Sunday, June 27, 2010

Round-up: On agent pay, advances, slush pile madness and learning to face change

Last week I started conversations on Twitter about two different topics related to the publishing industry. The first question I threw out was this: "How would the publishing industry change if agents switched from commission-based payment to billable hours?" I later threw in some alternatives as well: flat-fee payment, project-based payment, retainers, higher commissions or giving the agents a choice of how they wanted to be paid. The second question I threw out there was this: "How would the publishing industry change if ALL publishers went to a no-advance model?" (You can find most of both these chats by search these two hashtags on Twitter: #agentpay and #advchat.)

The idea wasn't to endorse either of these ideas. The idea was to try to get people to actively think outside their own comfort zone, to try to avoid the automatic negative "NIMBY" response ("not in my back yard!") that seems to prevail whenever the idea of change - any change at all! - comes up in the publishing and book industry.

Quite a few of the folks participating in the discussion - which included agents, editors, and writers - were able to rise to the challenge and actually think through what the far-reaching consequences of such a change might be, as well as ways to counteract the negatives. But a large group of those participating fell back on the tired point of view that "everyone in publishing is out to get the writer!" Which isn't actually true, by the way, but there's no teaching some old dogs new tricks.

One thing that did come out of these discussions were some fascinating - and controversial - blog posts. I've tried to find as many of them as I could (and if you wrote one and I missed it, please do email me and let me know so that I can add it to the list below). I encourage you to read through all of these. Do take the time to read the comments as well, and refrain from resorting to inflammatory or inappropriate commenting on their blogs, please!
The next mini-meta topic of the week was the not-often-discussed-but-quite-real demoralizing effects of reading slush on the psychological health of agents and editors. It's a real problem. I've experienced it myself. When I read too many manuscripts, I find myself often falling into a kind of "reader's block", and am completely unable to focus or concentrate on the project at hand. My colleague, agent Joanna Stampfel-Volpe, wrote a great essay on this for me last year.

The two very smart online posts that started this discussion were these:
I think the upshot of all of this conversation is this: Changes are going to have to come to the way books are published. Already writers and publishers are experimenting with new and creative ways to find and publish content. Self-publishing is one tool. E-books are another tool. Collaborative online community-based projects like Authonomy and KickStarter are also great ideas worth exploring. (And while you're over at KickStarter, check out ReDeus, a very cool transmedia storytelling project that I would love to see happen!) And some publishers are actively embracing the idea of transmedia publishing, and looking at how to take storytelling into all available platforms and mediums.

Nobody is questioning that the system as it stands currently could use a creative overhaul. But simply complaining about it isn't the answer.

The culture of negativity that we've all allowed to pervade the book and publishing industry is our own worst enemy; sooner or later we will all need to learn to embrace change, even if some of those changes make us uncomfortable.

What ideas can you bring to the table to make the industry work better? Let's keep the conversation going! (And I'm not just talking about the whole agents/advances thing. I'm talking about the book industry as a whole.)

(PS: Have taken off comment moderation and have enabled anonymous posting for this particular blog post! Play nice!)


Phoenix said...

Hi Colleen:

Eric at Pimp My Novel also posted on the Advance discussion on Thursday.

clindsay said...

Hi Phoenix!

Thanks for letting me know. Just added to the list!


ClothDragon said...

I've been reading and I'm not happy with the idea of the author's having to pay for every bit of agent/editor attention as well as spending several years writing without pay before they (we) have any chance of publication, but I wouldn't mind at all giving up the advance entirely and instead earning throughout the publication. Not that I've gotten that far yet, so my part in this is all just theoretical. The whole business going under would be bad for us all -- especially since I started out as a reader long before I considered becoming a writer.

And on that note, I started our as a poor reader. My books came from the library and second-hand stores. Anything that threatens to take printed books away from those who can't afford hundred-dollar plus reading devices really scares me. We still need print, and will for a long time, no matter what anyone says.

I can recognize that top sellers like Grisham or Stephen King earn enough for him and the publishing company that it helps pay for some of the smaller books that didn't earn out, but it has seemed to me that it's the books that are expected to sell as well (and are given the advance to reflect that) but don't who are taking from the midlist authors and causing the great panic of publishers dumping their middle ground. If everyone went advance-free and earned along with the publisher, it seems like that would fix so many issues. There might be fewer giant paychecks, but thousands of people making a reasonable living is way better than one person winning the lotto.

