Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Agents Bust False Publishing Trends, Part I

I recently had the pleasure of moderating the agent panel at the 2012 Write Stuff conference in Allentown, PA. Our guests were (l to r) Rachel Stout of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, Carrie Pestritto of Prospect Agency, Marie Lamba of Jennifer DeChiara Litearary Agency, Lauren Ruth of BookEnds LLC, and Katie Shea of Donald Maass Literary Agency (thank you to Mary Ann Domanska for providing the photo). Each one of these industry professionals are enthusiastic lovers of the written word—so much so that they are willing to stake their incomes on it.

I thought I’d use some info gleaned from our discussion to address some false notions about trends in today’s publishing world.

With the advent of e-publishing, agenting is a dying career. This is clearly not the case. Every member of the panel is a newer agent at an established agency. One of them shared with me that when she applied for a position just last fall she received three offers. The agencies are hiring.

But while agenting isn’t a dying career, it is a changing one.
In the past ten years the role of agent has evolved beyond one of advocacy and sales. Time and again Publisher’s Marketplace reports editors leaving their posts at publishing houses, and while it’s true that publishers have experienced the same economic attrition as other industries in this economy, many of those editors left by choice—to become agents. Why? The reason may surprise you: they want to edit. Today’s acquiring editor must juggle the business and production details for so many books they no longer have the time to work one-on-one with authors to shape their stories. This role has fallen to the agent.

Self-publishing is the kiss of death if you hope for traditional publication. This perception, so true as recently as five years ago, is also experiencing a trend shift. Agents now believe self-publishing can sometimes serve a useful place in a client’s career. Both Rachel Stout and Carrie Pestritto’s agencies now feature programs that can help their clients self-publish.

An even stronger indication of the changing tides: Rachel and Carrie said it’s part of their paid duties at their agencies to troll the self-published titles on Amazon and offer representation to authors with great sales numbers. The fact that these authors take them up on it shows that the ongoing strain of being a self-published author isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Agent Marie Lamba, who is also a traditionally published author of young adult novels, chose to self-publish when, through no fault of her own, the contract for her sequel was canceled. To satisfy her fan base, she self published. Her message was that the road to successful publication is no longer predictable. These days authors can pick and choose the tools and methods that suit them.

Katie Shea pointed out that indie publishing still isn’t for everyone, especially if the author hopes to use it as a step toward breaking into traditional publishing. While there are newsworthy exceptions—most recently E.L. James, the author of the erotic Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, who sold 250,000 copies through her tiny Australian publisher then went on to sign a seven-figure deal with Vintage Books— for most authors without an established platform or fan base, sales numbers for self-published works can be more disappointing than hoped for. That one-millionth ranking on Amazon will not impress industry pros, Katie said—nor will the record of it ever go away.

Coming up tomorrow: Are agents taking on new clients? Can your work get discovered in the slush pile? Are authors still getting advances? Stay tuned!
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her women's fiction and memoir are represented by Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, was published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.

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  1. Interesting. I'm not at the point of self-publishing, I still hope to become traditional published but I wonder, do agents feel the same about e-published works through small presses? I.e.:that they may help or hinder your career by the sales numbers?

  2. Traci, I'm pretty sure that answer is yes, because agents are business people. They connect with your message, of course. And they care about a great book getting out there. But once a contract is in place their very livelihood depends on your sales numbers, so they'll have an eye on your bottom line, as will publishers.

  3. Kathryn, did any of the agents mention the possibility of working with an indie author to sell foreign rights and help market nationally? That is a role I think agents could play in this changing business.

  4. Being one-millionth on Amazon might not impress industry pros ... but it did my mother.

  5. Christopher, you've done her proud. ;) But seriously, when you hang around with other writers all the time, you tend to lose the perspective that very few people who say they're going to write a book ever sit still long enough to complete that task. You must be incredibly goal-oriented to pull it off. I'm proud of you, too!

  6. Maryann: No, we didn't get on that topic. Maybe if one of the agents hops on to comment they might address that.

    But of course once the book has launched, in a way over which they had no control, it might be difficult to convince them to jump on board for that.

    Unless you wrote Fifty Shades of Grey, lol... Any chance "E.L. James" is a pseudonym of yours?

  7. Interesting information, Kathryn. I love to hear that agents are trolling, for lack of a better word, the self-published authors. There are no doubt many diamonds in the rough out there.

    I do hope that as the publishing world changes and settles a bit, sales for indie and small press authors might help garner an agent. I'm always learning about self-publishing and considering it for the future but for me, the scariest part of it is the business end. So much to learn! It's great agents are keeping an eye on things.


  8. Kathryn, these are interesting observations about a changing industry. For me, it raises the question for authors as to what their goals should be. If it's to make money, some authors are demonstrating that a contract with a traditional publisher isn't necessary. This would seem to pose a challenge to agents, finding talent among the indie authors and perhaps convincing them that a traditional publisher would serve them better.

