Choosing agents or self-publishing in an ever-changing world

It’s hard for a writer to know what to do these days.

Everyone knows established writers are going independent after turning down six-figure deals from publishers due to poor contract terms, especially for e-books.

And self-published writers have made millions on their own just to sign traditional deals.

But those are isolated incidents. What do those actions mean for you, the unpublished writer with a bunch of novels on your hard drive?

I’m going to run through the history of what has happened in publishing since March, and end with some advice on what you, the writer with a book ready to go, should do during these changing times.

Talking ’bout a revolution

If you aren’t aware of the change in attitudes that began a couple months ago, read the blog post that started it all, a dialog between established authors Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath comparing the new self-publishing model to traditional contracts (or, as they call it, “legacy” publishing).

Since the craziness began, more layers have been added. Agents began taking their authors’ back list titles, ones where the e-book rights had never been sold, and published them under an agency imprint, cutting the original publishing companies out of the deal.

Some of the agent deals were fine–15% as usual and well-defined costs coming out for covers and formatting. In-house editing was not an extra cost, the same as prepping a book for submission to houses.

Other deals were sketchy, with unusual percentages for the revenue split (50/50 of the net) with strange clauses about royalties being paid “after costs” without defining those costs.

Some authors worried that with agents jumping on the e-publishing bandwagon, they might not be as impartial when negotiating contracts with traditional publishers, since they could be publishing a promising e-book themselves.

And who would watch out for the authors’ interests in the contract if the agent was one of the beneficiaries IN the contract? In the UK, agents are considering changing their code of ethics to allow them to become publishers.

Publishing client work is currently a violation of agent ethics.

Then the publishers pushed back. Random House cut the agent out of an e-book deal, citing that the agent was now a publisher.

Forever, and ever, you pay

Soon, the issue of what the agents might do to earn their percentage when publishing e-books arose. Readers don’t know the agency names, and so their imprint carries no more weight than a self-published author. The agencies are having the book formatted and the cover made, but these costs are charged against royalties. The authors could hire people to do this at a fixed cost and not a forever percentage of their earnings. (Plus decide for themselves how much to spend.) Smashwords has a list of people who provide these very services.

With all this going on, some popular bloggers are insisting everyone dump their agents if the agents do e-publishing or if they are changing their contracts to add phrasing such as in perpetuity, which can mean your book will pay them even if they fail to sell it, and you decide to self-publish.

So what do you do if you have a book ready to meet the world? Query agents? If so, which ones? Those agencies that only go through traditional publishers or those that also have an in-house e-book option? How do you know if your agency agreement is safe, since agents seem to be increasingly covering their interests as well as yours?

Or do you go it alone? Put that book out there and hope for the best?

Dark days for writers

I belong to a couple writer forums, and panic seems to be setting in. The traditionally published authors defend their choice to go the regular route, even if they got poor e-book terms and little marketing support. They believe in the system and worry that thousands of crappy e-books clutter the market.

Even though most traditionally published books do not sell well and do not earn anything beyond the advance, the author did get money on the table and did not have to worry about editing, covers, or distribution.

If they had e-published, they would have spent their own money on the cover and formatting, worked a lot harder to get their book ready for the market, and probably lost money rather than letting the publishing company take the hit.

Because the bottom line is: most books don’t make money.

There, I said it.

If you want to make more per hour than the guy sacking your groceries, you’ve picked the wrong profession. You do it because you love writing and you have a story to tell.

And there is that chance, that teensy-but-very-real chance, that you will break out and make a lot of money.

The fact is, the odds are against you either way.

Both traditional authors and self-published authors break out and become hits. More often, both traditional authors and self-published authors work very hard, and their books go mostly unnoticed.

Check the hard numbers on sales of self-publishing authors.  Will you be one of those who sells 60 copies in 6 months? Or will you be the lucky author who sells 30,000?

Then consider the agent route. You will most likely spend a year querying, possibly never signing with one, and even if you do, possibly never getting your book sold. You will have lost a year or two and be back at square one (possibly having signed an agency agreement that limits your options.)

But let’s say that goes perfectly. You sign an agent easily, they sell the book easily. Let’s look at what happens to your money even if you sell your book to a big publisher for $100,000 or more. You still can’t quit your day job.

I know this is too much information. I just wanted it all in one place. So now, the advice.

A Simple Plan

1. Query agents first, always.

If you succeed and find someone with a simple contract and huge enthusiasm for your work, you have an ally in this crazy world. Even if a few request your book but ultimately reject, you know you have something good–most of all, a query letter than can become your sales paragraph for your self-publishing venture.

