Restrictions Reflect Fear

Response to an Agent’s Advice about What NOT to Do when Querying

Published 12/11/2013

I’m not a big fan of restrictions, and that extends beyond being told what NOT to do.  I AM a fan of good advice, from wherever it may come.  When I read advice that screams of bias or is misleading in some way, I feel like I need to speak up.  As I was reading industry news this week, I came across a blog post written by a literary agent.  She listed three trends she’s seen as an agent that cause her and other agents to consider NOT taking on a new client.  I’d like to address those reasons here and tell you why I find them revealing and disturbing.

Before I start, let me say that this agent has every right to post whatever she wants.  I’m a proponent of free speech, including hers.  I’m not singling her out, and I don’t want my readers to hassle her for her opinions.  That’s just not cool.  I have no personal ax to grind with her or any other agent.  Anyone who wants to read the original article (and I would if I were reading this post, if for no other reason than to have all the facts at hand) can find it here.

I do think, however, that authors teetering on the traditional versus self-publishing fence ought to consider this agent’s words VERY carefully and dig a little deeper into the implications of her advice.  She’s not the only agent who feels the way she does, and therein lies what I see as an area of extreme importance for authors and aspiring authors.  Without further ado, I’ll dig into the meat of what prompts me to write this post.

The #3 piece of “baggage” the agent lists as a cause of concern when considering a new client is having worked with multiple agents in the past.  That concern seems legitimate to me.  I’d want to know if someone I was considering working on behalf of was particularly difficult to work with, and past history is a good indicator of future behavior.  To her credit, the agent does say that having broken away from other agents isn’t a dealbreaker, just a good point at which to ask “why.”  Fair enough.

In that same vein, I’d say that authors need to have similar concerns when considering whether they really want to work with an agent.  For instance, how many authors has the agent taken on but later broken away from, and why?  How many authors have initiated breaking up with the agent, and why?  I’m sure the agent would want to know if an author had “gone through” multiple agents, as she considers it a point of consideration in making an informed decision.  Is she (and other agents with the same concern) making similar information about previous working relationships available to authors considering signing with her?  If so, then she’s being very forthcoming and fair.  If not, why not?  Does she (and this is the general she, not this agent in particular) expect something she isn’t willing to reciprocate in a business relationship?

The #2 piece of “baggage” listed in the article is already having an agreement for a series [and/or] film deal.  This reason absolutely floors me every time I see it, as it strikes me as lacking entrepreneurial creativity, which would be a BIG reason for me to hesitate signing with an agent.  I’ve written about this kind of reasoning in a previous post because it doesn’t make a whit of sense to me.  I understand that an agent works for commission, and agents deserve to be paid for their work, just like anyone else.  If an author already has a deal, that means the agent didn’t sell the deal and make any commission off of that sale.  Who’s to say, however, that the agent can’t work out an agreement with the author to receive a lower percentage of commission to pick up working on behalf of the author for the already-signed contract(s)?   Is it just a matter of “that’s not how we’ve done it before, and it would be a paperwork nightmare?” If so, how silly to let a paperwork dilemma, which could easily be ironed out with a little creative energy and technology, dictate a business relationship.  Publishers and filmmakers don’t give two flips where royalties go after they’ve taken their cut.  The percentage is the percentage is the percentage in a contract, and if an author chooses to give part of his/her percentage to an agent, publishers and filmmakers couldn’t care less.  All that said, I wouldn’t advise an author to sign ANY contract without first consulting a lawyer who specializes in publishing and copyrights law, including a contract with an agent.

And this brings me to the #1 piece of “baggage” listed in the article: having already self-published.  The agent admits that taking on a previously self-published author makes her job more difficult because existing sales numbers could make publishers (who are only interested in sales) hesitant to invest in the writer’s work.  On this one, I call bullshit.

First, I’ll point to Hugh Howey, who started out as a self-publisher and later signed on with Kristen Nelson, who inked a massive deal for the print edition of Howey’s Wool.  Is Howey an exception among self-publishers?  Absolutely, and he’d be the first to say that his successes in self-publishing carried a heavy weight in the publisher’s decision to contract with him for print rights.  In that same light, I would argue that Ms. Nelson is an exception among agents.  She thought outside the box and actually went after Howey’s business, rather than the other way around.  The publisher also thought outside the box in taking on Howey.  After all, Howey was known for digitally published works, not print works.  That gamble has paid off for everyone involved.  So, rejecting a good work of literature because the author has self-published seems restrictive and more about an agent not wanting/being able to work harder to come up with a strong “spin” in the sales pitch to publishers than about sales potential.  Aren’t sales partially related to the efforts of marketing departments in the traditional publishing environment?  If not, why are those departments there at all, and why would an author sign with a traditional publisher if the publisher wasn’t willing to foot the bill for and implement a strong, creative marketing plan?

