Monday, May 14, 2012

Agent Fail

This morning I was alerted to a big mistake lit agent Scott Eagan made, and then his humorous attempt to cover it up by deleting it, all documented nicely here at Passive Guy's blog. (See, Scott? It's important on the Internet to LINK to posts you reference.)

I was going to spend the morning excoriating the moron, but the commentors at Passive Voice have done an admirable job already, meaning I didn't need to draw extra attention to the stupid things he said.

So instead I'm going to draw attention to the stupid things agent Steve Laube says in his post Goodbye to Traditional Publishing?.

Steve's nonsense in italics, my responses in bold.

Recently Ann Voss Peterson wrote of her decision to never sign another contract with Harlequin. One major statistic from the article is that she sold 170,000 copies of a book but earned only $20,000.
Multiple clients sent me Peterson’s “Harlequin Fail” article and wanted my opinion. My first thought is that this was the typical “a publisher is ripping me off” fodder. But that would be a simplistic and knee-jerk reaction and unfair to both Peterson and Harlequin.
Joe sez: Hmm. What if I said this was typical "agents siding with publishers" fodder?
Well, I'd be right. More and more agents are siding with publishers. Because publishers are who pay them, and if all authors begin to self-publish then agents will be out of business. So, as much as it is a conflict of interest for an agent to side with a publisher, I can understand why agents are doing so, wrong as they may be.
If the plea of "a publisher is ripping me off" is fodder, I'd like to see links to those posts you're alluding to so I may scrutinize their veracity. Because publishers ARE being very unfair to writers, as I've shown many times
As an agent, shouldn't you care that this is happening? Why are so many authors saying this? With all that fodder, should this be a topic you casually dismiss?
Yes, Harlequin pays a modest royalty that is less than some publishers. Since when is that news? That has always been their business model because it is the only way to create and maintain an aggressive Direct-to-Consumer and Trade publishing program. Their publishing machine is huge and they are a “for profit” company. For Profit. If they are unprofitable, they go away.
Joe sez: See this? Everyone look closely! This is a rope! Everyone look at this rope that I'm holding up! Now watch what happens next! 
If an author is uncomfortable with the terms, then don’t sign the contract (which is Peterson’s decision going forward). I urge each of you to be careful not to sign a contract and then complain about it later. Unless you were completely hoodwinked you agreed to those terms and should abide by them.
Joe sez: I agree. Ann could have refused to sign the contract, and instead gone to work in a factory with unsafe conditions where employees have no benefits and are paid pennies.
This is called exploitation. It happens when companies try to make profits at the expense of another person's labor without paying them adequate compensation.
I think we can all agree that exploitation is a bad thing, whether the person signed up to work in an unsafe factory, or promised to work off their passage to America from a foreign country, or got 2.4% royalties on a book that sold 180,000 copies. 
Understand that I am not being critical of this lady’s decision. It is her choice to do so.
Joe sez: This is called Blaming the Victim. It's when people are partially blamed for their own maltreatment. Because you ARE being critical. That is the point of your blog post.
For the record, Ann didn't complain. She simply expressed sadness. Like I can express sadness about the 600,000 homeless people in America. Sure, there are homeless! Since when is that news? Why should we try to change anything or do anything about it?

