Thursday, 7 October 2010

Publishers and agents

Publishing is in an interesting state of upheaval right now. It's broken, and when it's fixed it isn't going to be quite the same.

I'm going to suggest that one major reason for this is the decision publishers took some years ago to relinquish the slushpile to agents. I'm sure on paper it made sense. No doubt they worked out the time and the cost of looking at all those desperate typescripts, 99%+ of which were no use to them, and thought they'd save some money. Agents were willing to take on the job; for free they'd filter out all the rubbish and pass the gems on to the publishers. Win/win situation.

Except it hasn't worked out like that. Of course it's worse for writers, who now have to pass two gatekeepers instead of one. But nobody in the industry cares much about writers. The problem is that agents aren't interested in taking a chance on a new writer, in the belief that two or three books on, they'll write a best seller. (Publishers used to do this; Longmans stuck with Mary Renault for several now-forgotten books until she struck gold and justified their faith.) Nor are they interested in acquiring a midlist author, because a modest advance of a few thousand pounds, though most new authors would jump at it, just isn't worth their while. 15% of 5,000 is £750, hardly enough to put a gleam in an agent's eye.

But worst of all, agents are, it seems to me, giving up on the slushpile. They are always moaning about it (funny, you don't hear owners of gold mines grumbling about all the rock they have to shift) and I have a dark suspicion a lot of it is shredded unopened. What made me decide to self-publish was my last round of five submissions. I included stamped postcards for agents to post so I'd know Royal Mail had done its stuff. Only two postcards returned. I received three form rejections, one of which had no letter heading and was signed by an intern, so I don't know who it came from.

Gone are the days when a rejected author shoved his manuscript to the back of a drawer. These days, we self-publish. Some of these books are bad. Very bad. And some of them are so good they will change the face of publishing for ever.

*See also this article from The Independent.


  1. Good post, Lexi and thanks for the link to that article. Interesting times, indeed.

  2. I definitely agree that at one time shifting the slushpile to the agents made sense for publishers. And while there are agents willing to take a risk on and put effort into debut authors, they're probably getting harder and harder to find. But if there's one point you've hit dead on, it's the curse of being a midlist author. Publishers want debut authors who they think are going to produce a blockbuster for them - and from a business point of view that's understandable. But what about all the authors who are developing as they go, whose best work is maybe their second, third or fourth book? At any rate, it's uplifting to see there is now another option for authors - that of going direct to the readers.

  3. There are certainly lots of opportunities in these techno age of PODs and self-publishing etc for writers!!

    I can only wish everyone going these routes all the luck in the world. I hope you do your best to get the bestest version of your book out!! It's worth all the painstaking research and editing and groundwork for the bestest result for your novel to compete with the ones published "traditionally".

    Take care

  4. Good point, Kitty - it's incumbent on all self-publishers not to be sloppy and make excuses for under-par work.

    Readers will increasingly become the gatekeepers. They should send back poorly edited or formatted books in whatever format, and write Amazon reviews to expose the bad and praise the worthwhile!

  5. I have this fantasy that bookshops will become like (Insert your favourite coffee purveyor here) and while you drink your coffee you can flip through an ebook on some sort of ipad thingy fixed to the table and if you see something you like then press a button and take it home with you.
    Or maybe when I have enough stamps on my loyalty card I get a free ebook, from a selection they are pushing this month.
    What is needed is a version of the browsing experience and the 3 for 2 table only for ebook. One thing for sure you'd need a lot less space for a store full of ebooks- so more room for armchairs, coffee and conversation.

  6. Nice idea, Rod; of course you can already browse ebooks without having to leave home and buy a coffee. (Mark you, you're talking to someone who doesn't understand why anyone with a kettle would go to Starbucks.)

    Amazon allows you to download a sample - I think it's 10% - and virtually all Smashwords authors allow up to 50% free sampling.

  7. I'm glad you went the self-publishing route so I got to read Remix!

  8. Brilliant post, Lexi, and I believe you hit it with the publishers transferring the slush pile to agents. Also with the writers being on the bottom of the pile. Something is seriously wrong with that scenario. I love your analogy of the miner complaining about all the rocks he has to move to find the gold. I'm RTing this post.

