Doing the writer’s conference bugaloo

August 16, 2011

I love conferences. I say that all the time, but I mean it. It’s the only place where I get to talk to my favorite people (authors) while taking the pulse of how people perceive the direction of the publishing industry. As it turned out, authors had many questions on their minds.

What about agents adding publishing services?

Hooboy, this was a hot topic that revealed varying opinions. Authors were confused. Editors shook their heads in wonderment, and agents both defended and reviled the idea. Many agents were very uncomfortable with the idea, saying exactly what I’d said: “I’m very uncomfortable with this idea. My job is time intensive enough as it is. If I added publishing services to my day, I wouldn’t have time to do my main job – which is selling my authors’ manuscripts. Besides, I don’t want to give the appearance of there being a conflict of interest.”

And that is the crux of the problem – time and perception – and I’m glad to see agents whom I admire and respect feel the same way. As I’ve said before, I know how time and labor intense my job is. If I decided to also represent authors and sell them to other publishers, not only would I be accused of a conflict of interest, but I wouldn’t do my own authors proper justice.

The other side of that coin is that agents who have become publishers claim they’re hiring people to take care of this end of the business, thus allowing them just as much time to sell their authors as before. This flies in the face of logic for me because the reason they’re doing this is to keep themselves afloat. It’s a profit center for them, so hiring people impacts their bottom line.

Authors are right to question this idea because it impacts their writing careers. Out of all the agents at the conference, those who approved of agents-as-publishers were in a large minority. Interesting, no?

Ebooks

This was an interesting discussion because ebooks have really gained their rightful place in the publishing industry. Where it was easy to poke fun at e-publishers back in the day, there were two e-publishers at the conference who are making some very good money. How far we’ve come!

Of course, everyone wants to know if ebooks will edge print books out of the scene. Since no one possesses a crystal ball or tinfoil hat, all we can do is conjecture. But there is no denying that ebooks are here to stay and that more people are buying more ebooks.

The decision becomes whether authors are ready to make the leap to only see their books in ebook format. Those I talked to still wanted to see their books in print – and I don’t blame them. Perception doesn’t happen overnight, and print books have always been the litmus of success. POD and vanity publishers have taken that viewpoint down a peg, which is, again, the result of publishing evolution. But for the most part, authors still have that desire to hold a physiscal book because, as one author put it, “Holding my book in my hands makes it real.”

But publishing is expensive, and e-publishers save on print runs and warehousing costs. I spoke with one an editor from a former-print publisher who was floundering last year and was on the verge of closing their doors until they found new life and prosperity by going ebook. Now they’re doing well and are able to pay their editors and hire more because sales are booming.

I love a success story. But here’s the thing about e-publishers – they’re genre. The successful e-publishers are romance, horror, thriller, SF/Fantasy. These genres have a faithful readership and will glom onto anything genre.

Many writers are mainstream fiction, and this remains the hardest sell of all. This means that you’ll find fewer successful mainstream fiction e-publishers. In fact, I’ve noticed that the mainstream fiction section of successful e-publishers is very small. It’s the genre stuff that keeps the mainstream fiction ebooks afloat.

The same can be said about nonfiction. The readership for nonfiction is varied and fractured, so e-publishers avoid this genre. On the flip side, print publishers release their books as ebooks as well in order to appeal to those who prefer e-readers.

And this brings me to another “Hmmm” moment. If ebooks sell best with genre, then what is the future for mainstream fiction and nonfiction in terms of e-publishing? So far, those don’t exist in any great numbers, so will mainstream fiction and nonfiction remain the only viable print-publishers?

Again, without a crystal ball or tinfoil hat, it’s hard to predict the future.

Distribution

This conversation went hand-in-hand with the future of print publishing. Distribution is the lifeblood of our industry, whether you’re an e-publisher or print publisher. I’ve seen many e-publishers whose books were only available on their own website. Unless that publisher is really well-known, then one wonders how they drive the marketplace to their online store.

Likewise, I’ve claim to have distribution, but it only amounted to being with Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Just to refresh everyone’s memory, this is warehouse distribution – meaning that they are a centralized warehouse for bookstores and libraries to order from. They don’t have sales teams who actively pitch your titles to their national accounts and bookstores. They don’t market and promote your books. Ingram and B&T simply fulfill orders.

Publishers who rely on Ingram and B&T are akin to the e-publishers who only make their books available on their site. In either scenario, the author will be the one responsible for making sales because the publishers don’t have the money to market and promote.

Swimming to the top of the heap

As always, authors are interested in discovering how they can swim to the top of the heap. If there was a magic bullet, I’d happily share it. But there isn’t. Success takes hard word, knowledge, and luck. And this is why I continue to promote conferences. There is no other place where you can talk to agents and editors, and get their advice, feedback, and recommendations. We are on call the entire time we’re at a conference, and it’s because we are committed to helping you swim to the top.

If it were easy, everyone would be a bestselling author. But I like to think of the diamond analogy – that diamonds are made because molecules are forged together under extreme pressure to create something beautiful. It’s that learning process – about writing and the industry – that gauges the pressure you can withstand.

ADVICE

Aside from the discussions that fueled the conference, there were some observations that I thought would be helpful in making for a successful conference:

Bring Money: That isn’t meant to sound as grubby as it came out. What I mean by this, is there are always book signings at these events, and it’s great to be able to support your fellow authors. Even though I read from my Kindle app, I bought a couple books because a) they weren’t available in Kindle, and b) I really wanted to read those books.

