Pub Rants

Category: Publishing Industry General

This will probably be the shortest article ever because, in short, if it were possible to sit down and write a bestselling novel, wouldn’t every author do just that? According to Google, a writer simply needs to (1) have a big idea (simple—they grow on trees), (2) write with an audience in mind (always handy), (3) package the book to sell (definitely helps), and, my favorite, (4) use a female lead character, as there is a higher number of bestselling titles with female leads (okey-dokey). Interesting, Google. So can a writer set out to write a bestselling novel? That’s probably the wrong question. Here’s a better one. 

Since I’ve represented (at this point) 53 New York Times bestselling novels, you’d think I’d know a thing or two about them. But honestly, it’s a wonderful surprise every time a client of mine hits the NYT list. (The latest was Shelby Van Pelt’s debut Remarkably Bright Creatures in May.) When talking bestsellers, James Patterson is probably the best person to interview. He has cracked the code for sure, given the number of works he has on the NYT list at any given time. But my answer to this question is no, a writer can’t really set out to write a bestselling novel. Over the years, I have observed a few things about bestsellers.

Observation 1: None of my clients set out to write one. They all began with a story that felt personal to them and that they were passionate about writing. My NYT-bestselling clients also said they started with the voice of the story. It was unique, clear, and, once found, natural to write. 

Observation 2: Not unlike what Google helpfully suggested, all NYT titles start with an original concept, so although there are no new stories under the sun, these works felt fresh and original to the readers who discovered the novels and then raved about them to other readers. Some examples: 

  • A 50-year old man searches for the woman he loved during WWII before his love was sent away to an internment camp. (Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet)
  • A giant Pacific octopus helps unlock the mystery of what happened to the aquarium cleaning lady’s son thirty years ago. (Remarkably Bright Creatures)
  • A teen who attends a school for spies funnels her skills into spying on her first crush while also navigating the world of espionage. (I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You)
  • A soulless woman nullifies the power of supernaturals such as vampires and werewolves with her touch and has to uncover why supernaturals are disappearing. (Soulless)
  • A Chinese American teen secretly living below a newspaper company moonlights as the anonymous but wildly popular society columnist Dear Miss Sweetie, whose articles shake up the town. (The Downstairs Girl)

Observation 3: Although publishers try to create bestsellers, for a debut novel to hit the list, there is an intersection of what readers are wanting to read and market timing. Plenty of titles can have the right ingredients, full in-house support, and marketing dollars, yet they still won’t land on the list. In the end, the reading public decides (as well as the algorithm used by the New York Times, but that is a whole other article).

For me, a better and more interesting question is this: What would a bestselling story look like for you personally as a writer? Where is your intersection of concept, passion, voice, and unique characters? Is it possible to analyze bestsellers to see what makes them tick? Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers do just that in The Bestseller Code. As reviewers point out, this book won’t teach you how to write a bestseller, but it will reveal some interesting stats concerning bestsellers and what they all seem to have in common. Would that info give you a fresh perspective on your own story or take you one step closer to writing a bestseller? 

Only you the writer hold the answer to that question. 

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Every week I receive multiple inquiries from aspiring writers asking if there are job openings at Nelson Literary. I applaud the chutzpah (after all, you won’t know if you don’t ask), but alas, NLA is not currently hiring. But I have to say this: Although an inside look at publishing provides a huge education for any aspiring writer, working in publishing might kill your desire to write. 

There are always exceptions to the rule. I can name any number of working editors who also enjoy successful careers as authors. There are plenty of agents who do the same. But I also know that every assistant I’ve ever had was initially an aspiring writer looking to understand the business that was fueling their passion. And almost all of them—Anita, Becky, Jamie, and now Tallahj—chose to leave the daily grind of publishing to embrace their true passion of writing (or a similar creative endeavor). They all ultimately decided that the daily work was killing the creative spirit.

Tallahj came to NLA after she stood up at her high-school career day and declared she wanted to be a publisher because she loved to write. We asked her to come learn all about it with us. Six years, a high-school diploma, and a bachelor’s degree in English later, she is off to a new adventure in the audiovisual graphic arts. I sat down with Tallahj to get the scoop. We laughed (and I cried a little) when we remembered some of the fun stories with her at NLA. Mine was how all of us pitched in to teach her how to type (no two-fingered hunting and pecking!) and cheered her on during her timed keyboarding tests (and presented her with a surprise grand prize when she passed at last). Hers was about when we took her out to lunch and convinced her to try artichoke dip. Whoops! That was an epic fail. Now she loves all kinds of food and is a master of all things social media and video editing—and she can run circles around my typing ability. 

