Ask the Agent: Why is everyone so upset?
This month I’m back to trying to get to all the questions people say they’d like to ask an agent, if they could just sit down with him or her for a few minutes and talk privately. In light of some of the notes Steve Oates, the VP of Marketing at Bethany House, shared on this blog last week, here are some questions that people have asked recently…
So are the low costs of e-books costing authors money?
Sure. (Expect to see a bunch of indie published authors tearing their hair out over this response, because they tend not to want to hear about economics, in my experience.) Okay, if a retailer sells a book for $20, the royalty paid to the author is higher than if the publishers sells it for $10. The average e-book is way down — many below $5, and often you’ll see a slug of books for 99 cents. That doesn’t leave much for an author. So earnings are down across the board, but they are more spread out among a wider group of authors — that makes it feel as though there’s more money being paid out. Economically, it’s not true. The overall sales numbers are fairly stable the past couple of years. So with all the low priced ebooks and mass market titles earning less per book, the overall income of authors is actually down.
Saying that doesn’t make me negative on indie publishing, by the way, and certainly not on genre publishing. Anyone who knows me or has read the blog for any length of time knows I have long been a fan of indie publishing, and I’ve represented a ton of category fiction. The concern is with the low price point, which has lowered the earnings of authors — particularly established authors. The argument is made that people want a deal, and low prices build readership by finding readers who will spend a dollar or two without even thinking about it. And, to be fair, some authors claim that they make up in volume what they would make from a higher priced book. There is some truth to that, though I tend to think it’s a limited argument. (Author: “I make more selling my ebooks than I did with my traditional publisher!” Friend: “Um… you were never traditionally published.” Author: “Oh… yeah.”) But sure, I’ll grant that some authors are now making money who were not making money before the advent of ebooks, so there’s an upside and a downside to everything. Still, at some point we have educated readers that they only need to spend a buck or two on a book, and that means we have devalued writing… and the bulk of the writers making significant money are the bestselling authors.
Chip, why were some people so viscerally upset by Mr. Oates blog posts? I mean, he’s a publisher, right? So isn’t he just offering the publisher’s perspective?
Steve Oates isn’t the publisher exactly, but he’s the VP of Marketing at Bethany House, and has a few decades of experience working in the world of publishing. So sure — you can expect anyone who has spent his life in that role to defend traditional publishing. The attacks were basically twofold: some questioned his credentials, which is downright stupid; others questioned his conclusions, apparently because they didn’t like them. I don’t get that (and, just so we’re clear, Steve Oates and I are not friends, nor are we in agreement on all of this). I think that having a debate about this stuff is important, which is why I have had people on both sides of this debate post on my blog. There’s value in learning what experienced people have to say, whether you agree with them or not. Steve’s main points, to me, were basically that (1) the market has shifted, (2) there’s been an influx of very inexpensive books, (3) we’re selling just as many books as ever, but they are selling for less money, and (4) that means authors and publishers are earning less. He made other points (the influence of Harlequin, the movement toward category fiction), but I’ve read and re-read his posts, and those seem to be his main theses.
I’m not sure what is so upsetting about a publisher coming on to say those things, but I’ve noted in the past that many indie authors feel they know more than those who work in the industry. (That’s a bold statement, but have a look at the comments from people. And let me ask you… If you had a publishing question to work on, who would you turn to for advice? An indie author who has had some success the past couple of years? Or an industry professional who has been working in publishing for more than twenty years?) Worse, I found people making wild accusations — including a couple people who said they “stopped reading after I saw something I disagreed with.” (Good grief. Who appointed you the Czar Of All Things?) And, of course, many people linked my name to the conclusions… once again proving an profound ignorance of journalism. (Steve actually wrote that post because he disagreed with my perspectives.) Anyway, it’s been interesting to see, and disappointing to feel the Trump/Hillary debate paralleled in all of this: attack anyone who disagrees with you, try to denigrate their character, get around like-minded folks and pat each other on the back instead of reaching out to try and understand the other side’s arguments. As I said, an interesting discussion.
I’m thinking of setting up my own publishing company. Do I need to trademark or copyright the company? Is there a contract template for doing that?
If you’re just doing it to keep the words “Amazon Publishing” off your title page, then create a business name, do a search to make sure the name & domain are available and not a copyright infringement, and start a bank account in the name of the company. In some states you’ll have to register the company name, so check your local laws, or talk with an attorney if you have greater legal questions. (For the record, I’m not an attorney, nor am I giving you legal advice. If you need legal advice, talk with a lawyer.) You can find people willing to sell you all sorts of business-planning materials, but most authors who start their own companies simply start them online with a domain name and a bank account.
