Friday, January 24, 2014

Questions for Literary Agent David Gernert

Yesterday I saw a link on The Passive Voice (I gotta stop reading Passive Guy's blog because he's interfering with my productivity) that was to a Poets & Writers feature interview with literary agent David Gernert.

I did a quick reply in the comments on PV's site, then immediately emailed the editorial department of Poets & Writers:

My name is Joe Konrath. I've sold over a million self-published books, so I took exception to some of the ridiculous things David Gernert said about the subject in his recent feature interview by Michael Szczerban.

I'd be more than happy to cobble together 1000 words explaining why Mr. Gernert is blatantly incorrect in several of his archaic assumptions.

I'd be doing this on behalf of your readers, who need better information on the topic, and since I'm already rich I'd be happy to do it gratis.

If you find that approach too confrontational , Mr. Sczcerban or someone else from P&W is more than welcome to interview me on the topic. 

Looking forward to your reply.

I haven't gotten a response. Sure, it's only been 30 hours, but I'm an impatient little bugger. So I figured I'd just fisk some of the ridiculous things Gernert said in the article, because the BS he's spreading is no doubt reaching some impressionable authors who don't know it is BS.

Before I begin, let me say I don't know David Gernert, never met him, but I found the majority of the interview contained decent information about how agents work, and anyone who reads my blog knows I have an agent and recommend that authors find a good one. But three points PG zeroed in on are the same ones I had issues with, and I'd like to invite Mr. Gernert to my blog to respond to my retort.

When publishing professionals continue to show how out of touch they are with the current publishing climate, I find it necessary to take them to task for it. I'll continue to do so until they actually bother to learn about the shadow industry of self-publishing, and stop referring to memes that have been debunked years ago.

David: There are some very gifted writers who start out self-publishing and grow from there. Hugh Howey is a really good example; Wool is a terrific novel. But those writers are few and far between.

I am not a fan of self-publishing in general. It removes the gatekeepers from the process, and if we come to a point where every person in America who is writing a book can “publish” it, it becomes much more difficult for readers to find the good ones. A lot of what is self-published is awful.

I would cite Malcolm Gladwell as a particularly eloquent speaker on this, but many people have made this point: At a time when we are bombarded with information from all sides, we need more gatekeepers, not fewer. What you need as a reader is someone to find and tell you about the best books, whether it’s a diet book or a crime novel or a book about Thomas Jefferson.

Joe: So much here to debunk here.

First of all, why do legacy folks keep insisting they have somehow been endowed to be the sole bastions and protectors of what good writing is?

The gatekeepers David refers to are, not coincidentally, agents and publishers. Of course he wants to stick up for his profession and those he works for. Yes, David, you work for the publishers, not writers. They're the ones you see regularly, at lunches they pay for, and at NY parties, and they are the ones who ultimately pay you.

I was extremely disappointed with the AAR's response to the DOJ lawsuit, and it very much showed how agents are aware of who butters their bread.

So I understand why you want to defend your peers and colleagues in the legacy publishing industry and poo-poo self-publishing.

But I don't understand why you feel that gatekeeping is required. I know this might be your knee-jerk response to the idea that some authors (gasp!) can reach readers without agents and publishers, but before you say things like this publicly perhaps you should ask yourself a few questions:
  • Have the gatekeepers you speak of ever been wrong?
  • Do agents and editors ever reject books that become big hits?
  • Have you ever read books that were crap but were legacy published anyway?
  • Have you read thousands of self-pubbed books in order to reach your informed opinion that "A lot of what is self-published is awful"?
  • With 300,000 books released by legacy publishers every year, weren't we "bombarded with information from all sides" long before the self-pub revolution kicked in?
  • Are readers so stupid they can't figure out what to read without your help?
  • Would you agree that 99.99999% of the Internet is crap? If so, how are you able to find that .00001% that you surf regularly? Do you need gatekeepers to help you? Or just a search engine (like Google's, or Amazon's)?
  • When gatekeepers are removed from a system, do you believe that nothing fills the vacuum they leave? (Hint: customer reviews, book blogs, Goodreads, anywhere people talk about books on the Internet, website algorithms that recommend titles).
  • What gives you the right to tell readers what the best books are? Since when did your subjective opinion become objective truth? 
  • Does every book you represent sell a million copies? What is your batting average? What is your industry's batting average in regard to how many copies are sold of every title released?
  • Would you like me to be your gatekeeper? I'd be happy to tell you what you should read and should avoid.
  • Didn't you read my blog post debunking the Tsunami of Crap? I did it three years ago. Your concerns here are hardly new. Or at all realistic.
Now, you may be a fabulous agent with your clients' interests at heart, and maybe I'm wrong and you indeed work for writers and not publishers. If that is the case, I'd love to hear where you fought on your clients' behalf for the following one-sided boilerplate contract terms:
  • Term of copyright. Do you really think it is fair that the publisher gets the rights to a book for the author's life plus 70 years? Have you had a lot of deals that were for limited terms?
  • How successful are you getting rights reverted back to a client when you feel the publisher is treating them unfairly? (Do you ever feel that way?)
  • When a publisher buys subsidiary rights and doesn't exploit them, do you attempt to get them returned? What's your success rate?
  • What's your success rate in removing joint-accounting and basketing clauses? You understand these don't benefit the author, right?
  • What's your success in removing non-compete clauses?
  • What's your success in removing next-option clauses? 
  • What's your success in getting higher ebook royalties for your authors?
  • How often do you get advance money in one lump sum, prior to publication, rather than spread out in bi-monthly payments, sometimes over years?
  • How often do you help your clients audit their publishers?
  • How often do you get your clients cover and title approval?
  • What's your success in removing Unsatisfactory Material Clauses? (If the Material for a given Book is not, in Publisher's sole judgement, satisfactory in all respects, Publisher may terminate this Agreement upon written notice.)
  • How often do you fight for any or all of the above?
I call the above terms unconscionable, and have written about them at length. 

