Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Where Have All the Agents Gone?

Our guest blogger, Susan Malone, is back again with an interesting take on whether traditional publishing is heading for demise at the hand of e-publishing.

I always smile when thinking of trends in publishing. Especially due to the answer all my editor friends in NY give when asked (at virtually every writers’ conference) what the new trends will be:  “I’ll know it when I see it.”

But as much of a joking reply as this is, it stands up over time because, well, it’s true. Nobody ever knows what’s going to happen in publishing—until it’s happened. And then when it does, everybody wants a piece of it. Only they want it yesterday, and with a fresh twist. This of course has stymied writers since the days of quill dipping-pens. And now in the age of speed-of-light-changing technology, the new trend in publishing is the industry itself.

Of course, everybody is waxing profound these days on what will happen to the business model. Will traditional publishing survive?  Have e-books slung the final arrow into a dying monolith? Will the only authors gaining traditional publishing contracts be of the Amanda Hocking ilk?

That’s what we’ve all heard for the past two years or so. I was speaking at a big conference last summer, and of course sat around kibitzing with some good friends of the agent, editor, and publisher variety. This discourse dominated the conversation, and one of the points gaining consensus was that in the end, two publishers would remain: Random House and probably Viking. How soon this doomsday scenario would occur was the only real arguing point.

And occur, this very well may. Although lately, the big houses have been fighting back with all the guns in their own e-book arsenals (and some from Justice, but that’s another story completely). But does any tangible evidence exist that rumors of publishing’s demise may be greatly exaggerated? (Apologies for the butchering, Mr. Clemens.)

Lately, I’ve seen some subtle signs of exactly this. Which will bring me back to the title of this post, about which astute readers by now may be scratching their heads. But, for example, I have an editorial client with whom I’ve been working a few years. This young man’s second novel is a bang-up Mid-Grade Reader.  Really well done.  He’s worked so hard, honed his craft, and the book is just beautiful.  Funny.  Poignant and profound.  Unfortunately for him, it includes not one vampire or werewolf or anything that sucks another’s life-blood.  And we have not been able to get him agented on a danged bet.

In large part because just as publishers aren’t buying anything from unknown authors, paring down their lists to existing ones (especially if those are of the already-dead-but-with-huge-followings variety), scrambling around as if their offices are on fire, agents are doing the same thing. Including the scrambling.  Many have given up the agenting ghost entirely, going on to more fruitful endeavors (which could include picking actual apples at this point). Nobody has wanted to even look at an unknown’s manuscript—no matter how highly it came recommended.

I’ve just hated it.  For all my writers, but especially for this young man.  He’s gifted, put in the blood, sweat, and tears, and has such a genuineness of spirit (which comes through in his work) that my heart has just hurt for him.  Unfortunately, he’s completely unknown, has no platform whatsoever (although he’s working diligently via social media), and did I mention no blood drips from the characters’ fangs?

And then . . .   Something has changed.  It’s one of those whispers on the wind.  So quiet you almost can’t hear it; one of those tilt-your-ear-again things.  He queried four new agents, and one who had rejected the manuscript a year and a half ago. All five requested at least partials, and two so far, from the partials, have requested the entire manuscript.

I can assure you his query letter hasn’t changed.  And as we all know, agents don’t request manuscripts because they have nothing better to do, but only because they think they may be able to sell them.

The pendulum in publishing has started to swing back, ever so slightly. Common wisdom has said for a while that e-books would reach a tipping point this summer.  Perhaps summer has come early . . . 

Will this last? Who knows. Will self-publishing continue to be the rage (at the expense of the traditional model)?  Where’s my crystal ball. Or will the trend turn again to traditional publishing?

I guess we’ll all know it when we see it!

Award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has four traditionally published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at:

Posted by Maryann Miller, who agrees that traditional publishing is not dead.

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  1. Thank you so much for the insightful look at the impact of e-publishing. I, too, have heard agents and editors respond with "I'll know it when I see it." So much of the business is intuitive and subjective, which is why it can be such a challenge when it comes to an author getting a book published. One editor will hate it and the next might love it.

