Literary Agents

I talked to some literary agents last week about how they do business. I'm afraid I wasted a good chunk of time talking about how I do business, but that's par for the course when I'm let out of the house. The idea was to garner some general impressions of the literary agency scene these days, as it's been five years since I last worked with an agent, and have no need for one as a self publisher. Remember, there's a big difference between a real literary agent and a scam artist.

One of the agents I spoke to was an independent who owned her own agency and had about twenty years of experience in the field. The years speak to her success. I suspect most independent agents at any given time are ex-trade editors who try it for a year while collecting unemployment and give up with a filing cabinet full of manuscripts and no sales. From talking with her, I think her success is largely due to her representing books that intrigue her as a reader, rather than chasing publishers with titles she hopes can make a lot of money. I like that approach because I don't swing for the fences myself. While I don't think she spends a lot of time on statistical analysis, it sounded like she gets about 20 queries a day by e-mail and requests a follow-up proposal from perhaps one of them.

The other agent worked for one of the big literary agencies in NYC that have a hand in movies and other entertainment areas as well. Given their overhead, it sounded like they weren't really interested in representing deals that didn't promise an advance where their cut would come to several thousand dollars, which would put you in the $50K area for book deals. The only publishers who can pay that kind of advance for fiction are the biggest trades (or well financed wanna-be's). Since the whole point of hiring an agent is to have a publishing insider pitching for you, it does make sense that the agent will be pitching to a limited number of presses where personal relationships are in place. The way she expressed this was something like, "If I called a publisher who didn't know and respect the agency I work for, it wouldn't do the author any good."

I also spoke with a well published fiction author who had been with the same agency for over a dozen titles. She cherished the agent relationship for insulating her from the business side of publishing, which can be dark and contentious. More power to her, but that's not a position most aspiring authors can afford to take. I should also note that there was a bit of selective memory at work with many of the more successful writers who lectured at the conference. Writers who have figured out how to make a living writing often forget how that first book deal or contract with a literary agency came about and attribute their success to the quality and intelligence of their writing. While hard work and talent play a part, a little memory mining often brings admissions of luck and personal relationships to the surface.

The worst advice anybody can give a writer is that they go into isolation and perfect their craft before trying to get published. Most first novels are pretty bad, but agents and editors will advocate for titles that mesh with their personal world view. So if you're wondering why you can't interest an agent or an acquisitions editor at a literary press with your novel, remember that they are human beings, and personal preference rules. And remember they are mainly women, as are mass-market fiction readers.

Unpublished Authors

I'm back from the Cape Cod Writer's Conference, the first such event I've ever attended. Not surprisingly, the majority of the attendees I spoke to were unpublished authors, though a few had worked as journalists or published professional papers of various sorts. My greatest fear before going was that the entire conference would be dominated by elderly women who were writing memoirs, but they turned out to be a minority.

While the conference was very profitable to me in terms of gathering material for future blog posts, I left on a sour note, as the instructor of the one full week course I took was unable to keep his politics out of his lectures. I made it a point to pay for a session with both of the agents in residence, an independent non-fiction agent and a fiction agent from one of the name NYC firms, just to improve my understanding of how they operate. Also took a two hour class on poetry translation, in honor of the three years I put in translating my great-grandmother's works.

The main impression I took away from the conference is that the unpublished writers there fell into two broad categories: those who were planning a long and potentially unrewarding grind in their efforts to become published authors and those who were looking for short-cuts. We all know about the former group because we've probably all been part of that group at one time or another, but while I've hear from the short-cut crowd by e-mail on a regular basis, this was the first time I'd ever met any of them in person.

Continuing with the oversimplification that groups can be naturally divided into two logical parts, I'd say the unpublished writers looking for a quick in could be further divided into those who were planning to buy themselves a shortcut and those who were hoping to do it through networking. In both cases, those authors (and budding movie makers) didn't appear to have done very much homework about the publishing industry. I heard one unpublished author (a retired professional) practically bragging about how he didn't have the patience for any of that stuff. He'd been a big man in his professional life, he had a fat bank account, and he was ready to scratch checks to get it done. Not surprisingly, he'd settled on perhaps the worst subsidy press in the industry to print his book, and was currently embarking on a five figure publicity campaign with a PR firm that was all too glad to take his money.

