I’m happy to report that my interview with Jeff Rivera is on The Huffington Post today. So click on over and learn how we view author’s works as investments, not “deals,” and how we Focus on Finance and the Future for our clients.
Archive for the ‘Agents’ Category
Aspiring book-deal-seekers are aggressively refining their query letters, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Here are two recent email queries that I received that demonstrate the energy with which people seek agents and want book deals. Notice: I didn’t say they were authors. What is becoming evident, is how focused and minimalist queries have become.
The first sender opened with this line: “Fiction books in general have always been and will continue to be a favorite in the world of books and reading.” That’s an exact quote. I replied that “fiction books are called novels,” and declined to pursue the query. I quickly got a snarky reply: “Didn’t ask for your critique on it – FICTION books in general are not necessarily NOVELS!”
This illustrates two key aspects of publishing today. First, people yearning for book-deals, presume that the act of submission is a demand for acceptance, not an invitation to critique. I guess I didn’t get the memo. Second, while not all fiction is of novel length, authors are generally picky about words, and always say what they mean. Book-deal-seekers really don’t know what books are or take the time to use the appropriate word for the idea they think they have.
My second example of the new minimalist query, is actually a composite one, inspired by this morning’s query for a collection of short biographies. The query sender was actually quite literate and sensible and proposed a not bad idea. But the query was formed of three parts:
1.) A pretty catchy title, 2.) a brief author bio and 3.) the request to “imagine a bestselling book here.” No hint of an approach to the topic or content was included.
This got me recalling an increasing number of novel queries I’ve seen in the past few months. These unhappy queries exhibit this pattern:
1.) A brief selection of familiar scenarios from the genre, or “important” themes, like isolation, grief or love, if the novel is literary.
2.) Micro character bios of the major characters and sometimes a list of the cities in which the action takes place.
3.) The exhortation to “imagine a great story here,” but no actual hint of a story or plot.
I decline this sort of query, because I don’t have time to look for unexpressed virtue in prose. Nor do I enquire at a Sushi Resturant if they serve fish. I expect the author and chef to know what they are about.
Sad to say, I’m also seeing this trend appear in published novels. Usually hot-genre, trendy novels, bought for marketing purposes by Publishers so they can have a certain kind of book on their lists. In the novel form, the appeal to the reader becomes: “imagine some great dialog here.”
I’m tempted to respond with: “Imagine wild-eyed appreciation for your work, which alas, we cannot take on for reasons totally unrelated to the words you wrote.”
Amazon will still allow customers to buy Macmillan titles from used book resellers as part of their partners program, but no longer displays the “Ships from and Sold by Amazon.com” text. The biggest impact is the elimination of royalty generating sales for authors on the web’s largest book retailer. The New York Times reports that the reason is the ongoing dispute between Amazon which wants to drive down the cost of e-books to $9.99, and publishers who want to hold up the price.
Technically Amazon is justified: book prices have risen due to increasing costs of manufacture and transport to place physical books on display in local bookstores. Ebooks have no cost of production, delivery or (shudder) returns. So ebooks don’t “need” to cost as much as paper books. Publishers, of course, don’t want to see revenues drop and want to continue the business-fiction that books are valued by the “format” of the book, rather than by the content. They are historically justified, because a hardcover costs more to produce than a paperback. But when there’s no physical object involved, the argument collapses. Alas, while my sensibility as an agent, makes me want to see strong, healthy publishers, there’s no good guy in this battle. And the only loser is the author.
Facilitators of delivery like Amazon and Apple don’t need the same margins as brick and mortar bookstores because they have no fixed costs for stores (not that Amazon doesn’t spend a lot of IT dollars on their computers). That’s why Apple’s iTunes and App stores have always passed 70% of the consumer price on to the rights holder. Amazon used to require 65% of the take for ebooks sold for the Kindle, but scared purple by the iPad, they dropped their share to match the Apple business model.
This fight, and the pulling of the Macmillan titles, is over the list price of the e-book. Publishers have been demanding agents and authors accept 15% of the ebook list price or sometimes a larger percent of the “Net receipts.” Our agency has been fighting the unfairness of publishers holding high percentages of e-book revenues for years. The problem is that 15% of the list price is not profitable for authors if business partners (say, Amazon and Macmillan) decide to price the e-book at $2.99. Likewise, the apparent niftiness of a 25% net receipts royalty is a bad deal if the delivery facilitator decides to collect 65% of the sale price, which Amazon used to do. Too many contracts have authors incomes tied to the publisher’s ability to artificially inflate the price of e-books; a fight I don’t think they can win.
It’s time to rethink the business model for publishing. Print runs are falling, even NYTimes bestsellers are being stocked in big chain bookstores in smaller quantities, and consumer spending is falling. Arguing over the wrong things for the wrong reasons and arguing against technological reality is not the way to improve the world. I’m concerned, but not worried; I love all the editors we work with and want them to have long careers, but my fiscal duty is to the cash flow of our authors. I think I’m the only literary agent who is also a computer software guy; someone who can edit books and refactor software. (They are very similar activities). I was in the BBN network control center the night the Internet, then called ARPAnet was first turned on. I’m pretty sure I’m the only agent with the iPad development system running on my laptop. All this e-book and web stuff is fun and it is not going away. So to Amazon and the Publishers, I want to say: stop fighting kids. The author, and agent–at least this one, is your friend. You can’t fool me; but you don’t have to.
