Thursday, November 15, 2012

Shady Business

So, earlier this week via The Twitter, agent (and author!), Mandy Hubbard mentioned her distrust of new agents who have no publishing background. This started a conversation, which I participated in, about the merits of these agents and start-up publishers who claim to be legit.

The thing is, many of these new agents and start-up publishers (usually digital-only publishers) aren't aware they're not legit. They have the best of intentions. They're people who follow the industry closely and, because of the transparency provided by blogs and Twitter, they think they have enough information to start their own companies. Yes, everyone has to start somewhere and some of these newbies do succeed and prove their worth. Most of them, however, don't help an author rise to any level beyond what the author could have done themselves.

When I started at Curtis Brown, I was an assistant and only an assistant. I also kept up with industry news and market trends, but mostly I was an apprentice at an established agency where I had several agents to learn from. Before that I was an intern at a different agency and read the hell out of the slush pile. Reading the slush pile and writing reader's reports for agents seems like busy work, but here is what I learned from it: In my first year as an intern, what I put in the "yes" pile was usually not what the agent would have said yes to, and more importantly I learned why. My experience is very, very common among agents at my level and those at the levels above mine. Reading someone else's slush pile is a very helpful rite of passage.

If I took on clients within that first year of working in publishing, nothing I took on would have sold, I wouldn't even have seen a contract until it was my own client's, and I would not have known how to negotiate in my author's best interest. Every agency is different in terms of when they let assistants take on clients, but those decisions are always based on "is this person ready?" New agents who don't have that kind of experience in publishing, but just want to take on clients to "help authors get published" don't get that feedback or education. This is why, despite their good intentions, they end up hurting authors.

New agents at established agencies, or those who have publishing experience elsewhere, are hungry to build their lists and you should definitely query them. Put them at the top of your lists, actually. But pay attention to the backgrounds of these new agents too. If they don't have the backing of an established agency, then Google deeper and ask the following questions:

1. Do they belong to the AAR (Association of Authors' Representatives)? Note: Not every agent needs to join the AAR and I know a few at established agencies who have not joined, or just recently joined. However, if you're on the fence about an agent and their credentials seem suspicious, not being a member of the AAR could be a dealbreaker.
2. How long have they worked in publishing? If they weren't always an agent, what did they do before? Editor at a major house? Marketing or sales representative (meaning, they know what booksellers buy and would probably be a good agent because of it)? Were they an assistant or intern at an agency that's respected in the industry?
3. How long have they been agenting? It should not be the same amount of time they've been in publishing. If they are just starting out, who do they work for? What type of agency is backing them up? 
4. What have they sold? If they're new, this won't be as relevant because they may not have many sales to their name yet. In this case, ask new agents where they see your book in the market. Hardcover/trade paperback vs. mass market vs. ebook only? These things matter, and knowing which format will work best for your book is something a good agent should be able to tell you. 
5. What types of publishers have they sold to? Check Publisher's Marketplace to see an agent's sales history. Note: Not every agent reports their deals, but new agents usually do because they are still proving themselves. So, look them up. Are they only selling to the types of publishers you could have submitted to yourself? Or do they have a few Big 6 and larger, respected indie publishers in their sales history too?
6. Are they just a lawyer? Agents are like combination lawyers and managers, and you need those skills to be good at your job. The difference is that a lawyer has no personal stake in whether your book does well (they'll get paid either way) and their ability to read legal language rarely extends to book contracts, which is a different animal. If you self-publish or use a small press without an agent, make sure you get someone to read over your contract who is a literary lawyer. People who know legal jargon, as intelligent and educated as they are, aren't going to have the same expertise when it comes to publishing.

I also mentioned start-up publishers above. If you choose not to get an agent - either because you're going to self-publish or use smaller publishers who take unagented manuscripts - then you need to be extra careful. Like I said, start-up publishers can turn into legit publishers who are good at what they specialize in. They're often digital-only, at least at first, and tend to focus on a specific genre to build up a successful niche market. Note: This is what a good start-up publisher will do. Be wary of small presses, digital-only publishers, or start-ups who want everything and anything. Usually this means they haven't created a solid business model or know the best way to publish different types of books.

