Authors create product, readers consume product—those in between must provide long-term value
Posted by Bob Mayer
When talking with an author about possibly partnering with Cool Gus, the second they drop the phrase “my agent” into the conversation, we know the odds of coming to a working partnership are not likely. This is not because agents are evil or mean, but because we’ve found most to be mired in an outdated business model and unable to see the advantages of focusing on long-term profitability. This is because traditional publishing didn’t particularly value the long tail because it wasn’t possible with limited shelf space in consignment outlets, called bookstores.
Ten years ago when someone from the outside asked me to describe the publishing business, I would say: “Slow and Techno-phobic”. While the Big 5 and others scramble to adapt to the digital world, there is a segment that has been very resistant to the winds of change blowing through the publishing world: agents.
When I present my Who Dares Wins concepts, whether for people inside the industry or those outside, I use the Myers-Briggs 16 character types as part of understanding character. I focus not on what one is, but what the exact opposite character type is. After all, we all like to do what we’re good at. Where we need to improve is where we aren’t good.
For example, the least common of the 16 types is actually labeled Author. INFJ. Introvert, iNtuitive, Feeling, Judgmental. The exact opposite, the ESTP: Promoter. Duh. Big problem authors!
What do we want an agent to be? Most agents want to be Sellers. The exact opposite? Architect. That suggests to me that while agents might be very good at selling, they are not so good at structuring a business plan or analyzing the changes in publishing. An architect tends to be a strategic thinker, while a seller is tactical.
I’m generalizing here, and I know there are agents who have adapted swiftly, such as Kristin Nelson and Scott Waxman. But overall, most agents are still so focused on the traditional format of publishing doctrine, they can’t see the bigger picture.
First, agents are focused on the advance. The ‘guaranteed money’. Authors have been propagandized into thinking an advance is the kindness of publishers giving them money so they can write. Authors need to rethink that. An advance is the money that binds the author’s content to the publisher via the contract. Nothing wrong with that if the author is happy with the money and the almost complete lack of business control they’ve surrendered when they cash those checks. The concept of monthly income after publication seems to escape many traditionally published authors and especially agents since over 90% of traditionally published books fail to earn out. The concept of a publishing partner working for the author, allowing the author the final decision (after getting experienced advice) on everything from cover, to content, to product description, to metadata, to promotional opportunities, to pricing, etc. is one that doesn’t seem to do much for agents. Also, working with a publishing partner that considers the publishing timeline in terms of days and weeks rather than months or years is a concept few in traditional publishing seem to grasp.
Let’s break this down simply. The bottom line in publishing is: Authors create the product, which is content (not the book). Readers consume the content. Everyone else is in between. They must provide a value to that relationship or they are not relevant. Since an agent is more focused on the relationship between author and publisher (not reader), their value is even more put to the test in a market where distribution no longer rules. It is discoverability.
Recently I’ve seen a spate of earning reports that indicate a trend: while overall print sales are slowing or down for major publishers, they’re making more. Where is this ‘more’ coming from? The higher P&L on eBooks. Where are the agents rallying to point out that this ‘more’ is being taken from the authors? That authors getting a royalty rate that is pathetically out of date is lining the pockets of publishers? When 75% of the cover price of an eBook goes to the platform and the publisher, something is very out of balance. And then 15% of that 25% for the author goes to the agent? In essence authors are getting just over 20% of cover price. At Cool Gus our authors make over 50% of that cover price, varying depending on each one’s situation—which is another thing. Every author, every book is a unique entity. In Special Ops, one of the tenets is that Special Operations Soldiers can’t be mass produced. Authors can’t be treated that way either.
Yes, there are big-name authors, in the top 5%, whose agents have negotiated for them higher royalty rates (hey, midlist author, ask your agent about that). Good for them. I submit however, that we will see some big name authors jump ship and go hybrid, not for more money, but for creative control. The problems for these authors are several:
- Backlist is held hostage by their traditional publishers.
- The politics of becoming hybrid, where publishers and agents feel the author has ‘betrayed’ them, when in reality it is a positive for everyone involved if they work together. For example, we’re working to promote Jennifer Probst’s books from Pocket with her backlist and also the frontlist we will publish. We link and promote all her traditionally published titles. We can actually run price specials, countdowns, and targeted ads that promote Jennifer Probst, which is a win-win for all involved, including her traditional publisher and her agent.
- Lack of awareness of how to ‘self’ publish. I refer back to my Kirkus article on how the term ‘self’ publish is a misnomer. Top authors need help in this area, especially if they are focused on writing. They need the expertise and advice of an organization experienced in what they want to do. But they don’t need boilerplate services: they need a partnership tailor made for each one’s unique situation.
- Fear. I won’t get into it, but fear is ruling publishing. Many authors are terrified to break free and take a chance. Understandable. But potentially fatal to their long-term career.
- Editorial. Some authors are wedded to the editors. While we can say this is purely a business relationship, it goes beyond that. We’re talking creative process. However, there are very good freelance editors and one thing we do at Cool Gus is invite authors to our Write on the River retreat where we all work together on story and they also have access to my wife, who has worked with several NY Times Bestselling authors. A few weekends ago we had Jennifer Probst here and Richard Phillips and his writing partner.
We’ve negotiated with authors about their backlist, only to have the agent jump in between and shift their client’s focus toward selling their electronic backlist to a traditional publisher and getting an advance. I submit they are harming their clients in their own self-interest (and mistakenly in their client’s interest). They want that advance money which is guaranteed. I occasionally check on the status of the digital version of books we tried to partner on, and not a single one has been published yet, over a year after talking to the author. So a year’s worth of revenue that can’t be recouped is gone while they wait on the rusty wheels of traditional publishing to get around to their backlist. And, as an editor at Random House told me: We can’t promote our front list, never mind our backlist. How do you think they’re going to focus on you? I make more in one day from my backlist I own the rights to than St. Martins does in six months in the three books I co-wrote with NY Times Bestselling author Jennifer Crusie. Who at SMP has a vested interest in promoting and selling those stories? No one. They’re overwhelmed dealing with their current authors and frontlist.
Lastly, agents are effective in securing foreign rights. But even that model is changing. Three years ago, people were laughing at eBooks in the US market at only 3%. They aren’t laughing now. Russ Grandinetti from Amazon said at the Frankfort Book Fair that they’re seeing a growth in digital devices in Europe matching the US market three years ago. So three years from now, digital will be a huge earner in foreign markets. A market authors can have control of via digital, instead of signing away their rights. Something to consider. While I believe in operating swiftly in most areas in publishing, foreign rights is one area I’m taking my time in.
Bottom line is that authors have to consider the long-term business, thinking strategically instead of tactically.. The long tail of earnings. Publishers, and especially agents, seem to be more focused on the immediate dollar. Authors need to be focused on their income stream five to ten years from now and also accept a fundamental truth: no one cares more about their stories than they do.