Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Attack of the Self-Publishing Memes! - A Guest Post by Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler has posted a number of smart comments on this topic here and on a few other blogs, too, and I asked him if he'd mind pulling them together in a single post. It was either that or another online conversation, and since we can't seem to do those in under 10,000 words and both have books to finish, this seemed the better bet.

Here's Barry:

Thanks, Joe, for the opportunity to pull together some of my thinking on literary agents helping authors self-publish. I see two primary false memes that have emerged in response to agents offering their clients new services. These are: (i) such agents are now publishers; and (ii) the new model creates a conflict of interest with the old. Let me address these in turn.

1. Are agents who assist their self-published clients now really publishers?

The problem here is that many people are conflating two business models: those in which literary agencies are trying to acquire rights in authors' works, as publishers always have; and those that acquire no rights, and instead simply facilitate their clients' self-publishing efforts.

We're still in the early days of digital publishing, and it's natural that there's some confusion about what makes a "publisher." Most of what people associate with a publisher -- editing, marketing, distribution -- are the artifacts, not the essence. The essence of publishing is control of rights.

For the reasons Joe and I discussed in Part 3 of our online conversation Be The Monkey, Amazon's Thomas & Mercer is no legacy publisher. But there's no question that T&M is, in fact, a publisher, because the company is buying the rights to the books it sells. By contrast, no matter who she chooses to hire to assist her in getting her works to readers, an author who retains rights to her works is self-published. And the company she hires to help her is not a publisher.

There's been some silliness along the lines of, "But if the agent uploads your book, she has to have rights to it, and if she has rights to it, she is a publisher, QED!" As David Gaughran has ably pointed out, if this is true, then Smashwords is a publisher. They're not: they're a distributor with a limited right to upload and to collect and distribute the author's earnings. They acquire no rights to a book beyond these and an author can pull his book from Smashwords at any time. For that matter, Amazon and B&N acquire certain rights in the books they distribute, too. So far, I haven't heard anyone make the claim that by ceding those rights, self-published authors have turned Amazon and B&N into their publishers.

http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2011/06/28/major-us-agency-moves-into-publishing-or-do-they/

As the copyright holder, an author can transfer all sorts of rights. It's important to keep them straight in one's mind, and to remember that rights to upload files and to collect money, especially when revocable at the author's discretion, are not the same as publishing rights. For more, see Joe's post on J.K. Rowling's decision to self-publish her ebooks (and the comments to that post).

(Joe sez: Also, we can rightly assume that Amazon has worked with literary agents in various deals. A lit agent could upload ebooks to Amazon for a writer without the writer relinquishing rights.)

2. Are agents who assist their self-published clients faced with a conflict of interest?

Let's start with a definition. According to Wikipedia, "A conflict of interest occurs when an individual or organization is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation for an act in the other."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_of_interest

It's hard to see how this applies to an agent who in neither the legacy nor the self-published model acquires rights, and who in both instances earns the same percentage. As long as the agent makes the same 15% whether brokering a sale to a legacy publisher or assisting the author publish the work herself, the agent is incentivized to recommend the route that looks most likely to make the author the most money. So no multiple interests, or at least no more so than has been the case with traditional agenting. Or, to get back to the precise definition of the term, no "multiple interests" in the additional model, nor any way in which one aspect of the business "could possibly corrupt the motivation for an act in the other."

Full disclosure, so that people can judge for themselves whether I have my own conflict here: Laura Rennert of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, which is also assisting its clients who want to self-publish with a 15%, no-rights-acquisition model, is my wife.

Here's a thought experiment I hope will lead to some more clarity on this issue. Imagine you're an author, and you have offers of representation from two literary agencies that are identical in all respects save one: one will assist its clients in reaching readers only by attempting to sell its clients' works to legacy publishers; the other will assist its clients in reaching readers by attempting to sell its clients' works to legacy publishers *and* will also help clients self-publish their works if their clients so desire.

Which offer do you accept?

