Pub Rants

Category: auctions

As a demographic, veteran literary agents are partial to opening sentences that begin with “back in the day.” Nothing signals “old” more effectively than that phrase. It implies that the good ol’ days were somehow better. The reality is that we veterans probably just have selective memory and there is no such thing as good ol’ days. However, in the case of the great publishing-house contraction that is unfolding, I might be in danger of embracing the notion that “back in the day” truly was better. 

News just hit that Newscorp is buying Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. For those not super familiar with the various corporate umbrellas of publishing, Newscorp owns HarperCollins/Harlequin so buying HMH will significantly expand the HarperCollins footprint. In November 2020, news dropped that Penguin Random House (already the biggest publisher) is buying Simon & Schuster—which makes the biggest publisher even bigger. 

Well, back in the day (tongue firmly in cheek) when I first started agenting, I distinctly remember having conversations with then-twenty-year veteran agents who had fond memories of the early 1990s, when more than 300 separate and individual publishing outlets were available for client submission. That number kind of blew my mind. Many of the imprints we now associate with, say, Random House used to be private companies that have since been acquired and folded into the parent company. Macmillan is another excellent example. After all, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, St. Martin’s Press, Henry Holt & Co, and even Tor used to be individual companies before they were bought up to become part of what we now know of as Macmillan. 

By 2022, we will be down to The Big 4 (Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, and Harpercollins) plus a smattering of some mid-size but growing independents. And that’s it. 

This contraction significantly impacts writers an authors, and here’s why:

  • Merging companies always declare that the houses will be run separately. This was certainly the case when Random House bought Penguin more than five years ago. Now these “separate publishers” exist under the same roof, use the same publishing contract, and operate under merged accounting and royalty systems. It is, in essence, almost like one house even though agents can still submit separately.
  • When publishers merge, there are often new mandates regarding how those houses will participate in auctions and submit bids. Some houses stipulate that imprints can no longer bid against each other. So if several imprints are interested in acquiring a project, they communicate and form a “house bid” (which is where all imprints propose one bid to submit in the auction, and if it is the winning bid, then the author can choose which editor/imprint to work with). This removes competition from the auction and lowers advances, which translates to less money for the author.
  • The merging of publishers results in the must-acquire-blockbusters-only mentality. Tighter budgets means fewer books will be acquired, which makes editors less likely to take chances on unique, creative voices—authors with talent who might not break out until their fourth or fifth novel. In other words, there is less focus on building an author and more focus on acquiring the obvious “big” book—which limits the diversity of unique stories in the world.
  • Contraction squeezes out the mid-list author—the author who’s not a blockbuster but whose sales might be humming along nicely. How? Because it makes the publisher less likely to pick up their option material. This precludes the possibility that a mid-list author’s third or fourth book might have been the one to break out. Not to mention, if the agent must shop the author anew, the current house (and all those imprints) are off the submit list. That equals fewer outlets where an agent can place that author and relaunch that author’s career.
  • Contraction eliminates editorial positions. Smaller staff equals fewer editors equals less diversity and narrower taste in what gets acquired. Also, smaller staff equals fewer editors equals those editors getting way more submissions from agents. Editors are already strapped for reading time and inundated with submitted manuscripts. The sheer volume makes it hard for any debut project to stand out in the crush—reducing a new writer’s chances of getting a foot in the door.
  • Contraction equals less-author-friendly publishing contracts. Fewer houses at which to place a client means publishers have the upper hand when it comes to dictating the terms, and agents have less negotiation leverage. 

This list could go on and on, so these are just a few reasons why I’m not excited by the currently unfolding mergers. Publishing is a tough business. Publishers feel pressured to grow so as to create greater profits and stronger bottom lines and to compete against other behemoths such as Amazon. I get it, but I don’t love it. 

Back in the day, there were dozens of terrific outlets at which to place a new client, to reinvent and reignite a mid-list author, or even to move a big client if needed. I am waxing nostalgic for those good ol’ days. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Images Money

Emily Easton at Crown Books for Young Readers has won, at auction, Scott Reintgen’s debut science fiction young adult trilogy beginning with THE BLACK HOLE OF BROKEN THINGS. In the novel, a Detroit teen accepts an interstellar space contract only to realize the promised millions must be won in a brutal competition where winners face the ultimate choice—take the money and become pawns in the corporation’s sinister plans or find a way to fight that won’t forever compromise their humanity. Publication is scheduled for 2017. Kristin Nelson at Nelson Literary Agency brokered the mid-six figure deal for North American rights.

