BY CHIP MACGREGOR
I’m one of those agents who believes in the future of publishing. I respect the past, but I understand that the old way of doing things won’t work today — everything has changed, we’re in a state of revolution, and people who want to make a living in this business will have to adapt or die. I know that’s true of agents, who must change the way they’re doing things if they expect to make a living in 2014. I think that’s true of publishers, who are big and successful for a reason, and who will continue to try to change their models to remain in business and make money. And I believe it’s also true of authors, who simply have to accept the world has changed and look to the future with a new plan.
The old plan for most authors was clear: write a great book, find an agent, and let him help you land a deal with a publisher. Most authors relied on an advance to make a living, and the full-timers tended to live from one advance check to the next. Royalties were great, when they showed up once or twice per year, but could barely be counted on. The power was in the hands of publishers, and there were a number of middlemen (distributors, retailers, agents) intruding on much of a relationship that SEEMED like it should have been simply “author-to-reader.” In that old system, the roles were clear: the authors wrote books, the agents negotiated books, the publishers produced books, the marketers promoted books, the distributors provided books, and the retailers sold books. Sometimes it didn’t seem fair — as though the authors who were churning out the art didn’t have much control, and were at the mercy of a sometimes fickle or arbitrary system.
Then things changed. Amazon came along and, in essence, removed many of the middlemen. An author could take his or her book, make it available on Amazon, and go directly to readers — to some that meant bypassing the agents, the publishers, the marketers, and the distributors. The number of books releasing grew considerably (one study revealed the number of new titles releasing went from 120,000 new books to 250,000 new books, in just one year). That began a surge of growth in self-publishing. There were suddenly a wave of new titles, and as readers began to change their buying habits, retailers began to feel the pinch that came from going up against an online retailer. When Amazon released the Kindle, ebooks really took hold, and everything changed again. A writer no longer had to learn a long process for creating his or her own book — he or she could simply take the manuscript and make it available almost instantly on Amazon in digital format. And with that, everything in publishing was new . . . the way books are written, edited, contracted, designed, produced, distributed, marketed, and sold have all changed over the past eight years. Most of those processes have been completely revolutionized.
In the new publishing world, authors have more control over their manuscripts . . . but they also have more responsibilities. They still have to know how to write, but now they have to know how to market and sell their books (those are two different skills, by the way). In addition, they have to know how to map out their careers, and get a handle on the finances of publishing. It’s why I tell authors they have to view their writing as a business, not just an art, if they intend to make a living at it. From my perspective, everything the author does is aimed at growing the business, whether that means bigger stories, a greater platform, a deeper niche, or a more important project. His or her most important job is still to write, but to be successful in the current publishing culture that means to write words that will sell, and to have the acumen to see how best to grow the business through great writing matched with effective marketing strategies.
The role of the agent has also been changed (in fact, I’d argue it’s barely the same task as when I started agenting full time 16 years ago). The agent’s job is to represent the author, and give him or her the guidance needed to succeed in this business. So agents often serve as business managers and career development specialists, helping authors know the right books, the right venues, and the right choices to make. We sometimes serve as story assistants or editorial advisors, occasionally as “publishing introducers,” frequently as e-book consultants, and nearly always as contract experts. More and more we have become marketing specialists. But everything the agent does is with a view toward guiding the author into bigger career success, and that means having some sense of what’s going on in the market and how to capitalize on it.
In many ways the job of the publisher has changed, but it is largely a technological change. Editing is done on-screen, covers are created digitally instead of on paper, and the book’s production is done via a computer instead of steel plates. There have been huge changes in the way books are marketed and sold, but in many ways the role of the publisher remains the same — to produce books and get them out to as many potential readers as possible.
I mention all that because there’s a myth out there taking hold, that authors don’t need anyone else — they don’t need agents or editors or publishers or marketing specialists. That all a writer must do in order to succeed is bang out some words and post them on Amazon, and the rest will take care of itself. These are the “self-publishing as Amway” types. You’ll remember Amway . . . back in the 80’s and 90’s, there was a rush of people pushing all of us into multi-level-marketing schemes. The promise was simple: “You just sign up your friends, and they’ll sign up their friends, and soon you’ll have a huge downline, making a bit of money off each sale, and the dollars will come rolling in!” It sounded great . . . but it didn’t work. We signed on, paid our fees, talked to our friends, but no matter how much we tried, and no matter how many upbeat meetings we went to, the big money never really arrived. That’s been the allure of Amazon — “just post your book, and readers will buy it, and soon you’ll be getting checks!” To buttress that argument, some people are citing a recent Amazon study that notes there have been 150 authors who have sold more than 100,000 copies on Amazon’s Kindle Direct program.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe in self-publishing. I encourage the authors I represent to self-publsh, and try to help them achieve that. I think Amazon is great. And it’s become clear that, for all but the A-level authors, the days of living from one advance check to the next are over. Any good working author these days needs to consider the exposure a traditional publisher can offer him or her to go wide, but must also talk with a niche publisher to go deep with a group of dedicated readers, AND must consider self-publishing in order to maximize income. We’re helping the authors we represent to work with legacy publishers AND self-publish their out-of-print books, as well as to create a career plan to strategically self-publish new books. But those who make it sound like self-publishing is the only way to succeed don’t know what they’re talking about.
There are now more than twelve MILLION books for sale on Amazon. Makes it a bit tough to stand out, when you consider the vast number of titles. And while it’s hard to know an exact number, we think roughly eight million of those are self-published titled. More than a million people have posted a book for sale on the site. A few are making a living at it. 150 authors have sold more than 100,000 copies. Um . . . do the math. More than a million authors; 150 who hit it big on KDP. There are plenty of others who have sold some copies and done well (again, we’re very supportive of the authors we represent self-publishing their books as part of an overall career plan), but it’s not as simple as “post it and watch the money flow in.” And simply posting it on your author website may not help you much, unless you have an inordinate amount of visitors to your site. If you treat writing as a business, you’ll know that having some wise and experienced people assist you is generally a good thing. So maybe getting help with titles, cover design, book layout, editing, marketing, contracts, accounting, and an overall career strategy isn’t such a bad idea.
Look, depending on who you talk to, ebooks comprise roughly 23% to 40% of all book sales. And while everybody feels digital books are the wave of the future, right now ebook sales for Big Six publishers are flat. So while I believe online retailing is a great tool, the days of saying book sales are going to be 50% print and 50% digital are still a ways off, because people keep buying printed books. So clearly authors in today’s publishing economy need to look at things in a new way. They need to consider posting their own ebooks, but not give up on the print market, since it’s still currently about two-thirds of the overall book world. They need to consider talking with editors and artists who can help them create a better product, whether it’s self-published or released by a traditional publishing house. The bulk of writers need to admit, even grudgingly, that publishers are in the business because they love books, and perhaps know more about selling books than most authors do. Many need to admit they could use some specialized help when it comes to marketing, since standing out in a crowd of twelve million is a tough task. And some need to talk with a good agent, who can help them map out a plan, so they’re not simply “dropping and dreaming” (that is, dropping their book onto Amazon and hoping wildly for uncommon success).
The writing business isn’t multi-level marketing. It’s creating good art, then finding the best ways to get it in front of readers who will buy it. To do that well, you may want to consider talking with people who have been successful in the business.