Archive for the ‘Current Affairs’ Category

If you were building an e-bookstore…

August 20th, 2014 | Current Affairs | 27 Comments

Recently some people in publishing got together for a weekend to discuss this question: “If you were going to create an online bookstore to compete with Amazon, what would it look like?” 

I think that’s a great topic to explore, since I love Amazon, love my Kindle, and regularly purchase books there. But even more than that, I love going into a great bookstore and wandering around. My office is over the Cloud & Leaf Bookstore — a small independent bookshop where Jodi features great reads, helps customers find exactly what they need, and regularly steers them toward interesting little finds. I love wandering around a Barnes & Noble, where I can get lost in the history section, finding fascinating titles the explore small pockets of time that only those of us with a nose for the past can appreciate. I love going into Powell’s City of Books, and wandering for hours through the stacks, looking at titles and covers. I’ll pull out one book, read the jacket copy, peruse the table of contents, then maybe set it down and move to another interesting title that catches my eye. That’s the joy of being in a bookstore, and like you I can sometimes be convinced that I’ve entered a time-warp, since three hours will have gone by, and I’m sure I was really only wandering the stacks for twenty minutes.

That experience — wandering the aisles and looking for great titles, hoping to find the next book for your nighttime reading stack? It’s what Amazon can’t replicate. We call it “discoverability” in publishing, and it’s the process of getting readers to know your book exists, get them interested, and encourage them to buy and read it. There was a workshop on discoverability lately hosted by Digital Book World, and they revealed a study that showed five years ago, 31% of all books purchased by regular readers were discovered by wandering around a bookstore, while only 11% were discovered by wandering around Amazon. Now we live in a world where more than half of all serious readers own a Kindle or Nook, and readers discovering titles in bookstores is down to 20%. BUT the discoverability on Amazon has actually declined. Think about that for a moment… more people than ever own an e-reader, but a smaller percentage are actually discovering their titles on the e-tail site. The vast majority of book buyers online (67%, according to the study cited) knew what they wanted before they went to Amazon or B&N.com.

So Amazon and B&N.com offer something great — ebooks that are easily accessible, at cheap prices. But they have the limitation of being just an okay shopping experience. With that in mind, a bunch of folks got together to try and replicate the joy of discoverability. There were writers, agents, editors, librarians, and booksellers, all pulled together to talk about how they would create a new site. According the Chris Kubica, who pulled everyone together, they spent their first day identifying what’s wrong with the current online shopping experience, then they were supposed to spend the second day creating solutions. They doubtless understood that this wouldn’t necessarily be something that competed with Amazon — they’re massive, well-funded, have great customer service. In other words, this wasn’t intended to be a time to bash the company that has reinvigorated the world of publishing.

Instead the goal was to create something different. Whether big or small, they intended to brainstorm something that would appeal to readers, share the joy of books and reading, but somehow replicate the notion of a bookstore. But the group faltered. The experiment didn’t come to any conclusions, though they did have a healthy dialogue and got people thinking about what the perfect online shopping experience could be. And that led me to ask you…

If you could design the perfect online shopping experience, what would it be like? How would it be different from Amazon? How could publishers and authors and booksellers do something to better reflect the experience of walking through a great bookstore and finding the joy that comes with discovering great books? 

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. If you were building an e-bookstore, what would you do to create a better experience? What would you do to foster discoverability?

Ask the Agent: How does a book get selected by a publisher?

August 18th, 2014 | Current Affairs, Publishing, The Business of Writing | 16 Comments

Several people have written to ask, “What is the process of getting your proposal selected by a publishing house?”


Okay. First, think of a publishing house as being an actual building. Your proposal probably isn’t walking in the front door. More than likely it’s sliding into the building by way of a window known as an acquisitions editor (often an acquaintance of your agent, sometimes a person you met at a conference, or maybe a guy who lost a bet). He or she will read through it, make some suggestions, talk it over with your agent, and eventually make a decision on whether or not they think it’s worth pursuing.


Most publishers are relying on agents to do the initial filtering of junk, so the slush pile has sort of moved from the publishing house to the agent’s office…which means you’re probably going to have to sell it to an agent first, therefore adding one more step to this process.