If you're unsure about whether to sign that contract or submit to that shiny new publisher at all, don't be afraid to ask the publisher the following questions:

1. Do you content edit or just copy-edit? Copy-editing is ridiculously important, but so is editing for the content itself. Will your book get Big 6 treatment at a small press? It won't go through as many revision rounds and maybe only one set of eyes (as opposed to several you get at large houses) will see it. But, that doesn't mean you don't deserve a professional editor with a skilled eye who will make your book the best it can be.
2. What is your marketing plan for my book? They should have one, and it should involve more than a Facebook ad. 
3. Where are your books sold? If the publisher is digital-only, ask them what platforms they use and if your book will be available on multiple reading devices. If they do print books as well, ask them if they've ever been sold through Barnes & Noble (the physical stores) or independent local bookstores (unlikely, but worth asking).
4. Will any part of this process cost me any money, other than the royalties you will earn on my sales? Answer: NO! NO, NO, NO! If a publisher wants you to pay them, run away. They are a scam. Real publishers pay you for the privilege to publish your book. 
5. How much are you taking in royalties? The answer to this question varies, but what you're really asking is "are you doing enough for my book to warrant taking over half my earnings?" Because if they're only doing the bare minimum and you're not seeing a significant return in your sales, you could have self-published and kept almost all of your royalties instead.
6. What's the deal with your subrights department? Subrights matter. It's how you earn back an advance faster and audio, film, serial, and foreign rights are how you get your book in more places. Most small or start-up publishers won't have a significant presence in the film world, but if they are going to call themselves a publisher, they should be aware of foreign markets and work with specific agents or scouts to sell your book abroad.

If any of these questions make a publisher nervous, don't use them. These are simple questions they should not only answer, but be proud to tell you. Of course, they are trying to woo you. Tell you what you need to hear. So, go a step further and research:

1. Go to sites like Preditors and EditorsFind out what other books they've published. Have they had success in your genre? Do they have any specialties? A good publisher has standards.
2. Where have their books actually been sold? Can you find them anywhere other than Amazon?
3. Do they have a Publisher's Marketplace page with reported deals? Note: This does not necessarily make them legit (as is more eloquently stated in this blog post by legit agent, Victoria Marini). But! It at least gives you a starting off point to see what types of deals this publisher has made. 
4. Who are their other authors? Contact them directly to ask about their experience. The publisher should also willingly give you their authors' information if you can't find it online. If they don't, then that's another red flag and you should be suspicious of them.

Yes, this is a lot of work. It's less work if you have an agent, but if you don't want or need an agent, be prepared. It's incredibly tempting to sign a contract because YAY BOOK DEAL!!! You've been waiting forever for this. All those rejections were piling up and you were getting so frustrated and ready to quit, but OMG this publisher sees the brilliance of your book and finally all is well in the world! Yes, of course you will want to sign immediately. This is what shady publishers and shady agents are counting on.

This whole process is hard. Whether it's you looking for a good agent or agents looking for a good small publisher (we use them too!). An easy way out only makes it harder in the long run. My job is to protect authors' rights and make sure their books are getting the treatment they deserve. Which is why agents like Mandy and Victoria, and me, and every other agent I know get so impassioned about these lovely people who want to do good, but probably aren't ready yet.

Long blog post is over. To sum up, research like it's your job! Because it is. Now, let's hug it out.


24 comments:

  1. This is such a valuable post. Thanks for taking the time to explain it. Everything you're saying is true from my end as a first time novel writer. I've been researching for over a year (intensively) as I rewrite rewrite x20. I remember an agent consensus that the biggest single mistake of first time novelists is querying too soon. I have been feeling that itch to get noticed a lot but I'm holding back. This post will help me after the holidays when I start querying.

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  2. Thank you for such a useful post. As a new writer, it is so hard to know the right questions to ask. As you say, it is so tempting to leap at any deal in the face of the challenge to get published, but you have reminded us how important it is to get not only a deal but the right deal. Much appreciated.

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  3. Great post, Sarah, thank you for it.

