Pub Rants

Category: Publishing/Publishers

On August 25, 2021, Richard Chizmar’s debut novel Chasing the Boogeyman hit the New York Times Bestseller list at #10. It was a huge milestone in my agenting career, an achievement I never imagined when I opened NLA in August 2002. It was my 50th New York Times bestselling client title. Amazing indeed, but self-congratulating isn’t much of an article. A good article is divulging just how a book might hit the NYT bestseller List. And sharing now what I wish baby Agent Kristin had known then. 

First, a caveat. Talking about the NYT list is kind of like talking about unicorn sightings. The real science behind why a title hits the list is not transparent to publishers, agents, or authors. The NYT algorithm and tracking methods are proprietary information, so to be clear, I actually don’t know why or how any given title lands on the bestseller list. This article is simply a compilation of my observations after having 50 client titles hit that list. 

Velocity, Volume, Interval

If memory serves, my very first title to hit the NYT bestseller list was Ally Carter’s I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You in 2006—just four years after I opened the agency. For baby Agent Kristin, that NYT appearance was a complete surprise. I had no clue it was even a possibility, which just makes me laugh at my own naiveté. As an agent now, I have a very good sense of whether or not a title has the potential to hit the list. Certain factors have to be in play for even the possibility of a hit, and it all relies on velocity, volume, and the interval. 

In other words, in order for a book to hit the NYT list, that title needs to quickly sell (velocity) a high number of copies (volume) during a one-week time span (interval). If a book does those three things, it has a very good chance of hitting the list. 

The Indicators

As an agent, what gives me an inkling that one of my client titles may be positioned to make an appearance on the list? Four factors:

  • Print run. A title needs a high number of physical copies going out into the world so that physical sales can happen. And yes, I know folks reading this article would love exact numbers (just how big does the print run need to be?), but honestly, this varies a lot. I’ve seen titles hit with a 100,000 print run (the bigger the number, the better), but I’ve also seen titles hit with only a 30,000 print run. There is no magic number here as other factors come into play.
  • Reprint before publication. If a publisher has to reprint a title before it’s even published in order to fill early demand, this indicates that excitement and interest for a title is building.
  • Pre-orders. The higher the number of pre-orders a title has, the better the chance. The pre-order number varies greatly depending on whether a title is set up to the hit the adult-hardcover list, the adult-paperback list, or the children’s list. With King, Patterson, Moriarty, Childs, and Steele all taking up regular space on the adult NYT list, and with those authors’ titles selling 20,000+ copies a week (according to Bookscan), you can start to get a sense of just how many copies of a book need to move in the first week to land on that adult-hardcover list.
  • Marketing spend. Awareness of a title has to happen for momentum. In publishing, marketing is where the publisher spends money to create awareness for a book. Publicity is exposure that is free. The bigger the marketing budget is for a book out of the gate, the better the chance. However, this isn’t always true…

The Surprises

Publishing is full of wild-card moments. That’s what makes this industry so much fun, impossible to predict, and full of joyful surprises. One of my bestselling YA titles of my career is Simone Elkeles’s Perfect Chemistry. This title had a modest beginning with a small print run and a minimal marketing budget. But that original cover and fan love propelled this series to selling over a million copies. I also think a lot of fans think Perfect Chemistry is a New York Times bestselling title, but the reality is that it was book two, Rules of Attraction, that hit the NYT list for the first time in 2010. When Chain Reaction released a year later, that put the trilogy on the series NYT bestseller list. Technically, the first book never actually hit the list. 

Twenty-six editors turned down Jamie Ford’s debut novel Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. That book went on to spend 130 consecutive weeks on the NYT bestseller list. That’s 2.5 solid years on the list. I still can’t wrap my head around that. 

The Naiveté 

When I was a baby agent just starting out in the biz, I thought a New York Times bestseller meant the title was selling King, Winfrey, or Rowling levels. I also assumed that hitting the list would ensure riches for both author and agent. 

