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.

50 comments:

Anonymous said...

Amazing. Someone really wrote that? I checked the date, but it isn't April 1st any more. So I assume this isn't a joke.

"I want to keep taking 15% of an author's earnings, even though I add nothing of value. How can I do that?"

You were kind in your response, Joe. I am NOT a fan of literary agents, having worked with a number and having had nothing but bad experiences. I don't expect much from the majority of agents out there, but I don't have words for how ridiculous this letter is.

My favorite part was this agent's belief that he or she has skills. What the heck would those be?

Anonymous said...

I like your forward way of thinking, Joe. I watched a video the other day of an author and forward thinker. He sees what's happening to big publishers too. The future is exciting for indie authors!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xOK2aJ-0Js

Jude Hardin said...

If you want to work with authors, you have to give authors something they want.

Other than extremely rare cases, there's still no way to get widespread print distribution without a traditional publisher.

Authors want widespread print distribution.

So to me, the obvious answer, and one that would benefit all involved, I think, is the print-only deal.

No advance, let's say, but the authors gets to keep their ebook rights. Everybody wins. Publishers, agents, authors, readers who prefer buying paper books at brick and mortar stores. Everybody.

Greg Strandberg said...

I've been getting a little ticked-off that my eBook sales have steadily been decreasing since Christmas.

But really, do I have anyone to blame but myself?

More people should blame themselves for the failures they see in their life - they might actually get something done about it.

I sure wish we had more honest blokes like this one that sent you the email.

Patrice Fitzgerald said...

I self-publish, and I publish a few others. In return for taking the financial risk by paying for editing, cover art, formatting, and ads (when I can't do those things myself), I take a percentage of my authors' profits. That's our deal, and they go into it with eyes wide open. They don't want to self-publish, and I am happy to help... and make money along the way.

This literary agent should educate him/herself about what is possible right NOW.

Joe Flynn said...

I think part of the Big 5's group-think problem has to do with all of them being located in NYC. If they dispersed to Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver and Eureka, they'd have to — want to — take a new look at things. See new ways of moving forward.

As to literary agents, they could reinvent themselves as consultants, offering recommendations, for a reasonable fee not a percentage, to editors, proofreaders, cover designers, etc. who would be good fits for the type of novel an author writes.

Stephen T. Harper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Darracott said...

These people are so detached from reality, they deserve to go out of business. The only way they remain in business is when we writers are foolish enough to entrust our careers, our rights, and our future in them, assuming they will act in our interest. They won't.

Stephen T. Harper said...

Everything that is transient is only a metaphor. The changes happening in the publishing industry, just like the changes to the music industry that came a few years earlier, are metaphors for the changes coming to the whole world. The future of prosperity or lack which we are currently birthing with all the urgency, the adrenalized fear and joy that comes with it… It’s coming, just like our babies have always come, ready or not.

And it’s truly amazing to see how slowly the parts of society you would expect to lead the way, don’t seem to even see what’s happening.

Well, “amazing” is one word for it.

Alan Spade said...

I keep studying that damn lock. My personal best-seller has had 1850 paper sales at €21 and 420 ebook sales at $2.99, with glowing reviews in France, and just a dozen ebook sales in the US (for the english version, eleven at $0.99 and one at $2.99).

I'm just scratching my head and wondering why a geek like me, who have embraced ebooks early, is so much better at selling paper books than ebooks? Go figure...

DGM said...

I have to disagree with the first poster about the letter. It seems to me a very sincere effort to reach out for advice. By a person who seems to have a conscience. Most big-time agents are completely in the tank for the publishing industry, and couldn't care less about their author's careers. For most (not big-name agents) it is a numbers game nowadays, grab as many clients with marketable manuscripts as possible, sell as many as possible, no matter how bad the terms, and make your profit from the volume. This person seems averse to seeing their clients as a commodity, which is a good sign.

I also think agents have skills. The kind of personal selling skills authors usually lack, for one thing. They also have to be able to put together formal book proposals, which may not be rocket science but which does take a lot of hard work. Then they have to use their salesmanship skills to get publishers to accept the book proposals, and negotiate terms. Of course, agents are just as powerless as authors when it comes to negotiating terms, so unless they are representing Nora Roberts they pretty much have to take the best deal they can get.