The larger number of unpublished writers were hoping to find their big break through networking. While the conference was a reasonable place for them to be trying this, and most of the instructors and guest speakers seemed willing enough to help if something made sense, it struck me that most of these authors were making their pitch prematurely. If your goal is to reach somebody with solid industry contacts and get them to pass along a manuscript, you better have the manuscript finished and handy when you approach them. Trying to network with nothing more than an idea in your pocket is a waste of everybody's time.

Somewhere between the shoestring networkers and the retired general types who figure that the way to land a trade contract is by giving the right orders to the right people with the right inducement, fall the the pay-to-read crowd. These are unpublished authors who are convinced that it's worth paying thousands of dollars to "name" authors or editors providing a vague evaluation plus service. In other words, they'll read a manuscript and offer feedback for a fee, backed by the idea if that if they think it's up to snuff, they'll get it in front of some decision makers. I'm highly skeptical of this model, smells as bad as agents who charge reading fees. I think it's fine to pay an editor or agent "in residence" at a conference or workshop a nominal fee for their time to look over a manuscript AND meet with you about the prospects. But I would actively discourage anybody from spending thousands of dollars for a chance at maybe getting a foot in the door. For that kind of money, all you're going to get is lied to.

Talking To Authors Who Pay To Get Published

This might be my last post for a week or two, depends whether or not they have decent Internet access at the Cape Cod Writer's Center, which I'm attending next week. Since there are going to be a lot of unpublished authors there, I thought I'd do my preaching about paying to get published now, so I don't get sucked into arguments while I'm there.

Anybody who reads this blog knows that I'm not an advocate of paying to get published. I'm a self publishing advocate, which means starting your own publishing company and going into the publishing business. Yet, I'm also on the record stating time and time again that there's nothing wrong or immoral about paying to get published. It's just not a business model. I've heard from authors over the years who have been very happy with subsidy publishers, including some which have horrible, abusive contract terms. The reason these authors are happy? They read the contract before signing, they paid their cash, and they got what they paid for. They didn't have dreams of bestsellers, they weren't trying to make a living, or even a car payment. If you've written a book you want to make available to the public through special ordering or Internet shopping, you don't want to start your own self publishing company, and you can't or won't go through the trade publishing process, subsidy publishers are pretty much the only logical choice.

But, you do have to read the contract, you do have to do your homework about what you are paying for, and you better be prepared for the ridicule of snobs. There are some terrific subsidy published books out there (thanks to the author, not the publisher) and there are some horrible ones. I can say the same thing about trade published books. While there's no question that the editorial quality of books that authors have paid to get published is generally inferior to trade published books, that not the main difference.

The primary difference between trade published books and subsidy published books is commercial viability. Trade publishers don't publish books unless they believe they have a very good chance of earning money, and while they are frequently wrong, it's the main consideration. Trade publishers, after all, are in businesses. Authors who pay to get their books published are often doing so precisely because their books aren't commercially viable.

Earlier this week I heard from an author who had a bad experience with a subsidy press and wanted to know where she could go to publicly warn other authors. In response to that, I wrote:

As to the warning off others, there are plenty of discussion groups where you can vent your spleen, but it probably won't make you feel any better. I'm not unfeeling on the subject, it's just that I've corresponded with thousands of authors in the last ten years. Authors who use subsidy presses and aren't happy with the results may have been lied to or misled, but more often than not, they simply didn't do their homework. They thought they were buying something that nobody can sell, success as an author. Don't get discouraged, if you want to write for a living, keep at it, but make sure you put as much effort into studying the publishing business as you do writing your next book. And don't confuse POD, the technology, with the subsidy presses who use it, they are a minority of the POD business.

Maybe I was little gruff. But when you've been writing about self publishing as a business as long as I have, yet keep hearing from authors who have confused self publishing with paying to get published, you'd occasionally lose your patience as well.

Why Obsolete How-To Books Sell

A couple years into my career as a trade author, I got really irritated that my publisher was keeping a competing how-to book in print that was really bad. I don't mean it was badly written, apparently it was good enough to have sold over 100,000 copies in its heyday. The problem was that it had become obsolete. It was so obsolete that you could not buy the parts needed to carry out the instructions, and they weren't applicable to the newer generation of technology. Yet, the publisher continued printing the book, the bookstores kept on ordering it, and customers kept on buying it.


