Archive for the ‘Deep Thoughts’ Category

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 | 4 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…

If you could sit and have a beer with a literary agent…

April 18th, 2014 | Agents, Career, CBA, Conferences, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Trends | 2 Comments

I’m taking the month of April and letting people send in ANY question they have about writing and publishing. If you could sit down for an hour over a beer with a literary agent, and ask him anything you wanted, what would you want to know? Here are questions I’ve been sent recently…

If I am offered a contract, should I then get an agent?

That depends on the situation. Although I’m a longtime literary agent, I’m not an agent-evangelist, insisting everyone needs an agent. So think about the big picture here — your agent didn’t discuss the idea with you, or help you sharpen your proposal, or introduce you to editors, or send it out to publishers, or offer career advice. Once you’re offered a contract, the agent is going to step into it and earn a commission. So here’s my thinking… IF the agent can bring value, in terms of doing a great negotiation, and improving the contract & terms, and getting involved in the marketing, and stepping in to help with dramatic and foreign rights, and offering advice for your future, then it might be worthwhile to have an agent step in. But if all he’s going to do is say “yes” to the offer, it may not be worth paying him 15%. Consider talking with a good contract evaluation service, which might only charge a couple hundred dollars. (Or you might talk with an attorney, but be careful — they tend to charge by the six-minute increment and want to keep the clock running, so it can be expensive. Maybe consider this option if you’ve got something complex, such as a series offer or a movie deal.) But don’t sign with someone just so you can have the honor of saying, “I have an agent!”

If my novel is women’s fiction, is it best to target a female agent?

It’s best to target an agent who does a lot of work in your genre. If you write historical romance, you don’t need an old romantic to represent you — but it helps to have an agent who has sold a bunch of historical romances. I’ve sold as much romance over the past fifteen years as anyone, I think, and I’ve done pretty well for the authors I represent. Of course, you need to feel comfortable with your agent, so don’t sign on with the first person who offers you representation. Check them out and make sure they’re legit. Have they done deals? How many in your genre? Who were those deals with? Do they have authors who have stayed with them and grown their careers? I occasionally do conferences, and I’ve been amazed at the lack of experience I see in some of the people posing as agents.

If you are a member of a group that has an interest in a certain period of history (say “the Old West”), and you are allowed/encouraged to peddle your novel to the group, does that count towards your platform? If there are 9000 members in the group, can I claim that number, or does it have to be people who are actually following you on Facebook?

Sure that counts toward your platform. Those are people who are interested in what you’re writing. By all means include them. My one caution: Don’t push writing organizations too hard in your pitch. A romance writer who tells me, “I belong to RWA” isn’t really impressing me — LOTS of people belong to RWA. And while the organization is fabulous (for those who don’t know, RWA puts on one of the best writing conferences on the planet), it’s made up of writers who won’t really buy a lot of your books. Your friends will buy books, of course, but they’re buying the books because they are your friends, not because they belong to RWA.

Building a platform is one thing, but how does one build a real-world platform if they don’t live anywhere near a big city?

You build a platform by developing contacts and friendships. So you use the internet to connect with some folks. You write articles that get noticed, then interact with readers. You do blog posts or interviews, and interact with the people who come on to comment. You tweet and discuss things with online groups. Maybe you do webcasts or radio interviews from the comfort of your small-town home. You work to get endorsements and reviews. You partner with organizations and peers to get in front of others. You seek out your target audience and get in front of them — not to sell books, but to engage them as possible friends. You don’t need to be in a big city to make that happen; and I can tell you of several successful authors who don’t live in big cities. (Case in point: Tracie Peterson is a New York Times bestselling author who has built a career living in, um, nowhere. But I like to use her as an example because it allows me to tell everyone that Tracie and her husband Jim once named their dog after my son. Really. “Here, Colin MacGregor!”)

When my book was declared out of print, why wouldn’t my publisher give me the rights to the cover art?

A fiction publisher wrote me to say, “Authors never hoid any rights to the artwork for their book’s cover design. Publishers license those images for their product use or have staff photographers and designers create the covers. Once print rights revert on the book, in all but a very few cases the publisher can’t give the author that artwork, since the cover art is contracted between the designer and the publisher.”

I know you do a lot of inspirational fiction, so can you tell me why it is that modern day CBA agents and publishers seem to shy away from fantasy in Christian literature?

Because it doesn’t sell. It’s the same reason most publishers currently shy away from westerns — they don’t sell in big numbers. As soon as they determine the genre will sell well, publishers will start producing more of those books. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about publishing, it’s to be patient. Things come into style, then they go out of style. Jane Austen books were huge, now they seem to be waning. Dystopian was all the rage, now nobody is contracting them. Be patient. Fantasy is big with young people, so my guess is that as this generation moves toward adulthood, fantasy will make a comeback. As I like to say, publishing is a tidal business — the tide comes in, the tide goes out.

What is the most creative or memorable pitch someone has made to you?

Um… you won’t much like my answer. Most of the authors I represent are people I knew, or friends of current clients whom I met and started working with. My list isn’t really filled with authors who wowed me at a ten-minute pitch session at a conference (although I realize this would be a considerably more fun answer if I said that). So the really memorable ones, to me, were the authors who came in with a great idea, and showed me some fabulous writing. Christy Award winner Ann Tatlock simply showed me a proposal at a conference, and the writing was so good I think I fell off my chair. Sheila Gregoire got up and spoke at a conference in Canada, and immediately had the audience in the palm of her hand, making me want to read her work. Bonnie Gray (who you don’t know, but her book White Space is releasing later this spring) had a great story to tell. Romance writer Vickie McDonough handed me a wonderful idea at a conference in the mountains of Colorado. Holly Lorincz showed me a proposal over coffee that made me laugh out loud. Gail Martin was speaking at a conference with me, and had so much wisdom to share with people that I think I pitched myself to her. Kimberly Stuart met me on a shuttle bus, and I was so charmed I had to read her work. Every one of them was a writer, with a strong voice, and I was impressed by their professionalism. While I like each of them, I’m not representing them because I like them — I’m representing them because I like them AND THEY CAN WRITE. That’s probably not the answer you were looking for. But I do have one great story…

I was at a conference, and talked on a panel about the pluses and minuses of working in the CBA/religious/spirituality market. I said to the audience that one of the interesting things about it is that I’m an Anglican, and CBA is populated with a variety of religious types — the ultra-conservatives, the leftist social types, the wild charismatics, the quiet fundamentalists, the angry, the loud, the wacky… all sorts of people, most of them very normal, and some of them wondering if I’m “Christian enough” for them. And at times some of them can be sure they have “the call of God” — which makes it a bit awkward when I have to say, “God may have told you to write your book, but He didn’t give me any instructions about having to represent it.” Anyway, that night there was a fancy dinner, and as I walked up to my table, I noticed someone had left a card on my chair. It read, “GOD TOLD ME HE WANTS YOU TO BE MY AGENT!” I laughed, as did the woman who wrote the card. We became friends, and I’m proud to represent romance writer Jennifer Johnson, who is a hoot.