I do agree that Joe's advice is great though. Adapt and survive or stay the same and die. There isn't going to be any room for small agencies in the future. None at all. The mid list is going Indy quickly and those who refuse to do so (Joe's Stockholm Syndrome writers) are in a race to the bottom that will leave them either unpublished or literally selling every manuscript they write for a few hundred bucks and no royalties. It's going to get that bad for them, I feel pretty sure.

Large agencies might be able to cattle herd a ton of midlist Stockholm writers and make a tidy side profit on razor thin margins. But small agencies that don't go the estribution route can't possibly survive on such small margins. They are almost certainly doomed.

Tracy Cooper-Posey said...

Jude Hardin said: "Authors want widespread print distribution."

Um...no, they don't. Some authors might, but I'm utterly uninterested in print distribution and I'm quite sure that the majority of indie published authors feel the same. Print sales bring in so little revenue it's not worth pursuing wider distribution.

What I do want is my "1,000 True Fans" -- enough regular readers buying my books (in whatever format they want) to provide me with a sustainable income, so that I may continue to write and release books. And that's all.

Wide print distribution is irrelevant.

Tracy Cooper-Posey

Joseph said...

You don't need a publisher for print distribution anyway. Dean Wesley Smith talks about it on his site. I'm no expert, but he seems to know what he's saying.

Merrill Heath said...

Tracy said: What I do want is my "1,000 True Fans" -- enough regular readers buying my books (in whatever format they want) to provide me with a sustainable income, so that I may continue to write and release books. And that's all.

Wide print distribution is irrelevant.


I'm right there with you, Tracy. I really don't care a thing about seeing stacks of my books in Costco and Walmart and the big box bookstores. I've been involved with the retail side of the business and I know how it works. Most of those big stacks get returned, even for the big-name authors. When you see the balance sheet it's not as impressive as you might think.

I want to write my books, sell them as ebooks and POD, and make enough to live comfortably. In the current state of affairs, you don't need an agent or even a trad publisher to do that. That may change - in fact, it most certainly will change. But the opportunities writers have today are so much better than they were only a few years ago that I'm excited about my chances of being able to "retire" someday so I can write full-time.

Mark Edward Hall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J.R. Pearse Nelson said...

Thanks for this post, Joe. I felt the letter was sincere, but also unfortunate. Being a nice guy doesn't mean you deserve a living from authors. If you have something to offer, or a new way of doing business that adds value for authors, that's great -- bring it on! And....maybe life will be easier in another field, with less risk and more frequent reward.

w. adam mandelbaum esq. said...

Dinosaurs were once big terrible lizards, masters of the planet. Changes took place, and the only time we see dinosaurs are in museums and movies. The ones in the museum are partly real remains and partly artificial fill ins. The ones in the movies are computer generated. Do we need dinosaurs, do we really miss them? Now take the above thoughts and substitute literary agents in the places that seem appropriate.

Al Riske said...

Wide print distribution irrelevant? Really? Don't you want more people to see your book and maybe buy it? Sure, many may be returned to the publisher, but wouldn't you be glad to have a publisher who believed in your book enough to take that risk?

Anonymous said...

@Al Riske,

Spoken like a man who got into self-publishing as a last resort. I know it's hard for people like you to believe, but some of us entered self-publishing as a FIRST resort. I've sold 40K eBooks in 5 months of self-publishing. It matters not a lick to me if those copies of my books are being read on Kindles or dead trees.

Joshua Simcox said...

"Jude Hardin said: "Authors want widespread print distribution."

Um...no, they don't. Some authors might, but I'm utterly uninterested in print distribution and I'm quite sure that the majority of indie published authors feel the same. Print sales bring in so little revenue it's not worth pursuing wider distribution.

Wide print distribution is irrelevant."

You may feel differently, but I'm sure plenty of authors--even in 2014--would LOVE wide print distribution, provided they didn't have to piss their digital rights away to obtain it.

We can keep singing the same song about the death of paper, but the book-buying public is still filled with Joe Lunch Pails that buy paperbacks while shopping for bleach and cereal at Target or filling prescriptions at Walgreens.
James Patterson built a freakin' empire on those people. (And I'm not being classist here; I'm firmly in the "Joe Lunch Pail" demographic, though no great fan of Patterson's.)

The notion that print distribution is worthless in 2014 is laughable. Maybe authors don't need it to earn a living these days. And maybe in 2016, it truly won't mean shit. But for now, readers still buy paper--and having lots of paper in lots of places most certainly does still have value.

