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Monday, October 03, 2011

The Collusion Continuum

The collusion between publishers and literary agencies goes back at least a generation and continues. As the hoary old story goes, and I've told this one myself countless times, about 25-30 years ago, publishers were drowning in unsolicited submissions and the slush piles were getting unmanageable. So publishers gradually made literary agencies a deal, one that became a firmly-enforced standard: "Become our unpaid weeding out process, take on our slush piles and we'll make sure no one gets past the front door unless they have one of you repping them." Agencies, not knowing what they were in for, agreed because this elevated their status from an optional service to a mandated one.

Since then, the business model of getting an agent before a publisher has proved to be, euphemistically speaking, an untenable one. As I'd just mentioned, literary agencies that had been far fewer in number during the 80's finally got an eye-opening idea of just how many wannabes there were out there. Even now, with over 450-500 literary agencies across the landscape, agencies typically get 300 or more submissions a week, mostly by wannabes who make the likes of Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell look like Virginia Woolf.

Now, with epublishing grabbing a bigger and bigger share of book sales at a time when traditional publishing is losing over a billion per year, the business model set forth in a collusion between publishers and literary agencies a generation ago had only created a unique set of problems virtually unheard of in the early-mid 80's. E. g. Literary agencies have become so wealthy and influential that they no longer feel the need to seek out new talent and their doors are closed to unpublished novelists and other writers who are still told by the publishing zeitgeist that they need an agent to get through the front door.

This Catch-22 situation is the one that frustrates and infuriates a lot of otherwise talented writers who have yet to discover what the password is to the Kool Kids Klubhouse. The conundrum of not being able to find an agent without a publisher that insists on one having an agent is perhaps the single-biggest reason why the current business model is simply untenable and non-sustainable. Epublishing, especially POD (publish on demand), for a brief, shining moment, looked as if it was the answer to many "prepublished writers' (a euphemism for those who have yet to find that all-important password) biggest problem- Getting around mandatory and exclusionary representation that largely fails them even with representation. For the first time in the modern age, writers could bypass both publishers and literary agencies and get to keep their royalties to themselves. A few agencies began waking up to the fact that more and more writers were cutting out what was once again an optional middleman and they were determined to do something about it.

Nowadays, we're seeing a newer, more technologically savvy collusion between publishers and literary agents who still demand on getting a slice of the pie. The Perseus Book Group is offering, on its face, a deal for beginning and midlist authors that seems infinitely better than the one offered by Amazon's Kindle and Create Space: a 70% royalty and fairly aggressive marketing and distribution. The catch is, Perseus' new epublishing venture, called Argo Navis Author Services, is open only for those authors who are represented by the Janklow and Nesbit literary agency. Curtis Brown, Ltd., another large and influential literary agency both here and in the UK, is close to finalizing a similarly exclusionary deal and Perseus is currently negotiating with about a dozen other literary agencies.

This is not good news for authors who thought they'd found a way out of the Minotaur's lair and Joseph Heller's paradox. Essentially, the technology has radically changed in just the last five years and publishers and agencies have no choice but to both acknowledge and embrace it. But the old cronyistic business model that's primarily predicated on greed and excluding presumably bad writers has remained intact and we're now back to where we started. Publishers have, for the second successive generation, found a sleazy way to keep solipsistic and clueless literary agencies on the playing field in spite of their dismal track record.

The trick to making this work, of course, is not in making the new technology available to consumers but to offer such ereaders at a reader-friendly price. The most common ereader, by far, is the multi-platform Amazon Kindle. But recently, avaricious Amazon tycoon and Steve Jobs wannabe Jeff Bezos, who decided that being worth just under $20 billion wasn't quite good enough, unveiled the Kindle Fire, which for a limited time will go for $99, about $40 less than the standard Kindle. Despite its new bells and whistles and exciting-sounding name, the catch is that the new Kindle will soon go up to over $200 after applicable sales tax. Why Bezos thought this would catch "Fire" in the worst economy we've seen in a generation is anyone's guess but a $200 ereader is still a $200 ereader and it'll still be viewed as a luxury as long as dead tree publishing thrives.

Or, and I'd discovered this quickly after publishing my first two novels on Kindle, people will pay whatever Amazon thinks they should get for the Kindle but consumers will be so cash-strapped they'll lowball impertinent and greedy independent authors who may want to make a buck and charge more than the .99¢ that is the buyer's self-imposed threshold. It's a classic case of buying a leather wallet or purse that costs so much they no longer have any money to put into it.

In fact, the seedy underbelly of the so-called free market is no better delineated than on Amazon.com, which has banned who knows how many hundreds of authors for committing the unpardonable sin of trying to sell their Kindle titles on Amazon's book-selling site. Kindle publishes only and does not get involved in marketing. If you ask their tech support people who, if not you, will help your work stand out among 800,000 Kindle titles, all you'll get is some idiotic robo email thanking you for using Amazon.

