And so it begins

Some of you may remember how, approximately two years ago, several of us here started raising concerns about agents and literary agencies branching into publishing. We raised the question of conflict of interest (after all, how can an agent represent an author’s best interest in finding the optimal publishing contract when another arm of the agency is also a publisher?). Then there was the debacle — actually, it was pretty damned good theater — of Sarah’s detailing how she was ending the relationship with her agent at the time over these same concerns (there were other concerns as well, but the agency adding publishing to their duties was the tipping point.) Since then, more and more agencies have added what has sometimes been called agent-assisted publishing arms. The justification for such activities has been not to go into direct competition with traditional publishers but to give their clients an alternate way to bring out their backlist instead of doing it themselves.

Now, if I were a trusting soul, I’d buy that and never worry about conflict of interest. But I’m not a trusting soul and I’ve been waiting for the next phase of this agent/publisher mishmash to occur. Color me not surprised when one of the first pieces of publishing news I see this morning is the announcement that Skyhorse Publishing and International Transactions literary agency have inked an agreement to form a new imprint. Yep, you read that right —  a publisher and a literary agency are forming a publishing partnership.

You may remember Skyhorse Publishing. I blogged about the company back in April when it was announced that Skyhorse and Start would be taking over Night Shade Books. Back then, my concern was how the NSB authors would be treated in the takeover, especially considering the stories making the rounds about a take it or leave it offer from Skyhorse/Start that didn’t seem to come close to being good for said authors. For once SFWA stepped in and finally authors were given better terms and the buzz around Skyhorse died down.

International Transactions has been around much longer than Skyhorse. From their website: “Since 1975, Peter and Sandra Riva have specialized in international idea brokerage catering to multi-national, multi-lingual, licensing and rights’ representation of authors and publishers as well as producing award-winning television and other media. ” So, not your standard run-of-the-mill literary agency.

Or is it?

My concern still comes down to the potential for conflict of interest. According to Publishers Weekly, the new imprint, Yucca, will “feature both new and established authors who have ‘intent, literary strength, and fresh, new visions.'” Yucca will also be overseen by the head of International Transactions, Peter Riva. Yucca becomes the 12th imprint for Skyhorse and will have 20 books (digital and print) at its debut.

Now, I’ll admit up front that there are few — as in almost no — details about how the new imprint will operate or how it will get its new titles. So far, all I’ve seen about this new venture is the link to Publishers Weekly above and a brief note in Shelf Awareness Pro.  From today’s newsletter: Tony Lyons, Skyhorse president and publisher, said, “As authors, agents, and publishers find new paradigms for publication, we want to be flexible and find new partners with new ideas.”

Flexibility is good. Especially right now in publishing. But I am not so sure that a literary agency — even one that may go beyond what most literary agencies do — and a publisher forming an imprint is a good thing. I’ll reserve judgment until we know more about how they will select their books and what their contracts look like. But, cynic that I am, I still find myself wondering how an agent or agency can best serve a writer when their boss is now the editor for a new literary imprint. So, for all who are considering submitting to Yucca when it opens to submissions — if it does. Again, we know nothing right now about their submission process, contracts, etc. — do your homework first. That’s especially true if you are also considering going to International Transactions to be your agent/representative. I’m not saying they are trying to pull anything. After all, I give the same advice no matter who the publisher or agent might be.

What I will also be looking for is any indication that this is the new “trend” in publishing. So, there will probably be more to come on this topic later.

In other news, sales of print books reported through Bookscan’s retail and club channel fell 2.5% last year. Now, before folks get too excited about this and say that isn’t too bad, note that the sales figures included, for the first time, Walmart sales. So the decline is going to be higher than 2.5%. In fact, looking at the decline in sales for the previous years, that decline is probably a great deal higher. That’s especially true when you consider that, according to the article, “BookScan captures point-of-sale data from outlets that Nielsen estimates sell about 80% of print units.” In other words, it probably captures, at most 50% of sales. Now, from an author’s point of view, it doesn’t matter if it is 50% or 80%, publishers use the Bookscan numbers to figure royalties and that means they are knowingly not paying royalties on every book sold.