To celebrate Scott’s awesome news, I’m delighted to share with my blog readers Scott’s original query letter that landed me as his agent and resulted in an auction for a mid-6 figure young adult book deal.

Date: July 1, 2015 at 1:58:01 AM MDT

To: querykristin@nelsonagency.com

Ms. Nelson:

I have the highest respect for you and how you represent your clients. After looking through your submission guidelines, I felt that my novel might be a good fit for your list. Thank you for your time and consideration.

THE BABEL FILES [title was changed for the actual submission to editors] is a completed, YA science fiction book of 83,000 words. Readers familiar with Pierce Brown’s Red Rising or Fonda Lee’s Zeroboxer will find similar elements in my work. I do feel one of the most important features of this novel is the focus it has on a main character who is a PoC. Having worked in urban schools my entire career, I so often find my students have little to no representation in these types of books. I was hoping to give them an opportunity to see themselves, vibrant and on the page and victorious. To this end, I followed advice I received from author Mary Anne Mohanraj at the World Fantasy Convention. She suggested I seek readers of a diverse background in the beta process. I did just that and was incredibly pleased at the response to Emmett’s authenticity and relevance.

Emmett Atwater isn’t just leaving Detroit; he’s leaving Earth. Why Babel recruited him is a mystery, but the number of zeroes on their contract has him boarding their lightship and hoping to return to Earth with enough money to take care of his family, forever.

As he and nine other teenagers wormhole their way through space, Emmett discovers the promised millions aren’t a guarantee. Each recruit must earn the right to travel down to Eden. There, Babel will use them to mine a substance that’s quietly become the most valuable in the world. Emmett’s year-long flight will act as a competition. Every training session is measured, every point matters, and Emmett will do anything to win. But Babel’s ship is full of secrets. Secrets about the volatile substance they’re hoping to mine, about the reclusive humanoids already living on Eden, and about their true intentions for the kids that don’t win their competition. As Emmett uncovers the truth, he realizes he’s not fighting for wealth or glory, he’s fighting for his life.

I am a 10th grade English and Creative Writing teacher who has spent years sharing my favorite science fiction and fantasy novels with my students, and I’ve started writing stories with them in mind. THE BABEL FILES is my third completed novel, and the first in a science fiction trilogy. I have included sample pages below for your consideration. I look forward to your response.

All best,

Scott Reintgen

The auction has concluded. Wowza. I’m completely humbled. And trust me, I’m going to spend hours on this critique! The winner deserves that and more.

I don’t think Dave and company are going to believe me when I tell them how much money we raised on their behalf.

THANK YOU! I’ve said it before but y’all are awesome. If you still want to make a donation, feel free to. I haven’t closed that portal yet.

http://www.gofundme.com/3sgzis

First off, let me just say how AWESOME every single one of my blog readers is. You guys have just blown me away.

Right now my 50 page Manuscript critique with 30 minute follow up Skype session is at $2500. That’s crazy! And just FYI that the auction closes today (August 7) at 5 pm Mountain Time. As soon as it ends and there is a winner, I’ll be sending out an email to set up the date and time.

And for folks not bidding but just wanting to make a donation, we’ve raised $3240.00!

That’s $5740.00 total!!!

Dave, Jen, Jason, Rebecca & Timothy are just going to be stunned.

Big Hugs. People in publishing are the best.

A police officer pounds on your door and when you open it, yells you’ve got 10 minutes to get out before the fire hits. What do you take?

Well, if you are Kristin’s good friend Dave Olsen, you take nothing. Sadly Dave was out of town when the alert came to evacuate because of the Colorado Springs Black Forest fire was raging out of control and just about to hit his street. Luckily, one tenant, Jen Stemen was home. Rebecca and Timothy (who had literally just moved into their bottom half apartment two weeks prior) were not there. Nor was Jason Sullivan who lived in the apartment above the workshop barn.

Jen has ten minutes. She grabs everyone’s laptop and throws it in her car. Then she runs to grab her dog Cosmo, Dave’s dog Shadow, Jason’s dog Switters (all big dogs). Then she dashes to load them into her tiny car only to realize that there isn’t going to be enough room.

She has to make a split decision: dogs or car?  She  doesn’t hesitate (even though she had no renter’s insurance). She abandons her car. Throws the laptops, the dogs, and her just-in-case suitcase into Dave’s old truck and hightails it out of there. The house, the entire property, is completely destroyed.