Unless you're sure that: (i) you will never self-publish anything; or (ii) that even if you do, you will handle it all yourself, I think it's pretty clear that you'd go with the agency that offered you the more complete set of services.

Or, to put it another way: which of the two hypothetical agencies I describe above would a writer want for representation as legacy publishing contracts? The one that says, "Sorry, we can't sell your manuscript because there are so few buyers?" Or the one that says, "We can't sell your manuscript because there are so few buyers, but we can help you another way?"

I have a hard time imagining agents nefariously trying to steer their clients to a new model whereby the agent's percentage is the same, but where there is no advance, where the agent has to invest significant additional time and her own money, and where there is no certainty of a return on the investment except perhaps in the very long term. So if anything, I think people might argue that agents who offer both models might be tempted to steer their clients toward a traditional deal because it represents a relatively quick and easy payday. But would this be a conflict of interest? An interesting question, because it ignores the fact that this is what agents have always done simply by default. Still, self-published authors, beware! Your agents might be trying to steer you toward legacy deals.

Actually, I'd go even further (and for this point I'm indebted to Livia Blackburne, who shared this thought at Writer Beware). The real conflict of interest arises when an agent with a single, legacy model has to advise a client who is considering self-publishing. Where do writers think they're likely to get the most disinterested advice: from an agent who can only make money if she sells the writer's manuscript to a legacy publisher and who stands to make nothing if the writer self-publishes it? Or from an agent that stands to make 15% either way?

http://tinyurl.com/3dmckyq

So upon further consideration, I do think that today there is a potential conflict of interest in agenting. It exists among those agencies who can only make money by directing their clients toward legacy deals.

Part of the basis for the conflict of interest misunderstanding is a misunderstanding about the nature of the agent's role. As Victoria Strauss has argued at Writer Beware, "[T]he author-agent relationship... is founded on the premise that the agent's job is to sell the client's work for the best possible advance to the best possible publisher."

http://accrispin.blogspot.com/2011/06/agencies-becoming-publishers-trend-and.html

I would argue that this is defining the author/agent relationship premise too narrowly. Most fundamentally, the purpose -- the end -- of the agent is to help authors get their books to the greatest number of readers and achieve the greatest possible commercial and literary success. The means by which this end has traditionally been achieved is a sale to a legacy publisher. Because the "sale to a publisher" route has until quite recently been the only means to the "getting the book to the greatest number of readers and achieve the greatest possible commercial and literary success" end, it's easy to conflate the two. But just as railroads were not in the railroad business, but rather were in the transportation business, agents are not in the "selling to publishers" business, but rather are in the "helping their authors reach the greatest number of readers and achieve the greatest possible commercial and literary success" business. Agents who miss this fundamental distinction are making the same mistake the railroad companies made, and will achieve similar results.

The saddest thing about these false memes is that they distract from the real and important questions writers need to grapple with: exactly what are agencies going to provide in their new models, and will those services be worth 15%? Whether 15% is worth it is something authors and agencies will have to decide for themselves (I think David Gaughran is asking excellent questions in this regard, and Joe and I talk about it much more in Be The Monkey). But whether a service is worth providing or worth retaining at a given price is a question for the market to decide. It has nothing to do with conflicts of interest, or with the inherent value of agencies finding news ways to assist their clients reach the greatest number of readers and achieve the greatest possible commercial and literary success.

http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2011/06/28/major-us-agency-moves-into-publishing-or-do-they/

There's more to say, but I gotta get back to The Detachment (out September 15, BTW ;) ). But just one last observation. It strikes me that the "If you hire someone to help you run your business, you're no longer self-publishing" meme is the mirror image of the "If you don't go with a legacy publisher, you're uploading unedited schlock" meme. Each is driven less by thought and evidence than by ideology and a weird form of narcissism. Which might be a common reaction in all revolutions, not just in the one we're witnessing in publishing.

http://tinyurl.com/3vntzj6

Joe sez: As I said in the comments of my last blog post on this topic, it's good to be skeptical. But it's also good to keep an open mind until all the facts come it. In other words, don't knock it until you (or someone you trust) has tried it.

