Archive for the ‘Current Affairs’ Category

A big change for our agency

June 12th, 2014 | Current Affairs | 1 Comment

It’s always hard to say good-bye to friends, and it is especially hard when you have a long history of success in business together.

Today we’re saying good-bye to longtime agent Sandra Bishop, who has resigned in order to pursue other opportunities.

Sandra and I have worked together for seven years. Over that time she has worked to become a successful, respected agent in the industry, and has represented some wonderful projects — she was named “Agent of the Year” by ACFW in 2010, represented a RITA Award winner in 2011, has had several books on the various bestseller lists, and become well-known as a reasoned, thoughtful voice in the industry. She will soon be announcing her future plans, and they will doubtless involve books, authors, and well-told stories. We shall miss her, but we’re parting as friends, and we wish her nothing but the best in her new ventures.

If you want to reach out to Sandra, her new email address is: bishopspdx@gmail.com

Chip MacGregor

Why I love Amazon

June 9th, 2014 | Current Affairs | 9 Comments

After some recent blog posts, it was pretty clear some readers thought I was bashing Amazon. A word about that… I love Amazon. They are the single largest seller of the books I get to represent. The are fast, inexpensive, and innovative. Amazon created the first e-reader, the Kindle, thus setting up an entirely new market for books. Their customer service is usually great. And they help me make money for the authors I represent.

Think about this for a moment… According to a Codex Group report that was distributed at BEA last week, Amazon sold 41% of all new books in the month of March. They sold 65% of all ebooks that same month. And, not to swamp you with numbers, but that study revealed that of ALL book sales in March of this year, 41% were sold via e-commerece, and 22% were sold in bookstore chains. (If you’re interested, 3% of all book sales came from religious bookstores, 3% from independent stores, 3% from Costco & Sam’s Club, 2% from supermarkets, 2% used book stores, 2% were sold direct-to-consumer, 2% nontraditional bookstores such as craft and health food stores, 6% book clubs, and 8% from mass merchandisers.) So in other words, two sales avenues dominate book sales — bookstores chains and e-commerce. And there are only TWO companies that have a significant chunk of both the e-book and print market: Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I’d like to see them both survive. Consumers win when there is competition.

Amazon has been incredibly well run, and they have some advantages over other booksellers, including the largest list of books of any bookseller on the planet, and a huge scale of operations to make it succeed. I own a Kindle, and I love the fact that I can go on, any time, find several million titles to browse through, then download the ones I want with the click of a button. (Imagine if you could buy groceries that way… oh wait! You can, if you use Amazon’s grocery-shopping services.) The actual shopping experience at Amazon isn’t nearly as satisfying as wandering around through the aisles of Barnes & Noble or Books-a-Million, but sheer scale is amazing, and the ease is like something out of The Jetsons. Push a button and WHAM. It’s done.

Not only that, but I work with several of the editors at the various Amazon Publishing imprints, and they are very good at what they do. They work hard, do a fine job, and are always trying to beat the other publishers — which is their job. And I mention all of this because, in the current dispute between Amazon and Hachette, it’s easy to make it seem like there is a Good Guy and a Bad Guy — and most of the industry is siding with Hachette. I don’t think it’s fair to characterize the parties as good and bad — it’s a negotiation. It’s certainly not fair to characterize Hachette as wounded or struggling (they’re part of a multi-billion dollar conglomerate in France that is one of the most successful entertainment companies on the planet, so I think they’re still able to pay the light bill). But I DO think it’s fair to point out when a company, even a company you like and respect, is doing something you don’t think is best for writers and readers. And in this case, what Amazon is doing (not listing some ebooks, delaying the delivery of books, not allowing pre-sales, just to squeeze one publisher so that they can continue to push smaller companies out of business), I think it’s perfectly fair to cry foul.

There are at least two negotiation points that Amazon and Hachette are fighting over, and they both have to do with the greater world of publishing. One is the notion of loss leaders — Amazon wants to buy some books for five dollars and sell them at four, which means they take a loss on the sale, but it keeps a lot of readers coming to the site to buy other titles. Hachette wants to prevent that, because that in turn drives out retailers who don’t have the resources to compete with those types of losses. The other is the notion of windowing — a publisher selling only the expensive hardcover edition of a book upon first release, then moving to trade paper, then eventually releasing the lower-priced ebook edition (much the way publishers used to use mass market sized books). Windowing is a way to maximize the dollars generated on a title. We see moves sold this way, with the most expensive edition coming out initially, followed later by a lower-priced edition without the special packaging, and then later still by a plain-Jane edition with the movie on a disc but no features. But Amazon is opposed to windowing, since they make the bulk of their money via e-books. Again, these are just two items (but an important two) that both have long-term implications for the industry. I’m of the opinion that we need bookstores and publishers, and that retaining them helps keep our industry healthy.

For those of you who write in CBA (and we represent a number of authors who write in the Christian market), an analogy to the Amazon/Hachette fight would be how fiction is currently being treated by Lifeway Stores. The Lifeway chain is huge in CBA circles, but their tastes are very restrictive — no sex of any kind (to the point of sometimes being silly — we had a book rejected by them once because a character touched his fiance’s thigh in the text), no language of any kind, no adult themes of any kind, no theology of any kind that isn’t in line with conservative evangelicalism. All of that may sound fine to you, if you’re in that camp. But it begs the question, “Why isn’t anyone under the age of 35 buying CBA fiction?” Sales of Christian fiction are way down, particularly in CBA stores, and CBA publishers are cutting fiction editors and trimming their lists. I keep wondering, “Why is a publisher willing to let Lifeway put them out of business? Why don’t they tell the conservative, middle-aged, Bible-belt Baptist white guys who are running that chain to take a flying leap?” Because, sooner or later, the retailers will need good books to sell.

So let’s say you have a book releasing with Hachette next week. Normally it’s up for pre-sales, but Amazon, because of the ongoing negotiation with Hachette, has decided not to make it available as a pre-order. The ebook isn’t listed at all an Amazon. When someone comes onto the site to purchase a copy, they are told it will take six weeks to arrive. And this isn’t because of the fault of the author — it’s because the author is a pawn in the bigger game between two giant companies. Who is it that really gets damaged in this? The author, who won’t be making money. And the reader, who can’t find the book. And that’s my point. As an agent, I’m here every day trying to help authors make a living. And, in this case, it’s the authors that are hit hard. And Amazon, who has always made it a point to treat authors and readers with respect, is failing to do that.

Sure, readers can go buy the book elsewhere. But… is that really the point Amazon wants to make? That readers should go elsewhere? As a businessman, I’d suggest that’s a terrible argument. So, yes. I love Amazon. I appreciate all they do. I want to keep working with them. But let’s not act as though they’re above any form of criticism.

The latest on the Amazon/Hachette Fight

June 6th, 2014 | Current Affairs | 18 Comments

Since my blog post on Wednesday, there have been several new developments in the battle between Amazon and Hachette…

1. After delaying orders on Hachette titles, refusing to discount them as they have other publishers’ titles, and sometimes not even listing the ebook version on their site, Amazon is now using a new tactic: Halting all pre-orders of Hachette titles. That prevents authors from getting out of the gate fast with a big first-day hit — and it effectively will keep some titles from hitting the bestseller lists.

