Tag Archives: royalties

How much more do you really earn when you self-publish?

(Third in a series of articles about the new realities for writers and readers. In this post, I attempt to compare the relative costs and potential profits of self-publishing versus traditional publishing, and explain which method of self-publication I have chosen for my next novel, The Whole Clove Diet – and why I have chosen it.) (Of course, none of us is really interested in making money from our writing, right? We are only interested in making art. ♬ )

It seems as though every time I go onto the Internet these days, I stumble over another post in which some author is enthusing over how much more he or she is making per copy on a self-published book (70% of the cover price or more) than he or she would have made with an established press (where a 10 to 15% royalty is the norm). Somewhere on The Militant Writer, I may even have crowed about this advantage of self-publishing myself. :)

While such statements may be accurate in absolute terms, they fail to take into account many of the costs outside of printing that are incurred by traditional publishers on behalf of authors’ books. Some established presses invest more than others (and some seem to invest next to nothing) in such make-or-break areas of book production as editing, cover and layout design, and promotion and marketing, but whether they are effective or not at what they do, publishers incur overhead costs with each title.

Many of these same costs are also incurred by self-published authors—or should be—but the authors may overlook them when they are calculating their final “take” from sales.

Self-published authors who fail to make their books look and read like something besides draft manuscripts that have been laid out at home and then slapped with amateur-looking covers are (in my opinion) fools. However, as soon as we start putting money into improving the quality and impact of our self-published books, the longer it takes for us to recoup the money we’ve invested. We cannot claim we are “making 70% of the cover price” of our books until we have paid ourselves back for our expenditures to produce them.

The biggest financial difference between having a book published by a traditional press and doing it ourselves is who pays the overhead, what the overhead entails, and how the proceeds are shared. In this post, I am going to take a stab at evaluating the relative costs of self-publishing versus traditional publishing, but keep in mind that attempting to compare the two approaches can be like weighing “apples” against “all citrus fruits,” due to the variety of publishing models that have begun to proliferate.

I encourage readers of this post who have self-published (aka “indie-published”) their books, participated in shared-expense publishing initiatives, or have info about traditional publishing that I may have overlooked here, to contribute to the comments section of this discussion.

No Money Down: Working With Traditional Publishers

When a traditional publisher offers to publish your book, you do not need to contribute any money. By inviting you to give them the publishing rights to your book, publishers are essentially saying that they believe that they are going to sell enough copies of your book to make up for the costs they will incur up front in order to get it to the marketplace – and then, they hope, make a profit by selling even more.

The costs traditional publishers incur are outlined in my “Authors and Publishers” post and they include:

  • copyediting and substantive editing
  • book interior design
  • cover design
  • layout
  • printing
  • promotion
  • sales
  • distribution
  • storage
  • overhead costs – these range from the rent, utilities, etc. that are part of the costs of maintaining an office and a staff (including executive editors who will read your manuscript in the first place—or pay someone to send you a form rejection letter—salespeople who go out to bookstores to talk up your book, promotions staff, art department staff, bookkeepers, shipping and receiving staff), operating a warehouse, paying the fees of freelancers, selling other (foreign, movie) rights to your book, legal, financial and accounting costs, costs associated with creating a catalogue, posters and other promotional materials, securing ISBNs and Books in Print notifications, etc., etc., etc.

If a press publishes 20 books a year and its annual expenses are $1 million, one could argue that each book costs the company around $50,000. Of course this is a vast oversimplification because books that were published in previous years that sell this year bring in income that helps to sustain the business, operating grants may be involved, or subsidies from institutions such as universities, funding may have been secured to help with marketing and promotion, and there are many other factors that need to be considered. So let us say that the cost of producing 5,000 copies of your book is $20,000.

Let us also say that the book thus created is going to sell for $20.

In that case, on each book:

  • You, the author, will receive about $3 (depending on royalty rates that are set out in your contract);
  • The booksellers will keep about 40% of the amount they receive for the books they sell, or $8;
  • The publisher will retain the remaining $9.

As you have already figured out, these numbers show that in order to pay itself back for the costs it has incurred, the publisher needs to sell nearly 2,500 copies of your book— half of the stock it printed – just to break even. Even after that, additional promotion, storage of unsold books, and other costs are going to need to be deducted from the publishers’ portion of the income from each book.

In this scenario, the author starts to make his or her paltry $3/copy from the first copy that is sold – although the author’s actual receipt of those $3 pieces is subject to such factors as:

  • Advances: The amount that has been advanced to you by the publisher must be reached before you will receive any more money. If the publisher advanced you $3,000 in our example, for example, since you are making $3/book you will not start earning any more money from royalties until after 1,000 copies of your book have sold;
  • Agents: If you have an agent, he or she will receive a cut of your take: let us say 15% of $3 =  45 cents, leaving you with $2.55. (This is why agents are only interested in working with writers who have the potential to sell a lot of books.);
  • Returns: The traditional book business is unlike almost any other business in that bookstores can return the products (books) they do not sell to the manufacturers (publishers). Your book is not sold when it is stocked by a bookseller, but only when it is purchased from the bookseller.