Read that last paragraph, especially the last two sentences again. Bookscan /Nielsen “estimates” they are reporting 80% of print sales. So they admit their numbers are not accurate. Yet publishers continue to use these numbers to pay us for our work and they treat these numbers as gospel. Worse, too many of us are letting them get away with it. Why? Because these same authors are still so deep into the mindset that you don’t rock the publishing boat or you will never be offered a contract again or they are so enamored with being published by a “real” publisher that they don’t see the forest for the trees. Either way, authors are getting the very pointy end of a short stick.

So, again, do your research. Decide if the money you will get — if you are lucky enough to get an agent and then a publishing contract — is worth the time and effort you put into writing your book and all the promotional stuff you have to do afterwards. Then ask yourself if you might not make as much, if not more, going with a small press or going indie. I can’t answer the question for you because we each have our own needs and desires when it comes to publishing. For me, there is only one major publisher right now I’d go with — Baen. Other than that, I’ll go small press or indie until we see how things shake out in the industry.

(Cross–posted to Nocturnal Lives.)

34 comments

  1. I’ve had concerns in the past about agents branching out into writing in the same genre they represent. I was wondering how motivated they would be to sell their client’s book when it may be competing against their own.

    1. I’ve wondered about the same thing. Then there is the whole how much time are they spending shopping their work around/promoting it/etc., vs. how much time are they putting into mine. I know agents are worried about what role they will play as publishing morphs into whatever the next phase is going to be. But they are still authors’ agents and that means looking out for the writers’ best interest. I’m not sure that many of them understand that any more.

        1. I don’t blame you. When I was still shopping for an agent, I stopped considering several because they were or were about to start writing in the genres I do. Now, at least one of those agents blogs and facebooks more about their writing than about their clients. That shows, imo, where their priorities lie and I’m glad I chose to go another route.

            1. Actually, there are suits — from what I understand — against publishers and probably agents. But they get settled quietly and with non-disclosure clauses. So we never hear anything more than whispers about them. It’s going to take one of the “names” actually going against them before the media picks it up.

                1. From the perspective of a long life, and interaction with people, of course they are. “Names,” mad themselves a career, with Traditional publishing. They DON’T KNOW ANY OTHER WAY. Of course, they are afraid of any alternatives. They know full well how lucky they were, and how easily it could be them on corners with signs. “Will write for food.”
                  The truth is that most are addicts hooked on writing income, and terrified that it will end. Not like someone afraid of losing a JOB, but afraid of losing what they have, and needing to get “real jobs.” (Dan Brown, for one example.) Many are not even competent writers, and I suspect that they know they aren’t.

            2. Why would someone become an agent if they realy wanted to write their own stories? I guess I don’t get that career choice. I think it would be horribly painful to have a day job where you worked with people doing your dream job. Unless the agent doesn’t consider writing that great of a job?

                1. Ah. This makes some sense. But writing and revising is so much more work than following submission guidelines. I suppose a 30 day wait to be read can result in a contract a lot faster than a 2 year wait to be read.

                  And the personal connections might allow the agent-writer to produce a critical success more easily than a regular writer, but with industry changes the desires of actual readers are having more and more of a direct impact.

                  So maybe.

                2. Which again brings up my concerns about conflict of interest. At that point your agent is now competing against you for one of the very limited slots for new books with a trad publisher. The only way I see around this is for the agent not to rep the type of writing they do themselves — ie, if they write fiction (genre), they only rep literary works or non-fic. How many of them do you think really follow this?

                  1. We have a SOP at Shiny Book Review stating that you cannot submit to a publisher for 90 days after you review one of your books in order to avoid appearing as though you are trying to “curry favor” with them. It saves me the hassle of having morons stating that I always positively review publishers like Baen because I want to be published by them (truthfully, I’ll take my book to whomever pays me the most money).

                    1. Jason, that’s one of the reasons I respect you and SBR so much. You make sure there is no tinge, no matter how faint, of conflict of interest.