What is the most fun you’ve had at a writing conference? And what’s the worst experience you’ve had at a conference?

I love writing conferences, since it’s a chance to see friends and share some fun in what is largely an individual business. I’ve got great memories of dancing into the wee hours while being the only male at the Harlequin party (me and 500 women getting down to “It’s Raining Men”). Gnoshing with fellow faculty members Michael Chabon, Yann Martel, Katherine Peterson, and Francine Rivers at the 2008 Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, or at the 2006 Festival with Lauren Winner, Walter Wangerin, Alice McDermott, and Salman Rushdie (who, I must be honest, I only met for a moment). Ditching the way-too-uptight Mount Hermon conference with editorial friends one night to (1) hear a blues band, (2) accidentally wander into Lesbian Night at a dance club, and (3) take a dip in the Pacific Ocean at 3 in the morning. But my favorite time at most conferences is usually late at night, having quiet conversations over a glass of wine. I was introduced to the fabulous novelist Lisa Samson one time, and she immediately said, “You’re always saying nice things about my books!” We’ve gone on to work together for years. I had a great conversation with the wonderful writer Susan Meissner at a conference, and later got to work with her (Susan is one of those authors that I simply have to tell everyone about — her craft is so great that she inspires other writers). I met #1 best-selling novelist Mindy Clark at a conference, sitting in the restaurant and watching a terrible karaoke show, and she turned out to be one of the most fun people, and one of the most dedicated craftspersons I’ve ever known. (She won’t sleep until she gets the sentence right.) I met the incredibly gifted Rachel Hauck at a conference, and was struck right away with the way she processes a story. It’s the late, quiet conversations I think I like best.

My worst conference experience? This is a true story (and one that keeps showing up in other people’s writing)… I was at a Northwest writing conference at Seattle Pacific University years ago. (I remember the location, since two of my kids graduated from college there.) I had this weird guy who kept following me around, trying to pitch his book to me. Every time I turned around — BANG! There he was, holding his damn manuscript. Once, in trying to get away from him, I walked into the men’s room. As I was standing at the urinal (and that’s not an exaggeration: AS I WAS STANDING AT THE URINAL) I realized he was beside me, and he said, “um, if you could just take a look at my book sometime…” as he slipped it in front of my face. True story. I yelled at him, “NOT NOW!” and if I’d have been thinking, I would have turned and yelled at him, if you get my drift. A memorable experience.

Hey, we’ve invited writers this month to send in the questions they have always wanted to ask a literary agent. Drop me your question, and I”ll get to it next week.

If I could sit down with a literary agent and ask ANYTHING…

April 16th, 2014 | Agents, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Publishing, Self-Publishing, Trends | 10 Comments

This month I’m trying to get to all the questions people say they’d like to ask an agent, if they could just sit down with him or her for a few minutes and talk privately. Here are questions that people have asked recently…

Are the low costs of e-books costing authors money?

Sure. I mean, if a retailer sells a book for $20, the royalty is higher than if he sells it for $10. The average e-book is way down — many below $5, and often you’ll see specials where the books are 99 cents. That doesn’t leave much for an author. The argument is made that people want a deal, and the low prices build readership by finding readers who will spend a dollar or two without even thinking about it. And I think that’s true, to a point… but at some point, we have educated readers that they only need to spend a buck or two on a book, and that means the only people really making money are the bestselling authors.

I’m thinking of setting up my own publishing company. Do I need to trademark or copyright the company? Is there a contract template for doing that?

If you’re just doing it to keep the words “Amazon Publishing” off your title page, then create a business name, do a search to make sure the name & domain are available and not a copyright infringement, and start a bank account in the name of the company. In some states you’ll have to register the company name, so check your local laws, or talk with an attorney if you have greater legal questions. (For the record, I’m not an attorney, nor am I giving you legal advice.) You can find people willing to sell you all sorts of business-planning materials, but most authors who start their own companies simply start them online with a domain name and a bank account.

Can you recommend an affordable entertainment lawyer (i.e., “one who doesn’t charge $400 per hour”) but is still credible? Or can you recommend someone to look over movie/TV rights contracts?

I won’t recommend anyone by name on the blog, but there are plenty of good attorneys who specialize in entertainment law and intellectual property rights. You’ll want someone in your state, so do some research online. The AAR keeps a list of people by state, by the way. I would say the one thing to look for is experience — make sure you’re talking with an attorney who has done movie contracts in the past, since entertainment law is tricky and the average guy doing wills and rental property agreements won’t know what he is doing. That said, many literary agents have experience with this, and can help you with basic questions, and there are some “contract evaluation” companies that will review your paperwork for a flat fee.

How does a literary agent plan to make money with indie-published authors? I mean, if a writer is doing her own books on Amazon, and an agent is helping with things like planning and marketing and career strategies, how does the agent get paid?

There are several ways. First, the author might do a deal with a traditional publisher, so the agent makes a standard commission. Second, the agent might help with things like Amazon deals, Smashword deals, movie rights, foreign rights, and other subsidiary rights, earning a commission on those. Third, the agent might arrange for services that are paid (though you have to be careful not to run afoul of AAR guidelines with that). Fourth (and something we’re doing here at MacGregor Literary), the agent may help authors set up a writing community, where authors in a genre band together to do books in a genre. The books look and feel like a line from a publishing house, but they are owned and operated by the authors as a sort of co-op. The agents role is to manage it. We are doing this with a western line (www.DustyTrailBooks.com) and a romance line (www.ForgetMeNotRomances.com) and a cozy mystery line (www.SpyglassLaneMysteries.com).