BTW, click here to donate to a charity to help end homelessness
But my issue is not with the money (although it is important) it is a larger question. She says she has sold 170,000 books but not made that much money. For the record Peterson has signed with Thomas Mercer which is one of the publishing divisions of Amazon.com…a traditional publisher of sorts, so she may still reach a 100,000 plus audience. So is it all about the money and not about number of readers? If Peterson had chosen to go Indie (solo) and published using the e-book option (like the Kindle Direct Program) and sold 10,000 copies she would make the same amount of money. BUT she would have 160,000 fewer readers! One Hundred and Sixty Thousand.
Joe sez: Everyone remember that rope from earlier? This is what happens when someone brings a noose to their own hanging. It's funny, and sad, all at once.
Steve, you said earlier that Harlequin's publishing machine is a huge "for profit" company. 
I may be wrong, but it's my guess that many writers, Ann included, cite writing as their job. A job is "for profit" isn't it? That's why they list it as such on their income taxes, and have to pay the IRS. It certainly isn't for altruism, or to help mankind, or to fulfill some hidden inner fetish to lick a piece of paper with her name on it.
Ann is in this for the same reason Harlequin is: to make money. That's what professional writers do.
Are you a professional agent, Steve? I've never heard of you before, but a cursory surfing of your website shows you do accept queries. So here is a serious question: would you represent a writer for 2.4% commission?
Maybe you would. Maybe you wouldn't. But what if every writer you repped demanded that you only accept 2.4%? What if the only writers you could work with were those who said, "You get 2.4% and that's all. If you're uncomfortable with those terms, don't sign with me."
Then you'd have zero clients. Would that be your fault? Would it be a case of being  bullied out of the business because you couldn't afford to make a living? Or would you accept it because you were forced to and had no one on your side to help you get better terms?
See how a choice isn't really a choice?
Consider the stadium where the Arizona Cardinals (NFL) plays seats 63,000. So, in essence this author’s choice could mean walking away from three stadium sized audiences for her stories.
In Peterson’s case it does not appear to be a dollars vs. readers issue because she has signed with another publisher. But for many who are frustrated with their publishing experience it is a good question to ask.
Joe sez: No, Steve. It's a loaded, terrible question. It plays on a writer's desire to be read, to be accepted. It treats us as hobbyists who are to be satisfied with pats on the head rather than fair pay for hard work.
Would you trade your commission for a pat on the head and a good feeling that you reached people? If so, how about representing writers for free? You'd sure make a lot of them happy. And that's what it's all about, right? Making as many people happy as possible, regardless of getting paid for it? Don't walk away from all those writers, just because they don't pay you!
Reaching 170,000 readers is a rare place in this busy industry. And don’t forget that the success of those numbers made her an attractive acquisition for Amazon.com . That is not the case for most writers whose midlist numbers can be depressing. (Read CBA fiction author Eric Wilson who laid out his income while publishing with traditional publishers over a ten year period and has chosen to go a different route with his new books.)
If you wish to wave goodbye to traditional publisher and go Indie (independent) I believe the first question to ask is whether or not you want to start a small business. Just like an entrepreneur.  Those authors who are entrepreneurs are ideally suited for the self-publishing route. The understand the energy it takes and pitfalls ahead.
Joe sez: After all, if you sign with a legacy publisher, all you have to do is write the book. You don't have to spend any time or money promoting it. You can be lazy and do nothing and those legacy dollars will come rolling in anyway.
Have all the writers reading stopped laughing yet?
I spent a great deal more time and money promoting my legacy career than I've spent on my self-pubbed titles, and anyone who reads my blog knows my numbers. I'm not the only one. I urge those who agree to post in the comments section.
The second question is whether they can sell enough copies to make it all worthwhile. And are also are willing to take responsibility if a book fails.
Joe sez: Huh? Self-publishing is free in many cases. Covers and formatting can be self-taught, with the only expense being time. Personally I pay $350 for an ebook cover, and around $200 for formatting, and then I made 70% forever, as opposed to Ann, who makes 2.4% forever and still does things like travel to conventions to promote her Harlequin titles. She just went to Romantic Times. And she spent more than $550 to sign a dozen copies of her Harlequin titles.
But if Ann's book fails, she gets blamed by Harlequin, who refuse to publish any of her new titles. Just like every legacy publisher. The authors gets blamed and dropped.
A self-publish ebook can't be dropped. A self-published ebook is forever. Forever is a long time to recoup that personal investment.
But not all artists are entrepreneurs. I know of many authors who have gone this route. One sold 1,000 copies of their e-book in a year. Another is averaging about $1,000 in revenue each month…but had to self-publish ten books to reach that threshold. Another has sold about 2,500 e-copies in a few months but the numbers are slowing considerably. Each of these writers can get much more guaranteed income from going the traditional route. Their indie effort is nice income (in this business any income is nice) but it is not a replacement.
Joe sez: More than a thousand KDP authors now sell over 1000 ebooks a month. In some of those cases, it IS a healthy replacement for the piss-poor advances and low royalties of legacy publishers.
Writers and readers are essential, Steve. The industry can't exist without them. But you know who isn't essential? Agents. Especially agents who spout bullshit such as a writer can get a much "more guaranteed income from going the traditional route."
Every author who tries to self-publish can self-publish, and they'll earn something. Last I checked, not every author who tries to land a publisher, or an agent as adept as you, succeeds. Something is always more than nothing. Earning 70% forever is a better bet than a tiny advance that may never earn out, but you'll still never get the rights back.
And how do you explain the fact that Ann earns more money on her self-pubbed ebooks--two novels and three short stories--than she does on over 25 Harlequin novels still in print?
How do you explain me, who made $100,ooo in a three week period last December and January, on books NY publishers rejected?
How do you explain Bob Mayer, Lee Goldberg, Barry Eisler, Scott Nicholson, Blake Crouch, and dozens of other legacy authors who have chosen to publish works as indies because they're not only making more money, but selling more copies (something you seem to be weirdly fixated on.)
P.S. In my opinion it is wrong to compare Amazon’s traditional publishing divisions (like Thomas Mercer) with other publishers. 
Joe sez: I agree. Amazon pays authors more, and treats them like customers, not like fungible factory workers. And I'm not talking about factory workers who have a union and get benefits. Writers don't have a single organization that stands up for them. The AAR and the Author's Guild both failed miserably.
Amazon is so incredibly large and diversified that they could lose money on publishing for five years and still be profitable elsewhere. For a company like Harlequin they are solely vested in publishing (not Zappos shoes, or used books, or electronics). Thus their cost structure is different. Amazon has brilliantly used their economic model and created one that takes advantage of their infrastructure without having to build from scratch.
Joe sez: So it is entirely okay for a company to exploit authors, as long as their cost structure requires it?
Why am I extremely happy you aren't negotiating any publishing contracts for me?
Is that a defense of traditional publishing? It could be seen that way. But it is more a reminder not to compare oranges with apples. They are not identical.
Joe sez: Your service is to your clients, Steve. Defending Harlequin is appalling, but coming from an agent, it is unforgivable. 
Your clients would best be served if you were trying to make deals with Amazon, which offers the best pay in the business, and if you were vilifying Harlequin, which could begin the process of change. If enough agents did that, Harlequin would be forced to improve their royalties, because they'd have no authors left.
But you'd rather pick on Ann in an obviously self-serving manner, when Ann has more guts in her little finger than you have in your whole body.
Shame on you.