Costs to Self-Publish

The costs of self-publishing, by contrast, are entirely dependent on who the writer deals with, and what costs beyond book production (e-book and/or print version) he or she chooses to incur.

The Rip-Off Artists

Let us dispense first with the companies that advertise on-line that even though they accept every book that is submitted to them, they are still traditional publishers because they will give you an advance and publish your book at no cost to you. Closer examination of these companies (and reviews from those who’ve used them) indicate that the advances are minimal ($50 or so), the printed copies are expensive (e.g., $20 to $25 or more), the “publishers” often do not make any real effort to get the books into major sales outlets (including onto Amazon), there is no e-book option, and the major thrust of such companies is to hard-sell copies to the authors. (In one contract I read on-line, the company assures authors that review copies will be distributed, but only to reviewers who write to the company asking for a copy of your book. How many independent, respected reviewers do you think you can convince to write to your publisher and ask them for a book? It isn’t going to happen.)

Similar methods were used by what is known as “vanity” presses in the past: they offered you “free publishing” as long as you agreed to buy 1,000 copies of the finished book, which of course you would then need to sell yourself. People invested huge amounts of money in such scams and ended up with hundreds and hundreds of copies of unsellable books in their basements. In this era of print-on-demand, you don’t need to buy all those copies up front, but the principle is the same: the only entity that makes any money off such ventures is the “publishing” company.

Some other companies have recently been created that are in the e-books-only business. They also offer publication at no cost to you, but they spend almost nothing anyway: all they really do is pour your text into a file, slap a cover image on it, and then put the book up on the Internet. No real editing, no significant effort to market your book, no real investment on their part. They then stand back and simply take a cut of whatever sales you are able to drum up.

Check the fine print in the contract with any self-publishing enterprise as closely as you would (or should) with any other venture in which you have chosen to participate. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Ask to see what the publisher is prepared to do to help promote your book (and then make sure they do it), seriously consider the books it is already offering and determine whether you want to be associated with those books and authors, and Google to find if there are any negative comments about them from authors who have used them in the past. Keep in mind that the testimonials that appear on the “publisher” websites are those that have been pre-approved, and even their on-line forums may be censored to weed out negative feedback.

In other words, caveat emptor.

Bare Bones Self-Publishing

The lowest cost I have found to self-publish a book with a reputable company is $299. With this very basic option, the author provides all text pages and the cover in “camera-ready” PDF format so that the publishing outlet doesn’t need to do anything but assemble the book on a computer so that it is ready to be printed, one copy at a time (known as “print on demand,” or POD), whenever anyone orders it. An example of this basic service is the CreateSpace Author’s Express, and CreateSpace also offers a slightly enhanced version of its basic package that provides you with a template for the interior and the covers, and costs $499. It is called the Author’s Advantage.

(Note: I am using CreateSpace not only for my examples in this post but also for my book production because of that company’s close association with Amazon. A book produced by CreateSpace is not likely to encounter any problems entering Amazon’s distribution system. I know that Amazon has created a monopoly that is taking down all competitors, including lots of mom-and-pop bookstore operations, and I’m sorry. However, with my little novel I cannot afford to become a one-person protest movement any more than I already am: I need my book to be available everywhere, as soon as I publish it.)

The Cadillacs of Self-Publishing

At the opposite end of the spectrum, those who want to buy a publishing package that already includes all the bells and whistles, in the hope (probably erroneous, but who knows?) that they will need to do no work at all to make their books bestsellers, may choose an option like the Total Design Freedom Marketing Pro from CreateSpace, which sells for $4,999.

For this price, the author receives two rounds of copyediting, which CreateSpace estimates to be worth just over $1,000 per round, a custom-designed interior ($499) and custom book-cover design ($999), a video book trailer ($1,249), promotional-text creation ($249), assistance with the creation and distribution of a media release ($598), and registration for a Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN), which allows libraries to catalogue your book correctly if they buy it, but does not guarantee that they will buy it ($75). (This is a worthwhile investment, as far as I’m concerned.)

Options In Between

CreateSpace offers a variety of packages that range in cost between the Author’s Express and the Total Design Freedom Marketing Pro, and other companies (LuLu, for example. Update: Comment linked here says there are no costs at all with LuLu if you’re prepared to do all the work yourself) offer similar ranges of packages. These companies also offer a range of royalties on each copy sold, depending on the agreed-upon forms of distribution and other factors.

