May 2nd, 2012 by Bob Mayer
Reactions to the editor/agent panel at Desert Dreams

Listening to the editor/agent panel at Desert Dreams and I’m going to shoot from the hip with reactions to what is said.

Let’s see we’ve got a Harlequin editor; agent; editor; agent; St. Martins editor; agent; agent; agent;

Everyone is looking for a “unique voice” it seems.  Which makes me wonder at the value of the one-sentence pitch we all  preach.  Jenny Crusie is a great writer, but she couldn’t one-minute pitch her books at all.  You have to READ her writing to get it.

One agent has made the point that she only reads hard copy about ten times in her introduction.  Okay.  Got it.  And she doesn’t have a web site.  Okay,  Well then. The year is 2012.  Digital publishing is here.  My own agent has a web site via the agency, but it’s not much.  But when you have a stable full of #1 NY Times bestsellers, you don’t have to worry about it.  But if you, well.  And I don’t have to worry about her reading this, right?

I do almost feel such a panel is an anachronism, but publishing is still selling tons of books and isn’t going away any time soon.  One thing I always find interesting is how agents and editors rarely attend workshops.  I know they often have to do one on ones, but they do have some free time, but it seems like they don’t feel they have anything to learn from authors.  Several of them said they were scrambling to stay on top of things, but one of my pet peeves about publishing is that the people who know the most about digital publishing are the top selling indie authors like Barbara Freethy, Bella Andre, JA Konrath, Barry Eisler, etc.  Yet their phones aren’t ringing off the hooks from publisher and agents wanting to learn.  Ah well.  Blind leading the blind.

First question to the panel is answer:  Please don’t send me another manuscript about:

That’s a poor question.  It’s negative.  Also, I’m sure there are writers in the audience who have sweated for a year and written exactly what someone is saying they don’t want and can’t sell.

And please send me a manuscript about:  Good writing, yada, yada.

The thing I’m picking up is the same attitude of we have to figure we can sell this.  But the reality is few people know what will sell until it sells.  What I love about being indie is the person I have to sell to is THE READER!  Not an agent.  Not the agent selling to an editor.  The editor selling to the publisher.  The sales forces selling to the outlets, yada yada,  I told you about the bisque, didn’t I?

One agent just said she wants her clients to come up with 6 ideas before writing, so they can find the one that has breakout potential.  That’s a smart idea.

What advantage does a publisher have over going on your own in digital:

HQ:  We’re the biggest.  Well, okay.  And?  What are your royalty rates?  We’ve been around over 60 years.  And?  How is that an advantage to an author?  She’s boasting of having Nora Roberts’ first book.  Which means the contract locks rights in forever and sucks for the author.

SMP editor:  Downpricing books and cannibilize print sales.  Print sales is still a much bigger market.  Which is why Amanda Hocking moved to SMP.  Okay.

Agent:  I have to educate myself on electronic books.  Honest.  Need to know more about marketing.

There’s an undercurrent of anxiety—someone mentioned the saying:  May you live in interesting times.  Indeed.

We’re all still trying to figure everything out.  Another honest agent.  Had to sign a non-disclosure agreement with Argo Novus just to look at their contract.  Interesting.  What is there to hide?  The royalty rate I suppose.  I sense that’s a lazy way out for agents to get their authors “Self-pubbed”.  Drop Cool Gus a line.  He’ll listen and send you his fact sheet on what he does.  But we’re only taking on four more authors this year so it’s tight.

Why use an agent/editor:  marketing and discoverability.  HQ and SMP have marketing departments.  Yes, but the reality is they put 95% of their money and effort into 5% of their titles.

So the panel is getting a little defensive now.

What print publishers do is try to get you longevity.  Huh?  How is print a long tail?  If your book didn’t work, we work with you to help figure it out.  Huh?  I’ve never had a publisher do that.  Guess I was incredibly unlucky.

Yes, they do put tens of thousands of dollars of co-op money behind some authors.  The 95/5 rule.

One agent is boasting of suddenly getting eBook royalties from books long out of print.  Which means she negotiated sucky contracts for her authors since they don’t have the rights back.

One agent is talking about how she had a book she loved but no one could figure out where to shelve it so they didn’t buy.  That’s a big problem.   That’s the person she needs to help self-publish.

Agent:  e-royalty rates are changing.  There’s a false dichotomy.  The wild success in self-publishing vs the failure in trad publishing.  There is no one publishing story.  True.   It’s as hard to succeed in self-publishing as it is in trad publishing.  You just have more control in indie world.

One editor who is an author says negotiate your eBook rate.  Now she’s talking about her own book, which kind of isn’t appropriate for this panel.  And going on about the dog on her cover.

SMP and HQ won’t buy print without e-rights.  25% of net receipts.  Pretty poor.  My experience with SMP is I sell more eBooks in a day than they manage to sell in six months with three NY Times bestselling titles.  So I’m not sure where the marketing muscle everyone is talking is at.  Again 95% for 5%.  And if you’re the 5%, you’re probably like Scott Turow and making speeches about the curators and defending the status quo.  When the status quo is good for you, of course defend it.

This panel has kind of gone off the rails a little.  Interesting how personalities come out in such a short time.

What do you want to hear in your pitch:  First answer was:  I don’t want to hear . . .

That is often the tone that is so negative that comes out.  What we don’t want.  Another I don’t want to hear . . .

Overall, everyone was pretty honest and up front.  And, of course, they are defending their turf, which is what we all do.  The reality is that success, no matter what the path, is extraordinarily hard in publishing.  The good news, with digital opportunities, the author has the opportunity they never had before.


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7 comments to “Reactions to the editor/agent panel at Desert Dreams”

  1. Regina Richards
     · May 2nd, 2012 at 10:55 am · Link

    Thanks for saying it out loud.

    When I first started attending writers events I was shocked at the way writers seemed like beggars at the feet of the publishing industry. I am glad to see writers rising up to the challenges of indie publishing and reaping more of the rewards from their labors.

  2. Ariana Wells
     · May 2nd, 2012 at 5:42 pm · Link

    It was at Desert Dreams a few years ago that I heard an agent say his, and all agents, biggest fear at the time was that authors would figure out we did need them. I wounder how he’s coping with his worst nightmare?

  3. Laura Lee Nutt
     · May 2nd, 2012 at 6:23 pm · Link

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing this summary and your insights.

  4. Anna Jeffrey
     · May 2nd, 2012 at 9:45 pm · Link

    I’ve been listening to that stuff for 15 years. And even after I sold, I still heard it. “No one’s buying this or that right now.” …”Come up with something sparkling and fresh.” … “No one wants to read about this or that.” …. Blah, blah, blah. ….. Amazing how it never changes. I used to beg my editor for marketing support. I was in the 95%. I wish I had a nickel for everyone who said to me, “I’d love to read your books, but I can’t find one anywhere.” ….. I doubt I will ever beg them again. I’ve almost got it figured out how to make it work myself and I will never, ever give up my e-rights again.

  5. Mary Reed McCall
     · May 3rd, 2012 at 5:50 pm · Link

    I enjoyed the play-by-play style here, Bob… the next best thing to being there. Interesting and informative as always. Thanks!


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