We recently reported that the Borders bookstore chain had agreed to retail a publisher's (HarperStudio) books on a nonreturnable basis. This plan flies in the face of a century of bookselling tradition. That it is a lousy tradition and a leading cause of the current calamitous state of the publishing and bookselling industries is more than sufficient reason to celebrate the HarperStudio/Border initiative and wish the parties success.
Whether they will achieve it depends on how effective is the publisher's strategy of according a higher discount to the chain - ranging from 58% to 63% - than the current publishing industry average of 50-56%. As enthusiastically as we are rooting for it to work, however, previous attempts do not give cause for optimism. Over the last few decades, publishers have talked endlessly about selling books on a nonreturnable basis and a few have tried to break the hammerlock of tradition. Some of the bolder experiments, such as one attempted in 1980 by what was then known as Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, failed. That endeavor was by no means a debacle, but it was enough to sound a retreat that that has pretty much prevailed to this day.
Since high discounts stimulate sales in so many other kinds of business, it is perfectly logical for publishers to reason that if they can raise their discounts substantially, bookstores will feel less resistant to accepting merchandise now considered marginal, such as first novels, midlist books, experimental fiction, and slower-moving backlist books - literature that is progressively being frozen out of the marketplace by the blockbuster mentality. Unfortunately, past efforts failed for lack of cooperation among all the sectors of the publishing community.
Specifically they failed, first, because bookstores do not want to get stuck with unsalable merchandise; second, because it was thought the discounts weren't high enough to induce booksellers to create effective "remainder in place" programs in their stores; and third, because high discounts cut too deeply into publishers' profit margins.
As circumstances today are no different than those of the past (and it would not be out of line to argue they are a lot worse), how can publishers possibly consider raising their discounts higher than they already are without cutting even further into slim profit margins? With printing and paper, salaries and rents, production and warehousing and freight and other costs at all-time highs, there doesn't seem to be anything left to trim. Or has something been overlooked?
As a matter of fact, something has. It happens to be the way royalties are calculated. There may be a different way to do it. It means radically reconfiguring the way publishers compensate authors. Years ago I floated such a proposal. Actually, "float" is a misnomer, since it sank like a cast-iron anchor. But I have hauled it up from the depths of oblivion in the hope that it might stay afloat, buoyed by the current financial crisis besetting the publishing industry. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
By way of background, a story:
In the 1960s, the management of a major paperback company, Fawcett, offered an unconventional proposition to authors. They could elect to continue receiving royalties based on copies sold. Or, they could instead choose to receive a lower royalty based on copies distributed. In those days royalties on the average started at 6% on copies sold. Fawcett offered to pay 4% on copies distributed. Returns were not counted in the compensation.
For authors it was a classic bird-in-the-hand-vs.-two-in-the-bush challenge. On the surface the answer seemed logical enough: 6% was higher than 4%. But when returns were folded into the calculations, they reduced the net paid to authors to 4% anyway. When authors analyzed Fawcett's either/or, they realized that there was no difference between the royalty on books sold after returns and one on books distributed before returns.
Fawcett paid advances like everyone else and recouped them out of royalties like everyone else, too. But once the advance was recouped, authors did not have to wait for years for full settlement, or puzzle out how much their publisher had withheld in reserves: they had already been paid in full. Within thirty days of each new distribution authors would receive an accounting of the number of copies shipped multiplied by the royalty per copy, and a check accompanied the statement. Anyone wishing to verify the distribution figures could do so easily enough by requesting printing and distribution affidavits. Payments were prompt and dependable, the bookkeeping elementary and transparent.
Everyone made out well under the Fawcett scheme, and generally speaking, authors loved it. This publisher understood something very important about them: most would rather get $1,000 now, without hassle, than gamble on the hope of collecting $1,500 over four or five years with a lot of hassle.
It was a good arrangement for Fawcett, too. Royalty bookkeeping was elementary, requiring a few bookkeepers armed with pencils, paper, and adding machines. I don't know what Fawcett did with the percentage points saved, but it makes sense that they might have used the savings to offer higher discounts to induce stores not to return books.
Unfortunately, Fawcett eventually discontinued this arrangement, probably under the pressure of rising returns, which escalated from a manageable level in the 1960s to the 50-75% dumpfest of the current era.
As creative as the Fawcett scheme was, it was not adopted by the entire publishing industry. But... what if it were? Putting it in terms of today's publishing economics, here's a hypothetical example. Suppose your publisher distributes 100,000 copies of your $8 mass market paperback and your contract calls for an 10% royalty based on the list price - $.80 a copy. Under the conventional accounting system the total royalty would be $80,000 if the book sold out. But it won't sell out: 50% of the 100,000 copies shipped will be returned. You will end up receiving $40,000. And you'll end up receiving it over a period of three, four, five years or more.
