Today's guest post in the series How to be an Author is a highly amusing and engaging take on the experience of marketing and publishing a book, tracking down a literary agent - only to find that the book was picked up by a publisher who specifically didn't want to deal with one!
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What a Difference a Decade Makes in Marketing and Publishing!
I first started shopping around for a literary agent in about 2001 which, given the lightspeed changes in publishing since then, could have been a century ago. I did what Writer's Market and Publisher's Marketplace told me to do, and though I have killed an entire forest by printing and mailing a thousand query letters, (almost every agent at the time claimed to represent literary fiction), the first ten pages of the manuscript, the first three chapters, the synopsis, five chapters, the first 50 pages, the first and last chapter, the bio and manuscripts for two novels over the past thirteen years, and now have an entire office wallpapered in rejection letters, I did finally get published. (As the wise and wizened in our profession tell us, it only takes one "yes".) The irony of my story is that, in the end, my publisher picked up Hack (novel #1) partially because I did not have an agent perched on my shoulder like a turkey buzzard sharpening it's beak for the industry-standard 15% of the advance. And that's just one of the differences between 2001 and 2010.
My first agent, the certified paranoid schizophrenic of many wigs with a different name for each, one of which is Melanie Mills, is a novel in and of herself. I should have known that a literary agency in the city with most mini putt-putt courses on the planet, Myrtle Beach, would lead to trouble. And it did, but that's another story - bizarre enough to be published by the Huffington Post which you can read here. My second agent ran me through two years of revisions, submitted the manuscript in 2004 to six mid-sized imprints, got rejected and promptly left the publishing business to go run the family funeral home in Maine.
My dream of finding my literary equivalent of my guardian angel having fizzled, I hung up the search for a couple of years and wrote a couple more novels. When I took up the fight again, I found that what was already a pretty risk-averse bunch had already started ignoring anything that didn't look and smell like something that was already on the top-ten bestseller list. Just when I was getting ready to sign with another agent, a small, independent publisher came along and said "we'll publish it if you want". They actually felt that I could get a much better deal - an advance against royalties, marketing support etc. given the accessibility and appeal of the story, but facing the choice between rolling the dice with another agent and actually getting the novel into print both real and virtual, I jumped on the latter without so much as a second thought.
The little indie, Harper Davis, didn't pay advances, and one of the company executives handles all of the other agent-type jobs like negotiating movie deals and international rights etc. No agent needed or wanted. The product- paperback, hardback, Kindle, Nook etc. - looks as professional as anything from Simon and Schuster or any of the biggies. I only wish they would spring for an audiobook, as I believe that many boomers and pre-boomers do a lot of their reading in the car these days, and Hack would lend itself very well to an audio rendition.
Marketing and Publishing
Since I started shopping my work twelve or thirteen years ago, it appears the role of the traditional literary agent has become an anachronism. (Note that I speak for the literary fiction market only. I honestly can't say what's happening in the genre fiction space, or memoir and non-fiction.) That's not to say traditional agents don't exist. But instead of shopping a manuscript, they're shopping the author's published work; their second novel, or perhaps their third.
The Role of Social Media
Because the obstacle to publishing have virtually disappeared, the days of agents shopping manuscripts in hopes of 15% of an advance are all but gone. If an agent feels they have a hot prospect to sell to a publisher that is still paying advances, (which are fewer and fewer) the onus of proving the author's saleability is on them: How many copies did the self-published work sell? How were the reviews? How many "likes" do thay have on their Facebook page? How many followers on Twitter? In other words the agent may not be as concerned with the quality of the product as much as they are with the author having greased the skids to some degree already by the sweat of their own brow. In fact I have come across indie publishers, never mind the agents, who rate the author's willingness and ability to market their own work as important if not more important than the work itself.
Where does that leave the vast middle-earth of literary agents who are not lunching in Manhattan with publishing bluebloods? Since they are functionally salespeople who formerly made their bread from taking the piece of a publishing, movie, or international rights deal, they have had to become savvy in a much broader range of disciplines. Much of their success is dependent on their own ability to roll their sleeves up and market their authors, and in so doing come up with creative approaches to compensation. I imagine that these agents are looking for the breakthrough author who has the cross-media product, the looks, the platform, the connections, the "likes" and the legs to make a go of it.
The last thing any author wants is to get hit over the head with the continued pontifications of industry pundits pointing out, once again, that we aren't in Kansas anymore. And neither are the literary agents. In this exciting, new, and somewhat scary business environment, the idea of "writing a book" almost automatically includes marketing and publishing it too, just to get an agent interested. For the business-minded author and entrepreneur: Hey! What fun, right? For the bespectaled author who delights in nothing more than a good story well told, at least we can share our work via e-books, and, if we want to pony up a few bucks, a nice paperback as well. If that's satisfaction enough, we can consider ourselves lucky that the publishing industry ain't what it used to be!
How did you find Jeb's take on marketing and publishing your books? I admit to having seen an increasing number of blogs created for the express purpose of generating a readership for a not-yet-published book.
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