I'm trying it. My agent will manage one of my self-pubbed properties. I'll report on how it goes, good or bad.

Until then, let's try to reserve judgement. Anything else is specious.

38 comments:

Donald Wells said...

Thanks for clarifying things Barry. Lately it seems as if the eBook revolution is not only disrupting Legacy Publishing but also writers.
Ebooks are a boon for sure, but they also entail a great deal more responsibility than the traditional print model.
All writers need to think of themselves as business people as well as artists or any hopes they have of being successful will probably never be realized.

Jonas Saul said...

I look forward to seeing how it goes for you Joe.

I, on the other hand, will not be using an agent for anything other than foreign rights when that issue comes up in the near future. Even then, I'll probably attempt to deal with the contracts through a lawyer.

Also, what Donald Wells just said is absolutely true. Too many indies aren't treating this business as professionally as they need to. Although that'll only weed them out faster.

Jonas Saul

TK Kenyon said...

I'm worried about you guys, Barry and Joe. I know that you aren't as anti-%-age as, say, Dean Smith, but it almost sounds like an apologist talking.

I worry that some of these agents-turned-e-distributors are going to insert very standard agency clauses into contracts and trap writers. While I'm sure that you guys:

A) Have much nicer friends/agents than the average writer, and
B) Have much better IP lawyers than the average writer, and
C) Have much more name-leverage than the average writer to negotiate contract terms,

I worry that you guys are seeing the sweetheart deals.

The average Joe might not get the same treatment as Joe Konrath.

TK Kenyon

You can receive writing prompts daily by liking us on Facebook: Dr. Kenyon’s Writing Apple or by subscribing to the RSS/Atom feed at Blog: Dr. Kenyon’s Writing Apple Blogspot .

Mel Odom said...

The real question is this: Does the e-agent then collect the money first and disburse it to the author? The same way it is now?

Or is the author in control of the money and disburses it to the agent?

Bob Mayer said...

Publishing is the Wild West right now. Everyone has to pick their own path and what works for one person isn't right for someone else. I focus on critiquing my decisions, not other people's. I've got to live with mine.
Actually the best path is to have several paths. So using an agent to do some of the heavy lifting isn't a bad idea. Also, relationships with agents aren't normally these ironclad me-they things. I've got very good relationships with all the agents I've worked with and there is a degree of professional trust, which I'm sure exists here.

Jude Hardin said...

I'm trying it. My agent will manage one of my self-pubbed properties. I'll report on how it goes, good or bad.

Anything you release right now is going to ride the wave of success you've been building the past couple of years, so the results of your experiment will be somewhat distorted.

I would make a much better Guinea pig. :)

Adam Pepper said...

I'm considering hiring David Gaughan at 15% to manage my career!

Melissa said...

RE:

“I worry that you guys are seeing the sweetheart deals.”

My point as well. You can take the author out of the legacy publishing, but you can’t take the legacy publishing out of the author. ☺ But I think a lot of people are missing the forest for the trees. How many of you are freelance writers? Depending on the arrangement these gentlemen have with their agents and how the agents are paid, that 15 percent is a huge tax write-off. Basically, an expense of doing business, like purchasing a computer, office equipment, attending conferences, travel, etc.

When you’re dealing with substantially large gross incomes, you need all the write-offs you can get, trust me. I’m having my manuscript edited professionally. I personally need more write-offs, because this year I got clobbered by the IRS for not having enough. The more you spend on the cost of doing business, the more of your bottom line you get to keep -- or rather, in my case, the less you have to pay Uncle Sam on a quarterly basis.

Sean McCartney said...

How does this model going to effect the YA market? Just wondering. And what about those of us without agents who brokered their own deals with publishers, albeit small publishers, do we now need to get an agent?

Sean McCartney
The Treasure Hunters Club

gniz said...

Let's be fair, Barry and Joe. Only a few commenters have taken the "anti-establishment" line of thought on this. And it's all too easy to dismiss those folks for simply being dogmatic.

