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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

This Storm Is Just Getting Started

I'm getting a little concerned over agents becoming publishers and now the latest, agents 'facilitating self-publishing' for some of their clients.

Why is this happening? Most likely because their normal stream of revenue is drying up.

I don't blame them. After all, everyone deserves to earn a living. What troubles me is the thin line between being an advocate for a client and a clearinghouse for hundreds to thousands of writers desperate to be published.

Agents used to vet and refuse a lot of the books that are now going directly to self-publishing. Instead of assessing potential and offering guidance, they're now enabling authors who may or may not be publishable.

As a side note, it is very hard to know when you're ready for publication. We all think we're Pulitzer material when we start out, but a few visits to the woodshed with a smart editor will smack away all those delusions of brilliance.

Another thing I've been hearing on the grapevine...authors with good books are being declined because agents feel they can't sell those books to the Big 6. This is only anecdotal evidence from conversations I've been having with authors at all levels of experience, but I've been hearing it so often it's beginning to form a pattern.

Publishers have narrowed their selections significantly along with their advances. Worse yet, the contracts from the major publishers are now including some very disturbing language on how long they will keep your work as well as what you can publish elsewhere. 

My guess is it will get much grittier before it levels out. My reasons for self-publishing wasn't an either/or situation. I'm doing this in tandem with my regular publishing efforts because traditional print and small press digital publishers still have better reach than most indies.

What has changed for me is the need for an agent. I haven't queried an agent in almost two years. In that time, I’ve been approached by two agents to discuss my future. Who knew all I had to do was stop writing queries?

In both cases, it never went further than “thank you, I’ll call you if I have a property available”.

Don't think for a minute I wasn't sweating bullets when I turned them down. But I just couldn't go through with it. The bottom line was I'd seen too many of my friends end up with a milquetoast deal or no deal at all when every major publisher had turned down their agents. 

Agents do important work, but with traditional publishing scrambling to regain some measure of its domain, it's a dog-eat-dog world out there. And everyone now has a canine in the fight.

As it stands, I'm not interested in giving my 15% for something I can do myself. I might not be the biggest brain in this jar of formaldehyde, but I'm not an idiot. There are enough resources out there that I can navigate through almost anything. Should it happen that I come up against a contract I can't vet alone, I can always hire an IP lawyer.

Part of me is sad that the industry has changed so quickly. It's unsettling on many levels. But a bigger part of me is glad even if the revolution has been heated and tumultuous. The new paradigm forces traditional publishing to pay attention to authors. Those of us who garner a following are no longer ignored. We have a voice and now the means to be heard.

Whether we have anything worth hearing is still up to the reader. In the end, that's the way it should be. Their recommendations are far more reliable than a publisher's. 

Note: For more info on the latest agent transformation and contract blitzes, you can read AC Crispin & Victoria Strauss or The Passive Guy.

Writers, how do you feel about this storm? What happens next?
Readers, has the rise of digital and self-publishing modified your buying habits?

Thursday! I'm a guest at Candace's Book Blog for more post-apocalypse goodness. Leave a comment there for a chance to win Apocalypse Rising.


39 comments:

Darke Conteur said...

You're not the only one worried about this change. I've read several blogs (one, and agent) who are also concerned. Most of the rejections I recieved, the agent liked the idea, but were afraid they couldn't sell the story. I understand that, and after everything I've been reading, I'm glad. I don't know if I want an agent anymore. I'm just that torn.

I think I'll just stand back and see what floats to the top.

Maria Zannini said...

Darke: Sometimes it's safer just to wait until the dust settles and see who survives.

Steven Whibley said...

I see what you're saying, no question. I don't have anything against self publishing, but it's not something I see myself doing anytime soon. I don't mind if agents want to offer the option to their clients as long as their share remains 15% because then they'd still be trying to get the better deal.

You make some excellent points in your post though. Lots to think about. Thank you!

Clarissa Draper said...

If you're going to allow an agent to publish your book without enough editing, you might as well publish it on your own. That way you don't have to share your profits. However, you're not going to make much profits either way if people don't like your book because it's unreadable.

Maria Zannini said...

Steven: Not that this post endorses one path over another, it's just the road I happen to take because of the events unfolding. Each of us have to decide for ourselves what is best for our careers.