Can you recommend an affordable entertainment lawyer (i.e., “one who doesn’t charge $400 per hour”) but is still credible? Or can you recommend someone to look over movie/TV rights contracts?
I won’t recommend anyone by name on the blog, but there are plenty of good attorneys who specialize in entertainment law and intellectual property rights. You’ll want someone in your state, so do some research online. The AAR keeps a list of people by state, by the way. I would say the one thing to look for is experience — make sure you’re talking with an attorney who has done movie contracts in the past, since entertainment law is tricky and the average guy doing wills and rental property agreements won’t know what he is doing. That said, many literary agents have experience with this, and might be able to help you with basic questions, and there are some “contract evaluation” companies that will review your paperwork for a flat fee.
How does a literary agent plan to make money with indie-published authors? I mean, if a writer is doing her own books on Amazon, and an agent is helping with things like planning and marketing and career strategies, how does the agent get paid?
There are several ways. First, the author might also do a deal with a traditional publisher, so the agent makes a standard commission. Second, the agent might help with things like Amazon deals, Smashword deals, movie rights, foreign rights, and other subsidiary rights, earning a commission on those. Third, the agent might arrange for services that are paid (though you have to be careful not to run afoul of AAR guidelines with that). Fourth (and something we’ve done here at MacGregor Literary), the agent may help authors set up a writing community, where authors in a genre band together to do books in a genre. The books look and feel like a line from a publishing house, but they are owned and operated by the authors as a sort of co-op. The agents role is either to foster it or to manage it. I see the value of indie publishing, and have long been a vocal supporter of it with the authors I represent. (And, in light of the recent argument here, I should point out that I love the folks at Harlequin, and have done countless deals with the various imprints over the years. I don’t denigrate Love Inspired novels, because in my experience Harlequin has done standout editorial and production work. They produce books people want to read, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. Just so you know.)
What do you project as the future possibilities with audio books?
I’ve talked about this several times recently. Audio books are exploding. Amazon bought Brilliance Audio just to make sure they had the capability of cornering the market on audio. More are being created and sold every year, and in a mobile society people are discovering the joy of hearing a well-read tale. The future is bright — but I think in the very near future we’ll all begin to see audio books as something completely different than print or e-books, just as movies are different from books. Audio offers its own experience, and I think it needs to begin to be viewed as a completely separate category of entertainment.
A couple years ago, you were touting the Google Book Settlement as the wave of the future, then it was challenged, and eventually the whole mess sort of disappeared. Can you tell me where that situation (of having Google control hundreds of thousands of out-of-print books) is now?
Sure — Google won. Hands down. It was a huge rights-grab by the company, they hired a plethora of lawyers, and they won in court (proving once again that the Obama administration was no friend of authors — they seemed willing to take the side of every freaking corporate entity that came along). Google now plans to make all those titles available, often for free, and everyone is hoping they’re going to treat authors fairly by not giving away the words others created. (Um… that’s a fool’s desire. Google is in this to make money and seize content so as to have control, and the hell with artists getting a fair shake.) The Authors Guild has proposed that Congress create a collective licensing organization — they have said, “something like ASCAP or BMI to deal with mass digitization and orphan books. Such an organization could pave the way for a true national digital library, but it would be limited in scope, just as ASCAP is.” In their letter to members a couple years ago, they noted that their key requests are that (1) authors get paid, (2) authors can say “no” and opt out if they want to, (3) this would be strictly for out-of-print books, and (4) there would be some sort of mediatory agency to handle disputes. Um… that didn’t exactly happen. I think the Obama administration responded by disseminating a photo of the Attorney General having drinks with the CEO’s of Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, and any other company who can buy their way into the White House. Do I sense that will change in a Trump White House? No. Mr Trump is a billionaire. I don’t think protecting the rights of small or out of print authors is anywhere on the agenda. (Um… yeah. I tend to think our government is not exactly looking after the little guy any more.)
It’s been a while since you shared anything crazy, Chip. What’s the worst query you’ve received recently?
“Dear Literary Agent – Prior to earth, our immortal Santa lived among the Tarwoos on the planet Tsixodi where male Tarwoos were called Manwoos and female Tarwoos were called Woos…” I kid you not. I also had a query about a fantasy novel where people get “a magical disease” which causes body parts to break off, fly around, and start talking — and the young lady in the story discovers “adventure and science” when “a detached talking penis…” Well, you get the idea. And, to top off this fun-filled trilogy, we received a proposal for what I can only guess is a crappy porn novel about two high schoolers that features “342 pages filled with numerous bazaar sexual escapades.” That’s right — “bazaar.” I assume that means the couple is having sex in an open-air market, but I didn’t bother to check it closely. I don’t think I’m old enough for bazaar sex.
Okay, I hope you find this helpful. I’m about to wrap up this blog, so things are going to change significantly!