Wow, was I clueless. An NYT hit is fabulous, and often it does mean that the client will earn out the initial advance. It is not, however, a guarantee that earn-out will happen. And although for some clients hitting the list has led to financial stability in writing as a career, it does not automatically equal life-changing riches.

The Movie Effect

With the “New York Times Bestseller” moniker, instead of happening at once, sometimes it happens at last. Bird Box by Josh Malerman is that one client title that I felt in my bones should have hit the list out of the gate in 2014. I was just flat out wrong. It would take four years, Netflix, and Sandra Bullock to make that title into the NYT bestseller that I always knew it to be. 

Publishing. A giant mystery. Thank you for letting me celebrate 50 with you. I have a sneaking suspicion that number 51 might be just around the corner.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Carol VanHook

Genre Isn’t Everything and High Concept Isn’t King

In the writing world, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on genre. After all, knowing what you write, who it’s for, and how to reach your market are critical elements of many a successful career, and so much of that boils down to understanding genre. There’s also a low, constant buzz about concept. What does high concept mean, is it necessary, and how does it play into an author’s potential to achieve bestseller status or sell into Hollywood? This month, I present a new way to think and talk about fiction—one that argues genre isn’t everything and concept isn’t always king.

Conceptual appeal gets a lot of positive press, and high-concept stories do tend to rise to the top of any given slush pile. Why? Because they feel new and fresh and pitchable and buzzworthy. If you’ve ever received a rejection that says your manuscript is “too quiet,” what the person doing the rejecting is most likely commenting on is your concept. Or lack of concept. They want an idea that feels bigger, something that’s going to stand out on its genre’s shelf rather than conform to it.

But is high concept really the only way to get your book published? Absolutely not. In fact, concept is just one of four ways that stories appeal to readers. In addition to conceptual appeal, there is also emotional appeal, experiential appeal, and literary appeal.

Conceptual Appeal

A story with conceptual (or high-concept) appeal is built on a clear, easy-to-pitch premise.

That’s a definition you’ll find floating all over the Internet, but it’s about zero-percent helpful to writers trying to wrap their creative brains around the idea of conceptual appeal. That’s because the pitch for a high-concept story must be much more than clear and brief. (In other words, you can deliver a clear, one-sentence pitch for a story that doesn’t carry a single hot ounce of conceptual appeal.) So what’s the missing ingredient that will make a highly pitchable story truly conceptually appealing?

Stories with conceptual appeal deliver something unique—some fresh twist or never-been-seen-before what if…? that makes people’s eyes light up. If your pitch gets strangers (not friends and family) saying…

  • That’s a million-dollar idea!
  • How in the world did you come up with that?
  • I can’t imagine how your story is going to resolve that problem!
  • I wish I’d come up with that idea!

…then congratulations! You have a story with conceptual appeal.

Here’s another key feature of stories with conceptual appeal: They will only be new and unique once. After they explode onto the scene, they get broken down into tropes that get reimagined by writers writing to the market, hoping to capture the vast readership you’ve amassed. (Ask any agent who was in the biz in the wake of Harry Potter how many query letters they received for middle-grades featuring magic boarding schools. Ask how many they’re still receiving.)

This is not a judgement statement by the way; it’s merely a description of how high-concept books cause genres to shift as readers develop appetites for new types of stories they never knew they were missing.

Emotional Appeal

The emotion-driven story engages our hearts, our primal selves, maybe even our very souls. It promises to make us Feel Something Big that will stay with us long after we finish reading. Whether that something is joy, sorrow, or terror, authors whose stories are foremost an appeal to emotion do their best work when they’re tapping into the human condition. These stories often dive deep into the following:

  • Connection (family, friendship, love, reconciliation, redemption)
  • Endeavor (conflict, struggle, indomitable spirit, triumph against insurmountable odds)
  • Separation (failure, pain, loss, death)

Experiential Appeal

Stories with experiential appeal must be experienced to be felt or understood. They are difficult to describe (and even more difficult to pitch), and any attempts to do so often end with, “You just have to read it to get it.” In the movie world, there are plenty of great examples of experiential appeal: Memento, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Inception, and The Matrix*, to name a few. Experiential fiction often intersects with the speculative genres—especially science fiction, magical realism, and horror—but it doesn’t have to. You can write a story in any genre that unfolds in a “you just have to read it to get it” sort of way.

