Pub Rants

Category: publishing

(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

As I type this, it’s a little hard to believe that we’ve been sheltering-in-place for over a month. 

In a sign of the times, I taught my 80-year old mother how to use FaceTime on her iPad while also playing Rummikub with me on her computer in a virtual game room (www.playingcards.io). She was definitely motivated. At any other time, I’m not sure I would have convinced her to tackle this level of tech. I imagine all of you have similar stories. 

As a company, we’ve been staying sane via virtual NLA happy hours and playing that old 90s party game Taboo, the one where there is a list of five words you’re not allowed to say, so, of course, the minute you read them, those words are all your brain can think about. 

Publishing Updates from Abroad

  • We are seeing delays in foreign advance payments, royalty statements, and royalties received. Although a lot of payments have come in on time.
  • Offers are still happening but mostly for bigger projects. I do think other offers will trickle in more after the peak of the crisis has passed.

Publishing Updates from the US

  • None of our contracts or offers have been canceled—although Penguin Random House did contact agents to restructure payouts for deals in process.
  • Publishers have moved to reduce their costs. Scholastic has implemented furloughs of two weeks on, two weeks off. Disney Publishing also announced furloughs this week. HMH implemented a 20% pay cut for editors and a four-day work week. (I’m finding that Fridays across the board have become an almost no-email day.) Macmillan executed a round of layoffs across all imprints, which has impacted NLA clients. I anticipate additional announcements from other publishers.

Sales 

  • Publishers are reporting ebook sales are up by 40%. This is helping to keep the publishing picture stable for now.
  • Print sales initially did a sharp drop (down by 25%), but they rebounded last week, and we have word that sales at Target and Walmart are especially healthy.

From the April 16 edition of Publishers Lunch:

NPD Bookscan reported print book sales for the week ending April 11 of 12.47 million units. While that is nicely higher than the previous week, the proper comparison is to the week just before Easter a year ago, since book sales always spike measurably right before the holiday. The comparable week a year ago — ending April 20 — saw sales of 13.97 million units, making this year’s holiday week down over 10.7 percent in comparison.

Per the trend during the pandemic, juvenile books continue to account for most of the week-over-week gains, registering sales of 6.385 million units (compared to 5.21 million units in the previous week). Board books in particular were up 47 percent week over week, at 1.27 million units.

What does it mean for the long view? Too soon to say. I heard on the news this week that the unemployment rate is estimated to reach 20%—the same level as the Great Depression. We are living in interesting times.

Stay safe, sane, healthy, and kind. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Jernej Furman

I hope when this article hits your screen, you are safe and healthy while sheltering at home. If you are in the medical profession, I’m sending extra-warm health karma your way. You are on the front lines, and we here at NLA appreciate all you do. My mom is almost 80 now and long retired, but she was an RN. I know exactly what kinds of sacrifices you and your family are making right now.

As a way to jump into this month’s article, I re-read my February column. The words “and may become a global threat” have sadly come to fruition. In the last two weeks, our world has shifted on its axis. 

We here at the Denver office implemented work-from-home over nineteen days ago, so all of us are luckily sane and virus-free. As half our company already works remotely and all our main processes (including CRM and accounting) are cloud-based, we have seen very little disruption in our work flow. The agent team IMs every day, and we’ve been doing weekly video Chime meetings for the last four years, so it feels like business as usual for us. Where we work literally does not matter, although we all miss laughter and shared coffee.

Publishing as an industry can maintain some stability in this work-remotely world. I can report the following:

  • Contracts-in-process are closing in about the same amount of time as they were closing previously.
  • Payments and royalties have not been disrupted as almost all publishers pay via ACH.
  • Foreign deals are still happening, but they do feel a little slower.
  • Film/TV options are occurring, despite news of major agencies doing pay cutbacks and furloughs. I had two offers come in just this week.
  • NLA agents are submitting projects, and editors assure us they are eager to read. They have lots of time to read.

The publishing picture is currently stable, but I also want to speak to the reality of having physical stores nationwide shut down for weeks on end. I expect much lower physical print runs in the months to come. Recent releases saw much sharper drop-off in sales than what would have been normal. Although publishers’ marketing and publicity teams are devising alternative strategies, if households are strapped tighter with a layoff, etc., book sales will suffer. That translates to editorial boards being more discerning on what is acquired and definitely more conservative in advances offered. 

