Friday, March 6, 2015

There's a site for writers called Absolute Write Water Cooler. Lots of cool features, including people reporting on their experiences with agents. There's one called "How Real Publishing Works," and I posted the following. I recently heard from somebody who had read it, and I wrote back to him. It's too long to read in just one post, so let's start with my original post:

Somebody asked what's changed since this thread first began. Well, I didn't read the entire thread, but I saw a lot of things in the beginning that are different now. First, let me tell you that I've published 100 books for children, YAs, and adults, both fiction and nonfiction. My publishers have included Knopf, Putnam, Oxford University Press (when they had a children's division), Scholastic, Philomel, Wiley, Little, Brown and many more, so I am experienced. I also won an Edgar and other awards and received many starred reviews, so I think I'm a good writer.
But one of the big things in publishing now is Nielsen BookScan, which tells anybody who pays for it how many copies your books have sold. And believe me, if your most recent books didn't sell well, you've just become a non-person in the publishing world. Might as well change your name and start over. (There was an article in the NY Times about an agent who actually did that for a client, because that was the only way the agent could sell the client's next book.)
And let me tell you, extremely few publishers (and none of the big ones) will consider your book unless it is submitted by an agent. And now many of the agents won't look at your book unless you've already published, or unless you come recommended by someone they know (like one of their established clients.)
So let me tell you how I became a non-person. My wife and I (we usually collaborate) had written a nonfiction adult book for Little, Brown that did well enough that they brought it out in paperback after the hardcover edition. We were lucky enough (Ha! so we thought) to have the editor-in-chief for our editor, so we came to him with a proposal for a book about the theft of the Mona Lisa. He considered it, and then came back to us with a counter-proposal: do a book about that crime and several other crimes that had occurred in Paris around that time (early 1900s). He even did his own outline.
Unfortunately, we couldn't resist because we thought that if we wrote the book according to his outline, he'd make sure it was promoted. Little did we know.
We slaved away, turned the book in, and then waited. He sent the manuscript back with some line edits which we then took care of, and said the book would be out by such-and-such a time. The next we saw, there was the cover of the book on Amazon. It was the worst cover we had ever had in all the books we've written. Well, we had a clause in our contract that said the publisher had to "consult" with us about the cover, so we took it to our agent, who agreed that the cover was unprofessionally bad. But after conferring with the editor, he told us it was too late to change it. (Did I mention that the editor no longer took our phone calls? In case you don't know, that's a very bad sign.)
Then, one day, we got a message from the publisher's rights department that Vanity Fair was going to publish an excerpt from our book! Hooray! That surely meant it was going to be big and that the publisher would push the book.
Nope. In fact, while we worked with the editor at Vanity Fair to stitch together the parts of the book they wanted (all the parts about the theft of the Mona Lisa, BTW), he let us know that the rights person at Little, Brown had actually tried to talk him out of buying the excerpt. Well, since the editor was still not accepting our calls, we called the rights person, who kind of laughed sheepishly and admitted that was true, saying only that there was another book about the theft of the Mona Lisa coming out, and she wanted to make sure Vanity Fair had the right one.
Actually, our agent told us later, the sales department had looked at our book well before the pub date and decided not to devote any energy to it, partially because they didn't understand the concept and partially because of the other book about the theft of the Mona Lisa. Young writers don't understand that to publishers, not all books are equal. They have limited promotional resources, and don't divide them up equally. It's no longer a world in which wise editors like Bennett Cerf and Max Perkins promote their authors. You have to appeal to the sales people, who would rather sell a nice, easy-concept self-help book than your literary efforts.
So time went by, the issue of Vanity Fair came out, with our excerpt mentioned on the cover, but still we didn't see our book in bookstores. Then, a month after the original pub date, the rights person called us to announce gaily that she had sold the paperback rights! Hooray! Who bought them? Well, some academic publisher in the Midwest who paid--wait for it--the lavish sum of $1000 for the rights! Then we knew that the publisher was truly giving up on our book before it ever got a chance. (Later, a British movie company optioned our book three times, so somebody besides the editors at Vanity Fair must have thought it was good.)
Well, as you may guess, Nielsen BookScan didn't report high sales figures for the book...and because of that, our agent would no longer send our proposals out to publishers. He didn't have the guts to tell us that outright because as it happened, the contract he had "negotiated" for us with Little, Brown let the publisher have the ENTIRE $10,000 that Vanity Fair had paid, as well as the $1000 that the academic publisher had paid. (In truth, they were applied against our advance, which the book will never earn back.)
The agent, of course, claimed that our proposals weren't good enough for him to send out. In reality, at least two of those proposals were eventually published--by other authors with harder-working agents. So I told my wife that an agent who doesn't send out your work, isn't an agent, and we left him.
Our next agent was a young woman who seemed energetic and ambitious. In reality, she wanted to turn some of our earlier books, which were out of print, into e-books. She too failed to get us any new work, and one day we got an email from her saying she had had a baby and wanted to work on raising children instead of pursuing her career in publishing.
Leaving us without an agent, and a bad sales record on BookScan. Which means we've been trying without success to pitch new book ideas to new agents. The majority of them, BTW, never bother to respond at all. One of them suggested that she could try to place one of our books with an academic publisher. She thought she could get $5000 for it. Of course, that is before her 15% cut, taxes we'd have to pay, and the rights for illustrations (which usually run around $1000). So given that it takes well over a year (or two) to write the book, that doesn't explain how we can eat and pay rent.
Right now, I'm sending around to agents a couple of YA novels I've written, since that's a popular genre that we've been successful at before. One agent asked for the full manuscript of one in May. I wrote her in September asking if she'd gotten around to it, and I got a curt note saying she was busy. Another agent, with a second book, asked for a full in July. I wrote her in September and she told me she was reading it and would have an answer in two weeks. That was five weeks ago.
We have decided to self-publish. Can anybody blame us? Check out the first of our blogs at
And that's REALLY "How Real Publishing Works" in 2014. And BTW, you can guess when I read about the trouble Little, Brown is having with can guess who I'm rooting for, can't you? Go, Amazon!

No comments:

Post a Comment