TV coverage captured the 100 foot flames that was their street. If you follow me on Facebook, you’ll see my posting on the day I learned that Dave had lost everything but was cheerfully moving on and even quipping about how he could now move to Boulder, Colorado to be closer to his daughter. Nothing to pack!

Every year I donate a 30-page manuscript critique with a follow up Skype session for the Brenda Novak Charity auction because my nephew has juvenile diabetes and this is a cause close to my heart. Well, this is very personal for me as well. My friend Dave is lucky. He is insured. It will cover a lot but probably not everything.

But this auction is for Jen and Jason–who had no renter’s insurance. And especially for Jen, who sacrificed to save the pets. (And please let me take a minute to say that if you are renting your place and don’t have insurance, please buy some. Today. You just never ever know. Usually it’s under $100 for a year. Well worth the cost for the absolute worst case scenario. And I hope you never have to use it!)

So if you’ve ever wanted a critique from me and you want the money to go to great cause, now is your chance. I’m really hoping to raise at least $1500.00. Deets below.

BLACK FOREST WILDFIRE AUCTION –

50-page Manuscript critique followed by a 30 minute Skype Session

Runs: August 2, 2013 thru August 7, 2013

Click on this link and bid.

And if money is tight and you really can’t participate in an auction but might like to donate a buck, you can do that too. Just click on this link. Even if you think $1.00 is not a lot, that’s $1.00 more than what they have right now and if 200 people donate a buck, that adds up.

And THANK YOU. Except for the small percentage that GoFundMe takes to process donations, ALL the money will go to Jen & Jason.

 

Pic 1: Me, Jen, and Dave on the day we were clearing the property

Pic 2:: the house before

Pic 3:  the house after

Kristin-Jen-Dave OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA z - hillside view of house - AFTER

I’m sure you’ve been dying to see a picture of Agent Kristin manning a wood chipper. Finally, your chance. My husband Brian and I spent a weekend with Dave helping him clear his property after the Black Forest Wildfire destroyed his home and everything there.

Pic 1: Dave chainsaws a tree

Pic 2: One tree down

Pic 3: That’s me picking up branches that have been cut so as to take to the wood chipper

Pic 4: I’m watching Dave cut so I can grab those branches

Pic 5: A very dirty Kristin & Brian

Pic 6: Dave & Me & a wood chipper

Pic 7: Me feeding the chipper. Fargo anyone?

Pic 8: The clean up crew. Jen, who saved the dogs, is sandwiched between me and my husband Brian. She, who had just lost everything, still came to help clean the property. Amazing gal!

Pic 9: My favorite picture! Dave had a stack of firewood for his fireplace. It was the ONLY thing that didn’t burn. LOL How ludicrous is that?

DaveChainsawsTree DaveWithFoundation Landscapeshot_me&branches KN&Dave-tree-down Brian&Kristin-dirty Dave-Kristin-Woodchipper KristinFeedsChipper TheCleanUpGang Firewood-didn'tburn

Potpourri And Funnies

STATUS: This week was defined but what wasn’t on fire with gasoline explosions. Seriously, I was coming to work each day with the thought: “Can just one thing not be an issue today? Just one.”

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? WE GET TO FEEL IT ALL by Indigo Girls

But I can also define this week by some really cool things.

1. Got a revised cover for an author who had a hideous cover just last week. New cover is awesome! I’m so pleased and relieved.

2. My colleague Sara held a big big auction for a middle grade boy fantasy novel that went in a major deal (THE PECULIAR by Stefan Bachmann). Squee.

And the best thing ever? Today my author’s editor had her baby and get this, she named the baby boy after a character in my author’s novel for whom she is the editor.

Okay, nothing beats that. That is just “Yes Way” cool.

And because it’s Friday, how can I not share with you www.awkwardfamilypetphotos.com? I read the article in PW, had to check it out. Huge Beverage alert. The below photo was hands down my favorite. Oi!

Critique Workshopped The Voice Right Out Of There

STATUS: I’ve had many rounds of civilized tea this morning.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? BEDS ARE BURNING by Midnight Oil

The worst thing you an do when traveling abroad is to succumb to the desire to go to sleep right away on arrival.

The trick to acclimating is to suck it up, stay awake, and try not to hit the pillow until about 7:30 or 8 pm. Then go to sleep and you are, more or less, on schedule for the rest of the trip.