I anticipate a tightening across the board. Stay inside. Stay well.

Recent news articles:

Publishers Struggle With When and How to Move Pub Dates

HMH Reduces Salaries

Paradigm Layoffs

UTA Cuts Salaries

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Nenad Stojkovic

(This article originally appeared in the NLA Newsletter on February 14, 2020. Stay tuned on Wednesday 4/1/2020 for a follow up article.)

It rather cracks me up that according to USA Today, Google searches for Corona beer have surged recently. A good portion of Americans are searching “beer virus” to find information about the epidemic currently sweeping China and threatening to go global. For the record, the coronavirus (now renamed COVID-19) has nothing to do with the refreshing beer you can stick a lime in. And if you want more info on the origin of the name, wikipedia might be a good source. 

But it’s no laughing matter when something far across the Pacific impacts publishing right here on American shores. And once again, China is back in the spotlight. In September 2019’s newsletter, I talked about how the trade war between the US and China is impacting foreign-rights licensing. Now it’s a virus causing disruption. I fear it’s going to be a lean year for sales in that part of the world. 

NLA partners with a terrific foreign-rights co-agent in Asia—a partner who keeps us in the loop with detailed updates. Normally, we’d be catching up with him at the book fairs in Bologna and London, but, sadly, not this year. International travel is risky right now, so to be safe, they’ve canceled. I one-hundred percent support health over attending. 

Here’s how the epidemic is affecting publishing in China:

  • Chinese companies are having employees work remotely so as to minimize contact. In publishing, this will significantly impact contracts, royalties, and payments. I actually have a big deal happening in China. Luckily we received the on-signing payment back in September, but I have a sense that other payments will be a lot slower to come in. Luckily, most of our authors don’t rely on foreign advances when doing their annual financial planning. Still, it’s tough news.
  • In good news, publishers are still reading manuscripts. But unless a title is super hot, offers will not be as forthcoming.
  • The big rights fair of the year, The Beijing Book Fair, normally happens in September. That might be canceled. Lots of deals happen at that fair, so cancelation will be a blow.
  • Printers, physical bookstores, and banks remain closed. Yep, I’m sure you can extrapolate how that impacts so many things in this biz.

In this global publishing world, Asia’s problem is our problem. And all of it affects an author’s bottom line.

I won’t raise a beer to that. Or stick a lime in it. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: eFile989

Be a Warrior!

It should be no surprise to anyone who knows me that I’m a huge nerd. Science fiction, fantasy, pop culture–I have a deep love of many fandoms. So many of them have their own identities that are easy for me to relate to–for instance, Slytherins are competitive, ambitious, and deeply protective of those they call their own. These are all qualities I feel I possess, and also think are great qualities for an agent!

As we gear up for a winter that’s teeming with exciting fandoms, I’ve been increasingly drawn to the hopeful and uplifting trailers that have rolled out for A WRINKLE IN TIME, directed by Ava DuVernay. “Be a warrior,” Oprah says to Meg. I felt ready to fight! I don’t know what, but I was ready. Yes! Be a warrior!

So how can you be a warrior when it comes to your writing career? Many aspects of the process can feel daunting, so learning to wage war on your doubt and feelings of defeat will only propel you through the arduous, never-ending process.

What tools does a warrior-writer need?

Persistence: A warrior never gives up! They keep going no matter what obstacles are thrown in their way. It’s easy, at any stage of your career, to throw your hands up and quit. Rejection is consistent and doesn’t stop when you sign with an agent, or even when you have a published book. Knowing how to push through the hardships, the rejection, the feelings of doubt, even imposter syndrome, makes all the difference. Being a persistent warrior can help you keep your emotional sanity in an emotionally sapping industry.

Endurance: Most writers give up at the querying stage. There are just too many NOs to handle. Maybe they weren’t prepared for the wave of rejections. Maybe they were too invested in their work to have an objective view of it. If you want a lasting career in publishing, you’ll have to overcome a lot of obstacles. Querying is just the first step. If you can’t get past query rejections, you’re already dead in the water. Be a warrior. Remember that there are many battles left to fight. You can lose many of them and still win the war. You just need that warrior perspective.