*Before we move on, let’s chat about The Matrix, which many might argue is high concept. I disagree. Remember that stories with conceptual appeal are based on a clear, easy-to-pitch premise. Can you write a clear, one-sentence pitch for The Matrix? Can anyone? Sure, you can briefly encapsulate the core premise: “What if all humans were living comfortable but virtual lives, and the cost of waking up to the truth meant living in a dystopian hell?” But this concept as pitched doesn’t even come close to the experience of the movie itself. So although the writers landed on conceptual appeal, it was their choice to let the story unfold in an experiential way that truly blew moviegoers’ minds. Therefore, the conceptual appeal of The Matrix is secondary to its experiential appeal.

Literary Appeal

Writers who aim to appeal to readers’ sense of literary excellence put the writing itself first. The artistry of the style, voice, rhythm, meter, lyricism, phrasing, use of poetic devices, and so on, are as important (if not more) than plot, action, or a snappy pace. In other words, these are stories readers find worth reading for how they are told.

A term adjacent to “literary” is “upmarket,” which you might see on agents’ and editors’ wish lists. Upmarket refers to works that employ familiar features, tropes, or structures of genre or commercial fiction but that are told in a more literary writing style. So if you’re a writer striving to appeal to readers who appreciate the artistry of language, but you also want to play in the sandbox of a favorite genre, then you are an upmarket writer. Hooray!

The Genre-Appeal Grid

Now that you know the four ways fiction can appeal to readers, what’s next? Check out the grid below, which features the four appeals across the top and a few (but definitely not all) genres down the side. Where does your current work-in-progress fit? Keep in mind:

  • Knowing your story’s genre as well as its primary appeal can help you figure out how you want to approach the telling of that story.
  • A story can appeal to readers in more than one way. Maybe, like The Matrix, your book has a primary appeal and a secondary appeal.
  • More isn’t better. Trying to write a story that appeals to readers in all four ways is like trying to write a story that crosses too many genres: you’ll end up with a muddy mess that in its manic attempt to be for everyone will actually be for no one.
  • Whichever square on the grid feels most like home to you can help you define your niche and author brand. You’re the one who writes experiential historicals! You’re the one who writes literary westerns! And you! You’re the one who writes high-concept romance!
  • Or every book you write can belong to a different square. You decide!
  • Every square on the grid is valid. None is better than any other. Your success lies in how you execute the story you want to tell, for the readers you want to write for because they value the same things about story that you do.

Photo by Gratisography 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

In fifteen years of researching and writing articles for Pub Rants and the NLA newsletter, I’ve never seen an agent tackle this topic. Many newsletter readers subscribe solely for tips and insights on how to land an agent and fulfill their publishing dreams. But what happens to all those writers—and there are many—who landed the dream and then decided it wasn’t right for them? What made them choose to leave this career?

As an agent who has responded “no” to tens of thousands of writers over the last twenty years, I definitely understand that aspiring writers spend a lot of time and energy on the beginning of the journey. The first steps are mastering writing craft, landing that perfect concept, writing and finishing the novel, and then investing countless hours finding an agent or publisher. I won’t even touch on the hundreds of rejections writers face during this process. Writers in the throes of submissions probably find it mind-boggling that someone who got in the door would turn around and walk back out. Why would a published (and in many cases, successful) author deliberately choose to no longer be an author? Here are six reasons given by authors I’ve known and worked with, and these reasons can be illuminating for aspiring writers.

“I’m a one-book author.”