The simple answer is that customers kept buying the book, so bookstores kept reordering and so the publisher kept reprinting. Unfortunately, the customer was making a mistake, the bookstore was making a mistake and the publisher was making a mistake. The customer, either a budding hobbyist or a parent, can hardly be blamed for buying a basic how-to book that's obsolete. If the budding hobbyist knew enough about the technology to realize that the book was obsolete, the hobbyist wouldn't need the book. Parents have even less ability to judge the suitability of a book for a hobby that isn't even theirs. All these first time buyers have to go on is the appearance, the price, and the fact that the bookstore has the book on the shelf.

Bookstores buyers can't be expected to be experts on every genre of how-to book they carry. All they know is whether or not the book sells and whether or not it gets returned. Most people aren't going to bring back a book that they've bent up, read, and thrown on the floor, not to mention the tear stains. The store buyers see the book is selling, and don't know why a book about technology X shouldn't have the same shelf life as a book about technology Y. Take the example of computers vs squirrel-proof bird feeders. Anybody familiar with the subjects could tell you that squirrels are constantly evolving. And it's not a matter of years in print or the copyright date, some books are obsolete when published. New books that are up-to-date can last six months or six years, but the borderline is usually sharper than non-technical people may expect.

Normally, I'd be happy to blame the publisher, since they are generally in a position to know that they are selling obsolete books. However, with all of the personnel turn-over at the editorial level, it is possible for publishers to lose the internal expertise, such as it is, to realize that they are pushing toilet paper. There's also the problem of the bottom line. For a publisher to declare a title out-of-print while it's still selling through and no replacement is available is a bit of a stretch. Besides, due to differences in the approach and layout of the obsolete title and my title, I don't think the publisher groked that mine was a replacement. The obsolete title continued selling for years before a new edition was finally produced, which they promptly wrapped in "my" cover.

Of all the things that have annoyed me about trade publishers over the years, reprinting and selling obsolete books is the one that hits me in the gut. It's probably because I have memories of buying books as a child and being terribly unhappy, though not because they were obsolete. I'll bet that hundreds of thousands of obsolete or plain useless how-to books are sold every year, and that it many cases, it will be the last how-to book that person buys. But worse than the permanent alienation of customers are all the tearful children and sheepish parents, who in their confusion, yell at their poor kids to "do it anyway."

Falling Bookstore Sales And Amazon

The census bureau just reported their preliminary number for June bookstore sales, and they are down. They aren't just down for June, they've been down, on a year-to-year comparison every month since last September! I keep a running tally of bookstore sales reported by the census bureau on my oft-updated page about industry book sales:

All this is occurring while there's a new Harry Potter book out with record sales and several large publishers have reported sales growth. So what's going on?

The answer, I believe, lies in the small print of the census bureau reports, and where they categorize Amazon. Amazon isn't just the world's largest bookstore, they are either the #2 or #3 book retailer in the US behind Barnes and Noble. The reason I can't tell for sure if they are still behind Borders is that neither retailer breaks out their product mix to the extent where I can separate book sales from CD and DVD sales. And, of course, the comparison is in dollar amounts. If the average book sold by Amazon is appreciably cheaper than the average book sold by Borders, than Amazon is likely selling more books, even ignoring the influence of their Marketplace sales.

But back to the Census Bureau. Their category for bookstores specifically excludes:

"Retailing books via electronic home shopping, mail-order, or direct sale--are classified in Subsector 454, Nonstore Retailers"

The Nonstore Retailers segment has sales nearly 20 times as high the bookstore segment, I should do some forensics to see how it's grown. In any case, Amazon's Media sales have been growing in the double digit percentages, in the mid-teens, for the past five years. It's entirely possible that what the census bureau numbers are really telling us is that brick-and-mortar bookstore sales, despite price inflation, have peaked and are falling, but the publishing industry is still growing, slowly, by the amount of growth shown by Amazon. I'm going to drop them (the Census) a line and make sure I'm interpreting their categories correctly.