Me: What surprised you most about working in publishing?

Tallahj: Working at NLA shifted my perspective completely on the way I read. Before, if I was interested in the concept, I was happy to read it—even if the writing was only average and all the characterization was on the surface. Now I find myself reading novels and reading between the lines by focusing on what is not on the page as my avenue to understanding characters. Two of my favorite reads that do exactly that are Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down and Ellen Hopkins’s Crank. Reading and analyzing the opening chapter of Nyxia by Scott Reintgen is what taught me the importance of that as part of the job. 

Me: When working at NLA, did you read less for pleasure?

Tallahj: Yes, very much so. Part of that might also be because I was in school earning my Bachelor of Arts, but it’s also because I changed as a reader. Reading used to be a way to “turn off the brain.” When I was working, I had to do the opposite and “turn on the brain.” By the end of the day, I was just done with words. This was also how I ended up finding my true passion creating videos and doing audiovisual editing. 

Me: Did working in publishing impact your desire to write?

Tallahj: I definitely wrote a lot less during my time working at NLA, but when I do write, I write with more of a purpose now. For me, it changed how I would get to a story’s end. Before, I was always focused on simply writing just to finish the story. Now, I’m much more focused on how I get to the end part of the story. I focus so much more on craft, so I end up with a lot more works-in-progress. 

Me: Now that you are pursuing a different job outside of publishing, will writing be more of a creative outlet?

Tallahj: It’s definitely a creative outlet I want to hold on to. I also want to tap back into the passion I felt for reading before I worked in NLA. 

Me: What are you grateful to have learned during your experience with NLA?

Tallahj: Having the inside look gave me information I never would have learned otherwise, but aspiring writers don’t need to work in the industry to get that information. I learned that so much of it is actually readily available through reading Publishers Lunch, subscribing to agency newsletters, following editors and agents and other writers on social media, and attending critique groups. Aspiring writers should plug into all of that. Working in the field can stifle that passion. 

After my interview with Tallahj, my takeaway is that if you are an aspiring writer, maybe don’t work in the field. If you are an aspiring agent (but not a writer and simply a lover of books), then publishing might be a profession worth exploring. 

Thank you for everything, Tallahj. You’ve been a joy in our daily lives for years. We will miss you, but I also know we are going to watch you soar as you choose what you really want to do in your life. 

Main Post Photo Credit: Complot

[Check out former NLA assistant Rebecca Taylor’s latest release, Colorado Book Award finalist The Secret Next Door, and former NLA assistant James Persichetti’s upcoming debut release The Sapling’s Curse.]

This month, NLA had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Nelson’s client Richard Chizmar, author of recently released novel Gwendy’s Final Task.

You have an incredibly fascinating perspective in the literary space. You are the founder of both the horror and suspense publishing company Cemetery Dance and the magazine of the same name. As a publisher, author and a reader, which of these perspective do you feel is the most helpful when writing your novels? Using that perspective, what advice would you give to a writer in the query stage?

I feel like they have all contributed invaluable experiences that (hopefully) have helped to make me a better novelist. Being a publisher has certainly helped me to better understand the reality of today’s publishing landscape: from packaging and marketing to selecting cover art and working with stores and distributors. Editing the book imprint and magazine has helped me understand the basics of what makes a story work and what doesn’t. Whether that be poor characterization, dialogue, pacing, etc. It’s also forced me to focus on the nuts and bolts of writing such as grammar and rhythm. Of course, the most helpful experience has been just sitting down and writing. Finding my voice as a writer. Finding my confidence and learning how to write honest, personal prose instead of pretending to be something I’m not. When I began to write stories that really mattered to me, that’s when I began to find an audience that cared about what I was creating. It took years and years of practice to get there. That’s one thing I always tell newer writers: there are no shortcuts in this business.

In a previous interview with Nightmare Magazine, you mentioned that you do still choose most of the Cemetery Dance published books. When reading for publication, how do you tether the line between a book you personally enjoy and a book you want the publication to represent?