Suppose instead your contract were structured so that your publisher paid you a 4% royalty instead of 8%, but paid you on the day the 100,000 copies were shipped to bookstores. You would get the same $40,000. But - you'd get it right away.
For author, publisher, bookseller and consumer here is much to recommend serious consideration of this plan:
From the author's viewpoint:
* Authors receive the same royalties that they do now, but much earlier
* Dependable royalty accounting enables authors to budget income more reliably
* Transparent royalty accounting reduces author distrust of publishers
From the publisher's viewpoint:
* Print runs are more realistic
* Distribution of books more efficient
* Royalty accounting simplified substantially, creating savings in bookkeeping personnel and supporting overhead
* Money saved on reduced returns and accounting costs raises profitability
* Savings can be applied toward increased discounts to booksellers, encouraging nonreturnability
* Antagonism between publishers and authors would be reduced greatly
From the bookseller's viewpoint:
* Because of higher discounts, cost of stock reduced
* Wasteful overordering or overshipping reduced
* More cash liberated for purchasing new stock
* Freight, labor and bookkeeping expenses connected with returning books eliminated
* Slow-moving books remain in`stores and remaindered in place
* Hostility between booksellers and publishers reduced
From the consumer's viewpoint:
* More books available at discounted prices, and more at remainder prices as well
* Good backlist books remain in stores for longer periods
* Access to heavily marked-down books gives lower-income consumers access to them, helping to raise literacy levels.
From an environmental viewpoint:
As things are structured today, the only way to sell a thousand copies of a book is to print two thousand. The unsold stock goes back to publishers' warehouses and/or is pulped. Given the destruction of our forests to feed the crazy system of overprinting that governs the publishing industry today, elimination of this horrible waste will contribute to a greener book industry.
The publishing industry must shift to a nonreturnable standard, and this royalty model offers one way to facilitate the shift without harming any member of the publishing ecosystem. I hope it will float a little longer this time than it did the last.
Whenever an author asks me if he should show a publishing contract to his attorney, I emit a noise not unlike that of a rutting moose whose girlfriend has just trotted into the woods with his rival. "Please," I beg, "anything but that. Take my firstborn. Take my condo, even. But don't show your contract to a lawyer. He won't understand."
My attitude is by no means unique. Many publishing people consider lawyers to be humorless spoilsports placed on our planet to raise hypothetical questions about events that have only the remotest possibility of coming to pass. In response to our reassurances that "it will never happen" or "it doesn't work that way," they smugly cite Gumbo v. Dittersdorf et al. and send groaning agents back to the negotiating table to haggle over the nuances of such words as "book," "pay," and "publish." And whenever a breach of contract is imagined, these learned jurists are right there with their lawyer-letters, writs, petitions, and injunctions to hold the offending party to the explicit meaning of the contractual provision.
Most of the lawyers I know don't fit this caricature. They make serious efforts to understand the unique nature of publishing law; they are reasonable, thoughtful, realistic, and no more venal than anyone else; and they regard litigation as an extremely distasteful last resort. Nevertheless, by the very nature of their profession, lawyers tend to be extremely literal-minded about the language of contracts. And, sad to say, the literal language of publishing contracts is enough to induce cardiac infarction in even the most liberal of attorneys.
Lawyers ofttimes use legal precedents and forensic experiences that may be germane to coal mining, automobile manufacture, and real estate transactions, but are hardly applicable to publishing situations. Once attorneys are engaged, however, they an obligation to produce results for their fees. It is hard for me to believe that an attorney being paid $300 or $400 an hour or more will read a contract and hand it back to his client saying, "Looks okay to me," or, "I'd say your agent did everything that I would have done." It is far more likely that he will raise those hypothetical questions and will not be satisfied with an agent's breezy assurances that if This or That happens, it'll be taken care of. After all, most agents don't have law degrees, and while their experience must be respected, how can they predict with any certainty that This or That, or, even worse, The Other Thing, will not happen? Thus do agents frequently find themselves pushed by lawyers into composing contractual language applicable only to the red end of the probability spectrum.
The involvement of lawyers in publishing contract negotiations often polarizes situations that might otherwise be settled through negotiation. Publishers hate lawsuits and with a few exceptions (described below) will do almost anything to avoid them. While litigation is certainly the ultimate weapon in a dispute, agents are adept at working out compromises that are scarcely different from settlements forged by lawyers after protracted litigation. The difference is that the agent performs gratis the same function for which a lawyer might charge thousands of dollars.