Choosing A Self Publishing Guru

In a recent media interview, I told the reporter if he used any quotes from me to attribute them to, "Morris Rosenthal of Foner Books, a self publishing advocate." I'm not a self publishing guru, though I do live on a mountain top, wear funny clothes, and answer questions from truth seekers. A guru in the modern sense is somebody who puts in plenty of road time making public appearances, sits on panels, publishes a newsletter and stays on top of the game with regular book publications. If you're seeking a self publishing guru, I'd start with Dan Poynter. If you're tempted to follow anybody else, I'd do some serious due diligence as to their success stories. That doesn't mean reading the testimonials on their websites or believing what you hear in Internet discussion groups. All that is easier to fake than a Martian driving license. Likewise, publishing conferences are hungry for speakers, just because somebody is introduced as an guru doesn't make them one.

Choosing a self publishing guru, if you're inclined that way, isn't as simple as deciding whether or not to take advice from somebody. I've already written about spotting the self publishing experts amidst all the busy bodies and frauds who raise the noise levels on Internet publishing lists, but a guru has to offer more than good advice on choosing a printer or a distributor. The role of the guru is to embody a whole way of living, or in our case, of doing business, the publishing business. So here are a few things to check for before shaving your head and drinking the Kool-Aid.

#1 Has your potential guru been successful self publishing books on subjects other than self publishing?

#2 Can you find (and talk to) other self publishers who have been making a living for at least a few years following the guru's plan?

#3 Can you find run-of-the-mill self publishing experts who have something nice to say about the guru?

#4 Is it possible to follow the guru without paying the guru hundreds or thousands of dollars? (note, in some cases, a legitimate guru will be happy to accept hundreds or thousands of dollars for personal counseling or seminars, but that doesn't mean they are required to be a follower.)

Aaron Shepard is on his way to becoming the guru of Amazon centric publishing, a model that I've long advocated with caveats about putting all your eggs in one basket and missing other opportunities. But I don't know that Aaron will be willing to bite the bullet of regular newsletters and public appearances, which are a required guru bona-fides. I'm also a fan of Steve Weber's web marketing approach for books and regular blogging. I'm more or less settled in my advocate role since I'm too lazy to write more publishing books and too nutty to charge for my time. Besides, being a guru is a little like being a successful actor who gets typecast or a rock star whose fans want to hear the same songs from twenty or forty years ago. I'm in enough of a rut already without having people admire me for it:-)

Short Discount vs Trade Discount

Small publishers, academic presses and self publishers often get the majority of their sales outside of traditional bookstore channels. It's not some bias on the part of bookstores or chains that leads them to stock their shelves primarily with titles from the large trade publishers, it's a whole combination of factors that smaller publishers frequently choose to ignore. New titles from large trade publishers are a sensible risk for a bookstore to take, since these publishers have proven commercial titles, marketing, offer the trade discount and accept returns. They aren't trying to prove something with their lists, they are trying to make a profit, as are most bookstore buyers. Some small publishers do their best to imitate the the large trades, especially when it comes to the trade discount and accepting returns, but self publishers and academic presses who aren't counting on bestsellers often look at the discount math from a different perspective.

When publishers talk about the "trade discount", they mean the standard discount off the cover price at which the publisher sells books to resellers. It would be better to call this the wholesale discount, because bookstores call the "trade discount" the percentage off the cover price they buy books at. When the buyer is a bookstore or chain purchasing direct from the publisher, the wholesale discount and the trade discount may meet at the same percentage:-) Normally the wholesale discount is between 50% and 57%, 55% is probably the most quoted number by small publishers since it was the standard Ingram figure for years. Specialty distributors may demand a discount between 60% and 70%, in return for pushing the book (maybe) and financially failing (frequently). The wholesale discount does not lock-in how much the bookstores buying through distribution will pay for the book, you can generally assume that somewhere between 10% to 30% of the cover price will remain with the distributor or wholesaler. If a middleman anywhere between the publisher and the individual book buyer doesn't feel they are earning enough profit by handling the book, they may resticker the book to a higher price than the original cover price, or charge a sourcing fee.

