On Writing,  publishing

The New World of Publishing: A Return to the Past

A Look Back at January 11, 2011

That’s right, I wrote the following post on January 11, 2011, talking some about the coming war between writers and the problems with the future of agents. I was looking back at some old posts to clean them out and stumbled on this and was stunned. I remember warning people of the coming war between writers and getting laughed at.

Not sure anyone is laughing anymore, sadly.

Take a look back at 2011.  Anything I put in (Bold Italics is a comment I have added tonight.)


Okay, time to talk about agents and their future in this changing world.

Mary Kole, who I do not know, and who seems fairly smart, works (or worked… didn’t bother to check because I honestly don’t care) at Andrea Brown Literary Agency. On the Digital Book World site (link is gone…sorry), she talked about her opinions of what the agent’s role will be going into the future.

I read it and shuddered, to be honest. Then I went back and actually tried to figure out why I had such an adverse reaction to some very logical thoughts by this agent. (In January 2011 I was still doing some traditional books as well as Indie books and I had only been away from agents for two years.)

Agent Mary Kole argues that agents will become packagers, doing “editorial work, marketing consultation, design, etc.” She thinks that agents will have a “more active hand in … reaching market-ready status.”

Okay, let me simply say for me, NO!!  But that is only for me and as I have pounded home over and over, every writer is different. But that said, I have no respect for the writers who want to be taken care of by agents, who let total strangers take over all their money and their careers and let total strangers stop them from writing what they want to write. I have made that clear.

Yet 95% of the writers coming in today want someone to take care of them. (Remember, I wrote this in January, 2011. I’m betting that number is down some now. Might be closer to only 75%.) And what this agent is talking about is a direct extension of that. Direct. So from her point of view, agents taking care of writers even more makes sense. (I shuddered, but many will not because they will look at that and say, “Oh, good, I don’t have to learn anything or work.”)

Then this agent goes on to get opinions from other agents on this topic. One other agent, Nathan Bransford
(gave up agenting but still blogs), sees agents becoming two types, one with bestsellers and one with no bestsellers. (I see a third, the scam agents, but we won’t go into that here.) He says the lower-level agents will act as “managers, consultants, and publicists to help their clients navigate small presses and self-publishing.”

What he didn’t say, of course, is that the agents will also take 15% or more of that. Often much more, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

And that has already started. For example, Richard Curtis has a company already publishing and packaging his clients backlist and taking a ton more than 15% (He sold the business in 2013).  So, of course the writers who want someone to take care of them will flock to those types and give away vast sums of money for almost no work. (Sort of like what’s happening in today’s world with agents. I often gave my agent thousands of dollars for making one phone call and then having her accounting department forward checks.)(I never said I was smart.)

Bransford goes on to say that it’s going to be hard for agents to make money unless one of their clients take off, meaning becomes a bestseller. (Yup, the agency model is failing for anyone but the top agents with the top bestselling writers. We can all see that. Duh.) Brandsford thinks the small agents will have to invent new ways to “earn their keep.” (Again, duh.)

Then Mary Kole really made me shudder when she said agents should treat every new client as a tech start-up. She thinks that writers are going to have “start-up” costs, and she thinks agents will need to learn how to do all the technology and understand it, and explore what makes a good app. And that agents should “develop new properties,” and that “the review-sharing model for the agent/client relationship might also change…” And then she gave me a real kick in the stomach when she said, …”especially for properties developed mutually.”

She thinks that writers and agents will be collaborators. (Or, as she said earlier, agent as packager.)

Okay, now I admit that over the last two years I have really gotten jaded about agents and their position in publishing. (From 2009 to 2011) And I’ve gotten flat angry at stupid writers letting the agents take over. But what this very smart woman is talking about is logical and clear and well-thought out from the point of view of an agent.

She is talking about how agents are going to dig themselves into this new world of writers, even though honestly from my opinion, they are not needed at all. She is writing an article about how agents are going to take our work, writer’s work, and make it their work and collaborate and “help” writers get it up on the right place.

There was absolutely nothing at all wrong with what this agent said. All logical. All fine from an agent’s point of view.

But from a professional writer’s point of view, I wanted to run screaming into the night when I read that. (And still do.)