Booze: Now don’t get me wrong – as much as I kid around, I’m really not much of a boozehound. But conferences always provide a bar at the evening mixers. Depending on the hotel, those glasses of wine can run $9 per glass…which is highway robbery. That said, there is nothing that eases fears and anxiety than a pouty red or crisp white. And this is where we do so much of our chit chat with authors. Liquid courage. Besides, what better opening can you have than to offer to buy your favorite agent or editor a glass of wine. Last time an author did that to me, I ended up signing her. These special conference bars only accept cash.

Bring Pages: There were several times that I was interested in someone’s book and asked if they’d brought pages. They hadn’t. Even if no one ever asks you for pages, always bring them. Chances are that had I had those pages, I may have offered a contract on the spot because I loved their idea and knew I could sell it. As it is, I have to wait for them to email the pages to me. Be a good Girl Scout and be prepared.

Agents and editors are far from blase when they see something they think has huge potential, and they are like little kids in that they want instant gratification. We’re pathetic that way.

Warning

No conference would be complete without a couple warnings, right? Here are a couple of consistent problem areas that I see.

“Everyone”:  Whenever I asked, “Who is your intended readership?” I got the requisite reply: “Everyone.” I’ve heard it so much that I call it “Everyone-itis.” We have Alzheimer groups in our Rolodex, we have heart disease groups in our Rolodex, we have travel groups in our Rolodex, but I can guaran-dang-tee you that we do not have “Everyone” in our Rolodex.

This is a question that will dog you for you entire writing career, so you would be well-served to have that figured out. Besides, wouldn’t you find it easier to know to whom you’re writing?

Eye contact:  I’m the first to appreciate how hard it is to do a one-on-one with an agent or editor. Personally, I think we’re far less scary than agents! We all honor the fact that you’ve made the move to stick your big toe in the water and test the temperature. It seems a shame not to present yourself in the very best that you can be.

When an author insists on reading their pitch rather than simply engaging us, I feel like they’ve put up a wall that I can’t penetrate. We have precious little time in which to get to know you, and I can’t meet you halfway if you’re staring at your page. Practice in the mirror or with your friends or family.

DON’T MEMORIZE YOUR PITCH!! I had a few authors who did, and it sounded canned and stilted. A few times I’d wait for them to take a breath and ask them a question. It threw them completely off balance because I messed with the playing field. I didn’t do it to be rude, but I honestly wanted to engage them, not their perfect memory.

Smell the Roses: Last of all, enjoy the process of writing, of networking, and going to conferences. You’ll go home feeling like your brain is about to explode, but over the course of time, bits of brilliance will seep through and you’ll realize you learned far more than you thought. Conferences are that diamond-making pressure I talked about earlier. Embrace it because the end product is a beautiful diamond – just like you!


When agents become publishers – consequences

August 1, 2011

There has been some serious blowback about the controversy of agents who decide to add publishing to their repertoire. The biggest problem is conflict of interest, which I blogged about here. Victoria Strauss wrote a very concise post on this subject as well. Then came the incredible blog post on According to Hoyt, where author, Sarah Hoyt, talks about the kerfluffle between her and The Knight Agency – more directly, her agent Lucienne Diver.

This particular blog post is alarming because TKA insists they are not a publisher, in spite of the fact that they’re buying the ISBN, assuming all costs for editing, cover design, controlling the pricing, and putting it out on all the online databases. Rather, they insist they are an “assisted self-publishing initiative.”

Assisted?

Assisted is akin to what book doctors or packagers do, for a fee, which is prepare a book to either send out to query or to self publish. TKA is going the extra mile and publishing the book. This is especially egregious because they aren’t submitting their client/authors’ books elsewhere. They are submitting it directly to the buying public.

This is pretty damning stuff for an agency who has enjoyed a lovely reputation in the industry. But moreover, what would I do if they pitched one of their authors to me?

Consequence #1 – submitting to editors

Chances are I’d avoid any agent who has a publishing arm because of the conflict of interest to their authors. Their heads are now in two competing business models, so I worry they’re not adequately representing their authors. If their focus is split, then a consequence could mean a breakdown in communication, which is the lifeblood of the agent/author/editor relationship.

Now why should I care about the agent/author relationship? Let’s say a problem arises between the editor and the author. This is where a good agent is worth their weight in gold because they become the go-between in order to preserve the relationship. If the agent is busy playing publisher, then where does that leave time for author/editor advocacy?

I am a publisher, and I know what kind of time is involved in producing a book. There is no way I could assume agenting responsibilities because there aren’t enough hours in a day or legal drugs on the market that would seduce me into working myself into a straightjacket.

I can do one job well – publishing. Are agencies trying to tell me they can do their job and my job?

Consequence #2 – Suspicion

Agencies who add publishing to their business model unwittingly create an air of suspicion because authors have to wonder whether they’ll have their agent’s full attention. Additionally, authors may wonder how aggressively their agents will pitch their books to outside editors if they stand to make more money keeping the book in-house.

It’s possible that none of these concerns are realistic – but reading about what The Knight Agency is doing, and how they treated one of their authors, I would rather err on the side of safety than become a victim to bully tactics. And yes, I think TKA has created a very large air of suspicion by claiming they aren’t publishers when, clearly, they are.

There are things that don’t mix; oil and water, the beagle and sobriety, and agenting and publishing under one roof. Both jobs are full time, and you can’t possibly do justice to both.

How do you feel about agents who foray into the publishing industry? Do you believe The Knight Agency is “assisting” or publishing?


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