Once it’s actually in the building, if the acquisitions editor likes it he or she will take it to some sort of editorial committee, where they sit around grousing about their pay and making editorial jokes. (“I’m having a DICKENS of a time with this one!” “Yeah, let’s catch a TWAIN out of town!” Editorial types love this sort of humor. That’s why they’re editors and not writers.) Eventually they’ll run out of bad puns and be forced to discuss the merits of your proposal. If it’s a non-fiction book, is it unique? Does it answer a question people are asking? Is there a perceived market for it? Does the writing feel fresh and offer genuine solutions to the question that’s posed? If it’s a novel, does the story have a clear hook? Is there a well-defined audience for it? Does it feel new, or as though it’s a story that’s been told a million times? (The fact is, it probably HAS been told a million times. There are only so many stories. The question is really if the author can make it feel as though he or she has a fresh take on the story.) Most importantly does it have Amish people, zombies, or a spunky girl with a heart of gold? If the whole package passes muster, it moves to the next step…


The Publishing Committee, which is a group generally made up of folks from editorial, marketing, sales, accounting, and administration. They’ll meet somewhere between once a week to once a month, depending on the house, and they’ll have an agenda of books to talk through each time, with the various representatives offering their own perspectives — the editors will talk about the merits of the words; the accountants will figure out the costs and potential dollars in play; the sales guys will begin discussing who they can sell copies to; and the marketing people will sit around trying to think up reasons why they shouldn’t work on THIS one, since they’ve got so many OTHER things to do. The group will talk about the market for the book, if it fits with the rest of the books on their list, what the author’s platform offers, what it would cost to print the book, what the marketing costs would be, and how many sales they think they could generate. This is the group that will explore the feasibility of doing your book. They may send it back to the acquisitions editor to do some more work.


At that point, the editor has to run a Profit & Loss sheet or pro forma, in which they’ll take wild surmises as to how many copies they can expect to sell in the first year, what the hard costs of ink/paper/binding will be, what they’ll spend on marketing, and how much money they’ll have to throw at the money-grubbing author, who, if she really loved words, would write her damn books for free, since we all know the publishers are only in it for the joy of reading and to serve humanity. The editor will take all this information back to the publishing committee, who by now has had all sorts of time to think up NEW reasons why they shouldn’t do the book. They’ll talk about it again, this time with hard numbers attached. Eventually the pub board will be forced to make an actual decision, so they’ll probably throw the Urim and Thummim, maybe pull out an Ouija board, and decide on your book.


I’ve heard people say there are a series of “sales” to get to this point. The author sells the agent. The agent sells the editor. The editor sells the editorial team. The editorial team sells the pub board. Once that group makes a decision to contract the book, they have to negotiate a deal, then put it on a list and make it part of the process — because the sales guys are going to have to sell it to retail accounts, who in turn will attempt to sell it to the reading public. It’s a lot of work. And all of that points to one thing: It’s tough to get published. Each step along the way is an investment, so even the books they say “no” to have had dollars spent on them.


A publishing house has all those filters in place so that they can do the easy thing and say “no” to you. (Really. That’s the reason they exist.) The purpose of the process is to say “no” to most everything. Therefore, if you want to be published, create proposals they can’t say “no” to. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but that’s the basic idea — work on your proposal so that it piques their interest, provides a clear hook, and answers any objections. If you do that, your proposal is much more apt to be selected by a publishing house.

Does that make sense to you? What question would YOU like to ask a literary agent? 

What blogs do you read?

August 11th, 2014 | Current Affairs | 15 Comments

I frequently get the question, “What blogs do you read?,” and I always stumble around a bit. You see, I’m a longtime literary agent (16 years now), and I represent a bunch of writers who have blogs. I have bestselling authors (Vincent Zandri, Rachel Hauck, etc) who regularly blog, some super-gifted writing instructors (J. Mark Bertrand, Lisa Samson, Les Edgerton) who occasionally blog, and some other writers (Lisa McKay, Sheila Gregoire, Nicole Unice, etc) who often have interesting insights to share. How do I pick?

But I figured it’s fair to ask an agent, so long as he or she didn’t focus on authors they represent. So Here are ten blogs I regularly stop by to visit.

1. Seth Godin (http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/). He’s an interesting guy, with lots of practical thoughts on marketing and publishing.

2. Janet Reid (http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com). Now that Rachelle Gardner isn’t blogging much anymore, and PubRants is gone, Janet has become my favorite OTHER literary agent to read. I love reading sites where I learn things.