What do you project as the future possibilities with audio books?

Audio books are exploding. Amazon bought Brilliance Audio just to make sure they had the capability of cornering the market on audio. More are being created and sold every year, and in a mobile society people are discovering the joy of hearing a well-read tale. The future is bright — but I think we’ll all begin to see audio books as something completely different than print or e-books, just as movies are different from books. Audio offers its own experience, and I think needs to begin to be viewed as a completely separate category of entertainment.

A couple years ago, you were touting the Google Book Settlement as the wave of the future, then it was challenged, and eventually the whole mess sort of disappeared. Can you tell me where that situation (of having Google control hundreds of thousands of out-of-print books) is now?

Sure — Google won. Hands down. It was a huge rights-grab by the company, they hired a plethora of lawyers, and they won in court (proving once again that the Obama administration is no friend of authors — they seem willing to take the side of every freaking corporate entity that comes along). Google now plans to make all those titles available, often for free, and everyone is hoping they’re going to treat authors fairly by not giving away the words others created. (Um… that’s a fool’s desire. Google is in this to make money and seize content so as to have control, and the hell with artists getting a fair shake.) The Authors Guild has proposed that Congress create a collective licensing organization — they have said, “something like ASCAP or BMI to deal with mass digitization and orphan books. Such an organization could pave the way for a true national digital library, but it would be limited in scope, just as ASCAP is.” In their letter to members, they noted that their key requests are the (1) authors get paid, (2) authors can say “no” and opt out if they want to, (3) this would be strictly for out-of-print books, and (4) there would be some sort of mediatory agency to handle disputes. My guess? The Obama administration will laugh and disseminate a photo of the Attorney General having drinks with the CEO’s of Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, and any other company who can buy their way into the White House. (Um… yeah. I tend to think our current government is not exactly looking after the little guy any more.)

It’s been a while since you shared anything crazy, Chip. What’s the worst query you’ve received recently?

“Dear Literary Agent – Prior to earth, our immortal Santa lived among the Tarwoos on the planet Tsixodi where male Tarwoos were called Manwoos and female Tarwoos were called Woos…” I kid you not. I also had a query about a fantasy novel where people get “a magical disease” which causes body parts to break off, fly around, and start talking — and the young lady in the story discovers “adventure and science” when “a detached talking penis…” Well, you get the idea. And, to top off this fun-filled trilogy, we received a proposal for what I can only guess is a crappy porn novel about two high schoolers that features “342 pages filled with numerous bazaar sexual escapades.” That’s right — “bazaar.” I assume that means the couple is having sex in an open-air market, but I didn’t bother to check it closely. I don’t think I’m old enough for bazaar sex.

This month we’re encouraging writers to ask the questions they have always wanted to ask a literary agent. So what’s your question?

Having coffee with a literary agent…

April 7th, 2014 | Agents, Career, CBA, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing, Trends | 5 Comments

Okay, so this month I’m asking people to send in questions — What is it you’ve always wanted to talk with a literary agent about? If you could sit down over coffee and just have a conversation, what would you ask? Send those in, and I’ll do my best to answer your questions. Here are some questions that came in…

Do you recommend self-publishing with your authors?

Absolutely. I think authors today have to think about doing a variety of projects through a number of venues. That could mean they are working with traditional publishers, non-traditional publishers, niche publishers, and self-publishing some projects. I’m a big supporter of what I consider the “hybrid” author.

What are the challenges of agenting in today’s publishing climate?

Well, agenting (like writing) has never been easy. You have to understand the market, have relationships with the editors, know what each house is looking for, keep current on things like trends and publishing contracts. Most importantly, in today’s market agents are called upon to be part of the marketing effort — something that we didn’t used to do much of. But in terms of the recent challenges, I would say advances are down, and slots are limited, making a debut for an author harder than ever. There are more books available, so it’s tougher to help an author get noticed. And there’s also been a bit of an anti-agent movement going on among the indie-publishing crowd, which I think is fueled by people who really do not understand the publishing business. But I have faced that a bit over the past couple of years, and it’s been interesting — people who really don’t know the industry, but are absolutely certain they know that an agent is unnecessary. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a challenge we face today.

I’ve heard you mention a couple times that you have some reservations about Amazon — can you explain to me in simple terms what the problem is?

Sure. I love Amazon. A great, forward-thinking company. They do a fabulous job selling books, and have positioned themselves to be the sole purveyor of ebooks. But… if the entire indie publishing movement is based on one company, we’re going to have a problem. Because Amazon, while I generally love them, is definitely a cut-throat, predatory company. (I’m not criticizing them. I’m just offering an opinion on their tactics.) We can say they’re just practicing good business when they lower prices to the point that they squeeze out other companies, but be aware that, as soon as it’s clear they are the only company selling ebooks online, they will cut their royalty rates. (They currently pay a 70% royalty on self-published projects. If there is no one to compete with them… why pay out 70%? Why not pay out a much smaller amount?) Lest you think that’s a scare tactic on my part, recently Amazon realized they didn’t have any real competition for self-published audio books. So what did they do? They cut their royalty rates from 90% to 40% Overnight. With no warning. And no negotiation, either — if you want to work with their ACX service to do your self-published audio book, you can expect to make 40% from now on. What happens when B&N.com and the iBookstore and the Kobo bookstore go out of business? You think Amazon will still pay 70%? Not if they don’t have to. So I love them… but I tend to think monopolies are dangerous. We’re in the Golden Age of publishing at the moment. A huge shift in royalties will mean far less money for authors, and an end to the halcyon days of indie publishing.

Since you seem to keep your finger on the pulse of fiction, what trends do you see in today’s fiction publishing market?

I don’t know that I have my finger on the pulse… and some days I wonder if there IS a pulse, at least on the CBA side. But some things I’ve noticed: Historicals are struggling; contemporary stories are where it’s at. Amish has waned, but it’s still a sub-genre that works because it’s sort of a blend between historical and contemporary. Paranormal has faded. New Adult has been hot, but unfortunately it’s turning into nothing more than upper-edge YA with explicit sex scenes. (Porn for an early 20′s readership, in other words.) A shame. Of course, romance just keeps selling — especially contemporaries with people who have interesting jobs or live in fascinating places. And romantic suspense seems to be growing as well (at least in our part of the business). I tend to think CBA YA is a major struggle, and wonder what’s going to happen with the genre. (My guess? It blends into spec fiction, and the spec side grows some. But the problem with that theory is that it’s never happened. Sci fi/fantasy has never been more than a slice of the overall publishing market. So what do I know?) On the nonfiction side, memoir is hot, so all you fiction people may want to use your storytelling skills and use your fiction technique to tell a nonfiction story. Books in the evergreen categories of money management, healthy lifestyle, career success, healthy relationships are also continuing to sell.