Here are My Reason’s Why I Had That Reaction

I have fought for years to keep people out of my office and my head. I want to create what I want to create. I don’t need help. I do need to keep learning and get better at my craft, but I don’t need help in the creation process, and with computers.

And I don’t need help getting my work to any place I want to get it to.

I can publish my own work electronically.

I can publish my own work directly to books and get them in just about all stores.

I can mail my own manuscripts to traditional publishers.

I can negotiate my own contract with a traditional publisher or hire (for very little money) an IP attorney to do it.

I even know how to have an app created if I wanted to spend the money for an app for say Poker Boy. Not that expensive, actually.

So why do I need an agent?

Why do I need to give anything away?

I can learn all this new technology just as fast as any agent, maybe faster. I can ask questions just as well of other writers and friends. And why do I need an agent’s voice in my office telling me what I can write or can’t write?

Okay, granted, I have been working at learning computers, and programs, and helping to set up an electronic publishing business for just under two years now. (Yes, I said only two years. I used to think that computers might blow up if I copied and pasted something. Not kidding.) So maybe I am out ahead of others who are just coming to this stuff. Maybe a few months, a few learning curves is all. Not far. And since I have been working on this for almost two years, I am light years ahead of most agents who didn’t even see a problem until this last summer or fall.

(The business I mentioned there that I was doing indie now has over 450 titles and seven employees three-and-a-half years later.)

Okay, granted, I like to have control of my own money and my own business. I know many people can’t be bothered with taking control of their own money. Just call me old-fashioned in that way.

So I am different. And I do understand where this agent in her well-reasoned piece is coming from. She’s trying to reassure the writers who want to be taken care of that her job isn’t going away and she can help them, even though I doubt she has ever put one novel up electronically anywhere for any writer. (I don’t know that for a fact, but I would bet…)

Again, all this is logical from her position. Anyone in her spot would start figuring out ways to defend their job. (Why do I keep hearing Mel Brook’s voice in Blazing Saddles when I say that?)

So I read the article and just shuddered because the well-written article by this agent made it clear to me that the agent problem in writing isn’t going away with the increase of electronic publishing.

It’s going to get worse! Much, much worse!

(Remember 2014 readers, I wrote this in January 2011.)

Now we are going to have unlicensed, unregulated strangers not only taking all writers’ money and paperwork, but getting it deposited electronically into their accounts.

Now agents are going to start to claim ownership in a work, claim ownership in covers in packages sold to publishers, claim ownership in layout of manuscripts sent to publishers.

Folks, in case you have never worked with a packager (I have, numbers of them, actually), they tend to get 50% of the gross after expenses (such as covers, design, and so on), which mean you will be getting 50% of net from your agent instead of 85% of gross of the payments from a traditional publisher as has been the rate in the past, or 70% of gross if you publish the book electronically yourself. (Of course, publisher payment is after they take their 85%, but we all know the math of all that now.)

That’s what agent Mary Kole and other agents are after and why I was shuddering. Most writers are so stupid, with time they will go for that while the agents swear they are helping them.

That’s right, mark my words, writers will give agents 50% of net instead of 85% of the money they get from a publisher very shortly.

Yup, the agents will be helping them right out of over half of their money.

See why this article made me shudder? The agent issues are not going away.

They are getting worse.

And writers are going to let it happen.

What I See Coming…

Okay, let me get out my short-term crystal ball and take a look at the near future. Here are a few predictions, not fun, but what I see happening in relationship to writers and agents, from the writer’s point of view.

— Writers Splitting into Two Factions

There will become two groups of writers, both defending their way of doing things in very angry arguments. We have already seen small flashes of this with some indie writers and traditional-published writers. Each group looks suspect at the other. That divide will change and sharpen dramatically over the next few years. (Holy smokes, hit that one on the head.)

Those of us who want control and don’t want agents as collaborators will lean more and more toward the indie publishing side. Those who want to be taken care of will flock to the new way of agents. So the fight won’t be indie writer vs traditional writer, it will be indie writer vs agented writer. And it will get ugly at times. Mark my words. (Uhh, yah.)

— Scams will Explode

The horror stories of bad treatment by agents is well documented in the comments of Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing, but I don’t think we can even imagine the explosion in numbers of scams and writers getting taken by agents. Agents, many agents, are going to be desperate to stay alive and in business as things turn in the next few years.