  2. And yet, everyone I know is at the Bologna Children's Book Fair and Little Pickle Press is looking for a MG novel that fits their green and global focus! No werewolves or vampires for them! It's all about being at the right place at the right time. Susan, has your client sent the ms. to Adams Literary? Also, I wonder why the rumor has it that Random House will be left standing, when they are part of the much larger Bertelsmann conglomerate. What happens to all there other companies?

  3. Oh, and if you want to get good insider advice from an agent, be sure to sign up for Kristen Nelson's e-letter. Search Nelson Agency. She seems to spend a good deal of time reworking digital rights in contracts. ;) Seems like e-books have suddenly become very attractive to traditional publishers.

  4. So true, Maryann--this really is a subjective business (as much as writers hate to hear that :) And yep, it is all about being in the right place at the right time, Dani. And though Random House is a part of Bertlesmann, not all the imprints will remain. In fact, MANY imprints have already folded, or been taken up into others. Look for that to continue!

  5. Interesting post. I look at the music industry. CD's are still here but very few stores and they are becoming the niche part of the market. Downloads of music are rising and quickly.

    I suspect books will follow this trend. Books will be niche for the NY Times selling authors as shelf space won't be there for anyone else as book stores close. Already we see print runs falling. eBooks will stay and I think grow.

  6. Your post is a good intro to mine, Susan! Stay tuned next Wednesday and Thursday for perspective from five agents who participated on the agent panel at The Write Stuff conference in Allentown, PA last weekend. Turns out agenting is alive and well, according to them! We'll also hear if traditional publishers are still putting debut authors into print, and if they're giving them advances.

  7. A fascinating subject. Will e-books go the way of all new fads? Somehow I don't think so. A bookaholic from way way back I can't remember the last time i bought a real book and have spent the past months getting rid of books cluttering up my house. Now everything I want to read is on my more towering piles beside my neat eReader on the bedside table and I am not alone. Most in our writers group are the same.
    And as a writer I've had my last rejection slip. I was asked to submit a full for Harlequin Special Edition...which I did...and my rejection...and i quote "Your submission was totally unsuited to Nocturne."
    That still has me scratching my head. So now I'm working with a free lance editor and publishing my books myself. And as long as the traditional publishing houses take a year to consider a submission self publishing and eBooks are going to thrive.

  8. Can't wait to read yours, Kathryn! I talk to agents all the time, and in fact this very morning was kibitzing with one who's also a good friend. Where she hadn't been selling anything for a loooonnngggg while, things are picking up again, and she's just inked six new contracts. But she's too nervous to believe it's a trend!

  9. You know, I think I agree. this business is certainly changing. I don't think there is any argument that ebooks are here to stay and that the internet has changed everything. BUT... I'm not sure that music is an exact analogy. Music is always played on a machine. From CD to download is just a different delivery mechanism, not a different product. And while the true product of a book is delivered through the words, the bit that you hold, look at, stroke and smell (oh wait, is that just me?) is also part of the product. I don't think they will ever completely go away and I don't think all of the big publishing houses will either. Change, absolutely. Die? I'm not so sure. Have to pull up their socks and treat their content providers with more respect? One sincerely hopes so! ;>

  10. Thank you for this discerning post, Susan. My feeling as a writer is this: although ebook self-publishing has risen up quickly, and appears to be the new answer to everything for so many frustrated authors, I still believe our highest hope lies along the traditional agent and publishing contract route - that certainly is the case for me.

  11. You pretty much encapsulated the issue, SC. Ebooks have exploded, and will continue to do so, but traditional publishing is still the gold standard--by which everything else is judged.
    So hang in there and keep grasping for that gold ring!

  12. Too true. There's no telling about the publishing industry. Who would think that vampires and such would be a craze! Who could predict kindles and iPads?

    We're all in it for the ride!

    Morgan Mandel

  13. This is one of the most balanced, humble, and consequently wise post on predictions I've ever seen. Thank you for sharing your take. And good luck to your client--if he ever needs "take heart" lessons, I would be happy to provide some :)


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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