- Joshua

Mark Edward Hall said...

I couldn't care less about print distribution. I offer most of my books in print as a courtesy only. I sell a thousand ebooks to every print book and at a much higher profit.

Lately I've been wondering why I even bother.

My books aren't in stores and I don't care. My readers are ereaders and I like that just fine. I don't think those who enjoy the convenience of downloading and reading on tablets and phones are going to suddenly start shopping for higher priced paper books.

Bookstores have been pretty much reduced to places like Walmart, Target and airports, and they only offer the top tier. What are publishers going to do when Barnes & Noble goes away?

For those writers who long to have their books on shelves alongside King and Patterson, good luck. If I'd waited for that to happen I'd still be waiting.

Al Riske said...

@Anonymous

I'm happy for you. I'm also happy with the small indie publisher that issues my books. Print or e-book doesn't matter to me, either. But I think Joe is right when he says that the more opportunities people have to see your book, the better -- whether that's online or in a bookstore.

Walter Knight said...

Agents aren't needed to contact small presses. They can be contacted directly by authors.

However, their is a market for agents that has not been exploited. I am a mid-list author (E-book sales at 40,000+) published through a small press. Paperback sales are only about one percent of my business on Amazon. I can't crack that market. If an agent could help me sell my paperback rights, and get my books sold at brick & mortar stores, he/she would get my business.

When my books are seen, they sell. Increasingly though, they are being buried by the millions of other E-books. Get my books to a bookstore, they will sell, and everyone makes money in a market I'm locked out of working with a small press.

Being other agents aren't working with people like me, an aggressive agent wiling to take chances would have this new market to themselves.

Jeff Ezell said...

Joe, you da man! What I’ve learned from your blog follows:

What do readers want? They have the money. Writers build the product in exchange for that money. Readers want the best quality product to escape, invest emotions, be educated, and entertained. Writers create the story, but every bundle of words needs to be edited, quality formatted, have a cover that sells the story, then announced to the world. “Don’t miss this”. E-distribution of product world-wide is a done deal. Paper’s not so easy w/o legacy’s established network and that’s clumsy and expensive. POD and online paper orders are currently underdeveloped. Availability far and wide parts more readers from their money. Order processing, banking the money and delivery to the reader are the final steps.

It’ll be writer’s choice. They can do all, part, or none of the “after writing” process. Legacy publishers have extracted a great toll from authors for doing the “after writing” chores; most of the money, control and all rights. How long will it take “hybrid agents” to meet the needs of enough writers who want more net profits than legacy offers, but just want to write? It’s happening now, isn’t it? But the writer can/should retain all rights.

Writers need to satisfy readers and continue improving their product (and/or promotion/procedures). Feedback comes by reviews, blogs, facebook, twitter, book signings, readings, etc., but sales is the real measure of the success of each product and the author.

Eventually it should be the “hybrid agent” marketing their services to THE WRITER, who then picks who they want to do business with. They should be writing “query letters and proposals” to us, THE WRITERS!

Evolution creates opportunity, improvement of the species and death for others.

This simplification is JMHO.

Denise Winters said...

It seems like this agent - who seems genuine and sincere, likely a great agent to have - can only continue to fight for their current clients, and then perhaps focus on representing indies in the future. They may not have clients willing to indie publish now, but they may find indie publishers who are interested in going the Hugh Howey route and only making deals for their physical books, or looking for help with translation, etc.

Anonymous said...

There are a couple of horror-dedicated small presses out there just raping writers like 5-cent hookers. Lousy rates, lousy covers, lousy editing. All the lousy terms of a tradpub deal, but none of the supposed benefits.

A writer friend of mine was suckered into signing a series contract with one of them. The poor bastard makes almost nothing, even though his first book sold pretty well. (The sequel, priced double the first book, tanked.) On the bright side, he gets to brag (which he does regularly) that he's been "traditionally published." I'm not sure if signing with a small press that uses POD for paperbacks and sells exclusively off their website and mailing list qualifies, but saying anything other than, "Well done, man!" would probably end the friendship right there.

So I do my best not to tell him what I'm making by self-publishing. It's not even close. I mean, NOT EVEN CLOSE. And the thing is? I'm not a better writer than him. I just chose to self-publish, while he wanted desperately to be "signed."