But I think there has been a lot of valuable critique coming from those who simply don't understand how these kinds of administrative tasks should garner someone 15% of your sales.

One of the best arguments hasn't been said, imo (at least I haven't noticed it yet). Which is that paying royalties gives the agency incentive to actually push your books harder, they profit substantially if your ebooks do well.

But I still question going with an established agency as the project management of your ebooks because I think most of these agencies really don't get the new ways and are simply way behind the curve.

Anonymous said...

15% forever is a good deal for a finite, administrative task?

Please do me a favor. Ten years from today, after you're written your 120th check to your "agent" for 15% of the proceeds of the book that you, not the agent, wrote, and with no end to those payments ever to be in sight, update this post to reaffirm what a great deal you made.

Barry said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I'm traveling today but will try to check in periodically.

TK, I'm not sure what you mean by "apologist." Sometimes, when someone disagrees with you, it can seem like he's apologizing for the contrary viewpoint, and maybe that's all this is. As for what you call "sweetheart deals," I don't think you're using the term correctly. Here's Wikipedia:

"The term sweetheart deal or sweetheart contract is used to describe an abnormally favorable contractual arrangement. A golden parachute is an example of a type of sweetheart deal. It is frequently used in describing deals involving government officials, and hints at the presence of corruption. In the context of employment rights, a sweetheart contract can describe a deal between an employer and trade union officials which benefits them both at the expense of employees."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweetheart_deal

I think what you mean instead is that Joe and I might be in a position to negotiate a deal that's more favorable than average. This is certainly possible (though as far as I know, traditional agency contracts treat all their authors equally). But even if it's true, so what? Different parties in different deals always have different negotiating power. Lee Child probably gets what you would call a "sweetheart deal" from his publisher. If what you mean instead is that all authors should be careful before signing an agency contract, again, this is a fairly axiomatic observation. Unless you're sophisticated (by virtue of having a law degree or the like), you'd be well-advised to get outside advice before signing with a traditional agent, an agent that's adopting a new business model, or with anyone else who offers you a contract, for that matter.

This just seems like one of those areas where someone points out something about digital publishing that's always been true for legacy publishing, too, and that's even been true for business in general.

Anyway, I agree: some agents might "insert very standard agency clauses into contracts and trap writers" or otherwise engage in sharp practices. But again: is this a new phenomenon? And is the fact that some members of a class are inevitably going to be incompetent or dishonest a reason to eschew the class entirely? That doesn't make sense, unless you would also argue that because some doctors are guilty of malpractice you should never go for a checkup.

Mel:

"The real question is this: Does the e-agent then collect the money first and disburse it to the author? The same way it is now? Or is the author in control of the money and disburses it to the agent?"

Not sure why this would be the real question, or a particularly relevant question at all. As David has pointed out elsewhere, Amazon, B&N, and Smashwords all distribute funds. So do accountants, bankers, and money managers. So do literary agents. Are you suggesting all these entities are publishers because they collect and distribute money?

Barry said...

Adam:
"I'm considering hiring David Gaughan at 15% to manage my career!"

I have to say, I think this could be a smart move. :)

Gniz, I agree there's been a lot of valuable commentary on the value of a 15% deal, and as I said in my post, "The saddest thing about these false memes is that they distract from the real and important questions writers need to grapple with: exactly what are agencies going to provide in their new models, and will those services be worth 15%?" I'd love to see more discussion and information about this critical topic, and less about the false memes I hope to put to rest in my post.

Agreed that there's an argument for a percentage because it motivates the person receiving it. I also think you have to be sure you're working with the right kind of person, because not everyone will be motivated by the percentage. You need entrepreneurial types.

Which gets to your last point, that "most of these agencies really don't get the new ways and are simply way behind the curve." I agree that almost all the innovation we see in the industry is being driven by writers and that most agencies probably don't get it. But even if most don't, some probably do, even if they're following the trail writers are blazing. As a writer, you're not trying to hire all agents, or an average of all agents. You're trying to hire the right agent -- the one with the right personality, the right experience, the right skill set, the right worldview. You only need one like that, and if you can find her, the fact that the rest aren't up to speed isn't particularly relevant. But again, this is true for anyone you hire, not just agents.

