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A friend pointed me to Dean Wesley Smith’s blog post about the state of publishing, titled The New World of Publishing: There Are Suckers Born Every Minute and They Are Writers.

As one of the suckers, I will say that Smith makes some points I agree with. For example, when talking about indie vs. traditional publishing, he says “Adopt this phrase: BE SMART. DO BOTH.” I absolutely agree that writers should be exploring both paths, and in general, it looks to me like writers who dip into both streams are having the most success. And he ends the post by stressing the importance of story, another point I strongly support:

“Keep focusing on writing better and better stories. If you aren’t spending more time learning how to tell a better story than marketing or mailing, then none of this will matter.”

But Smith also warns writers to “Avoid agents at all costs,” saying:

“If you have one, fire them now unless your agent is also an attorney. No reason needed. A writer in this new world needs a good IP attorney on board. And not an agent who has other clients with the same publishing house that you sell to. That agent will NEVER fight for you. Ever. An attorney will fight for you and cost you a ton less money.  (I do not have an agent and can see no reason now to ever bring one back into the picture.)”

There are two things going on here. In part, he’s talking about agents who act as publishers and the conflict of interest there, which is an ongoing and important discussion. But he’s not saying “Fire your agent if they’re also a publisher.” He’s saying “If you have one, fire them now,” and that he “can see no reason to ever bring [an agent] back into the picture.”

Here’s a reason — I’ve earned a pretty good five-figure income this year from my writing, almost matching what I make in my day job. Close to half of that comes from foreign sales my agent made via the contacts he’s built up over the past few decades. Sure, he takes a commission (25% on foreign sales), but he then doubles my income.

I might be a sucker, but I think the math works out in my favor here.

My agent also reviews my contracts, challenging clauses and explaining things I simply don’t have the knowledge to fully understand. Smith is right that a good publishing lawyer could do the same thing, of course. But a lawyer works for an hourly rate, whereas my agent works on commission. Based purely on money-as-motivation, I prefer working with someone who’s motivated to get the best deal as opposed to someone who’s motivated to take as long as possible to do the work.

There are bad agents out there, and a bad agent is worse than none at all. I also know several authors who do quite well for themselves without an agent, and that’s great.

I’m not one of them. I’m not in a position to represent myself as well as my agent does.

Smith several times refers to the stupidity of writers. In my case, walking away from someone who has had a strong and demonstrably positive influence on my career seems like a stupid move. I could probably negotiate my own deals with DAW (my U.S. publisher) at this point, though even now my agent has talked about several long-term issues with my contracts that I never would have considered. But I don’t have the overseas contacts my agent does.

This is getting long, so maybe I’ll wait until later to respond to the oft-repeated assertion that writers are stupid for taking 15% or 25% from a major publisher when, in Smith’s words, they could “simply indie publish and get 70% of Gross Income instead.” Here’s a preview of my response: 15% of 10,000 books sold is generally still a better deal than 70% of 1000…

I just wish writers on their soapboxes (and most of us climb up there from time to time) would recognize that people’s careers are different. What works for one writer might not be the best path for another. I’m glad Smith is doing so well with self-publishing and going agentless, but suggesting that we should all follow that same route is misguided at best.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

Comments

( 81 comments — Leave a comment )
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sinboy
Nov. 21st, 2011 02:37 pm (UTC)
The idea that agents add no value if you're getting published by a traditional publishing house is right up there with the usual "there's a secret cabal in publishing designed to keep people like me and my Best Novel Ever out!" rants you see on self-pub sites again and again.

This person who has a positive influence on your career is doing things that would eat your time for a cut of your profits. Imagine re-learning everything that person knows, and then hopefully getting close to as good as they are at it, and then having to do it. How many books would that cost you in time spent?
jimhines
Nov. 21st, 2011 02:41 pm (UTC)
Preacher, meet the choir :-)

What frustrates me is that there's some very good information in Smith's blog, too. I just strongly disagree with some of the conclusions he's pushing.
(no subject) - kellymccullough - Nov. 21st, 2011 11:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
ursulav
Nov. 21st, 2011 02:47 pm (UTC)
Yeesh. I love my agent. My agent made my career HAPPEN. I'd still be wandering around feeling vaguely flattered that anybody wanted to publish my work at all and getting half the advances that I do, never mind the bit with the contract vetting.

I think what people like this fail to realize is that some of us are NOT fighters, we cringe at the thought of bothering people, and we are fundamentally incapable of being demanding on our own behalf. I NEED an agent. I want to sit in a small room and write and have somebody shove checks under the door, and thank god there are people willing to take on the bit where they yell at people about where the checks are and where is the contract and how dare you try to lower that number there, I SAW that, you horrible little weasel, and now we're going to have a serious talk about this clause here because you don't change the contract on me after we've agreed to it and I'm gonna make you REGRET it.

Agents are like backbone for hire. I don't know how I'd manage without one.
jimhines
Nov. 21st, 2011 02:51 pm (UTC)
I love the fact that my agent handles any necessary confrontations for me. I think I could do that if I had to, but I'm much happier letting him do it and allowing me to have a more "pleasant" author-editor relationship.