                      Now, to be purely mercenary, do you guys want a copy of my next book to review? (runs and hides, not quite believing I asked)

              1. I’m cynical enough to wonder if most agents start out with the idea to represent dozens of authors but then, as time moves on and they accrue more contacts within the industry, they get a better feel of what the big publishers want and decide to write precisely that, using their contacts to skip ahead of the “line”, so to speak.

                It’s a cynical thought, but one that has led me to deal with only two agents, and neither of them have any desire to become a writer.

                1. Jason, your cynicism runs along the same line as mine. Then I add another layer when I see the authors the writer-agent reps promoting the writer-agent’s appearances/new releases/etc and wonder if they ever stop to consider how much free promo they are giving the agent who isn’t necessarily returning the favor. Are they really that convinced the writer-agent is that good of a writer or are they that scared the writer-agent will get mad at them if they don’t promote? And if it’s the latter, doesn’t that tell you something about how skewed the relationship between them has become?

                  1. How do you compete against the very person who’s supposed to be representing your novel?

                    I wonder if any authors who have book with author-agents are asking this question.

  2. _Eventually_ there will be an easy way for Indie writers to get their print books into bookstores. Until then, traditional publishers, including the mid to small ones, are still the best route to widespread exposure to readers. But it looks like a real mine field of poisonous contracts and questionable connections is under construction.

    1. Now, I have heard that the changes Bowker did with their listing have already made it easier to put books in bookstores that aren’t trad pub. I know that if I look up my print versions, they are listed for sale rather broadly. As for physical presence in bookstores, I don’t know, and am not sure that’s really a necessary thing right now, when you consider how few people shop in one any longer.

    2. Actually, we have just about the same chance as a lot of trad published authors now, at least if you use Createspace and the more legit PODs. Indie stores are more likely to pick us up since we are now in Bowker listings and we can actually go in and do the face-to-face sell to them in order to get them to order our books. The issue is B&N — with its centralized ordering system.

    3. I’m getting my indie books into bookstores right now, with Createspace’s extended distribution. I can even see where the books are being ordered, because I get Bookscan geographic data as well as the sales count. (So far Altoona, PA and Arizona show exceptional taste in literature…) I didn’t do anything special besides sign up for the extended distribution, either. Those bookstores are ordering purely on their own initiative.

      1. Yes, the CS extended distribution is a step in the right direction. An independent distributor specializing in Indie books would be interesting, but could also turn into the next gatekeeper.

        1. Pam, that has always been a mini-gatekeeper. The indie bookstores order what sounds good to whoever is making the order and to their customers. That said, I’d rather have that sort of gatekeeping than having one or two folks sitting in an office in NYC ordering for an entire chain of stores with locations across the nation.

  3. Off Topic: I found a new thing – that may be a very old thing from your perspective – but maybe it is new to you too. http://simner.com/blog/?tag=writing-for-the-long-haul This is blog series by longtime writers on the theme of how they’ve managed to stay writers for a long time. If anyone is looking for blog topics, I’d enjoy reading responses to these or your take on how you’ve kept going.

  4. Wal-mart’s books sales have fallen because, based on the examples i’ve seen, they have reduced the book space in stores…

    1. Possibly. All I know is our local has the same amount of space. Still, the inclusion of Walmart numbers will impact — possibly greatly — the number of books sold based on the number of stores it throws into the mix as well as the fact that there will be more impulse buying there. Folks go to Walmart a lot more often than they do to a bookstore. How often do you see a parent or husband browsing through the books as they wait for the rest of the family to finish their shopping? Those impulse buys will add up.

      1. Pre-morning coffee comment.

        I worked the “customer service” call line for a large Wal-Mart like chain. It was crazy when somebody called to find out if the store had a certain book. I wasn’t in the store and had no way of knowing if that store had the book.

        What I took out of it was “if you want a book (even a bestseller) why call Wal-Mart (some such store)? Call your local bookstore. The people you talk with there will be better able to find it or *hold* you a copy.

        As I said, pre-coffee comment.

  5. The authors could always offer to deliver 80% of the book, to match the 80% of the sales that they are being paid for… with the remaining 20% delivered when the extra 20% gets paid? That seems fair, doesn’t it?

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