Anonymous:

"15% forever is a good deal for a finite, administrative task? Please do me a favor. Ten years from today, after you're written your 120th check to your "agent" for 15% of the proceeds of the book that you, not the agent, wrote, and with no end to those payments ever to be in sight, update this post to reaffirm what a great deal you made."

I don't think you'll have to wait ten years, and it won't be a special favor just for you (how could it be? You won't even back up your words with your name). As Joe has said in this post and in the last one: "I'm trying it. My agent will manage one of my self-pubbed properties. I'll report on how it goes, good or bad."

M.J. Van Wyhe said...

Just started reading through the blog a few days ago and love all the back and forth between you two. Thanks guys! Very interesting stuff for a newbie to consider.

Joshua James said...

Barry, I have no question. Just want to say hello ... konnichi-wa!

Anonymous said...

I don't think you'll have to wait ten years, and it won't be a special favor just for you (how could it be? You won't even back up your words with your name). As Joe has said in this post and in the last one: "I'm trying it. My agent will manage one of my self-pubbed properties. I'll report on how it goes, good or bad."

I think you miss the point of forever. When a deal lasts forever, you can't tell if it's "good or bad" in a month, or two months, or even a year. My guess is that anyone who signs up for one of these will, down the road, have long outlasted whatever finite benefit the "agent" gave them and will be pretty sick of writing yet another check with the "agent's" name at the top. That doesn't even include the time drain of breaking the book's line item out of various accounts, calculating percentages, physically writing and mailing a check, etc.

And, if it's the agent who collects all the money and skims 15% off the top each and every month, the effect will still be the same. As time goes on its a guarantee that the author will be saying, what the hell was I thinking?

Basil Sands said...

I am of the opinion that if a writer is to focus on writing and producing high quality work it would be in there best interest to do just that and try to find someone else who is talented at the hard sell, aka an agent/publicist/whatever. That way we can keep our attention on creating stories people crave and let someone who shares out interest in making a buck do the foot work to get it sold.

As this digital age takes off, agents who are savvy will find ways to be useful and profitable for authors. They will learn to be a money-making middle man magnifique. That does not make them publishers anymore than a car salesman is Ford Inc.

Here's to being on the frontier. Where the best and most savage alike stand a chance to rule the kingdom.

Jude Hardin said...

And, if it's the agent who collects all the money and skims 15% off the top each and every month, the effect will still be the same. As time goes on its a guarantee that the author will be saying, what the hell was I thinking?

If an agent is still sending an author monthly checks ten years (or a hundred years) from the time the book was released, then that means the agent did one hell of a job.

Like I said in the previous post, I hope my agent gets rich selling my stuff.

gniz said...

I think the anon above makes a pretty decent point. Which is that with something like royalties, it's not going to necessarily tell the full story when Joe updates us in a year. Sure, it's a start.

But how will Joe feel in ten years?

It's too easy, as Jude has done, to say "well if I'm still cashing checks in ten years from that book, I'll be only too happy to give my cut to the agent."

I know someone--someone very close to me--who is still cutting checks to an agent from years ago, and this author isn't so happy to do it. That agent did a horrible job in so many ways--and some of those poor decisions were not known until years later...

The point being, a bad deal doesn't always look so bad on first glance, or even a year later. That's not Joe's fault, and obviously he can't do anything about the nature of this situation.

But it does mean that we need to be even more cautious when evaluating these kinds of deals. An agent may turn out to not be very necessary, may even be harmful, when it comes to working on ebooks and all that entails.

But by the time many writers realize how unnecessary they are, these leech--excuse me, agents--will be taking 15% off the top for years and years to come.

I imagine for many this will be a bitter pill to swallow. My advice to most everyone but Joe Konrath would be, "tread carefully."

gniz said...

BTW, Thanks Barry for your thoughtful answer to my points...

You and Joe--despite my disagreeing on this particular scenario--have been a huge help and inspiration to me.

