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Do I Need An Agent to Sell My Book Proposal?

Q: Do I Need An Agent to Sell My Book Proposal?

A: It depends.

Do I need an agent to get a book project sold?

Do I need an agent?!

This is almost like me asking you if I need a realtor to sell my house. Okay, in light of the current housing market, that might not be a very nice parallel. But then again, a quick look at the publishing industry might make that comparison even more apt. But back to the question and topic.

In the “old days” of publishing, let’s say prior to 1990, there was a common publishing phrase that referred to an unsolicited manuscript that was sent to a publisher as something that “came in over the transom.” (A transom is literally a hinged window over a door. Think of the book return slot at a library.) In other words, a writer sent in his or her manuscript to a mail drop, which then ended up in one of several 4-foot high stacks in a junior editor’s office, and which after six or seven months of collecting dust was either rejected with a form letter – or voila, it got discovered and published. One way many publishing companies handled submissions that came over the transom was to hire college interns to sift through hundreds or thousands of manuscripts over summer break and separate the winners from the losers.

Many publishers were still leery of agents in the mid-90s. (Many still are.) Since acquisitions is the lifeblood of publishing, they preferred to take the initiative and go find someone with a marketing platform to promote their own work; if that person couldn’t write, the publisher would help them write it with a ghost writer or collaborator. If an author didn’t have a platform but had exceptional verifiable credentials – for example a professor at a university with a reputation for expertise in a particular discipline – the publisher would still take the initiative. Both of these and many other scenarios still happen all the time but even when the publisher is responsible for basic ideation, it is more common to work deals through an agent. And next to never over the transom.

The worry for publishers back in the “old days” was that once an agent was involved, he or she would demand too much money up front as an advance and too much in royalty rates and thus damage the economies of publishing. (Okay, the publishers were right on this point for many deals.) But even with that concern, sometime in the mid and late 90s, agents went from being a luxury for big name authors who wanted to sell projects to one of the big publishing companies, to a near necessity for almost all writers interested in placing a project with almost any size publishing house.

Today, many publishers will no longer receive unsolicited manuscripts from authors. They prefer and require agent involvement. In a sense, the agent, for many publishing companies, has become a way to streamline the acquisitions process – and maybe even reduce head count. (In other words, the agent has become the primary acquisitions editor for a lot of publishers.) The hardcore, full time, certified agent – and yes, there are many former editors and other publishing staffers who moonlight at agenting – earns his or her commission (more often 15%, up from 10% even a decade ago), along with a trustworthy reputation that opens doors to a variety of acquisitions editors and publishers, by carefully screening authors and projects and vouching to the publisher that the author can deliver both great material and can help market it.

What does this mean for the aspiring author? It means that finding an agent who will represent your work can feel – and be – as hard as selling the project.

So, do you need an agent? The answer is YES, if …

1. You don’t have inside connections with one or more publishers who are already disposed to buying a project from you.

2. You haven’t been approached by a publisher to write a project, which is a dream come true for anyone who has toiled with speculative work (you still might be better off with an agent if the deal seems fishy in some way).

3. You don’t have a large established platform (connection to a well defined audience that is motivated to buy from you) whereby you can guarantee a certain number of sales. (Some publishers will make a deal with this kind of author if the author commits to buying X number of copies, which becomes part of the contract. Some authors, particularly if they speak to large audiences, will then determine that they’ll make more money self-publishing.)

4. You want to be with a larger publisher (not necessarily the right option for every author or project) that will present your work to bookstores and other retailers. (I have a friend who has sold more than 1 million copies of his self-published book. He still feels dissatisfaction because the books he published with big time publishers did not do well in the trade.)

5. You have a big idea and a big audience that loves you, but don’t know the first thing about book publishing and aren’t really fond of writing.

That list isn’t close to being exhaustive and even if you can turn each point around and answer it conversely, you still may not need or want an agent. And acquiring the services of a well connected agent who really believes in your work is no guarantee that your work will be purchased by a publisher at all, much less at terms that feel reasonable to you. Plus, today there are many more professional quality self-publishing options available to the aspiring author. (Click here for my blog on whether self-publishing is for you.)

So do you need an agent? Unless you have the ways and means to sell a self-published work or have incredible connections within the publishing community, the answer is undoubtedly yes.

What Goes Into Self-Publishing? Should You Consider It?

When self-publishing is done right, every one of the tasks that go into traditional publishing still have to be done. (Note I used the phrase done right.) There has to be a unique and compelling idea; great writing and editorial; author promotion; a good looking cover that fits the tone and genre of the book; the right price point; and places to sell the book. It’s wonderful to land a deal with a publishing company for your book project.