As an independent publisher, those lines are blurred much of the time. Mostly, I tend to publish stories and authors that I personally enjoy. Publishing is such a grind of a business that I’ve never seen the point of promoting folks I don’t like or stories I don’t believe in. Now with that said, there have been times when the business side of publishing has entered the picture and affected such decisions to some degree. I have a handful of regrets, but I’ve learned from them. Still learning every day after almost 35 years.  

The Washington Post writes, “Chizmar’s voice and sensibility dovetail neatly with King’s own distinctive style…” in reference to your recently completed trilogy, concluding with Gwendy’s Final Task (Cemetery Dance, February 15). When working with another author, what does that collaboration process look like? Are there moments in which you each create individually and come together to piece together the final book, or do you communicate and collaborate throughout the entire process?

Each experience is different. For instance, when Steve King and I wrote the Gwendy books, we simply played a game of email ping pong with the manuscript—each person sitting down and writing a chunk of pages, then sending it on so that the other could write his own pages. Back and forth it went with minimal communication about what we thought should come next. We gave each other complete freedom and confidence to do what he wanted with the story. It was creatively challenging and exhilarating, and most of all, a lot of fun. 

On the other hand, when my son, Billy, and I wrote the supernatural novella Widow’s Point, we worked a lot closer together, often times sitting next to each other and each of us contributing sentences to the same paragraph. This was also fun and challenging.

Finally, is there a novel that you find yourself drawn to read again and again? If so, what about it draws you in to come back? 

Stephen King’s It for inspiration and sheer storytelling and a reminder of why I do what I do for a living. Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life for much of the same reasons. And Lord of the Flies for nostalgic reasons. 

For over a decade NLA has compiled our yearly stats. This year is no exception and there is one positive note in the number of manuscripts requested that also received offers of representation. This is good news for writers! Find out what else was positive for writers in 2021 (hint: across the pond). 

13,932 : Queries read and responded to. Up 371 queries from 2020 [which had a total of 13,561]. This looks like a close match…but it’s not. The agents of NLA, collectively, were closed to queries about 47% of 2021, as opposed to in 2020, when we were collectively closed to queries for only 27% of the year. So our average number of queries received per month actually increased 29% in 2021 over 2020.

353 : Number of full manuscripts requested and read (down from 430 in 2020): 95 requests for Kristin, 161 requests for Joanna, and although no longer with the agency, 97 requests for the other agents. 

111 : Number of manuscripts we requested that received offers of representation, either from us or from other agents/agencies (up from 106 in 2020). This is good news for writers in the query trenches. 

22 : Number of referred manuscripts KN read and considered during the times she was closed to general submissions but open to referrals only. The total for number of referrals read is 34 when including the other agents. 

3 : Number of new clients who signed with NLA (0 for Kristin—which is first in her career; 3 for Joanna)

37 : Books released in 2021 (down slightly from 41 in 2020).

2 : Number of career New York Times bestsellers for Joanna. Extra congrats to her client Kate Baer!

51 : Number of career New York Times bestsellers for Kristin (up from 48 in 2020). Marie Lu hit the list again this year, while Stacey Lee and Richard Chizmar made it for the first time.

5 : TV and major motion picture deals (almost on par with the 6 from previous year)

1 : TV show in production (Wool Saga coming on Apple+ in 2023) 

126 : Foreign-rights deals done (up from 70 in 2020). Wowza. This is great news for writers, as foreign markets are another great source of income. 

0 : Physical conferences attended. Thanks again, Covid. 

2 : Virtual conferences attended by Kristin (Story Brook Children’s Lit Fellows, Virtual Stoker Con). 

103 : Physical holiday cards sent (up one from 102 in 2020—we still only sent to clients during this Covid year).

736 : Electronic holiday cards sent (down from 837 in 2020 as a lot of editors left and we did a much needed cleanup of the list).

0 : Eggnog-chai lattes consumed during December because Starbucks didn’t offer. Huge sad face.

Lots : Of wonderful days reading and appreciating creators. 

Photo by Black ice from Pexels

When I attend conferences, the most popular question at agent panels is this: “Where is the market going and what will publishers be buying?” I would love a crystal ball to predict the future and answer that question. This week, a realization hit and I may just have a glimpse into that crystal ball. Although it sounds contrary, writers looking for the next market trend in publishing need not look any further than to publishing trends of the past. Oddly, what is old might just be new again. Here’s why.