Geoff said...

Great post Barry.

That was the biggest thing that made me always want to self-publish. I get an author could benefit from help in marketing, publishing, and financial aspects of releasing a book. And a publisher does that. But why does soliciting that help require me to give up the rights to my story? A publisher didn't write it, they just put it on paper for me.

Its such a strange precedent. I mean, if I'm an inventor and I invent a great new invention that someone wants to mass produce, they don't gain the rights to my product just because they released it into the world. Quite the opposite, in fact: I get a patent for my invention and a company pays ME for the right to produce my idea and make a profit from it! If only we thought of our books more as inventions.

Anyways, again, great stuff. Always look forward to hearing both of your perspectives on things. Take care!

Barry said...

Hey Joshua, good to see you here.

Anonymous, understood. This gets to the question of value, with is benefit minus the cost paid for it. We'll see how much benefit an arrangement like this one produces and for how long. One important difference between the 15% an agent takes from brokering a legacy deal and the 15% an agent takes for assisting with self-publishing is that the first expires when the brokered deal expires -- for example, through reversion of rights. The second one really does seem like forever, and it's a tricky point. On the one hand, I can see where agents who invest a lot of time and money for an uncertain award want the longest possible window on their chance to recoup their investment and to make a profit. On the other hand, I can see where there should be some logical cutoff point where authors can stop paying for previous assistance with a property. On the other other hand, it depends. If the agent/manager is still doing things for those long-ago self-published works (updating and otherwise changing backmatter etc -- because digital books are infinitely expandable and updatable), the agent is being compensated not just for past, but for current services. There's a lot to think about and to learn from the different models different authors and agents are going to try. No one has a firm handle yet on all of it, and whether one thinks Joe's move is smart or not smart, we're all going to learn a ton (as usual) from his experiment.

Anyway, agreed, a report in a week, a month, a year won't be the whole story, but it'll be important data. And knowing Joe, he'll go on blogging about how the arrangement is working out and how it's changing as long as he's making a living writing.

Gniz, thanks for the kind words. I love trying to try to figure these things out and refine my thinking, and the comments here, the ones I agree with and the ones I disagree with both, are hugely helpful to me. And ditto Geoff.

Marilyn Peake said...

Thanks so much for clarifying this, Barry. This is exactly what I thought ... but the Internet is humming with so many different interpretations about Amazon and agents right now, I started wondering if I had misunderstood what was going on.

Anonymous said...

"If the agent/manager is still doing things for those long-ago self-published works (updating and otherwise changing backmatter etc -- because digital books are infinitely expandable and updatable), the agent is being compensated not just for past, but for current services."

That's a good point. It also emphasizes that what's done by someone today in terms of cover, product description, formatting, etc. will inevitably be outdated in X years.

Covers go through phases. The lone man running, the tough tattooed girl holding the sword, and other covers so prevalent now will be outdated in Y years.

Product descriptions need to be changed with regularity to add blurbs, new catch phrases, etc. Thus new uploads to digital sites will be necessary.

Even the the book itself will evolve. We've already seen the addition of B&W photos, then color photos, and more recently links, etc. Further, authors change the title of the book, try it under a pen name or a different pen name, etc.

In sum, the digital book is not static and probably never will be. Something done today with payment to follow forever will likely seem like a huge waste as time passes, especially when all the initial work has long been replaced and superseded.

Gary Ponzo said...

Joe, you had me right until the word specious, which I had to look up, then I forgot your point. Something about an agent.

Anonymous said...

I am curious about the agents role. Do they actually do the cover, formatting , editing and marketing? If they do it, then I think 15 or even 20% is very reasonable-especially for us newbie authors learning everything on the fly.

But otherwise, that seems a lot of change just for doing reports. Amazon and B&N have up to date reports, that you can see anytime-so not sure why they get paid?

James said...

So, nobody has answered the really salient question here - what do you get for the 15%? Do you still pay for the cover, editing, etc.? That might not be a big deal to authors who are selling so much that they are making a living off their writing, but it is one of the main concerns of those who aren't.

