I never attend a con without learning something new about the publishing industry, or at least about trends in publishing, and SFcontario4, which was held in Toronto this weekend at the Ramada Plaza Hotel, was full of surprises.
Category archive: Agents
Gossip about agents
There have always been vultures in the publishing world. Phoney agents charging “reading fees” to consider your novel for representation are a classic example. One of these agents actually listed a skill on his website as “tug boat captain.” This agent could never have sold anyone’s novel to a legitimate publisher, but I bet after collecting his reading fee, he’d have been happy to recommend unsuspecting authors to equally unqualified editors and book doctors.
No, New Adult is not fresh porn. It’s fiction aimed at a very specific age group, 18-25 years old, people who are too old for Young Adult but are still reading for fun and adventure. Many of this age group are fighting their way through university, establishing careers and courting mates. It’s that fantastic time when your whole life is ahead of you and anything is possible.
I’ve heard many traditionally published authors complain that the downside of having a contract with one of the big six publishers is that you have very little say in the cover art. I do sympathize, but in the indie world we have the opposite problem. We have all control of the cover art.
This may sound like heaven to some, but I haven’t much of an eye for graphic design and worse, I really don’t know much about covers in general. When I purchased a book last year, I never thought about what drew me to it if I didn’t already know the author. I rarely looked at a cover or thought about why I liked it or even if I liked it.
The horror! The eBook horror!
At last year’s Ad-Astra Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Convention, I went to the eBooks panel and was surprised to find only two of the five panelists in attendance. Even more bizarre, there were only three audience members, including moi. I thought that was weird given that mystery conventions around the same time were having packed panels on eBooks.
I’m happy to report that this year there are a few panels that give a nod to the eBook industry, but I still sense a conservatism, a reluctance to accept change. For instance, one panel is Now What: How to Get an Agent, How to Query, and Publishing Options.
Here’s the description:
Book written, and now what do you do? Just what does one do to get an agent? How necessary is an agent? Join our panelists and learn some effective ways to navigate what comes after. How are you going to get someone to READ your book, what options are available for getting your book to your potential readers.
What surprised me about the description is the lack of reference to eBooks. In fact, this panel would fit very well in the program book of Ad-Astra 1995 or even 1985.
Then I thought of the agent or publisher query letter of the future, or as I like to call it: now. It goes like this:
Dear Agent or Publisher:
My novel was downloaded over 2000 times in the last month on Amazon. It has earned over 80 five star reviews and 150 likes. I am currently in the market for a print publisher to take this novel into the bookstores.
But my wife has an even better query letter. It goes like this:
I notice that your novel is currently at 433 in the Amazon Best Sellers Rank, which indicates that you must be selling 30 0r 40 eBooks per day. I also see that it has been well received by readers, earning over 80 five star reviews and 150 likes.
I’d be very interested in representing your novel for print and movie rights.
That’s right. Her theory is that even as we speak, smart agents are trolling the Amazon Best Sellers Rank looking for talent.
Last month my vampire novel, Apocalypse Revolution, was downloaded over 2000 times, but a big chunk of those were promotional freebies on free days. I did earn three five-star reviews and a bunch of likes, but I’m not expecting New York to come bashing down my door just yet. However, with each new review, with each new reader, I’m building a following. Fans e-mail me now and I e-mail back. I’ve started a mailing list to help promote book two when it comes out in June.
If I’m good and I’m lucky, perhaps by next year I can write the agent query letter of the future. But if my wife is correct, they’ll write me.
Since the mortgage crisis of 2008, all the pundits are looking for the next bubble, probably because most of them are embarrassed that they failed to predict either the dotcom bubble or the housing crash. That’s why I’m wary of doom forecasters, because the disaster that’s on the way is rarely the one they’re predicting.
So I admit I was skeptical of a bubble-forecasting Guardian article brought to my attention by my friend and fellow writer, Stephen Kotowych. I gave it a read though because he and I spent a couple of years critiquing each others short stories in our writers group, the Fledglings, established by author Robert J. Sawyer. You get to know someone after reading a dozen of their stories and, even more telling, hearing their critiques of your own. I trust Stephen’s judgment.