The various expenses and reimbursement options can be found on the companies’ websites, although sometimes you need to trade your email address for specific details. When you look at their charts and numbers and offerings of royalties, it is very important to remember that your profit does not begin until you have paid yourself back for what you have invested to get the book published.

Most writers will decide that there are some aspects of book production and promotion that they can do themselves, or that they want to hire people they know to carry out certain functions, and they will choose a publishing package that allows them to incorporate the options they have chosen to do independently with the services for which they require direct assistance. If you use outside services to complement the package you have purchased, the costs of these too need to be added into what you pay back to yourself before you can start to look at profits.

How Much Will You Make?

On this page at CreateSpace you can start to estimate the royalties you are going to make on the book you have created.

In order to compare your profit as a self-published writer to the model I set up to illustrate the disbursements to you by a traditional publisher, let us say your self-published book is also going to be marketed at $20 per copy. ($20 is quite a lot to charge for a POD book, because [at least at this point in the history of publishing] no matter what you do, the quality of a print-on-demand book is not going to match that of a book produced on an off-set printer running 500 to 2,000 copies at a time or more; however, for the sake of argument we will leave the price there so that comparison is possible.)

Let us say that this book is 120 pages in length, and the trim size is 5½ by 8½ inches. (Page count and trim size are important matters that you will need to take into consideration when you are publishing your book. So is paper weight, cover quality, etc.) The royalty that will accrue to you from this set-up if your book is sold on amazon.com (depending on various options you have chosen) is just over $8/copy. (The chart says you can make 50% more if you set up your own e-store with Amazon, but I haven’t even considered that: I could be wrong, but it sounds like a lot of work.)

If you have chosen the basic package from CreateSpace ($299), at $8 a piece, you will need to sell 38 copies of your book before you will start to earn any income from it. If you have purchased any additional services, from typesetting to cover design to marketing, either from CreateSpace or individual suppliers, you will need to add those amounts to the $299 before you can start counting profits. And if you went with the Total Design Freedom Marketing Pro from CreateSpace at nearly $5,000,  you will need to sell 625 copies before you start to see a profit.

The Whole Clove Diet: The Option I Am Choosing – And Why

I don’t want to spend any more than I need to on bringing my new novel, The Whole Clove Diet, to market. However, I want to be proud of how it looks because I think it’s a good novel (funny, and other good things as well), and I spent a lot of time writing it. I have also paid to have it edited, and I want it to look professionally produced so I can market it with confidence.

My experience as editor-in-chief at a publishing company, and work I’ve done since as a freelance production manager of books, newsletters and other publications, have taught me that it is not a wise investment of my time to even try to typeset my own book. Typesetting requires specific skills, knowledge and experience in order to ensure that pages look professional and avoid common errors (such as widows and orphans—do you even know what those are?) that instantly tell the reader that a book is self-published.

I believe that the price offered by CreateSpace to typeset books is reasonable, so I am going to use them for the typesetting part of the production. I will work with them to decide how the typesetting should look (what font, what the running head will look like, etc.), but they will do the work.

I also know I am incapable of creating my own book cover, although I want to have a lot of input into what that looks like, too. I have worked with a book cover designer in the past (Jeff Fielder) and I want to work with him again, so I am going to pay him to provide a custom cover for my book, which he will submit to CreateSpace in the format they require. Hiring an artist/designer for a book can run anywhere from about $500 and up, depending on the experience, knowledge and reputation of the designer and what you want him or her to do. (CreateSpace offers this service at $999 if you buy it from them.) You may also need to pay for cover art or photographs that are included in the cover.

I’ve paid my editors, and I am going to pay for my own marketing, including promotional copy, a video trailer (if I decide to use one), sending out review copies, and other promotional activities. Some of these tasks I will do myself; for others, I will hire other people.

I am therefore choosing a package offered by CreateSpace for $499 in which they will do the typesetting, and I will be responsible for the rest. I will send them the edited text in a Word document, and the cover I have had designed by my friend. They will do the layout, send me a proof to check over, and then make the book available for sale in both Kindle and POD formats. (Kindle conversion is normally $69 but I took advantage of a special offer from Amazon that was available when I placed the order for my book.) I have paid an additional $75 to obtain an LCCN.

Note in all cases that there is an extra charge for illustrations, photos, charts and other visuals included in the book.

Other Options Besides Self-Publishing

In addition to straightforward self-publishing packages, a host of other publishing models are now available, thanks to the opportunities for POD and e-books that are offered by the new digital technologies.

A number of collective approaches to publishing are out there, for example. Some, such as ShelfStealers which is the brainstorm of my friend Sheryl Dunn and her colleagues, have a strict editorial process that ensures the quality of books they are publishing.  The company does the cover design, layout and some of the promotion, and offers authors 50% gross royalties on audio and e-books, and 50% of net on print books less the cost of book (approximately $5.50 each).