James said...

Never mind, I see that my question was answered in another post. Sorry about that!

Livia said...

Joe -- Will D&G be handling your POD versions as well?

Joe Konrath said...

Joe -- Will D&G be handling your POD versions as well?

They should be, if they want the commission. :)

Cathy said...

I've got a question. With the "15%, no-rights-acquisition model" that Barry mentions, how long is the contract in force? And if the author has not sold their rights, what's to keep the author from saying, after a year, "Thanks for my wonderfully-formated, well-edited ePub and mobi files, and great cover, which is now selling really well due to your marketing assistance. But I'm going to take it all and go sell my ebooks from my website and not give you anything anymore."

I guess the contract would stipulate that the author can't do that. But if the author isn't free to do whatever they want with their book anymore, due to a contract, isn't that similar to selling the rights?

Isabella Amaris said...

I'm wondering now if there shouldn't be an 'out' clause for either agent/author that leaves them free from future obligations to each other... ie whereby payments would stop once the author wishes to start doing all the admin/publicity etc themselves at some point for books previously handled by the 'estributor'... save for the negotiation rights bit... that would be fair, I think... to sum up- for negotiating rights ONLY, a set royalty percentage for life (obviously less than 15%); for everything else, the full 15% for the life of the contract, until terminated by either party...?

Sheesh, I'm still here? Joe, your blog is distracting me from writing... in a good way though:)

John Brown said...

You go into a store and see the exact same product on two shelves. On shelf A it's priced at $8. On shelf B it's priced at $150.

This can't be. You check the product, but it's exactly the same. EXACTLY.

What kind of business person goes for the $150?

Elmer Fudd, that's who. And then he chases Bugs Bunny around for a while.

The only reason to go for the $150 can is if it has something that the $8 can can't even touch.

The 15% forever folks seem to be saying that $150 can is really different. But here's why that sounds ridiculous. Formatting and posting an ebook for sale takes a handful of hours and requires less than a day's worth of training.

I can find 400 people who will do it as well as or better for less in about 10 minutes. Okay, maybe it might take me 12.

The only way 15% forever makes sense is if the agency adds in other services I cannot hire a responsible teenager to do.

Cover design and art takes some skill. Editing takes some skill.

Agents might do that. More likely they'll outsource those services. So what the agent would be doing is contracting work and following up to make sure it's done. They'd be making some phone calls.

I can find people to make phone calls for a lot less. You're going to charge me all that dough to make phone calls to people that require NO access?

Production management then. Maybe I'm an author with dozens of properties, and I just don't have time. I need someone to coordinate all the outsourcing. As well as the outsourcing for audio productions and all sorts of other crap. I need someone to manage my properties.

Okay. Maybe. MAYBE.

But until I've got this boatload of properties that just overwhelms me, this is still an $8 can going for $150 dollars.

And I still think I could find someone to coordinate all that for less. Maybe I'd want them to have some skin in the game and give them a %, like stock options, or like commission paid to the Frito-Lay folks that stock the market shelves. But 15% forever?

15% forever for a couple hours of formatting and upload? For getting on the phone and coordinating some artwork and editing?

They put in 12 hours of work on the project. Maybe 15. One time. Maybe another 12 four years from now. I, on the other hand, put in 200-500 on the project, and they're asking for 15%? When they're adding nothing special, no special connections cultivated over the years, no special skills? And I still have to pay the artist and the editor?

The real issue here is that many authors right now lack information on service providers. Who do you go to for these things? Who can you trust to do a great job? We have this problem and we don't want to worry about it. Just take it off our hands and make it work. I want to write.

I think as soon as authors have some reputable one-stop shops to go to, the 15% forever will scuttle away very quickly. Market forces will drive it into the bushes if it doesn't.

The only way it will last is if those folks offer some property management expertise that's just too difficult to find anywhere else.

Gisele said...

Isabella Amaris said...

I'm wondering now if there shouldn't be an 'out' clause for either agent/author that leaves them free from future obligations to each other...