Secondly, while publishers are interested in sales, it’s not their only motivation for picking up a book and sending it out into the world.  Sure they’d like to make enormous profits off of it (seriously, who wouldn’t?!), but they’d also like to be known as the publisher who snagged THAT book….the one that told a beautiful story or redefined history or let loose upon the world a truth that changed everything after it.  Publishers are interested in books they deem worthy of their own legacies.  They’re interested in making money and staying alive as an industry BECAUSE they believe in the power of books and reading.

And finally, underlying the extended explanation for why self-publishing is a major cause of concern in taking on an author is an attitude that promotes divisiveness and is full of derision and unspoken threat.  To be fair, I’m going to quote one passage (italics mine):

But there is a difference between “just getting your book out there” (self-pub) and having a structured business plan that includes a marketing budget, a publicity plan, and a professional editor and cover designer (indie pub).

The quoted definition of self-publishing is naïve at best and divisive at worst.  I’d call myself a self-publisher, and yet, I employ all four of the aspects of getting out a good book that this agent lists under the category of “indie pub.”  I could name a hundred other self-published authors who do the same thing.  Some of them have quit their “day jobs” because they can live off what they make as self-publishers.  They ARE professionals.

The quoted distinction between self- and indie-publishing assumes that self-publishers produce lower quality products than do indie publishers and (not outrightly said but certainly implied) traditional publishers.  That’s just pure bullshit, and it falls back on the old stereotypes of self-published books being books nobody else wants.  In fact, most self-published works haven’t even been offered through traditional routes.  Are there SOME self-publishers who put out low-quality work?  Absolutely, and those self-publishers will fall by the wayside, presenting no competition to high-quality works from any kind of publisher.  Readers will insist on that.  The same can be said for both of the other types of publishers (according to the agent’s definitions).  I’ve seen horrible cover designs, text that’s riddled with errors, and stumbled on books that I’d never seen a single advertisement for ANYWHERE, and in all those cases, the books were published through traditional publishers.  I even have an acquaintance who had to go to court to get her books recalled because the traditional publisher sent them out with tons of errors that were introduced in the last stage of THEIR production process.  The author won that lawsuit, got her books recalled, and got back her copyrights so she could publish it herself (or find another publisher).  So, frankly, don’t give me the “self-pubbed books are shite” crapola as if all traditional books are examples of perfect editorial, graphic design, and production processes.  The word ALL (though it was implied not stated) applied to self-published books is insulting and highly inaccurate.

The same vendors who work for traditional publishers also work for self-publishers.  Does the quality of those vendors’ work change according to who is signing the check?  Not that I can tell, and in fact, because self-publishers often cite in the frontmatter the names of their cover designers, editors, and other production vendors (while traditional publishers rarely do), one could argue that those vendors might put even more effort into their roles in the production chain of self-published works than they would in works where they aren’t even acknowledged.  Additionally, since there are a lot more self-publishing contracts up for grabs than there are traditional ones, wouldn’t a vendor work especially hard to get his/her name known as a high-quality vendor in hopes of landing some of those contracts?  If I were a vendor, I certainly wouldn’t let that opportunity pass without giving it my best effort!

In the closing of the original article, the agent notes that “baggage” is reason for pause, but not always a determining factor, even though both she and other agents HAVE rejected manuscripts and not signed an author for those very reasons.  After reading some of the comments posted in response to the article, it seems to me that the possibility of being later rejected by an agent and, thus, never getting into the traditional publishing loop, frightened some writers.  For me, it seemed like an implied threat being held over the heads of those who might self-publish instead of seeking the traditional route, and the reactions of some of the commenters would seem to suggest that I wasn’t the only one who read it that way.  Threats disturb me because they seek to restrict someone’s actions.  They feel like bullying, and bullying pisses me off.