I'd give up my advance for it (you know, if I'm ever offered one).

nicola said...

Off the top of my head (I spent of lot of time celebrating yesterday so am v. fuzzy-brained today *g*):

Agents are doing a lot more than they used to. A comparison with the film industry might prove instructive.

Viewed by Hollywood standards, literary agents are not only agents but career managers and contract wranglers. (Lately, judging by anecdotal evidence, a lot of newbie writers also seem expect the agent to be a writing teacher/editor.)

Imagine publishing adopting the Hollywood model: the writer with a team of professionals.

The question then becomes: how do the roles get divided, and how do the team members get paid?

In the film industry, screenwriters' agents get 10% commission, attorneys get 5% and managers 10% (I think). One quarter of a writer's pay goes to their team. That's a big bite. There again, for working screenwriters, the pay is better than for midlist novelists.

Obviously, if agents did less for writers, their per hour rate would be higher. So that's one route--but expect writers to squeal. Most of us haven't caught up yet with the new reality, which is that publishers no longer cover the editing/career management functions of the Good Old Days (the mostly mythical GOD, in my opinion). Most beginner writers especially don't understand that there's no time at the corporate level for hand-holding. A writer needs a team long before s/he gets to the stage of querying an agent. S/he needs a critique group and/or a teacher and/or an editor. The peer group is free (because there's no imbalance of expertise). The teacher/editor is not.

So if I were Empress of Publishing, I'd probably split the writer's team into:
- teacher/editor (payment by hourly or project rate)
- agent/manager (commission)
- attorney (hourly or project rate *or* commission)

There again, I'd probably get rid of the publisher, too, or at least reimagine that role so that the publisher also got a small percentage of the writer's earnings (instead of the writer getting a small percentage of the publisher's earnings).

clindsay said...

Am running off to the laundromat but will spend some time replying to comments when I get back. And have, ya know, cooled off. It's 96 degrees right now. I may melt before U get back to the house...

Jonathan James said...

I think agents should charge a reading fee to prospective clients. Aspiring writers who have no problem submitting material long before it should be sent around (usually material never really ever appropriate for submission) would really have to think carefully about what they're doing (and doing wrong) and make decisions accordingly. Sure, the agent bloggers would lose their vast following and attentive audience to lecture on query do's and don't's, which we know they gripe about but secretly love, though in exchange they'd be able to focus on their real clients' drafts (those clients would pay by commission, as usual) and wouldn't have to waste all the time that they do on the bulk of the nonsense. Not to mention, they'd probably amass small fortunes processing the subs that would still come across the transom.

ClothDragon said...

You're not worried about limiting publishing to the wealthy rather than the talented?

christwriter said...

The advance/fees discussion, I don't feel I can add to because I'm not published and therefor don't have the perspective to give an unbiased opinion.

The three second comment on "culture of negativity" got my attention, though. My attitude has gone from "My book is better than Twilight and they will love it the second they read it" to "Well, maybe I'll be lucky and it'll wind up on TOP of the slush" to "Okay, let's just get this over with so we're not wondering anymore." I spend most of my workday running through the million and one Reasons Why Nobody Will Ever Read My Book (caps required. It's a proper title) so I will stop imagining success and thus set myself up for disappointment when I get that nice, short, form rejection letter. And I haven't even queried anywhere because it's not PERFECT. You know, the flawless, ready-to-publish NOW kind of perfect that agents require now-a-days before they'll even start reading (That is your expectation, right? Right?).

The above attitude is based on the information I've gleaned from reading agent/editor/author blogs everywhere. And then trying to apply all their advice so that your reaction when you get my novel involves violins and roses. And yes, 99% of it is negative as hell. And here I thought this book-as-career thing was supposed to be fun.

I guess my point here is, if it'll help a newb like me get a better chance at publication (Hell, at this point I'd trade my next paycheck for positive feedback) I wouldn't have a problem with it. But "better chance" also means "affordable on a doughnut fryer's salary".