Of course, ebooks are the rage, and a growing percentage of all publishing. (While only a third of the sales of legacy publishers, they amount for roughly half of all books sold if you include all the startup, mini, and indie publishing ventures.) And, if you want me to talk about the business side of publishing, it should be noted that publishers have all gone to e-contracts (that is, a digital document, rather than a paper one). Also e-royalty reports. And e-catalogues. And e-editing. And e-breakfast, for all I know. Everybody is posting their books, so there is a boatload of under-edited, crappy novels out there, making it harder than ever for an author to get noticed. There are fewer editors, particularly at CBA houses, fewer slots for debut novelists at legacy houses, more expectations for authors to do their own marketing, less editing than ever, smaller advances, but growing royalty rates. And, of course, more crappy agents who don’t know jack and I have to apologize for their stupid errors. (I need to do a blog on this some day.) And more micro-publishers, most doing ebooks only, and starting to make their mark in the publishing market. That help you?

Have you always wanted to sit down with a literary agent and have a conversation? Here’s your chance. Send me a question, or post it in the “comments” section, and I’ll get to it this month.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

March 28th, 2014 | Deep Thoughts, Questions from Beginners, Quick Tips, Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft | 34 Comments

So it’s spring break for most people. You might be heading out of town, or driving to the beach, or trying to find a place to relax and dive into that new book you bought. I’m going the same thing — well… I live at the beach, so I’m not heading there, but I am trying to ditch the crowds find some quiet so I can read today. I have a long list of projects I want to get caught up on, so instead of doing emails and taking phone calls, I’m going to try and get away and just read for a while.

And that, of course, means I don’t think I’ll take the time to create a new blog post. Instead, I’ll let you YOU create it. One simple question: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

It might be something about craft, or a trick you learned, something about writing quickly or leaving writer’s block behind. It could be advice on creating characters, or raising the stakes, or leaving people with a memorable lesson. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you’ve no doubt heard (or read) some great bit of wisdom that you took to heart and you noticed it changed your work. Share it with us. Just click on the “comment” bar below and offer the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received. You’re welcome to give us context, and tell who said it and what the circumstances were, if you want to — but don’t feel you HAVE to. You’re welcome to just offer one sentence with the advice you’ve got.

I do this once each year or so, and I have gleaned some wonderful tips from people over the years. Would love to hear what you have to share with your fellow writers. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Engineered Bestsellers, Rock Star Pastors, and Rosie Ruiz

March 21st, 2014 | Books, CBA, Collaborating and Ghosting, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Marketing and Platforms, Religion, The Business of Writing, Trends | 5 Comments

by Ghostwriter [While this says it's written by Chip MacGregor, it is not. It's written by a professional collaborative writer who is a friend -- Chip just posted it.]

Hi. I’m Ghostwriter and I’m the collaborative author of an engineered bestseller.

The news that Mars Hill Church paid ResultSource about $200,000 to get Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage on the New York Times bestseller list shocked a lot of people. For me, that news solved a mystery.

As I already mentioned, I am a collaborative author and occasionally a ghostwriter. Although I am a published author in my own right, I learned long ago that I could earn a much better living helping other people write their books. It’s a good life, and I enjoy my work. Nevertheless, I still hope that someday I’ll see one of my books on a bestseller list—any bestseller list.

This explains my obsession with Amazon rankings and sales figures.

I know, I know…

You have to take Amazon numbers with several hundred grains of salt. I get that. But I still enjoy checking my author page and seeing how many copies of my books have sold in the previous week. Generally, the numbers are unremarkable. Sometimes they are depressing. But a while back those numbers astonished and mystified me.

I’d collaborated on a book with a megachurch pastor and, although it was a contract job for which I received a flat fee and no royalties, I asked for and received cover credit. Because my name was on the cover, I was able to list the book on my Amazon author page and track its sales statistics. Even though I wasn’t going to receive royalties for the book, I was still curious to see how well it was selling.

So I set the book up and waited for the launch date. The first week’s sales stats took my breath away. The book went from zero to 10,000 sales virtually overnight. I must confess that at this point I was kicking myself for not asking for a percentage of the royalties. I figured we had a runaway bestseller on our hands.

Since Amazon posts BookScan sales figures weekly, I spent a week eagerly looking forward to the next report. But when the stats were posted, not only was I disappointed, I was puzzled. In one week, the book’s sales crashed from 10,000 to about 200. The next week it dropped off even further—to about 50.

You read that correctly.

Fifty.

If you do the math, that amounts to about a 99.95% drop off in three weeks.

At first, I thought the church had purchased a bunch of books, maybe to sell in bookstores on their various campuses. But I checked the geographical sales figures, and they were literally all over the map. Ten copies here. Twenty-five copies there. Sixty in another place. Almost every state in the U.S. was represented. I was flummoxed — until I heard about Mars Hill Church’s arrangement with a marketing firm known as ResultSource. Then all the puzzle pieces fell into place.

The pastor I collaborated with had mentioned that he had a “consultant” who helped his previous book get on a major (not the NYT) bestseller list, and that he planned to use them again. In my naïveté, I assumed the consultant was a publicist who helped market the book. Now I believe it was either ResultSource or a similar company.

Like it or not, I am now the collaborative author of an engineered bestseller.

How does that make me feel? It makes me feel an uncomfortable kinship with an infamous long-distance runner named Rosie Ruiz.

Ms. Ruiz won the 1980 Boston Marathon in the women’s category with the fastest time in the history of the race. However, her celebration was short lived when it became clear that she did not run the entire race. She wanted the glory of winning the Boston Marathon, but she wasn’t willing to put in the hard work required to do it legitimately. Even if she had put in the work, she might not have been good enough to win. Rosie wasn’t willing to take that risk. She wanted glory and fame. She wanted a guaranteed win. So she took a shortcut — she cheated.