Most authors hold the legal profession in the same awe in which they hold the medical one. I would recommend a healthy dose of skepticism and common sense when it comes to dealing with the former, however. Practitioners of the law are of women born like the rest of us. Their actions are often dictated by their emotions, their convictions guided by who pays them and how much, and they make as many mistakes and misjudgments as surgeons, engineers, or stockbrokers (or literary agents for that matter).
You should regard contracts the same way. Contracts are solemn undertakings, yes, but they are not sacred covenants written in heavenly fire. Too many authors regard contracts as rigid structures of legal language constructed to thwart and constrain them. Actually they are flexible tools when used skillfully, and can liberate as well as restrict.
In the relations between publishers and authors or publishers and agents, a great many factors balance the literal language of contracts. Custom and tradition, market conditions, practicalities, and, above all, the power of the players affect the way any given contractual provision gets implemented, ignored, or defied. Let's look at some examples.
Not all contracts provide for a grace period in case an author delivers a manuscript late. Yet I have seldom heard of a publisher canceling a contract at the stroke of midnight on the day a manuscript is due. For practical purposes, a manuscript that is days, weeks, even a month or two late, can still be published on time without undue strain on the editorial or production staffs of a publisher. Now, an attorney may insist on specifying a grace period in a client's contract. Publishers don't like grace periods because they give authors another reason to be late, and authors have too many such reasons already. A zealous attorney might feel that that's a deal-breaker. In practice, if your publisher says, "Try to meet your deadline, but don't sweat it if you're a few weeks late," you can rely on that assurance ninety-nine times out of a hundred.
Friendships between agents and publishers mitigate the stringent language of publishing contracts. Despite a strict option clause requiring an author to deliver his next book to his publisher, on the strength of a tight friendship and an appeal to the goodness of an editor's heart an agent can often arrange for a one-time waiver of the option clause in order for the author to take on a project for another publisher - as long as that project doesn't compete with the work the author is doing for his regular publisher. "Thanks, I owe you one" is a common phrase heard in our business, and when the time comes for the publisher to lean on an agent for the return of favors, the agent may have to twist his client's arm a little to tidy up the debits and credits in the ledgers of obligation. Try to explain this system to a lawyer!
The most important factor by far in tempering the rigidity of publishing contracts is power. Don't let anyone tell you that might does not make right. While the language of any contractual provision may be plain as day, enforcing it is quite another matter if you don't have the money, status, influence, or leverage to do so. A first novelist has very little influence over a rich, powerful publisher, and no matter what his contract may say, it's going to be hard to compel his publisher to live up to every letter of his contract. If the author is a big name, however, the publisher's eager compliance may certainly be counted on. Indeed, a powerful author or agent can compel a publisher to do things that are not in the contract. For instance, few contracts grant approval of or even consultation on cover art or jacket and advertising copy to garden variety authors. Yet big-namers are routinely consulted about such matters, and if they don't like them they may well be able to get them changed or thrown out.
When contractual disputes arise, the interpretation that prevails usually belongs to the party with the most clout. Nine times out of ten that's the publisher. An individual author of no particular influence may be able to enhance his legal leverage if he is represented by a strong agent, however. The agent who has a large and important clientele in, say, romance fiction may be able to gain advantages for an author who otherwise would have little standing against a publisher and who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.
One of the most important things that experienced agents know is precisely which issues publishers are prepared to take get tough about and which they will back down on. Authors who owe refunds of advances to publishers because of undelivered or rejected manuscripts are often harassed but seldom sued because it's too expensive for the publisher, as well as bad public relations. If there is a lot of money involved, however, a publisher may well go to the mat to recover its advance, or to resist having to pay the balance due on acceptance. The publisher's motive isn't entirely financial. Such disputes focus on an important issue: is an advance a loan recoverable by a publisher if the author fails to meet his obligation? Or is it instead a nonrecoverable investment? Publishers take the former position, but a powerful agent may well be able to mitigate it and work out a compromise or less than Draconian repayment schedule.
Another issue that publishers are not afraid to go to court over is breaches of the author's contractual warranties, especially those for libel. With damages, settlements, legal and court costs, and insurance premiums reaching Olympian heights, most publishers are, I would say, prepared to sue authors they perceive to have dealt with them in bad faith.
Finally, publishers tend to get rather cranky about authors who play fast and loose with their option clauses, particularly big-money authors. The trend over the last decade or so has been for publishers to write more elaborate and tighter option clauses so that star authors cannot capriciously duck out of their obligations when another publisher waves a big check at them. I must say that option clauses are for agents what elaborate locks are for safecrackers. But even if you, your agent, or your lawyer discover a tiny loophole through which to escape from the necessity of submitting your next book to your publisher, there is nothing to guarantee that your publisher won't rattle the saber at you anyway.