Clarissa: Exactly. The reader is the ultimate gatekeeper. I've seen how the grassroots have either elevated or doomed authors simply by word of mouth.

Liz Fichera said...

It has been interesting watching the industry change. Publishing has become the Wild, Wild West all over again. Nothing is certain except great stories and readers who want to read them.

Mike Keyton said...

Fascinating post, Maria. But this line topped everything.
I might not be the biggest brain in this jar of formaldehyde, but I'm not an idiot. Brilliant

Maria Zannini said...

Liz:
Ref: Wild, Wild West
That's a brilliant analogy. That's exactly how it feels.


Mike: My brain thanks you. :)

Raelyn Barclay said...

As a writer I'm not to this point of my journey. I am however watching, learning, and waiting.

As a reader the indie movement has opened up a wonderful world of new authors. And digital has made my mood reading habit functional, LOL, I love having hundreds of titles at my fingertips.

Readers are smart, they will find the good authors and great stories no matter how or what format those stories reach the reader's hands.

Shirley Wells said...

The Wild, Wild West. Love that. And so true. :)

I'm sticking to traditional publishing for now but several author friends have gone the self-publishing route and are reaping the benefits.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Maria, do you read The Business Rusch over at kriswrites.com? She makes many of these points too. This is why I'm planning to go the indie route myself once my novella is ready; it just seems like the best business decision these days.

Krista D. Ball said...

I'm not an all-or-nothing kinda person. It's case by case. Which means, some of my stories are best self-published, others small press, others epublisher, and maybe someday I might even need an agent for other projects.

There are benefits and issues with all choices and people really need to stop listening to the doom and gloom, and also stop listening to the "OMGZ! ZOMG! Look at how rich I am!"

Maria Zannini said...

Raelyn: I agree. I don't think readers have ever held so much power.

Shirley: That's the beauty of the new publishing. It's wide open.

Sandra: I just started reading The Business Rusch, also Dean Wesley Smith. But I have become a big fan of The Passive Guy.

Krista: It is case-by-case. While I don't put much stock in the 'sky is falling' scenario, I do pay keen attention to new developments in contracts. The more traditional publishing loses revenue, the tighter their grip on new and existing authors in their stable.

Developments like these do not bode well. But somebody will always sign on thinking it's a fair trade to see their name in print. I'm a little more particular about giving away the farm for perpetuity.

Misha said...

Hmm... Funny how fast things are changing. In fact, I'm all far agencies and publishers learning how to become a little less elitest and learning how to render a service to authors. But not at the cost of quality.

I'm still watching this shake down to see where I fall on it though. I used to be staunchly pro-agent. But now... not so sure any more.

Renee Miller said...

Excellent post, Maria and great advice. I think letting the dust settle is the wisest choice. Still a shitty situation though for many writers.

Maria Zannini said...

Misha: It's a little like playing the stock market. If you're gutsy enough to get in during the chaos, you might win big--or you could lose big.

Renee: There were rumblings back when I started subbing seriously that all was not well in Oz. Then when e-readers hit the market, all bets were off. And Oz, which had refused to accept the inevitable was caught with its pants down.

Barbara Ann Wright said...

You're right, Maria. After all the responsibilities agents and editors put on the writer now (like marketing and publicity and so on) I think more people will go the self-pubbed route. After they've taken on so much responsibility for their own work, what's a little more?

jackie b central texas said...

Maria as someone who has only joined the digital craze with an ereader 3 months back it has changed my reading and buying habits a small bit... I can say that is has opened me up to reading authors that otherwise I would never have had the opportunity or even the desire to try if it were not for the PDF files they send me that I convert to put on my Kindle... Digital free books from Amazon have also opened my eyes to the pitfalls of allowing people to self-edit and self-publish, some of the best books I have gotten were in such horrible shape with sentence repeats, word misspells and other easy to fix editing no-nos that it is appalling... Some of the worst books I have read from those same free reads had the best editing, you just have to take them one by one and see for yourself when you read a freebie from Amazon...

I would not be in your shoes as an author right now if you paid me a mint of money, it is indeed a dog eat dog showdown!

Krista D. Ball said...