Other coop companies involve authors to a greater or lesser extent in the publishing process, and royalties are related to the contribution the author makes. There is certainly something to be said for publishing as part of a collective—a group of books is better able to attract attention than a single book, and it is often easier to promote someone else’s book or a group of books of which yours is a part than it is to promote your own book. These collectives do not necessarily make you eligible for consideration in awards programs or by writers organizations, reviewers or bookstores who require “traditional publishing” status before they will even consider you or your book, so be sure you know what benefits you will gain from participating in such cooperatives, and how much time and energy you will need to invest, before you sign anything. There are lots of writers in this world who no longer have time to write because of commitments they’ve made to help get other people published.

In order to stay in business, some established publishers are also now offering co-publishing agreements to writers. The publishers do the same things they have always done for the books they publish (editorial, layout, design, distribution, etc.), but the authors contribute several thousands of dollars up-front to the overhead, and their royalties reflect the fact that they are essentially co-publishers. The authors get the cachet of the publisher’s imprint, but this can be an even more expensive alternative than self-publishing.

Reprinting Your Out-of-Print Books

For the information of those who are considering self-publishing books that have gone out of print – here is my experience.

I had my novel The Woman Upstairs, which was well reviewed and won an award for excellence in writing but had been out of print for twenty years, reprinted by CreateSpace. Since I didn’t own the rights to the original cover or its artwork, and I wanted to revise the cover text, I had new cover made and paid for that separately.

I paid $191 to have the book scanned (5 ½ x 8 ½ in., approx. 120 pages) by CreateSpace. I paid $69 for Kindle Conversion. I needed to pay an additional $50 because I changed the copyright page to reflect the new ISBN, my current name, the LCCN, etc. I also paid $75 for the LCCN.

So for less than $800, my first novel is now available in both print-on-demand and e-book formats. Now all I have to do is sell about 160 copies to recoup my costs. :)

Note: If the book that you want to reprint—or create—is in a non-standard format or requires special layout or certain types of paper, such as poetry, children’s books or art books, some specialists are now making their services available to help you prepare your book for self-publication. Two examples that I know of are so far in these areas are Really Love Your Book in the U.K., and Blurb.

So there you have it — all I  know about the costs of publishing a book, and perhaps more than even you wanted to know. The time it took me to write this post would probably have been more profitably invested in moving The Whole Clove Diet closer to being ready to submit to CreateSpace. But since I am investigating these issues for my own purposes anyway, I figure I might as well share what I find out. I hope you will find something of use here — and please do add your own experiences with publishing by way of comments, for the benefit of others. (Update: Note the positive feedback re: Lightning Source in the comments.)

“The Talent Killers”: The Litopia Dialogues

by Mary W. Walters

In four podcasts originally aired May 4 to 7, 2009, I was interviewed by U.K. literary agent and host of Litopia Daily, Peter Cox, about my essay “The Talent Killers: How literary agents are destroying literature and what publishers can do to stop them.”

These four podcasts are available free from iTunes as downloadable episodes that you can play on your MP3 player at your convenience. They are Litopia Daily episodes number 202 through 205 inclusive. Just go to the iTunes store and search “Litopia,” then click on the “album cover” of Peter Cox and you will go to the Litopia menu.

While you’re there, sample other episodes as well. Both Litopia Daily and Litopia After Dark provide interesting news, trivia, gossip, interviews and discussions that are relevant to writers everywhere. Each segment of  Litopia Daily (which airs Monday to Friday) is approximately 15 minutes long. Litopia After Dark (Fridays) is closer to an hour.

You can also access the four discussions between Peter Cox and me directly from the Litopia site. Under the text description of the program, find the icon that looks like this:

Picture 1Press the arrow part of it on the right, and voila!

Here are the four podcasts.

Episode 202: Agents are destroying publishing It is proposed that the “The Talent Killers” may be a seminal essay, as well as a symptom of the massive upheaval currently underway throughout the books publishing industry–an upheaval to which it would be wise for everyone involved in the books business at any level, from writers to readers, through agents, publishers, book buyers and booksellers, to pay attention. (Peter Cox points out that he does not completely agree with the the conclusions I draw in my essay. He does not feel we can lay all of the blame for all of the problems on the shoulders of literary agents. I am heard to concede that this might be true.)

Episode 203: Writers keep out! Peter talks about his recent blog post in The Bookseller“Dead Men Walking”– which predicts a dire future for agents, particularly newer agents, who aren’t paying attention to the changes in the industry, and I get so wound up about the importance of remembering that the writers ARE the TALENT that I knock my microphone around a bit.

Episode 204: Agents with attitude,  in which Peter describes me as “the scourge of literary agents everywhere,” but then goes on to drive his own skewers into a couple of agents in particular, whose approaches to writers are supercilious, condescending, arrogant and even rude. We  denounce ‘agents with attitudes’ in general, and the fan clubs that encourage them, while agreeing that not all agents  can be painted with this brush.