In a nut shell the Guardian article tries to compare the ePublishing craze to a financial industry bubble, but the author, Ewan Morrison, has to jump through some pretty tenuous hoops to explain why prices aren’t increasing, which is standard for a bubble–think house prices or dotcom stock prices. He states the the actual devices–eReaders, iPads, are the price increase in this analogy, although all of these have been dropping in price. I assume he means the upfront cost to the consumer who could buy books without an eReader before, but then the article is supposed to be about self-publishers.
Yet, there is some validity to his contention that we are in a self-publishing bubble, one where people who are not authors believe they can make a million bucks on Amazon. I know of one example: a man who’d never even tried to write a book before in his life, but suddenly self-published a short non-fiction self-help book. I think he truly wants to help people, but I also believe that he expected to rake in lots of cash doing it. His book sales are non-existent if Amazon’s bestseller ranking can be believed, and I predict he will never write another eBook. But I’m willing to bet that he bought an eBook, probably with a title like How You Can Make Trillions and Trillions of Dollars and End World Hunger by Self-Publishing an eBook. Hey, maybe I should write and publish that!
Sadly, I saw this gold rush coming but I was too late. I first considered self-publishing in September of 2009, and I would have beaten the tsunami of crap, but I waited until the spring of 2010, and by that time Amanda Hocking had taken off. When I read articles about her millions of sales, I knew that every dusty manuscript in a desk drawer would be out there with a quick cover and no editing. What I didn’t predict (and should have) was that every self-styled guru would be out their selling books on how to get rich ePublishing. These are like the guys selling bent shovels and treasure maps to prospectors in the Klondike.
Any writer (or publisher) could have predicted this bubble, because it’s actually been around for a long time. The general public just didn’t know about it. For the last ten years I’ve heard one editor after another, one agent after another, groan and complain about the massive depth of the slush pile. For years people have been sending in manuscripts, certain that they’re the next J.K. Rowlings or John Grisham, hoping to make millions. Publishers should be delighted with ePublishing because the slush pile can now be sorted by readers at 99 cents a pop, sometimes even for free. And ruthlessly sort they do–just check out the one star ratings that some books earn on Amazon.
As for the scammers, they’ll peak this year and fade into the background. Like spam, they’ll always be with us, but people will get very good at recognizing them.
Yes, a lot of people have jumped into self-publishing because they think it’s easy. When they don’t sell and realize that it’s hard work to learn how to write, to promote and to write more, they’ll walk away because these are also the type of people who give up quickly. Wait for the howls of outrage next year when Amazon announces that they’re dumping every self-pubbed title that hasn’t sold in two years. Contrary to popular opinion, server space is not free. Authors like me will still be there because we’re writers and that’s what we do, even if we don’t sell millions.
But where I strongly disagree with the Guardian article is the suggestion that the government should bail out publishers. They deserve a hand out from the tax payer even less than the big banks, and they’ve adapted to new technology about as well as the record companies. In other words, kicking and screaming their way into the 21st century. But unlike the big banks, publishers can easily be replaced by smaller, better publishers without much pain for the average person.
The next few years will see publishers reluctantly adapt, and the self-publishing bubble will burst, but don’t expect the industry to return to pre-eBook days. True self-publishers, like Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler, will still be out there along with many other successful self-publishing authors. They may not be making millions, but they’ll make thousands. In fact, I’m looking forward to the end of the bubble. It’ll be cleansing.
It even has a pre-YouTube book trailer starring a friend who thought the idea was fun. Here it is in all it’s 1999 glory: The Book of Bertrand
It’s so antique it’s quaint. I built the site as a marketing tool aimed at publishers and agents, thinking they’d like a quick and easy way of finding out more about my novel. I didn’t know back then that the publishing industry is extremely conservative, and I’m referring here to the Webster’s definition of conservative: “tending to oppose change.”
I kept track of the page views of the site, expecting that some agents or publishers might visit it a few times, perhaps impressed that I was ready with such a great marketing tool. Guess how many even looked at the page? You guessed it. A big fat zero. In hindsight this should have allowed me to predict how the publishing industry would react to eBooks. The internet is something that even back in 1999 a lot of people wished would just go away.
