A Bit of Priming on Publishing, Part 3

Next in my ramblings about fiction authors dealing with publishing options and factors from the SFFWorld thread conversation, this one dealing with literary agents:

Okay, moving on in the panoply of questions to literary agents. Literary agent was a career that developed in the Victorian period (in Britain first,) and early twentieth century because a lot of publishers were bad about reporting sales and paying authors what they were owed (something that continued in lesser amounts and can still sometimes happen with presses.) The bulk of publishing was a type of self-pub, with publishers acting as printer/distributors. Publishers would select which books they would print and thought would sell, but the author would pay for the production and costs. The publishers would distribute and sell the books, also often being the booksellers, take their cuts and give the remainder to the authors.

There was also serial publishing in newspapers and magazines, where the author was paid by the word and then the collected serial was published as a book (Dickens,) and the media moguls of these publications often also did books (the beginnings of media corporations.) Businesses developed comic books and paper chapbooks (penny dreadfuls, dime novels.) Authors did plays which were performed and then turned into printed folios or novels. Contracts became more standard and complicated, copyright law developed. Part of publishing started shifting to a license arrangement that we know today with the publisher obtaining an exclusive license contract from the author, paying all costs of distribution and production and paying the author royalties, while other mediums developed different practices and some of the market remained self-pub.

Into all that came the agents, who are free-lance contractors who work for authors in return for a percentage of the authors’ earnings. Because their income depends on their authors, agents have to be solicited and convinced to invest their time, contacts and money into working with a particular author/book, and agents can only represent so many authors effectively at a time. Agents act as sales representatives and business managers for authors. They are marketers first off, keeping in contact with publishers and others about what they are looking for, helping authors package and prep submissions and then submitting those to licensees of books and other forms and trying to get them to buy the licenses. Agents negotiate verbal contractual terms that make the initial deal and the terms of the written contract that solidifies the deal, and advise authors on these deals. Agents advocate for authors to get the full publisher support, usually by nagging the editor, the in-house advocate for the book. Agents watch and pressure to make sure that publishers live up to contractual terms, go over royalty statements and get additional sales info from publishers and collect all monies owed to the author. They take their cut and agreed upon expenses reimbursed, and then get the rest to the authors through what are called trust accounts.

They are not in charge of publicity but they do usually try to help and advise authors with some publicity, connect authors to publicity resources, publicize authors as part of their client list, and nag the publisher for every bit of promotion support they can get. They help the author plan out career moves and next projects in line with the authors’ personal goals and market factors. They market and negotiate subsidiary rights licenses to publishers in foreign language territories, and to audio, dramatic rights, etc., that the author has retained and not granted to the book publisher. These subsidiary rights, especially foreign territory book rights, can often bring in a lot more income than the home territory book license deal. Those subsidiary rights licenses that are granted to the publisher, the agent nags the publisher to either produce or sub-license, especially paperback issues if the first publication was hardcover. If there are legal problems and disputes, the agent offers limited legal advice (or full if the agent is also a lawyer as some are,) and helps the author get a lawyer. Agents are the go-betweens for authors and their publishers, usually being the bad guy nagging about financial issues so the author can have a nice editorial relationship with their editor. There’s a lot of other stuff that agents do, but those are some of the main ones.

Agents know that they may find a good property from any type of author anywhere, so unlike the screenwriting biz and other creative industries, the barriers to submitting to them are not high and you don’t have to know someone to get in, though if you can connect with an agent at a convention, writing conference or place they are actively looking for authors, that can help you in submitting. If they are open to submissions from authors, they are actively looking and examine all submissions, though they will concentrate on submissions that fit the areas of fiction they are interested in repping (though exceptions to those specialties often occur.) If an agent is happy with their client list, the agent might solicit some people they hear about but otherwise, they simply stop taking any submissions.

If an agent is willing to represent an author after looking at their stuff, and the author likes the agent, they sign an agency contract which spells out how their business relationship is going to work. That includes things like what happens when an agent sells an author’s book and is in charge of handling the monies from that license as the agent of record, but then the author and agent break up and the author gets another agent, (usually that the first agent continues to get commission on the license they sold, and handles monies from the first license, in coordination with the author and second agent.) And how marketing expenses the agency incurs are going to work. Some of those terms are negotiable, and some are not if you want to work with that agent. In general, it is not in an agent’s best interest to screw over or financially imperil author clients, so there is flexibility. That doesn’t mean that authors don’t have to pay attention to what their agent is or is not doing for them and authors need to communicate clearly about their questions, concerns and needs with an agent. It is important to remember that agents are not mind readers nor your mommy. They are yet another kind of business partner, one way more tied to your success than publishers.