Last month, my brilliant client Gail Carriger was a keynote speaker at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Ensconced at the hotel bar, as people often find themselves at writer conferences, Gail and I chatted with several attendees who came over to hang with us. Gail made a brilliant observation about a pop-culture show just sweeping the world. She said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that Squid Game was Battle Royale for a new generation that had never seen that original show. Huge realization moment for me. In the last couple months, I’ve been reading deal announcements for so many stories that just feel familiar to me. Bam! Of course. Old stories can always be expressed with a new angle or twist and made new again for a new generation. So even though I’d seen similar concepts previously—hey, I’ve been agenting for two decades—those concepts are totally new for agents and editors who have arrived on the scene in the last couple years. 

Back in the early 2000s when I got my start, the industry was in the throes of a chick-lit trend. (That term hasn’t aged well, but that’s what it was called then.) I argue that we are in that trend again (sans the term), this time with even more fantastic stories that are diverse and inclusive. Think Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson, A PHO Love Story by Loan Le, The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory, The Bride Test by Helen Hoang, Girl Crushed by Katie Heaney, and Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. This trend is back and, dare I say, better than it was twenty years ago. What is old is new again. 

Another example: Back in the mid-2000s, in the young-adult space, paranormal was all the rage. Editors couldn’t buy enough vampires, fallen angels, and werewolves. Then the market became saturated. Now here we are a decade+ later and this trend is cycling back around. We here at NLA are seeing a lot of paranormal elements creeping back into queries. Stories are hitting shelves again in this space as well. Think The Beautiful by Renée Ahdieh, Crave by Tracy Wolff, The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper, and The Coldest Touch by Isabel Sterling. The genre is being reinvented by a new generation of storytellers for a new generation of readers.

Is it worth doing a little research on the old world wide web (I cracked myself up typing that phrase) and diving into what might have been hot in the mid-2000s to see what could be coming back around as a trend? I say why not. There are no new stories under the sun, but there are always, and I mean always, new ways, new twists, new perspectives on how to tell those stories. Happy researching. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Mic JohnsonLP

The verdict is in. With headlines such as HarperCollins Sales Near $2 Billion and Publishing Sales Jumped 18.1% and First Half Profits Soared at Penguin Random House, it’s clear that at least in term of earnings, Covid is not having a negative impact on publishing. I should be thrilled. My industry is sound. This is good for authors. Time to celebrate. Right? Yet, I’m grumpy. Here’s why. 

I’m glad that the future picture of publishing is rosy. I just wish there was movement in the industry to share that financial rosy picture with the content creators who make it possible. The opposite is happening. Royalty share to authors has contracted in the last five to seven years. 

A few examples:

For YA and children’s deals, when I first started in this biz, it was common to negotiate royalties for a project starting at 8% with an escalation to 10%. Now that royalty structure has gone the way of the dinosaur. Publishers hold the line at 7.5% (excepting grandfathered-in authors with higher royalty structures). All this despite the children’s segment being a huge revenue-growth sector for publishing for the last decade. As publishers earned more, authors received a smaller piece of the earning pie with this reduction in royalty. 

In the mid-2000s, Random House used to pay an ebook royalty of 25% of retail price until advance earn-out, and then it switched it to 25% of net receipts (which roughly equals about 17% of retail price). And there were deals where publishers offered 30% or even 40%. That went the way of the dinosaur, too (except for the highest echelon of established authors). And to be clear, I’m talking about traditional publishing here. Plenty of smaller, indie, electronic-only houses probably still offer those kinds of rates. 

The death of the mass-market format. This used to be a whole other royalty revenue channel for the author. It’s mostly just gone now (and ebook sales do not make up the difference). Despite the trade-paperback format becoming king and increasing earnings for publishers, there is no movement from the 7.5% flat royalty rate in over two decades. Two decades. Probably longer. 

And then there is audio. Earnings from this format have skyrocketed in the last five years. Yet here we are at 25% of net receipts for digital download and publishers “insisting” they must control audio rights when agents used to partner with audio-only publishers and would still prefer that. 

So yep. I’m grumpy. 

