Traditional Publishing is Still a Mess

It’s been a while since I wrote a post about the faults of the traditional publishing system.  For anyone looking to criticize self-publishing for being an inadequate system only has to look at traditional publishing as a rival.  I’m not going to single out the particular agent who participated in the #askagent discussion on Twitter because it speaks of a larger problem.  Within the Twitter thread there are many choice quotes that had me pulling my hair out:

Asked whether the agent would be interested in web fiction, the answer was –

If your blog got thousands of hit per day (in the range of 30,000 hits per day) #askagent

Asked when she’d be interested in a self-published book, the answer was –

When you have sold about 10,000 copies on your own. #askagent

This makes no sense.  Zero.  What she is saying is: I’d be interested in selling your book when you’ve proven yourself to be perfectly capable of selling the book on your own and you don’t need me whatsoever.  10,000 copies of ANY book is respectable.  10,000 copies of a self-published book is Dan Brown territory.  If you’re selling 10,000 books on your own and doing it right by making more money per book – 10,000 books could be a $50,000+ profit, or better than many advances from traditional publishers.

Yes – it’s true that an agent could sell a book to the trad market and then get better distribution, so 10,000 could turn into 50,000.  But this total bias of agents requiring unreachable numbers from self-publishers is basically just another way of saying: I will never represent you. It’s a closed-minded approach to writing that made me flee the traditional system in the first place.  If a self-publisher is able to sell 1000 books, this is commendable and worth a look from those in traditional publishing because it is so much harder to sell books.

This should not come as a great surprise but she ends the dialog by saying:

I routinely turn down extraordinary books because I know I won’t be able to sell them. #askagent

What it comes down to is sales – that’s all that matters.  Not how extraordinary a book is, but how much it could sell or has sold.  Horrible.  I can’t think of a better illustration of what’s wrong with the traditional publishing mindset.

An Agent’s Defense

This post by an agent caused a lot of anger from self-publishers but it actually didn’t strike me as all that bad.

At the risk of sounding self-serving, every serious author needs an agent. Not just any agent, of course. You need a good agent. One who is an advocate, who is willing to fight for you and who is able to tell you when you’re being unreasonable and doing your career more harm than good…

So, how does the digital revolution change the fact that you need an agent? Not at all. Sure, you can upload your manuscript on the internet yourself and you can do all your own accounting when you start selling the downloads. But, if you’re serious about writing books, you’re still better served having someone else handle the business side of being published.

Certainly, having a good agent is a positive proposition, as is having a good editor – but when the overwhelming mindset is about how much something can sell, how is this being a good advocate?  That’s not a hand-holder who can walk you through this tough and terrifying process. It’s a pimp.  Really – it’s someone who sees you only as the amount of money you can make.

Tough, yes, and I don’t really see agents as low as pimps.  Agents love books and wish the system were better, and they’re forced into being realists.  But don’t sell to me the importance of agents when they make as many mistakes as bad writers.

  • This was a good piece. I am not the self-published author of 3 books, showing both men and women how to meet each other online effectively:
    -From MySpace To My Place: The Men’s Guide to Snagging Women Online
    -From MySpace To My Place: The Ladies’ Guide to Finding Mr. Right or Mr. Right Now Online
    -The Facebook Datebook for Men

    Although my books continue to do well, I concur that marketing is tough, despite having done countless radio interviews and a SHORT appearance on the Tyra Banks Show. At the same time, the “traditional” process is expensive, tricky, and will likely limit the way I market. Tough call for any author. I guess at the end of the day, to each his/her own.

    To see how I market my materials and if you could provide feedback, check out my stuff! You’ll be amused…and who knows, maybe even enlightened!


    Flyness, “pseud.”, Author
    Flyness Publishing

  • Every rejection letter I have ever received (and of course, like any great writer, I’ve received many) has included a simple note: agenting is a subjective business, and no one agent’s perspective represents that of the agenting industry in general, and especially not that of the publishing industry. I think you’d do well to keep that better in mind. It would certainly render moot posts like this.

