The (Publishing) Times They Are Achanging

UPDATED 7/29/2011.  SEE BOTTOM OF POST FOR MORE.

(Or Why I’m No Longer Agented)

… or I won’t be when the thirty days for contract expiration run out.

First of all, because dropping one’s  agent in publishing is a lot like a Hollywood divorce, particularly when you’ve been together for eight years, as Lucienne and I have, I’d like to say it’s not her; it’s also not me; it’s the field and the way it’s changing (and how fast.) Lucienne was the best agent I ever had and is also a talented YA writer whom I can tell you without reservations to check out. (And now it’s not a conflict of interest.)

To explain what I’ve done, I need to explain my reasoning, which at the time is a little hard since part of me wants to sit around in a robe all day eating rocky road ice cream. (Inadvisable, since I need to finish Darkship Renegades and also because I’m not allowed marshmallows on this diet.) I haven’t been unagented since 97 and every time I dropped an agent before I secured one first. This time I chose not to do so because I think an agent won’t help. I could be wrong, in which case I’ll shop for an agent sometime in the future. However for now I’m alone, working without a net.

Things have changed so fast, you see, that a year ago because it looked like my series might all crash, I was very afraid Lucienne would drop me. Because she’s my fourth agent and because I haven’t even looked in so long, I was terrified of the process of looking and how much it would take away from my writing time. And yet now I voluntarily drop representation. What gives?

Let’s go back to 97, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and publishing houses not only weren’t reading unagented, they were lying about it. I.e., you could send your manuscript, and it would come back in x time with a rejection letter. The editorial assistants had the option of reading slush, but it happened only once in a blue moon. Mostly getting rid of manuscripts accumulating in the little slush room was a task involving putting in a rejection letter and speeding it back to its owner. There were exceptions, even back then. I had a couple of personal rejections. But, by and large, this was the protocol.

Once I understood agents were now the effective slush readers, I started courting agents. My first agent, let’s call her Ms. A, signed me on the strength of a novel now rewritten and published. Then she proceeded NOT to sent it out. And to lie to me about it. Look, the novel was flawed and I knew that. She gave me some re-write advice (good one) and I took it. Why didn’t she tell me about the main thing that made the novel unsaleable? I don’t know. Perhaps she was afraid how a newby would react. Or perhaps she liked lost causes. Who knows?

Eventually, I went to a workshop and there pretty much sold my first novel, Ill Met By Moonlight in proposal. To get the contract it needed only sending it out and getting it formally accepted. I sent out the proposal to my agent the day I got home. Three weeks later I heard through a mutual friend the editor was disappointed I’d dropped the project. So, I started shopping for agent #2.

Agent #2 was my dream agent, the one I’d have wanted first if I had a chance. We hit it off, I hired him right after meeting him. And then… And then I realized he had a “formula” for writing bestsellers, and he was going to make my rather quirky Shakespearean fantasies fit into it. One piece of advice he gave me was very good and it was something that I – frankly – should have known (make emotional action visible through physical action) but I wasn’t ready to understand it. He sold the sequels to Shakespeare for me, taking “a smaller advance than we could, but this will keep us writing on this series a long time.” He was wrong, and even at the time I knew he was wrong. (Someday I’ll do a post on why getting the biggest possible advance was the way to survive, back then.) Oh, Agent #2 also refused to send out anything not in that series.

Agent #3 was a bright up and coming assistant (who I understand is doing very well in her own right now.) Again, we hit it off right away. However, nothing I sent her ever got sent out. Part of this was her fault, part mine. I was badly put off my stride by agent #2. It’s not that I don’t take criticism well (I do. Sometimes too well.) It’s that I don’t rewrite to formula well. Actually, back then I had clue zero how to rewrite. I’ve explained before it’s an art in itself and it takes forever to learn. To put it mildly, I sucked at it. Doing the type of rewrite he wanted me to do was beyond my powers and guaranteed to turn out an awful book. (In fact the book I did this too, the second of the Shakespeare series, has the lowest sell-through of any of my books ever. Yes, even the one with the awful cover.) So I was off my stride and not writing as much as I could. But eventually I was offered a contract with Baen and agent #3 told me it was her or Baen. Well, children… One of them was offering to pay me and I had a mortgage.

This is when I hired Lucienne. It was also the first time I behaved like a real professional and submitted to ten people, then picked among the four that offered representation. And it paid off.

Lucienne and I not only hit it off personally (though not really at first. I was trying to maintain distance, given my experiences) but we also hit it off professionally. In the first year I was working with her we sent off something like sixteen proposals and sold seven (?) of those almost immediately. And I’ve kept busy ever since.

