Monthly Archives: June 2010

In Which Agents and Publishers Get It Anyway (my opinion, that is)

As a result of my post a few days ago, I have been privately raked over the coals and thoroughly excoriated by several writers. Perhaps rightly so. I have been told that if I’m not willing to pull my head out of, um, the sand and use my voice to defend writers and their rights, then I should STFU. I have been accused of being cavalier about writers’ income and giving tacit permission to agents and publishers to do whatever the hell they want to do in regard to commissions and advances. And those were the nice comments.

Ahem. And here I thought I was just being cynical. I did not say it doesn’t matter to me what agents and publishers do in regard to these issues. In fact, I took great care not to say that. I said that practical decision-making doesn’t anger me. And I said it does not matter what I think about any of this. Honestly, I am not convinced there is one single agent or publishing professional who gives a flying rat’s ass what I think. I could be wrong. It happens.

Note to self: Next time you decide not to express an opinion, don’t write a post saying you’re not going to express an opinion. Really, what was I thinking?

So in response to criticism from fellow writers, the post below is chock full of opinion. Something I stopped myself from doing several days ago because I think it’s pointless. I do not speak for anyone other than myself — other writers can step up and use their own damn voices. The previous post was my evaluation of an issue. This post contains my opinions. See whether you can tell the difference.

I would like to preface this by saying I do not feel antagonism toward agents or publishers. I have a great deal of respect for their intelligence and competence and believe we all are working incredibly hard toward a common goal. I will also point out that there is a subtle but important distinction between anger and vehemence. I am not angry.

Let’s start with the proposed so-called five percent increase in agent commission. Perhaps in contradiction to what I just said about intelligence, can we please stop being disingenuous about this? This is not a difference of a mere five percent. An increase from 15% to 20% commission is a 33% pay raise. In this economy, with all the financial sacrifices being made in this country, a pay raise of this magnitude is obscene. It is so stunningly inappropriate, I have no other word for it. Any agent who can even think to defend this degree of increase is welcome to try, but I am going to assume that person is spending way too much time hanging out at Goldman Sachs. I am not categorically opposed to some kind of moderate increase in commission (though I will argue about where that money should come from). I don’t know how much would be appropriate but, just so we’re clear, a five percent pay raise translates to a commission of 15.75%.

Can you see yet how this is opinion and the other post was not? Really, this is the first time I’ve ever had anyone not recognize when I’m stating an opinion.

Reading fees: I consider reading queries to be part of the job for which commission is paid. Sort of like answering the phone and fielding the same ridiculous customer questions over and over and over again is at other jobs. If it’s demoralizing and overwhelming, and I’m sure it is, then close to submissions for a period of time each month to get caught up or to take a break and run through the sprinkler. The average writer (I know, no such thing as average, humour me here) receives something like 50 – 100 or more rejections before finding an agent. It won’t take long for writers to resent the hell out of having to, in effect, pay for rejections that consist of a form letter/email or no response at all. This will not serve to weed out the chaff, but to penalize and disillusion non-affluent writers. Which describes most of us. For the sake of peace in the writing community, please do not do this. Really. Either an agent is open to submissions or not.

Advances. You know, I’ve never received one. So, grain of salt here. I read somewhere in the vast mine field of discussion that an “average” advance is $10,000. Of that, after an agent deducts their 15%, a writer receives $8,500.  At least a third of that goes to pay taxes, leaving $5950. Most writers who manage to produce a manuscript worthy of publication have been working seriously toward publication and honing their craft for, on average, six to ten years. Yes, really. I’ve been at it six years now and figure I’m almost ready to go out in public. As an example, let’s use eight years. So by the time a writer gets published, over the course of their entire writing career to date they have earned just under $750 each year. This does not even begin to cover writing-related expenses — workshops, research, classes, resource books, conferences — let alone approximate a living wage.

Oh, but there are royalties. Someone said a dollar a book. I’ve heard it’s more like eighty cents, but let’s go with a dollar. So every 1,000 copies sold equals $1000 in royalties. Eventually. After a great mysterious and incomprehensible delay, a check for a portion of this will arrive . . . once every six months.

Tangentially, agents and publishers should be aware that many of us are paying very close attention to what people like Joe Konrath are saying. With Amazon offering a 70% royalty and paying it every month, those same 1,000 ebooks priced at a modest $2.99 each would net a writer $2,093. And when publishers are increasingly sending the message that writers are solely responsible for marketing and any books sold will be due to the writer’s efforts and not anything the publisher contributes, well, it gives us pause. Add in the purported inefficiency and general uselessness of publishers as outlined in Jason Ashlock’s recent post [excuse me, sir, but WTF?], and/or the prospect of doing away with advances completely, and where is the incentive to do business with a traditional publisher? Just saying.