Publishers who conclude that their books will never be stocked in brick-and-mortar bookstores and look to Amazon, direct sales and special sales for their earnings, are better off selling at a short discount if they can. In some cases, publishers will fool around with assigning titles a higher cover price than they really want to sell it for and count on Amazon to discount the book when it's sold to them at 55% off the cover. This discounting to target retail pricing is neither automatic nor a cure-all, since buyers who try to special order the title through bookstores will almost certainly be quoted the cover price. Publishers who use Lightning Source for on-demand printing and access to distribution can choose any number between a very short discount 20% and the wholesale discount of 55%. The discount chosen affects both the price at which the title will be sold to brick-and-mortar bookstores and the price to Amazon,, and other e-tailers and middlemen.

Currently, a publisher who sells primarily through Amazon can more than double their profit by assigning the short discount of 20% rather than the default 55% as long as the cover price is set sufficiently higher than the on-demand printing cost. I don't have any titles at 20% myself, I just don't see the extra $0.75 per book it would earn me over a 25% discount being worth skating that close to the hole in the ice. I also doubt if the one title of mine getting stocked in a number of Barnes&Noble stores, thanks to demand and the fact I accept returns, would survive on the shelves if I went to the ultimate short discount. The trade-off between setting different discounts is one that publishers who don't get the majority of their sales through bookstores shelf presence should carefully consider. If your marketing allows you to steer customers to the retail outlet you choose, that gives you even more flexibility in determining the ultimate discount and cover price.

Cape Cod Writers Conference

I'm in the process of signing up for the Cape Cod Writers Conference, or maybe the official name uses "Center" rather than "Conference". I've gotten as far as reserving a room for Aug 19th through the 24th at the conference center which belongs to the Unitarians. That's practically in the family. An uncle of mine, while serving as president of a college town Jewish congregation, was approached by the local Unitarians with a merger offer! My sole business outing last year was for an Internet conference, and I realized I haven't been to any author oriented events since I quit the Author's Guild.

The room reservation being set, I'm having some trouble deciding which sessions to attend. A close reading of the course descriptions left me with the impression that most of them are essentially workshops. I'm frankly more interested in a passive classroom experience at this point. I'd rather get a structured lecture series from somebody who knows their stuff than random thoughts from fellow writers, which I already get plenty of by e-mail:-) I'm leaning towards two full week sessions, "WRITING COMICS" by Peter David, and "CREATIVE NONFICTION" by Mel Donalson. I don't know anything about comics, though I've dabbled with cartoons in a few of my books, and the creative nonfiction course looked more like a lecture series than the others.

I'm often chided by friends, including one who is a working actor in NYC, over avoiding anything resembling performances myself. Part of it is pure neurosis, I've always hated public speaking, and while I've always been able to do it when I had to, part of the fun of being self employed is not having to do things you really don't like. The other part is that I'm sufficiently competitive that when drawn into public discussions, I find myself trying to take over the room, which isn't so nice for the programmed speaker or the participants. It took me a decade of attending lectures just to reach the point where I didn't HAVE to ask a follow up question.

So, I figure I'll register, show up, and try to keep my mouth shut for at least the first few days. If nothing else, it should give me some fresh blog material, maybe I'll even get a guest entry from somebody. And since it's on Cape Cod, if I don't like it, I can always go swimming instead.

What Self Publishing Means To Me

Recently I've corresponded with several knowledgeable authors who were vacillating between self publishing and signing a(nother) trade contract. They were all fully cognizant of the trade-offs involved in trade authoring, and were trying to decide whether or not to go the self publishing route for a particular title. I'm stressing "particular title" because it's important to note that self publishing and trade publishing coexist. In some instances, a self published title will sold to a trade publisher, in other instances, the author may write both for trades and for self publication.

I can, and have, made all sorts of arguments as to why self publishing will often result in a higher pay day for a work-a-day nonfiction writer. But the main attraction of self publishing for me is being the boss. Self publishing means retaining the right to do whatever I want with my work, including licensing it, packaging it in different versions of books that may include other contributors, or simply selling out down the road. Authors who are confronted with the decision of whether or not to sign a trade contract end up concentrating on the terms they have a chance of altering: royalties, advances, foreign rights, editorial input, non-compete and out of print clauses. The forest that gets missed for the trees is giving up ownership of the work.