But for the last year I’ve had a growing sense that something was wrong. Part of it was the response to two novels I sent out. I’m not going to detail the response, but it wasn’t just that they were rejected but that the way they were rejected indicated answering cold submissions was no longer part of an editor’s primary job. If I had to guess, I’d say that the same thing is going on with this as went on with slush two decades ago. In this case it is due to shrinking lists and problems with distribution. Publishing houses are either sticking with their stable (Probably 90% of the new authors you see are old pros with new names) poaching bestsellers from each other, or hiring on the basis of “she’s a friend of, who has done well for us.” (This btw makes them absolutely the same as the rest of the hiring field. Yeah, you can still get a job from applying cold, but it’s fairly rare.)

The other part of it is that I’ve been looking at where things are going, how the market is changing and a lot of the things I’d like to try are things I’ll either have to invent (yes, I’m still working out how a subscription would work), things that I’ll have to learn and my agent knows no more about than I do (minor subgenres with obscure presses), things in which no agent can help (publishing through a co-op micro press or publishing myself) and other things that agents (well, understand, with the closing of the publishing field to just a few houses they had to be loyal to publishers, no matter how much they tried to stick up for agents) will simply NOT let you do like absolutely closed names that even the publishers don’t know about. (No, it’s not ethically wrong. Golden Age authors did it. The book is the book is the book.)

I’m not writing off big publishers. I’ll continue working for Baen. However, my relationship with them is of the sort we never needed an agent. (First, I give the publisher Port, then we negotiate – evil grin.) And I’ve got a few novels I’ll be submitting to a couple of houses for highly targeted type marketing that I’m fairly confident of placing, at least if the houses are still there, and if there’s a market for traditionally published books.

And that brings me to the next step. You see, I believe there will be a market. I believe some (though not all) of the large houses will adapt and survive this. However – and this I can’t emphasize enough – the agencies don’t think publishing is going to be with us much longer or that you can make a living off it.

I think part of this is that the agencies are still selling – and well – the books of bestsellers, because that’s what the houses want right now. This is misguided as I think the bulk of their income is still from midlisters. It’s akin to the restaurant that decides that they make the most money off deserts, they in fact lose money off ribs, which brings in most of the customers. So they’re going to take out ribs and serve only appetizers and deserts. (And then are shocked when the bottom line crashes.)

While it’s misguided for publishers, it will take a while for the financial effect to be felt. But it’s being felt by agencies. Us midlisters are by and large a low-work lot, who get our own contracts and keep on going. So we were a good “bulk” money maker for an agent. But now the big houses don’t want no stinking ribs.

Agencies are feeling the pinch from this, and in response they’re doing something which the agency Lucienne works for just did. (To quote my husband who is the sweet side of this association “Well, they’ve got to make a living, somehow. What would you have them do?”) And while I understand it, I want no part of it.

Yep, they’ve started their own digital publisher.

I know I’ve said here in the past that this was the logical next step in digital publishing. Agencies already sift through slush. They already promote their writers, to greater or lesser extent. So, why not transition?

Well, two problems. First, they’re not transitioning. They’re remaining agents and charging you for the privilege of selling things to themselves. (Kris Rusch has written extensively on the conflict of interest present, but it should be obvious to everyone, too.) Second, they are loading the deals with up front costs. (Perfectly understandable, if you’re in a bid to survive, but it makes them much inferior to most micro publishers out there, who will get you cover, proofread and put up your manuscript for a percentage of your earnings which comes out at the same time your earnings do. I.e. you’ll start earning from the first dollar, not after 1k or so is paid back to the “publishing agency.”)

So, agencies who publish you are making a desperate bid to survive and they’re not necessarily the best deal for epublishing. But why do I say this means they don’t think the big houses will survive?

First, because if they thought this was just a trough in sales, they’ve gone through those before without changing their model and they would do so again. Second, because of the conflict of interest. They wouldn’t risk the appearance of competing with the big publishing houses if they didn’t know, in their heart of hearts that the big giants as such are over.

Heck, the big giants think the game is over. Why do I say that? Because they’re not completely stupid. (Individual editors may vary.) They know – they have to know – that if all they keep in their stable are bestsellers, in a year or two the bestsellers will decide that they can make more money self-publishing or from a micro press. They can. And they have the name, so… why not? Publishers have to see this as clearly as I do. So, why go to that model? Unless your whole intent is as a stop gap measure “to keep us afloat just another two years.”

Do I agree with them? Not necessarily. I think some of the big houses will pull back from the abyss. They can still offer value, or at least some of their imprints can, if they uncouple from the conglomerate and develop highly individualized selections and a community that’s loyal to them – say, like Baen. Then they can put their imprimatur on newbies and offer beginners a ready-made public they’d not otherwise have.