Adaptability: Publishing is a changing industry, and trends ebb and flow. What’s hot now might not be hot later. Everything is cyclical. Most writers don’t realize that the books being publishing now were likely sold to publishers a year or two ago. It’s also possible that it was another year or so before that when the author signed with their agent. Vampires might feel passé, but eventually readers will be excited for a new wave of vampire books. Keeping this in mind, a warrior will be able to go with the flow or roll with the punches. It’s not easy to predict which stories will become a hit with readers, so being ready to change things up is an important warrior trait to have.

Communication: The best warriors know how to share their strategies with others. In an industry where people spend most of their time with words, you’d think good communication would be a given. But you’d be surprised how many struggle to effectively convey their thoughts and ideas. Knowing how to advocate for yourself and express your needs is essential to moving ahead in this industry, but that all begins with your writing. Craft a solid query letter and make sure you have written a strong manuscript. It’s challenging to differentiate between good and bad when you’re first starting out, but getting feedback from others, giving feedback in return, and being clear about expectations will go along way in helping warriors craft strong writing that will get them the win they are looking for.

Dedication: Warriors need to be fully committed. The road is rough, and if you aren’t 100% all-in, it will be obvious. Publishing is a very collaborative industry. Agents are working with their clients to get manuscripts ready for submission; agents and authors are working with editors to make sure manuscripts become books that sell well; and authors are engaging with readers to build their fan base and ensure future success.

Prolificacy: A warrior is always thinking about that next step, that next campaign. A writer should always be writing, thinking about writing, and forming story ideas. It’s all too easy to get over-invested in one idea, one manuscript, to the point that you can’t move on. When you’re querying, write your next book. That way, if your manuscript is rejected, you’ll have another ready to send out. When you’re agented, work on a new manuscript while you’re out on submission. If your agent can’t sell your first book, you’ll have your next lined up. If they do sell it, your editor will be grateful that there are options for a sophomore book right away.

So warriors, go out there. Be bold. Be smart. Be strong. Be a Warrior.

We are in the season of hot chocolate, sweaters, and storytelling late into the night. Because of that, and because this is the last NLA newsletter of 2017, I wanted to share a story of authorly hard work, hope, and, ultimately, perseverance with you. If you have gotten nothing but rejections for your query, or you haven’t landed that agent, or your full manuscript has gotten nothing but passes, DON’T GIVE UP!

I met Jillian Boehme when I landed my first agency job in 2013. I was an assistant and she was my boss’s client. At that time, she had already spent eight years working toward a book contract. She’d written several manuscripts before landing an agent and been on submission to editors at every reputable publishing house with three additional manuscripts that had gotten nothing but passes. In 2007, she had also started a popular (and, at the time, anonymous) writing advice blog called Miss Snark’s First Victim, which boasted many success stories by connecting numerous authors with agents who went on to sell their books. And yet, despite her hard work, despite her industry connections, despite continuing to write and building her platform, despite having an agent, despite her persistence, she could not seem to sell a novel.

The thing about Jill is that she has an unrelenting work ethic mixed with a deep core need to create art. Every time she was knocked down (and it happened many more times than either of us wanted), she shook it off and approached her writing with a renewed sense of determination. When she submitted her fourth novel, a YA sci-fi, my boss and I gave her a massive revision that, among other things, included eliminating a love triangle by changing the gender of a character, throwing away an entire central plot line, and replacing it with an entirely new one. She got the edit letter, took a breath, and pulled it off beautifully, improving the manuscript by miles in the process. Sadly, that book didn’t sell either, but it did do something important. It pushed her to be a better writer.

By the time Jillian wrote her fifth book for submission to publishers, she had switched to YA fantasy, which my boss at the time didn’t represent, but happens to be one of my favorite genres. I was building my own client list and she and I had been working together for almost three years. We had developed a relationship built on trust, jokes, a love of chocolate, and mutual admiration. Neither of us knew for sure whether she’d ever land a book deal, but I had never seen any author work harder, bounce back from rejection more completely, or improve so drastically in skill and technique with each project. She approached her career with a dogged determination and kept trying even when she had every reason to give up. I loved her fifth book; it was the strongest thing she’d ever written. My boss stepped aside, we formalized our agent/author relationship, edited together, pushed it to be even better, and enthusiastically submitted to editors. We got so close. Every rejection was a heartbreaker, glowing and filled with praise. It still didn’t sell.