As for ideas ... yeah, I could come up with those all day, but I don't know how practical those would be (first one that came to mind was breaking a larger company into smaller imprints that just served a local area, like South Texas, that would kick successful novels on up the chain to the parent company.) Ah, well.

Oh, and 96 degrees? Lightweight. :D It's 103 here when you throw in the heat index. Summer in South Texas makes walking a health hazard. We're not as bad as say, Arizona or Louisiana, but it's still pretty bad. Best of all is I live six blocks from work and don't own a car. Thank God, it's graveyard shifts.

robp said...

Hey Colleen,

I tend to enjoy both your blog and your tweets (and no, I'm not on the verge of sending you a query) but I've been busy with family this week so I'm glad you posted this, and I'm especially glad for the inclusion of links.

I write fiction and I edit a small magazine, so I know something about both ends of the slush pile, if not to the extent that you do. I have to say, the really horrible submissions don't bother me, because I don't have to read much. It's those damned decent but not what I want stories that take up my time. And yeah, a load of consecutively read stories of that ilk is both depressing and brain-deadening. So I intend whatever I send out to be either utter brilliance or absolute trash. Ye shall waste no time on me.

Re. the agent's end of things, I don't know what to say. Writers and agents are both on the hopeful end of the spectrum, wanting to sell something of quality. It's a mismatched marriage in a way, as agents seek polygamy, multiple authors with multiple tales to sell, while writers seeking agents attempt to land Mr. or Ms. Right (Write?)

Of course, as far as that last metaphor goes, I'm incapable of philandery because so far I can't even get laid.

Keep up the good work, Colleen. Writers and agents alike need support, and readers need the two groups to support each other. Cheers.

Anthony said...

Isn't the elephant in the room that publishers pay every six months instead of standardized terms, like, I don't know, quarterly?

Portuguese cunt said...

I don't think giving up the advance is a big deal. I'd be happy to give up an advance for a larger royalty, for sure-- like Amazon's new (incredible) 70% Kindle author split.

I know that the big publishing houses aren't willing to give authors such a large cut, but maybe they would be more likely to give first-time authors a chance if the advance was eliminated and the author was paid according to the number of books actually sold.

The author might be more inclined to help with their own promotion, and the publisher doesn't feel like they are taking such a huge risk.

Besides, aren't first-timer advances averaging only about 5K these days?

rjcrowtherjr said...

Hey Colleen, this whole multiblog debate you've started is fascinating. Just posted a response on my blog.

Cheers! Rob

clindsay said...

Rob -

Thanks for letting me know! have added your link to the round-up!


CompletelyNovel said...

It's really good to hear a call for a more positive way of looking at the future in terms of the way that literary agents operate, and the need for to start thinking a bit more laterally about how the relationships between readers, agents and publishers could change to keep up with the changes that are happening all around them anyway.
On the slushpile point, one of the things that we are concentrating on is finding a way to get publishers and agents to look at the advantages that self-publishing authors can bring them. There is so much opportunity to find good quality and interesting content which is developing an audience, but which is falling below the publisher's traditional radar. It is a question of upgrading the technology or systems with which you deal with the 'slush'. Seeing as many of those systems revolve around receiving manuscripts in the mail, and going through them one by one, it can't be too hard to think of ways to make that process better.
Yes, there may be a huge variation in the quality of the writing out there, but this just highlights the need to be proactive - if the game is changing, you need to change the way you play it.

Phoenix said...

One aspect applicable to the houses paying large advances is that these companies are most often holdings of larger publicly traded companies or are publicly traded themselves.

Large advances are a commitment not only to the author and the house but the shareholders that the publisher thinks there will be FUTURE success with the acquisition. Shareholders WANT to see investment tracked against sales. They WANT to read about large advances paid and the perception of business health.

Money drives money.

Colleen, how do you see shareholder value playing into the equation?

Magdalen said...

Colleen --

Something Nicole wrote in her comments has clarified an idea for me. We know that editors have been cut back in number, asked to do more with less, etc. by commercial publishers. It has been suggested elsewhere that editors themselves should go freelance and develop their brands as quality editors.

They could and should be paid for their work, which could include a gatekeeping function (i.e., charging a reading fee, a fee for a critique, and only offering page-by-page editorial services to those writers whose works merit them).