If no one asks for anything, you still have information. Your query doesn’t work. Something’s wrong. You aren’t ready to self-publish because if an agent isn’t interested, most likely buyers won’t be either. You will put time and effort into the wrong part of process–publishing too fast rather than getting your book into good form.

2. Deciding not to sign

If you get lots of interest, but no one ultimately represents you, or if you feel the agent who is interested in you has a contract you can’t live with, has begun e-publishing, or just isn’t as responsive or as good a fit as you’d like, you’re in a good place. You can choose to go with a medium or small press and start the process again, or you can take your winning story idea and killer query to shape your self-published e-book.

3. If you’re ready to e-pub

So let’s say either the agent failed to sell the book, or you narrowly missed representation or turned it down. You can shelve the book and start another. Or go it on your own. Realize that the #1 factor in e-publishing success is having more than one book. Even if all you can squeeze out is an Amazon short that relates to the novel, get more than one thing up. If you have a series or similar books, get  at least two ready so you have two chances to hit. The more spaghetti (well cooked, well seasoned spaghetti, mind you) that you can throw at the wall, the more likely something will stick.

4. How to e-pub

First, GET A GOOD COVER. It can vary from $50 to $800, but find someone who understands how to make a cover that

1. uses legal images

2. is eye catching at both thumbnail and full size

3. isn’t a blatant fail in design or font usage. YOU may not have an eye for this. In fact, you probably don’t.

Second, formatting. If you have a lot of technical know-how and a fair amount of spare time, learn the ropes yourself. I’ve seen some pretty unreadable e-books, not because someone didn’t pay to have it done, but because someone got an epub created and stuck it on all the e-readers without checking how it came out in the end.  What looks perfect on the Nook can be a disaster on the Kindle (although if Amazon adds the epub format as is rumored, this will help.)

Whether you format that e-book yourself or pay to have it done, learn the difference between the Nook and the iBook and the Kindle. You can download all the majors to your computer without having the readers. Do not skip this step!

You’ve spent enough time here–now go! Off to QueryTracker to find agents. Then to Smashwords to learn about e-book formatting. Then into your published future, for better for worse, for richer, and hopefully not poorer.

6 thoughts on “Choosing agents or self-publishing in an ever-changing world”

  1. Excellent post, Deanna. Some of it reads as if you are talking directly to me, and it validates my current plan to pursue a three-part approach: 1) continue submitting to agents, but more aggressively to speed up the process of testing out the legacy option, 2) learn as much as possible about creating a professional-quality ebook so that I’m ready to pull the trigger when the time comes, and 3) dust off my other manuscripts and get them ready to publish relatively soon after release of my first novel. I should have all that done by Spring, 2014.

  2. As a follow-up comment, I just finished reading four of Rusch’s blog posts on this subject and now have a 65-page document with the content of these and other posts from Konrath, Eisler,

    Although some of the information addresses the impact of “new” publishing on those of us without an established name and audience, most of it does not apply directly except as a clear picture of what we will be facing if we ever manage to receive an offer of representation from an agent. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, but I’m getting the distinct impression that a combination of two factors will dominate in our attempts to publish.

    First, absent a potential bestselling award winner, we probably have very little to bargain with and will end up swallowing a number of contract provisions that will be very distasteful.

    Second, an early jump to indie publishing (both ebook and POD) might well be the option with the most potential for success no matter how each of us defines that for ourselves.

    I’m beginning to lean a bit more in that direction. When is Casey Shay Press going to launch the Mystery/Thriller imprint? =:-)

  3. CSP will add a boy-book imprint as soon as one K Korfmacher writes one worthy of launching it. 🙂 But then again, who wants to go through a *real* edit with me, eh? I’m tough.

  4. What was I thinking? I’d never get a manuscript past the editor at CSP, even though I just published a post with a link to her website and plugged her recent post and gave her all the credit for helping my launch my site and even included her favorite self-portrait. I may have to try greenbacks, eh?

  5. Thanks for gathering all this information in one place, Deanna. I also appreciate you including the scenario of an unpublished author turning down an offer of representation as one possibility. Too often it’s assumed that an author seeking an agent would accept an offer from one she queried–as a matter of course.

    There is only so much we can learn about someone by researching before we query, and in my opinion every author needs to be prepared to say, “No thanks.” When this option isn’t talked about (much) it can contribute to unpublished authors not considering agents’ offers carefully enough, or even feeling like it would be crazy or disastrous to their careers to turn an agent down, even if they feel uncomfortable with the agent.

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