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

8 responses to “In Which Agents and Publishers Get It Anyway (my opinion, that is)

  1. Personally I think that agents and publishers can do whatever the hell they like because they are providing a service that plays on the hopes and dreams of an individual. Most writers would do anything to get their work published and therefore at the mercy of these people. No wonder self-publishing and ebooks are becoming so big. A great post and it’s great to see some one standing up and having their say instead of being petrified that an agent or publisher will read it and blacklist them.


  2. McB

    Oh. My. God. Now she’s attacking chocolate fountains. Is nothing sacred?


  3. McB, attacking a chocolate fountain in ok in my book, but she’s better back off of my wine fountain…

    Excellent other side of the coin post, KD. And I hear you. Yes, I’d like to get into the Big 5 houses, with an agent that’s not suspending me by my kankles and shaking the coin from my pockets, but since I do not yet have an agent I will cross that bridge when I arrive.


  4. Does one need an excuse for a chocolate fountain?


  5. Thanks, dogsrunloose, glad you liked it. Funny, the only thing I’m willing to do to get published is write a better book. I don’t feel like I’m at anyone’s mercy in that regard. Not sure I’ll ever actually self-publish, but I’m listening intently to those who do. Never say never. And yeah, I tend to always have my say, even when it offends everyone. Sigh.

    Yes, McB, you should be worried. Today, chocolate fountains. Tomorrow, windmills.

    Don’t worry, guys, now that I’ve pissed off everyone who is even slightly involved with any aspect of publishing, next post we can get back to talking about marmots. And BEARS.


  6. Another thing I meant to mention that made me laugh was, why did the people who objected so strongly to what you wrote do so privately and the people who supported you do it publically? Says a lot about the world we live in!!


  7. I follow Joe Konrath’s blog – which is how I stumbled upon yours. Frankly, I don’t care what agents & publishers do – decided to self pub, never queried & have no regrets. Have done well enough that I’m getting ready to do it again very soon. (Living in a tourist town helps my sales. All of my expenses are covered & I make a profit – but I ain’t quittin’ my day job.)
    Yeah – a 33% raise for agents that can’t get decent advances for writers – that’ll work. Lemme see, since the economy got crappy – personally endured a year-long 20% pay cut (restored), bonus payments put on hold, worked out of town (Chicago, Atlanta, Delray Beach & now Miami) for all but 4 months since October 2008 & will be away thru spring of 2011 (& hear I’ll probably head off to Boston next). Yeah that all sucks – miss my house, but gotta do what I gotta do. Not whining – is what it is.
    BTW – I don’t ever post w/o using my name. Someone disagrees w/ my opinion (I’m never obnoxious.)- cool. I don’t care. Ever.

    Sorry I missed the original fireworks.


  8. I really enjoy Konrath’s blog — no matter which path a writer decides to take, he’s got a ton of helpful information over there. Plus he’s got that wry sarcastic sense of humour. VERY glad to hear the self-pub route is working for you. I’m determined to try the traditional thing, but it’s comforting to know that if I’m not a good fit there, I can still get my stories into the “hands” of people who claim to want to read them. Yeah, not quitting my day job either. And I’m newly grateful it doesn’t involve travel! Sheesh, what a schedule you’ve got.

    Not sure there were any fireworks to miss. Maybe a sparkler or two. [grin] And honestly, I’m liable to go the next several months and not write about anything more controversial than the kids or the pets. Unless I get all opinionated again . . .