By putting the editing function ahead of the submission to an agent, agents might suffer less "slush fatigue" as the query would specify which editor had helped with the work. The better the editor, the more likely the submission will be worth the agent's time. (Maybe the query comes from the editor, to avoid writers claiming they've worked with an editor when they haven't.)

I don't think agents should be paid hourly. As an attorney, it would concern me that agents would, consciously or not, be favoring writers with (as we say in the law) "deep pockets." The merit to the current system is that agents have a vested interest in a book selling well because that's when they actually make money.

The issue of advances is complicated. As a writer, I could forgo my measly advance (likely for a first time romance author to be $5,000 or less). Six- and seven-digit advances seem obscene and give the impression that publishers *only* want the next Twilight.

But what would be the counterbalancing improvement if advances were eschewed? What do we get if we give that up? I'd be disinclined to waive an advance if the only justification was, "the industry is dying." That starts to smack of a Jerry Lewis telethon approach.

Fawn Neun said...

Like RobP, I also write and edit a small magazine. He's right about slush - the bad stuff is easy, it's the 'not quite there' that kills you.

We have a handful of volunteer writers who read for us, and it gives a great deal of perspective. It really is subjective. We've gotten submissions that none of us could fault, but couldn't drum up any enthusiasm for, either. And they've be subsequently snatched up by other publications.

It really IS subjective.

As a writer, I wouldn't mind paying a reading fee, provided I was guaranteed good service: a serious and attentive read, followed by constructive and useful criticism/commentary from someone familiar with the current market. I'd consider it an investment and something more relevant than hiring a free-lance editor. If an agent is forced to get a second job, that seems like a natural.

I also wouldn't mind forgoing the advance if the royalties were, not only higher, but if the publishers would make better decisions about run size and keep the book 'in print' longer, even if they go to PoD after the first run.

Returns policies need to change as well. No more returns. You've bought them - now sell them. They're not going to go bad like a pallete of canteloupe.

And just the idea of mulching makes me want to cry.

This whole pride in excess is not going to work in future. Too many high advances to non-writers, too large of runs, too lenient of return policies.

It just doesn't suit the current culture, buying habits or ethics of resource use.

Watery Tart said...

I can certainly see agents are having to work more--as publishers get more convervative, it seems agents and authors BOTH need to work harder, and their gamble and efforts pay off less often.

It seems to me though, what is most FAIR isn't to take away from author's meager (usually) pay--at least not ALWAYS... this IS a gambling risk in a way... and the risk should be spread (therefore I LIKE the commission scheme)

But maybe some compromise: agent loves book but it is messy--gives agent 2 options--go pay somebody to help edit and come back, or I will edit but it is 20% instead of 15% when it sells.

And maybe a nice bonus layer... a debut book that goes to auction then gives agent 20% instead of 15%--so if the author hits the jackpot, so does the agent... because lets face it... the authors only getting paid $10K per book for about 2 books a year is hardly in a position to give up any of it, but one making 6 figures... maybe that is more reasonable to spread the joy, and SURELY the agent had to work her TAIL off to make that happen, so why not grant a bonus...

nicola said...

Magdalen, I am an editor (with Sterling Editing) but first and foremost I'm a novelist. (Completists can see my novels here, but it's not really relevant to the discussion.)

I see an enormous need for what we do: help writers get from--as Fawn Neun might say--'not quite there' to Absolutely There, in terms of story and craft (narrative grammar, dialogue, characterization etc.)

For years, I did this for free for friends and ex-students and writers just coming up, but eventually I just had too many requests. So now I charge. Editors at the big six publishing house no longer take the time to do this kind of work. Agents simply can't--not while being both cost-effective and staying within the ethical guidelines of their profession.

It's all changing. The more discussion we have like this--thank you Colleen!--the more like those new to the industry will understand this.

Sean Cummings said...

I'm published with the second book in my series hitting bookstores this Thursday. I don't yet have an agent, would like one and while I'm mindful of the fact that money needs to flow from the publisher to the author, I recognize the time an agent puts into an author's revisions, for example, needs to be compensated somehow. (I'm working with an agent who quite likes a book I've written and I'm doing revisions, for the second time... it took time that agent isn't being paid for to review my manuscript, the revisions, write out revision notes, etc. I'd be willing to offer a higher % to an agent who decides to take me on knowing full well they need to be compensated somehow and I'm currently not exactly made of money.