Another problem with Amazon's quasi-fascist setup is that, while authors can bypass the usual publisher-agent obstruction and name their own price and royalty rate, ultimately the price is controlled by tight-fisted Kindle owners feeling some unvoiced buyer's remorse for buying a $140-$200 ereader and insist on purchasing only books that cost no more than .99¢. Some will lowball an author even more and refuse to even look at it unless it's offered for free. This means, since the transaction rate is paid for out of the author's royalties, authors are increasingly finding themselves in the absurd position of actually paying their fickle readers to read their books! And this prejudicial attitude is predicated on the simple-minded belief that, if you can't get a legitimate book contract, then you're not worth the $8.99 or $9.99 that "real" publishers would be allowed to charge. There's no haggling at the bookstore. But in the free market at Amazon, haggling is done through a cruel process of attrition.

Barnes & Noble's Nook reader is generally considered technologically comparable but the drawback to the Nook is that it is made and marketed by the deeply troubled Barnes & Noble, which will almost surely meet the same fate as Borders, Inc. Compounding its sluggish sales is that it's considered a great bargain at $250. Judith Curr, Vice President and co-founder of Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, has in the last couple of years pioneered an interactive reader called the Vook. This platform does something even the latest Kindle doesn't: Play videos that supplement the text. The problem with this bit of genius on Curr's part is that there's no hardware or even software to download and the process and technology isn't that well articulated until you commit to purchasing titles (through iTunes for your iPod or iPad). Essentially, Vook offers original movies (One stars noted actor Blair Underwood) only with massive amounts of subtitles.

A cursory look at this Broomhildan digital landscape shows that, where corporations have set their still-smaller but spreading footprint, it is hostile to authors, especially those trying to get just a toe in the shrinking pool, and friendly to corporations and literary agencies. Essentially, they're already ruining a new market and excluding from writers a still highly Protean technology. The old rules of exclusion still apply and, while the NY Times article doesn't specify payment to agencies, I would imagine the same standard 15% commission still applies for those lucky few within Janklow and Nesbit & Assoc. who might want to dip their well-shod toes into this pool.

Obviously, unlike Amazon Kindle, some editorial gatekeeping would be required. Under this new arrangement, agents from participating agencies will submit mss to ANAS, who then get to decide whether it passes their subjective muster. If agents are just as clueless as they've always been, this will also result in the usual 90-95% mortality rate for the adult fiction they choose to represent, a steady casualty rate that apparently doesn't bother those in the publishing business as it would alarm those in other industries and professions.

Either way one looks at it, if you're a writer, you'll note the existing system and the one emerging from the bones of its decaying carcass have one thing in common: It's set up to make the independent and unrepresented author fail while The Powers That Be are already dividing the pie. The 70% royalty rate offered by ANAS compares with Kindle's but, unlike Kindle, the new business model is the same as the old one, only much, much more exclusive, and will exclude all but a handful of America's published and non-published authors.

Perhaps because of this reason, not only does Perseus not have a title on the virtual bookshelf, no such titles exist because there's no catalog. And this is because not one author has signed on under their present exclusive agreement with that one agency.
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Blogger Pangolin said...
Just part of the reason why I only buy books printed on actual paper. Not a one of those e-readers will be functional and able to offer me use of my book purchase in 20 years.

If I buy a book I OWN it. I can pass it on to a friend, the library or store it securely on my bookshelf. A file on your e-reader can disappear at the discretion of whoever wrote the software and there's not a damn thing you can do about it.

Blogger New York Crank said...
Hey, Jurassic, allow me as an occasionally published author (mostly but not entirely long ago) to make a few comments here.

1. What's missing these days from any arrangement among authors, agents and publishers is what business schools used to call "value added." Once upon a time if a publisher took your book he distributed it in bookstores. But there hardly are any more bookstores.

Next the publisher advertised and publicized your book. These days, the publishers mostly tell you to go do it yourself – start a web page, a home page, a facebook page, a twitter account, they tell you.

So what does the publisher give you for its 85 or so percent of the earnings from the book your wrote? Almost nothing except their imprint. And what does an agent give you for his or her 15 percent of your 15 percent? Only the privilege of having a publisher see the manuscript.

2. So eff them all! Learn how to web page, facebook, homepage and twitter yourself by yourself. Offer to speak at libraries, bookstores, local tv talk shows and late night radio shows.(You can usually do this last thing from home, via the phone.) Most of the radio shows, libraries, etc. will tell you to go take a flying leap, but if you present an interesting reason to have you in, some will invite you. Find an angle. Get a gimmick. Press ahead with it shamelessly. Go do it.

3. Find a print-on-demand printer and get that printer to print and drop ship your book on demand.

3. Start in print, then offer electronic formats after six months. You can still hope to sell any books only if you charge 99 cents? Then charge 99 cents and keep nearly 100 percent of that. Yeah, if you're lucky you'll make maybe a thousand bucks maximum that way. Unless you're Stephen King, you're not likely to make more than a thousand bucks e-publishing the Simon & Schuster way.

The publishers and agents keep circling the wagons in tighter and tighter circles.Eventually, they'll be in such a tight circle that they'll all smother one another and die. And for what they offer authors in terms of a share of what a book can earn, let them smother.If they don't add value, at least don't let them take away yours.

Yours extremely, extremely crankily,
The New York Crank