Now, twelve years in to Jillian’s journey to publication, five years in to my own relationship with her, and six publisher-submitted manuscripts later, all that hope and hard work has finally paid off. In November, we announced a deal with one of NYC’s major publishers. Jillian’s debut YA fantasy, Gathering Storm, sold to the brilliant and insightful Elayne Becker at Tor Teen in a two-book deal and will be published in Summer 2019. It is already generating film interest.

It is my personal philosophy as an agent that I need to be my clients’ biggest fan and cheerleader. We are a team. There were times when Jillian felt discouraged and couldn’t find hope; in those moments, I told her I’d take care of hoping for the both of us. I have read each of her books upwards of five times and we’ve had endless (and wonderful) editorial and strategic conversations. The agent/author relationship is a special one of shared enthusiasm and dedication to art and business. Through each rejection, we looked to the future and strategized about the next step. This was a very meaningful win. When the offer from Elayne came in, Jillian and I both cried a lot of happy tears.

Whether you are querying agents, waiting for that first book deal, or already published and working to climb higher, you can look to Jillian and her journey for inspiration. Remember that rejections are a badge of honor. It means you are in the game; people in the industry are reading your work. No matter how many no’s you get, all you need is one yes. And, most importantly, there is no such thing as overnight success. To move forward in this business (or in any business), you must constantly learn, grow, and improve. Work hard and don’t ever give up. You are reading this because you are a writer; keep writing and keep getting better. The rest will follow.

The short answer is nothing. There actually isn’t much you can do.

Rarely discussed in publishing is the fact that certain countries don’t recognize or honor copyright law. Persian countries (including Iran and Iraq) are an excellent example of territories that don’t. Persian publishers will often translate popular novels and publish them in their countries without a license, and the author does not receive a dime as an advance or royalties.

Kind of shocking, isn’t it?

This situation has happened a number of times for my authors. We usually find out about unlicensed editions when an author receives fan mail or a lovely note from the translator. Even though the Persian publishers don’t feel much obligation to the author, we have found over the years that the translators actually do. And often they will reach out to the author and ask permission to do the translation—even though they know (and are quite apologetic) that the publisher has no plans to compensate the author in any way.

I have a special place in my heart for these morally centered translators.

So what can an author do when it becomes apparent that his or her books are being translated and published in countries that don’t honor copyright protection?

My answer is this. The author should offer to write a special foreword for the edition in exchange for a nominal fee. It’s my attempt to get the author at least some compensation. Yet so far no Iranian publisher has taken me up on this offer.

But I’m hopeful. Someday…

Photo Credit: Peta de Aztlan

All aspiring writers want their magic number to be one.

The first novel a writer ever wrote is perfect from conception.

The first novel lands a literary agent.

The first novel is so awesome, it immediately sells at auction.

The first novel is published to great fanfare and much commercial success.

The dream-come-true of overnight success. Well, I’d like to tell you something about that. Overnight success is a fabrication created by media outlets because it makes for a good story.

Ninety-nine-percent of the time, overnight-success stories are fiction. Most of these stories don’t divulge that the author ghostwrote ten novels for other people, or wrote three of their own novels that are tucked away because the author was working on craft.

In real life, what is the magic number—the number of novels written before a writer gets picked up by an agent, sold, and published?

I’ll tell you right now, it’s not one. If you poll a large number of authors and ask them how many novels they wrote before their first one sold, and then if you average the numbers they give you, my sense is that you will land right around four.

One of the truths I highlight at writers conferences is that for more than half of my clients, I passed on the first project they sent me. It wasn’t until they sent me a later, more mature work that our agent-author love match bloomed.

Why do I tell you all this? If you’ve just completed your first novel, awesome. Celebrate this huge achievement. But it doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t sell, or if you independently publish it and it doesn’t get much traction.

Keep on writing. Your magic number might be two or six or ten. My guess is that if you are passionately writing with ten novels under your belt, success is just around the corner.

Photo Credit: Andy Maguire