Do You Need a Literary Agent?

Speaking of all the various ways the publishing world has changed, just in the last decade…let’s talk about literary agents.

Once upon a time, agents were virtually mandatory, because the only way to get your story into the hands of readers was to sell it to a publisher, and most major publishers would not accept “unsolicited” manuscripts, preferring to get work from agents. Was this because agents sprinkled magic fairy dust on them that made them better? No. Was this because anything an agent liked would automatically be liked by publishers? No. The agents were simply gatekeepers. Publishers assumed agents would separate the wheat from the chaff, that is, reject the completely unpublishable, so they could focus on choosing amongst the remainders.

This system worked well for publishing houses. Less so for writers. In the first place, agents were hard to come by. Queries worked infrequently. Face-to-face meetings were better, but no one could afford to go to all the writer conferences out there, and some conferences promoted agents that were less than ideal. And even after that holy grail agent was obtained, they were no guarantee of publication–and typically took 20% of a writer’s already meager earnings. And you could never get them on the phone…

More than one writer thought, there must be a better way.

Now of course, there is. For the first time ever, self-publishing is viable. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily what you want. Some people–ok, probably everyone–would rather write than run a business. Some people dread marketing and social media–though they will need to do both even if they land a major publisher. But self-publishing rarely results in books in bookstores, or flashy hardcovers you can show off to your mother or zealously competitive siblings. What’s best?

To some extent, the best course depends on what you’re writing, but if you’re writing anything remotely resembling commercial fiction, I advise starting with trying to get an agent and print publisher. Give yourself a deadline. If you work it hard but don’t get there in three years, maybe it’s time to consider independent publishing. But that assumes you’ve worked it hard. Which means sending out queries, attending conferences, giving pitches (don’t worry–no one else enjoys this any more than you do), and seeing if you can find your way into a comfortable New York berth. The stakes are high. It’s worth the effort, especially early on, when you’re still building a career and a following.

I’ve mentioned this before, but at my annual conference, I am quite choosy about who I invite. Agents aren’t there unless they are reputable and have a substantial list of successful sales. I don’t promote anyone I wouldn’t have for an agent myself–in fact, several of the speakers have worked for me in the past. I have seen people at my conferences land agents who got them substantial publishing contracts–and to me, that’s what it’s all about.

If you think an agent is something you might like, I know a great opportunity for you to find one. Come to my writers conference September 22-23. In between sessions, we can chat about your work and your plans and try to get you what you need to succeed. I’d like to see you become the next publishing success story.

Schedule and registration info:

Figuring Out the Publishing World

Would you take a moment to nominate my new novel on Kindle Scout? It costs your nothing, and if the book is selected, you’ll receive a free digital copy. Click here to get to the page, then click “Nominate me.”

Since I’ve spent the last several blog posts talking about writing, I’m not surprised that most of the Red Sneaker email is about publishing, trying to fathom how to crack the market, where to send manuscripts, how to survive in a world where bookstores are online and books look like Star Trek PADDs.

I wish I had all the answers. I don’t. At best, I can offer a few guidelines, but at least those guidelines are based upon experience gained publishing over forty books in every possible way during the last thirty years. Here’s what I know for sure about where to publish your books:

  1. It depends on the book, and
  2. It depends upon you.

When I started submitting manuscripts back in the 80s, there was no confusion about it. Unless you had a NYC publisher, you weren’t in the bookstores, and that was where books sold. But somewhere in the last twenty years, Amazon became America’s top bookseller–by far. (#1 retailer, too.) In 2009, digital gizmos like iPads started catching on, and pretty soon people could carry thousands of books on a device that weighed less than a pound. If you’ve ever packed books for a long trip, you can see the advantages. Yes, you may prefer snuggling up to a nice hardcover when you’re in bed, but you aren’t always in bed (I hope) and hardcovers are expensive and increasingly harder to find. So what’s the upshot?

  1. Adult genre fiction sells more in eBook than paper. Figures vary, but it looks to me like sales are around 75% eBook. Books for kids, art books, and some nonfiction still sells better in paper–but the margin in narrowing.
  2. The Big Five NYC publishers are becoming increasingly dependent upon genre fiction (which they sometimes call “upscale fiction” to make it sound more different than it is). You will need an agent to pitch them.
  3. Smaller publishers are less likely to care about agents, and that may be where your non-genre work is heading anyway.
  4. New York is not publishing poetry to any significant degree.
  5. Amazon Publishing is not yet the largest share of the market, but they are the fastest growing slice–by far. Given the high visibility Amazon gives books in which they have a vested interest, that just makes sense.
  6. The Kindle Scout program is one way to get a book into Amazon. Amazon has other houses, but some still require agents (and even if you have one, do you want to give up 20% of your slender royalties)? It works best for adult genre fiction, though there have been exceptions.

And this is why last week, I worked on a book for a large publisher, sent one to a smaller publisher (cross fingers) and launched a Kindle Scout campaign for another book. These days, you need to try everything–based upon what’s right for the book and what’s right for you.


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Are Ebook Sales Declining? Do Indie Titles Dominate the Market?

The publishing industry has always suffered from poor data control. Accurate sales information has been hard to come by, in part because no one is gathering it systematically, and in part because publishers and Amazon typically do not release raw sales data. As a result, we currently have a split of authority. The legacy publishers are claiming that ebook sales are declining, while independent publishers claim they dominate the market. Who’s right?

I will not pretend to be an expert data analyst. Rarely have I heard anyone wax nostalgically about their college Statistics class. Personally, I’d rather have a colonoscopy, or root canal, or watch Toddlers and Tiaras. But a few facts are clear: First, the traditional publishers’ claims are based upon AAP (Association of American Publishers) stats, meaning the data contributors are traditional print publishers, which of course skewers the outcome. Second, Authors Earnings has tried to fill the gap, using sophisticated computer analysis to divine Amazon sales, probably imperfectly, as they have a clear bias toward independent publishers. Third, Amazon is getting rich while Barnes & Noble is going broke, and most of Amazon’s sales do not relate to print books.

Here’s another fact: Amazon paid $140 million dollars in Kindle Unlimited (subscription book borrowing) payouts directly to authors in 2015, and not a penny of that is included in the AAP stats. Does that affect the bottom line? Obviously. Add in that plus traditional ebook sales and you have the tail wagging the publishing dog.

Personally, I don’t see it as a competition, so I don’t care who’s “winning.” If you can get a traditional publishing deal and you want to travel that path, go for it. But I’m pleased there are alternatives for entrepreneurial sorts who don’t want to wait or don’t want to work for someone else. Last year, ebook sales at Amazon generated $1,756,000 PER DAY in author earnings, and more than half of that went to independent authors. Self-publishing is not the only option, but for the first time ever, it is a viable option.

For those interested in delving deeper into the battling methodologies and earnings reports, here are a few links:

Authors Earnings:

Publishing Industry Rebuttal: