Writer Drops a Toad on Agent

It was the closing day of a writer’s event. At the end of a breakfast session, an agent and a writer were wrapping up a session about the ongoing changes in the publishing industry, and how those changes affect writers.

During the Q and A, most of the discussion addressed strategies for writers who were not yet published. I raised my hand.

“I’m wondering about writers who have already been published,” I said. “how do you think the changes in the industry are affecting our strategies going forward?”

The agent looked confused. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well,” I said,  “Many mid-list writers I know are interested in developing a revenue sharing model with publishers rather than signing traditional contracts. Or going the indie publishing route.”

It was as if a toad had leaped from my mouth. “Indie publishing?” the agent asked me. “You mean, self-publishing?”

“Right, but not vanity publishing,” I said, beginning to sweat. “I’m talking about writers who want to keep a greater share of revenue than they have under their previous contracts with legacy publishers.”

“Legacy publishers?” Now the agent looked truly horrified. “That word sounds like something that guy Konrath would say.”

JA Konrath, in case you don’t know, is a pioneer in self-publishing who successfully transitioned from legacy–excuse me, traditional–publishing. He’s known for criticizing the practices of publishers in his popular blog, The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing.

At this point I was prepared to dive into my coffee cup and drown myself, but the agent was just getting started.

I don’t remember her exact words, but they were something to the effect of “agents don’t want to give up their advances.”

Well, granted. But what about writers? What is best for us? 

I had unwittingly stepped into a raging discussion that’s been swirling in the media-publishing world for months. A bit of background: there’s something of a class system in the world of writing. The mega-bestselling writers are the darlings of publishers. The rest of us, not so much. Unless your first book is a monster success, you are more or less sent to the servant’s quarters. It used to be that publishers would give a writer time to develop and gain a strong readership base. That is less often  the case today. Midlist writers are being dropped; contracts are not being renewed. Advances are shrinking.

Then there’s Amazon, which offers writers–any writer–a decent percentage of each and every sale. Published writers who have been able to reclaim their backlist have been startled to discover that they can make good money from “new old” titles which had been languishing on the vine for years.  The prices for indie ebooks are being set by…gasp…the writers.  This process, along with the rise of indie publishing in general, is driving down the overall cost of ebooks.

Publishers don’t like to lower their ebook prices, and they’re fighting back. Amazon and publishers have gotten into several scrapes over pricing and distribution. Most recently, the tension boiled over into the Hatchette vs. Amazon kerfuffle. You can read more about that here. But the subtext of the fight is that journeyman writers suddenly have more options for publishing and getting paid for their work. These changes are putting pressure on the traditional publishing model, on pricing in particular.

I don’t have any strong beliefs about the merits of traditional versus indie publishing. I suspect that most published writers will become “hybrids,” pursuing the best available options. I do think that it is still better for unpublished writers to get traditionally published first–going through the process helps a writer develop her skills, learn valuable ropes, and establish a readership. But for writers who have previously been published and languished under the old system, the picture is different. If a previous book did not sell well, we’re haunted by those sales numbers forevermore. If it did sell, the publisher will collect the lion’s share of the book’s revenues, forevermore. 

At the breakfast meeting that day, the agent  wound up her response to me by saying, “You’re too early in your career to give up on traditional publishing.”

In fact,  I’m not in any way giving up on traditional publishing. As a published writer who will have a new manuscript to market in the near future, I’m simply trying to figure out the best strategy for me. Not the best strategy for the publisher. Not for Amazon. Not for an agent. If traditional publishing gives me a good deal on my next book, I’ll break out the champagne. If not? I’ll go indie. I don’t have any agenda attached to exploring all the possibilities. As they said in The Godfather, “It’s not personal. It’s business.”


72 thoughts on “Writer Drops a Toad on Agent

  1. It is business. And it’s sucking the joy of writing straight from my veins.

    No. That’s actually not true. The business/marketing side is making me want to shut the door, close the blinds, and lose myself in a story. I sincerely wish I could leave it all for someone else to handle.

    But I won’t, because the more I read, the more the message comes across that there are few to be trusted. It’s in a writer’s best interests to handle her own business.

    I’m sure it will get easier, the more I learn and the more I read. Apparently time management is crucial. Write, edit, sell, market.

    • I know, Amanda. We’ve all woken up from the fairy tale that all we have to do is write a good book, sign with a publisher, and live happily ever after. It doesn’t work that way. It never really did, but when publishers controlled everything about the business, we had no option but to play by their rules.

  2. Great post. I’m a pre-pubbed writer who’s choosing to go traditional with my first book for the reasons you stated so well. It seems that most mainstream publishers are dragging their feet on the changing environment for writers. If they won’t (or can’t) adapt, then authors must.

    • You’re right, Tom. And unfortunately, the most successful and most famous writers are still wedded to the old ways, so they’re lobbying against change. The system made them rich, so it shouldn’t change. There’s an element of class warfare about the whole thing.

    • Exactly. That’s obvious from the authors who are siding so hard with Hatchette. They don’t want to kill the goose that’s laying their golden eggs. The rest of us are left out to dry. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Amazon fanboy, but at least they give me options.

  3. As I recall, “legacy publishing” was coined by Eisler and Konrath back in the day, and was meant to carry a pejorative spin (as in computer software that is old and obsolescent). So when someone from the traditional side hears it, it’s not exactly complimentary.

    “You’re too early in your career to give up on traditional publishing.”

    There’s something about this that bothers me. Maybe it’s an underlying, unstated supposition: “But there may come a time when your career is indeed over in traditional publishing, and that’s when you should consider going indie.”

    In truth the decision of which direction to go is one that has become more, not less, complex–because of all the options available. It was easier in the “old days.” You had to have an agent and there was only one game in town, the traditional one. You didn’t have to think about other means of publication, because there weren’t any (except the non-starter called vanity publishing).

    Today, writers need to be educated on a whole host of new things: what publishing contracts are likely to say, and what key provisions mean, esp. the non-compete and reversion of rights clauses.

    The writer will have to ask himself hard questions, like: do I want traditional publishing so much that I’m willing to sign an unfavorable contract? Am I willing to walk away if key terms aren’t modified? If I do walk away, what will that do to my relationship with my agent?

    Writers also have to gaze into the future and ask: what does the consolidation of publishers mean? What does the disappearance of bookstores and shelf space within those bookstores mean for the future of traditional publishing? What about the loss of editorial staff in favor of digital staff at trad houses? How much attention will I receive, as opposed to hiring my own freelance editor? How much marketing, and what kind, will the publisher shoulder?

    Kathryn’s plan is not a bad one: you can pursue a trad contract, putting your book through the grinder of getting it ready for them (a good practice even for indies), and then if things don’t work out, you’ve got your project ready to go on your own.

    Or someone can go indie from the jump. If done wisely and patiently, there are rewards.

    The only sure thing is that there is no sure thing…which makes this writing journey a somewhat perilous adventure. So pretend you’re Michael Douglas or Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone and keep on hacking your way through the jungle.

    • I had no idea I was throwing a word bomb into the room, Jim, lol. It came out spontaneously, and only later did I realize what a loaded term it must have seemed. So I guess my question wasn’t so “innocent”, after all! 😉

    • Plus, I realize that having worked in the tech business for years, I’m used to hearing the term “legacy” refer to an earlier version of a technology, but one which still exists. So perhaps that’s why it didn’t sound pejorative to my ears.

    • Then there’s the term as it’s used in pop music. Your discussion reminded me of a Doonesbury strip that ran several years back. I couldn’t find the strip, but I did find a reference to it in an interview with Janice Ian.

      “I read a great Doonesbury cartoon a few weeks ago where there was a young band and they’re talking with (character) Joanie (Caucus). She asks them what their goal is and they say that it’s to be over as quickly as possible so they can be a legacy band. I sent it up to Steve (Berkowitz) laughing, because I thought, “Doonesbury is right!” Legacy acts are the ones still selling out arenas.”

      Interesting how one word can have so many connotations.

    • I think Eisler first started using “Legacy” to refer to book publishers but I was familiar with the term long ago in reference to newspaper publishers. The way I understood, it came from the earlier days of newspapers before they were bought up by conglomerates when the publishers were mostly owned by wealthy individuals or families and passed down generationally. They were quite literally Legacy businesses. I don’t recall it being particularly derogatory, though, outside of the distaste for the kind of nepotism that still infects places like the NY Times, for instance. Rather, it was more a statement of fact on the nature of those businesses. I tend to think the anger some show in its use toward book publishers (and to an extent, the resistance to self publishers being called indies) is more a reflection on their own insecurities than anything else.

    • Like you, I don’t have any a priori attitudes about any of the terms or players, Dan. My attitude might be best summed up as, “What have you done for me lately?” Thank you for commenting!

    • Not to beat a dead horse, but just a couple of weeks ago, Joe Konrath blogged about legacy, and had this paragraph:

      Years ago, Eisler used “legacy” to describe traditional publishing, and I’ve played a small part in popularizing the term on this blog. Indeed, the paper publishing industry is a legacy system. There are now faster, cheaper, and less-restrictive ways to get words to consumers than the antiquated method of acquiring, printing, and shipping.

      IOW, obsolescent. Indeed the link Joe used for “legacy” goes to the Wikipedia entry for “Legacy system,” which defines it as “an old method, technology, computer system, or application program, of, relating to, or being a previous or outdated computer system.”

  4. These are thoughtful comments. It’s not always easy to make these choices, and they bring on other pressures. For example, the pressure to write more because supposedly if you’re indie published, the more books you have out there, the better your chances for increasing sales. Or so I’ve heard. And what about these backlist titles? If you get rights back, how do you want to make them available? On Kindle only? On other formats? Audio? Print? So many choices, not enough time!

    • My opinion, Nancy, is if writers have the time and resources, to get out those backlist titles that maybe didn’t sell so well and put them through another editing process with a respected freelance editor, amp up the characterization, plot, tension and intrigue, make them more compelling and polish up the writing, then re-release them on Amazon, possibly with a new title. Start with the e-version, then add the print book through CreateSpace.

    • Yes, good points, Jodie. Although in cases such as mine, my writing has progressed to the point where I cringe at those early editions. I can (and have, with my earlier romances) go through now and tighten dialogue, etc. Fifteen years makes a difference in one’s writing skills. Nor would I change the title without notifying readers. But your suggestion is great for books that, for one reason or another, have not done as well.

  5. There’s a moment that has stayed with me for years now. It was at an Edgar Symposium and I was in the audience listening to a panel of agents and editors. Barry Eisler had just recently announced he was turning down his six-figure contract with his traditional publisher to go independent. Someone in the audience brought up Barry’s name with a very innocent question. (Keep in mind this was way before things started to get really complicated with Amazon v Hachette and Kindle Select etc). An editor from a major house grabbed the mic and proceeded to tear Barry apart…personally and professionally. I was sitting next to David Morrell and we just looked at each other and shook our heads. Because it wasn’t fair; Barry wasn’t there to defend himself and his decision and no one on that panel said anything in his defense because they were all too invested in the status quo system. I realized in that moment that everything was going to change. And I was right…I just didn’t see how huge the change would be.

    Like most businesses, the publishing system has devolved into the tyranny of the 1%. As James said, bookstores are closing and once Barnes and Noble is gone, what are the traditional publishers going to do — set up card tables at flea markets?

    I’m not trying to be flip and I don’t feel one drop of schaudenfreude at publishing’s troubles. This saddens me more than I can say. I saw from the inside the slow awful death of one business I loved — newspapers — and I fear I am witness now to another.

    I hope I’m wrong.