Now let me take off my writer hat for a minute and talk to you all as a professional person who works in the world of finance.

Most companies faced with dwindling profits will initially react by trying to increase sales, or income. They recognize the need for more money. The last thing they generally consider is cutting expenses. Now I realize full well that cutting advances is cutting expenses. But it’s the kind of cut that has a minimal negative effect on the publisher.

I don’t really expect answers, but I do have some questions:

How many of you have gone over your expenses with a fine-tooth comb and a spine of steel? (If you haven’t, you should fire your CFO immediately.) Have you cut your clerical staff by 10 to 20%? Have you told management, from the president on down, they have to take a cut in pay to keep the company in business? Have you told your sales staff they will no longer receive sales commissions? Have you set the thermostat a degree or two or three higher and turned off half the lights in your office to reduce the electric bill? Have you fired your cleaning crew and told your employees they’ll have to take turns cleaning the toilets?

Have you approached your landlord, hat in hand, and asked for a rent reduction, making the case that reduced revenue would be a better option than a vacant space with no tenant? Have you contacted your advertisers and told them that if they can’t negotiate lower rates, you’ll be forced to pull all your ads? How many of your employees still have expense accounts? How many business lunches or drinks and dinner do you pay for each month? Do you throw away paper with print on only one side or do you turn it over and use it for notes and phone messages? Do you still send flowers and gifts to your clients rather than a heartfelt note of appreciation?

On a more personal level, do you pack your own lunch and brew your own coffee or tea and carry it to work every day? Have you had to sit down with a newly laid-off employee who is more like a family member and choke back tears of impotent rage and remorse as you help fill out the forms necessary to receive unemployment and food stamps so he can feed his four kids?

How many of you are shaking your heads and thinking these measures are too harsh or that’s not the way business is conducted in the world of publishing? How many of you have cut all these expenses? Have you cut any of them?

My company has done every single one of those things. Every. Single. One. I don’t think we’re unusual. This is the kind of thing the majority of people in this country are doing to survive until the economy starts to rebound. This is the stark ugly face of economic hardship and tough times.

Those are just daily expenses. What about your presence at national conferences? How much do you spend on travel or drinks and meals for clients and other colleagues? How much is spent on the lavish parties I’ve heard so much about? How many writers are going to witness the generous extravagance of free food and drink over the next few months, gaze fixed on that magnificent chocolate fountain, knowing they won’t be getting an advance on their next book and wondering how anyone’s priorities could possibly be so screwed up?

BTW, any writer who feels entitled to that kind of special treatment is welcome to volunteer their advance as a means to enable it. I’d rather have a cellophane-wrapped sandwich and a bottle of water. Then again, I don’t think there’s ever an excuse for a chocolate fountain.

With all due respect, and I believe a considerable amount is indeed due, take a good hard look. What have you done to cut expenses? Honest to god, I hope you’ve done all this and more, but I’m dubious. I hope some of you comment and let me know. I hope you prove me wrong when I say my opinion doesn’t matter. Feel free to be politely anonymous. I’ll even turn off moderation.

Because if you haven’t considered and acted on these things, if you haven’t sacrificed at least as much as the rest of us have lately, I’m going to be extremely skeptical and say you have no effing idea what you can and can not afford. I’m going to scoff when you tell me you can’t afford to pay for marketing or advances, or that you’re entitled to a 33% pay raise that will come straight out of my pocket.

That’s all I have to say. I’m done. If you need me, I’ll be over here in the corner trying to resuscitate my creative energy so I can write fiction.

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Filed under deep thoughts, publishing, writing

Agents and Publishers Do Not Require My Permission

I spent several hours today, yes HOURS, reading through blogs and blog comments about the recent Twitter-prompted discussions regarding agent pay and advances to writers. Links to most of it are conveniently collected over at agent Colleen Lindsay’s blog, which was nice of her. When I was done, I had a massive headache. Literally. Which made me angry.

Why angry? First of all, I didn’t really learn anything new. No one was talking about how to bake new and bigger pies, just arguing about finding new ways to slice the same old pie. The economy sucks and everyone wants to get paid more money for all the long hours spent doing tough work.

And I get that. Hey, I’d love to get a raise at the day job too. And yeah, cut out the mundane and tedious tasks while we’re at it. I work damn hard and I deserve higher pay. But it’s not going to happen until the corporation I work for starts baking more pies, er, making more profit. That happens by increasing income or cutting expenses. Usually both. That’s pretty basic. It’s also pretty tough to accomplish in a prolonged recession.