    I disagree that it “speaks to a larger problem.” It speaks solely to the fact that publishing is a business. Lately, I think the Internet, e-books, and the recession have been bringing to bear the fact that its model of business makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, but that’s another discussion altogether; publishers are out to make money by selling books they love. Some resort to the old “I’ll publish a Dan Brown mega-seller so I can take a gamble on a new guy,” but that’s not bad business; really, it’s smart.

  • Huh – the criteria of “You must sell 10,000 books” isn’t subjective at all.

    Some resort to the old “I’ll publish a Dan Brown mega-seller so I can take a gamble on a new guy,” but that’s not bad business

    That’s how it used to be, not as much any longer.

    And…did you just call yourself a “great writer”?

  • Yes, the agent in your Twitter thread really seems to be saying “Self published? Oh? Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.” The transition that’s going on in publishing is going to deal out a good deal of pain before it’s finished, and one wonders if agents such as this (nameless) one will be left wondering what the hell just happened.

    @Your Royal Flyness, I really thought you were punking us until I saw your site. Amazing. Here’s an idea for your next title, gratis: “Can I put my Facebook in your Myspace?” Should fit right in.

    It always amazes me that people have such animosity toward other “models.” It seems most likely that both “traditional” agented, conglomeritized publishing and the rapidly maturing self-publishing will continue for some time side by side, offering advantages and disadvantages, with authors left to decide which path suits each book best. And what’s so wrong with that?

  • Joel wrote:

    “It seems most likely that both “traditional” agented, conglomeritized publishing and the rapidly maturing self-publishing will continue for some time side by side, offering advantages and disadvantages, with authors left to decide which path suits each book best. And what’s so wrong with that?”

    What’s wrong, as Henry has already pointed out, is that the author doesn’t get to choose. Agents choose, and they choose on the basis of business principles rather than literary merit. I know, I know, agents have to eat too. But don’t suggest that authors can “decide which path suits each book best” because by and large, they can’t.

  • I agree with you completely Henry. That agent with the 10k book theory was being snarky cause she didn’t want to say what she was really thinking. We all know what that was: Self-published books are just crap, and I won’t touch them. But you are also right that if an author can sell that many books on their own, they certainly don’t need an agent or a trad publisher, for that matter, providing that they can crank em out and sell em just as fast.

    I read an interesting post on the Rejectionist’s site yesterday — worth the read and the laugh — and it just proves that there are some editors and agents out there that are looking for more than sales figures. Editors and Agents who are disenchanted with certain aspects of the mainstream status quo. http://www.therejectionist.com/2009/11/todays-book-review.html So that particular agent you mentioned above Henry, I am sure, didn’t reflect the majority opinion, like Will said, though it’s close. Agents who have not been stigmatized and are open to SP books are still way in the minority, and I don’t see evolution on the horizon as of yet. Gonna take a while for the tadpoles to grow legs, let alone a sack.

    Lastly, Bravo Henry. I was wondering who was going to be the first to comment on the Freudian typo.

  • jim duncan

    Thing is, sales/marketability are extremely important. Publishers have to be able to sell books. Even for low advance, average selling books, publishers have to sell 5k plus to recoup their costs. Push the advance up to anywhere decent, and that total goes up significantly. It’s a business. If books don’t sell respectably, they go out of business.

    Selling books is incredibly hard. Anyone who is self-pubbed will certainly say so. It’s a time and money investment that most writers don’t have. Sure, it’s possible to make money at it in certain markets. The vast majority do not though. It’s not much easier in the traditional market either. On average, books barely pass breakeven. The big sellers help support the little ones. Most in the publishing industry are there because they love good books. It’s not for the money, because most don’t make big money. Some do, yes, but most are hard-working, regular folk getting by in a job they love. Generally, one doesn’t get into the publishing biz unless you have a great love for books and a desire to see them in print.

    Some of the askagent responses were a bit snarky, but there is some truth in this. The vast majority of books in self-pubbed land aren’t that good. Heck, a lot of things that get published traditionallly aren’t either. It’s subjective in this industry. However, there is a lot of good stuff out there, and far more than can be put on the shelves at any given time. Agents and publishers have to be choosy. They turn down great stories all of the time. They have to. There just aren’t enough readers out there buying to support them. They get to be picky and this is hard on writers. Frankly, I don’t think they need to look at the self-published realm to find great books to publish. There’s far more than enough coming through the usual channels.