I was thinking of something similar to that as well. Perhaps this should be a contract that runs for, I don't know, 2-3 years and at that point both the author and estributor (hate that terminology) decide whether to renew it or not. It seems that a contract done in perpetuity is bound to cause regrets on either/both parties involved.

John Y. Jones said...

I should add here that Joe's experimental approach with a single book is probably the ideal way to perform this experiment. I hope I'm wrong about diminishing value.

Please keep us posted.

David said...

Which reputable agencies offer this dual service for science fiction novelists who write for adults?

author Scott Nicholson said...

Good thoughts. It will be interesting to see how agents make the transition and whether their clients may get blackballed (or at least move down to "maybe" status) in the Big Six once agents start signing deals with Amazon for their clients. I do get a sense right now, based solely on human nature and not any hard evidence, that agents who sign their clients with Amazon will be facing "You'll never work in this town again" in NY. It's a business built on relationships, sometimes intimate relationships, and closed ranks. When people are scared, they make emotional decisions instead of logical decisions.

(I'd make the case that an editor breaking ranks to become a self-publishing facilitator is much more qualified than an agent, and since I expect editors to become unemployed faster, that's where I'd be looking, if I were looking).

Especially as Amanda Hocking reportedly received the high offer from Amazon. I don't know how many times in history an agent turned down the high bid in an auction. But since Amazon would preclude the other, smaller markets, it's hard to know which offer was truly "best," since a deal is more than just a number.

Looks like we'll have lots of data by the end of the year. I still don't see why agents should be considered go-to people in self-publishing, because most have never demonstrated or used any of the necessary skills. If they are bright and astute, they should be able to pull it off, but they are no more suited to it than any successful self-publisher who is doing it as a sideline business.

Maybe there's a point at which economies of scale kick in and an agent/self-pub facilitator has a nice roster for cross-promotion, but that seems like another level entirely (and, if getting only 15 percent, the incentive may not be there).

Scott

Laura said...

"I have a hard time imagining agents nefariously trying to steer their clients to a new model whereby the agent's percentage is the same, but where there is no advance"


Well, take out the "nefarious" and I'm extremely puzzled that you have trouble imagining this.

As the recipient of oh-so-many agent-problem anecdotes, the single most common reason I hear for writers leaving their agents is: "He wouldn't send out my work."

Only this month, two more people, both longtime career writers, told me this was a factor (in one case, THE factor) in their decision to leave their agents. This week, someone else I know complained of this problem (though I don't know whether that writer feels ready to leave the agent over it). I lost count of how many writers I know who left their agents over this problem just in the past year.

All of my former agents gave up on submissions within 4 rejections and refused to try again. No agent of mine ever stuck with a project longer than that. In two cases, they quit after ONE rejection. And one of my biggest and most career-impeding problems was indeed my various agents' refusal to send out my work. Indeed, shortly after firing one of my agents, I sold five books which the agent had refused to send out. The straw that broke the camel['s (already aching) back with another of my agents was when the agent insisted I had to pay a commission on every deal I made, even if I didn't use the agent's services, and then declined to answermy next question, which was extremely relevant at the time: "Even when it's a book YOU REFUSED to send out??" (We parted company within a day or two of that exchange.)

So I find it not just -easy- to imagine, but disturbingly =probable=, that in a profession where a common custom is that agents DO NOT WANT to go through the process of preparing a submission package and strategy, making submissions, following up, receiving rejections, researching additional markets, making more submissions... When they make their usual, "This project isn't marketable and I don't want to send it out" comment, of COURSE they're going to be tempted to add, "But let's self-publish it, and I'll take 15% (or 50%) of whatever it earns."

Especially if, like many people, agents increasingly find the self-publishing process easier and less time-consuming than the task of marketing and selling a book to publishers. For an agent already disinclined to do their actual job for most clients (which, alas, seems to be quite a few of them), I think the temptation will be enormous to simply say, "Let's skip the 'legacy' world and just self-publish,' EVEN if it's not actually in the client's best interests and--just as relevant--EVEN if it's not what the client wants.