Now if you are truly on the side of your clients, you must understand that self-publishing:
  • Allows authors to keep all rights.
  • Has no joint accounting or basketing.
  • Has no non-compete.
  • Has no next-option.
  • Pays monthly.
  • Doesn't require audits because sales are transparent, updated hourly, and easy to understand.
  • Allows full cover and title approval, and the ability to instantly change both if needed.
  • Has no unsatisfactory material clause.
  • Pays 70% royalties.
If you're pro-writer, surely you see the advantages to self-publishing from the writers' point of view.

I made a million dollars last year from self-publishing. I've found that, without gatekeepers, I can reach readers much easier. And readers are much more eager to buy me when I control cover, cost, and jacket blurbs, as evidenced by the fact that I've made 8x as much as a self-publisher as I did with my legacy contracts.

Readers don't care who the publisher is. They don't care if the work is agented. They care about quality and price, and are able to find books they like without any gatekeepers other than each other and the increasingly adaptive ability for websites like Amazon to understand readers' tastes.  

As an agent, you could be helping your clients make important decisions about self-publishing. That is, if you are pro-client. That might mean advising them to pass up a bad deal and go solo.

Would you ever advise a client to pass up a bad deal and self-publish?

If your answer is yes, then I applaud you, but wonder why you publicly stated you aren't a fan of self-publishing in general.

If your answer is no, well, then we all know who you really work for.

David:  if B&N doesn’t stay healthy, the publishing industry will change phenomenally. Bookstores are incredibly important—not just as retail outlets, but as places where people go and commune with other like-minded individuals, many of them strangers, and talk about big ideas and compare notes on what they’ve been reading and what’s going on in the world. That is a tremendously important and valuable part of our culture. It’s much bigger than just selling books. I find it appalling that our society is turning a blind eye—maybe through just a lack of awareness—to the fact that the number of bookstores in this country is declining all the time. It’s really serious.

Joe: I agree that if B&N doesn't stay healthy, the publishing industry will change phenomenally. And I don't believe B&N will stay healthy.

But you make it seem like bookstores are the only places people can go and commune with other like-minded people. They aren't. And if they disappear, something will probably take their place.

Society isn't turning a blind eye to bookstores. Consumers are deciding for themselves where to buy books, and what about the book-buying experience is most important to them.

Anytime I hear about the serious impact to our culture the absence of bookstores would cause, I like to point out that culture consists of people, and they dictate the culture through their actions. If people no longer have a need or want for something, how can you claim that particular something is culturally relevant?

Part of me misses record stores. I liked browsing cut-outs, and checking out new releases, and special ordering imports.

But the greater part of me appreciates how easy it is to find and buy music these days. I prefer the download experience. It's faster, easier, and cheaper.

Does this have a corollary in the book industry? I believe it does.

Lack of awareness isn't the reason bookstores are closing. Changing customer habits are the reason. And what business succeeds by betting against the consumer?

David: An e-book often takes sales away from a hardcover edition when a book is first published, and the author makes less money from the e-book than from the hardcover. In that regard, authors’ incomes have gone down, and their agents’ incomes go down too. On the backlist side, sometimes an author makes more money from an e-book than from the paperback edition. But in general authors’ incomes are declining a little bit.

Joe: Yikes.

I encourage you to read two recent posts, where author Barry Eisler and I discuss publishing with agent Robert Gottlieb and Kensington CEO Steve Zacharius.

Hardcovers are luxury items. $30 for eight hours of entertainment is a lot of money. That's a month of cable, or three months of Netflix, or an entire season of a TV show on DVD, or three albums on iTunes that can be listened to over and over and over, or seven of my $3.99 ebooks.

If a hardcover sells well, the author gets 15% of the hardcover price. On $30, that's $4.50.

On seven $3.99 ebooks, at $28, I make $19.50.

If you're approaching ebooks as simply something that are hurting hardcover sales, you're not listening to what customers want. Ebooks aren't just cannibalizing hardcovers. They're allowing authors an unprecedented revenue stream where they can make more money, not less.

Perhaps your clients' incomes are declining, and yours is as well as a consequence, and perhaps that's the real reason you're not a fan of self-publishing.

I'm working with my agent to help me self-publish. My agent is making me (and her company) a decent amount of money selling my foreign and audio rights to my self-pubbed books.

I believe that's the kind of agent that authors need. Not the kind worried about B&N going away.

If you'd like to respond, Mr. Gernert, you can do so in the comments and I'll tag it on to the blog post, or you can email me directly. I won't edit anything you write, and I'm happy to provide a forum where you can answer these questions and maybe clarify your point of view.