To add insult to injury, lemon juice to the wound, or insert another catchy phrase here, agents often heard several variations of the following this past year:

  • Because of Covid, we have an abundance of caution and that is reflected in the advance we are offering.
  • Because of Covid, sadly we’ll not be able to pick up this author’s latest option material.
  • Because of Covid, we are not supporting (translation: spending any money on) in-person events.

The litany is that publishing profit margins are “slim,” costs of printing are higher now, etc., etc., etc. Yet these recent headlines paint a different picture. And although Publishers Marketplace recently reported that at long last, advance levels are on the rise for the last quarter of 2021, the advance is only one part of the publishing-earnings pie. A book doesn’t exist without the content creator. The author. I’d love to see a headline that proclaims a publisher is offering authors a bigger slice of that earnings pie. Now that would make me smile.

Photo by Cats Coming from Pexels

Lurking on Twitter, I stumbled on a thread of agents contemplating whether they should stay the course in this career. Some of the chatter echoed a conversation I had just weeks prior, where I said, “Agenting today is way harder than when I started agenting twenty years ago.” Just like that I sent out a request for input from agent peeps asking if they thought this was true. An earful hit my inbox. The consensus? Yes, agenting as a career is significantly harder than it was when we were baby agents. Here are fourteen reasons why.

Before I dive in, the requisite disclaimer: The information contained in this article is purely anecdotal and does not claim to represent an appropriate dataset for completeness, accuracy, usefulness, or even timeliness. I emailed a bunch of agents I knew, asked a question, and folks responded. That’s the level of “research” I did. This article is definitely not intended to be advice or a substitute for advice from, you know, a real expert or professional on the topic nor should any reader make a career decision or follow a particular career strategy based on content here. For further guidance, feel free to shake a Magic 8-Ball. 

More Agents Agenting

Although the Writers Market phone book was huge back in the day, the number of agents actively agenting and doing regular books deals is higher today—especially in children’s and young adult—than it was twenty years ago. I recall only about thirty of us repping in the field in the early 2000s. I don’t know the number today, but it’s probably 100 or more. Also, many editors have made the move to agenting in the last five years. With more agents in the field, more submissions are hitting editor inboxes. (Conversely, there are also more agents leaving the industry. Not a week goes by that I don’t receive a query that begins, “My agent has recently left the industry so I’m looking for new representation.”) Still, the bottom line is that more agents are agenting in 2021. 

Agents Acting More Like Editors

A project has to be close to perfect for a buy, so an agent today is doing far more editorial work pre-submission than back in the day. In the early 2000s, many an editor would take on a super promising manuscript and do the editorial work after acquisition. Today, it’s more common for an editor to request what is called a revise and re-submit—which places the onus back on the agent and author to gussy up the manuscript in hopes of an actual acquisition. 

This is a large time investment that may or may not result in a buy—and the subsequent earned commission, which is the only way an agent gets paid. 

Crowded Social Media Means Lower Agent Visibility

In 2006, I launched the blog Pub Rants. There were only two other literary agents blogging then. (Remember the amazing Miss Snark and her George Clooney crush? Such fond memories!) As one of the first agents to really spend hours educating aspiring writers and providing insider information for free on my blog, I was happy to see Pub Rants grow in popularity. At one point it was listed as the top 100 most influential blogs in the U.S. Glory days indeed. Blog Pub Rants = Visibility. These days, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are crowded with social-media savvy agents and editors. That makes it much harder for agents to create visibility for their brands or stand out and land the hot projects.

The Marketing/Publicity Agent Hat

In today’s publishing landscape, agents have to do so much more marketing/publicity management to optimize client success. This limits the number of clients an agent can take on and work with successfully. Since agenting is commission-based, fewer clients means fewer sales, and that can impact an agent’s earning potential. 

The Taskmaster That Is Email

The sheer number of emails an agent fields in a day is impressive. For me, three hours minimum just reading, responding, handling everyday agenting tasks. Then I take a deep breath and dive into the actual to-do list. Three hundred emails is a light day. Dedicating so many hours to this necessary business task impacts how many hours are available for other aspects of agenting. When I started my career, email was certainly around, but it was used secondary to a phone call, and when it was used, editors would often email once a week with a summary round up. The pace of business is simply faster now with immediate responses often necessary. Not to mention editors of the current generation who are comfortable with the immediacy of email communication. There is no going backward, but email volume does make agenting harder in terms of a daily workload. 

