Pub Rants

Category: publishing

Kishōtenketsu and Non-Western Story Structures

American fiction writers are all too familiar with the Hero’s Journey and the classical three-act story structure. Or the seven-point plot structure. Or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet. These structures share a lot of features, and they are The Law; to deviate is to accept inevitable exclusion from the hallowed halls of Literary Representation and Big New York Publishing. Yet if you’re well read in recent fiction across a variety of genres (especially by non-white or non-Western authors), then you’ve probably encountered extraordinary stories that unfold in ways that have nothing to do with heroes or journeys or three tidy acts.

Such encounters might kick off a nasty bout of cognitive dissonance. If our ubiquitous structures aren’t adhered to, then these stories shouldn’t work. So why do they? The answer is simple: Because different types of stories and different ways of telling them have, over centuries, evolved all over the globe. Learning, using, teaching, or critiquing others’ work based on only one of several similar structures is painfully limiting to both storytellers and their audiences.

Let’s look at an example of an ancient, non-Western structure.

Kishōtenketsu is a four-act plot that can be traced back through the centuries to several countries of East Asia. Though the word is Japanese, the structure itself originated in China. (We’ll circle back to China in a minute.) Author Kim Yoon Mi explains that, in Japanese, Kishōtenketsu describes the four acts as follows:

  • kiku (ki): introduction
  • shōku (shō): development
  • tenku (ten): twist
  • kekku (ketsu): conclusion

She goes on to explain that in Kishōtenketsu, “tension isn’t the heart of the story…the twist is the high point. The climb to the realization point can have many shapes as long as the twist is the high point of the story.” Further, what drives such a plot is characters’ self-actualization, self-realization, self-development, and introspection, and “because the conclusion can amp up conflict or completely deescalate it into nothing, [Kishōtenketsu] gives [writers] a lot more options and allows for open endings.”

In contrast, Western structures centralize tension and conflict. American writers are clubbed constantly with the following rules:

  • You must have tension on every page.
  • You must develop both internal and external conflicts and resolve them at the end.
  • If you have no conflict, you have no story.

But with Kishōtenketsu, the writer has more latitude to explore character growth as a phenomenon not catalyzed by conflict.

How did this come about? To answer, Kim Yoon Mi cites episode 6-04 of Wes Cecil’s Human Arts podcast, “Chinese: Languages and Literature” (2015). In summary, China endured centuries of brutal famine and war, and as such, conflict was never a good thing; therefore, Chinese stories decentralized conflict. So while stories that followed the Chinese qǐ chéng zhuǎn hé structure (the precursor to Kishōtenketsu) certainly included conflict, conflict often took a definitive back seat to characters’ personal development.

Here’s another difference. In our familiar Western structures, writers are expected to wrap everything up at the end, to leave no questions unanswered (unless they’re setting up a sequel, in which the expectation is still that cliffhanger questions must eventually be answered). But of Kishōtenketsu, Kim Yoon Mi says, “the conclusion isn’t always a resolute solution to everything….It’s more like a wrap up for that particular issue, while indicating the story still goes on beyond that…often with notes about the occasional backslide.”

Will Western audiences understand a Kishōtenketsu story? That’s a good question, one Kate Krake of Three Pillar Authors tackled on their blog back in 2016. Krake writes:

Western audiences are accustomed to a central conflict that is defeated. It’s central writing advice; I read it, I follow it, I advise it. For this reason, stories written with this four-act, no-conflict structure may risk not engaging with Western audiences. They may risk being dubbed a poor story, risk being criticised as not engaging, lacking development, or some other negative criticism.

I think it’s a risk worth taking.

A judgement that all plots need conflict to engage is a judgement based on inexperience. We’re indoctrinated by this Western way of thinking. It’s insular. It creates the idea that there’s only one way to write a story.

That’s how Western stories are written. It’s not how all stories are written.

Kishōtenketsu is only one among many non-Western structures. (Please visit Kim Yoon Mi’s excellent article “Worldwide Story Structures” to explore myriad others and see examples.) I would argue that American agents, editors, publishers, and slush readers, if they are truly committed to making space at the table for diverse voices, have a duty to educate ourselves on the vast alternatives to our comfortable old “acceptable” story structures.

