BY CHIP MACGREGOR
We’re living in a new publishing economy. Over the past five to ten years, nearly everything about the publishing industry has changed significantly. The way information is gathered, tracked, and shared has changed. We now live with digital royalty reports and catalogs. There are fewer bookstores, fewer editors working for publishers, yet more books being published than ever before. There’s less editing, smaller advances, and a bunch of new, more nimble start-up companies that are gaining a toehold in the market. The move from brick-and-mortar stores to an online experience is completely different – there are more titles than ever, and I can get anything delivered quickly, but the online shopping experience isn’t nearly as fulfilling as wandering through the aisles of a bookstore, exploring unknown authors and discovering hidden treasures.
Publishers no longer worry about ink/paper/binding costs, or transportation & warehousing expenditures, so their margins have grown. At the same time, while authors are being offered greater royalties for digital books, their per-book earnings are down. And while the growth of the web has offered those authors more opportunity to market their titles to readers, with the opportunity has come responsibility – to the extent that many writers feel they are full-time sales people and only part-time writers.
But the biggest change of all, of course, is that Amazon and Smashwords allows for ANYONE to claim to be an author. Just write some words, post it on Amazon, and – voila! You’re an author. It’s led to what I call “Publishing as Amway.” Those of you who lived through the 80’s will remember the Amway revolution… You were told all you had to do was sign up, buy some soap products, and start signing up your friends to do the same. They’d sign up their friends, who would in turn sign up their friends, until, through the miracle of multiplication, you’d have this awesome downline – a bunch of people, all buying products and giving you a small piece, and the money would come rolling in. You’d be buying a Cadillac and taking that trip to Hawaii in no time.
We all tried it. None of us succeeded. We bought the shampoo, wrote our dream circles, talked our friends into joining, and… no money came in. The magic Amway money didn’t show up, except for the occasional rare person who got up to speak at gatherings of other wannabe millionaires, and who somehow seemed to harbor some knowledge the rest of us just didn’t share. I have nothing against Amway personally, and I’m sure there are a handful of people who shared their dream circles and saw them all come true, but the fact is for most of us the entire experience was more promise than reality, more dreams than dollars.
And that’s the same dream being pushed, by people who see publishing as Amway. “Just post your book on Amazon and watch the money roll in.” Like the million you’re about to make in multi-level marketing, it’s a myth. Amazon saw its list of titles increase from 2 million to 4 million titles in just a couple years due to wannabe authors posting their self-published novels, yet most sold fewer than 100 copies. For every author who made a thousand bucks, there are hundreds of authors who made almost nothing. In fact, it’s only the occasional breakout book — THE SHACK or GONE GIRL or FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY — that keep authors chasing after the unlikely dream of posting their novel and hitting the big time.
I write this because I was at a conference recently where some people made a big deal about not needing agents in this new publishing economy. “All you need to do is post your book,” one said to me. “You can always call a lawyer if you’ve got a contract question.” That’s an interesting perspective, particularly coming from someone who spent a lot of time bragging about THE SHACK.
Take a look at THE SHACK, which at first seemed to provide a compelling argument for self-publishing. The three authors worked together, created a story that talked about God in creative ways, and worked hard through social media to get the word out. While I was never a fan (I couldn’t get past the turgid prose or the heavy-handed spirituality), the book took off, sold a million copies, and eventually they sold the whole thing to Hachette, who went on to sell another several million more copies. The authors were quick to proclaim how they’d never needed an agent – they did it all on a handshake, and it worked great… until it didn’t. Because eventually those authors started suing each other. It turns out one guy thought he wasn’t getting enough money, and another that he wasn’t getting enough credit, and then they were worried that the publisher (which happens to be the company I was a publisher for) wasn’t doling out the money correctly. Everybody sued everybody, and the whole thing turned into a mess. Now? They all have agents.
You see, in the complex, changing environment that is contemporary publishing, it’s nice to have somebody who knows what’s going on. In the early days of publishing, authors were frequently cheated. They weren’t paid, they had bad contracts, and they didn’t know how to negotiate. Authors didn’t know the systems, or have access to the people in charge, so there was a paternal aspect to publishers. Worse, there wasn’t anyone to look after the author’s best interests when they diverged from that of the publisher’s.
Enter the agent. You could argue that my job, as a literary agent, is fundamentally the same as it’s always been: locate talent, nourish it, land them at a publishing house, and do a good job representing their best interests. But in reality the details of my job are completely different than just a few years ago. I could spend nearly all my time discussing marketing with authors – something I didn’t use to do. The market changes faster than ever, and contracts have moved from three page documents in the form of a letter to thirty-page monstrosities written by lawyers for whom English is apparently not their first language. A good agent manages backlist, interprets your royalty report, sings your praises, and says the hard things to the publisher when they need to be said. They still talk through a story, and offer insight into the system, and negotiate your contract, but more than anything a good agent looks after your career in difficult times.
The publisher has a team of accountants and lawyers looking after their interests. In today’s complex publishing environment, who do you have? That handful of authors who sold a million copies of their ebook and now are looking at landing a mega-deal with a huge publisher? They’ve all got agents now. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that.