Some writers have only one book in them. This is not an issue of having too few ideas; it’s simply that these authors said what they came to say, and that was enough. Once their book is published, their dream is fulfilled. Other one-book writers came out of the gate with a literary masterpiece, and either they feel no need to try to top it, or they know how harshly their sophomore effort will be judged by critics and readers. Either way, the one-book masterpiece can feel like a good place to stop and turn to other pursuits.

“My career has run its course.”

One of my authors published five successful novels and one work of nonfiction in a hot trend of the time. When that trend ended, other stories simply didn’t interest her, and other exciting non-writer career opportunities beckoned. She hung up her pen with no regrets. 

“I’m uncomfortable in the spotlight.”

Very few authors can pull a Salinger these days and be both famous and reclusive. Today’s writers are expected to build and maintain a public presence on social media and show up in-person at major events. One of my authors, a private individual, felt constantly exhausted by this expectation. When this author had one tweet go viral, the sudden spotlight made this person rethink the whole writing-career path. With the completion of the publishing contract, this author decided that the publicity side of writing as a career was a deal breaker. 

“The publishing industry is a mess.”

Currently, many conversations are being held in the internal sphere about lack of representation of BIPOC and other marginalized voices. Change is happening, but like all things in publishing, it’s happening at a snail’s pace. For a lot of authors of color, it’s too little, too late. After several mediocre publishing experiences (no marketing budget for the release, odd shelving in bookstores—why would a fiction title be shelved in African American Studies?), I personally know several authors of color who chose to set aside their pens.

“Life got in the way.”

Some authors loved the dream and experienced extraordinary success only to have personal tragedy, illness, or other trials play the trump card. Writing careers sometimes get sacrificed so the author can simply survive. 

“It’s time to retire.”

As hard as it may be to believe, after a long career, some hardworking writers are just ready to rest. People get tired, and that can make the dream less dreamlike.

When that moment happens, it takes courage and strength to recognize, acknowledge, and embrace the end of this life chapter. Just on the other side lies contentment, freedom, and maybe even happiness. 

Photo by Anete Lusina 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. 

Photo by 幻影 3D from Pexels

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

(Just a note, this article was featured in our November 2020 Newsletter. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

305 = The number of days from when I submitted a client manuscript to when I received the response from the editor. 

Ten months. That’s a long time. You’d think I’d be upset or frustrated, but honestly, this is a love letter to that editor—and you know who you are. 

During this crazy Covid year, I’m sending this heartfelt acknowledgement into the world to her. That response, regardless of how late it arrived, is a gift that I can give to my author client. It’s the gift of closure—an assurance that my author’s novel was read and considered. All during a time when editors are scraping together time to work between juggling family, kids, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, sick parents or relatives, and who knows what else. 

So thank you, dear editor. Most sincerely. Your response was just lovely to have—even though it was a pass.

Most editors who flubbed a submission would slink into the night, never responding. I would have sighed and added them to my “do not submit” list. (And yes, agents have a black-hole list, and once you’re on it, editors, it’s hard to gain our trust again.)

To editors who might be reading this and might have a similar situation hiding in your submission closet—bite the bullet and send that letter to the agent. We will greatly respect you for doing it. Just trust me on this. 

Junior editors, the best advice I can give to you is this: don’t ghost agents. Always respond. Even if the note is short and sweet. We’ll get it. As an established agent, I truly enjoy trying out submissions to newer editors who are looking to make their name and reputation. But I’m also finding that ghosting is happening more and more, and that some editors just don’t respond at all.

It’s going to be hard to land the good stuff, the next New York Times bestselling client, if you’re on agents’ “no send” lists.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: One Way Stock

(Just a note, this article was featured in our May 2019 Newsletter. Some references may not correspond with recent events. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

I have a confession to make: up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know a lot about permissions. Sure, I could explain the clause in a publishing contract where it states that the author is responsible for securing permissions from third parties for use of third-party material in the author’s books. But I kind of assumed (or hoped) that if it ever came to it, the publisher would walk the author through the actual process. Not so. So when one of my authors wanted to secure permissions for some song lyrics she wanted to include in her upcoming release, we ventured down the winding road together. Here is what I learned:

  • What do you need permission for? You need legal permission any time you want to quote or excerpt someone else’s work in your own. That can apply to anything from poetry to song lyrics and every magazine article or blog entry in between.
  • The concept of “fair use” is murky. Isn’t there a law that states that you can use a percentage of someone else’s work for free? Not really. As Jane Friedman so smartly points out in her post A Writer’s Guide to Permissions and Fair Use , there is no defining rule about how much of someone else work is “OK” to use without permission.  So your best bet is always to ask.
  • Your publisher really isn’t going to help you. Publishing contracts specify that the author is responsible for securing all necessary permissions, and they mean it. It is the author’s job to figure out who to reach out to regarding securing permissions. Don’t expect your publisher to have a list of record executives’ email addresses or standard forms to fill out for such an occasion. This part of the process can require quite a bit of leg work in terms of tracking down the right individuals. Side note: agents won’t necessity be able to help either. While I’m always happy to advocate for my clients, I do not have the necessary connections to move this process along.
  • There is a cost and it can be steep. Most of the people my author reached out wanted to know certain information such as print run and territory of distribution before calculating permission fees. They then based their fees accordingly, and they were notable. One of the terms I learned during this process was “favored nations,” which basically means that one party cannot be paid more than another. As it pertains to permissions, don’t think you’ll be able to strike a deal with a record company because you’re only using a few lines, for example, or that another company will give you a break because they like the premise of your story. The people you’re reaching out to are, in turn, advocating for their clients. They want to make sure that the content their clients made is respected in the marketplace, and that means fiscal compensation. And they pretty much have a going rate. The other thing to consider is that you have to pay regardless of how much money you’re making or if you’ve been paid your full advance or not.
  • Permissions live with your work. If your book takes off, know that permissions requests will follow you. So far, from what I’ve seen, costs are associated with the publisher’s proposed print run and are limited to the territories requested. That means that if your book sells over whatever your publisher initially projected, you will have to pay permissions fees again. Same goes for every foreign license (and there are some caveats depending on whether or not a foreign publisher intends to keep the lyrics in English). In sum, this is not a one-and-done thing.

So what can you do? Think about how important any excerpts are to your writing. Can you write around them? Mention them in passing? For example, reference a well-known chorus that readers will be sure to get, if we’re talking about music? Your other option is to search public-domain offerings that will fit the bill. Works in the public domain can be used without permission. 

Creative Commons Credit: F Delventhal

As we head into August, we are officially settled into a new, semi-permanent state of Covid. What does that mean for publishing in 2020, and what does it mean for authors?

For publishing:

  • Editors will not be going into their main office spaces for the rest of 2020.
  • Agents are getting quite good at Zoom coffee chats as a way to connect with or meet new editors.
  • I’ve seen a lot of editors’ and publishers’ living rooms, and they’ve seen mine.
  • Marketing meetings are full-on eight- to ten-person Zoom gatherings, which is kind of fun.
  • Editors are still acquiring. All agents at NLA have closed deals since March, one of which was a pre-empt for a debut author. That particular project was submitted on a Friday, and the editor pre-empted the following Monday.
  • Marketing directors and publicists are getting remarkably good at leveraging virtual spaces—although the verdict is still out on how their efforts are translating to book sales. (Although one agent here at NLA had her debut author land on the New York Times bestseller list!)
  • Publishers are taking the time to re-evaluate leadership and hiring practices, and they’re rethinking publishing’s lack of diversity and representation.
  • August is not going to be the dead month. Traditionally, that’s when most editors and decision makers go on vacation, so agents usually avoid submitting until after Labor Day. Not this year. We are in it full speed.
  • There will be no travel to New York. Oh, I miss my Manhattan neighborhood walks and excellent pastries! And no international travel to book fairs for the foreseeable future, mainly because America is not getting a handle on the coronavirus, so there are travel bans or mandatory 14-day quarantines. 