But that is no longer your only – and oftentimes best – option.  Self-publishing – or the term I had hoped would take off, micropublishing – opens the door for you to present your great idea to the world in the book form.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. There are still a lot of dynamics for you to consider.

Q: How Is the Publishing Industry Impacted By a Struggling Economy?

Q: How is the publishing industry impacted by a struggling economy?

A: I can only answer on the basis of today, and on November 25, 2008 (*), the answer is that the publishing industry has indeed been impacted negatively and at least in equal measure to the overall economy!

Does a bad economy hurt book publishing?

Is book publishing recession proof?

The old axiom was that publishing was recession proof – especially religious publishing. Why? In the overall scheme of the economy (and people’s pocketbooks) books are a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment, best partaken at home, which saves gas and eat-out money. In the case of religious publishing, the prevailing wisdom has been that when the economy is good “people play” but when it’s bad “people pray!”

But in this ongoing subprime-crisis-automaker-melt-down-government-bail-out-required economic downturn in America, sales are not good for retailers or publishers. The list of retail chains reporting same-store declines is as long as the list of … well, uh, retail chains. The only reliable statistics available on the health of independent retailers is the number that are closing on a weekly basis. Iconic flagship book retailer, Barnes & Noble, reports glum 3rd quarter results and 4th quarter projections:

B&N Sales Sink; Sees Gloomy Holiday

by Jim Milliot — Publishers Weekly, 11/20/2008 6:19:00 AM

The news was about as bad as it could be from Barnes & Noble. For the third quarter ended November 1, total sales fell 4.4%, to $1.1 billion, with sales through its bookstores down by the same 4.4%. Same store sales fell 7.4%. Sales at Barnes & rose 2%, to $109 million. Moreover, the nation’s largest bookstore chain predicted that–based on the negative sales trend to date–same store sales in the fourth quarter will fall 6% to 9%. Earlier this month, B&N chairman Len Riggio warned employees in a memo that the company was bracing for a terrible holiday season.

Books-A-Million, which is strongest in the Bible Belt fared even worse.

BAM Comps Drop Nearly 10%

by Jim Milliot — Publishers Weekly, 11/21/2008 2:13:00 PM

The drumbeat of bad news from the nation’s bookstore chains continued Friday with Books-A-Million reporting that total revenue dropped 5.7% in the third quarter ended November 1, to $110.9 million. Comparable store sales tumbled 9.9%, the “weakest comparable store sales in many years,” said CEO Sandy Cochran. With the sales decline, BAM’s loss deepened to $2.2 million in the quarter compared to a loss of $555,000 in last year’s third period.

The sales decline was felt in most segments, Cochran said, with bargain books, gifts, and the teen categories among the few areas where business was up. A decline in customer traffic plus a cost conscious consumer where blamed for the poor results. BAM is focused on “controlling costs, managing inventory and preparing for the holiday season,” Cochran said.

While Cochran said the holiday publishing schedule is a good one, she sees few signs indicating that the difficult marketplace will shift anytime soon. For the first nine months of the year, revenue was down 4.8%, to $349.2 million, and the company had a loss of $635,000 compared to earnings of $4.6 million in the same period last year. Comp sales for the nine months were off 8.0%

Perhaps the most dramatic announcement came from the supply side of the industry with the news that literary giant Houghton Mifflin was putting a hold on acquisitions – akin to a fish saying that they might spend a year away from the water.

HMH Places “Temporary” Halt on Acquisitions

By Rachel Deahl — Publishers Weekly, 11/24/2008 12:54:00 PM

It’s been clear for months that it will be a not-so-merry holiday season for publishers, but at least one house has gone so far as to halt acquisitions. PW has learned that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has asked its editors to stop buying books.

Josef Blumenfeld, v-p of communications for HMH, confirmed that the publisher has “temporarily stopped acquiring manuscripts” across its trade and reference divisions. The directive was given verbally to a handful of executives and, according to Blumenfeld, is “not a permanent change.” Blumenfeld, who hedged on when the ban might be lifted, said that the right project could still go to the editorial review board. He also maintained that the the decision is less about taking drastic measures than conducting good business.

“In this case, it’s a symbol of doing things smarter; it’s not an indicator of the end of literature,” he said. “We have turned off the spigot, but we have a very robust pipeline.” The action by the highly leveraged HMH may also be as much about the company’s need to cut costs in a tight credit about the current economic slowdown.

What’s it mean for you as author or aspiring author?