It has been an interesting discussion as I continue my search.

Robert Michael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

HI,,,, thank you for allowing anon comments.

Three thoughts:

1) a few years back, I recall reading a comment by Tina Wexler about the non-advance, advance. She mentioned something like, "And the models we've been shown." Although the exact quote might be wrong, the point is, a well-positioned agent had referenced this 2-3 years ago. Which makes me wonder if all this has been in the works, internally, for quite a while.

2) I read screenplays for a living. The burnout phenom is v. real. It can be mitigated by a) food (nourishment, not junk) and b) stretches.

3) re: ^^^ advances, the Amazon encore model makes me wonder if some hybrid of self-publishing / branding by big house is the future. It's difficult for me to imagine doing all the stuff - ISBN, cover art, distribution to brick & mortar stores - that my publisher's doing. However, what I struggle with is the 1989 attitude towards me as a writer: I bring a lot to the table, pr & marketing wise, and have been consistently slapped down. It's not so much the writer gets screwed attitude, as the writer is a child and should go over into the corner and shut up while the adults handle the business. The reality is, there is no book with my having written it. And excluding me from key parts of the process, IDK, make me see the publisher as an opportunity, not a long-term relationship.

There's a disconnect between what I'm reading on blogs ie., writers need to engage, be proactive, etc., and what I'm experiencing ie, sit down and shut up.

If I am, in fact, a "brand" then doesn't it behoove the editor / publisher / agent to include me in the process? What happens if my book's big or, at the v. least, establishes me? Suddenly, I have a name / brand that will travel and that I can build on.

This non-advance model - maybe I'm saying what's already been said - but it seems to require the powers that be truly engage the writer who's determined to put themselves for, in whatever media.

Colleen: I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on this, . How much is too much (or, too little) from a writer, when it comes to the publication process? And in the non-advance-advance model, how will that power balance shift?

Robert Michael said...

The product of a writer's work--whether it is marketable as an artistic distillation--is determined by an imperfect system. Often the distillation is malformed or downright unreadable. But, the scary thing that writers everywhere decry is the trust we must put in strangers' judgment. It is often such a small polling of the general interest, we are forced to wonder if this singular judgment is correct. The publishers pay big money to writers/agents that flop, right? Is it unfathomable to think that they also may let a Hemingway slip their editorial fingers?
On the other hand, agents and editors are inundated with such a large outpouring of potential work--and they sadly cannot print it all--that they must choose what they deem to be the best business decision. They do not want to invest poorly. They are gambling on interest in a creative property. It is more volatile than selling a tangible product via a pitchman on tv.
This means that writer's must remember foremost it is not the art, but the marketability of their creation that must drive them. That is, of course, if they wish to be published.
Agents are inserted into the publishing equation as both a "gate-keeper" and a marketer/career manager. Their dual role is sometimes conflicting. They must demonstrate both attraction and repulsion, addition and subtraction. Agents have created more frustration in exchange for taking the onus off of the big bad editors. It is the agents who are often regaled with the constant whine of unpublished, unloved, confused (and dare I say, talentless) aspiring writers attracted to the bright lights of the publishing world by their common passion for the written word...and those fat advances that they are reminded of constantly.
I say all this to say that I feel that the future of books is not doomed. Readers’ tastes and expectations will change as they always have. Eventually, writers will catch up, despite their own reluctance to change.
As we move forward into this brave new publishing world, I think that a shift in the relationships between those who fund the publishing of books and those who produce the works of art will be affected most. The debate over the next decade will not be the mode of artistic delivery. It will be the business model of its production and distribution. Additional "middle men(women)" may be inserted to ease the strain of submittals (which I predict, God forbid, will increase exponentially), and a more hands-on approach will be invested to ensure the quality of the material publishers are buying is secure. Editors will enable agents better as to what the market trends are, share more openly with the potential writing clients their needs and much of the mumbo jumbo hocus pocus of writing will be removed.
This will produce a more sterile, more-informed-but-less-personal writing style with mass-market appeal that will prove effectual until another invention will force us to concentrate on greater artistic forms and deeper human communication.
Whew. Sorry for the long comment.