For authors:

  • Known and established authors are seeing a rise in sales as readers gravitate to the tried and true.
  • Debut authors are having a rougher time. More creative strategies are needed to make debuts stand out. Hard to say whether more debuts would have broken out in the past six months if COVID hadn’t happened. I have no statistics, but I would say, yes, we probably would have seen higher numbers for newly published authors had the pandemic not been a factor.
  • Mid-list authors, as always, will be the most at risk. Editors, driven by decision makers with the final say, are scrutinizing option material, only looking for the “bigger” books and often passing on subsequent books by authors who haven’t broken out. That leads to a need for more career strategizing between author and agent.
  • Big books are going for big money. But the definition of a big book might be narrower now.
  • Film/TV deals that would be great for animation are hot properties. That is one field of Hollywood that is pandemic-proof, so all studios are aggressively looking. 

If you are an aspiring writer, you need to stay the course. The world could shift once again if a vaccine becomes a reality. And no matter what, publishers still need books to publish to stay afloat. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Miki Yoshihito

Many of you are probably querying or preparing to query. Maybe you’re between agents. Whatever the case, I wanted to give a bit of an overview of the things you should keep in mind as your writing career progresses. Much like any relationship, finding the right agent, editor, publisher, etc., can be hit or miss. Everyone has the best intentions and hopes things will work out, but no one can predict the future. We enter into what we hope will be longterm partnerships after a phone call and a series of questions, questions that can never address every possible scenario. Sometimes, the partnership just doesn’t work, which is fairly common in publishing. Regardless, here are some things to consider.

Editorial vs. Non-Editorial Agent. At this point most, if not all, agents are editorial. It has become a significant requirement that agents polish clients’ manuscripts before taking them out on submission. Still, there are a variety of editorial styles. Some agents just edit the first 50 to 100 pages and then include big-picture notes. Some do extensive line and developmental editing and also include an edit letter. Some may only do an edit letter. You can ask an agent what their editing style is, but their answer won’t really matter until you know what style works best for you. Try to get a variety of peer edits in various styles. If one works better for you than another, you know exactly what you’re looking for. If they all work, excellent!

Brainstorming/Concept Collaboration. How involved in the creative process would you like your agent to be? When we go out on sub, I have my clients send me five ideas for their next project. I then give them feedback and tell them which idea(s) make the most sense to pursue based on the market and what editors have told me they’re looking for. My help in walking through a concept is one of the reasons my clients chose me as their agent. Is this something you would need as well? Would you also want feedback as you draft—say, on the first 50 pages so you know you are headed in the right direction? If so, then ask potential agents if this is one of their strengths.

Career Management. In addition to helping with concept building and brainstorming, some agents also give career-management advice. This is helpful if you want to switch gears, perhaps moving from adult to YA or vice versa. An agent can guide you through that career transition, which might include rebranding you as an author or launching you under a new pen name.

Negotiations. How does your agent/agency negotiate? You don’t want to work with someone who is too soft and may push back only lightly. But you also might be turned off by someone who is too aggressive. It is fair to ask an agent what kinds of deal and contract terms they might fight for on your behalf and why. You might not care as long as they can get you a solid book deal, but negotiation is a huge part of what an agent does, so it never hurts to be aware of how your potential agent handles it.

Personality. Lastly, is personality important to you? What kind of personality are you looking for in an agent? Do you want someone friendly? Personable? Is it okay if they only contact you when necessary? Do you want someone patient who will answer all your questions no matter how many you have or how often you ask? Do you want a hand-holder? A shark? That’s a fair thing to want to discern. And agents might not know themselves where they fall. Reach out to their clients. Even if you are just querying and don’t have an offer or rep, you might be able to piece together some clues based on what clients say about their agents online or in the acknowledgments of their books.

Now that you know some agent-seeking basics, you can research confidently. There is still no guarantee that you’ll find the perfect fit for your entire career, but this will certainly help you figure out what you really want at this early stage.

Good luck!

Creative Commons Credit: Apichart Meesri