Episode 205: It’s Future-Agent! From the Litopia site: “What future is there for the agent in tomorrow’s brave new publishing world?  We stand on the cusp – it could be a new Golden Age, or it could just as easily be the eve of extinction. Those agents who truly study the needs of authors are most likely to prosper.” Our dialogues conclude.

* * * *

I am grateful to Peter Cox and Litopia Daily for giving me an opportunity to speak to the issues I raised in my original essay, for actually hearing what I was saying, and for restoring some of my faith in the system — not faith in it as it currently exists, but faith that change is coming, and that as writers we have a crucial role to play in determining our own futures.

I, for one, welcome the challenge. And I’ll be writing about it often on The Militaant Writer. My next topic is already beginning to percolate in that place inside my head where the writing always starts–working its way around even when I’m paying no attention to it. It’s going to be about writers, and our relationships with one another. (No. Not that kind of relationship. Don’t worry. Not spilling any beans.)

The Talent Killers: Update #1 – comments and solutions from an unrepentant writer

by Mary W. Walters

I have been amazed and perplexed by the traffic that has visited my “Talent Killers” article. In the first ten days, the post received more than 13,500 “hits,” and more than 300 comments.

Here’s what I have observed in the feedback I’ve received:

  • Many, many of the comments (and, I am sure, the hits) came from wannabe-agented and wannabe-published writers who would have risen up to defend agents in general and their chosen agents in particular no matter what the accusations against them–mainly in the hope of currying their favour (update: on April 28, a correspondent pointed out to me that this is entirely speculation on my part. He is correct. I do not know for sure that this is an accurate description of the people to whom I am referring). This is fair enough, but hardly the kind of response that is likely to change my thinking;
  • A number of comments came from agents who felt unjustly maligned, and even at times defensive. This was also understandable, but also didn’t alter my perspective in the least. (By the way, several agents pointed out that they take 15% of an author’s royalties, not 10%. I have noted that correction in the body of the article);
  • A number of writers, agents and publishers argued that although there are greedy, heartless junk-dealing agents out there, many others are intelligent, caring individuals who do their work because they love good writers and good writing. Fine. I am happy to accept that point (I suspected it might be true anyway);
  • Writers who already have agents pointed out how valuable the agents have been in securing good deals for them, managing their rights and helping to build their careers (I knew that. Why else would agents exist at all?);
  • An editor or two said that they appreciate the ‘gatekeeper’ role of agents—and their assistance in sorting through the slush pile. The agents who have commented on the subject have insisted that they are acting according to the guidelines set by the editors at the major houses, and not on their own initiative, when choosing which new books and/or authors to present. I stand corrected on that detail if it is the case, but it doesn’t change my basic point–the agents are still the gatekeepers–the ones who decide which books/writers the editors will want;
  • Several agents have pointed proudly to their record of bringing debut authors to the marketplace. I acknowledged in my original article that debut writers (well, in fact, individual books by debut writers) continue to be “discovered”;
  • In discussing my article on his podcast at Litopia last Tuesday (the relevant bit starts around 14:30), London agent Peter Cox implicated the buyers for the major bookstore chains in determining which books get published and what those books look like when they hit the stands (Peter has invited me to discuss/debate with him the possible role of literary agents and others in the destruction of the literary arts. Our conversations will be aired as part of the Litopia Daily podcasts during the week of May 4 to 8, 2009 inclusive);

In addition to the above agent-specific points, many people (including a number of self-appointed critics and those who wanted to be seen merely as “interested readers”) came by to argue that:

  • literary writing that can’t command an immediate advance should not be published at all;
  • anyone who has already published a book or two and has failed to turn herself into an international bestseller has already had her moment in the sun and should not expect even a glance from agents or publishers (this approach tends to ignore the fact that it is rather difficult to build an international reputation with only 1,500 to 3,000 copies of your book in hand and a publisher who cannot afford to reprint. It also indicates that, to the speaker of such codswallop, the concept of “artistic growth” does not apply to writers);
  • self-publishing is a viable alternative to publication by established presses (it may be for some books, but for those that require the stamp of approval of a selection committee and outstanding editorial support throughout the publication process, such as literary novels, it is not);
  • if a writer’s work is not accepted by an agent, it is not good enough for public consumption—by definition. Case closed. The writer should just try to write more interesting novels that more people will want to read, learn to write a decent query letter, and–most importantly–stop whining!

I am unmoved

NO ONE who has responded to my article has said a word to dispute my underlying assertion (or accusation, if you will), which was—and continues to be—that literary agents are excluding from consideration by major publishing houses those writers who, after one or more books with smaller presses, have reached a stage where they are ready to reach a much wider audience–and whose books have the potential to make substantial sales in that wider market. Most agents do not want to work with these writers because they do not command the kind of advance that makes them worth the bother from an immediate economic point of view for the agents (and the agents alone: everyone else stands to benefit economically). Major publishing houses therefore never become aware of the existence of these writers.