Other than breaching the acceptance, warranty, and option provisions of your contract, there aren't too many offenses you can commit that will land you in court, and even these may be worked out through negotiation most of the time. The same is true, perhaps even more so, for breaches or perceived breaches of contract by publishers. I can think of few so flagrant as to be worth an author's while to prosecute to the bitter end. The threat of a lawsuit, and its attendant bad publicity, may force a negotiated settlement that nets you as much as you would win in a full-blown lawsuit after you have paid legal costs. It you win, that is.
I say all this as a counterpoise to any boasts your lawyer may make that you have an open-and-shut case. Lawyers do their clients a disservice by encouraging them to think there is such a thing as an easy and inexpensive victory. Don't forget that it was an unagented writer, William Shakespeare, who wrote, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
I recently read Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin's Three Cups of Tea, the fascinating non-fiction account of how Mortenson, a mountain climber and American nurse, came to build fifty-five schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In one of my favorite parts of the book, Mortenson describes a 1998 talk he gave in a sports shop in Apple Valley, Minnesota, where the store staff was so busy he had to set up the seating -- over a hundred folding chairs -- himself. After weeks of publicity, including posters at a local college, an AM radio morning show interview, and segments in the local papers, he faced an audience of only three people: two store employees and a single customer, who hovered at the back of the room. Though he was dejected at the small showing and exhausted by his continual efforts at fundraising, Mortenson decided to give his talk anyway and began showing slides of K2's infamous summit and the eighteen schools he'd built so far in Pakistan’s remote and impoverished countryside. As he spoke, Mortenson felt a renewed enthusiasm for his work and his devotion to the Pakistani people and gave his all to the presentation, even though his audience was small.
When he finished, the lone customer disappeared, but the two employees approached him. One gave him ten dollars, while the other offered to volunteer his construction skills in Asia. Mortenson thanked them and then, as he picked up the brochures he'd set out on the chairs, he noticed an envelope on the last chair in the last row, where the customer had been sitting. In the envelope, Mortenson found a personal check, made out to his foundation, for twenty thousand dollars.
There is an important lesson here for all authors who initially see very little return on investment for the hours and dollars they spend promoting their books. Although a few lucky ones experience instant success when their books are published, the majority do not. Most writers, especially those who are publishing a book for the first time, can expect months and even years of effort, including building websites, posting on blogsites, giving interviews, sending out contest applications, presenting at speaking engagements, and hosting blog and book tours that don't pan out to much in sales. And in our recently diminished economy, where consumers are pulling back on their expenditures, the return on an author's promotional investment is lower than ever.
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But, as Mortenson's story reminds us, opportunities exist (and sometimes abound) in every venture we undertake, and bad economy or no, there is always the possibility that a single investment of time and effort will somehow result in some good. Even a book signing with only one or two attendees can turn out to be worthwhile, especially if one of the two people there happens to be one of Oprah’s producers, say, or a movie studio executive looking for a new idea for a script. We never know who will see our ads, read about us in a local newspaper article, stumble across our blog, or sit at the back of empty rows of chairs at a bookstore or university talk.
As another famous impoverished author, Henry David Thoreau, once said, "In the long run, we only hit what we aim at." Although the results we seek may not always come as quickly as we'd like, with persistence, patience, and good promotional guidance and execution, they eventually appear -- sometimes when we least expect them.
Aim often and high.
Paula Margulies is a book publicity and promotions expert in San Diego, California. You can reach her at email@example.com, or visit her website at www.paulamargulies.com.
I was perusing that recent article at Poets and Writers, the one where they put four agents in a room and got them talking. Most of it is 101, of course, but useful advice nonetheless.
I liked the following because it reflects my own frustrations with writers who are too ignorant to be truly dedicated to the craft:
Tell me some common problems that you see in the work of beginning writers.
ZUCKERBROT: In a lot of cases, the story just sort of wanders off. You can say, "Well, there's great dialogue. There's great this or that." But if there's no real story anchoring it, who really cares, at the end of the day? You can have great characters, you can have interesting ideas, but there needs to be some narrative momentum, some narrative thrust.
LAZAR: I would say to start the story where the story starts. So often, the story doesn't actually start until page five. Sometimes it doesn't start until page fifty, but page five can be just as bad. As a reader, you just don't get that far.
KLEINMAN: The big problem I see is that people don't spend enough time with their books before they send them to agents. People are way too focused on getting published and not focused enough on really working on their craft.
BARER: You should revise it, and then you should put it away, and then you should revise it again. If you're going to come back to me in three months and say, "I have a better version that you should look at," then you should not have sent it to me in the first place. It's amazing how many people do that.
KLEINMAN: Or they say, "I knew there was something wrong and I was hoping you wouldn't notice."