Going Indie

Authors might start in the traditional publishing realm and then move indie—which eliminates a source of income for the agent. As most folks know, I’m hugely supportive of authors and indie publishing, but the loss of talent to the indie sphere does impact an agency’s bottom line and makes an agenting career more difficult to sustain. 

Publisher Payment Mandate

In the early 2000s, every contract I negotiated specified advance payments in halves: half on signing and half on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript. An agent earns the commission at the same time a client is paid. Publishers are now citing “corporate mandates” that payments must be structured in four or five installments—and some of those payments aren’t coming in until after publication…which makes it no longer an “advance,” but that’s a topic for another day. Not only does this structure impact an author’s financial well-being, it impacts an agent’s ability to earn a living. Imagine negotiating a contract today and knowing that a portion of your commission won’t be paid for two years. Yep. A get-rich-quick path agenting is not. 

The Great Contract Slow Down

Publishing houses need to double their contracts departments. Most of them have two or maybe three people total for the hundreds of contracts they do in a year. Back in the day, I’d wrap a contract in eight weeks tops. Today, if the first draft arrives within four months, it’s a win. And then the agent still needs to review and negotiate it, all before the author signs. Six months is the new norm to fully executed. So add that into the agent’s earning timeline along with payment structures in fourths and fifths. The real question is, just how is an agent earning a living?

The Great Publishing Contraction

Just this week, news hit that Hachette is buying Workman. Yet another independent publishing house bites the dust. Consolidation of pub houses = limited submission options. Limited submission options = titles less likely to be acquired. Titles less likely to be acquired = less revenue for the author and the agent. This alone makes agenting a harder career. 

The Great Submission Influx

Spend a little time on Twitter. Just a quick lurk will reveal that editors are drowning in the number of submissions they are receiving since more agents are submitting material. When I started agenting, I’d receive almost all editor responses within four weeks. Today, months is not unusual, and the number of no-editor-responses has risen significantly. Slow or no editor response = manuscript less likely to be acquired. Manuscript less likely to be acquired = reduced number of agent deals. Reduced number of agent deals = lower commission earning. Lower commission earning = harder to attain agent career success.

The Death of Editor Autonomy

Back in the day, individual editors had more autonomy to acquire a work/author. They connected with their boss, and that one person said yay or nay. In today’s world, a project submitted to a publishing house has to go to second reads, then editorial board, and then it has to run the gauntlet with sales and marketing for the final verdict. It actually feels like a little miracle any time a book sells. 

Blockbuster Mentality

In the early 2000s, it was understood that any newly launched author might need space and time to grow. Historically, authors weren’t expected to conjure bestsellers straight out of the gate, but to build their writing skills and audience over time as they developed their craft. Now, if a debut doesn’t do well, it is extremely hard to get the author a second chance. This is compounded ten-fold if the initial deal had a high advance. That means the agent must work extra hard to relaunch that client and will again face a low return on the hours they invest.

The Death of The Mass-Market Format

Back in the day, so many agents got their start representing authors in romance, mystery, and urban fantasy—all genres traditionally launched in the mass-market format. Fantastic glory days were when I would sell in a debut romance author for six figures. Today, with the death of the mass-market format, a whole swath of a viable market and its associated earnings disappeared for agents. The replacement ebook edition has not enjoyed the same robust earnings impact.

The Change That Hasn’t Happened

Publishers, despite emphasis on social change in the last couple of years, have not expanded their readership outreach or marketing to reflect the current cultural landscape. This continues to mean fewer opportunities for agents and authors of Color. This should be the one area where it’s better for the agents of today, and it’s not. 

So Magic 8-Ball, is agenting harder today than it was twenty years ago?

Answer: Without a doubt. 

Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels

Like your grandmother who couldn’t get rid of that semi-broken toaster because she might need it again someday, publishers have a surprising number of obsolete and defunct clauses hanging out in their publishing contracts.  Most just elicit a chuckle, but at least one can greatly impact an author’s earnings.

The publishing landscape has shifted so radically in the last decade, especially with the rise of ebooks and downloadable audio. Publishing contracts should shift to match. But like your Depression-era grandmother, publishers are loath to get rid of old clauses they’ve had for decades—even though the publisher will not invoke that clause in any foreseeable future I can imagine. Most of these clauses hang out in the subrights section of a publishing agreement. 