One of the outcomes of this attitude is one I’m not sure agents would welcome.  Placing this kind of restriction on an author encourages the use of pen names for agent submissions.  Personally, I wouldn’t be less than completely honest and open about my previous work if I approached an agent or publisher.  That’s just how I’m drawn: I’m WYSIWYG.  There are some authors, however, who believe that what they’ve done under another name/genre isn’t anyone else’s business and isn’t relevant to their current projects.  I don’t feel the same way, but I also don’t judge that attitude as unethical either.  I honestly can understand why those authors would just blow off the bullshit and circumvent a system that openly seeks to restrict them.  And it is bullshit.

Name recognition is critical in publishing.  If you don’t believe that, ask yourself why sales of J.K.Rowling’s latest novel skyrocketed once the word got out that she was the author of a book that had much lower sales up until the disclosure.  I’d say that “aspiring author” doesn’t have the same clout as “author,” just as “Robert Galbraith” doesn’t have the same clout as “J.K. Rowling.”

At every turn, authors are told to grow a following because they’ll need one when it comes time to market a book (no matter the publishing route).  One of the best ways to grow a following is to produce high-quality content and share it with the public.  If that content happens to be something novella- or novel-length, then an author may want to recover some of the production costs.  Traditional publishers do that in their own way.  It’s called an “advance.”  Authors don’t accrue any royalties until their earned royalties from sales exceed the advances they’ve received, which is, in a sense, a production cost for the traditional publisher, as it’s the cost of purchasing the right to publish the content.  Yet, in the article, there’s a potential penalty for a self-publisher following the same business practice?  That’s pure bullshit because it’s a double standard.  One would think that a business-savvy author with some experience in the publishing industry and a following (even if it’s hundreds or thousands, not tens or hundreds of thousands) would be an asset, not a burden, to any agent/publisher.  It’s a start on marketing and promotion that a traditional publisher expects an author to participate in fully.

There is an unspoken logic that’s simply ignored in the original article, and it’s one that fence-riding authors should give some serious consideration:

1.  When the market has more options, publishers invest more often in books they think will sell a lot of copies and less often in books they think will be mid-list sellers.

2.  Most books, in all publishing schemes, are mid-list sellers or below.

3. Thus, self-publishing, which offers more options to readers, has a direct impact on the sales of traditionally published books, particularly mid-list sellers.

4.  Agents make money when they sell books to publishers.

5.  If there are fewer opportunities for publishing mid-list sellers, agents make less money.

6.  Hence, agents stand to make more money if they discourage new authors from self-publishing, even if they aren’t interested in contracting with them.

In short, self-publishers pose a threat to the incomes of agents, even indirectly.  I’d say it’s a good bet that most self-publishers don’t go that route just to deprive agents of 15% of royalties, but they do, nonetheless.  They’ve cut out one of the middlemen in the publishing chain.

The new “hybrid” authors the agent talks about having on her client list aren’t a threat because those authors are publishing and selling books the agent can’t/doesn’t want to sell while also supplying the agent with books s/he can/wants to sell.  The agent doesn’t say what the fees for “helping” those authors are, and it isn’t my personal business, so I won’t speculate about it.  If they’re actually doing work for the authors, then they should be compensated fairly for that work.  If the agent told a hybrid author that “self-publishing” was “baggage” that gave her pause for working with him/her, my guess is that the hybrid author would find a new agent, and that’s exactly why the agent doesn’t say that to the already-signed author who decides to regain copyrights on backlist books and self-publish them or self-publish a book for his/her own reasons, including that the agent may not want to or doesn’t think s/he can sell that particular book.  Telling a client who is a hybrid author that self-publishing is “baggage” would be cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

It’s so much easier and more profitable to cut off the nose of someone who isn’t paying you and, in fact, may be responsible for a reduction in your income.  According to the agent’s definition, a hybrid author is one who first traditionally publishes and then self-publishes.  Why not think outside the box and consider the obverse sequence as an equally valid definition of “hybrid author?”  After all, Hugh Howey is a hybrid author, and he did it the other way around.  The answer seems pretty obvious to me.

Restrictions hold the masses at bay, and less competition means greater market share, which means more for those who work within a status quo.  It’s also much easier, and that word is used intentionally, to bolster a restrictive definition than to step up and redefine something.  Or is it?  Maybe someone should ask Kristen Nelson and Hugh Howey about that.

Mo Attitude Take-Away:  Restrictions are intended to induce fear and control.  Self-publishing isn’t “baggage.”  It’s damned hard, honest work.  Be proud of that, not cowering in the corner.  That’s where fear-mongers want you to be because that takes you out of the competition.