Maria said: I'm a little more particular about giving away the farm for perpetuity.

Truer words were never spoken.

Joanne said...

Yes, it's a new frontier, with few rules and regulations in place. With writing, I'm still querying traditionally, but digital has changed my reading habits. The variety of authors and books is easier to navigate on my Nook than in a library or store, and so I've read more with an eReader than I would have otherwise.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I stopped shopping for an agent. I think agents are going to have to remake themselves or they'll become an expensive appendage.

Maria Zannini said...

Barbara: The onus is definitely on the author's shoulders. With each decade, the industry has been loading more and more responsibility on us.

Jackie: My reading habits have definitely changed. I think the most significant thing since getting my Nook besides reading more titles is that I've come to enjoy novellas more. I never used to read them. Now I inhale them like bon bons.

Krista: I cringe when writers sign away their rights without a second thought. It's their career, but I can't help feeling sorry for them for being so anxious to get fleeced.

Joanne: Amen! The Nook has changed everything for me. It's so much more convenient and easier on my eyes.

Susan: Evidently, they are remaking themselves. I'm just not so sure I like their packaging.

Dru said...

I buy more books because of my e-readers; books I would normally not read are now on my e-reader for when I want to take a break from the genres I normally read.

Either format doesn't matter to me as long as authors put out a good and well-written book.

Karen said...

As I reader, I found this to be a very interesting post. I'm really excited about digital books & readers (I have a Nook and find it so much easier when traveling!!). I've been able to sample different genres/sub-genres and authors I'd never heard of before. I also like the idea of authors self-publishing; I just see that as another option for them, not an either/or situation. I think digital books and self-publishing are pluses for readers, so I hope they are good for the authors, too.
I think that there should be more effort placed on preventing digital theft so that an author's work isn't stolen. If the authors, the various writer's associations, and publishers banded together - couldn't that make a big dent in the problem??

Maria Zannini said...

Dru: I definitely buy more now than I did before. It's just too ridiculously easy. I have no excuse not to buy (unless I'm broke that month).

Karen: Good question. While several groups have banded together on occasion, the brunt of responsibility should be on the distributor. Amazon, B&N, Smashwords have to be willing to take immediate action when blatant thievery is proven. As distributors, both readers and authors are trusting that they have a safe and reliable domain.

Karen said...

An additional question. If you have links to your books on your website or blog (you in the generic sense!), are you susceptible to digital theft? Is that still the responsibility of the distributors? I'm sorry - I'm trying to understand. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions!!

Maria Zannini said...

Karen: If an author posts his material (not the link) on his web site or blog, it can and does get stolen occasionally.

You can't prevent someone from really wanting to take your work. The best you can do when they are caught is to prosecute.

When I answered you earlier I was thinking of the authors who've had their work scraped and then republished on Amazon.

All good questions though! Thank you for asking them.

Kaz Augustin said...

Hey M! You ne'er spake a truer word. From a writer's perspective, I'm like Darke, Misha and Susan. Once, I thought getting an agent was the pinnacle of my career path. Now? Meh, not so much. Of course there are still situations where I think they'd be useful but, as with Darke, having been told on several occasions that various like my work but can't see how/where to place it, I'm just going to forge my own path and see where it leads.

As a reader, I love the access to ebooks...although not any Kindle stuff because Kindle is not available in my territory. Grrrrr. It makes me mad because I feel I'm missing out on so much good stuff. May have to move countries just to get my reading fix. ;)

Great post.

Maria Zannini said...

Kaz: I wonder how long it'll be before they lift the geo-restrictions. Is it a legal constraint or simply that Amazon doesn't want to go there?

I was never in a big hurry to get an agent. I was far more interested in getting my work in front of an editor with actual buying power.

Jenny Schwartz said...

Great post and discussion. So many points. Taking them out of order --

I don't have an agent, and although I'd quite like one in the future, at the moment ... no. Possibly this would change if I weren't so damn happy with my Carina editors.

I'm intrigued by everyone who publishes independently. You're so brave Maria -- and your "The Devil to Pay" was hot! -- but I'm too neurotic to take that path. Hell, I'd never sleep again.

As a reader I love my kindle (though, I too suffer geo restrictions, Kaz) and being able to zip through novellas and non fiction effortlessly. Plus all those old classics that are now available!