2. Amazon then released a statement in which it defended its tactics (http://tinyurl.com/k4ax3wd). If you take a look, it will strike you as odd, since they argue they’re doing to “on behalf of customers,” and they propose some sort of “author pool” to help authors hit hard by their tactics. Um… I don’t mean to sound like I’m taking sides here, but if Amazon is delaying books or not making them available at all, how is that working on behalf of customers? And Amazon is worried about authors losing royalties? I don’t know if that’s EVER been on their list concerns in the past. Anyway…

3. Hachette then responded by rejecting that idea and sniffing that Amazon treats books as just another commodity, like everything else they sell on their site. You can read the response here: http://tinyurl.com/ljslu4n .

4. Talk show host Stephen Colbert, who is a Hachette author, chimed in by telling viewers he had a “little package” for Amazon (he opened a box, stuck his hand into it, and flipped them off), then told readers how they could get a free sticker from his website that reads “I didn’t buy it on Amazon.” And, try as I might, I can’t seem to import that sticker into this blog post. Sorry. But you can watch the clip here: http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/ukf9gv/amazon-vs–hachette

5. The debate has largely put authors into two camps — the pro-Amazon camp (this side treats self-publishing like it’s a religion — Amazon can do no wrong, Jeff Bezos is my savior, and all traditional publishers are evil and destined to failure) and the pro-Hachette camp (they see Amazon as the Great Satan, and believe that Hachette’s multi-billion dollar publishing corporation is struggling to make ends meet). Again, there aren’t heroes and villains here, in any great degree. This is a business negotiation, over millions of dollars. I don’t like some of Amazon’s tactics, but I tend to be on the side of authors, and what they’re doing isn’t helping authors one bit.

I did have someone write to me and argue that Amazon is on the side of consumers by offering low prices. A word about that… Low prices are great. Given a chance to buy Starbucks coffee at Starbucks for $14, or at the grocery store for $9, I tend to purchase the lower cost option. That said, I’m not going to buy coffee picked by slaves, or from a coffee grower known to rape the earth, even if it’s cheaper. Sometimes there are factors more important than price. I don’t buy shoes created by child labor, or products that contain harmful chemicals. Why? Because sometimes consumers have to think long term. And thinking long term in publishing, you have to admit that having one book retailer in this country isn’t good for authors or readers. Amazon is a great company, who sells my authors and helps us all make money. But I don’t want them to have a monopoly on book sales, because monopolies never are good for consumers.

So while I understand both sides of this debate, I’m not comfortable with Amazon pushing other people out of business. You can say its market forces, or capitalism at work, but it’s not — this is a retailer that has said they don’t care if their suppliers go out of business, so it seems like it’s an aggressive plan to take over an industry. And if that’s what is happening, this is the first in a HUGE fight for the future of publishing. If I were Hachette, I would not be satisfied with having Amazon try to push me out of business. As an agent, I’m not willing to let Amazon (or Hachette, for that matter) push me out of business. I think this is the start of a major war over the choices authors and readers have, and it’s why we need to pay attention to the discussion.

The Biggest News at BEA?

June 3rd, 2014 | Current Affairs, The Business of Writing | 29 Comments

Just got back from a week in New York, seeing all the books and publishers and figuring out what direction the industry is moving. There was a great spirit at Book Expo this year — none of the angst and worry that has dogged the show the past few years. They tried something new this time at the Javits Center — opened up the floor to the public on Saturday, sold tickets at $20 a pop, publicized a ton of author signings, and watched 10,000 people buy their way into the show. (For the record, it was apparently all teen girls, looking to get their YA and romance novels signed, or to catch a glimpse of a celebrity like Cary Elwes signing copies of his latest tome.) But the biggest topic of conversation? The dispute between Amazon and Hachette. No question.

You may or may not be familiar with the issues, so let me offer an outsiders perspective…

1. There is some bad blood between Amazon and Big Six publishers. On the one hand, the publishers know that Amazon is their biggest account, so they want to keep the relationship healthy. On the other hand, the publishers know that Amazon is predatory, and is on record as having said that they could live in a world without publishers. So while they’d like things to continue, the relationship is not without some problems.

2. If you’re an author who doesn’t pay much attention to the news, the Big Six publishers were all taken to court last year for using an agency model (and, in essence, for looking suspiciously like they were colluding to keep ebook prices high). The Department of Justice sided with Amazon, the publishers all paid big fines, and agreed to modify the way they do business.

3. Each of the Big Six publishers have some sort of term contract with Amazon, that clarifies things like discount rates, returns, etc. It just so happens that Hachette’s contract is up first, so they’re the ones who are currently in negotiation with Amazon — and it has gotten nasty.

4. We don’t know all the disagreements Hachette and Amazon are having in their discussions, but one of the biggies is that Hachette does not want Amazon to sell books for less than they bought them. In other words, if Amazon buys a book for five bucks from Hachette, then the publisher wants assurances the book will be sold for at least five dollars — NOT as a loss leader at $3.87. Why? Because doing so puts other booksellers at a severe disadvantage. Amazon can afford to lose tens of thousands on a loss leader to draws in customers, but Mrs. Weinstein at David’s Bookshop cannot.

5. Here’s why that is important to publishers: The Big Six publishers recognize the need to keep small booksellers in business. If independent booksellers all go out of business, Amazon will have a monopoly on book sales. And that, in turn, will drive publishers out of business.

6. Amazon, on the other hand, doesn’t care one bit if small booksellers go out of business. They’re in business to make money, and they’ll do what they can to be the biggest bookseller on the planet. If that means using loss leaders, so be it.

7. So it’s gotten nasty. In February, Amazon stopped discounting nearly all Hachette titles. You know how you could usually go to Amazon and find a $23.99 hardcover on sale for $18.99? No more. In March, Amazon started slowing down all Hachette sales. You used to order a book online and receive it within a few days — now the page will say the book will be available within four to six weeks. In April, Amazon stopped discounting Hachette ebooks, or in many cases simply not listing the ebook at all on their site. So while the average Hachette ebook sold for roughly $7 a few months ago, it’s now about twice that… if you can find it at all.

8. So Amazon, a company that used to pride itself on being customer focused, is deliberately choosing to treat customers badly, in order to try and force better terms from Hachette. (In addition to wanting to sell books at a loss, they want more marketing dollars from Hachette, and of course are pushing for greater discounts. This fight is ALL about money.) There’s no debating that Amazon has played dirty — dirty enough that they’ve made Hachette, who is a multi-billion dollar entertainment conglomerate in France, look as sympathetic as a wounded soldier.

9. At the same time, Hachette is getting support from other Big Six houses — which is odd, when you think about it, since the other Big Six houses are the competition. But the publishers recognize that Amazon is perfectly happy to see all the publishers go out of business, so publishers recognize they’re in a major battle here. So far, they’re holding fast, explaining the situation to readers, and pleading for them to buy their titles through other outlets.

10. Who Hachette is not getting support from is small publishers, who sell all their books on Amazon. To them, Hachette is just another big company fighting over a few bucks. They don’t feel sorry for Hachette Book Group at all.

