Pub Rants

Category: self 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

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

The following would have been impossible even seven years ago:

This week I sold the film/tv rights for a memoir that a major publisher took out-of-print in 2013. But because of the indie-publishing revolution, the author had made her memoir available in the digital realm. Because of that, it was discoverable by a major Oscar-winning director and producer who not only took an interest, but also optioned the rights for television.

Sounds like fiction, doesn’t it? Back in 2005, I met Kim Reid at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs. Kim had made a pitch appointment, but she pitched me a novel that didn’t sound right for my list. However, in the course of our conversation, I learned about her extraordinary childhood as the daughter of one of the lead detectives who helped solve the Atlanta child murders, committed by Wayne Williams in the seventies and eighties.

I immediately told her, “You need to write that. I could definitely sell it!” So she did, and I signed her as a client. It took sixteen months of dogged determination, and Kim surviving a slew of rejections, but I finally sold No Place Safe in June 2006.

Kensington Publishing did a lovely job with it. Good packaging. Wonderful editing. And then the book was published, and bookstores shelved it, oddly, in African American Studies rather than in biography, where it truly belonged. I can honestly say that the shelving diminished the book’s discoverability, as well as its ability to sell.

Heartbreaking. By 2013, the work was out-of-print, and the rights reverted to Kim.

Luckily, the digital revolution happened. So Kim, in partnership with NLA Digital LLC, indie published the memoir to give it a second chance at life. Director/producer John Ridley found it. Bought a copy. Read and loved it so much that he convinced ABC Studios to buy it for him.

Suddenly, a memoir that would have dropped completely from sight was saved by publishing’s digital transformation. This title now has a ton of exciting new possibilities unfolding.

This is why I love agenting in the digital age. Authors have so many more options available now. And this particular terrific story happened to a very worthy book!

Photo Credit: Alyssa L. Miller

Polarization of Authors?

NINC is a terrific conference that caters to authors who are already multi-published. After attending last week, it’s clear to me that this conference is leaning more and more toward supporting authors who are exploring the indie-publishing route.

There was a decidedly anti-traditional-publisher sentiment in a lot of the panels that I both participated in and attended. This is not a commentary on the conference, by the way. It’s merely my observation. I think a lot of attendees would probably agree with my assessment.

But this is what worries me. I sense a widening division between authors who traditionally publish and authors who self-publish. And there’s no need for that. This is not an either/or question, nor is there only one right path to publication. (By the way, for what it’s worth, editors from “traditional” publishers much prefer the term “commercial” publisher.)

The conference vibe seemed to rest on a few assumptions:

1) That authors who stay with traditional publishers are stupid for doing so (not necessarily true) and that they can’t make a living/career by solely writing while partnering with a commercial publisher. (Also not necessarily true as plenty of traditionally published authors make high 6 or 7-figure incomes and enjoy the marketing campaigns their publishers invest in them.)

2) That indie publishing is the only route for an author who wants to be in control of his/her career (not necessarily true, as agents negotiate a lot of things in contracts).

3) That indie publishing is the only way to make good money or a living by writing (also not necessarily true, as some indies make really good money and others are not seeing as much financial reward).

It’s a disservice to the industry in general and to the conscious choices an individual author would like to make about his/her career by thinking in these kinds of divisive absolutes. Plenty of good reasons exist to choose one path or the other (or a combo of both).

Writers, in the end, there is only one right path–the path that is actually right for you and your career. And when you gather the data, weigh the pros and cons, and make a conscientious decision about what you’d like to explore, you are actually thinking like an agent. As that is what we do every day for each individual client at our agency.

If It Sounds Too Good to Be True, It Is

As I was reading Digital Book World‘s daily email blast, I came across a press release in the form of an article called Writer’s Digest Inks Deal with Book Baby. It was about a new self-publishing imprint called Blue Ash Publishing.

What struck me was this bullet point:

  • 100% Net Earnings on all sales: Blue Ash Publishing takes no commission on any book sales. Authors keep 100% of their book’s net earnings. Once retailers are paid their percentage, all remaining revenue goes back to the author. BookBaby offers the largest eBook distribution network, including Amazon, Apple, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and many other popular retailers in more than 170 countries around the globe.

One-hundred percent of net earnings on all sales goes to the author. Sounds great, right? So immediately I started thinking like an agent. And the first question that pops to mind is, “What’s the catch?” There is no such thing as a free lunch. Just how exactly will Blue Ash Publishing make money in this venture?

Always follow the money…

I decided to do a little digging. First stop, check the source–Blue Ash’s website. Sure enough, right there on the home page was a link to Blue Ash’s publishing packages.

In actuality, writers need to think of this as a service or one-stop shopping for independent contractors to convert the book, do the cover, hire the editor, etc. This is not a publishing house. I repeat: This is not a publishing house. And from what I see on the website, they offer nothing that you can’t do on your own pretty simply, for a lot cheaper—and you’ll get paid directly rather than via a third party.

