State of Play

I had a great visit to New York, justified in part by our friends’ wedding anniversary (a fabulous rooftop renewal of vows ceremony and dinner) and, in part, by a desire to touch base with my agent. The major downside about moving back to Australia is the sheer distance it is from anywhere else. It literally took a day and a half of travel to get from Melbourne to NYC…so I was really hoping that the visit was worth it!

It was.

Meeting my agent was important for three things: 1) to get feedback on my WIP; 2) to discuss next proposals and plans; and 3) to get insight into the industry (as it continues to change, an agent’s perspective is always helpful). I also think there is no real substitute for a face-to-face meeting.

Thankfully, the feedback on all three was extremely positive, and perhaps just as importantly, my agent seemed pretty optimistic about the publishing industry in general. A year or so ago he seemed much more subdued – but (no surprise for us TKZers here) the success of e-books has definitely buoyed the industry. Here’s a few things I took away from our meeting:
  • Though the YA market continues to be vibrant, the mystery/thriller market is still tough going, with many houses streamlining their lines and focusing (again, no surprise) on their bestselling authors. It remains tougher than ever to get published (in fact, I doubt my first book would ever have sold in this market – which is a depressing thought!).
  • E-books have become extremely profitable for publishers and are creating greater opportunities for publishers to target readers. A few years ago most publishing decisions were driven by what the buyers from Barnes&Noble and Borders liked. Such market concentration wasn’t necessarily a good thing (for writers or readers) but now, e-books present a huge opportunity for a more ‘level playing field’. Even Amazon doesn’t command a massive market share and the growth of the Nook and other e-reader/book options is making the market more ‘democratic’ and accessible. Good news for authors and readers alike!
  • Given all the industry changes, agents are re-evaluating how they can advise and work with their clients on publishing e-books (particularly for their backlist). As there is potential for conflict of interest, agents are looking into the options carefully. There are now companies who work only with agents and their published writers in this respect. I think it will be interesting to see how this pans out – especially as many writers are already choosing to go it alone and self-publish their e-books with or without an agent.
So my question to you all is: how do you view the role of agents changing in this current environment (apart from selling your work to a traditional publisher)? Have your expectations regarding an agent changed with the success of e-books? If you are unpublished, are you still seeking agency representation?

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17 thoughts on “State of Play

  1. After having run the gamut with multiple different agents who got me so close to having the “stuff happens” stuff happening I have sort of given up. That of course is not to be confused with quit, which I haven’t and won’t. I just am no longer searching for a literary agent. I would accept one who may be likely to get a major deal for me, but I’m now only looking for one who could land me a movie deal or similar. Otherwise for the time being I plan to plug away at my ebook originals, and narrating mine and others for audible.com until the big whamo shows up…what ever that means.

  2. I’m still seeking traditional representation. My first agent couldn’t give me the feedback I needed, nor did he place the book.

    I got a request for a full ms last week from another agent, so we’ll see…

    With all the changes in the industry I’m looking at Kindle and the ins and outs of that avenue.

    What do you pros think?

    I’m not a marketing whiz. Will putting the unsigned novel up on Kindle hurt me?

  3. Basil, I think a number of authors feel the same way. Paula, I am not sure but if the unsigned book is on kindle It might put off agents and publishers…any other TKZers want to weigh in on that one?

  4. Mike Shatzkin, who is consistently one of the most prescient of digital prognosticators, recently wrote that “nowhere is the change in publishing greater than in the agent community. What has been a stable business model for generations is now, suddenly, changing. There seem to be as many new models and approaches as there are literary agencies. That adds another thing that all of the fledging epublishers — some of which are agents, others being small publishers and authors — need to know about and understand. The relationships among authors, agents, and publishers are getting much more complicated and everybody needs to spend some time thinking that through and discussing what it means.”

    Paula: Yes, you put your book on Kindle and there’s only a Jim Carrey chance (remember Dumb and Dumber? One in a million? “So you’re saying there’s a chance!”) that a publisher would be interested. The exception would be John Locke or Amanda Hocking numbers, but that scenario requires volume (i.e., multiple titles) and marketing skills and luck.

  5. I still think an agent is a gatekeeper in terms of getting your manuscript looked at by traditional publishers or epub houses. But I cringe at the thought of agents acting as publishers in any regard. They can advise clients on where to find the services they need to epublish, but that’s all. Why give them a piece of the pie otherwise? My agent also gives me good feedback, if he feels something in my work needs to be strengthened. So I value his opinion as a published writer and former editor himself.

  6. Paula, I would not put your book on Kindle if you are seeking agent representation. This might be a work a new agent wants to handle. And it might put off some traditional publishers, too, even though we could reason otherwise. If you’re prepared to strike out on your own, then go that route.

  7. It feels like I’m hogging the spotlight here today, but thanks, to all of you.

    Clare, that relationship you have with your agent, and Nancy, you too, that’s what I want. A collaboration that lifts my story to the place it wants to live.

    I just haven’t met up with the right person yet, and that’s something I really look forward to.

    It is an interesting view as a new author to see the change in the industry, just these past two years.

    Jim, your words regarding the thinking through and discussions regarding the web of relationships involved in publishing today yield food for thought.

    I’ll be asking some tough questions before I sign with anyone again…

  8. IMO, I believe agents (with some exceptions and especially for new and mid-list authors) will soon be a thing of the past. I believe they serve no useful function for the new author trying to get published, whether traditionally or indie, and can actually be harmful to a writer’s career, slow them down, and cost them huge dollars.
    There are so many problems with the agent model, and has been even before the explosion of e-publishing, and the proof for me is this current scramble of agents to become e-publishers. A huge conflict of interest that will ultimately end up in litigation, I predict. And, would be completely unnecessary if they were not worried about their futures.
    If you want to get published by a tradition publisher, send your work directly into the editors. If its good and they like it, they will buy it, regardless of what their website says about agent only submissions.