You think it was hard to trace money from a traditional publisher before, this new world of electronic publishing makes that old way look simple. Remember, anyone with a business card can become an agent. No rules, no regulations. And a lot of money at stake.

— Electronic and POD  Self (or Small) Publishing Will Be the New Entry Path to Traditional Publishing

Right now agents, because they have been given the slush piles by publishers, think they control most of the content going to traditional publishers. But in short order, electronic publishing sales of indie-writers will bring traditional publishers and movie producers and games designers and so much more flocking to them. (That happened for a short time, but indie writers got smart and started saying no.)

The top indie-selling books in another year will be like flames drawing in the companies who want to jump on board. This is only starting to happen and it will go around agents. Some agents will also be attracted to the bright lights of the top sellers, but with luck, those writers will turn those agents away. (Nope, sadly many indie writers signed on with agents because of belief in myths like you need an agent to sell translation rights.)

In this process over the next five to ten years, the slush pile will almost vanish as we know it now and editors will go mostly to solicited novels, either from agents who have published their clients work or from indie publishers.

It will be easier for an editor to be aware of a book and go read it than for it ever to be sent in to an editor. Possibly “future slush piles” could be simple letters giving a pitch on the book and a coupon for the editor to read it for free and take a look at the overall package. And editors will be able to look at a platform of sales. (But what I didn’t see was indie writers not bothering at all with traditional publishing after realizing they like the freedom and the extra money. I missed that one.)

Note: This is the exact same packaging approach agent Mary Kole in her article was talking about. Editors and publishers will be looking for more completely finished books. Complete packages.

So agents will package and sell and take most of the money, or indie writers will package and sell their own work and keep most of the money. Either way, the slush pile as we know it now will be vanishing for the most part as publishers look for more complete packages instead of just manuscripts. That part I agree with Mary about.

— Writers as a Class Will Start to Regain Power in their Own Minds.

Writers have always been in control, but for some reason as a class we sort of have forgotten. Writers let agents get away with what they do, we let publishers take what they take. As a group, we run everything in publishing, but our problem is that we first don’t believe it. And second, we never agree to band together to stop anything.

For example, even with all the scams and money vanishing without a trace to agents, writers could have forced agents into some sort of regulation and oversight. But, of course, we did not. Writers individually always believe that it is the other agents who are ripping people off, never their own agent.

But this coming clash between the writers with agent packagers and writers who do it all themselves will cause a general shift in writers starting to take control again. Indie writers are already all over the boards screaming about this “control” issue (even though they are falsely aiming it at traditional publishers at the moment). This control issue is not with publishers. It is with other writers giving it up and letting others do all the work. Writers, through contracts, control what they give away or don’t give away to a traditional publisher.

Another sign of the control returning will be more and more writers willing to walk away from traditional deals offered. When a writer understands how much money they can make by publishing it themselves, it’s going to be harder and harder for a traditional publisher to compete. This newly realized ability to walk away from offers will also start increasing the general sense of writer power. (Holy smokes, got this one right way back in January 2011.)

As more and more writers start to realize the power of indie publishing and the money that can be made, the more the split between the two groups of writers will happen. (Yup.)

And then as more writers get scammed or realize that they are giving away over half of their money to an agent packager, the larger the “take control” movement will be.

Writers over the next five to ten years will again start to believe that they have control. (Happening faster than I thought it would, thankfully.)

So What is the Upshot of All This?

The article from the agent Mary Kole that started this is very clear and logical and solid from the agent’s point of view.

But she has a very disturbing underlying assumption.  She believes that writers want to be taken care of and won’t mind sharing and collaborating and giving more money away.

She’s right for some writers. Many writers won’t mind. Many writers will think they need the help, will buy into the myths that using an agent or agent-as-packager is the only way. Thus this growing movement of indie writers doing it all themselves, including selling to traditional publishers will split professional fiction writers into two major camps. Indie writers and agent/packaged (take care of me) writers.

The battle is just starting. It won’t settle out until long after this electronic revolution in publishing is done and mostly leveled out. And that’s going to be years.

And those of us who hoped that the electronic publishing revolution would kill most of the writer/agent model of publishing have been wrong. It’s just going to change it to agent-as-packager model.

And for writers, that’s a ton worse in so many ways.

(Again, I wrote the above in January of 2011… Thought it would be fun to bring it to the present to see how things are going.)