ZUCKERBROT: I get those queries that say, "I just finished my novel...." And I think, "Well, now you need to write it three more times."
BARER: Keep working on it for another year. Show it to everybody but me.
If you do something so horrendous as to provoke your agent to declare, "Life is too short," you'd better start looking for someone else to handle your work. It means you have tried his or her patience beyond its limit. You're a walking dead author.
We recently described good timing as one of the most important virtues a literary agent can bring to the job. There's another that most good agents possess, and that's patience. If timing is the art of "when to," patience is the art of "when not to." Unfortunately, that often means when not to knock my head against a wall, wring an author's throat, or hop in a taxi, race over to a Image by Getty Images via Daylifepublisher's office and trash it.
Although some people are born patient, for most of us it's an acquired quality. We attain it only with experience, and it is arguably the only significant benefit of aging.
If you are constitutionally incapable of practicing patience, you are definitely not cut out to become a literary agent. Despite the appearance of furious activity, and notwithstanding such timesaving innovations as multiple submissions, computers, email, laser printers, cell phones, high-speed printers, overnight mail, instant books, and quickie releases, the truth is that just about anything of importance that happens in our industry happens slowly. Good books are written at a snail's pace, submissions take ages, negotiations drag on, money flows like cold lard, and the building of an author's career from first sale to bestselling masterpiece is about as dramatic as watching a lake evaporate. Difficult publishers test our patience, as do difficult authors. If agents seem to have a higher per capita ratio of weekend homes than other professionals, have pity on them: they must have a place to go to chop wood, bay at the moon, and otherwise relieve the strain of holding their natural impulses in check during the other five days a week.
I do not own a weekend home, but I do have a set of molars that have been ground down close to the nerve endings from restraining the desire to commit a variety of felonies in order to make things move faster. Behind a demeanor that one of my clients once described as "judicious" (it was not a compliment) seethes a cauldron of emotions, energy, grievances, and heroic fantasies. I smile, I speak moderately, I behave politely, I move deliberately. I polish my buckler and hone my sword, ear cocked for the call to arms. It may come in the form of a letter, a phone call, an offer, an opportunity, an insult. But I am ready for action.
Meanwhile, I wait.
I wait, for instance, for you to finish your book. Because my agency does a lot of business in paperback original series, I have to wait only a month or two for many books. For most mainstream ones, however, I have to wait nine months, a year, or longer. The potential in these books presses heavily on my consciousness; I'm dying to wheel and deal. But with few exceptions there is little to be done to convert that potential until the manuscript has been turned in, reviewed, critiqued, and revised (once, if I'm lucky). However much I am dying to go into action with that book, I cannot advance the calendar by one day, the clock by one minute. I grind my teeth and wait.
I wait for publishers to make up their minds about my submissions. Decisions on manuscripts can be forced by means of the auction, and when agents have to move fast they can elicit decisions virtually overnight. But most material does not command that kind of attention. The more conventional approach of one submission at a time, or at best two or three simultaneously, is what is usually called for. Like most agencies, we have a reminder calendar and regularly write or phone publishers prodding them to keep the property in question at the top of the pile.
Despite every measure taken to make editors respond to submissions promptly, it is unrealistic to expect decisions in less than six weeks, and quite realistic to expect none in less than three months (at the end of which you discover the manuscript has been lost). If a work isn't placed on the first or second round of submissions, therefore, a year or more can pass with relatively few responses to show for all one's investment of time. So we wait.
We wait to make deals. Deals can be struck in a matter of minutes, but many negotiations take days, weeks, or even months to unfold. With the evolution of publishing from an individual entrepreneurial enterprise to a bureaucratized corporate one, seldom do agents end up negotiating with the principals of a publishing company. Instead we discuss terms with editors, who refer them to superior officers or editorial boards. Several weeks may pass if the appropriate executives are not available to formulate offers or counteroffers. Often, figures have to be worked up by a variety of departments to help the company determine its negotiating strategy. During which time we wait.
We wait for contracts. The people who work in the contract departments of most publishing houses are among the most professional in our industry. Nevertheless, it is seldom possible for them to produce contracts for signature in less than six or eight weeks. After the editor reaches agreement with the author or agent, he prepares a deal memo summarizing the terms of the contract for approval by the head of the company. After approval has been rendered the deal memo goes to the contract department where it serves as the basis for the formal agreement. This agreement is reviewed by the acquiring editor and an officer of the company, then returned to the contract department for final issuance to the agent. After signed contracts are returned to the publisher, they are circulated for signature and a voucher is issued directing the accounts payable department to prepare the check. We now wait for the check.