I can't think of a single reason why anyone would sign with a small press. They outsource the cover, editing, and formatting to the cheapest freelancer they can find, and it shows up in the final product. My friend's first book was raked by reviewers for its "awful editing." It was, to be frank, embarrassing. And the cover was as generic "zombie" as you can get, too.

Anonymous said...

@ Joshua Simcox,

"The notion that print distribution is worthless in 2014 is laughable. Maybe authors don't need it to earn a living these days. And maybe in 2016, it truly won't mean shit. But for now, readers still buy paper--and having lots of paper in lots of places most certainly does still have value."

Yes, and to get that "value" you sell your soul -- not to mention a healthy chunk of your royalties. If getting a book in a bookstore is important to you, feel free to accept 17%. I'll settle for $2-$3 per eBook in my pocket at 70% royalty, thank you very much. And if my friends and family prefer paperbacks? No problem. Createspace will shoot a pro looking one over to them in 3 days.

Next argument, please.

Laura Kirwan said...

This is an agent who seems to genuinely want to do right by authors and who's realized how unfair the legacy system is. So do we savage this person for expressing their struggle to figure out a way forward as the industry they work in dies around them or do we say "welcome to the new paradigm! Let me show you around. Can I get you a drink?"

Anonymous Literary Agent, I'm happy to show you around. Authors still need assistance but in new ways. It's not enough to be a good writer. If you're self-published you also need to be a good publisher. And many absolutely brilliant writers just don't have the skill set or temperament to handle the business side.

You know the steps needed to get from manuscript to published book. With all the disreputable scam artists out there "helping" authors, there's always a place for a reputable, ethical practitioner. "Self-publishing" covers a wide spectrum of author involvement. Plenty of authors would love to hire somebody to manage all the publishing details for a fee so they can focus on writing the next book. They just don't want to give their rights away to do it.

You don't need to make a huge upfront capital investment if you're selling publishing services a la carte. I know it summons up the "vanity publisher" stigma but in the new paradigm, where authors have much more control over their fate if they choose to take it, it's a viable business model and valuable service to authors. And that's just one possibility. The publishing landscape is changing daily. If you're willing to look at your industry with a new set of eyes, there are huge opportunities.

You see the problems with the old way of doing business, which puts you light years ahead of many of your colleagues. It really is a great time for authors and readers. The glass isn't half full. It's sloshing over.

Joshua Simcox said...

@Anonymous

Dude, c'mon...I'm sure this isn't your first time here. You know we don't go easy on anonymous comments.

A careful look at my original post will make it clear that I feel print distribution is only a valuable prospect IF an author can hold on to his digital rights--or at least a sizable royalty chunk from digital sales.

At one point, this was unheard of. Now it's a reality. For a very, very small faction of hugely successful authors, granted...but it IS happening. And it's a practice that will likely continue now that publishers are losing their leverage to lock authors into contracts. Paper is the one thing they have left, and offering authors access to paper distribution without devouring digital rights may be a tactic publishers utilize more and more in the future to appease existing clients and attract new ones.

Maybe.

I could care less whether or not authors choose to make paper versions of their novels available. I buy paper and ebooks in equal measures--I'm not beholden to any one platform. The point of my original post was to poke a hole in this absurd notion that authors in 2014 have (or should have) ZERO interest in print distribution. Bullshit. I get that it's not necessary these days. I get that digital is more profitable. But even if Barnes and Noble is dying and Wal-Mart's book selection continues shrinking, anyone with a book to sell would love to have his title occupying their shelf space--as long as he isn't sacrificing his digital rights or settling for a criminally low royalty rate to make that happen.

I'm not arguing that an author should take a shit deal to get a book in a B&N. Far from it. But don't try to sell me on the notion that an author wouldn't want that shelf space if he could have it--of course he would. Because no author would want to deliberately limit their audience. And there's still a readership that browses the bookshelves at Wal-Mart, Target, B&N, Walgreens, etc, and buys paper. They haven't died out yet. And until they do, you can't seriously believe that paper has no value. Less maybe, but it certainly isn't nothing, and it's not an opportunity worth throwing away if the terms are favorable.

- Joshua

Joseph said...

Looks like people are stuck in a brain loop here.

You don't need a traditional publisher to get your books into bookstores.

People are selling trad publishing like it is still the gateway to print distribution, it's just not true. It changed like a year ago or so when printers stopped differentiating trad/indie in their catalogs.