I even wonder now if having a website hurt my chances of publication. The internet is a big and scary place if you’re resistant to change. I love the internet because it’s changing all the time. Imagine if I’d had Youtube back in 1999. I wouldn’t have had to put up a tiny low res video trailer under the assumption that some people might still be on dial-up with a 56k modem. Yeah, remember that?
I’ll work on a new book trailer with apologies to my friends Mark (who helped shoot it) and Gord (the star). But the times, they are a changing, and they’re going to change again. Who knows what the internet will bring in another decade? My bet is that it’ll be fun and very cool.
Oh, and that very unprofessional voice over: that’s me.
There’s a shift going on in publishing that publishers and agents should be discussing over their lattes in the boardrooms of Manhattan. I have a friend who is a well-published, successful author, but his publisher is putting the screws to him on a new contract, refusing to budge from a very miserly e-book royalty that they’ve decided is “industry standard” in a fledgling e-book industry. This ridiculous “industry standard” mantra has so upset this author that he is considering walking away and self-publishing his next novel.
I can’t name this author because the contract negotiations are on-going, but I can say that he has a big enough name that he wouldn’t have to worry about being lost in what Joe Konrath aptly named The Tsunami of Crap that is flooding e-book stores like Smashwords and Kindle. My friend already has an established audience that will seek him out and buy his novels.
So if the publisher calls his bluff and he indie-pubs, who will they publish in his place? Who will accept a horrible contract to make a name? A newbie like me, of course.
Right now we newbies put up our e-books on Amazon, desperately market them and hope to make enough sales to get the attention of the publishing or film industry and make the big sale. Even Amanda Hocking, who could probably live on her e-book sales for the rest of her life, signed with St Martins.
But if the publishing industry continues to empty their stables of successful authors and runs instead with untested talent, it will come with an unintended consequence: self-publishing becomes more respectable.
For over a century publishers have maintained that only they know good work and that self-published novels must be crap. They’ve been right often enough that this mantra has played well with the public. But if publishers drive away their authors then a lot of high quality indie-pubbed novels will hit the market. Worse for publishers, it means the public will not be so afraid to take a fly on a indie-pubbed e-book. Note that it won’t be self-publishing anymore, it will be indie-publishing. Even J.K. Rowlings has placed a toe in that water.
So the streams would reverse: newbies would be with the publishers. Established authors would indie-publish.
Of course it’s going to be a lot messier than that. Newbies will still indie-pub first, get a small following and then take the lousy industry contract. After their first bestseller, they’ll say goodbye to their publisher and go back to indie-publishing so that they can get the 70% royalty.
Watch out now for publishers trying to force authors into ten-book contracts to lock in long-term, cheap content providers. This will hurt publishing in the long run, because sometimes acquisition editors make mistakes, and so a publisher could find themselves forced to publish one poor selling novel after another when an author doesn’t perform as expected.
In my humble opinion, publishers should just offer a better e-book royalty and keep their talented authors. My friend deserves it. Otherwise publishers may discover that they’ve made things worse for themselves by giving credibility to indie-published authors.
Amanda Hocking, the indie e-pubbed bestseller, credits book bloggers for taking her from a minimum-wage, dead end job to millions of books sold through Amazon and Smashwords and a seven-figure contract with St. Martin’s Press.
This news has started an avalanche of review requests by self-e-pubbed authors into book bloggers in-boxes. So much so that Big Al, of Big Al’s books and pals, has stopped accepting unsolicited review requests.
The statement under Big Al’s submission guidelines sounds strikingly like something an agent or publisher might put on their website:
Big Al says: “As of May 17th. We are currently NOT accepting unsolicited review submissions until we catch up with evaluating those already received.”
I’ve heard many editors, authors and agents express concern about the e-publishing industry, and the biggest worry seems to be about who will be the gatekeepers of modern publishing. Big Al’s announcement proves that book bloggers will be covering one gate. How can I tell? It just slammed closed until further notice.