That’s what’s happening when megachurch pastors, conference speakers, and big organizations hire companies like ResultSource to “help” their books attain bestseller status. Like Rosie Ruiz, they want the glory. They want a guaranteed win. So they take a shortcut. They cheat.

Is this done all the time in the publishing industry? Chip MacGregor says no, and I agree with him. This is not a publishing industry problem. I believe engineered bestsellers are symptomatic of an evangelical Christian culture that worships success and elevates megachurch pastors to rock star status.

Boston Marathon officials disqualified Rosie Ruiz and stripped her of her title. Unfortunately, no one is going to strip these pastors and Christian leaders of their phony “bestselling author” status. However, one can hope that the embarrassment caused by the Mark Driscoll fiasco will make them think twice before paying for another engineered bestseller.

And maybe, just maybe, they will remove the phrase, “bestselling author,” from their bios and websites until they attain that status legitimately — through people actually buying, reading, and sharing their books.

What’s wrong with buying your way onto the bestseller list?

March 14th, 2014 | Author News, Deals, Books, CBA, Collaborating and Ghosting, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Religion, The Business of Writing, Trends | 113 Comments

Last week I made a point of saying that I think a guy who buys his way onto the bestseller lists is a weasel, and I had a bunch of people write to ask me why. This is a worthwhile topic for everyone in publishing, so let me offer some background…

Mark Driscoll pastors a large church in Seattle. Last fall he was accused of plagiarizing the words of another author, Peter Jones, in his latest book, and in addition there were other examples given of him plagiarizing, including pages of text recreated  word-for-word from a Bible commentary and stuck into one of the church’s publications. The people at Driscoll’s church made the situation worse, first claiming it was okay because one of the obviously plagiarized documents had never been sold, then changing their story when it turns out it had indeed been sold, but saying they hadn’t made much, then blaming it all on un unnamed research assistant (even though it had Mark Driscoll’s name on it), then taking pains to criticize the “haters” instead of owning up to their own ignorance and laziness. The whole thing was a mess. Driscoll clearly plagiarized (whether you want to cut him slack and call it something else), and his publisher examined the book and released a statement that admitted there were “inadequate citations,” but defending him for handling the situation well. In the end, the entire mess faded away. I was a bit surprised, since I’ve seen books get cancelled and editorial careers get ruined over less than this. Still, we all moved on.

Until last week, when it was revealed that Rev. Driscoll had paid a marketing firm, ResultSource, more than $200,000 to get his book onto the New York Time bestseller list. The scheme included hiring people to purchase 6000 copies of the book in bookstores, then ordering another 5000 copies in bulk. They even made sure to use more than 1000 different payment methods, so BookScan couldn’t track all the purchases back to a single source. In other words, they cheated to manipulate the system, got the book onto the list (for that one week), and did it so that Driscoll can refer to himself as “a New York Times bestselling author.”

I was critical of him for doing it, since I don’t think gaming the system is the right thing to do. It’s unfair. It’s lazy. It’s dishonest. And it’s basically nothing more than rampant egotism. But I had several people write to me, or post on Facebook, that this is common practice. A couple people said “everybody is doing it,” and some claimed “publishers are doing that all the time.” My response: Bullshit. Sorry if that offends, but we need to call it what it is. This is NOT standard practice. Everybody is NOT doing it. I used to be an associate publisher with Time-Warner, and this is not something we ever did, nor could I conceive of us doing it. I’ve also worked with every one of the Big Six publishers, as well as dozens of smaller publishers and every CBA publishing house, and I’ve never known one of the respectable legacy publishers to pull this sort of schtick.

Are the bestseller lists rigged? Perhaps, to a small degree — certainly Amazon seems to include an inordinate number of their own titles on the Amazon bestseller lists, and occasionally we’ll all be surprised at how a book with modest sales somehow wound up on a bestseller list because of the strange (and secret) way some of them account for the books. But for the most part, the books showing up on the lists are there because of sales. Honest, straightforward sales. Sometimes we get shocked when a crappy book (say, for example, Fifty Shades of Gray) suddenly starts showing up everywhere — but it showed up because, in spite of the boring story and fourth-grade writing ability, the book SOLD. Like it or not, that book wasn’t snuck onto a list dishonestly. Um… do we really want a PASTOR cheating his way onto the NYT list? And, matched with the fact that his name was on books that he now claims he didn’t actually write, what does that say about the guy? 

I find the whole thing incredibly lazy, and was shocked to discover the church itself admitted they didn’t know if church funds had been used to pay the bill. (Really? They spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars to stroke the author’s ego, and they don’t know where the money came from? Let’s just say that stretches the bounds of credulity.) This is the sort of news that is bound to come out, and will hurt you, since it demonstrates your laziness and need for attention. So no, I’m not one of those in the “he’s just spreading the Good News camp.” That’s baloney. If Mark Driscoll just wanted to spread the good news, he could have purchased $200,000 worth of books and given them away. This was done to make himself feel important, and in doing so, he does potential damage to honest authors, who work to write and market their books.

So today Mark Driscoll admits, in an interview in Charisma, the scheme was cooked up and a bad idea… but, of course, he’s not to blame. Nope. He explained that “outside counsel advised us to use ResultSource.” So those pesky outside counselors are to blame, like that pesky unnamed research assistant who plagiarized is to blame. Not Mark. Not the guy with his name all over stuff. Huh-uh. Instead, his board made a statement that they appreciate his “endurance through false accusation.” Um… excuse me, but what exactly was the FALSE part? His book contains the un-cited work of another writer, which his own publisher acknowledged was inappropriate  He had clearly plagiarized materials with his name on it. A company was paid a pile of money to pump his book and dishonestly get it onto bestseller lists. Those are all facts. What exactly is the “false” part? Well, except for the part where Mark claims he actually wrote any of this, I mean. I’m fairly certain that part is false. 

What’s wrong with buying your way onto the bestseller list? It’s an expensive, short-term ego stroke for the lazy and dishonest, and it excludes real writers from actually making the list. My two cents.

=======================

You can find out more information on Mark Driscoll, plagiarism, and buying your way onto a bestseller list by going to World Magazine, Slate, the blaze.com, and the writings of Warren Throckmorton. You could probably also go to Mark Driscoll’s site, but be aware that, even though it has his name on it, he probably didn’t write it, and if there are errors it’s somebody else’s fault. 