  • Sometimes it’s not the agent. The one that repped me in Frankfurt last month told me that one foreign publisher thought “The Shenandoah Spy” would fit their list very well…if it had been written by a woman.

    I’ve heard lots of excuses for not reading my stuff, but that one is unique.

  • Francis – ever consider using a pseudonym?

  • I don’t know, I guess I’m just not seeing the outrage here. An agent’s job is to sell books to publishers. A publisher’s job is to sell books to readers. If I had an agent who was focused on anything else, I’d probably be looking for a different agent. And yes, setting the bar at 10,000 books shows a lack of understanding of the realities of self-publishing on that agent’s part, but it’s not her business to know self-publishing.

  • It is hard to keep up with communication technlogy, let alone predict its effect on the habits of readers. As an aspiring novelist, I wish I had better soothsaying skills so I could position myself favourably for the future!

  • Kirsten: No.

  • I find it interesting that so many self-published authors even worry about what agents and traditional publishers think. Of course they view us with a certain amount of disdain and disrespect. We’re their competition, and from their point of view, we exacerbate the problem of too many readable books circulating among too few readers.

    As self-published authors, I think we should worry less about what agents and traditional publishers think, and more about what the reading public thinks of us.

    I have had two friends decline to buy my book, even though it’s in a genre they read avidly. Their excuse was that life is too short to read a bad book. There was no arguing the premise that my book might be good, even though it was self-published; it didn’t matter to them when there were numerous books in queue on their shelves, books that had already been judged “good” because they had passed through the subjective funnel of agents and traditional publishers.

    For me, this is the bias we need to overcome. As Jim said above, selling books is incredibly hard; it becomes even harder when the consumer is wary of our product. It’s the perception of readers we need to work on – we moved beyond the agents and traditional publishers the moment we decided to self-publish.

  • Actually,

    I find the last thing far more insulting than the first things. The last thing is insulting to my intelligence in business. It assumes I’m just some fluffy writer without any brains in my head who can’t handle my own business affairs.

    There is nothing mystical or magical about the business of publishing that I can’t learn. And I might be better served with a literary attorney if that time ever came, than an agent anyway. Depending on the size of the deal, a flat fee from a literary attorney makes a lot more business sense than a full 15% cut skimmed off the top of my advance.

    The first thing, the 10,000 books thing, hey that’s A-okay by me. And that’s mainly because if I sold 10,000 copies of a book then I’d have built up a big enough following to be more likely to get a serious offer from a publisher. A shot at the NYT list is literally the “only” thing a NY publisher could offer me that I’m in any way interested in. Anything else of value to me I can do for myself. In other words, unless someone someday comes to me with an obscenely large deal (which I will expect to have had to earn), then I’m just not interested in traditional publishing. I like being in control of my own work too much.

    I also, (obviously) don’t worry about whether or not someone is going to find me too “difficult” to work with. Because if I ever did something impressive enough to have a shot at the only thing I’d want from NY, money talks and they wouldn’t care. And if they did, that’s just stupid business. There is always someone willing to make the smart business decision over the personal decision.

    Publishers are in the business of making money. The thing is, as self-publishing authors we can all afford to put the art first. But publishing companies can’t. If they don’t think they can sell it, they can’t buy it. I think it might make more sense for an agent to be interested in a book that had sold 5,000 copies, but I’m not sure I agree agents should start looking at a self-pubbed book at 1,000 copies sold. Yes, self-pubbing is hard, but so what? Self-publishing authors knew the score when they got into it.

    Self-publishing is rewarding “because” it’s damn near impossible to do really well. If it’s easy, then what’s the point, where’s the challenge?

    Who cares what agents think? Just do your thing. If they don’t figure out a way to survive in the changing publishing climate they’re sunk anyway.

  • Oh, and one other thing… if a publishing contract would just take me from 10,000 – 50,000 readers, well considering the loss of profits from going down to a royalty rate instead of publishing myself… that’s just not impressive to me. And hell, I know 10,000 sounds like a big number, but seriously, in ten years, with ten books in my backlist, if I’m not up to 10,000 readers I’ll be really shocked. Not saying this stuff happens overnight, but I just don’t believe in a world where I can’t find 10,000 readers eventually.