  9. Hey Stacy, Thanks for stopping by! The day you hope for is already at hand: indie sales—substantial ones, anyway—can help you get an agent and a traditional publishing deal.

    And Bob: I think you're right, we have to keep an eye on what's best for our careers. I'm sensing much more fluidity between choices, now. You could traditionally publish in one genre and self-publish in another, for example. It would seem we are no longer doomed to continue along the first path we set out on. It's a good time to be an author in this regard!

  10. I suppose there are different points of view among agents with regard to self publishing.

    In response to the myth that self pubbing will hurt your chances in traditional publishing, it was said that "self-publishing can sometimes serve a useful place in a client’s career" while later, Katie Shea stated, "indie publishing still isn’t for everyone, especially if the author hopes to use it as a step toward breaking into traditional publishing."

    Those statements seem to contradict. From what I understand, self publishing does not hurt your chances on the traditional route if you believe folks like JA Konrath, Dean Wesley Smith, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

    I also found Katie's comments about Amazon ranking curious, "That one-millionth ranking on Amazon will not impress industry pros, Katie said—nor will the record of it ever go away."

    I am not self pubbed, I publish with a small press, but being an unknown, I expected my book to drop to one million territory and beyond. But then it leaps to the 100,000 to 300,000 mark when copies sell, drifts down again, climbs again, rinse and repeat.

    Perhaps for books that hit that mark and remain there or sink lower because those authors produce no further work, that sales rank never goes away.

    However, a hard working self pubber who continues to write and promote will draw readers to both their current book and previous works so Amazon sales rankings will probably fluctuate daily across their titles.

    It is also my understanding from reading a recent blog post from paranormal writer Jami Gold that Vintage Press released Fifty Shades of Grey unedited with the promise of an edited version to follow. If that is true (and I stress "if"), then that seems like an unusual move for traditional publishing where "gatekeeping" and quality are allegedly paramount.

    Just my 2.5 cents. If I'm missing something, let me know.

  11. Sounds like agent roles are changing, along with authors, and the industry in general.

    Morgan Mandel

  12. Since I'm doing both (published "Writers Gone Wild" through Penguin, self-published "The Complete, Annotated Whose Body?", I can say that self-publishing doesn't hold you back. Done right, it can help you.

    First, self-publishing gives you a relatively steady income, vital to fill in the stretches between royalty payments.

    Second, it can give you the opportunity to create "passion projects" that publishers would not be interested in. There isn't a big demand for an annotated version of a Dorothy L. Sayers' novel, but her fans like the book.

    Third, it broadens your base, and fans who like your self-published work will likely pick up your other works, especially if they've been discounted or remaindered. That can only help you build a career.

    New York publishing has its merits. It gets you credibility as an author, it's a little easier to get publicity, and you work with great people.

  13. Hey Phil, Thanks for raising this issue. I asked Katie if she might have time to jump on here and clear it up, so I'll wait to see if she can before addressing my perceptions of what she said.

    Morgan, that's absolutely true. One of the agents, Marie Lamba, gave a whole session on how to "Be a Victor in the Publishing Revolution." There are more options now than ever before.

    Bill: It sounds like you've got the balance figured out! Your answer is well reasoned and sounds like it's working great for you. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

  14. Some interesting information!
    I knew agents and publishers watch the self-published titles. Amazon does, too.

  15. Great info, Kathryn, and thanks for posting it. I think agents trolling for previously self-pubbed books is interesting, but the key point is they're looking for books that have already demonstrated terrific sales. (Anybody can self-pub, but the question is--can readers find your book and are they eager to buy it once they do?) If your visiting agents had hard info about how to make that happen, I'm listening!

  16. Thanks for stopping in Nancy! I suppose if traditional publishers knew the answer to that marketing conundrum their market wouldn't have started sliding away from them. As you know, part of the problem is the shot-into-the-dark nature of author promotion. With sales reported twice a year authors can't tell which of their efforts (signings, blog tours, giveaways, etc.) are netting results. So authors exhaust themselves trying everything "just in case." In this regard, self-pubbed authors have an advantage, as they have a closer relationship to their sales.

    Agent Marie Lamba said publishers are wising up in this regard. Random House, who published Marie's first novel, is one. They've created a portal where authors can sign in and see all their sales numbers, up to the minute. Once that idea catches on it should help a bit, don't you think?

    The frightening thing about this for me: everyone always says education evolves more slowly than every other industry. Apparently not. My children's fairly rural high school was using portals to communicate with parents about their kids' grades "before it was too late" since 2005.

  17. Interesting and valuable information. Thanks for posting this. I have four novels published the traditional way (Avalon Books) and have recently dipped my toes into the self-publishing waters (a collection of short stories and one full length novel). It's too soon for me to say how successful the self-pub. books are financially, but I love the control I have. Still, I'm not about to turn my back on the traditional route. Guess I want to have it both ways. Any way you look at it, writing/publishing is a fascinating journey.