We wait a long time for the check because in many cases the accounts payable department is not in the same building or even the same state as the contracts department. After receiving the voucher from the contracts department, accounts payable prepares a check that must be reviewed and signed by the treasurer or other officer of the company. It is then forwarded to the contracts department to be issued with the contracts, or sent to the payee directly from the accounts payable office.
If form follows function, publishers could not conceive of a better structure for attenuating the time it takes to release money. Even with all hands working at maximum efficiency - not a very desirable state from the publisher's viewpoint, you must realize, when there is interest to be earned - I figure two to three months is now the industry average for payout from the time check vouchers are issued (add thirty days if it's an emergency). Agents who have managed to map and penetrate the system can keep things moving with phone calls to various departments along the paperwork routes goading delinquent bookkeepers to press on with their tasks. (I am not afraid to alienate the CEO of a publishing company, but I never, ever speak unkindly to clerks in accounting offices.)
And of course, we wait for books to be published and...well, you get the idea; just about everything concerning publishing is a test of an agent's patience. I wish that didn't include authors but why should they be exempted? One of my colleagues in a fit of pique wailed, "Publishing would be great if it weren't for authors." And another, with tongue somewhat in cheek I suspect, created an index for rating his clients. He calls it the PITA factor.
PITA stands for "Pain In The Ass." He assigns his clients a rating from one to ten, depending on such factors as how often they hit him up for loans, how many times they call him at home at six o'clock on Sunday mornings, how many editors they insult, and in general how much maintenance they require beyond routine care and feeding. Their PITA factor is then divided into the commissions earned on their sales. Applying his criteria, an author who earns only $1,000 annually in commissions but is a model client with a PITA factor of 1 is as valuable to his agent as one who earns $10,000 in commissions but, rated at 10, is a raving lunatic. "Life," says my friend, "is too short to have to deal with 10s."
Well, I don't know.As I said at the outset, if you do feel that way, the literary agent's trade is not for you and you should go into something less aggravating, like sewage management or emergency room administration. When it comes to dealing with artists, irritating behavior comes with the territory. And, far more important, think of what they have to put up with. With the rare exception of the author whose first book stuns the critics, sweeps the public off its feet, and soars to the top of the bestseller list, success for most writers is won only after decades of economic struggle, mental anguish, crushing loneliness and obscurity, and the consumption of murderous doses of pride. They spend a lifetime practicing patience, and if they do not always practice it very well, if conditions are difficult when they start out, difficult when they begin to make it, and difficult even when they finally arrive, a larger degree of tolerance is called for on the part of those who serve them, particularly if they've never tried that life themselves. And most agents haven't.
A PITA scale that does not factor in the emotional satisfactions of midwifing first books, of nurturing authors careers as they gain skill and confidence and stretch to realize their visions, and the joy of attending their graduation ceremonies featuring smashing reviews and sales by the trainload, requires some serious rethinking.
Life is not too short if an agent's patience is rewarded with such satisfactions as these. And so, when tried, the wise agent will count to ten, then - realizing things could be worse, that we've heard horror stories of agent-killers with PITA Factors of 20 or worse - we count another ten, sigh and go back to work.
And if you're wondering about my clients?
They're all saints.
This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
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Here is a good piece from Susan Schwartzman on the Writer Unboxed blog:
Recession Proof Your Publicity Campaign
Here is a sample:
We keep hearing the bad news: publishers laying off dozens of staff, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt not acquiring new books until further notice, budgets being slashed – which, of course, means publicity budgets that were rarely that generous in the first place.
The good news is this: there are many things an author can do that costs absolutely nothing and that will translate into booksales.
For those of you who are tightening your belts for 2009, make a New Year’s Resolution to do as many of the following as you possibly can:
Okay, hotshot, we all know you're smarter than your agent. At least, that's what you're always telling your friends. So let's see how well you can do at second-guessing him or her in a few hypothetical situations. For every correct answer, you get a free power lunch in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons with any publisher of your choice; for every one you get wrong, same prize but you treat.
* Your client has had twelve genre novels published in paperback. They've sold about fifty thousand copies each. She thinks the time has come to be published in hardcover. You tell her:
a) She's absolutely right and you're getting on the phone at once.
b) She should write another dozen paperbacks that sell fifty thousand copies each, then you'll move her.
c) Wait till her paperbacks start selling in the hundreds of thousands of copies each.
d) She's crazy to want to be published in hardcover.
* Your client has just turned in the manuscript of a book that has good film possibilities. The time to start contacting producers is:
a) When the book is in bound proofs.
b) When finished copies come off the presses.
c) When the book starts getting good reviews.
* You recently sold a client's first novel to a publisher for $5,000. The client has an idea for a new novel that he thinks has big money potential, and he wants a much bigger advance. The best time to ask for it is:
b) Six months from now.
c) Around the time the first novel is published.
d) A year after the first novel has been published.