  6. When trying to have a genuine discussion with my agent about it (I was dropped by my big publisher and self-published a prequel to my series, which isn’t doing badly) it got mostly the response as your agent in the breakfast panel. Well, of course. My self-publishing effort cuts him out of the equation. I can certainly understand his misgivings, but he is currently shopping another new series of mine, and that’s been ongoing for six months. Six months of that book not making one dime. We are in a new age where writers are finally moving forward. Don’t get me wrong. I love my agent. He got me published, he got me foreign contracts and audiobook sales and I hope we will be in partnership for many more years to come. But this is also MY career, and I can’t let anyone stand in the way of me making my pittance of a living.

  7. I love this post!

    I was recently at a conference and my pitch/sample had been well received. After the roundtable was over I said something about Hugh Howie and the agent looked like I had just thrown a bag of rotten fish on the table.

    I’m working on a post about why I decided to self-pub my debut (after I get those niggling line edits finished and work out the paragraph spacing for the mobi files.) I had said earlier that I would put it through the query-go-round until I reached a point where I felt like it was business rather than quality.

    An exchange with an old-school agent, one who handles literary estates and dates back to when business was conducted over bourbon, sealed the decision for me (how I came to have that email discussion is amusing in its own right.)

    I have two more projects on the drawing board. When they are complete, I will run them through the same grinder, but with defined time limits and I will simultaneously be prepping them for self-pub. I lost about 3 months with this book (the first page has changed some from the PHV first page crit here at TKZ, but not much,) paralyzed with indecision.

    Bottom line, it’s a good book and not doing anything sitting on my hard drive. If sales contribute to groceries, it is a step forward.

    Writers need to keep asking the hard questions.


    Obligatory pre-order blook flog

  8. Kathryn, although the subject you broach is one over which wars may ultimately be fought, it’s a valid and legitimate concern for authors and for “traditional” publishers.
    I’ve faced this decision once, and will be facing it again soon. Maybe there’s a simple answer, but right now, my crystal ball is pretty cloudy.
    Thanks for not hesitating to open the discussion.

  9. Uno mas . . .

    Will the “real” Kathryn please stand up? OMG! “That” is the real KL. Wow! What an post. I’m jumping up and down and going, “Go! Go! Go!” Our new flag should be a big fat toad with the slogan, “Fugedaboudit! It’s only bidnass.”

    Indie! Indie! Indie!

  10. Great post, Kathryn! And excellent comments here below it!

    But where you say: “I do think that it is still better for unpublished writers to get traditionally published first–going through the process helps a writer develop her skills, learn valuable ropes, and establish a readership.” I disagree that this is necessary, with so many highly regarded professional freelance developmental editors and copyeditors available now for authors who are willing to research their websites and contact their clients, then get a sample edit.

    Otherwise, most authors will just waste years waiting for an agent or publisher to pick them up. My advice as both an editor and an indie author is to follow this process: Write some or all of your first draft, then hone your skills by reading writing “gurus” like James Scott Bell, revise based on your reading, then send your story to savvy beta readers who read your genre critically. Then revise again, based on their feedback, then get your book professionally edited. Do some final revisions, then get it properly formatted, with a professionally designed cover, and just publish it on Amazon. Then see what the reviewers say. That’s a pretty good vetting process, in my opinion!

    • Well said, Jodie! I have to admit my opinion on that is informed by some critique groups I’ve belonged to. Over the years, most of my fellow attendees wanted to submit their work before it was even close to being ready. If not for the agent-editor gatekeepers, their stuff would have hit the market. Certainly an independent editor could serve that same function, but the problem in these cases was that they hadn’t developed an ear for their own writing. They didn’t understand how far away from being publishable their work was. If any of them had had to hire someone to get that kind of feedback, I’m not sure they’d seek it out.

    • My experience mirrors Kathryn but, that being said, Jodie you are right that there are some great editors. There are also some terrible ones so I’d also hate to see writers plug away for years with an editor going in the wrong direction too…It’s important for writers to be informed and understand what the business of publishing requires (whether you go traditional or indie)

  11. As one of those editors, I couldn’t agree more with Jodie. I work mostly with self-published authors (and the balance of my clientele is trad-pubbed authors who don’t trust their in-house copy editing). My business is BOOMING. I’ve got all the work I can handle, and refer several jobs a week to other freelance editors.

    We’re putting our author clients through the same quality torture-testing as they get through the legacy system (except, of course, when they don’t, which is often).

    • Hi Jim! My thinking is that only first-time authors may require going through the mill. Anyone who has ever been published is fully aware that we desperately need editors, lol. But I respect that you and Jodie have a different take on it.

    • Kathryn, I’ll never take on a client who expects me to be a “yes man.” I make it clear that if they hire me, they’re hiring me to get my unvarnished analysis of how market-ready their book is. What they choose to do with my work is up to them — but I assume if they understand they’re paying for a professional ass-kicking, a professional ass-kicking is what they’re gonna get.

  12. Heh.

    When the response to an honest question is anger, you have to wonder why.

    For close to a decade I’ve been saying that authors need to set appropriate goals. To do that requires an understanding of the industry, and the pros and cons of different approaches and paths.

    If anyone gets angry with the path you’ve chosen, try to understand where their anger comes from, and adjust your goals accordingly.

    No one should ever give up on legacy publishing. It makes no sense. If that’s what you want, go for it. But, as James said, know exactly what you’re gaining and what you’re giving up.

    Having fought tooth and nail to wrest my rights away from my publishers, I have a very good understanding of what I gained and lost. I lost an anchor around my neck, and my income went up 10x.

    YMMV. Luck plays a part. But like anything in life, the more you know, and the more control you keep, the better off you probably are.

    • Hi Joe, thanks for stopping by to contribute! I have to say I wrote this post after binge-reading your blog. Your outspokenness helped me become brave enough to share a wee bit of personal experience with the topic at hand. I obviously hit a nerve with this agent. But from the comments I see, her attitude sounds typical. I think the entire publishing industry should get a copy of WHO MOVED MY CHEESE, lol.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Kathryn.

      There are good agents out there who work with authors to self-publish, like Jane Dystel, Laura Rennert, & Kristin Nelson. They’ll survive. Others won’t, because–as you said–they don’t want advances to go away.

      The nice thing is that authors can choose to ignore the industry pros that don’t understand the changes their industry is going through. They’re no longer essential to our success.

      A legacy publisher, or agent, is a value-added service. If they can assist you in reaching more of your goals, great. But try to work with the ones who value your goals.

  13. Fabulous post and thanks for sharing it. In the end, it’s important for authors to recognize that this is their work they’re selling. It’s their words and their stories and their creativity. Whatever path an author chooses in the path to publication is their decision and no one else’s. And the author should always get the best end of the deal.

  14. As an indie author, I’m thrilled that my two books (so far) have been earning me a good income (70% of retail price for the e-books on Amazon) for over two years now, instead of waiting for recognition by an agent or publisher. Readers are the new gate-keepers – if a book is poorly written or produced, the negative reviews will sink it, and make the author take notice of what they need to work on to succeed!

  15. Great article, had the same discussion a few times last weekend at our Alaska Writer’s Conference. Having John Fine from Amazon as one of the speakers amongst the group of agents and publishers was an interesting thing to watch as well.

    Myself, I am one of the wannabe hybrids. I try to assail the walls of legacy for a period of time and then if it is not picked up for the amount I am looking for go self-pub. Thus far my self-pubbed earnings on the 8 books I have out have all exceeded any advance offers I’ve had from publishers. Right now my current project is in the hands of an agent who stands a very good chance of placing it with a trad pub. If that happens GREAT! If not by next spring, then BLAMO! I fire it off myself and try again next round.

    My recently acquired assistant, a cave troll named GRRawllyph, may help matters a bit. It’s amazing what a ten foot tall, 600 lb stone faced assistant can do when he shows up nude in your office to check on the status of a contract.

  16. It’s an interesting question, though, Kathryn. What are the best options for writers as we continue to move forward? As we see more and more traditionally published authors jump into indie publishing, are there any indie published writers jumping into traditional waters? I certainly haven’t heard of any. It seems once authors go indie (whether they start there, or end up there after they bail on the traditional side) they stay indie. Is this by choice?

    I would have loved to have been in that room when you asked that question. 😉

  17. What a great article, gives one hope. It’s nice that writers have a choice today and the marketplace can decide if they’re worthy or not. Thanks for sharing.

  18. Very interesting! You have a lot of guts. I would’ve shriveled up and hid under my chair. Things are changing every moment. It’s best for writers to keep ALL options open.

    • I think we’re all desperately seeking a Yoda to tell us the direction the Force is leading us, Julie. I have discovered that anyone invested in the old system is an unlikely Yoda. 😉

  19. I love that question and I’m glad you asked it. Fact is, many authors are farther in their careers (indie careers) than agents know how to guide them. Many indies know far more about the process than most agents. I’m an author who chose to stop trying for legacy publishing and went indie, and there are SO many factors that played into that decision. But more royalties, control of production schedule, control of audiobook narrator, and a host of other choices were involved. And you’re right–many tradpub authors are now branching into indie. Why shouldn’t authors be well-informed on how to move forward, REGARDLESS of which way they are published? I feel that’s a valid question for an agent. The thing is, most indies are educating ourselves online via Joanna Penn, Joe Konrath, Hugh Howey, and others who have gone before.

  20. I recently made the decision to go indie for my debut book after I received an offer from a small publisher. I sent back requested changes on the contract, and they rejected every single one of substance. I withdrew my book from consideration, (and that hurt. It hurt a lot.) My book will be out in mid-October. It is a risk and a gamble, but it’s better than a bad (for the author) contract.

  21. IMO more and more traditionally-published authors are becoming hybrid authors, particularly this year. Not only are some traditionally-published authors self-publishing their backlists, but prolific authors who write more books than their publishers are capable of handing are also indie-publishing those titles if they’re not covered by their contracts. So I see that agents need to keep redefining themselves to remain relevant in the publishing industry.

    The hybrid authorship model is sound and practical, IMHO, because you get the best of both worlds. There are a number of hybrid authors who are doing rather well, topping bestselling lists with their indie books which in turn help the sale of their traditionally-published books. A win-win all around.

    Of course, the down side of being an indie author is that you have to wear two hats: writer hat (art of writing) and publisher hat (business of book-selling). Not every writer wants to handle the business side of publishing, and some would rather rely on the legacy model of agented publications.

    As for me, I’m an indie author and loving it. Last year I turned down an offer from a small press, and I thought I’d regret it, but then it turns out I love being my own publisher.

    • Thank you for that input, Jan! Most of us who signed with a big publisher have been chagrined to discover that we are still expected to do a lot of book selling. In many cases the publisher gets your book into (rapidly disappearing) stores for 12 weeks, gives the book the imprimatur of being “published,” and that’s about it. It’s amazing how much the landscape has changed in a few short years. I remember bak in 2006, having just signed with a Big 6 (now Big 5, if I recall), I asked the editor handling my book what I should be doing as part of marketing and publicity. She said to build a web site, start a blog (which I did, enlisting some fellow writers, which became The Kill Zone), and set up book signings. I recall asking her about Amazon, and how I should do promotion there. I’ll never forget her response. “Oh, we don’t really count Amazon as a bookseller,” she said. Wow! How the world has turned upside down since then.

  22. Great post!
    Before I started editing professionally, I helped a critique group member get her book ready to send to an agent. Anna Banks (her pen name) was snapped up fast partly because she took extra measures to polish her story to beat the competition to get an agent. She’s now one of the darlings whose Of Poseidon series is going to be a movie. But she signed with a small publisher as Anna Scarlett for her other book, and for the next in that series, she’s going indie. I have yet to hear an indie who switched say he or she wants to go back to trade publishing. The exception is representation for foreign rights and movie deals. I don’t even plan to query if I ever finish writing the middle grade I dropped because I find it more rewarding to help other writers get published, indie or trade.

    Too bad so many indies ignore the need for editing. It’s like shooting yourself in the foot in shark infested waters. If I happen to read one of those books, I send an error list and tell the author that Amazon notifies purchasers when major editorial changes have been made. It’s never too late.

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