  18. It would be nice for authors to "have it both ways." But that just can't happen with everyone. Even so, it's a difficult decision to make. Do you keep holding out for an agent and big publisher? Or do you take your future in your own hands? It's nice to hear that in some cases, it can be both. It's also nice that it can be either.

  19. Hey Sandy, thanks for dropping in. You're one of the lucky ones: you can choose to have it both ways! And theses days you aren't necessarily shooting yourself in the foot by doing so.

    Helen, I hear you, it's a real conundrum. One thing holding out taught me was just how good my book needed to be to be competitive. I'm not just competing with every manuscript currently on submission to an agency, I'm competing with every published book still available for sale.

    Those who self publish who think very carefully about why someone might buy their book, instead of all the others already available in their genre, stand the best chance at successfully marketing their project.

  20. I think that if agents want to be editors or publishers, then they need to do those things, but I believe it's a conflict of interest to do them all under the same umbrella.

    The problem with agents acting as editors rather than advocates is that they can't read an acquiring editor's mind. They don't know what an editor is going to want from a book. And if they try to shape an author's book into what they think an editor will want, they may end of doing more harm than good. That's not to say that helping an author polish their book prior to submission isn't a good idea, but more and more, I see agent's taking this idea that they're supposed to be editors way too far. I've seen instances of an agent making an author go back multiple times to fix what they felt was wrong with a manuscript, only to find out later that the agent had pushed them in the wrong direction.

    Different editors at different imprints want different things, and an agent, though well intentioned, can't know them all. When went of submission with my first book, a rowdy comedy about death, some editors who read it wanted more comedy, some wanted more romance, some wanted a deeper, philosophical look at death. Finally, my agent and I found an editor at an imprint who had the same vision for the book that I did. And that editor helped me sculpt the book into what it is today.

    My other problem is more straight forward. Agents acting as publishers are less motivated to sell books...and that's a problem. An agent who can make money off an author even if he doesn't sell their book might not be as motivated to sell it, and the chances that he'll make even more money by NOT selling it is dangerous. It's a conflict of interest, and I wouldn't sign with any agency who also dabbled in self-publishing. No matter how transparent the agency is or how many safeguards they put into place to keep their agency and publishing businesses separate, there is always the chance for the author to end up getting screwed.

    I get that agents need to carve out a place in the evolving landscape of publishing, but they need to realize that their value to an author is as a champion and advocate for the writer. When they allow other interests to cloud their vision, then they cease being of value to an author. Their money comes FROM authors, after all. So helping their authors should be their primary concern.

  21. Shaun: I think you share a valid cautionary tale here. Before I signed with my agent, we had a talk about my novel to make sure she "got it" and that we had a shared vision for it. She discussed what sort of changes she had in mind (for me that included moving a couple of the big emotional payoffs from the end toward the middle of the book to keep the reader engaged throughout, and deepening the emotional impact of some scenes through more engaging action—general tips that are worthy no matter what). I recommend that if an agent does not initiate such discussion with the author, that the author initiate it with the agent. It's critical that the agent helps you meet your own goals.

    The agents on the panel made it clear that they were helping the author self-publish as a court of last resort, and that this was a fee situation—I believe the wording by Rachel Stout was "we would support their efforts to self-publish." Clearly, if they could negotiate a good advance, they'd make more money, but even agents realize not all books fit tidily into the demands of the market place. But your example suggests their intentions are worth checking into.

    None of the agents on the panel gave me any reason to suspect that their intended role was anything but the author's career advocate. But I agree that there are a lot of unsavory characters tucked into all corners of the world, and that it is best to be aware of the ways the process can run afoul of your best interests. Thanks again.

  22. Kathryn,

    I didn't mean to insinuate that agents were being underhanded. In fact, the really seedy ones are pretty easy to spot and avoid. It's the agents who are blurring the lines that scare me. There are a lot of wonderful, nice, brilliant agents out there just trying to make a living and do right by their clients. But, take the self-publishing example. If an agency has that option at their disposal, no matter how awesome the agent is, it's always going to be on the table. They're always going to have that fallback. So maybe they won't be as worried about selling a particular book. Not consciously, mind you. Whereas if taking a fee from an author to self-pub their book is NEVER an option, then it really is do or die for them. They either sell the book or make no money.

    In my opinion (and it's just my opinion...which is often wrong), if an agent wants to have an option like self-publishing to offer a client, then they should befriend a self-publishing organization and refer the author to them. That way, they can never be accused of having a conflict of interest.

  23. I like that agents are helping people self-publish. It's another good option in an overwhelming pool of choices.

  24. Thanks for the clarification Shaun. I see what you mean, to a point. But for the agent to remain invested in the client's entire career arc, I would imagine they want to have a hand in the process to the extent possible. Guess I'm saying I can see both sides. It will be interesting to see how it plays out—just saw today on my Twitter feed that yet another lit agency is now offering self-pub services.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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