That loss of control doesn't mean much to authors who have no publishing ambitions of their own and who are willing to accept that the trade publisher will manage the title with the best interests of the author at heart. But it doesn't always work that way. Correction, it doesn't usually work that way. The reasons are myriad, from young and inexperienced staff at trade publishers not being good at their jobs to old and experienced staff being wrong or stubborn. The interests of the publisher and the author can simply diverge due to other titles in the publisher's list that compete with the author's or require more attention due to higher initial investments, or due to restructuring and changes in the business plan that come and go as often as editors. To an author with one title in print, the decision to sell into a major retailer at a deep discount for branding purposes or to redesign the book to fit a series can have a major impact on the sales and on integrity of the work. For the publisher with hundreds or thousands of titles in print, what the affect will be on one author isn't even a consideration.

I'm currently trying to decide what to do with a healthy chunk of a new book that's in the draft stage and drawing enthusiastic visitors online. I may publish it, with additions of my own, as a companion to another book of mine. I may work with another author to create a more comprehensive work with a much higher cover price. I may try to license the work to the trade publisher with the leading book in the genre, or I may do all three. Self publishing means that I don't have to give up on the work after the first publication, or wait for a trade publisher to decide on a new edition (and what their marketing people want to see inside). Self publishing means that I'll never have to watch one of my books die a lingering death because of decisions made by an apparatchik at a trade publisher.

The Copyright Agency Of China

A little over a year ago, I got the following email - from a Hotmail address
Dear Morris Rosenthal:

I am a staff working in Copyright Agency of China that is a state-established organization that provides service in the field of copyright and found in 1988 and a unique all-round Copyright Agency. We cooperate with many major publishers at home and are empowered to inquire about one book license to Chinese simplified character copyright shown below:

Print-on-Demand Book Publishing: A New Approach To Printing And Marketing Books For Publishers and Self-Publishing Authors (ISBN 0-9723801-3-2).

PLS give me more details for granting Chinese copyright, could you send three reading copies to me?

Add: 5F,Wuhua building, 4A Chegongzhuang Street, Beijing, China P.C.: 100044
We are looking forward to having cooperation with you in future.
Thanks a lot
Ms Jing Yuan
My response read:

We don't generally grant translation rights for any of our titles, just too complicated in the Internet age. However, if a publisher from China wants to contact us directly, we're always happy to talk. Negotiating with an anonymous person writing from a Hotmail address isn't an option:-)


Well, negotiating with a person using a Hotmail address DID turn out to be an option. Obviously, I was skeptical, in no hurry to send reading copies to China, etc. But Jing was persistent, lined up one deal that fell through with a prestigious university press (my fault, I sort of talked them out of it), and then found yet another publisher. The contract negotiations were swift enough, the contract they sent had been written by an American lawyer for another author, my own lawyer asked for a two small changes, which they made. In the meantime, I went to the trouble of asking Jing the name of an established American publisher they had worked with, called the editor there, and heard that the Copyright Agency of China was on the up-and-up.

Then they asked me for my bank account information and my social security numbers for paying the advance. Ersh. I may be paranoid, but I've already had a go-around with identity theft and wasn't in a hurry to open myself to potential problems from a new continent. I set up a new business bank account with a new tax ID, the transfer failed a couple times, bank gave me the wrong routing number, whatever, and finally I told her to send a check or the deal was off. The check arrived this week, $789.19 (the 10% fee and various mailing and copying expenses came off the $1000 advance), and the FBI hasn't showed up at my door yet, so I assume everything is good.

The royalties were 7% of list price on the first 5000 copies and 8% thereafter. With a target list price of 20 RMB (around $2.50), I'd have to sell something over 5,000 copies to sell out the advance, so I hope all of my Chinese readers rush out and buy 1,000 copies each:-) The main point of my earlier blog post discouraging self publishers from chasing foreign rights deals proved to be true. It was a distraction, took up a good deal of time and worry, and isn't part of my basic business model. Translations and foreign rights may contribute a little to the bottom line, but unless you have a title you expect would do better in a foreign country than at home, it's just not something I'd recommend pursuing. On the other hand, if they pursue you...