Easier said than done really.

So I rang up Kelley Armstrong who had been on our same flight down. I figured she was valiantly doing the same thing and we could combine forces by going out to dinner.

Can’t say I was the liveliest conversationalist but I think she’ll forgive me. We talked about giving workshops. I’m doing the Agent Reads The Slush Pile workshop tomorrow. As you blog readers know, I always start with a big disclaimer. That 99.9% of what I see during the workshop will not be ready for an agent to see.

Never stops folks though. I think deep down in writers’ hearts, they are hoping to be discovered.

Kelley mentioned the same happens to her when she gives writing workshops. She always begins with her disclaimer that she can’t get any of her writer students published. They are hopeful all the same.

She also mentioned that beginning writers will often suppress their natural voices as they become so focused on the mechanics of writing. In short, one’s voice can be critique workshopped out of them if the writer has a quirky style etc. Often times her job is to allow new writers permission to discover their voice again. (Now it’s not to say you ignore craft mechanics, any good writer is going to figure out how to manage both.)

But since I don’t ever teach writing per se, I thought that was pretty interesting and something new writers need to be aware of.

Quick & Easy Answers

Status: Doing Client reading.

What’s Playing on the XM or iPod right now? IS THIS LOVE by Bob Marley

1) What happens if you can’t sell a book to a publisher?
If we have exhausted all possibilities, I’ll put aside and concentrate on the author’s next work. If the next sells, that always allows us to revisit the prior novel. Sometimes the decision is made to let the past be the past and simply move forward.

2) How do you know if a writer’s idea is a good one?
Not a clue really. All I know is what I like and what really resonates with me. I’ve had the good fortune of having what I like generally match up with what editors like and are willing to buy. Just like every other agent in the world, I’m not 100% right all the time. Sometimes I love a book and can’t sell it.

3) If Hollywood has bought the film rights, does the author get a share in the profit?
The sad news is that in general, the author does not get a share in the profit. Although all film deals will have the standard “5% of 100% of net,” most Hollywood films will never show a profit because of how studios manipulate the accounting. It’s worse than the mafia. So agents often build in a lot of ways for the author to make money on the film deal that aren’t tied to “profit” so loosely defined. The option price, the purchase price, bestseller bonuses, box office bonuses etc. These are payments that are not contingent on the film making money.

However, some authors do get a share in the profit. That is not a percentage based on net but a percentage based on a cashbreak point on gross.

A very different thing. Also, it is possible to put merchandizing in a separate pool with a separate percentage. Good money to potentially be made there as well.

4) Can you publish your book yourself or do you have to have a publisher?
Of course you can publish a book yourself! That’s not the right question though. Anyone can self publish; the question is distribution and how to get folks to read what you self publish.

5) How do you decide if the cover art is good?
I have to say that cover art is not my strength as an agent. I have no background in art and not much of a creative vision. However, I do know what I like and what I don’t like. If I don’t like it and neither does the author, I fight like crazy to get it changed.

6) Do publishers show animation for cover concepts?
No. But wouldn’t that be cool?

7) What happens if more than one publisher wants the book?
Then you have an auction my friend! As an author, it’s always the best place to be. However, I do think that writers have a misconception that all auctions equal big money. That is not necessarily true. You can have modest auctions that are in low five figures.

In-Depth 30-Page Critique Once A Year

STATUS: I got one major contract off my desk and on to somebody else’s at the publishing house. Always a great feeling.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? SOMETIMES YOU CAN’T MAKE IT ON YOUR OWN by U2

Yesterday I was explaining that agents don’t often have time to give detailed feedback because that would entail a critique of the manuscript and doing so is time-consuming.

Well, I should have clarified. Once a year, I always take the time to do exactly that for one lucky auction winner.

I read the 30 pages twice. First read to familiarize myself with the submission and the second read to actually write in-depth critique feedback in track changes of the Word doc. Just like I do for my clients when I read before submitting their material.

So if you want in on that action, it’s time to head over to Brenda Novak’s yearly auction to raise money for diabetes research. My critique page is here. Since I have a good friend plus a brother–in-law with diabetes, this auction is close to my heart.

Happy bidding!

And don’t forget to check out some other great items like a read/critique from Sara Megibow, lunch with Jamie Ford, and if you are a Nathan Bransford fan, he’s offering a critique with a follow up consultation.