 

Author Earnings, Amazon, and the Future of Ebooks

February 22nd, 2014 | Agents, Career, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing | 31 Comments

There has been a ton of discussion over a report on author earnings  by ebook authors (which you can find here: http://authorearnings.com/the-report/), the response to it (http://tinyurl.com/pcebsd5), and the responses to the responses (two of the best are http://tinyurl.com/kbjts5s and http://tinyurl.com/omkjz6v ). If you follow this discussions in our industry, you already know what’s going on: successful self-published author of Wool, Hugh Howey, did a bunch of research and came to the conclusion that self-published authors are selling more books and making more money than those publishing with traditional publishers. It was quickly pointed out that there were some problems with Howey’s work — he sells his books on Amazon, did all his research on Amazon, and (surprise!) came to the conclusion that Amazon is a great place to do your ebooks. Nevertheless, there were really some interesting things that showed up in his research:

—Indie-published ebooks have generally higher ratings on Amazon than Legacy-published ebooks.

—Indie-published ebooks generally cost less than Legacy-published ebooks, possibly leading consumers to the sense of getting better value from indies.

—Indie-published ebooks may be outselling Legacy-published ebooks (this is more inferred than proven).

—Indie-published ebooks constitute a larger percentage of books sales than we’ve been led to believe in the past (Howey estimates it’s more than 50% of all book sales, though his methodology lacks stringent validity testing).

—Indie-published authors of ebooks are earning more per book than Legacy-published ebook authors. (Though his argument that Indie-published authors are making more overall is based on very shaky evidence.)

It’s all fascinating stuff, and I believe his conclusion that publishing’s brightest days are ahead is spot-on. As an agent, I’ve never felt I was one of the people who needed to protect the status quo — the fact is, I believe in authors self-publishing.. Unfortunately, the debate that arose after Howey released his findings was considerably less than insightful. It’s become a fairly rancorous debate, with authors and pundits picking sides, pointing fingers, and making their case with angry words and often impolite rhetoric. Those who want to defend traditional publishing seem to want to dismiss the study, and those who are staunch publishing revolutionists can’t stand the thought that Howey’s work might not actually hold up to critical analysis. Dana Beth Weinberg, who runs a Master’s program in Data Analytics and might know a bit about data analysis, has come under a scathing attack for daring to criticize Howey’s methodology.  (The criticism is basically this:  ”We don’t want to hear from experts, we want to hear from people who agree with us!”)

Again, I thought Howey’s study was interesting, since we rarely get to see this sort of data. His premise that Legacy publishers paying a 25% ebook royalty is unfair to authors is obviously true, and he states that one of his goals is to push publishers to change that — something I’m very supportive of. His assertion that traditional publishers have skewed the data over the years to protect their market share isn’t really a surprise — both sides in this debate have done that. And his conclusion that publishers are making more than authors isn’t really “news,” in my view, but it’s a good reminder. So I’m glad he took the time to do the report.

Still, there are some real problems with his work. The study was only done with one company, all the data is from one day, and he admittedly relies on friends and conjecture for many of his conclusions. In other words, his sample size is way too small. He breathlessly reports that 92% of the bestsellers are Amazon ebooks… um, somebody apparently forgot to explain to him that Amazon uses their bestseller lists as promotional tools for the company, so they’re notoriously unreliable as industry examples. And you don’t get “trends” from looking at one point in time, you get them from looking at several and creating a trend line (even my one class in statistics in my PhD program at the University of Oregon taught me that).

So while I tend to view Howey’s data as almost completely one-sided, I also think he raises some very valid points. A few years ago, a writer could live from one advance check to the next — now that’s nearly impossible, except for the very bestselling, A-level authors. A few years ago authors tended to shy away from niche publishers, because they were considered the minor leagues. Every author was trying to push toward the biggest publishers, since that’s where the most money and the most marketing were to be found — now a lot of writers have come to understand that ebooks sell best in clear categories, and a niche publisher that can move a lot of ebooks to their core readers can earn an author a huge payday. A few years ago, most writers really hated the thought of self-publishing, since it was considered a “vanity press” and was only to be used when you just couldn’t land a deal with a “real” publisher. Now a lot of writers have figured out that there is a huge and growing market for ebooks, and self-publishing is a choice many authors are making because it gives them more options. In fact, some authors (including the likes of James Scott Bell, Jon Konrath, Brandilyn Collins, and several others) are deciding to focus almost exclusively on self-publishing. Still, most people making a living with their writing are hybrid authors, doing some combination of traditional publishing and self-publishing.
Howey mentions that, with the advent of e-publishing, some authors are “paying a bill or two from their writing.” That’s doubtless true, since it’s clear an author who is selling a 99-cent ebook on Amazon is at least making something, whereas an author who is still waiting for a traditional publisher to contract her novel isn’t making a dime. But he fails to mention the obvious problems: the vast majority of authors who self-publish don’t really make much at all. And the boom of self-publishing has led to a huge pile of crap, meaning readers now have to wade through a bigger pile than ever to find your books.
The fact is, one of the major problems authors have had with self-publishing is simply being lost amidst all the titles. There are currently about fifteen MILLION titles for sale on Amazon, making it awfully hard for an author to stand up and get noticed — they’re just one twig in a forest. That’s why I’ve become a fan of author communities creating niche lines. We helped authors start a western line of books (www.dustytrailbooks.com) just so that all those writers creating westerns had a common place to gather. Instead of an author posting a book on his website, selling copies to the 200 or so friends and readers who commonly visit, then slogging through months with no one visiting the site and buying a book, he can join with a bunch of other, similar western writers and create a destination site that readers can go to in order to find a bunch of western novels. We also helped create a clean romance line (www.forgetmenotromances.com) so that an author wouldn’t have to just post her book on Amazon and hope somebody noticed. I’d like to see us help authors create more sites, focused on genres that sell well as ebooks. And note that I say “we helped authors create” instead of “we decided to publish.” MacGregor Literary is not the publisher — the authors are the publishers. They don’t turn the rights over to us. In fact, they can decide at any time to withdraw a book if they get an offer from a traditional publisher and want to move that direction. We just exist to help create the destination websites, provide the expertise to make it all happen, and offer some guidance along the way.