What else? Hmm, I think one element of all the changes in publishing is the conversations that now happen online between readers, authors, reviewers, publishers ... the active community is, itself, changing things. I'm delighted to be part of it!

Maria Zannini said...

Jenny: You bring up a definite plus about this revolution.

People are talking to each other. Books are no longer relegated to book clubs and library socials. There are active, vibrant communities for every genre--and they appear to be growing.

Angelina Rain said...

I love the changes epublishing has brought to the publishing industry. There is a bigger selection of topics, which I enjoy. I was getting tired of reading traditional books that all had different titles but was the same exact book at times. I'm also loving that epublishing opened the doors for much shorter stories. I personally don't have the time anymore to read a 500 page novel, especially when half of it if just filler information that the book could do without. The last few times I read traditionally published books, I only read the dialog because I wanted to finish reading the book sometime this year. Epublishing has opened the doors for writers and readers seeking to sell/buy books that are only 50 - 100 pages long. Anymore, my life is so busy that anything over 100 pages is long to me.

What I'm not liking about the changes in publishing is the lack of responsibility of the publishers. With traditional publishing there has always been a consistancy. All of those publishers edit, spend hours working on cover art, spend sleepless nights making the book shine. With epublishing, some publishers truly care, I've noticed that while readings their work (Carina Press, Evernight Publishing, Ellora's Cave, ect.) yet there are other publishers that don't do anything. I recently read a book by an author who I really enjoy. I used to read her Evernight Published books and loved them but this time I picked up a book of hers from a different publisher. There were so many typos, spelling mistakes, grammer mistakes and other issues, I wanted to pull my hair out. Obviously this author isn't above editing with an editor as she does it all the time with Evernight. So why wasn't her book edited with that publisher? That's what I'm really not liking about this publishing storm.

Self publishing has become a lot more respectable then it has ever been. Part of it is because some authors know what they are doing (like you) go down that path. However, there have always been, and always will be, authors who don't understand the importance of editing who end up self publishing and they ruin the reputation of self publishing for the rest of us. I would like to see self publishing grow without those I'm-too-good-to-edit authors bringing it down.

Maria Zannini said...

Angelina: Excellent points.

I'd like to think that readers who read a self-published book riddled with typos and mistakes will blame the author and not the industry.

Not that you won't find poor editing in traditional or small press books either. I've seen plenty, but they're not fighting an existing stigma.

This is why I always try to read an excerpt before I buy. I can usually tell within a couple of pages if the writing is going to hold me back or not.

Tony Benson said...

Well said, Maria. Your writing is excellent and your indie published work deserves success.

I think agents will have a role in the indie market, but they have yet to find it. Ironically they're working from a standpoint of plugging the hole in the sinking ship rather than seeing their own value in a new market.

I think indie publishing is the future, but as authors we still need to engage the services of experts such as editors, cover artists, formatting gurus, etc.

Somehow there also needs to be the vetting process in there somewhere along the line. Of course with all these things the onus is on the author in the world of indie publishing, but it will make a difference, and rightly so.

Maria Zannini said...

Tony: Wouldn't it be a kick in the head if in another ten years we came full circle and publishers started scouting for fresh talent like they used to?

Maybe instead of waiting for talent to come to them, they'd hire former agents to do talent searches on the internet. That's how the two agents found me.

Shelley Munro said...

This is certainly an exciting time to be in publishing. Like you, I haven't bothered querying an agent for over two years. As it is, I can't write fast enough. The bottom line is that I like making most of my decisions and writing at my own pace. In the future I'll probably go the self-publishing route, mainly because I can control more things.

Maria Zannini said...

Shelley: I think that's what I like best about self-publishing too.

Tia Nevitt said...

Maria, I'm right there with you about the querying thing. I got my last agent rejection just after I got the call from Carina, and I haven't queried an agent since. What's more, when a friend excitedly told me about how she just got an agent, I experienced no pangs of jealousy. In fact, I hoped that she knew what she was getting into.

As for self-publishing, I have not decided on that yet. But I haven't ruled it out, either.

Maria Zannini said...

Tia: I am hearing this way too often. It'll be interesting to see who's still in business two years down the road.