11. And all this has led to a sales bonanza for WalMart, who has stepped in and sold more Hachette titles than ever. Books-a-Million (BAM) has also sold more Hachette titles. And I’m expecting to see B&N.com use this as a boon for their Nook business. In fact, the discussion has been that all the Big Six publishers could conceivably walk away from Amazon and start doing business with BAM or B&N.

12. The problem with that solution is that the US Department of Justice is freaking in love with Amazon. They’ve fallen all over themselves to support Amazon’s position (read Judge Cote’s decision in the previously mentioned case, and you’ll see — she makes huge pronouncements about technology that she, um, appears to know very little about). So right now the word among publishers is that the US DOJ is visiting all the publishers, asking to look at emails and letters, to make sure the Big Six aren’t colluding with each other, which would be a restraint of trade. (My prediction: They’re going to charge the publishers with collusion eventually. I mean, the DOJ just can’t stand to see publishers act badly… though they can live with Amazon acting badly.)

13. Know-it-all-pundits like Joe Konrath and others are rallying to the side of Amazon, of course. These are the people who see all publishers as evil — which is stupid, though they’ll never admit it. Amazon is a business, not your friend. I love Amazon, and appreciate what they do for the authors I represent, and want them to continue selling books and making a profit. But I DON’T want to see them create a monopoly. Why? Take a look at the audio book industry. Once Amazon gobbled up every independent audio company, they immediately slashed the royalties they were paying authors. Why wouldn’t they? They’re in business to make money, so if they can pay less to authors and generate more profits for the company, that’s exactly what they’ll do. But that’s a lousy deal for authors, and it’s why we have laws preventing monopolies in this country. When there’s a monopoly, retail prices go up, and royalty payments go down — and there’s plenty of historical evidence to support that notion.

14. I’m not siding completely with Hachette in this situation, by the way (though I should probably tell you that I used to be a publisher for Time-Warner Book Group, which is the former incarnation of HBG). I understand that this is basically a fight over money, and it’s a LOT of money, and both side in this fight are worth billions. I laughed at bestselling novelist James Patterson telling everyone at BEA that publishers aren’t making much money. The publishers are doing fine. But I’m going to remind you of something… As an author, you don’t really want the publishers to go out of business. Sure, some authors have made a fortune indie publishing on Amazon, which I think is great. But for all the writers posting books on Amazon, it’s a very small percentage who are making significant money. And legacy publishers, whether you like them or not, continue to help get some authors started, publishing and publicizing them, and helping some authors to make a living. Sure, it’s a small percentage, just like on Amazon, but it happens, and I’ve got authors I represent who have benefited greatly from working with publishers (just as I have authors who have benefited greatly from indie publishing). In other words, publishers offer a choice, an alternative, and for some it’s a valid choice. The world of publishing isn’t going to be stronger if big publishers go out of business, or if independent booksellers go out of business, or for that matter, if agents go out of business. For all the blather about each part of the process, each still can bring value to an author’s career, and having choices is a good thing.

So what happens next? It would be interesting to see Hachette, Penguin/Random House, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster all leave Amazon and throw their weight behind BAM or B&N.com. Competition would be a great thing for Amazon, who has clearly forgotten the value of the customer. But I don’t think that will happen. Eventually, they’ll settle on a number, the folks at Amazon will realize they’re better off selling books instead of NOT selling them, and the argument will get settled.

Seven Things I’m Thinking About on a Friday

May 23rd, 2014 | Author News, Deals, Current Affairs | 1 Comment

First, big news about an author we represent: thriller Maegan Beaumont’s Carved in Darkness won the IPPY Award Gold Medal in the Suspense/Thriller category. If you haven’t read it, you owe it to yourself to read her gripping, moody novel about a homicide investigator who begins looking into a crime and finding echoes of her own past. Congratulations, Maegan!

Second, novelist Holly Lorincz took the IPPY bronze medal in the General Fiction category for Smart Mouth — quite an achievement when you consider there were more than 5000 entrants. I have said numerous times that Smart Mouth was one of the best debut novels I’ve ever represented, and I love her story of a shy first-year teacher having to deal with the contemporary problems of small town high schoolers, all while balancing her own relationships and being coerced into coaching the speech and debate team. You can find her book on Amazon, and I guarantee you’ll enjoy it. Congrats to Holly (who works here part-time, by the way).

Third, several people have asked me what I think are the best conferences and workshops available. In my view, there are too many to count these days. I just got back from a wonderful Blue Ridge writer’s conference, and I think it has morphed into the best CBA conference for writers. There are a number of smaller writing conferences going on this summer, and many will be good — Breadloaf, Willamette, MidWest Writers Workshop, Thrillerfest. I’ll be at the Willamette conference, as well as at Western Writers of America. Of course, I tend to think RWA and ACFW are simply the two best “big” conferences on the planet. A great place to meet other writers, get introduced to the industry, and learn from experienced writers, editors, and agents.

Fourth, bestselling author Janice Thompson (Weddings by Design, Weddings by Bella, Texas Weddings, etc) is now teaching some online writing courses. If you want to learn from an experienced author with a great sense of humor, check out her classes at www.freelancewritingcourses.com

Fifth, an attorney with a great writing voice has created a “legal humor site,” I’d guess you call it, and it’w well worth checking out. A lot of laughs at www.loweringthebar.net . And if you’re sitting around bored and in need of a funny look at the writing business, take a peek at http://slushpilehell.tumblr.com . A hilarious review of bad queries, created by an agent who sees too many of them.

Sixth, I STILL HAVEN’T HEARD FROM OUR BAD POETRY WINNER, TRACY ADKINS. Her copy of MOON PEOPLE is burning a hole in my desk. I assume this isn’t famous country singer Trace Adkins, so if you know the bad poet, please encourage her to be in touch so she can receive her Grand Prize!

Seventh, I have to go get ready for BEA next week… and that means a LOT of planning and preparation on what will be a beautiful weekend at the beach. You can go enjoy the sun; I’ll be inside packing and printing off lists.

-Chip

What would you ask a literary agent? (the wrap up)

April 30th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Current Affairs, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Resources for Writing, The Business of Writing | 10 Comments

A handful of leftover questions from our month of “sitting down with a literary agent” series…

Can a person who does not aspire to fame be a successful writer?

Of course. Some writers are looking for fame, but in my experience most get into writing because they have a story to tell. By the same token, some writers embrace the “fame” aspect of getting published, and love the attention it creates, while others hate it, and just want to write and maintain their privacy. There are plenty of examples of both. Perhaps this is getting skewed today because of social media, which can sometimes make it seem like every author is required to be an extrovert. But my feeling is that there are a lot of introverted writers, who don’t seek to be everywhere, all the time, commenting on everything.

If I have a really well-written book, how can I meet literary agents?

You can go to conferences and meet some agents face to face. You can go to a book show or industry event and get in touch with agents. You can talk to published authors about their current agent. You can look at Chuck Sambucino’s Guide to Literary Agents, or Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents. You can go to the Association of Author Representatives website, or to AgentResearch.com. You can find out who the busiest agents are, or which agents tend to work in your genre by joining Publishers Marketplace and researching their database. Or I suppose you could do it the old fashioned way and try to get a face-to-face meeting by sending them a fabulous proposal and showing up to talk. No matter what you do, spend some time researching the agent to make sure he or she is a fit, what they require in a proposal, and how they work with authors. You can also go to Predators & Editors and Writer Beware to do some research as to which literary agents have warnings against them from other authors.

I was told at a conference that every fiction genre has “rules.” Is that true? And how would I know what the rules are?

The entire concept of genre fiction holds that each genre has certain rules that most novels must adhere to. So the rules for a traditional romance would include that the hero and heroine must meet early in the book, and that they must get together at the end. The rules for a cozy mystery is that something bad (usually a murder) happens at the start of the story, an amateur sleuth will have some suspicions and start to look into it, and that the mystery will be solved at the end of the story. So, yes, every genre has rules. You can find the rules by doing some research — for example, Harlequin maintains a list of rules for romance writers on their website.

How do you define literary fiction?

Generally speaking, novels that do NOT have rules. More specifically, novels that explore the great questions of life — who am I? why am I here? does my life have meaning? what should I be doing? who is God? why does He allow such pain in the world? Most literary fiction will offer characters I care about who explore the great questions of life and make choices, then examine the ramifications of those choices and their effects on the lives of the characters. It’s a way for me, as a reader, to explore my own life in a deeper way by seeing things through the lives of other people. That’s what great literature does — causes us to think more deeply about life, see things in a new light, and offer some sort of insight into the great questions.

As an author, how do I negotiate a movie option for my novel? Do I give a free option? Do I demand money for the option?

You don’t normally grant an option for free — you negotiate the option for the production company to pay you a certain amount of money, for a certain period of time. What the customer is buying is really the exclusive chance to explore turning your book into a movie. They’ll talk through the idea, figure out if there’s a market for it, how the story might change, who might be possible to direct & star in it, what the costs are, etc. And you normally go through a literary or film agent who has relationships with film and production companies, and who can make sure all the details are done correctly. A note on this: If you think publishing contracts are tricky, just wait until you see a film contract. There are a lot of stories about authors who sold their idea cheaply, then made nothing when the concept moved to the screen. It’s called “Hollywood Accounting,” and if you’re interested in this, just google the horror story of Deborah Gregory, who created The Cheetah Girls for Disney. She made some money on the books, but when they went to the stage, TV, and the big screen, she was promised 4% of net profits… and the accountants have always been able to show there were no net profits. So while Disney has generated millions in cash from the Cheetah Girls, Ms. Gregory has made nothing. Ouch.

What determines if a book is YA or adult?

Normally there are two issues involved: themes and characters. YA novels focus on certain themes — coming of age, the transition to adulthood, exploring sexuality, fostering independence, self-identification, problems at school or with parents, etc. Adult novels focus on more adult themes. In other words, novels have themes that are directly relatable to the intended readership. And YA novels generally have younger characters, so that traditionally the protagonist is the age of the readers. (That’s not always true, since some YA fantasy has very old characters suddenly dealing with independence or self-identity issues, but it’s true more often than not.) Evaluate your novel in light of those two issues, and you can usually figure out where it should land.

Have you run into situations where smaller publishing houses offer very small advances with a higher-than-normal royalty? What’s your take on a deal such as this?

Sure — most of the new micro-publishers that got started doing e-books over the past six or seven years do exactly that. They pay a small advance, or perhaps no advance, but offer a 50% net royalty — twice that of legacy publishers. The risk is that the guarantee is smaller; the reward is that, if the book does well, the author can make more money. Of course, larger publishers will explain that they have an advantage in terms of reach and marketing, while smaller publishers will tout greater author control and a bigger percentage of the take. Every business decision like that is a risk/reward equation. You have to be comfortable with the decision.

There happens to be a lot going on in my family at the moment, and I’m putting together a book of family stories. Can you recommend a self-publishing or POD company that would be good to use for this kind of project? I probably won’t need more than 50 copies.

The easy solution? Go to CreateSpace at Amazon, or to the iBookstore. Both have the capability of creating fun books with lots of photos of your family.

I’ve been at this writing career for a long time, and feel as though I don’t have much to show for it. I’ve done two novels at a small house, then two more at a bigger house, but they didn’t sell well… so now I’m having a hard time landing a contract. I’ve enjoyed myself, but I’m not sure all the time and effort have been worth it. I love my art, but… I wanted more. And I go to conferences and it feels like everyone is having more success than me. Any advice for a writer facing the big question of “Is all this worth it?”

I’ve been agenting a long time, and I’ve had a form of this question thrown at me countless times. An author signs a deal with a small house and does okay, so she signs a deal with a bigger house and, even though she writes good books, those books tank. Maybe the house did no marketing. Maybe the readership couldn’t find her. Maybe the author and publisher didn’t know how to work together. There are a million reasons a book doesn’t work, but suddenly the author finds herself stuck. She has lousy sales numbers, maybe she can’t get a deal, or she CAN get one, but it’s back to SmallTimeVille. Hey, it happens. Does she stick with it? Change her name and start over? Try a new genre? Look for a collaborative job? Go back to the drawing board and try to come up with a blockbuster idea? Self publish? Give up?

There’s no one answer that’s going to fit every situation, of course. And if you hang out at conferences, it will feel like everyone else is going better than you (but they are not — trust me). I love the fact that the writer who emailed me this question was quick to say she had enjoyed the ride and loves to write. Because I think a writer in this situation really needs to look at his or her motivation, and think through goals — what do you want to accomplish? What will constitute success? What will make you happy? Maybe having a good agent to talk with you about career plans could come in handy. So here is some great advice from musician and writer Bill Withers: “One of the things I always tell my kids is that it’s OK to head out for wonderful, but on your way to wonderful, you’re gonna have to pass through all right. When you get to all right, take a good look around and get used to it, because that may be as far as you’re gonna go.” Amen, Bill. Some wisdom there.

I’ve loved this month of writers sending in anything they wanted to ask. Thanks to everyone for participating. Make sure to check out Amanda’s wonderful marketing blogs every Thursday. And coming up — our annual Bad Poetry Contest. Another reason to go on living…

Having a Nite-cap with a Literary Agent

April 28th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing | 6 Comments

We’ve been taking the month of April and inviting writers to send in the questions they’d like to ask a literary agent. So if you could sit down one night, over a nite-cap, and ask a literary agent anything at all, what would you ask? These are the questions I’ve received recently…

How important is it for my agent to be knowledgeable about the specific genre I write in? If he or she have the same contacts at publishing houses as most other agents, is it important to find an agent with genre-specific connections? For example, let’s say I typically write women’s fiction, but want to do a New Adult series, and my agent says she knows nothing about NA. Should I be concerned my proposal won’t get the right treatment from editors?

Agents tend to work in certain genres. So we make connections with editors who work in those genres, and develop great relationships with people and publishers. So yes, it’s nice if you can work with an agent who has relationships with editors in the genres in which you write. That said, most agents are also willing to grow their business. So if you came to me with a really good proposal for a genre I’ve not worked before, I would admit that to you, and either say, “You might want to find another agent to do this one,” OR I might say, “You know, this isn’t a field I’ve done much work in, but I love this proposal — let me do some research, make some calls, and I’ll come back to you so we can develop a plan.”

I noticed you were highly critical of agents who sell services to authors. I approached an agent I met at a conference to discuss my book. He rejected it for representation, but said they had an editor who could work on it, and I paid about $700 to the company. They still decided not to represent it, but when I self-published it on Amazon, they offered to help me with the marketing, again for a fee. Is that wrong?

Here is the official wording from the Association of Author Representatives: “Members pledge themselves to loyal service to their clients’ business and artistic needs, and will allow no conflicts of interest that would interfere with such service.” Turning a potential literary client over to an editor who works for me part-time is a conflict of interest — I’m either an agent or I’m an editorial service, not both. The guidelines go on to state: “The AAR believes that the practice of literary agents charging clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works (including outlines, proposals, and partial or complete manuscripts) is subject to serious abuse that reflects adversely on our profession. For that reason, members may not charge clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works and may not benefit, directly or indirectly, from the charging for such services by any other person or entity.” (They give an exception to agents who get paid for evaluating a proposal through a writing conference, since writers to go there specifically to get a formal evaluation of their work.) I have frequently said to potential authors, “This needs a good edit — here are some editors I like.” But I don’t have any financial tie to those editors, nor do I receive anything back from them for sharing their info with writers. AND the guidelines also note that “Members may not receive a secret profit in connection with any transaction involving a client.” So no kickbacks are allowed. Holly Lorincz works with me part-time, and also runs an editorial business. I don’t profit from her editorial business — in fact, I don’t even know who she is working with. Her business is completely separate from mine. She’s a good editor, and I sometimes suggest her name to people, but I’m always quick to say, “And her editorial company is not tied to MacGregor Literary in any way.” The problem here is the potential to scam people… In essence, to say to a writer, “I don’t believe you’re good enough to be my client, but I’ll turn you over to an editor so I can make some money off of you.” That’s wrong, according to the AAR, of which I’m a longstanding member. Things are changing, and agents are doing more than they used to, but trying to make money directly from their authors by selling them services is not kosher.

At what point — if ever — in the process of grinding out a first novel should one begin to think about securing the services of an agent?

Did you know that most first-time novelists don’t sell their manuscripts? In fact, the industry average is either six or seven, depending on who is doing the telling. That is, most authors can expect to complete six or seven novels before they have something ready to sell. So, um, you may or may not be ready with your first novel. Most are not.

I was sent an e-book contract from a small publisher, and it demands all rights, forever, plus POD rights. Are there things I should look for in an e-book contract?

There are a bunch of things to look for in any publishing contract, including: What rights are you granting them? Is this just US or also foreign rights? Do they want dramatic rights? When is the manuscript due? What are the royalty rates? What is the royalty based on? How often am I paid? Is there a reserve clause? When will they publish it? What’s the process if they don’t like my manuscript? What does the competing works clause look like? What is the duration of this contract? How do rights get reverted to me? What you’re describing sounds like a rights-grab from an unscrupulous publisher. My advice: If you don’t know contracts, talk to someone who does. A contract is a legally binding document that will govern the entire business side of your book for as long as it’s in print. That being the case, you owe it to yourself to get it right. You probably wouldn’t buy a house without having someone knowledgable help you with the contract — treat your books the same way.

Is it advisable to give away printed materials to promote your book — bookmarks, postcards, stickers, posters? My publisher says they don’t have a budget for these types of things, but I have author friends who say they are essential.

They’re only essential if you have some evidence to suggest they’ll help you sell your book. Printed stuff like that used to be all the rage. Nowadays, they may help in certain situations (such as personal appearances or local bookstores), or in national campaigns (having giveaways with every purchase at a chain of stores, for example), but they’ve largely given way to online marketing efforts. If you have some evidence that printed pieces could be useful, then go ahead and invest in them… but my guess is you can find other avenues that will offer more bang for your buck. (And here I’ll invite any marketing types to weigh in on the matter. Do you find bookmarks and stickers to be helpful in promoting a new novel?)

What suggestions would you have to an author who wants to write pieces to boost her platform (in order to support her book)?

Ask yourself where your potential readers are. What are the sites/magazines/journals/blogs/e-zines where they congregate? What online communities do they participate in? Make a list of the top 100 or 200 places where your readers hang out. Then go visit all those sites. How does one participate with them? Do they take freelance articles? Are they interested in profiles? interviews? sidebars? numbers pieces? Would they like an interview with an author? Ask yourself how you can create a piece that fits the site, but promotes you and your book. Once you’ve figured out where readers are going, how you get onto those sites, you write something that’s a fit and send it to them. Put the topic or title in the subject line of your email. Include the piece, give a short bio of yourself at the end, and include links to other things you’ve written. That will get you started.

Are there companies that can help me turn my manuscript into an ebook?

Sure. There are a bunch. You can do it yourself easily enough on Amazon, or go to Smashwords so that it gets onto the iBookstore and B&N.com. BookBaby (whom I’ve never used, but heard nice things about) can do the basics for about a hundred bucks. You may want to find a company that will not only work with Amazon, but will get you onto Oyster and FlipKart and some of the other new book e-railers. But a quick Google search will provide you with several companies that do exactly that sort of work. Ebook assistance is a growing industry.

In the past, you’ve recommended several very funny websites. I haven’t seen you post anything like that in a while –can you recommend anything?

Sure. A good buddy of mine runs Slushpile Hell, which is a HOOT. Check it out at http://slushpilehell.tumblr.com/

This isn’t really a “writing” question, but more of a personal question… You represent a number of books. Can you name a couple titles you’ve represented that are just releasing, and that you’re excited about?

I always fear naming one or two titles, since it leaves me in the position of having some authors feel as though their book is being ignored. But there are several really cool books that are just now hitting the market. Susan Meissner’s first novel at NAL, A Fall of Marigolds, has just released. If you like action, check out Vince Zandri’s The Shroud Key, or Les Edgerton’s brilliantly written The Bitch. Lisa Samson’s latest, Runaway Saint, is just now coming out. If you haven’t been introduced to Jessica Dotta’s rich Price of Privilege trilogy, you’re missing out on a great new historical series. Meg Moseley’s The Stillness of Chimes is a wonderful read. On the popular front, Rachel Hauck has a hit with Princess Ever After, Leslie Gould’s latest, Minding Molly, is a fun twist on Shakespeare, and I always love reading Joyce Magnin’s work, so I’m enjoying Maybelle in Stitches. And there’s a debut novelist from the UK, Luke Wordley, who has done a guy’s novel, The Fight, which is remarkably good. On the nonfiction side, I can’t wait to break open Alton Gansky’s 60 People who Shaped the Church, since I love church history. And one book I think is going to be a huge hit is Bonnie Gray’s memoir, Finding Spiritual Whitespace, which I think is profound and moving. (You can see more of it here: www.thebonniegray.com ) Okay, I’m sure I’ve just made enemies, but those are the books I’m looking at right now.

If you could sit down for an after-dinner drink with an agent…

April 25th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Current Affairs, Proposals, Publishing, Questions from Beginners | 4 Comments

Okay, so all month I’ve been having readers send in questions they would ask if they could just sit down and be face to face with a literary agent. Here’s the most recent batch of questions I’ve received…

Is it standard for most debut authors to have their manuscripts read by an outside copy-editor before submitting to a publisher? I’ve heard this is now common practice, but with the low advances publishers are now paying, it seems unfair to insist on the author funding the cost of an outside edit.

I think it’s an exaggeration to say publishers “insist” on an outside copyedit. The author is best protected when a manuscript comes in clean, since they’re not relying on some minimum wage, entry-level person to do the edit. And as the business has gotten harder, publishers seem to be doing less editing, and they love having their costs cut by having manuscripts come in as clean as possible. But I don’t believe we can say that’s any sort of official standard, except perhaps with mom-and-pop ebook publishers who can’t afford a good copy editor.

When it comes to book proposals, should a narrative non-fiction proposal follow the rules for a novel, or for a nonfiction book?

It’s a nonfiction book, so it should basically follow a nonfiction proposal format. But this is a great question, since narrative nonfiction is really a blend of the two. Still, you’ll find the core of a narrative book is telling a nonfiction story, so stick with the nonfiction proposal model.

I’ve seen contradicting opinions on using blog content in books… If I write a blog, does a publisher consider all content “published,” and therefore unusable in a future book?

If you write a blog post and stick it on your website, it has, in fact, been “published.” But no, that doesn’t preclude you from using that material in a future book, assuming you own it. It’s just that a publisher won’t want to do a book that contains 100% blog content, since that’s already been out there and is available for anyone to read for free. So the publisher will tell you they want somewhere between 30% and 70% “new” content in the book. (By the way, if you write an article and sell it to someone else’s site or to an e-zine, you may in fact no longer own the rights to it, and then you’d be unable to use it. Make sure to check your contract before using pieces you’ve sold to others.)

How do you find out who represents a particular author? And if I know an author who writes in my genre, is it okay to approach his/her agent? Or will they likely say no, since they already represent books in that genre?

To find out who represents an author, you can go to AARonline.org (the website for the Association of Author Representatives) and look it up. Or you can go to an author’s website and see if he or she has the agent referenced somewhere. But yes, agents tend to look for projects in the same genre — I represent several suspense writers, a bunch of inspirational novelists, and several literary novelists. Since I’m doing deals with editors at publishing houses who work in those genres, it only makes sense that I’d represent several authors in those genres.

When a publisher requests a “complete manuscript” at a conference, does an author include the acknowledgements, dedication, and personal author notes?

Nope. At that point they just want to read the book. All the personal asides can come later — they’ll only detract from the larger concept of the story.

I have an agent who I signed with six months ago. Is it fair for me to think he will respond to my direct questions? (Questions like “Who did you send my proposal to?” and “When did it go out?”) Those don’t seem unreasonable to me, but he never responds. Is there something about the relationship that I’m not understanding?

My advice: Call and have a chat with your agent about expectations. Agents are just people, and they come in all types. Some agents keep in touch regularly. Others choose to stay away and only show up when there is news. I’d suggest that a good agent should keep an author apprised of where you are in the process, but perhaps the two of you could simply have a discussion and clear up how each of you work.

Do editors at large houses ever look at the books at small houses and pick them up? What would get the attention of a larger publishing house? And would it be bad form to approach an editor at a conference and suggest they look at my already-published book?

It’s rare for an editor to look at the books at small houses with the intent of picking them up. Once a book is contracted, it tends to remain at that house (which is why you want to be careful of contracting your book at some small, crappy house). It happens occasionally, but almost exclusively because the book has busted out in a big way, or the author is suddenly famous. When I was a publisher at Time-Warner, we were doing books with several TV preachers (Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, etc). I noticed there were some other famous TV preachers who were gaining a large following, but who had done their books at a very small press. We approached that publisher and bought out the contracts for those books, in hopes of getting backlist titles for up-and-coming TV personalities. So it happens… but it would be a rare instance for an author to approach a big house to suggest they buy the rights to their book from a small house. The only reason you’d do it would be because your book is going nuts and the small publisher can’t handle it, or you’ve suddenly landed a measure of fame that requires a larger publisher to maximize.

I’ve been contemplating getting an agent, but I’ve also thought about starting my own publishing company. What are the biggest rewards for each?

The biggest rewards for starting your own publishing company would be that (1) you’re the boss and can make all the decisions, (2) you’ll make roughly three times as much money on each book sold, (3) it’s faster to do your books yourself, and (4) you have creative control. And, of course, the downside is that you have to do it all yourself. Some people love running a business, others couldn’t run a business if their life depended on it.

The biggest rewards for working with an agent would include (1) having an experienced person offer counsel on things like contracts and negotiations, (2) having someone make introductions to you with both foreign and domestic publishers, as well as with subsidiary companies like movie people, (3) having someone with specialized knowledge assist you in your career, your marketing, your covers, your brand, etc, (4) having someone encourage you, as well as having someone plead your case for you when there’s a problem, and (5) having someone who knows the business seek out new opportunities. I suppose there are other things (editorial help, etc), but those are some of the first things that come to mind. Again, I’m not here to serve as a commercial for literary agents — I think most of the authors I represent feel I provide a good service for them, but I understand why some authors want to go another route, and that’s fine.

If you could sit down to dinner with a literary agent…

April 22nd, 2014 | Agents, Career, CBA, Conferences, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing | 9 Comments

Imagine this: You get to sit down to have dinner with the literary agent of your choosing. You can ask anything you want? So… what would you ask? I’ve been taking the entire month of April to let people send in the questions they’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent. Recent questions include…

A friend of mine in our writers’ group asked me if she can be sued if she uses the name of a real town — i.e., Witch Hazel, Oregon, in her novel. Is that true?

Okay– I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not giving you legal advice. If you need legal advice, go talk to an attorney. What you’re getting is my take as an agent… Sued? For what? No. You can be sued for defaming or libeling someone, but you can’t be sued for simply using the name of a town. Does she think she can’t say, “The plane flew to New York”? (But thanks for the call-out to my hometown of Witch Hazel!)

It’s my understanding that publishers will often pay higher royalties for hardcover than softcover. Why is this?

It’s true. The standard book contracts pays 10% of the retail price on the first 5000 hardcopies sold, 12.5% on the next 5000 copies, and 15% thereafter. A trade paper pays a flat 7.5%. The cost of the hardcover is higher, the production costs are a bit higher, people are willing to pay more, so there is more money to divide. Thus the royalties are higher. (By the way, most CBA publishers pay on net contracts, so it’s a bit different.)

I’d like to know what goes on in a Pub Board meeting, and why does it sometimes take so long for them to make a decision on a book?