Some solutions?

Nearly two weeks after this article’s originally posting, during which time I have carefully read all of the responses (some of which agreed in whole or in part with my thesis, and even enhanced my position), two possible solutions to this problem have suggested themselves to me–aside from the one I proposed in the original essay (which was to eliminate agents as a group).

Here are my ideas:

1) Those agents who believe that mid-list writers are essentially over-the-hill has-beens who are never going to make it in the world of commercial publishing–whom they would love to help, if they could only afford to do so–should say so publicly. They should announce on their websites that they discourage contact with them from all writers who have published books with established literary presses in the past. (This would be a huge relief to those of us who fall into this category, for several reasons. We would at least know what we are dealing with. It would save us significant amounts of time–it takes me about an hour to develop each and every query letter–that we could be using to write our next novels. It would allow us to realize that it is not our writing but our status that is being rejected); and

2.) Little side doors should open in the walls of established publishers that permit writers with one or more books previously published with established literary presses (NOT self-published writers) to bypass the agents and go directly to the editors–and to negotiate their terms with them directly if they wish to do that. This option simply acknowledges the excellence of an entirely different kind of jury/gatekeeper (the literary press) that is, like literary agents, pre-sorting the slush piles and picking out the very best writers. It also contributes to the idea that writers — like filmmakers, visual artists, actors, and flautists — may actually get better with time.

I encourage readers to submit other solutions and/or to comment on the ones I have suggested.

_______________________________

Note: Future installments of The Militant Writer will

  • explore how writers can separate the “good” agents from the “bad” ones (the “bad” ones being those who publishers do not like or want to deal with due to previous experience, and those who are too new to be able to reach the publishing companies on behalf of their writers) quite aside from the obvious issue of finding out which agents exhibit a modicum of interest in the kind of writing you are doing;
  • discuss the concept of literary presses as the “nurseries” for future world-class writers (in addition to their other roles, which include promoting voices that may forever remain marginal to the mainstream);
  • present a primer for new agents (and for established agents who have never thought about it) that explains the economic differences between representing a book, and representing a writer with a vocation that includes past and future books as well as the current one;
  • explore genre in literature; and
  • provide a forum for any other topic you or I want to talk about that relates to literary writing.

The Talent Killers: How literary agents are destroying literature, and what publishers can do to stop them

by Mary W. Walters

Dear Senior Editor, Any Major Publishing House, Anywhere:

I am a member of a growing company of writers of literary fiction whose works you have never seen and probably never will.

It’s not that we are lacking in the talent and credentials that might attract your interest: indeed, we have already published one or two or three books with respectable literary presses, attracting not only critical acclaim but even awards for writing excellence. Our work has been hailed as distinctive, thoughtful, darkly comic. As fresh. Even as important! Reviewers have compared us to Atwood, Boyle and Seth. To Tyler, Winton, Le Carre.

That you have never heard of us nor read a single paragraph we’ve written is not—as you might think—a side effect of the cutbacks, mergers and downsizings that have devastated the book-publishing industry in recent months. Nor is it yet more evidence of the impact of electronic media on the printed word.

No.

The substantial and nearly unassailable wall that separates you from us has been under construction for decades. You can find the names of its architects and gatekeepers on your telephone-callers list, and in your email in-box. They are the literary agents—that league of intellectual-property purveyors who bring you every new manuscript you ever see, those men and women who are so anxious to gain access to the caverns of treasure they believe you sit upon like some great golden goose that they would likely hack one another’s heads off were they not united by one self-serving mission: to ensure that quality fiction never hits your desk.

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I am sure that this news comes as a surprise to you, Dear Editor. I am certain that you were drawn to your career—and by “career” I mean “vocation,” including the spectrum of responsibilities that ranges from new-book acquisition to the kind of excellent substantive editing that makes great novels outstanding—because of your love of literature. You probably started with an education in the literary classics which you have since enriched by reading the very best writing being published in the world today. In your few spare moments, you may wonder why it is that aside from an occasional new voice that may become great in another twenty years, the only authors of literary value have been around for decades.

I can answer that question for you. I can tell you why your desk is piling up with flimsy bits of vampire literature, fantasy, romance, detective stories and the kind of first-draft bubble gum that used to be called chick-lit but is now shuffled in with other women’s writing in order to give it heft—although as far as you can see, neither the quality nor the subject matter has improved—which you are required to somehow turn into publishable books. It is because the vast majority of literary agents do not, in fact, have any interest in literature. They are only interested in jackpots.