If your heart is set on publishing with a traditional publishing house of note, the news isn’t great. My own company, Thomas Nelson, in anticipation of emerging economic woes, cut the number of titles being published almost in half as of March 2008. As a publisher I always find it more fun to do books than to not do books, but unquestionably, we were ahead of the curve.

If you are able to see publishing not just in terms of a paper and ink product with a particular logo or name on the spine – and are open to the array of self- and micro-publishing options available today – then this is just one more confirmation to go for it now rather than wait for your deal to sail in!

The Assignment Clause in a Book Publishing Contract

Q: What is the assignment clause in a book publishing contract? Is it important?

A: It defines whether you or your publisher can give-grant-sell to someone else the rights and obligations found in your Agreement. It might matter a lot.

Does the assignment clause ever become a business matter in book publishing?

Does the assignment clause ever become a business matter in book publishing?

I’ve worked on and signed hundreds of book publishing contracts as a publisher, author, agent, and packager. The first Agreement I signed as an author was in 1986 (the book is still in print and I still get a small royalty check every six months) and was just two pages long. Most publishing contracts today go from twelve to twenty pages with the goal of covering absolutely any and every potential situation and conflict imaginable in the ever-expanding and changing publishing universe.

I recently got a call from a friend from the advertising industry who was working on book contract, which was filled with new language and terms for him. He had a checklist of questions, including the assignment clause, [Read more…]

Q: Will E-books Ruin Book Publishing?

Q: Will e-books ruin book publishing?

A: Of course not.

Okay, let me qualify that. If by ruin you mean “bring an end to” and if by book publishing you mean the “careful and professional preparation and dissemination of long form intellectual property expressed in words” then I stick by my answer and say, of course not.

Will e-books ruin book publishing?

Are paper-and-ink books dying?

Now if by book publishing you mean the above definition but specifically and predominantly in a paper, ink, and binding medium, then I guess the answer is possibly. Probably not, but possibly. Maybe the readers of the world will gradually or spontaneously decide that we don’t need to kill any more trees and that electronic dissemination and acquisition is the only way to go.

But paper and ink aren’t what make a book. As has always been the case in book publishing content is king and packaging secondary.  So if paper, ink, and binding do some day go away, I would simply say, no big deal. I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon as the latest research (the PubTrack program from Bowker) indicates that 82% of Americans – who represent one third of the book publishing market – still prefer printed books exclusively.

For updated stats see my blog How Many People Are Reading on E-Reader Devices, which shows much more robust numbers for e-readers – but still indicates that paper and ink will be around a good while!

In his book Business At the Speed of Thought Bill Gates asserted that we tend to overestimate the amount of change new technology will cause in its first two years but underestimate the amount of change that will occur in the next five years. How long has Amazon had the Kindle and Sony its e-book reader in the market? If Gates was right then it will be 2012 or 2013 before we have a pretty good idea where e-books are going.

Now if by book publishing your definition is closer to “long form intellectual property expressed in words” no matter what media is used to distribute the material then I would say for that to come to an end some entirely different dynamics other than an e-book reader would have to be involved. Mike Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson and my former boss, raised the question of what the Internet is doing to our brains in relation to its impact on long form reading. He cited Nicholas Carr’s article in the Atlantic Monthly, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Carr’s observation is that as the Internet has become his universal medium, concentrating on longer pieces for more than a couple of pages has become increasingly difficult. Carr says:

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.

Since an e-book, at least in its most popular hardware expressions, is designed to essentially look, feel, and behave like a a paper, print, and binding book, you can’t blame it for any for any widespread impact on people’s ability to apprehend long form content just because it’s in a digital format.

Again, citing the most up-to-date research from Bowker’s PubTrack data, in 2007, 164 million Americans over the age of 13, about 75% of the population with discretionary spending power, purchased at least one book. Book consumption is greater with age but still relatively constant. And for those who assert that junior readers simply won’t read unless the content is wrapped up in a digital sight, sound, and interactive experience, I’d simply point to the Harry Potter phenomenon where seven- and eight-year-old kids could suddenly read 800-page books! There is an ongoing voracious appetite for books across ages and within all the niches of the human marketplace. And America won’t always account for one-third of all book consumption.

So will e-books ruin book publishing? Absolutely not. Will they change book publishing? Over time, most likely, but not in its essence.

So is book publishing, a medium brought to the masses by Johannes Gutenberg through his invention of mechanical printing almost 600 years ago, safe for at least another millennium?

Now that’s an entirely different question! Give me a sec and I’ll see if I can google an answer!