In case you haven't noticed, all the questions in this quiz have to do with timing. Few authors realize it, but one of the most important reasons for hiring agents is that they have a superior sense of timing. "Timing is everything" might almost be called the agent's motto ("Patience is everything else" might be considered the agent's second motto). The most successful agents are those who understand that there is a season to push and a season to ease up, a season to fight and a season to turn the back, a season to watch and wait and a season to strike. Sometimes the moment presents itself on a platter; sometimes it has to be worked with brute force like steel on a smithy's anvil. And there are times when, for all an agent's scheming, for all his exertions, for all his manipulations, he simply cannot make the thing happen. (That's usually a signal for me to go shopping.)
Most authors are impatient. It's a forgivable character trait, for it often goes hand in hand with ambition. But because authors cannot possibly be as objective about the progress of their careers as their agents are, their impatience can make them their own worst enemies. A goodly part of an agent's day is spent restraining authors.
Although we usually associate timing with the moment when an agent pulls off some million-dollar coup, many of its applications are far more prosaic. A couple of years ago a literary agent wrote a piece for Publishers Weekly complaining about rude editors who do not return agents' phone calls. Her broadside elicited a chorus of cheers from fellow agents, and from writers who'd had similarly unpleasant experiences.
I had a different reaction, though. Her article made me wonder whether the telephone is not greatly overused by agents, and whether there are many occasions when a note would do instead of a call. This is particularly true in the conduct of routine business such as inquiries about submissions, contracts, and checks. Editors are usually harried with paperwork, urgent business, and other phone calls, and so there is an odds-on probability that a scribbled note taken down during a phone call will presently be buried beneath the day's alluvial deposit of emails, snail-mail correspondence, internal memos, manuscripts, catalogues, contracts, and junk mail. I've noticed, however, that editors seem to place more significance upon written inquiries, and they move on them more promptly. More importantly, underuse of the phone by agents may motivate editors to take their calls when they really need to get through. If an editor doesn't want to talk to an agent because she thinks the agent is calling about that overdue check, when actually the agent is calling to pitch a hot new property, a vital opportunity will have been missed for both of them.
The preceding is not a particularly glamorous example of timing, but in the last analysis it's the daily employment of wise timing that makes a good agent effective.
But then there is that dramatic application that makes an agent feel he's been waiting all his life to yank the ripcord, and the decisive moment has come. Not long ago a fellow agent called me for consultation on a particularly delicate timing problem involving a star author. This author had a very big book scheduled for publication about nine months from that time, but because he was very unhappy with his publisher, he had asked his agent to seek another one. His agent had done so and lined up a terrific deal. In order to get out of his option with his current publisher, the author merely had to submit an outline and reject whatever was offered. When to do that - that was the problem.
The new publisher was pressing the agent to finalize their deal. Publishers get very nervous about leaving big offers open for too long, since agents have been known to use those offers to solicit even higher ones. Despite the possibility that the offer would be withdrawn, the agent was dragging his heels. By breaking with the current publisher too early, the agent could demoralize the sales people and cause the company to pull some of its advertising and promotional money from the upcoming book; a publisher that is losing an author may not work as hard for him as one that looks forward to a long association.
What did I advise my colleague to do? I'll let you brood about it for a minute or two in the security of your armchair, but remember that in this real-life situation, millions of dollars, the agent's relationship with his client, the agent's relationship with two publishers, the fate of a book on which the author had spent a year, the fate of many books to come, and a lot of egos and reputations were on the line. To appreciate the precariousness of such situations, perhaps it would better if you get out of your armchair and read the rest of this chapter while standing on a rickety stool with a hangman's noose around your neck.
Although I try to demystify the publishing business for authors, I have to confess that the instincts governing the sense of timing are wonderfully and impenetrably mysterious to me. I am fairly certain that they are of a piece with artistic inspiration. Most of the time, if you ask agents to articulate the reasons why they chose a certain moment to demand a dramatic raise in an author's pay, or to go from a book-by-book arrangement to a multibook package deal, or to move a client out of paperback originals and into hardcover, they can express them fairly coherently. But then there are those inexplicable revelations, blazing across the mind when one least expects it, that illuminate a situation with dazzling clarity and put one in touch with some very profound impulses.
