Still chasing the old agent–publisher route to writing heaven? Wake up and smell the coffee!
Living in a mud-hut in West Africa I don’t have a TV, so when I need light entertainment I browse agents’ blogs. Better than any sitcom!
A few days back I found one of the more progressive agents (a progressive agent is one who acknowledges ebooks exist) explaining to her loyal hangers-on the need for patience. She explained that, always assuming you had somehow got past the agents’ own gatekeepers and been accepted as a client, “It might take (the agent) a few years, with revisions and submissions, to make a sale.”
I thought, thank God we don’t have to suck up to agents and publishers anymore.
Yet many of us still do. Many of us still slavishly follow agents’ blogs, hoping for some crumb of advice that will somehow transform our writing careers, and then we jump through ridiculous circus hoops, all in pursuit of the holy grail of newbie writing – a traditional publishing contract.
It seems many of us are still living in this time-warp world where you needed an agent to get published. And even when we do understand it’s no longer necessary, many of us still think it’s the best option, and worth trying first.
It’s not. It’s a waste of your valuable time.
It’s a waste of your valuable energy.
And most of all, it’s a waste of your chance to prove yourself.
That’s not to say there are not great agents out there who can be really useful to you. But if you need an agent or publisher at all, you need one later, not sooner. Here’s why:
Agents are not publishers. They sell manuscripts to publishers on behalf of authors. Agents choose what they think publishers will buy. Trouble is, much of the time they have no idea what a publisher will buy, which is why it takes years to sell the book to a publisher. If it gets sold at all. It’s a crap shoot.
Publishers do not sell books. Or rather, they only sell books to book-stores. Publishers have no idea what readers want to read. They rely on agents to give them new books and then they hope the book-store will buy them. It’s a crap shoot.
The book-store will only take what it thinks the public will buy. It may choose a few new names and give them shelf space for a week or two, spine out on a badly lit low shelf in the corner by the toilet. But if they don’t sell in substantial numbers in two or three weeks then it’s game over. Those books are returned. Remaindered or pulped. Another week, another new, random selection. It’s a crap shoot.
And for this privilege you spend years of your life submitting to agents until you finally get one. Joy! So now you’re a “proper” writer. An agent has given you their seal of approval. Congratulations.
But an agency contract is not a publishing contract. It’s the beginning of a journey that may just be the dream, but is more likely to be a nightmare.
Let’s be optimistic and say you spent just one year querying before you bagged your agent. You then spend another year rewriting the script because the agent is making suggestions to make it fit their preconception of what the public will want to read. By suggestions I mean mandatory suggestions. “It’s entirely up to you if you make the changes. The exit’s to your left, by the way.”
Get rid of my favourite character? Guess I’d better do it. After all, these people are professionals. They know best.
Then you watch another year or two go by before the agent finally lands a publisher. And guess what, the publisher’s editor wants some changes made. “Only suggestions, of course. Entirely your choice. The exit’s to your left, by the way.”
And of course, you make the changes. After all, these people are professionals. They know best.
Finally, yet another two years down the line, your novel is published. Only, it’s not really your novel anymore. The agent made you get rid of your favourite character, and the publisher made you change that crucial chapter where… But these people are professionals. They know best, so you listened and obeyed.
And when the publisher sent you that dreadful cover for approval and said, “Feel free to suggest any changes whatsoever. The exit’s to your left, by the way,” you signed on the dotted line. After all, these people are professionals. They know best.
So now your book, with the ending you hate, the key character deleted, and the crap cover, is finally in the shops, in the window display and on the plinth. Oh, sorry. Not the plinth. Or the window display. That’s reserved for mega-sellers and B-list celebrities with silicone implants. In fact, your book on the bottom shelf in that poorly lit corner by the toilet, spine out. And there’s only one copy, so if you do buy it for Mom no-one else will be able to get it.
And how much?! A typo, surely? And oh look, the e-book is even more expensive than the hardback! No-one’s going to buy it at that price.
In desperation you phone your publisher to explain the error.
“No, everything is exactly as we wanted it. Who are you again? Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re very busy being important. The exit’s to your left, by the way.”
So you buy the only copy of your book for Mom. After all, the store will soon order some more in for the teeming masses.
A month later you pop back to the store to get a copy for your great aunt.
“Sorry, that title is out of print. They’ve all been pulped. Poor sales. Fact is, we only sold one copy all month. It didn’t seem worth our ordering any more in. And the cover was so bad we had to hide that one spine out on the bottom shelf in that poorly lit corner by the toilet. The exit’s to your left, by the way.”
The fact is, ninety per cent of all traditionally published books in the US fail to sell 1000 copies. Official APP figures. After a few weeks on the shelves, even when not spine out in the unlit corner by the toilet, if they fail to sell enough they are returned. Remaindered or pulped. Along with that writers career.
So much for the professionals knowing best.
And in that time you wasted querying, waiting for a contract, and finally getting published, you could have been selling direct to readers, on Amazon, B&N, iTunes, Waterstone’s, etc.
Okay, chances are you won’t sell a thousand in the first few weeks on-line either. But unlike the book-store shelf, the cyber-shelves are infinitely long and there’s no time limit. Your writing career doesn’t end if you don’t sell in the first month. Or two months. Or even three.
Fact is, our debut novel Sugar & Spice sold almost nothing for the first three months. Had we been with an agent and publisher they would have shown us that exit to the left, and bolted the door afterwards. Our writing careers would have been over.
Yet in the next three months that same book that had sold nothing suddenly grew wings and sold 50,000 copies! The numbers are now almost double that.
And as an aside, that’s the same book that was rejected by almost every major agent in the UK, many of them telling us it was unsellable. We nearly gave up. After all, these people are professionals. They know best.
Had we been with an agent / publisher there would have been no second book, that’s for sure.
As it is, our second book, Snow White, is three weeks old today. And despite being released in mid August, in peak vacation time, the dead month for book sales, it broke the top 500 on Amazon UK in just eight hours, and is now our second top 100 chart success.
Agents and publishers? It’s a crap shoot.
If you’ve got a good book, go indie. Self-publish and let the readers prove its worth. The agents and publishers will soon come knocking.
Next week here on WG2E I’ll explain why, when one of New York’s biggest agencies did come knocking (all the way across the Atlantic!) we elected to remain indie, and I’ll be revealing just what the real advantages of being indie are.
Meanwhile, how about you? Are you still hankering after the dream ticket? If so, you’ll need a laugh to cheer you along the way. Check out some agents’ blogs. The exit’s to your left, by the way.