3. Nathan Bransford (http://blog.nathanbransford.com). A former literary agent, now focusing on his own writing, Nathan only blogs about once a week, but it’s always interesting.

4. Writer UnBoxed (http://writerunboxed.com). One of the authors I represent introduced me to this site, run by a couple of novelists. Insightful stuff on the business as well as the craft of fiction.

4. A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing (http://jakonrath.blogspot.com). Some people will find it hard to believe I stuck Konrath on here, and I’ll warn you that his ego may not all fit on your hard drive, but he’s interesting and offers good thoughts on the industry. Don’t take him as gospel (Joe is the presiding bishop at the Church of Amazon), but he’s often got insightful stuff to say about the industry, and he shares it straight.

5. Reading Rambo (http://www.reading-rambo.com). I’m a huge Charles Dickens fan, so Andrea Burton’s look at literature (and the occasional opera role) is fun and fascinating.

6. Mike Hyatt (http://michaelhyatt.com). Some readers tend to see Mike’s blog as a “business/leaders” type of thing — I prefer to see it as one of the few people online who takes a holistic view of the industry. He regularly has good content that makes me think.

7. Jenny Lawson (http://thebloggess.com). The single funniest blog I visit. Like with all humor, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

8. Novel Rocket (http://www.novelrocket.com). This is a collection of writers (most of them working in CBA) who come together to reflect, share ideas, and talk about the process of writing. It’s uneven, but a great resource to stay with.

9. Patheos (http://www.patheos.com). Yeah, okay, so this is a website and not a blog, but it links to a BUNCH of interesting blogs. If you’re a person interested in faith and spirituality, but you’re not really a conservative evangelical, this is always a nice place to explore.

10. Thursdays with Amanda (um…. right here every Thursday). Okay, I know this looks silly, but I don’t put any content constraints on Amanda Luedeke’s Thursday posts, and I ALWAYS find myself going, “Geez… that’s great!” So I’d be lying if I didn’t include her work in my Top Ten list.

There’s plenty that’s left off, of course. The various blogs connected to Writers Digest are really good, and helpful to just about everyone interested in a career in writing. And there are some great sites that can be fun to visit occasionally, like the First Fifty blog (http://first50.wordpress.com), the Six Word Memoir site (http://www.sixwordmemoirs.com), and the Six Sentences site (http://sixsentences.blogspot.com). For fun some day, visit the Bulwer-Lytton.com website, which features the worst fiction writing. It’s a hoot. Those are my top blogs to visit.

What blogs do you visit on a regular basis? 

Ask the Agent: How long should it take to hear from an agent?

July 28th, 2014 | Agents, Current Affairs, Proposals, Questions from Beginners | 0 Comments

Someone wrote to ask, “When is it appropriate to inquire on the status of a submission to an editor or agent? I sent something in to an agent four months ago, but have yet to hear. How long should it take?”

Every agent has his or her own system. I try to get to submissions once every other week, but sometimes I go four or five weeks between looking. And that’s just for a quick look — if I like something, I have to read it through, and that means I could have it for a month or two before I can give the author a firm response. In my experience, most agents would like to have two or three months to consider a proposal before they render a “yes” or “no.” During busy times (like Christmas, summer vacation, and stints in rehab), it may take longer. So if you sent a project to an agent four months ago, and she hasn’t responded to you, it might be appropriate just to drop a friendly note — something like, “Hello, I’m just checking back with you on that proposal I sent you a few months back. I was wondering if you’ve had a chance to look it over yet, and if there’s anything more you need. I know you’re busy, so thanks very much for giving it your consideration.” No need to whine, beg, or wheedle. Just check in, and be polite.

On a related note, one writer sent me a note to complain that an agent hadn’t responded to his proposal in a year… but when I checked with that author, he noted that he’d never actually met the agent, nor had he queried via email or letter. In other words, he had just sent in a proposal cold. And that leads me to ask,“Where is it written that an agent must respond to you just because you wrote to him or her?” Answer: It isn’t. An agent isn’t obligated to respond to everyone who writes him or her. I’ve got a job to do, and time is money, so I really can’t take the time to read every project somebody sends in cold. I don’t feel that’s a deriliction of my duty, either — I simply don’t believe that I owe every writer a favor.  I state very clearly on my company website that I’m not looking for unsolicited proposals. Still, people send them. I also state on my site that I don’t have time to read every project coming in over the transom, and that I don’t return unsolicited proposals, even if they come with a postage-paid envelope. It’s just not my job to take responsibility for someone else’s idea. Still, I have people I’ve never heard of write to complain that I didn’t respond, or that I didn’t return their materials — as though their decision to mail me something puts a burden on me, merely because I work as a literary agent.

