BR Stateham has posted an interesting blog entry, wondering how much agents should be held accountable for the current plight of the publishing industry, because of their insistence on high advances. Here's a question to discuss the flip side of his hypothesis.

What about an agent who the author thinks is shooting too high? An agent who only approaches big New York houses--even in the face of a full round of rejections--and is not interested in looking at smaller publishers where the author might have a better chance of getting a toehold and building some readership.

True, the agent can't make any money on 15% of what a smaller house will pay. At what point do the agent's interests diverge from the author's, if building a career is the goal?

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We always have the option of pulling the plug. If we want to send to small presses, we can do that, too--though it might mean the end of our relationship with our agent. That's a choice the writer would have to make, no? Ultimately it's up to us to pilot our own careers.

As for BR's question: it seems a bit tough to blame agents for the current plight of the industry: if my agent could pull down a six figure advance for my next book, would I say no--the industry needs it more than I do? Would anybody? My agent's job, as I see it, is to help me make as much money as possible on the project at hand--I want her to be as aggressive as possible given her faith in the project, market conditions, etc. Who wouldn't?

I reject the notion that authors and their agents are to blame for killing the industry. Nobody's holding a gun to editors' heads, and they're certainly not in it for the sake of charity.
Well, I feel a bit ambivalent about this because my books have not earned out yet in the U.S. That's a very uncomfortable feeling for me, and it accounts for the fact that publishers do nothing or little to promote the books. In my case, my agent also retained a lot of rights. I've made some money from those rights and am glad to have them -- particularly since my agent markets agressively overseas, while publishers generally do not, but it cuts into their profits. I know of another writer who fared very much better with my previous publisher, perhaps because the publisher could recoup much of his investment through subsidiary rights.

So I don't know what is better. I do think my agent has worked hard for me and tried to make the right decisions. We'll wait and see what the future brings. I need a break-out novel. That should fix things nicely.
I hope this doesn't mean vampires, IJ.
Sexy virgin vampires? Gimme!
Never! I hate that crap. I don't even work the supernatural into novels that take place when everybody believed in demons and signs, and when murder trials were decided by the victim speaking through a medium.
I have no belief in the supernatural--never have--so vampire books, etc., have always seemed risible to me right out of the box. But if you want a breakout book, you either have to tap the zeitgeist, or change its course (the former's marginally easier than the latter, maybe). It's no surprise that people are interested in reading about heroic vampires, boy wizards and such these days, just that it's no surprise (and no coincidence) that Superman was invented in 1932, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. The current zeitgeist blows; artistically speaking I want nothing to do with it.
I'm so glad I'm not the only one who had that immediate (sarcastic) thought. Talk about the plight of the industry...
I don't think it's so much what does the author want for the book, as it is what publishing venue is best for that book. A good agent - an honest one - one who makes his or her living selling books - will know where a particular book will best fit into the market. Certain kinds of books are better suited for a small press - maybe they're too quirky for a mainstream audience, or perhaps their appeal is regional, rather than national. A good agent will be able to spot this, and if they're only interested in submitting to the major publishers, which many are for purely financial reasons, will probably not ask to represent that particular book.

On the other hand, many not-yet-published authors write books that are suitable for major publishers. Building a career doesn't have to mean starting with a small publisher and working your way up. Again, a good agent should be able to read a manuscript and have a pretty good idea of where and how well it will sell.

Sometimes, an agent really loves an author's writing, and will take them on even though they know that selling their books are going to be a challenge. I have a friend whose first young adult just came out with Flux. They're a medium-sized publisher - big enough that the book is getting reviewed in the trade publications, but still a far cry from Simon Pulse. Both the agent and the author were delighted with this sale, because they knew Flux was the best publisher for the rather odd (but very well-written) book.
The idea behind the question I postulated was this: If agents are only going to take writers who they believe are worth a six or seven figure income, how much money is left over for the lesser known artists who will never be a Stephan King or James Patterson?

Publishers only have so much money to hand out. If, say, Random House signs five writers whose agents insist each gets a six figure income, there are a vast number of writers who will never see the light of day. Agents have demanded their big-name writers get the bigger advances.

I am not saying agents and writers are the major reasons for what has happened in the publisher world. But agents who want to live off a single writer, and thus demand the sky for his services, have to take some blame.
B.R. - I don't know where you're getting your information, but you're beginning your argument with an incorrect premise ("If agents are only going to take writers who they believe are worth a six or seven figure income"). Because of that, your conclusions are also incorrect.

A few facts:

I know approximately 60 agents personally. I organize and run a writers conference, and I oversee an online discussion forum where agents regularly conduct guest speaker Q&As with the group, and have done this now for 5 years. You can see the list of the 20 or so agents who are helping out with this year's conference here. I know agents who've been around forever, and who are considered giants in the industry like Richard Curtis, all the way to newer agents at established agencies who are just getting started building their lists.

These are not marginal agents, these are all good, hardworking agents who make their living selling books. Of that group, I don't know of a single agent who lives off the earnings of one major client. Not one.

It's true that publishers have a finite amount of money with which to purchase projects, but money isn't the only thing that determines how many books they acquire. Time is another - their acquiring editors, copy editors, art departments, production departments, marketing, publicity, and sales departments are comprised of people, who can only process x number of books per year. You can't remove a King or a Patterson from the equation and then say that the two million copies of their books they would have sold (or however many they sell of each release) can now be spread out among 2,000 authors selling 10,000 copies each - there's no way the publisher could physically produce that many different books in place of just the one.

In the current publishing model, it's actually the Kings' and the Pattersons' blockbuster earnings that support the industry. Each book published is a risk, and the money brought in by the sure sellers are what enable publishers to try out a new author.

Your idea that agents "insist" on six or seven figure advances for their clients, or that they only take on clients whose books they're sure will sell for this much is also incorrect. Publishers Marketplace is an industry website where agents list some of their deals - not all, by any means, but enough to get an idea of what's currently selling, and to whom. Deals are categorized by dollar value: "nice deal" $1 - $49,000; "very nice deal" $50,000 - $99,000; "good deal" $100,000 - $250,000; "significant deal" $251,000 - $499,000; "major deal" $500,000 and up.

I just did a search, and in the past 12 months, there were 1,498 agented deals listed as "nice." 1,498 books sold by agents and bought by publishers that sold for less than $50,000 each.

Like I say, just a few facts to give you a clearer picture of how it all works. There's a lot wrong with the publishing industry, for sure, and the current crisis gives evidence of that. But "greedy" agents and authors are not to blame.

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I meant to add that there's a really excellent discussion about the publishing industry at Jason Pinter's blog "Man In Black." Jason's a crime fiction author - he may even be a member here - who also once worked as an acquiring editor at a major publisher, so he knows both sides of the fence.

Jason invited bookstore owners, books reviewers, agents, editors, authors, and others who work in the industry to answer the question: What is one thing you would you do to change book publishing for the better?

Jason got so many answers to this question from publishing professionals, he had to make five blog entries on the topic. Check out his January 27 - February 2 posts. VERY interesting and enlightening reading.

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Interesting. Thanks for the link. I came to this too late, because I certainly have a few things to say about returns. My own experiences with bookstores have not been good. They are strictly in business for themselves and part of the whole movement to promote and sell only proven best sellers. New authors with their first book, one that isn't nationally promoted, have their careers ended during the first month after release. I also have a few thoughts about making new books and e-books immediately available to libraries while the bookstores are still setting out the new releases. Furthermore, both the libraries' new e-book download program and Kindle's audio capabilities cut directly into profits for publishers and authors.

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