So you could say I’m unagented because the agency my agent works for no longer believes the old model is viable, and I don’t agree with their concept of the new model.

Of course, the usual caveats apply. Making predictions is hard, particularly about the future. I could be completely wrong. If I am, I might yet be shopping for an agent. But that will probably be in two years or so when everyone is done making desperate moves to “see us through the next two years.”

Until then, like any good super hero, I’ll work alone. And now excuse me, I need to get out of this bathrobe, take a shower and work.

Maybe it’s my being an Heinleinian (reformed but unredeemable) but while there’s doom and gloom all around, from where I’m standing, the future is so bright, I got to wear shades.

*Crossposted at According to Hoyt and Classical Values*

UPDATE:

This morning the following comment and my response were made at According to Hoyt .  I am pasting them here in their entirety.

From Lucienne Diver:  I want to clarify something here. The Knight Agency is not becoming a digital publisher. We’re helping those authors who want to publish their backlist but not do all the legwork themselves and taking only the agency commission, while we pay various expenses, like covers and ISBN registration. We’re also doing this for some original fiction authors have requested we do that has not been picked up by major publishers. We =are not= taking submissions or facilitating publication of works by authors we do not represent.

My response:

Lucienne,

Do I have your permission to print the letter about TKA venturing into helping authors with digital publishing? I completely understand what you’re saying, and it’s entirely possible I misunderstood the letter. I did not see any indication of who paid cover, ISBN, etc — again, it’s possible I misread it, which you must understand is QUITE likely after the other letters of the kind one has seen. At any rate, I still find it sheers a bit close for my comfort which is something you’ll have to understand.

You can also click here to see the latest correspondence from Lucienne about this matter.  I want to reiterate what I said before, what I wrote in this post was my opinion and interpretation of correspondence I received from The Knight Agency.  Nothing more and nothing less.  I am going to be out of the house at the office-ish today so I can finish DSR.  However, when I return, I will be posting more on my personal blog.  Thanks.

11 Comments

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11 responses to “The (Publishing) Times They Are Achanging

  1. Stephen Simmons

    As Heinlein wrote, “It’s raining soup.” It’s just a question of figuring out what sort of bucket to catch it in …

    I have always been deeply plugged into my kids’ educations. Had to be, with Thing One being an Aspie … And what I’m seeing around me when I deal with the kids in the high school doesn’t gibe with the “conventional wisdom” I keep hearing from the doomsayers.

    Contrary to what they keep saying, the digital/social media revolution hasn’t killed the book. It’s just a massive evolutionary catalyst. What I see is a generation that spends far MORE time than mine did consuming-typed-stuff-for-entertainment. And a generation that has internalized the lessons of Metallica et al vs. Napster, and are perfectly willing to make the iTunes retail model viable. Meaning, markets like NakedReader and their peers are, in my estimation, the right thing at the right time. Those publishers just need to get noticed by an initial footprint that is sufficiently scattered (both demographically and geographically) for word-of-mouth and word-of-Twitter to produce “viral” reults when they put out “the next big thing” … which I have ZERO doubt they will do. The next generation of best-sellers are already out there writing. They just need to get their words in front of an audience.

    • Yep. I keep telling people, not only do my kids watch more videos and play more games, but they READ more. If they can find what they want to read. Fortunately or unfortunately, though they’re realy resistent to “mass taste from above.” The whole army of Davids thing REALLY works for this generation. And the long tail thing. A book might only appeal to twenty thousand people, but to them it REALLY appeals, and they will go on buying that author forever. This wasn’t practicable as a career for “big publishing.” BUT in the era of ebooks it’s perfectly reasonable. Say, even from NRP which gives me for a novel around $1.25 a sale. 20k buyers per book, two books a year and I’m doing fine. Three books is a living. AND these books will continue selling — not going out of print, so even if the back list sells only 5k units a year, at three books a year, in nine years I 27 books in back list. You do the math. Get rich? Maybe. But more than that “comfortable living” shouldn’t be that hard. And frankly “unleashed” (i.e. without having to take market in account) I can probably do four to five books a year — happilly.

  2. Scott

    So…what do you say to someone that’s just now getting into writing for fun and profit? I’m 41, married with kids, and have been writing almost daily since I was 14 or so, but I’ve never put the effort into submitting anything. Now, with the industry in such a flux, what would be the best resource to look at regarding someone in my situation who wants to start publishing?

    • Scott, I’m somewhat conflicted on this, simply because I SIMPLY don’t know how ready to publish you are. You probably don’t either. I didn’t when I was just starting out. (Though in both my first publishable stories I NAILED “this is publishable.” They were.) The “newbies” are in the worst spot in the world of no gatekeepers. Because there’s no defined route up. of course, in a way that’s the best spot to be because… there’s no defined route up.