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  4. Preditors and editors is a great resource. After querying a small publisher for a novella I had written, he came back with:

    "I have been asked for phone consulting from authors on book publishing (print or E-book), marketing, printing, distribution, discounts, distributors, publicity, fulfillment, mailings and dozens of other needs of small publishers and self-published authors. I am willing to spend one session with you on any subject or needs you may have on publishing for a flat $195 minimum for the first hour, and $40 per one quarter hour (charged in fifteen minute increments) after the first hour. Call for an appointment with your credit card. Limited time available so book early."

    I knew immediately, of course, that I would not be doing business with this fellow. But it was nice to see that he was listed in Preditors & Editors as "Not recommended. Appears to be a vanity publisher."

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    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    2. I had to delete the above comment, not because I didn't doubt the writer's sincerity, but because it felt too much like he was promoting his own consulting services. Like I said in my post, most of these services do have good intentions, but they lack the professional experience to council other authors the way they'd like to. Writers also should never, ever spend money on consulting services.

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    3. I’m very sorry! I honestly was not trying to promote anybody. I simply wanted to show why the consultant mentioned above appeared to be geared toward self-publishers, and why it seemed misinformed to immediately label people like him as “predators.” Writers who decide to become publishers face many expenses, just as any publisher would—and that can sometimes include hiring experienced people either to teach them the ropes or to do the nitty-gritty jobs for them. They pay as publishers, not writers, and I think that’s an important distinction to make here. Providing services of that nature is (ideally) not a predatory practice but, rather, just another fringe of this evolving business.

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    4. Matthew, I understand that you meant no harm by the post. However, good intentions don't erase the fact that "consultants" still take advantage of writers. Writers who self-publish often have the outside expenses of editing, copyediting, and publicity. They do not need to add "consultant" to that list. Information (like this blog post and the ones I linked to) is available for free, and big-name, bestselling self-published authors share tips all the time. The information is out there for writers, and they don't have to pay for it.

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  5. This is absolutely awesome. Thanks for posting.

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  6. It's not just the start-up publishers one has to be wary of. My father had two novels published by an established university press. They provided no editorial feedback, and the promotion was limited to mentioning their catalogs. The books won many international awards in their original language (Yiddish), but didn't go far at all in English at the hands of the university press.

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  7. I think "transparency" is such an important quality in an agent. You're open and honest and here you are, giving criteria to evaluate agents (like you) by. People who enjoy what they do and who are confident of their skills often have that open door to others. It's those who have the door closed, the lights out, and the sign on the door that says "Open 24/7" who worry me the most. Thanks for helping to light the way...

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  8. Thanks so much for being specific. The details to watch for and the questions to ask will go in my research folder, hopefully leading to a "YAY! BOOK DEAL!" this spring.

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  9. Thanks so much for this, Sarah.

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  10. Love the ending. {{{{HUGS}}}} It's a tough thing not to realize it's a business, too. Thanks for sharing all the pros and steps it takes to be a good agent.

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  11. Transparency in the form of communication is very important to me. I learned a great deal, Sarah. I read somewhere that an agent usually reads the first 20 seconds of a query letter before deciding if its worthwhile finishing. That's about how long it takes me to figure out if I'm going to read a whole blogpost. To say that I do extensive research before I query like it's my job will tell you that your post was very worthwhile. I hope you don't mind if I link this for my friends to read.

    Hugs!

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  12. A great post. A couple places I recommend where you will meet only reputable agents: IWWG.org has a "meet the agents" panel and opportunity to pitch afterwards twice a year at the Big Apple Conference. And for those writing about health, medicine, well-being, etc. Harvard Medical School's CME publishing course ( go to www.harvardwriters.com )has many terrific and high integrity agents who are very available to give advice throughout the conference and also very interested in discovering new talent and good books.

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  13. I appreciate your post. Thanks!

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  14. Thanks for all of the comments and kind words, everyone!

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  15. Thanks for this informative and useful post.

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  16. Consider this post shared! Even though I've been in the business for awhile, useful information like this always bears repeating. It's important for those just starting out and for veterans. Bravo!

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