Wrong. I generally represent people I know — maybe we met at a conference, or often they were a referral from a current author. But it’s a very rare thing for an agent to yank something out of a slushpile and offer an agency agreement. So make sure you have realistic expectations.

Another person wrote and said, “I’ve noticed more authors using the term bestseller or bestselling author in their materials. Is there a rule about this? Must an author make an established bestseller list in order to use that term?”

Absolutely. An author needs to have a book that hits a recognized bestseller list in order to claim he or she is a “bestselling” author. That would mean your book needs to land on a legitimate bestseller list like the New York Times list, the LA Times, the Denver Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Barnes & Noble’s list, or the Amazon Top 100. (It’s also fine to note that you had a book land in your regional paper — say the Portland Oregonian or the Cincinnati Enquirer, though those lists don’t quite have the same cachet as the major lists.) Several outlets (Publishers Weekly, CBA, etc) release their own bestseller list every month, and a few track the various genres as well as offering an overall “top 50 titles” in terms of sales. So if an author claims to be a “bestseller” in her proposal, she needs to be able to back that up with evidence of hitting a list.

By the way, BookScan is the reporting vehicle for most bookstores. Many religious bookstores use a different tracking system, called Stats. These are supposed to track book sales by ISBN number, and create a reporting data base for publishers. But one of the reasons this can confuse authors is because some books can sell incredibly well and never have their sales reported. Books sold in Sam’s Club and Costco, for example, are not reported to any bestseller tracking system — so you could sell 100,000 copies and never appear on a bestseller list. And, of course, books you sell at personal appearances or through your own website aren’t reported via any channels. The success of The Shack is a good example — the book moved a couple hundred thousand copies through alternative sales channels before any reporting store picked it up and began noting sales, so it had sold a bazillion copies and never appeared on a bestseller list. Once it was trackable, it hit #1 in the religion category. It’s reasonable to ask the question, “Would it have been fair for the author of The Shack to declare himself a bestselling author prior to making the list?” Maybe… but that’s not the way the system works.

And someone wrote and noted, “You have advised authors to spend some serious cash in order to create a dynamite website. Can you tell me how many zeroes serious cash has? And are there templates or places a prospective author could view in order to begin making plans?”

I think a good website can be a great marketing tool. We used to think of sites as akin to a highway billboard — something you drove by, read, and moved on. But now sites are incredibly useful tools — a way to stay on top of the industry, communicate with readers, and let people know about books and speaking events. They have also proven to be content-centered — so if you have a plumbing company, you don’t just say “great rates and quality service” like you might in a yellow pages ad. With a website, you’ll have suggestions for fixing common plumbing problems, a place to ask questions, introductions to the company personnel, a way to schedule an appointment, maybe even a “history of plumbing.” In other words, the site has become the repository for information. It’s why we’ve quickly become a nation of readers again. And it’s always changing. We recently updated our corporate site, have begun doing more on Twitter and Facebook, and updated the software for this blog to the latest WordPress version. Now I’m having people tell me we don’t use Tumblr and Pinterest enough, and we could make better use of video. Like I said, it’s always changing.

If you’re an author who speaks, wants to stay in touch with readers, and can devote time to it, your marketing people will probably encourage you to create a good website. And it will mean you can expect to spend somewhere in the $3000 to $5000 range. You can go cheaper, of course (some places offer a do-it-yourself site for $99), but you get what you pay for. And you can spend a heck of a lot more, too. (I know an author who just invested $10,000 in a fabulous site.) There are thousands of experts you can talk to about establishing a strong site — there’s no reason to have a crummy website any more. If you want to check out author sites, visit some author pages and start clicking. You’ll find all sorts of authors with a variety of styles and choices to their sites.

Got a question about books or writing or publishing? Send it in, and we’ll answer it in a future “Ask an Agent” post.

 

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…