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As you know—better than anyone, perhaps, since you are the one who needs to negotiate with them—agents’ incomes come off the top of royalties that publishers pay their writers. The agent’s cut is generally 10 percent of the writer’s portion, which is in turn about 10 percent of the book’s cover price. Ten percent of 10 percent is not a lot. (Correction: I have been advised that the industry standard is 15%.) In order to create a decent cash flow, literary agents can only afford to represent writers who are going to sell truckloads of books (or millions of megabytes in the case of e-books) and therefore merit significant advances. The bigger the better: a substantial advance is money in the bank.

As you also know, publishing is a business, which means that publishing houses can only afford to offer advances they are likely to recoup—which means that advances only go to established writers with massive followings, and to particularly brilliant (or particularly sleazy) first-time novelists. They are generally reserved for what’s known as “commercial” fiction. (Of course, an advance is no guarantee that a book will sell. But that doesn’t matter to the agents. By the time the book’s not selling, they already have their cuts. They simply abandon writers whose books did not hit their projected sales numbers and move on to the newest shiny thing—indifferent to the fact that they’ve turned those abandoned authors into the pariahs of the slush pile.)

Clearly it is not in the best interests of literary agents to represent writers whose book sales are likely to build only gradually—perhaps after a well-thought, positive review appears in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail or on a high-quality books blog, inspiring a few people to buy the book, read it, and then recommend it to other readers who will also recommend it. It can be years before a literary agent can start sucking a living out of a writer with a book like that. Frankly, who has time?

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There is no room for gourmet tastes or discerning palates in this system. Agents’ websites may trumpet their dedication to literary fiction, but what they really want is books that sell. These purveyors of literary costume jewelry seek out the kind of quirky but unsubstantial mental junk food that is as similar as possible to last season’s bestsellers—fiction that will sell quickly and widely by association with the almost-identical books that have preceded it. See last week’s best-seller list for an eloquent guide to this fad-based publishing system.

Since they know what they are looking for, literary agents are able to post tips and pointers on their websites and blog posts for the benefit of would-be clients: they want books that are going to get their immediate attention, impress them within the first five pages—books that are going to sell. (If you click through the links I have provided here, Dear Editor, you will become aware of a certain tone of disdain toward the target audience. This tone is very common among literary agents, who are doing their best to undermine the confidence of writers as a group. Please also note the fawning tone of the comments by the authors responding to these blogs. We have lost our self respect, I am afraid. We have learned to see ourselves as unworthy, stupid, and probably unclean. We’ve forgotten we’re the talent.)

Having set out what they do and do not want from writers, the agents then demand that we, their would-be clients, condense our novels into 300-word “pitches” that will convince them of the marketability of our books. (One might think that this would be the agent’s job—to develop pitches for the manuscripts by the writers they represent which they will then present to publishers. But no. That is not the way this system works.)

Next the agents engage “interns”—usually selected from among the wannabe writers enrolled in one of the creative-writing courses that proliferate at our universities and colleges—to read the queries that we, the writers, have written about our books. The interns measure our pitches against the criteria the agents have devised, find the disconnects, then write us our rejection letters. These interns don’t get paid, of course: they get credit for “work experience.”

The upshot is that fine fiction writers who are crappy copy-writers attempt to write fast-paced pitches about their own serious novels that will make those novels sound as much as possible like commercial drivel. Most of us aren’t very good at that (how do you describe The Road in 300 words and make it sound like a piquant coming-of-age story? Or A Confederacy of Dunces a sweet novel of redemption?) but we have no choice but to try. We submit our pitches in good faith by email or snail mail (depending on the dictates of the individual agent-god. They tell us how they want us to submit right on their websites!) where they are read by interns with little experience of literature or life, and are rejected.

Some of us have had our query letters rejected more than 50 times.

No one has asked to see our manuscripts.

Read any good Kafka lately?

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What, you may well wonder, do these agents do with all of the spare time they have carved out of their lives by creating query-letter formulae and “hiring” unpaid minions to reject the pitches that don’t meet their gutter-level standards? Well I can answer that question for you, too. They sit on their high horses and concoct blog posts, listing all the things that would-be clients have done to offend them in the past (such as describing their books as belonging to a genre that the agent does not believe exists, or writing a bigger paragraph than the agent is able to read: see http://www.queryshark.blogspot.com/ #84 and #97 respectively).

Occasionally, especially in groups, these snakes slither off their horses and coil up together in the grass, pour themselves a scotch, and forget to even attempt to conceal their contempt for writers. Several of them had a fine old time on Twitter one morning recently, mocking the efforts of inexperienced would-be-published authors to attempt to get their attention in a query letter. (Writer: “Keep in mind that this novel is a bit of my imagination …” Agent: “I’m just glad its [sic] not ALL of your imagination. #queryfail”; Writer: “Imagine a world where Camelot had never existed.” Agent: “Wow. You’re blowing my mind. #queryfail”; Agent: “Seriously? Your last name is ‘[insert unusual but real name]’? Oh, that will look awesome on a book jacket. #queryfail”; Writer: “I have designed a unique cover for my book.” Agent: “Unrealistic expectations #queryfail”; Writer: “How do I submit queries to you?” Agent: “Um, meta #queryfail.”)