So, just because I want you to understand exactly what I’m saying, I’m going to make this very clear: In today’s publishing market, I think nearly every author needs to consider being a “hybrid” author. That is, I think most of the authors our company has the privilege of representing need to consider having a combination of publishing deals. They need to consider doing some books with a traditional publisher, who can pay an advance, give you broad exposure, get you introduced to major media, and get you into every Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, and independent bookstore in the country. You also need to consider working with some niche or indie publisher, who can pay you a much better royalty and hopefully draw an audience of readers who like exactly the sort of book you write. And you need to consider self-publishing some of your work — certainly your out-of-print titles, but also  shorter works that won’t attract most traditional publishers, and even new book projects that can reach your core audience. Those self-published books will pay a much greater royalty than your traditionally published books, and you’ll get paid faster, so there’s a nice benefit to working with Amazon and B&N.com and the iBookstore.

Of course, with greater choice comes greater responsibility. If you choose to self-publish, you have to take care of your own editing and copyediting — word will quickly spread about a badly edited book. You will have to pay for your own cover. As a matter of fact, you also have to find an designer to work with you, since a lot of self-created covers are terrible, and all the research suggests that a bad cover will kill your self-published book. You also have to format your book the right way, and get it loaded to each system, which takes a bit of expertise — and all of these are things that require some time and attention to detail. But most importantly, you have to do all the marketing of your self-pubbed book. ALL, since there’s nobody to help you with reviews, distributing copies, letting readers know about it, taking out ads, or any of the million things we do to market a book. One bit of good news: You can pay to have all those things done. Another bit of good news: You can learn to do most of them yourself. And a third bit of good news: this is why you have an agent. You certainly don’t HAVE to do your ebooks with your agent, but if you want help, they ought to be willing to assist with things like finding you a good editor, steering you toward (or possibly taking care of) the copyediting, introducing you to a cover designer, assisting with the formatting and uploading of your manuscript, and, most importantly, helping with the marketing. (I’m not trying to give you a commercial. I’m just trying to point out what we do, and how this job has been changing in recent years. I used to rarely talk marketing — now I could spend every minute of the day just on marketing plans with authors.)
Again, I’m one of those people who is very much in favor of authors self-publishng. We’re trying to put information together to help the authors we represent know how to best do that. We hope to work with them on some books, to help them market and sell copies, and to represent their foreign & translation & movie rights. We also want to continue selling their manuscripts to traditional publishers when that’s the best choice. But even if we’re not participating financially, we want to provide authors with the tools they need to successfully self-publish. Because that should be the role of a literary agent — to help authors succeed and make money.
And that’s the problem where agents are concerned — they’re not sure how they’ll be compensated for their efforts. There’s been some disparaging talk of agents in the press lately, some of it brought on because a couple of big agencies made it clear they weren’t going to help authors who were self-publishing. But it’s also been talked about because some folks believe they don’t need anyone to help them; that they can write and market and sell books without any help from others. If that’s true, more power to them. I’m all for helping authors, and I’ve spent my life doing just that, whether I’m paid or doing it as a favor. I’ve tended to talk with the authors I represent about their careers, and how best to move forward in this crazy business, whether I’m making a buck or not. And right now, you probably need to start thinking about how you can be making some money from self-publishing. I’m happy to talk with you about the topic more on this blog, if you want to. Just let me know if you think we need to be exploring more self-publishing issues.
So that’s what is happening in publishing today. Here’s wishing you success with your books, no matter what publishing choices you make.

What does a writing budget look like?

February 19th, 2014 | Career, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, The Business of Writing | 0 Comments

A couple of people read my Tuesday blog and asked me, ”What does a writing budget look like?”

Here’s the basic idea…

1. The author sets a financial goal for the year. It’s got to be something that is livable (if the writer is attempting to make this a full-time job) and reachable (so there’s no setting a goal of “a bazillion dollars”). Let’s say, for someone just moving into full-time writing, the goal is $24,000 per year. Skinny, but a real wage for most writers. So figure out how much you need to earn in a year from your writing.

2. I encourage an author to break that annual figure into monthly chunks — so in our example, the author’s goal is $2000 per month.

3. The next step is to add up what the author expects to earn on the writing they are doing. How much in contracts does she already have? What other writing does she know she’ll be doing and getting paid for? That will help her figure out how much money is coming in, and how much she needs to add. Let’s say an author has a royalty check coming in May, expects to have completion money on a book contract in July, has a couple of self-published books releasing in April and August, and is expecting to sell a project in October. All you have to do is to figure out the amounts and write them onto your writing calendar. Nothing will give an author more clarity than hard numbers written down on a calendar — it’s a way of saying, “I’m making this… so now I need to work to make that.”

4. The obvious thing to do next is to match up dates and amounts. If you know you’re going to be working on a book in March/April/May, you can write down how much you’re making on that project. By looking at your calendar, you’ll see where the holes are that need to be filled with writing projects. And by looking at your budget, you’ll see how much you need to make in order to fill in the gaps.

5. And here’s an important step… The author should shift his or her budget from a monthly system to a quarterly system. So in our $24k-per-year scenario, the authors stops thinking in terms of “$2000-per-month” and starts thinking about “$6000-per-quarter.” That pushes off the immediate, “How-am-I-ever-going-to-survive” worry a bit. Writing income never arrives on a monthly basis anyway, except for checks you earn through self-published books at Amazon. It may take a while to generate the monthly income you need, but it’s certainly fair for a writer to plan for a decent paycheck four times per year. So you move your income into quarterly groupings, lowering the pressure and giving yourself a better big-picture view of your budget. (And this is a plan that full-time authors have been using for years. The government even uses it, which is why it asks you to pay your estimated taxes quarterly. It may take a little while to figure out how to shift some of your living expenses to a quarterly basis, but in the long run it will prove useful.)

6. If you’re self-publishing, determine about how much you expect to earn each month from your self-published books. That extra income is the money that will keep you solvent while you’re working on bigger projects. (And, to be fair, for some authors that will become the core money they earn in this business.) With Amazon paying every month, and with the growth of e-books, there’s no reason you shouldn’t start looking at self-publishing as part of your overall publishing strategy.