Authors are signing with print deals in mind but they are probably under an incorrect impression.

Dean Wesley Smith talks about it here:

http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=12014

Christian McQueen said...

Writers ego's get in the way.

Does it really matter if it's published by a big company or yourself? It doesn't. Money talks and if you can make more with ebooks and self-publishing then drop the ego and do so.

My ebooks sell great and I keep 98% of the profits. Suits me just fine.

I recently discovered your blog and it's excellent. Thank you for creating such a wealth of information for the public.

venkyiyer58 said...

First the big publishers will feed on the remaining authors. Then they will... feed on themselves?

Terri Herman-Ponce said...

A wonderful read for a Thursday morning. The honesty is refreshing.

Anonymous said...

(I'm a new anon.)

My guess right now would be that print sales in any significant quantities is attainable with the same odds of winning the lottery. Airport bookshops, grocery stores, and WalMart probably stock about 100 titles and no backlist? B&N offers a slim chance of having a book somewhere in the stacks, spine-out, for a window of 2 months.

Indies have the ability to get into catalogs and to hope to get into chains or indie bookstores, but I can't imagine that represents enough sales to justify the effort.

My $.02.

Anonymous said...

Yet another anon.

The problem with agents:

It's a bit like trying to choose one from ten picks for a date, when you know nine of them are charming serial killers . . .

Anonymous said...

And this

http://badagentsydney.blogspot.co.uk/

(ya any mouse)

Steve Peterson said...

Anonymous sees the current state of the business as a problem, but I see it as an opportunity. Certainly there are plenty of authors who are uncomfortable or even fearful of dealing with all the different aspects of getting an ebook out there, from covers to formatting to marketing. OK, so you don't want to put up the capital necessary for authors to do that. There's still a business there. Do the research and line up the resources for each of the services necessary to bring an ebook to market and push it once it's out there. Maybe some of those you could do, or maybe you find several reliable freelancers. Then you figure out a set of services of prices to offer authors. I'd say give away much of research to help attract business; show the steps necessary to get an ebook on the market, list some freelancers and their contact info. Then figure out a price (probably a flat fee) for you to do all that for an author, or break it down into pieces. Let's say the whole process costs $2,000; maybe you can charge $300 for lining all that up. Is that too much money for the aspiring ebook author to come up with? There's crowdfunding (a whole different process in itself), or even finding individual angel investors (who might want to fund an ebook for a percentage).

It seems to me you've identified a need out there; find a way you can profitably fill it. Do it in a way that provides value for both you and the authors, and you've got a business.

Sarah Stegall said...

"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."

Joe, I'm printing that out and hanging it over my desk, to help me keep focused on what's important. Thanks!

M.F. Soriano said...

Joe said: "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."

This is such a crucial point, boiled down to such a clear statement, that I wanted to repeat it.

Silas Payton said...

Interesting post. I give the person credit for asking for help. It seems to me that this agent is looking at the possibility of advocating for authors. If this is the case, kudos for them.

As in any business expansion I would suggest they assess what they are willing to risk for the potential increased business. I have no doubt that there are authors who already have an audience and know their time is better spent writing than learning: how to create covers, what a tweet is (although I already know what a twit is), how to format for Amazon, how to sell to foreign markets, etc. If an agent wanted to take this on for a fee, it might be worth it to some.

I recall Joe saying that for his collaboration shorts he puts up 2-3k to get them published -- an agent may be able to do this a bit cheaper with the right connections and volume discounts. I would suggest that the agent who wrote this, try a few deals out. Perhaps don't market it as a service yet but offer it to a select few who have an audience and you are fairly certain they will draw the e-sales to get your return back and then some.

Play with your fees. Try some as a percentage of royalties. Try some as half down and a decreased percentage of royalties. I'm sure there is a market for you if you are willing to take the risk.

Of course this depends on your financial ability to take the risk. In Joe's analogy above, there are mechanics willing and able to take a risk who will end up shop owners, and there are those that aren't willing or able and will be better off working for someone else.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I so appreciated the honest letter. You sound like one of the really good guys. I wish you the best in finding a solution that will work for you and your clients. Thank you for your frank note, and best of luck to you and your fortunate writers. The truth is usually a good start .

Anonymous said...

This agent has shown a lot of guts and self-awareness by sending this email to Joe and it's clear they genuinely want to add value for their clients and think outside the box. This is the LAST person we should be attacking. They're showing initiative and asking how they can help us.