My favorite? The publisher’s right to sublicense electronic book rights. Back in 2002, when I first started in the biz, there was a scrappy little electronic publisher called Rosetta Books. Although hard to believe, in those early days right before the electronic shift, some publishers did indeed sublicense electronic book rights to this third-party publisher. In today’s landscape, there isn’t a publisher on the planet who would sublicense electronic rights when such a major chunk of their own profit comes from sales of this format. Why would they share? And yet, if you look at the sublicense section of our pub agreement, the publisher still has the right to sublicense this format to a third party (though we as an agency add “by author approval”). But hey, the publisher might need it again someday, right? So there it stays. 

Also going the way of the dinosaur (sadly, in my opinion) is First Serial. In short, first serial is the publisher’s right to license an excerpt from a novel to a major newspaper, magazine, or other outlet. Think back to when Cosmopolitan or GQ featured up-and-coming authors by printing a chapter or two of their forthcoming novels. But now so many magazines have disappeared (or gone solely online). With that, publishers shifted from licensing first serial to simply allowing an approved excerpt to be posted on top sites as a publicity push. That means no licensing fee. Yet lo and behold, there in the subrights section of a pub agreement is the first-serial clause with a 90/10 split in the author’s favor. (As an aside, you’ll also see a publisher’s right to sublicense mass-market rights—something I’ve never seen a publisher do in twenty years of agenting. But hey, might happen someday, right?)

But the one legacy clause that can bite the author in the you-know-what is the short-print-run clause. So be on the look out for it. What does short print run mean? Originally, after a publisher launched the initial print run into the world (which could be around 5,000 or 10,000 copies or more), it was expensive for a publisher to order a “short” print run, like 500 copies to ensure the title remained in-stock for buyers. Now with print-technology shifts (i.e., print-on-demand), the cost remains fairly static—even for a small print run. The clause originally allowed the publisher to reduce the royalty to the author for said short print run. But today, why should the author have to accept a lesser royalty rate when the publisher did not foot an additional expense? Right. They shouldn’t. 

Most publishers have removed that clause (finally acknowledging it no longer applies), but occasionally I spot that kind of language in a contract and it needs to be handled.

Also, if you missed this news, the Authors Guild made its model book contract public for anyone to read and access. So happy contract reading. 

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With so many stories emerging of agents behaving badly, if only there was a quick and easy way for aspiring writers to verify a literary agent’s legitimacy. What a boon for new writers navigating a complicated publishing landscape. In good news, there is. 

The job of a literary agent is an unusual one. This isn’t a profession that one learns by going to college (although almost all agents have college degrees and many might have attended a Publishing Institute program). This isn’t a profession where accreditation is required, such as passing the bar for attorneys (although many agents are also lawyers). Any person can literally hang out a shingle and claim they are a literary agent. Because of that, many Schmagents have lured in unsuspecting writers. However, there is an organization that does govern this profession: the Association of American Literary Agents (AALA). 

Initially founded in 1991 under the name Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), this governing body was implemented to form bylaws and a canon of ethics that member agents are required to follow—thus creating a standard of working in the profession. Membership is by application only. An agent must fulfill the professional qualifications and submit letters of recommendation for entry. 

In 2020, AAR began the process of rebranding to the AALA (as there is a sister organization in the UK)—hence, both websites are currently active as the transition unfolds. This rebranding is reinvigorating the organization, which is now much more focused on agent education (via monthly programming), mentorship, and promoting diversity in our ranks. All very much needed and delightful to see. As a new-to-the-biz agent in 2002, one of my first goals was to fulfill the qualifications criteria so I could become a member. After all, I was a mostly unknown agent operating out of Denver. For me, AAR membership was a stamp of legitimacy to ease the minds of writers considering me when I offered representation. 

Currently, the AALA member directory is a tool that writers can use when doing agent research to verify an agent’s legitimacy. If an agent is a member, they do have to adhere to the AALA’s bylaws and canon of ethics or they will be asked to relinquish membership. 

Now, having said that, here are several things to keep in mind:

  • Not all legitimate agents are members of the AALA. Membership is by choice and not required.
  • Just because an agent is a member does not mean they are an agent with good negotiation skills or that they fulfill other criteria that I outline in my What Makes A Good Agent article series (see right side bar). There are many agents who qualify to be members but might fall under the heading of Hobbyist or turn out to be a Blindsider.
  • An agent who is a member might be a good agent but not a good agent for you. 