The Ashley Grayson agency believes in the Berkshire Hathaway approach to business: we select our clients and their works as long term investments, not just for the drug-like rush from a hot sale. This year we will be more open about our approach, so read on to see how we think. And how you should be thinking about investing in yourself and your own works.
Last week, CNN Money ran an article derived from a new book by Professor Burton Malkiel (Princeton, economics) and author Charles Ellis, titled The Elements of Investing. For some reason, the article didn’t mention the publisher, which is Wiley. I haven’t read the book, but if it has even 10% more value than the article, it will be worth buying. While not new advice in any way, it’s smart. The 6 biggest investing mistakes should be read by every author. Click on the article title and enjoy the wisdom of Malkiel and Ellis (not our clients), which is all about finance and the stock market, but here are the key points, restated for authors.
The six biggest investing mistakes for authors are:
Surveys show that everyone feels he or she is above average in most things. Authors are no different. Authors develop real confidence over time as they master their voice and craft. New authors should not expect to get everything right with their first work but have no recovery plan when faced with the reality that their book needs more work. The biggest external sign of overconfidence is self-publishing. Self-publishing is a valid tool, but it is best wielded by an experienced author to achieve a financial target, not as a way to get noticed. If Big Experienced Publisher (or agent) doesn’t feel they can make money with a book, why does the author so frequently assume they can?
Following the herd
Herd following investors can make money, and their willingness to pay ever more for stocks drives up overall shareholder value, but there is a top to everything and the big rewards belong to those who get in before the stampede. Herd following investors are often said to subscribe to the “bigger fool” theory: If I will pay $100/share for this stock, some bigger fool will pay $115 and then I’ll sell. At the moment, the herd-following authors are frantically turning out sparkly vampire novels and DaVinci Code-type books. Some trend-following books will sell, but when the market is saturated, there will be no place for those books to go; and unlike the herd investor, they can’t unload their investment at $80/share because an author can’t get his or her time back
Knowing when to get in and when to get out is key to success in both stocks and books. Often tied to herd following, timing depends on what the author feels about the nature of his or her work. Timing is frequently a danger for non-fiction authors. Offering a truly unique book that’s way ahead of the buzz may produce the “there’s no category for that” response from publishers, while developing a book to join six other robust titles may fail because the category is over published. Generally, if the author feels the book is likely to lose value in the short term, it is not a good writing investment as a book, but it might be a hot blog.
Investors who are making the control mistake place too much faith in their system, be it day-trading, technical chart analysis or guru-newsletters promising hot bargains. Again, self-publishing teases authors with the illusion that with control of their sales, they can somehow outperform the big publishers at selling books. Our advice: don’t get obsesses with control. The author’s job is to write the book, not make the sales.
Even cautious investors who seek the security of funds and portfolios managed by certified professionals can end up with low yields or even losses if the management fees are too high. Authors have some protection in the standard 15% of agent commissions, but a dozen other pseudo-professions have arisen to suck up author assets: self-publishers,, publicity services, editorial coaches, and even fee-charging find-an-agent services. Good advice is always worth something, but paying for some information, like, “you are up in a balloon” doesn’t pay any return.
Stockbrokers make money on every trade whither you make or lose money. They want you to trade because they make money either way. Traditional agents are different, we only make money when you do. But faux agents who charge a marketing fee, representation contract fee or other fee still thrive. Be careful in who you work with, even if they are apparently working for you.
Here’s the really interesting part. The six big investing mistakes for publishers are exactly the same.
As I was looking at our agency equipment expenses for 2009 and planning new purchases I suddenly realized that printing has all but ceased in our offices. We now have more scanners than printers. We print something every week, but we scan something almost every day. Print devices are better than ever: better color, faster speeds, higher resolution, but there’s little reason any more for us to print documents. We read author’s works on-screen, on the Sony Reader or on the iPhones. We review and negotiate contracts by email attachments. Looking forward, I see more scanners for us. They free up so much time to think and space to shelve those wonderful published books that make us all some money and provide a comfy read.
This year we acquired a small USB-scanner that looks like a fat foot-ruler. It will (slowly) scan a legal page but we use it primarily to scan those pesky lunch receipts, the financial record of an agent’s favorite sales activity. They fill up your wallet or purse, and have to be sorted, recorded and accounted for taxes and such. But now we don’t have to fight the paper clutter. One scan, a bit of OCR and the computer will tell me when I was where with whom. Cool. But even before we have pulled all the benefit from this small scanner, I can now take a picture of the receipt right in the restaurant with my iPhone and a new type of product that turns your mobile phone camera into a scanner will eliminate several steps.
Increasingly, what you see is all you need to keep.