    David DeLee
    Fatal Destiny – a Grace deHaviland novel

  9. I have to respectfully disagree with JSB regarding putting the novel up will prevent you from getting published by traditional publishers, without Locke or Hocking numbers.
    I have a friend who’s self published one novel and had the second one picked up by one of the Big 6. He has had good sell through on his novel (not anywhere near Locke and Hocking numbers) and was told his first novel sales were what helped secure the deal. And he’s not the only one I know about. I suspect this is happening a lot more than we hear about.

    Some writers who sell e-pub novels are including in their query their sales stats to trad. pubs. They offer to take down their e-pub version if they come to terms with the publisher and get a traditional contract for the work. Meanwhile the work is already earning them money.
    It seems smart to me, let the readers be the new gatekeepers. The publishers can then decide to take a chance on a novel based on something concrete…sales.

    Good luck, Paula,

    David DeLee
    Fatal Destiny – a Grace deHaviland novel

  10. I have given up on finding a literary agent.

    But I’d like to weigh in on the Paula Millhouse-James Scott Bell dialogue.

    Paula, Jim is right when he says if you self-publish, you won’t have a chance with a traditional publisher. However, I would add this: you probably don’t have a chance anyway. They can’t be bothered with unknown writers now. And neither can agents.

    There’s no more midlist for unknowns to cut their teeth on. Publishers’ stables are shrinking to eventually contain only the guaranteed top-selling authors. They’re much more interested in getting $14.99 for a James Patterson ebook than they are in signing (and paying an advance to) new writers. Unless you have a strong insider contact, it’s almost pointless to pursue a traditional deal.

    And if you pursue it anyway, remember the best case scenario will be that literary agent calling you this afternoon telling you she loved your manuscript. You sign the deal tonight, then six months from now, she may have a nibble from a publisher. Six more months go by while negotiations drag on.

    One year from today, you sign a publishing deal. Your book then enters a period of publisher deep freeze, where it will stay for approximately one year to eighteen months before it ever comes out. Two and a half years from today. And that’s only if your publisher is still in business by then.

    That’s the best case scenario for you right now, IMHO, should you continue down the traditional path. Jim may disagree, but I’ll stick by it.

  11. You know, Clare, I’m thrilled to have my agent and hope our relationship lasts long and proves outrageously profitable for us both–in the ebook and traditional publishing industry. Long live both!

  12. I have to say I love my agent – his feedback and guidance has always been invaluable and, quite frankly, he can see the weaknesses that I miss. Without him I know I would be putting out inferior work – he is an ex-editor from a major house so I trust his instincts and feedback. I still think there is a valuable role for agents – they have in the past been an author’s greatest champion. They also act for you whereas an editor acts for the publisher…many authors I know who have dealt directly with editors and got a publishing deal haven’t got as good a deal as they could have with an agent representing them. I think the industry is in flux…so we will have to see how the agency model pans out.

  13. I know that the Trident agency recently started offering to help their stable of authors self-pub books (I’m assuming by pairing them with editors, cover designers, etc). I think it’s a fantastic idea, particularly for writers who have a book that’s too niche for the market, or who have acquired the rights to their backlist. All of my books are still in print, so that’s not an option for me. But I agree, in some respects the market seems to be stronger than ever.

  14. I also think that a truly great agent is an invaluable resource. It provides the benefit of having someone who knows and champions your work, and who can gently nudge it toward being better. My agent has helped tremendously with my work; the fact that she started out as an editor at one of the big 6 means that she’s a master with the red pen and is also very savvy with whatever the current state of the market happens to be.

    What I think frequently gets lost in this debate is the truth of how most authors actually manage to eke out a living. Yes, you can self-pub quickly. And it might be more difficult to get an agent/publisher than it was in the past (although I know many agents who are still happy to take on new authors). But the fact is, if you self-pub here, the chances of getting any sort of foreign deal is negligible. And foreign deals is how most of us survive. English language rights only constitute a small share of what you can actually glean from a book. I know one author who generally earns 20K/book in English, then an additional 10K in the UK and Germany, 5K in France and Japan, etc. In the end, he makes an average of six figures a book. That simply won’t happen if you self-publish. And the success stories in that format are still the exception, not the norm.

  15. With respect to David and Mike’s comments (and to yours too, Basil) I think at this stage of the game I have to side with the girls on the agent thing.

    I know things are different now. Change is the only thing that will always stay the same.

    If I wrote my stories only with an eye toward publication this discussion would seem…grim…?

    But I don’t. I write my stories because my characters won’t let me rest if I don’t put their antics on the page. I’m just taking dictation here…(who said that?)

    As far as the agent relationship goes, who said that the wrong agent was worse than no agent at all?

    In my case, I humbly submit again that I haven’t run across my character’s champion. I’m looking forward to that. I hear the fervor in the voices of the girls, Clare, Nancy, Kathleen, and Michelle. And I want a piece of that.

    If patience and kindness and, dare I say, hope are the ingredients to that, then so be it. I kinda like those principles anyway…

    Meanwhile, I work my Dayjob with a smile on my face, and continue to keep an eye on e-pub for future consideration.

    Thanks, Everyone. You guys rock.

    This forum is just like earning an MFA (who said that? 🙂

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