The pub board is where a decision is made to publish or not publish a book. Usually it includes the editor presenting the project, the head of editorial, the head of sales, the head of marketing, somebody from accounting, the publisher, and, depending on the house, it can include a publicist, a special markets person, an online specialist, someone from production, and a trained monkey. The editorial people are there to present the book and explain why it’s a good idea. The sales people do some research so they can explain to everyone how the retail accounts will react to it. The publisher gives strategic direction to the line. The accounting guy will look bored a lot and wonder why they’re not doing another book with James Patterson, since “his books always make us a lot of money.” The marketing people are there to explain why, no matter how hard they try, they won’t be able to get any marketing for the book. So they debate the merits of the book in the marketplace — will it get attention? Does it speak to a particular need or fill an opening? The sales and marketing reps may ask for more time to go back and talk to accounts, to see if Wal-Mart wants to buy 3000 copes, or if Good Morning America wants to have the author visit. All that takes time. And every book has a profit-and-loss sheet, which spells out the hard costs for producing the book, plus the marketing and overhead. Sometimes they want more time to re-jigger the numbers on the P&L, in order to make sure they can project a profit with the book. But the conversation that happens in a pub board meeting is pretty much like any other meeting — the editor presents the book, tells about the author, explains the story or concept, and people discuss the merits. At most houses they disperse the proposal and sample chapters before the meeting, so everyone involved in the discussion can read the author’s words before making a decision. Then, at some point, they vote. In my experience, most pub board decisions tend to be “most everyone agrees to do this” or “none of us can really get behind this.” In other words, there aren’t a ton of split decisions. The group usually comes to some sort of consensus. (That’s not always the case. There are a few publishers who dominate their companies, and if they don’t like a book, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. But those are more rare than you might think.) In other words, the pub board is a business committee meeting, with everybody involved trying to make money for the company and keep them afloat. At larger companies they meet every week, at medium sized companies they meet once or twice a month. At a small company they may only meet when they have something to discuss.

I recently turned in a contracted book with a publisher, and have started working on my next book idea. But I think this new book might be a better fit at another house. Do you think I’m obligated to show it to my current publisher? Or is it an industry courtesy to submit the new book to my current publisher first? There are no first refusal rights in the contract.

If your current contract doesn’t have any sort of option or first-look clause, you’re probably free to show it to others. However, if your current publisher is doing a good job with you, you may want to show it to them first, just to be polite and maintain the relationship. In my experience, newer authors frequently want to bounce around to various houses, but the happiest authors I know are those who have been at one house for a long time. Having several books at one publishing house allows them to cross-sell your various titles, and builds a stronger relationship with them over time.

How do you feel about using a pen-name when writing a novel? Is it worth it? I imagine there is extra red-tape and lots of questions?

In these days when even J.K. Rowling can’t keep a pen name secret, I think it’s hard to make this work. Doubly hard if you expect to keep it up with multiple books — you have to have another identity, you can’t use author photos or do appearances, and of course radio and TV become very difficult. Nora Roberts writes as J.D. Robb, but she’s very open about it. I’d probably ask you why you feel a need to write under a pseudonym. Usually writers simply want to do this because they want to stay hidden, and staying hidden in this day and age is tough. Of course, if you want to use a pen name simply because your real name is “Hepsiba Von Schlossenpfepfer” or “Ferral Cronk,” I’ll understand, and encourage you to pick something salable and stick with it. But in those cases, you maintain that as your writing identity long-term. (And yes, I once knew a woman named Ferral Cronk.)

Are the online writer’s conferences worthwhile for those on a limited budget?

I like writing conferences in general, since they’re a place to meet people — you rub shoulders with other writers in your genre, you talk with people who are facing some of the same struggles you’re facing, you get introduced to editors, you hear some good idea. Writing is a solitary endeavor, and meeting other people in the industry is the single best part of a conference. But, of course, the “other” reason for attending a conference is for the training they offer. There will be workshops on creating characters or outlining or building suspense or negotiating contracts — all interesting, usually taught by people with good experience. But that’s when you’re going to a regular conference. An online conference? The value is strictly in the content, since there is no rubbing shoulders with others. You attend so that you can get solid information on specific subjects. So check to see who is teaching, and ask yourself if you need the information. Then look at the price and determine if it’s worth the cost, or if you’d be money ahead to simply buy a book from Writers Digest on the topic. Without great content, offered by an experienced and knowledgeable instructor, I question the value of an online conference.

I once heard writer and writing guru Cecil Murphey say that an author shouldn’t get an agent too early in her career. Do you agree? And when does an author need to get an agent?

I asked my buddy Cec Murphey about that quote, and he said, “Too many writers think that because they’ve finished their first book, the next step is to get an agent. They’re probably not ready and need someone else to go over their manuscript. From my earliest days as a writer, I paid someone to read my first drafts. It was an investment in my career. And I learned from their comments. One of the cliches in publishing says, ‘Your first book is probably your fourth.’ That is, it takes time to learn the craft and to be ready to publish. Too many just-finished-my-first-book writers are so eager for acceptance and approval, they refuse to hold back and truly learn to write.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Cecil. In my view, an author needs an agent when he or she is ready to move forward in a writing career, and many newbies aren’t ready yet. For some, “being ready” means the manuscript is completed and the author’s platform has taken shape, so they’re probably about to begin dealing with publishers. For others it means they need to be introduced to US and foreign publishers, to movie producers, and to other people in the industry. For still others they’re ready when they have interest in their book, but don’t understand contracts or negotiation or marketing. There’s no one right answer, but I get what Cec was saying — that too many writers jump the gun, and seek out an agent before they’re ready to get published.

What makes a great cover?

A great cover grabs the attention of potential readers, who can tell from the mood and images on the cover what the book is about. It has something visual — a focal point which draws the reader in, leading them to the book title. It’s easily readable, fits in with other bestselling books in its genre, and matches up with the author’s brand. I tend to like covers that are simple but still able to stand out. I look at them and think, “What an interesting cover.” Covers are essential for selling books in our visual society, but too many self-published ebooks have either bad color, bad stock art, or images that don’t fit the story.

I sent a proposal to an agent, who acknowledged receiving it, but the next day I heard from an editor I’d met at a conference. That editor didn’t want the book as it is, but had some suggestions for improving the text. My question for you: Now that I’ve made those changes, should I re-send my revised/updated proposal to the agent, or let him continue to review the old version? And if I send him the new one, what do I say?

Yes, send the new one. Just include a note that says, “I had a talk with so-and-so, a wonderful editor at Big Publishing House. She had some very helpful suggestions for me, and I’ve been revising my proposal to reflect those changes. I thought you might find it helpful to see my revised/updated proposal. Do you mind taking a look?”

I read your answers the other day, and have a question for you: Let’s say a writer has a platform that reaches twenty thousand people. What do they need a publisher for? If I can hire someone to do the cover, to help with the editing, and to help set up things with Lulu to print off copies, why bother giving all that away to a publishing house? I even know of an order fulfillment company who could manage to send the purchased copies off to readers. So why would I want to hand off all that power to someone else?

You may not want to. If you’ve read my blog regularly, you know that I’m supportive of authors working to self-publish. If you’re entrepreneurial and you don’t mind working with a developmental editor, hiring a copyeditor, arranging to have somebody manage your print files, paying an editor or a service like BookBaby to upload your ebook, and coordinating with a fulfillment company to manage orders and sending, you can set yourself up as your own micro-publishing house. You may even hire a marketing firm to assist with the publicity for your book. For some, that scenario is a perfectly valid option. Just realize that not every author is cut from the same cloth. Not every writer wants to do that, has the knowledge or drive to do that, nor has the money to do that. There’s no one “right” way to be an author today. But why turn a manuscript over to a publisher? Because there are far more success stories from authors who worked with publishers than from authors who posted a book on Amazon and waited for success to come find them. Traditional publishers still have validity in today’s publishing market. They have reach, they offer great editing, they produce a quality product, they take care of things like production and fulfillment, and they have a long track record of success working with chains and independent bookstores. I’ve nothing against an author going indie, but I’m starting to tire of the folks who are prophesying the death of traditional publishers… Legacy publishers still have a role in our industry.