      As I see it, you can choose one of three paths each with pitfalls:

      1- hire a proofreader and get a decent cover. Publish it yourself on Kindle. 1- Pitfall — beware that in a year or two or ten you’ll CRINGE at the idea that you let people read your stuff at this stage. PARTICULARLY if you sold a lot. (Mind you, that happened even when there were gatekeepers, you just could think “well, it’s so and so’s fault”)

      2- Submit to reputable markets and sell to them, to have at least “early respectability and an emotional crutch”. 2 – Pitfall — you have to be very careful where you send things. Remember money flows to the writer. Anything else is NOT reputable.

      3 – Find a good writers’ group or mentor and have them help you polish your work, till you’re confident it’s good enough to publish it yourself. 3- Pitfall — finding a well matched writers’ group can be very difficult. Ditto with mentors, particularly published ones. Two things to keep in mind — a writers’ group who always loves or always hates everything you do is not GOOD for you. And a mentor should be someone who is where you wish to be.

      Being me and a bit uh unorganized, if I were where you are right now, I’d probably end up with a combination of all three.

    • Stephen Simmons

      Scott – I am, essentially, maybe a year ahead of you. A handful of semi-pro publications, two stories that I knew for sure were “good enough to publish” — both accepted at NRP. Still VERY wet-behind-the-ears.

      Unsurprisingly, I’d say that what Sarah said is solid advice, based on the tiny bit of experience I have thus far. Particularly about finding people to critique. They have to be people whose opinions you respect, though. And they MUST be able to kick you in the face and tell you The Baby Is Ugly, if that’s the truth. (Meaning both the resilience of your relationship with them, and their innate ability to not avoid-conflict-because-it’s-uncomfortable.) And they need to be a disparate group — my wife isn’t a techie, so she’s not going to be able to critique the science parts of any SF I write. But she still reads it, to tell me if the characters make sense, and the story makes sense, and so on. Then I have a nuclear-trained former shipmate from one of the submarines I served on, who wouldn’t be able to reliably identify a grammatical sentence to save his life, but can shine a flashlight into every corner of the tech and tell me which leaps fail the suspension-of-disbelief test. And so on …

      Andf the last bit of what she said about mentors is key. Even if they don’t actually become mentors — find the people who are “what you want to be when you grow up”, and watch them. Subscribe to their blogs. If it isn’t wildly impractical, try to meet them at a Con. And DO go to whatever Cons are near you, if you can, and scrutinize theprogramming for things that will benefit you. CAUTION: Don’t let all of these bits add up to so much time-consumption that you never actually *write* anything …

  3. Good luck with your new unagented status! It will probably take a while to soak in, but now you can do what you want with your books. Sell them individually or in an omnibus. Publish short stories in those universes and offer them free as teasers. Design your own covers or have a hand in it through a freelance cover designer. The possibilities are endless and everchanging with the market. Sure, mistakes will happen and lessons will be learned, but it probably won’t be anything that can’t be fixed.

    It’s an exciting time in your career, and I believe good things are ahead for you. Go forth!

    • Linda,

      It has soaked in. Because I still hav ea lot of books under contract it means I must work like hell for the next six months both to meet obligations and seed this new outlet. We shall see how it works.

  4. Gather round people, wherever you roam… Sarah,changes are always frightening. And I am sorry that Lucienne’s agency is taking that course (although, as she refused to take me as a client, I have to say she can be sensible at times). Agents are on a very hard row at the moment… The big issue with me abandoning legacy publishing is whether my name is big enough to get enough readers for us to eat. None-the-less, I’m going to be experimenting further with this. May, this time around, your timing be good!

    • Dave,

      I don’t know if I have enough name either, and I’m not going totally without parachute. I’m keeping Baen, and (fingers crossed) that relationship looks likely to continue. I might even make a limited contract with an agent (or two) to represent a sub genre or two, if I can find an agent amenable. I just don’t want ALL my work tied down with an agent right now. I think maneuverability is of the essence. I’m going to try things both under names that are known and wiht the ‘advantage’ of being a total newby and seeing what sticks. I am going to try some subgenres I never wrote before and in which people are doing very well. And, you know what, I’m going to have to work as never before but the alternative is quitting and I’m NOT doing that. Meanwhile, kindly ask your lovely wife if she’s willing to be hired as a free-lance editor/consultant for some of the things she helped me with proposals for before. Tell her to send me an email. (Is asking in public so she sounds more pathetic and Barbs is more likely to relent.)

  5. Good luck with the career move, Sarah. It’s an interesting world for all of us.