posting record sales figures thanks to ebooks, the trend won't last forever. As paper sales dwindle and their monopoly on distribution ends, and more and more authors leave legacy to self-pub, publishers will squeeze the suppliers (authors) they still have. Right now advances are shrinking, some acquisitions aren't even getting paper releases, and print runs are down. When belts begin to tighten, the last thing publishers will do is offer authors more of the pie. Like starving dogs, the Big 5 will viciously fight over the scraps that remain.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe publishers will start treating authors fairly, and become more open to negotiation with agents. And then Satan and I will go ice-skating in hell.

There are only two essential groups in the reader/writer relationship: readers and writers. Everyone else is a middleman who has to prove their value.

Some writers don't want to self-publish, so there will be some agents and some publishers who can assist them for a piece of the pie. But as more and more writers learn how easy it is to reach readers, I see those who pursue careers as agents, or those who work in the publishing industry, becoming a niche.

Unless publishers and agents offer authors something they really want, at a cost authors are willing to pay, we're going to see their numbers dwindle.

If you are an author who doesn't want to get your hands dirty by self-publishing, your choices are going to be limited. If you are an agent who can't assist writers by becoming an estributor, your choices are going to be limited. 

It doesn't have anything to do with what's fair. Or how things used to be. Or what authors and agents want.

It has everything to do with how readers are finding books to read.

If you want to be a part of the reader/writer business transaction, there is no magic bullet or formula or business model that I'm aware of which doesn't involve either legacy publishing or estribution. If you want to work with authors, you have to give authors something they want.

It would be great if we could shape the world into what we want it to be, but mostly we have to figure out how to work with how things are.