The existence of this organization, and searching through the membership profiles, is just one piece of the agent-search puzzle. It does not take the place of all the other research you should be doing on the agents you plan to query, which should include their sales record and current client list. Writers, good luck on your representation quest. 

Whenever a new story breaks about an established literary agent behaving badly, I cringe. Although I’m not personally responsible, it’s another black-mark moment for this profession that I love. So what responsibility do agents have to protect writers, and what can writers new to the publishing world do to protect themselves?

The answer is surprisingly simple: be armed with knowledge. Agents with integrity should provide information in a public sphere whenever possible, and many do via Twitter, blogs, and newsletters. Writers should gather all they can but also know that things change. Be kind to yourself, as it might not be possible to have “known better” if an agent partnership does not go as planned. 

As an agent who has spent the last fifteen years putting information out there for writers (since I started Pub Rants in 2006), I hope to arm you with info about agent types you might want to avoid. By the way, I highly recommend that writers looking for an agent have a subscription to Publishers Marketplace, where you can do your research. A lot of heartache might be avoided with a little time spent there.

The Schmagent

This type of agent is easy to define. This scammer pretends to be an agent, charges fees for everything a normal agent just does as part of the job (i.e., reading fees, submission fees, marketing fees, etc.). The red-flag word here is “fees.” When writers spot that, it’s an instant tell that the agent isn’t legit.  In 2013, Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware and I were expert witnesses for a lawsuit to take down a scammer masquerading as a literary agent. This person fleeced unsuspecting writers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. (It’s lucrative, which is why there are so many schmagents out there.) It’s a bit like whack-a-mole, but we put this one out of biz. By the way, Victoria is a tireless advocate for writers, and she doesn’t get enough props for everything she has done and is currently doing. Send her a note, or better yet, buy one of her books. It’s thankless, time-consuming work, and she is an amazing human being. In the internet age, this type of agent might be easy to spot, but scammers still snare unsuspecting writers all the time. If this describes your experience, don’t spend time berating yourself. Scammers are pros at what they do. 

The Hobbyist

This type of agent might mean well, but they pursue this profession for the “celebrity” of the job. This might not make them a bad agent per se, but it also means they probably aren’t a great agent either. How do you spot one? Well, this can be tough. The Hobbyist might have a great presence on social media, but if you dig in to the research (thank you, Pub Marketplace), the Hobbyist will not have a strong track record of sales or will only do deals with small presses or for digital rights only. And so I’m clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing deals with small and digital publishers. I’ve done many in my career, but they should be balanced with regular/bigger deals to Big Five publishers and the well-established indie publishers. 

The Greenie

Some agents might have integrity but are simply too green (and don’t have access to mentorship) to be able to advocate for a client.

Back in 2008, there was an agent who racked up many six-figure deals under her own shingle. She came on the scene quickly, and after two years, exited quickly and without warning. She looked hot on paper with all those deals, but her clients were signing boilerplate publishing contracts with no negotiated changes. This agent had no prior experience at another agency, and it was a nightmare for those clients later in their careers. 

For the Greenie, the key is to look at the agency itself. How long has that agency been in business? What is the agency’s track record as a whole? This will help you determine whether this newer agent is in a place where they will receive guidance from a more seasoned agent. 

The Blindsider

This is the agent that all the research in the world can’t predict. This agent might have a terrific beginning to a career, and then that career publicly derails. You will never be able to spot this one coming. Writers, go into an agent partnership expecting the best. But if the worst happens, try and let go of any self-blame. You did the best you could with the information available when forming the partnership. 

Also keep in mind that some agents are acting with integrity but might simply be a bad fit for certain authors. Communication styles or personalities don’t mesh. My client Courtney Milan tackled this convo recently on Twitter, so give it a look in case you find it helpful. 

As an agent, I’ve put many an article out there trying to assist writers in arming themselves with knowledge. I did a whole series of articles on what makes a good agent well as an article on 5 Questions Authors Don’t Ask but Should when considering an offer of representation.

One final comment. As an agent, I wish for no more black marks on my beloved profession, but I’m also practical. Another news article will probably be just around the corner. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Nenad Stojkovic