I’m getting flooded with questions. So what’s yours? If you could sit down and have dinner with a literary agent, to ask all those questions about writing and publishing that you’ve always wanted to ask, what would your questions be? You can drop them into the “comments” section or send them to me at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com — and a hint for those of you who struggled with that… No, you don’t really use the words (at) or (dot). Sorry to be unclear about that…

Sitting down for a martini with a literary agent…

April 21st, 2014 | Career, CBA, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing | 12 Comments

Okay, so this month I’ve invited writers to send in the question they’d love to ask a literary agent, if only they could sit down over, say, a martini. Pretend the two of you are face to face. Relax. Take a deep breath. What would you ask? Here are several of the questions people sent…

When a contract with a publisher expires, I assume the rights to the book revert back to the author. Does the author then have to get a new cover, ISBN number, etc, to put the book out as an e-book or POD? And is that something usually covered in a contract?

Great question. First, with most publishing contracts these days, the rights do NOT automatically revert to the author when the book goes out of print. Instead, the book stays with that publisher as an e-book, and they’ll want to keep it as long as it’s selling some copies and making money. Even when it’s not, you’ll have to write and request your rights back. So let’s say the publisher does indeed revert rights — all that gets reverted to you is your text. You’ll need to create a new cover (unless it’s the rare instance where you own the cover art or can buy it from the publisher), get a new ISBN (since this is a new edition of the book), probably re-edit the book (to make it clean and up to date), then load it to Amazon, Smashwords, etc. And no, your current publishing contract won’t say much of anything about this process, other than to offer some confusing, multi-step process to try and get your rights back.

Is there any chance of getting an agent when you DON’T have a platform? And if I’m just starting, how long do you feel it will take for me to build a platform?

Sure there is. It’s just easier when you have a platform — and the bigger the platform, the easier it is. When I pitch a nonfiction book, the FIRST question the publisher will ask me is, “What’s the author’s platform?” We used to rarely hear that question with novelists, but now it’s routinely part of the conversation. But can you be successful without a platform? Yes. A fabulous idea expressed via great writing can still get noticed by publishers. So can celebrity or expertise. As for building a platform, that’s unique for each author, but it’s not uncommon for an author to be told by a publisher who is interested in a manuscript, “This is a great idea — now spend the next year building your platform.”

You noted a few weeks back that Amazon had purchased the largest of the audio book companies, and immediately cut their royalty rates. That spooked me. Although I’m with a small press and am paid a great royalty, I’m paid after Amazon takes their 30%, and the publisher takes half of the revenue. How long do you think before Amazon increases their cut of the ebook market?

No idea. Amazon currently owns a large part of the ebook market, but if they corner that market, you can bet the percentage they keep will go up, and authors will be making less. THAT’S why I’m always rooting for Barnes & Noble.com and the iBookstore to remain in business. Traditionally, monopolies are terrible for consumers, and therefore for those who produce the material consumers want. I love Amazon, but an Amazon monopoly wouldn’t be good for authors.

You’ve made a point of saying you represent both Christian books and non-religious books. Are there a lot of Christian books? Is religious publishing a big part of the overall publishing picture?

Christian publishing is a huge part of the overall book market — and it’s going up. Just last week Publishers Lunch reported that the religious book market was $572-million dollars last year, which was up $10.5-million from the previous year. (Overall publishing was up 1% in 2013.) Christian publishing has its own stores, its own e-tail operations, its own dedicated space in most bookstores, and it is supported by a lot of churches. The fact is, people of faith read books — both fiction and nonfiction. It’s a big part of the American market, and it’s not going away.

What does an author do when she gets a really ugly Amazon review?

If you ask the folks at Amazon, they’ll tell you there are three things to do: leave a specific response to the review, send a note to the reviewer (and maybe ask him or her to remove it), or simply ignore it and let it go. This has been much in the news lately, with some people offering really ugly or negative reviews, apparently for the sake of getting noticed. (Almost any author who writes Christian fiction can tell you stories of people coming on to leave anti-religious rants. It gets old.) Apparently when you cannot be seen it’s much easier to be jerk. Still, the best thing is probably to ignore them and focus on the positive reviews. By the way, it was reported last week that bestselling author Anne Rice had sent Amazon a petition, asking them to block anonymous reviews, since she feels they are filled with “bullying and harassment.” Publishers Marketplace reported that she was complaining of “gangster bullies,” and noted that Amazon’s own guidelines proscribe insults, bad language, and harassing notes in reviews. Glad to see a notable author like that take a stand — I’ve seen the most vile crud posted on Amazon, and they’ve tended to let that stuff slide.

How do you feel about an author hiring her own publicist? I’m very outgoing, don’t mind at all asking people to buy my book, and I struggle with the thought of paying someone else a couple thousand dollars to encourage readers to take a look at me.

Then hiring an outside publicist may not be for you. But many writers aren’t as extroverted, or they simply don’t know where to go or what to do, or they don’t have the contacts, or (more than likely) they simply don’t have the time, since they want to be writing. So I tend to think freelance publicists are an option many authors need to look into. But some cautions: Check them out — there are a bunch of lousy publicists who continue to get work because they are cheap… you get what you pay for. Get a contract, and have them spell out exactly what they’re going to do and how much it’s going to cost. Get comparative bids, just to find out what another company will charge to do the same thing. Ask a lot of questions – I find too many authors hired a freelancer without asking everything they wanted to know. And don’t expect miracles… not everything in marketing works. In my view, you think about it the way you would baseball, and hope you hit about .300 (for my readers overseas, that means “hope about 30% of the marketing you do is effective at selling books).

I’m a junior and an English major at a college in the Midwest, hoping to land a career as an editor in New York. I work at the school paper, What advice would you have for me?

First, I’d look for some real training in editing, whether that’s at your own college, a class from another local college, a summer program, or even an online class. (Check with Writers Digest to see who offers these.) Second, I’d look for some real-world training. You’re getting that with your student newspaper, so maybe ask if the university has any other publications, or there are business or organizations close by that could use some volunteer editorial help with their publications or websites. Third, I’d check to see if there were people in the area who do freelance editing, or remote editing, and talk with them. If there are any writing or editing conferences you can attend, by all means try to make it and rub shoulders with people. Make friends with editors and see what you can glean from them. Fourth, I’d check into the NYU Summer Publishing Institute in New York (they also offer them in Denver and… somewhere else). A GREAT opportunity to find out the real world of editing, and to meet people in the industry. Fifth, you could apply for one of the internships that every publishing house makes available in the summers.

Those are the questions I received late last week. Just one more week of this, answering whatever anyone sends. So tell me… If YOU could sit down with a literary agent over a martini, what questions would you ask? Send them to me at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com.