Publishers also understand that a fiction property they think can sell can come from anywhere, which is why even the big ones held onto “slush” piles for as long as they could and a few imprints in big houses still do, as well as smaller presses. Consequently, they understand that an agent, even a new agent without much of a client list yet, can possibly bring them a number of useful authors and are generally welcoming to all agents (not high barriers.) That gives agents, with multiple authors and the possibility of authors, more leverage in the market than a single author can have. Agents can often get better terms and royalty rates, although not always. Sometimes foot in the door deals are necessary to get the author positioned for better license sales later on. If an agent gets a set of terms for an author with a publishing house, the agent can negotiate precedent to get the same terms for other author clients with that publishing house. Publishers put up with multiple submissions to publishers and book auctions where publishers bid against each other from agents because again the agent has the leverage of an author list and potential authors down the road. It’s much harder, though not impossible, for a lone author to do that sort of thing. It’s not always necessary to do it — sometimes an exclusive submission to an editor nets a good offer and a lot of the time, it’s unlikely that there will be multiple interest to produce an auction.

The percentage of the population that regularly reads and buys books has stayed relatively stable, but the number of authors who want to publish books, including very often fiction ones, has increased dramatically, starting in the 1980’s, when the wholesale market was still operating full bore and bestselling authors still sometimes got to be guests on talk shows. And publishers’ operations got more complicated with more types of products, marketing demands, and more books produced. So it became less and less viable for bigger houses to have their junior staff spend hours and hours of time hunting through unsolicited submissions, especially when the wholesale market dropped and they didn’t necessarily need a horde of paperback authors and had fewer vendors. So over time, imprint by imprint, larger houses closed their doors to unsolicited submissions (an exception being category romance publishers and for a long time, SFF imprints.) That meant they looked at either author submissions they solicited — they contact the author or agree the author can send them something from a conference encounter for that purpose, etc., or submissions from agents that editors agreed to see. So agents have become the first readers and treasure hunters for publishers, although they work for authors. But lots of unagented authors do still end up working with big houses, smaller houses and self-pub — even before 2008 and the e-book market.

Agents do work with medium and small presses. Bigger houses pay advances and better ones and sometimes an advance is all the author gets from the license. But sometimes because of the property’s nature or because it hasn’t sold to bigger houses, agents are placing books at smaller houses. Some agents also represent smaller presses as agents — selling subsidiary rights for them of their licenses — reprint and paperback reprint deals to bigger houses, licenses to foreign country territories, audio rights, dramatic rights if the small press has them, etc. Far from seeing small presses as rivals, bigger houses see small presses as farm teams from whom talent can be found that’s gotten a bit of a record with the small press, thus giving an income boost to small presses as well as the authors.

Likewise, agents do work and always have worked with self-pub authors, as if the author is a press, which they are. They rep the self-pub authors for reprint deals with publishers, for original deals on properties the authors don’t want to self-pub (hybrid,) and for subsidiary rights just like with the small presses — foreign country territories, audio, dramatic rights, etc. If a self-pub author builds up a customer base, it’s not at all unusual for that author to get a literary agent to go bigger and be able to sell rights that it’s harder for authors to sell themselves. Even self-pub authors don’t necessarily want to have spend time negotiating for a deal for Korean or Polish print, and/or electronic rights, if they can even find those publishers, and agents help collect and manage monies and contracts. And the reality is, for the handful of authors who face being able to sell dramatic rights licenses, you need a literary agent and/or a film agent to avoid getting ripped off. Dramatic contracts are nasty and they are usually for a license throughout the universe in perpetuity. That’s the actual legal language.

Agents have been negotiating with publishers to adapt and improve electronic rights issues, including reserving electronic rights licenses, since the 1990’s, when electronic print went from a sleepy little used right thrown in with the publisher’s license to a potentially viable additional market, and again when Google decided that they wanted to copy every text published and offer them online without paying a dime to authors and license holders. And they went into high gear after the Kindle launch, dealing with an exploding market, the birth of many more electronic publishers, and re-negotiating old contracts as well as new ones. While some things have gotten a bit more standardized, these negotiations are still on-going and just about every sort of arrangement possible in the electronic market has been going on as we figure out exactly how the electronic market is going to work. With podcasts and streaming, the audio market, while still small, also got a really big boost from the days of CD’s, and required a lot of negotiations. Publishers understandably but often obnoxiously have tried to lock down as many rights to be part of their license as possible with the new product lines, but agents with big clients have been able to leverage terms, which then has a ripple effect throughout the whole industry. There are also a lot of e-book publishers now and a lot of them are doing novellas — shorter works. That sometimes involves agents and sometimes it doesn’t.

Again, far from seeing self-pub authors as a threat or a problem, publishers regard the self-pub market as a dipping pool in which millions of titles try to get an audience and the ones that bubble to the top, they solicit for reprint or foreign pub rights deals. The expansion of the self-pub market has simply expanded that relationship in the market. Some big self-pub authors have tried reprint deals, especially to help with print distribution, and found that they don’t like it, the terms, and that their particular publisher didn’t do what they wanted for their careers. Some have done it and had it helped boost their careers and sales considerably and give them more time to write. A number of self-pub authors have turned themselves into small presses publishing or reprinting other self-pub authors, mainly for the print market — and we will again I think see more collective group workings among self-pub authors — it helps them with book vendors because it’s more than one author and they can give better terms to vendors. And agents will be a part of that, whenever there are licenses involved.


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