Joe Konrath said...

This is the LAST person we should be attacking.

This blog is about attacking ideas, systematically and repeatedly. It is only after getting to the heart of the issue that we can learn something.

Recognizing that times are changing is the first step to figuring out how to thrive in the future. But simply asking how you're going to survive isn't enough. If you don't believe there is a place for your skills in the future, you can certainly hope someone else has answers for you, but if you can't figure it out for yourself it is likely you've become obsolete. Especially when one answer--estribution--exists and you're unwilling to attempt it.

Elena DeRosa said...

"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."

Sums it all up...

Carlos Cooper said...

Recognizing that times are changing is the first step to figuring out how to thrive in the future.

Exactly...

Anonymous said...

To the agent, if he or she is still reading this, I have noticed another sort of "middleman" popping up for the more successful and prolific indies.

I'm not sure of the term but it's an e-administrative assistant (not an agent or estributor). Several romance authors on Kboards share an assistant.

I didn't get the impression the e-assistant was paid a percentage like agents but by their time. Many indies prefer to pay once for services, not forever.

Also, if you have really good editing or marketing skills, you could hang out your shingle that way.

mike said...

I have a suggestion for all agents who have thoughts and worries of the same type as this agent: this is a time of opportunity.
Your services are needed, and have a market, just not through an agency of the traditional type.

Learn and reprogram yourself to serve both sides.

The trade route you already know.

The self-pub market is ripe for "agents/managers/contractors" that will handle the whole run from manuscript to upload. Add to that, a H-U-G-E market for affordable marketing/author profile/web presence services for the self-pub writers.

There is A LOT of money to be made as a contractor in this new era.

Faith Simone said...

I'm a first time visitor to your blog and you made a fan out of me with this one post. I'm intrigued and, as a new author who's debating whether to publish independantly or not, plan to devour all of this knowledge. Thank you!

lincoln blake said...

One of my good friends from college has been trying to get one of his books published. And I was blunt with him, saying that being right out of college. It might be awhile until he finally gets the break he's been looking for. I'm pretty hopeful for him though.

Lincoln Blake | http://www.weecreekpress.com

Laura Resnick said...

In her recent public statements about going indie full-time, bestselling author Maggie Shayne mentioned that two of the services she uses in her self-pub venture are owned and run by two of her daughters, both of whom take clients.

Barbara Freethy, who's a top-selling full-time indie (and was a bestselling traditional writer) works with her daughter for various services in her indie venture. Her daughter takes clients.

The founder of eBook Prep and ePublishing Works, both of which offer services to assist indie writers, was at home full-time after an injury when she recognized these market niches in the self-pub industry and started filling them.

And so on and so forth.

This is about being an entrepreneur, offering valuable services at competitive prices, and growing a business that way.

No reflection on the agent who wrote to Joe, since I've no idea who that person is and they may have already spotted a niche and started developing a business plan to fill it for all I know... But one of the reasons I quit the agent-author business model permanently 7 years ago after running through four agents (and I still deal with traditional publishers--just not via literary agents) is that I never encountered one who actually wanted (or was even willing to) WORK.

There was, for maybe 30 years, room in the publishing world for people who didn't want to work hard. People who just wanted to develop a handful of contacts and stand pat on those for years, send them MSs, and then advise the writer to sign the "agency boilerplate" when one of those contacts made an offer which the agent might spend 5-10 minutes "negotiating." After which, the agent would phone the contact once every year or two to say, "Time for another contract for this writer?" And cease to answer the writer's calls and emails if the publisher happened to say "no, we're dropping her" instead of, "Yes." (And, indeed, I've got several friends who wound up firing agents who were too lazy even to make that call. Too lazy, in fact, even to RETURN calls from editors saying, "Hey, it's time for another contract for this writer. Call me so we can get that rolling.")

Yes, I have know a tiny handful of agents (none of them mine) who works hard. But only a tiny handful. The agents I worked with, and most of the agents that people complain to me about (and there are a LOT) are amazingly reluctant to WORK. People like that found a niche (agenting) for the past few decades in publishing.

But the new landscape isn't offering perches for people who don't work. With writers having increasingly easy access to distribution and readers, and with good, professional self-publishing support services competing for business, the new landscape doesn't offer such easy pickings as the old business model did for people who lack skills and don't really want to work.