Jordan Summers said...

I think with most advances dropping tremendously it's rather difficult to justify a raise for agents. I do understand that like authors they are working harder and taking on more outside of their 'job description'. With the rapidly changing technology, this can't be helped. (At least for now.)

As for advances vs. no advances, I'm in an interesting position since I have experienced both situations. I started out as an ebook only author in 2002 before moving to N.Y. publishing in 2005. The company I wrote for didn't (and still doesn't) supply an advance. This wasn't perfect, but it was not a big problem because at the time there wasn't a long wait between submission, editing, and release (ie 5 months max). There was also a 40% royalty rate. The only way the 'no advance' model works for an author is if the royalty rate is high and the time between submission/release is quick. Otherwise it's very difficult to sustain any type of writing career. You can make just as much--if not more--in ebook sales, but the royalty rate has to be there. (6% to 25% of net doesn't really work, unless you're into starving.)

I haven't personally slogged through a slush pile, but I've judged plenty of contests. In my experience, you could tell by page two or three whether the book was going to be any good. Of course, that won't solve the problem of burnout. I think taking frequent breaks, meditating, exercising, hydrating, and pacing yourself will at least keep the brain sharp. They also help with stress.

Laura Resnick said...

The conventional wisdom in our business is that a writer MUST have a literary agent, and that NOT having an agent puts a writer at a serious (even disastrous) disadvantage. Frankly, this has not been my experience. Since quitting the agent-author business model three years ago, my response times, advance levels, contractual terms, and subrights income have all improved; yet when informed of this, rather than reassessing the conviction that only one business model is viable for managing a writing career, the argument then becomes, "You are a strangely freakish exception which proves the rule."


Moreover, I believe that there are more than =just= TWO potentially viable business models for managing a writing career (the current, tradtional author-agent business model; and self-representation). Indeed, I don't think we have a realistic idea of how many potentially viable business models there are for managing a writing career, because at the moment, as far as I know, only those two exist—and of those, only one is generally recognized as viable (the traditioal agent-author model).

Given how many other things in our industry are changing and will continue to change, I think it is possible (and desirable) that business models for career management will change and adapt, too.

Among the possibilities are experimentation with self-representation. Authors have already started forming co-ops to electronically publish and distribute their work. I have seen established career writers who cannot get a literary agent in the current climate idly discuss the prospect of forming a co-op to replace the function of agents in their careers. I look forward to seeing a group of writers move past discussing it and actually implement such an effort.

Although I believe the traditional agent-author business model will survive, I don't think it will (or should) remain as dominant as it is now. I would applaud the emergence of multiple new business models creating fresh options for how authors can CHOOSE to manage their careers.

I have a literary lawyer and an accountant, so I am already using fee-charging models for professional services. (And, indeed, any writer who's ever hired a webmaster, a web designer, a freelance editor, a publicist, etc. has dealt with a fee-charging basis for professional services.)

The key problem with fee-charging by agents is that agenting is a money-handling profession in which there is no effective oversight, no standardized education, no training in ethics, and no requirements or licensing or qualifications. So a very good formal business proposal, for example, would be needed to establish a fee-charging business model with any appearance of credibility.

In any case, I think these are discussions worth having. Currently, options for managing a writing career are too limited. The more choices that become (a) available and (b) widely recognized as viable, the more likely a writer is to be able to find a business model that suits her well. Right now, with only ONE business model in common practice, many writers do not.

Laura Resnick said...

RE the question of a 20% commission... Well, my own experience of literary agents (I had four over a period of about fifteen years, after representing myself for the first four years and ten book sales of my career) was that at 15%, their services were too expensive in exchange for the services actually (rather than ideally) offered.

I now have a better career (more money, more sales, more subrights business, better contractual terms, etc.) since I returned three years ago to managing my career myself. I pay a literary lawyer to negotiate my contracts; and my lawyer, while negotiating the best contractual terms of my career, costs me only a small fraction of what agency commissions would cost me on these same deals.