Examples of Kishōtenketsu

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Last month, I was lamenting not having a crystal ball that would allow me to predict future market trends. However, if there is one publishing prediction I can make with absolute certainty, it’s this:

  1. Change is certain.

For nineteen Decembers, I’ve soldiered on through the crush of wrapping up everything by year’s end with a Starbucks eggnog chai in hand like a battle sword. This year, The Buck didn’t offer my favorite beverage. I’m still bitter about it, but change is inevitable. That’s the one prediction I can make with certainty. 

But just for fun, here are a eleven more other predictions: 

  1. I predict that the Big Five will become the Big Four. It’s my guess that despite the objections of the Department of Justice, for better or worse, Penguin Random House will successfully acquire Simon & Schuster.
  2. I predict that for aspiring writers, 2022 will be a little easier. Agents are acclimated now to the new normal Covid introduced us all to, and I think they’ll respond to queries and full manuscripts in a more timely fashion.
  3. I predict that some agents, probably more than usual, will leave the industry, switch agencies, or even start their own. Covid had a way of making folks re-evaluate their futures and what they want out of life. 
  4. I predict the same will be true for editors.
  5. I predict that editors will get excited to acquire again now that we are past the Covid transition year and are seeing some stabilization across both fiction and nonfiction markets.
  6. I predict that print and ebook sales will stay robust. However…
  7. I predict that big-picture economic issues that have impacted print publishing, like the global paper shortage and supply-chain slow-downs, will be slow to resolve. Pub dates, print runs, and marketing plans that include the printing of ARCs will continue to be affected, but nothing is forever. Hopefully these issues will begin to be ironed out in 2022, but they will most likely linger a bit longer.
  8. I predict that the big streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Peacock, and Apple TV+ will continue to actively scout for great books to adapt for the small screen.
  9. I predict that, in fiction, variety will reign. With few clearly discernible trends in what editors are buying right now, any good story that’s well written has a great chance to get acquired in 2022. Dark humor, cerebral alternate history, heartwarming friendship stories…whatever you want to write about, go for it!
  10. I predict that as writing conferences return to in-person events in 2022, organizers will continue to offer hybrid programming. In fact, now that Covid forced us all to become proficient at Zoom, I predict that virtual and hybrid programming is here to stay.
  11. I predict that Starbucks will bring back the eggnog chai and it will have nothing to do with the thousands of letters I sent to encourage them to do just that.

Photo by Sindre Strøm 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.

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What I Wish I Knew Before I Became a Novelist

This month, we asked three NLA authors for their best advice for first-time novelists.

What’s one piece of advice you wish someone had given you before you began writing your first novel?

Kathleen West, author of Are We There Yet? and Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes

I’m fairly certain people did tell me this, but I wish I had internalized it: There’s very little authors can control in the publishing realm. The two things you can always do, though, are to keep writing and also to cultivate genuine, mutually respectful relationships with other writers and the members of your publishing team. Otherwise, hold it all—the “success” and the “failure”—loosely.

Meghan Scott Molin, author of The Golden Arrow Mysteries series

One piece of advice I think I wished I’d known (or internalized) when I started: One book deal doesn’t mean you “arrive.” Even a multi-book deal. I wish I’d known how many friends would switch publishers, agents, editors, publicists in their first year of getting a book deal. I’m slowly adjusting to the idea that it’s always a battle in one arena or another…the road isn’t smooth sailing. I think better preparing young writers for the “building years” between contracts, the months spent waiting on sub, the heartbreak of an editor backing out on an additional project…it’s all really valuable conversation.

Valerie Valdes, author of the Chilling Effect series

I wish someone had told me that all writing advice is akin to tools you can put in your toolbox. It’s okay to only reach for the tools you need while others collect dust, and not everyone uses the same tools, or uses them in the same way. Even you won’t necessarily use the same tools with every novel, and that’s okay, too. There’s no single right or wrong way to write.

I also wish someone had told me to focus on setting manageable goals that I control, instead of ones that other people ultimately have control over. So for example, “try to write a little every day” instead of “try to get an agent by the end of the year.” The latter is a milestone, and those are worth celebrating, but treating milestones as goals can lead to frustration and disappointment.

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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

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. 

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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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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 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