I take pride in handling most business matters expeditiously, but occasionally something will come along that I frankly don't know what to do about. It will sit on my desk glowering at me, mocking me, demanding attention but eluding solution. I gaze back at it, mutter an oath, but am paralyzed with uncertainty. You might call the condition "agent's block." The client and the publisher are pressing for a decision. I offer feeble excuses that sound very much like procrastination or, worse, timidity. In truth, I'm simply waiting for the green light to go on in my brain. Inevitably it switches on, but when I least anticipate it, such as awaking from a nap or glomming a midnight snack. The answer is suddenly printed in bright headlines before me, and what was so difficult suddenly becomes ridiculously easy. The time, at last, has come.
Lest I start to sound as if agenting is a variety of religious experience, allow me to let you in on a little secret. Some of the things agents do that civilians think are brilliantly timed are in truth matters of dumb luck. An author writes a book and I sell it to precisely the right editor and it goes on to become a bestseller. I would love for you to think that I selected that editor the way a handicapper selects a winning horse. And perhaps I did. But sometimes, finding the perfect editor for a book is a matter of who is not out to lunch, in a meeting, or in the bathroom when an agent starts making phone calls.
Now, about that quiz.
* Situation Number 1: The paperback author who wants to be published in hardcover. Despite the evidence that you can make a much better living writing original paperbacks than you can hardcover books, most authors feel an uneasy sense of illegitimacy about paperbacks. And it is true that hardcover books have a better chance of being reviewed (negatively as well as favorably, don't forget) and selling to the movies. But if an author's paperbacks are selling in routine numbers, as in this example, the time may not be propitious for the leap into hardcover, for the author hasn't built an audience prepared to follow her into the more prestigious and expensive format. On many occasions a premature debut in hardcover can be catastrophic and the author may forever lose the opportunity to be published in boards again.
* Situation Number 2: What is the best time to start soliciting movie rights to a book with promising film potential? The answer is, immediately if not sooner. Movie and television people need to feel they are getting in on something hot. By the time a book is published it will have been circulated among all the key studios, networks, and producers owing to Hollywood's highly efficient system for obtaining early looks at anything that sounds interesting. "A published book," a film producer once said to me, "is very dead meat." There are of course exceptions to this rule, and examples of books made into successful movies decades after publication. But if you have a hot movie property, there's not a moment to lose. And remember, it's a good idea to prepare a brief synopsis of the book, highlighting its cinematic qualities, to accompany the submission for those in Hollywood who don't have the time (or the ability) to read.
* Situation Number 3: When is it appropriate to ask for a higher advance? The answer is, it's always appropriate to ask, but not always appropriate to expect. For new authors, the period of time between the sale of the first novel and publication is an extremely perilous one. Assuming an author is of average productivity, he will have ideas, outlines, or even completed manuscripts of new works long before that first book has been published. Until that first book has been published, however, the publisher will have no basis for calculating the value of the author's work and will therefore resist offering him more than a token raise in price. Indeed, because publishers don't formulate a clear picture of a book's sales for about a year after publication, owing to the time it takes for unsold copies to be returned, it may be two or three years from the time you sell your first book before you are justified in requesting prices bigger than starting pay. So if you answered (d) on the quiz you may have been closest to the truth.
You can't, of course, afford to sit around for several years waiting for the results on your first book, so there are several strategies for bridging the gap. One is to become more prolific (including writing books under pseudonyms for other publishers if your first publisher can't absorb your entire output). Another is to write your second, third, and even fourth novel on speculation rather than trying to line up contracts for them on the basis of outlines or portions-and-outlines. (But it might not be a good idea to write sequels to that first book on spec until you see if your publisher wants them.) As I've said before, publishers are able to make much faster judgments about finished books than partial ones, and usually pay higher prices.
Finally, we return to the quandary of the agent torn between responsibility for his client's forthcoming book and eagerness to nail down a deal with another publisher before the first publisher backs out. The situation was, as I pointed out, quite treacherous, but I advised the agent to wait until the very last moment, a few weeks before publication of the book, before informing the current publishers that they weren't going to get the author's next book. By that time the advertising was set, the author's tour locked in, the books were in the stores, and the publishers were committed to doing everything possible to make it a success and recover their investment.
As for the publishers threatening to withdraw their offer if the agent delayed, the agent visited the head of the company and persuaded him to leave his offer on the table. "Look," said my friend, "you have my word of honor that I will not use your offer to seek other bids. I cannot afford to offend a rich and powerful publisher like you. Please bear in mind that if we announce the author's decision too soon, the other publisher may pull its advertising and promotion and their book will flop. And that will make it much harder for you to sell the author's next book."
Happily, the publisher saw the wisdom of this argument and held his offer open. It all worked out happily, even for the publisher who lost the big-name author. Oh, the publisher was sore for a few weeks, but then the agent phoned him and told him that another client was unhappy with her publisher and wanted to move to another house. "Interested?" he asked. Of course he was interested!
Now, that's what I call an agent with an exquisite sense of timing.
This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.