Ergo, I can't think of the scenario that would convince me to go back to paying 15% to a literary agent; therefore, obviously, 20% is out of the question for me, and I would never consider it.

However, that's me. Another writer's mileage may well vary. As in my previous post here, I advocate an expansion of options and business models for managing a writing career.

Such options might include an agent working at a 20% commission for clients who think that agent's services are worth 20% of their income--and who have been able to make that CHOICE in a market-range of MULTIPLE options for career management. An agent willing to gamble that people will think he's worth 20% has a right to charge that; and writers willing to pay that 20% to a particular agent have a right to CHOOSE to do so.

HOWEVER... seeing the entire industry move from 15% to 20%, without an increase in services, as we saw the industry industry move from 10% to 15% without an increase in services; AND seeing this occur WITHOUT a range of career-management options available to writers? Egad. I consider that a travesty and a nightmare.

None of this would affect me, since I don't pay commission and am highly unlikely ever to return to a commission-paying business model in my career. It also presumably wouldn't affect any writing income that many agented authors are now deriving separately from thriving electronic, POD, and small press markets.

But a universal hike to 20% commission in a scenario where the major-publishing market is still dominated by only ONE career management model would be a terrible thing for writers, further decreasing their income while offering them no added value for that bite.

Laura Resnick said...

BTW, I also think these discussions we're seeing need to differentiate between the issue of managing professional writing careers and dealing with slushpiles and aspiring writers.

A key question not being addressed here is: Why should a longtime professional writer and steady earner find her commission rate hiked to 20% of her writing earnings because her agent is spending too much non-earning time reading the query pile?

Anonymous said...

This has been a fascinating discussion in all its permutations. Things are always changing, sometimes for the better, other times not so much.

I have read a lot about "poor writers." Not that long ago if a writer wanted to submit to an agent, he had to print off hard copies and pay for the postage. Somehow poor writers managed to do that.
I have read about all the organizations, writing software, writing conferences, writing books and writing presentations writers buy or participate. Somehow poor writers manage to pay for that.

"Poor agents" meanwhile complain about increased work for less money. In the real world, not many people have had raises over the past couple of years. Agenting has always been this way, and it has always taken time to establish a reputation and paying clients. Just like real estate, you don't have a paycheck and it takes time, devotion, and luck.

Writers spend time writing. Agent take on new writers on the chance they will pay off. Even without the editing or any other service an agent provides, if they just sell the book a writer is way ahead.
And if an agent sells (or even pays attention to) a book that doesn't sell right off the bat, the writer is really lucky.

When all is said and done, it's supply and demand. There are now more agents (and more new agents trying desperately to hang on) than ever before. There are also more wanna be writers than ever before, and that means more bad writers to wade through.

Both agents and writers need to be realistic. Agents, it will take a long time before you're eating caviar for dinner. Writers, if your agent sells your book you are lucky, not the greatest gift to readers since Dickens.

Agents, if you can't take the heat, go get a job flipping burgers.
Writers, you couldn't do it on your own.

Lori Verni-Fogarsi said...

The commission model does instill an aspect of “the agent is just as hungry for a strong deal as the writer is.” Also, up-front, billable, or retainers could result in missing out on some excellent authors. However, a commission scale could be fair… higher percentages for higher advances, multiple book deals, and so forth. On the other hand, there is also the aspect that before email, submitting was an expensive endeavor; so it’s possible that those other payment options could work for some, and frankly, if an agent has reached a certain level of success (and provides a significant level of service), she or he should have the option to be paid how they want: no one is “making” the writer sign with you.

The slush pile is a bit trickier. Doubt it makes you feel any better, but for we authors who are educated, experienced, have done our research, etc., it is very frustrating to know that your eyes are crossed and your heart is heavy from having to read through the nonsense it sounds like people send. While you would not want to give up the convenience of email, the downside is that suddenly “everyone” is a writer.

One possible solution: You know what you already have, what you might have time for, and what your interests are. Perhaps you could create “windows” during which you only accept submissions of a particular kind. You could even create a code that you make available on your site and blog for people to include in their subject line, and anything not complying during those dates gets deleted unread. For example: “For the month of July, I am only interested in women’s fiction. Query subject lines should be formatted as follows: QUERY/WF/Title.” This would eliminate people who don’t do their research, would allow you to focus only on projects you might actually have time for, etc.