Quite aside from the public ridicule, we have been belittled by agents personally, by phone (“Tell me about that other book you mentioned in your query. Keep in mind that I don’t want to hear your life story”) and by e-mail (Agent, March: “Love your book. Cut out 20,000 words and change this to that, and I’ll have another look at it.” Same agent, December: “I’m sorry. We did receive your revised manuscript in August, and we appreciate how much work you must have done. Unfortunately I’ve been sick and had to go to Frankfurt for the Book Fair, and I just haven’t had time to look at it again. In fact, I’m so busy at the moment, I think I’m just going to have to say No. I can’t take on any more clients at the moment.”) When we asked how to improve our pitches, they have told us not to mention the two or three books we have previously published because that makes us sound like “has-beens.” (For further reading on this subject, check out this  interview with “four young literary agents”, where you can learn among other things that submitting letters on pink paper is a clear indication of lack of literary talent.)

Amanda Urban is one of North America’s leading literary agents and one of those who does command respect for the quality of her clientele. (The few that are of her caliber, unfortunately, have “stables” already full of well respected, established writers, and they respond to query letters with an automated reply that says: “We are unable to take on any new clients at this time.”) Urban told an audience in Israel last year that in future, “Fewer books will be published, and those whom we call mid-list writers will no longer get published. The major writers will keep publishing, debut books will always be published, and the ones in the middle will have a problem.”

We’re losing at least one generation of writers here, Dear Editor.

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While it is true that there are a lot of very poor and/or inexperienced writers out there who can turn into real pests, the agents’ automated system is specifically set up to protect you from not only them, but us. The “mid-list” writers of which I am a part may be very poor at summing up manuscripts to make them sound like fluff, but we can sure as hell write fiction. We’ve been doing it for years. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this phenomenon just a few months ago in The New Yorker, in an article that explored the relationship between genius and precocity. He pointed out that many of the world’s most significant artists (among writers he mentions Elizabeth Bishop and MarkTwain) did not create their most important works until they had been practicing their art for many years.

It is not that the agents don’t know that we can write: they do. It’s just that they also know we won’t make any real money for them up front. They suspect we are more interested in finding audiences and writing books than we are in helping them pay their bills—that we might accept ridiculously reasonable advances rather than participating in extortion. They want us to go away.

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You, Dear Editor, are unknowingly complicit in this debacle. By refusing to accept direct submissions (just check your website! It says you will never accept a manuscript that is not submitted through an agent. It warns us that you will return our manuscripts unread if we try to foist them off on you! It even offers us helpful suggestions on how to find an agent—as though Google weren’t able to throw a hundred of them at us at a time!) you have become an unwitting accomplice to the devastation of the literary arts.

The agents have convinced you that the gated wall they built around you, to which they gave themselves the only key, allows them to protect you from hordes of grasping, pesky writers, a loathesome group they are willing to handle on your behalf in exchange for the opportunity to find the occasional wonderful new writing talent among them, which they promise to bring to you.

In fact the wall has made you a prisoner to their commercial tastes.

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There is a simple way around this. All you and your colleagues at the world’s leading publishing houses need to do is to acknowledge that there are nearly as many literary agents squirming around out there these days as there are writers, and that the agents add no value to the book-production process. They have the writers doing their sale pitches for them, and the interns doing the rest of their work. Their role consists entirely of driving up the cost to you of acquiring the few manuscripts that fit their formulae, and therefore padding the cost of each and every book. When it comes to pestering you, they have become as irritating as an unfiltered mass of writers. In this economic climate particularly, they are a luxury that neither you, the readers, nor the writers want—or can afford.

Publishing companies can “hire” unpaid interns too. You can tell those interns what you are looking for—real writers who are passionate about what they do, who have been working at their art for years and know the business, who understand that audiences  take time to grow and that books are expensive to produce, who appreciate the value of discerning editors, are looking to attract positive reviews from intelligent reviewers, and maybe snag some more awards, and to gradually build the appreciative critical mass of readers who will complete and affirm the value of their art.

By eliminating the agents, you will be able to reduce advances (including those you will still need to pay to the commercial writers) to sane and reasonable amounts, and you will get to publish some exciting new books while you are at it. The accounting department will thank you. Your own literature-loving heart will thank you.

The writers, of course, will also thank you. But the real winners will be the thousands of intelligent and discerning readers who will be permitted to discover a whole range of literary voices that, under the current system, they are never going to hear.

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