  9. Thanks, Karen.

    Of course it's not the whole story - the advent of ebooks and the end of the retail price agreement have both made huge differences to the book trade.

    But writers are still being told to write an amazing book, polish it, submit it to agents and with perseverance we will get published. For most of us that's just not true any more.

  10. Brilliantly insightful and acerbic post and comment, Lexi. I agree with you and having gone down the POD road twice with YWO, will always go back there if I must. But it IS hard work promoting yourself and you have little time left to write more.
    I'm allowing 2011 to be the year of my shot at mainstream. I can't imagine, along with the millions of others trying as well, that I will get more than requests for a few partials . . . but you've got to have a go.

  11. mesmered, good luck with your shot at mainstream. It does happen for some!

    Book promotion is hard and time-consuming as you say, and not my favourite thing. I don't know how well my paperback of Remix will sell, as it's not quite out yet. Ebooks are much easier to crack, if you ever decide to self-publish again.

  12. 'And some of them are so good they will change the face of publishing for ever.' If only.

    I'm sorry to be a prophet of doom, but I just don't see it. Of course it's possible to point to self-publishing success stories, but they're vanishingly rare. (Mark Twain has nothing to do with it, John Grisham never self-published, neither did Christopher Paolini.)

    The problem is marketing, and self-publishers, unless somewhat richer than Croesus, just can't crack it. The big publishing houses have huge marketing budgets, their own luminous name, and all the contacts in the world. Unless some celeb picks up your book and happens to love it, and to say so publicly (and how many celebs are likely to do that?), there's not really much hope.

    Most self-published books are awful anyway, and it's desperately hard for a diamond to make itself visible in the vast rock pile.

    Self-publishing became a serious option for the hoi polloi with the advent of print-on-demand. But the sad truth is that POD is not a revolution in publishing, but a revolution in print technology. What percentage of self-published POD books have enjoyed any measurable success? Only when the big publishers embrace it will it become really significant, and their arrival will instantly elbow aside the self-publishers.

    E-publishing surely has a great future, but the big publishers are there already, and believe me, they're not going to leave much room for anybody else.

    Take, for instance, Remix by Lexi Revellian. I'm just getting into it, and it really is good. The author is a professional to her fingertips, her style characterised by a wonderful lightness of touch. Except that she can't write to save her life. Of this we can be quite sure, because she's been rejected by every agent you've ever heard of, and a lot you haven't. And they're the professionals. They know.

    A vast chasm separates the real writers from the likes of Lexi Revellian. I'm rooting for her as she revs up, Evel-Knievel style, for her great leap. I so much hope she makes it to the other side. But I'm the nervous type, and I just can't look . . .

  13. Charlie, that's funny, because I'm just beginning to see the benefits of being a self-published author.

    Most traditionally-published books don't sell all that well; between 1,000 and 5,000 copies, I read the other day in an article about the Orange Prize shortlist. After that, the books disappear from the shelves, and their authors will have a tough time getting the next one published. Their ebooks probably won't sell well, either, as publishers insist on charging more than the public thinks reasonable.

    I have control over my ebook price - that's why I've sold 79 in the first 8.5 days of October. I don't expect to do so well with the paperback, as PODs are relatively expensive, and it's hard to compete. But I'll be able to keep it on the market for as long as I choose, and when the novel I'm writing now is ready, sales should increase exponentially.

    Plus I have total control, which I really like. No one can get picky about my use of semi colons, or my preference for 'ize' over 'ise'. There's no pressure about what I write about next; all my deadlines are self-imposed. I'm a closet dictator, so that suits me rather well.

  14. Being a closet dictator must be what's made your book so very professional. I'd never have guessed it was self-published if I hadn't known, and that's a real compliment because publishers have teams of people to make sure the work is of a high standard and you did it all by yourself!

  15. Hi, would you think that starting off with short stories is best? This way you could self publish shorts, spending a little more time but having seven times the stories maybe, and perhaps find out what your readers like best and work on that? Surely this way a printing house could pick you out more easily as a debut novelist as you have only written a few short stories?

  16. Callie Taylor started by getting short stories published in magazines, then moved on to a novel, and it worked for her.

    Agents like it if you've had something published. But there's not much of a market for collections of short stories, unless you are very well-known.