Just a few ideas.

Ted Cross said...

I've never understood why agents couldn't get a percentage of a writer's checks from the publisher, especially in a model without advances. This would still maintain the idea of the agent needing to sell teh book in order to get paid.

Lee Ann said...

Way back in my bookseller days at B&N, I read ARCs until I thought my eyes would bleed. If I wasn't reading ARCS, I was reading books outside of the genre I specialized in (SF & YA). In order to effectively do my job, I spent hours outside of the store reading book after book so that I could make good recommendations and promote writers with potential

When I left my job and turned to teaching, I went through a period of time when I couldn't read another book to save my soul. At Barnes & Noble, I read so many crap ARCs to get to the gold, that I became unable to finish a book after a certain point: I could accurately predict within a few chapters if I had a winner or crap writing in my hands. I was burnt out entirely on the written word.

To this day, I struggle with reading SF & YA - once favorite genres - and now Mystery is added to the list thanks to moderating a Mystery Book Club for six years (I've read some really bad mystery books...really bad).

So, when an agent suggests payment by the hour vs. a percentage. I get it. I understand where that idea comes from: I read all those ARCs on my own time outside of the store and never received compensation...yet, authors wanted me to handsell their novels and promote them. An agent has the same issue: they read manuscripts that may or may not be sellable. If the MS bites the weenie and will most likely not find a publishing home, an agent is out of all those hours that might have gone to another writer. To expect compensation for those lost hours is not far-fetched.

I may feel differently when it's my turn to query a MS, but at this time? Bill away, Colleen.

Jay said...

Colleen, it looks like the only group of individuals who could truly change the way publishing is done now, would be the huge authors. I'm thinking Nora Roberts/Stephen King/James Pattersons of the world. They band together, and demand change (of whatever kind) and their might be something that happens. The problem is, these same writers have reaped the rewards from the current system, so would be reluctant to tip over the golden goose.
But think about it. What if Nora Roberts skipped her agent, her editor, her publisher, and went straight to something like an Amazon e-book for the kindle...That would shock the system.

error7zero said...

Slush is part of any agent's job description. There is, however, an easy way out of the slush pile.

佳皓佳皓 said...
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Anonymous said...

A few thoughts occur to me after reading some of these discussions. One is that an agent might not be the best person to do some of the things they are taking responsibility for.

I've read slush and my sympathies go out to all, but how did looking for prospective clients become an expense someone else should pay for?

Another thought I had is that the main problem with the industry is that there are too few publishers, too few booksellers, and too few distributors. Most of the problems the industry have are to do with being highly consolidated in a time of recession. The consolidation leaves the business even more vulnerable to economic downturns and piracy. There is not enough creative competition in the marketplace to find ways to compensate for for the conditions the business is in. worst case scenario is the music business c. 1999. A very bad case.

What to do about it? As usual, the answer being bandied about is to take a bigger cut out of the labor that makes the product in the first place. Don't feel bad, it's happening all over, lots of downsizing and people taking paycuts 'for the good of the industry'. I guess you can tell where I stand on the main issue here.

If we knew what to do about it, we'd solve the worlds problems, because every worker in the world is feeling the effects of overconsolidation.

Georgia McBride said...

I'm all for free consultation say--20-30 minutes with some kind of parameters. Anything else requires an hourly fee. We value the time of others so much more. To devalue that of agents and managers is simply wrong.

Jeff said...

I blame the college writing programs that churn out thousands of aspiring writers, muddying the waters for everyone, and generally making this life a living hell.

Anonymous said...

Even if an agent sells a book, there is no guarantee that agent will ever recoup their expenses. Many a publisher has been known to tell the author in royalty statement after royalty statement that he did not earn out his advance. If this was a new author with a measly advance the agent is now on food stamps.
For years, agents have had these awful working conditions and jobs that take up their entire lives that do not pay.
Writers should forego taking up any agent's time unless they are prepared to compensate the agent for whatever time is spent.
If a writer doesn't want to pay the agent for his time, he should take the manuscript and send it to to one of those sites that says "money flows to the author" and take up their time and resources.