7. Create a budget, to match up what comes in and what goes out. The conversation  moves to something like this: “I’m going to make $6000 this quarter. It’s going to come from three sources — my completion money, my royalty checks, and those magazine articles I’m completing. And the money is going to go toward…” (and here is where it become important for you to have a monthly budget, because part of having a writing budget is determining where the money goes, not just where it will come from). This allows you to track both income and expenses, which not only gives you the ability to plan, but makes things considerably easier at tax time. Again, a lot of writers and other self-employed people have based their budgets on this model over the years. Thinking quarterly will help you survive as a writer.

I hope this all makes sense. Making a living at writing is a tricky business.

Yeah, this is a lot to choke down in one gulp. Feel free to ask questions if you need me to clarify.

Will the publisher lose money if my advance doesn’t earn out?

February 14th, 2014 | Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Publishing, The Business of Writing | 4 Comments

I was on a long plane flight last week, and the guy next to me found out I was an agent, told me about the lousy book contract he’d received for his non-fiction book, and asked me, “Does a publisher lose money if a book doesn’t earn out?”

I get this question a lot, and to answer it I need to beg your forebearance… Let me answer this with hard numbers, so that I can make my case. It will take a couple minutes to run the numbers.

Remember, every business can lose money. Retail shops, service business, even publishers. I mean, if you own a shoe store, you order in shoes that don’t sell, and you have to drastically reduce prices, you can lose money on each pair of shoes sold. Publishing is no different. The publishing house pays out advances, they pay an editor, hire a cover designer, buy ink and paper, then pay a printer, and cover overhead such as the light bill and the editor’s long distance phone calls. A lot of expenses are involved in every book. I like and respect publishers, and as a longtime agent, I WANT them to make money and stay in business. So I’m just answering a question, not writing a polemic.

That said, the argument put forth that an unearned advance equals a loss for a publisher just isn’t true. (Or at least not the whole truth.) All you have to do is look at some math…

Let’s take some big book the publisher is doing with a celebrity. She’s created a $25 hardcover book, and the publisher has paid her a $100,000 advance. The average discount a bookstore gets when ordering a book is roughly 50% — so they’re paying the publisher $12.50 for that book. (In reality, it could be less, and there are a thousand factors determining that amount, but let’s use a conservative 50% for the sake of clarity). From that amount, you have to subtract the author royalty on the first 5000 copies (the author will be paid $2.50 per book), the next 5000 copies ($3.125 per book), and thereafter ($3.75 per book). Of course, the publisher has to pay for the actual hard costs of the printed book (ink-paper-binding). That $25 book probably cost about $3 to produce. The more copies they printed, the cheaper each copy becomes. And there are plenty of things, such as cover features, that can boost the price of a book. But somewhere around $3 per book is about right. (The costs for an e-book are considerably smaller, since there is no ink, paper, binding, shipping, or warehousing.) Some of the publishers state right in their contracts that anything sold at an 85% discount is considered “at cost,” so they’re assuming a hard cost of $3.75 for a $25 book. At several publishing houses, they have a standard “overhead” charge of about $2 per book, or $50,000 per title. So take the $12.50 the publisher received for the book and subtract author royalties ($2.50), hard costs ($3.75) and overhead ($2). Conservatively, the publisher is left with $4.25 per printed book after paying all the bills. In essence, the publisher is making more money per book than the author is making. (And no, there’s nothing wrong with that.)

Still with me? Okay, since this is a big book, let’s say the publisher printed fifty thousand copies and sold half of them. They received $312,500 from bookstores ($12.50 x 25,000 copies sold). They credit the author her royalty of $84,375 ($2.50 x 5000; $3.125 x 5000; $3.75 x 15,000). The author hasn’t earned out — she’s still in the red $15,625. The publisher is left with $228,125. Out of that they pay $150,000 on printing ($3 x 50,000) and $50,000 in overhead. So the publisher is left with a profit of $28,125. Even if they write off the rest of advance, they’re sitting on $12,500. Maybe they remainder the rest of the books for a dollar each , so they just got in another $25,000 (and royalties aren’t paid on remaindered books), so now the publisher has $37,500. Did you follow that? The book did NOT earn out, but the publisher still made money.

Again, they also sold the e-book, which didn’t have any ink/paper/binding costs, or shipping, or warehousing. The royalty they pay on the e-book will be greater, but the lack of costs means the publisher actually makes MORE per book sold. If they sell foreign rights, they’re keeping half that money as well. Over time, the overhead number shrinks considerably, so the per-book profit increases. And this model was created for a book with a relatively high advance — if we’d looked at a $25,000 advance, these costs would swing toward the publisher’s side of the ledger. (Just to make sure you know I’m not pulling numbers out of a hat, I used to be an associate publisher with one of the Big Six in New York, and I had to fill out a P&L form for each book we acquired — so I know what the numbers look like.)

A couple years ago, a publisher paid huge money to Hillary Clinton for a book. The advance was in the millions, and the book never came close to earning out. The publisher still made money — and admits having done so. Why? Because they sold a bunch of books. The revenues more than covered their costs, so they were making money.

My point? Don’t accept the  myth that a book must earn out or the publisher is losing money — it’s just not true. I have a good friend who works for a publishing house and has pointed out on my blog before that the publisher did indeed lose money — in my earlier example, they would have lost the outstanding $15,625 in unearned advance. I think that’s semantics. They didn’t actually LOSE money on the book… what they did was MAKE LESS money. Does that make sense?

Another publishing friend likes to point out to me that the author made $84,375, while the publisher only made $28,125. But that’s a skewed way of viewing it… Because the publisher also made enough to pay all their bills and keep themselves in business. The $28,125 is purely profit — the money left over after everyone has been paid. A better way to view it is to say the author made $84K, and the publisher made $228k. And I’d be glad to compare the hourly rate of any writer, who sits in her chair for days on end, trying to crank out a good novel. Let’s face it — the hourly pay for any writer sucks.

Again, I’m not saying a publisher should lose money, or that I’m opposed to publishers making money — I’m not. In fact, I am ALL FOR publishers making a profit, so that they stay in business and keep buying books from our agency.  And, in fairness, I should add that publishers DO lose money on some projects. If they paid a huge advance and the book tanked, they lost money. If they spent a fortune on full-page ads in USA Today and nobody bought copies, they lost money. But my point is simple: the majority of books do not earn out their advance, yet publishers stay in business… that alone should help you realize that “failing to earn out” does not equal “the publisher lost money.” I hope that helps clear up the question.