As my indie authors constantly remind me (and other writers who will listen), no one can publicize your book as well as you can. And it’s certainly not worth the $3,000+ for Blue Ash Publishing’s “Ultimate Package.”

Last but not least, because you are thinking like an agent, if you are going to explore this “service,” be sure to get a very clear definition of what “net” means to Blue Ash.

Bottom line? Pass. You can do this all for a lot cheaper than these price tags.

Just recently I was doing an interview with a reporter from  Publishers Weekly and she asked if I found it surprising that the New Adult category had remained hot for so long. Here is my response: 
I don’t find it surprising at all actually. Publishing tends to run hot on trends. Sometimes to the point of saturation.
What indie self publishing authors are doing is writing and releasing a lot of content quickly. They see what works and what doesn’t and they shift course if something is not getting the desired reaction or when something is. They have that flexibility because it’s all digital.
Ten years ago, new adult was “hot” but we called it chick lit and it was less sexual relationship or romance focused. Then that became a dirty word and we had to call it contemporary romance or women’s fiction and age up the protagonists.
That left a hole in the market for a whole lot of readers who loved reading works in that genre but got tired of the same old Sex in the City type story lines.
New adult is the 20-something coming of age and the new novels hitting in this realm are emotionally intense (unlike their chick lit predecessors). Prolific indie authors figured it out pretty quickly that the audience was there and started writing for them. It hasn’t abated because the market is not yet saturated.
One thing about Jasinda Wilder is that she is creating her own niche within what people are calling New Adult. 50 Shades is a story of sexual discovery and awakening. What Jasinda is doing is more Nicholas Sparks. Her stories are about emotional healing and the relationship/romance is part of the healing process in a significant way. Now she is a little stunned at the velocity of the response/sales for Falling Into You.

So last week when I was out in New York for the Writers Digest Conference, I gave a talk on why successful indie authors might want to partner with agents.

As I was putting together my talking points, I actually came to the conclusion that why they partner is the wrong question. The real question might be when should indie authors partner with an agent.

If  indie authors are becoming successful, an agent can accelerate their exposure in a big way. For example, I couple of weeks ago I took on self-publishing phenom Jasinda Wilder. On March 16, she released her 18th novel FALLING INTO YOU.

In less than one month, she sold 140,000 digital copies of this title.

Yes, you read that right.

That’s a crazy number of copies in a short period of time. She hit the NYT and USA Today list for several weeks in a row.

She decided to partner with me. My job is now to accelerate her exposure in any way possible. Within a week Publishers Weekly did a feature story on her and I imagine this won’t be the last coverage given her extraordinary success.

Would Jasinda get coverage without me? Sure. But there is no doubt I’m stomping on the gas. This can be incredibly beneficial in talking with publishers and for foreign deals.

On Thursday I’m flying to New York City to give a presentation at the Writers Digest Conference on Friday morning. My topic is why a successful indie self-publishing author might want to partner with an agent.

If you are an indie author that doesn’t see the value in having an agent, I’m not really going to change your mind so there really is no purpose in reading my next several blog posts where I share my thoughts. However, if you are curious, I’m happy to share several reasons on why they do. Now of course I can only speak to why several indie authors have decided to partner with me. It’s going to vary depending on the author and the agent.  But I represent several and they find our relationship invaluable.

Thought 1: People are complaining about the archaic nature of publishing and why doesn’t it change.

Okey dokey. Let’s quit complaining and start having conversations to instigate change because how do you think change happens?

In May of 2012, I had Hugh Howey fly out to New York to sit-down with publishers. I thought it was important for them to meet him in-person just so they could see for themselves what a reasonable, personable, and forward-thinking author he was. He was not, and has never been, anti-traditional publisher. In fact, he’s fairly pro-publisher. But a partnership has to make sense and there is a lot of stuff from traditional publishing that doesn’t make sense.

Before Hugh got on the plane, we both knew that it was very unlikely that the meetings would result in an offer that we’d be willing to take.  Yet, WE DID IT ANYWAY. Why? And this might be kind of silly but both of us felt kind of strongly that having in-person conversations with publishers about our sticking points (ebook royalty rate, sales thresholds in out of print clauses, and non-compete clauses) was necessary in order to facilitate possible change in the future. In other words, we weren’t going to see the benefit of it but maybe a future indie publishing author would because we had started the conversation.

And these conversations could only occur via a reasonable author partnering with a reasonable agent who were meeting with affable and reasonable publishers and editors and having frank, smart, and intelligent conversations with them about current contractual sticking points.

For Hugh, it resulted in a very unexpected print-rights only offer five months later (much to our surprise). That was way sooner than either of us had ever thought to hope.

I imagine that in the not-so-distant-future other indie authors (and who might be unagented) might be thanking Hugh for having partnered with an agent (way) back in 2012 so as to have these meetings. Just as they might be thanking Bella Andre and her agent for pulling off one of the first print-rights only deals (that was publicly announced -there might be others I’m unaware of).