The other reason I felt angry, apart from the truly nasty headache, was the slow realization after reading all this same-old angst that I do not need to know this. Really. Nothing in this discussion matters to me personally. Might it eventually change the manner and amount of compensation I receive for writing? Sure. But letting all this divisive discourse into my brain will not change anything. Other than, you know, my consumption of Advil.

I’m a writer. I have no say in these decisions. None whatsoever. It’s not up to me.

It’s a business decision. Publishers will pay their suppliers (writers) what they think they can afford or get away with. Agents will do the same with the percentage they charge. Those decisions are based on profit and loss. Too much of one or not enough of the other, businesses are going to make changes. Apparently there’s an excessive supply (of writers) right now and not as much demand. That influences business decisions too.

And for some odd reason I don’t claim to understand, but which people seem to insist on calling industry standards rather than monopolistic control of the market, publishers and agents will pretty much hold hands with their respective colleagues and all decide to do the same thing at the same time. Yes, it’s a quirky industry, but we love it anyway. Suppliers (writers) will either accept that change or find something else to do with their product. Doorstops, maybe. I don’t know.

Nothing in that decision-making process makes me angry. When I’m ready to sell my product, I’ll enter the market as it exists at that time. Or stay out of the market until it improves. Or find another market. Those are my choices.

But I was angry with myself for allowing all this irrelevant-to-me discussion muck up my brain. And then I remembered an excellent essay Jenny Crusie wrote a while back about protecting the work. So I tracked it down and dragged the link over here. Go read it. It’s a great essay with an important message, even if you’re not a writer:

Taking Out the Garbage: How to Protect Your Work and Get Your Life

As a writer, the only thing I control is my writing. Whether that’s the novel or query or synopsis or blog posts or comments on other blogs or stuff on Twitter. It’s all writing. I control all of that. Really, I do. Might not always seem like it, but I do.

Everything else is controlled by others. Everything. And sure, it’s a good idea for writers to have some idea of what’s happening in the industry. So they know what to expect from others once the writing part is done. But it was not necessary for me to wade through hours of discussion about something over which I have no control. It was a huge waste of my time and energy and I blame myself for allowing it. I should know better.

So this is my reminder to any writers who might be over here reading yet another blog post about these issues. Stop it. You do not need the headache.

Focus on what is important. Your priority as a writer is to put your effort and creativity into the one thing you can control, that thing only you can produce. The writing. Everything else is a distraction.

Protect the work.

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Filed under deep thoughts, publishing, writing

Worrying. And BEARS!

Forgive me, for it has been two months since my last blog post . . .

I feel like this is a confession and I’m not even Catholic. Okay, yes, I do feel a wee bit guilty for neglecting my blog for so long. I think this is the longest I’ve gone in the past almost four years without writing a post. But I’ve been busy. I also really needed a break.

Normally, it’s my job to worry. I’m a mother and I’m very good at worrying. About everything. And even nothing. But every once in a while, all the other people in my life get to worrying about things and then it becomes my job to reassure them. To say things like, “Don’t worry, it’ll be okay.” And, “Chill, everything will be fine.” This does not come naturally for me. And frankly, it’s exhausting.

Mostly it has been my daughter doing the worrying: first about studying and finals, then about graduation, then packing up and moving home, then finding a place to put all her belongings, and then packing half of it up again to go to New Orleans and points west. Not to mention job worries and the overwhelming “what am I going to do in the fall” worry. But there have also been other family members worrying about various things. And co-workers and friends worrying about things. Some trivial things, but also some pretty serious things.

For some odd reason, maybe because I’m so very good at worrying, they have turned to me for reassurance. As much as I want to say, “Yes, of course you should be worried! I’m sure the world is about to end!” I don’t. Well, I try not to. This is completely out of character for me and it drains my energy.

But now everything seems to have gone back to a somewhat normal state. Not sure people have stopped worrying, they’ve just stopped expecting me to do something about it. Either that or my eyes glazed over one too many times and they finally realized I was useless.

So now I can get back to worrying. As usual, my daughter is the primary source of worry. She and her boyfriend have set out on a two and a half month 5500-mile driving/camping/hiking trek of the Western Wilderness. Where there are bears. Other animals, too, but mostly BEARS.

Here are a few pictures my daughter took recently of wild animals in their natural habitat, including a map of where they plan to seek out more wildlife. And bears:

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If they have cell phone reception, she calls and sends text messages, telling me where they are and what they’re doing. So I won’t worry. She promises that if she gets eaten by a bear, she will call me. As I write this, they’re in Wyoming in Grand Teton National Park. She called yesterday to tell me they were hiking back down to camp after watching the sun set over a mountain lake and on the trail ahead of them they saw a Big Black BEAR. It did not see them. So, you know, no need to worry.

But damn. I’m so good at it.


Filed under just for fun, parenting