I like my editor a lot and I don't think negotiating my own deals and such would change that. But it's a relief that I don't have to do the confronty parts.
mtlawson
Nov. 21st, 2011 02:47 pm (UTC)
Jim, I hate absolutes.

(Yes, the ironic potential in that statement is amusing.)

But seriously, what works for one doesn't necessarily work for another. Maybe you can do it all, but not everybody can. And people do have day jobs, too: they can't spend every available moment on writing stuff. And if they did after work hours, they'd quickly find themselves divorced (if married). In my job in the IT field, you could spot the divorced people by a mile, because they were the ones who routinely put in 70-80 hours a week coding.
jimhines
Nov. 21st, 2011 02:52 pm (UTC)
The day job is a big part of it for me. I can barely make time for the writing; having to make time to agent my own stuff might push me over the edge...
and therein lies the rub - Scott Nicholson - Nov. 22nd, 2011 06:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - swords_and_pens - Nov. 21st, 2011 04:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - swords_and_pens - Nov. 21st, 2011 04:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
crazywritergirl
Nov. 21st, 2011 02:48 pm (UTC)
I disagree with Smith as well. My agent watches my back and I'd be screwed if she wasn't there for me. Now that I've spent some time in the trenches, I realize how vitally important that is. One Size Fits All Advice is never a good thing.
jimhines
Nov. 21st, 2011 02:53 pm (UTC)
I do think there's some advice that applies to most writers. "Money flows to the writer" is usually a good one, for example. (Though there are exceptions to everything.)

But there are so many different ways to break in and to have a successful career that saying "This is the One True Path to writing success" just becomes ridiculous.
(no subject) - suricattus - Nov. 21st, 2011 03:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
mrissa
Nov. 21st, 2011 03:05 pm (UTC)
Yes, why on earth would an agent fight for you to have a fair shake in your contract when they have other clients with that publisher, and establishing that the agent will in general demand fair treatment for their clients is totally a bad idea because...um...wait, I'm sure there was some bad idea there.
jimhines
Nov. 21st, 2011 03:09 pm (UTC)
I don't get that part. I thought he was referring to the agent-as-publisher conflict of interest, but it doesn't really read that way...
(no subject) - temporus - Nov. 21st, 2011 08:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - suricattus - Nov. 21st, 2011 03:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Nov. 21st, 2011 03:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - suricattus - Nov. 21st, 2011 03:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Nov. 21st, 2011 03:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - barbarienne - Nov. 21st, 2011 06:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - twilight2000 - Nov. 21st, 2011 07:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Nov. 21st, 2011 10:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ursulav - Nov. 22nd, 2011 02:44 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - barbarienne - Nov. 22nd, 2011 03:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Nov. 21st, 2011 04:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - suricattus - Nov. 21st, 2011 04:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - seanan_mcguire - Nov. 21st, 2011 04:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Nov. 21st, 2011 04:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Nov. 21st, 2011 05:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bookishdragon - Nov. 21st, 2011 06:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Nov. 21st, 2011 08:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Laura Resnick - (Anonymous) - Nov. 23rd, 2011 04:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
snapes_angel
Nov. 21st, 2011 03:11 pm (UTC)
Maybe it's because I'm tired, but somehow, this (yes, it's on YouTube) comes to mind.
jimhines
Nov. 21st, 2011 03:16 pm (UTC)
Hm ... and now you've got the parody-writing wheels in my brain a-spinning.
(no subject) - snapes_angel - Nov. 21st, 2011 04:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
suricattus
Nov. 21st, 2011 03:19 pm (UTC)
I love my agent. She deals with things so I don't have to (line-checking details on deals, chasing checks, etc) and she gets to play the heavy when needed, so my editor and I don't carry bad feelings into the actual work part of the relationship.

Also, she is part pshrink & handholder when I start to twitch about a book, the industry, a panic attack...


And she understands that there are some projects I'm doing on my own. No fuss no stress, no "where's my 15%?"

Why the HELL would I leave that?

Dean's a smart guy, and I respect his experience, but no.
ursulav
Nov. 21st, 2011 03:37 pm (UTC)
Exactly! My agent's told me on occasion that it's her job to be the bad guy so that my editor and I don't have to deal with the baggage there. Even for that function alone she'd be worth the money, let alone all the other crazy practical details.

I sometimes suspect that people who don't have a hard time chasing things aggressively and micro-managing their own careers forget that some of us aren't so good with that and would much rather somebody else do it.
(no subject) - barbarienne - Nov. 21st, 2011 06:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
rowyn
Nov. 21st, 2011 03:53 pm (UTC)
I kinda feel like Smith's advice on writing applies equally well to most careers. A doctor can make more money running his own practice, a programmer can make more money consulting, etc.

There are reasons most people prefer to work for someone else, and those reasons are not actually 'because they're idiots'. :/
rowyn
Nov. 21st, 2011 03:55 pm (UTC)
On a related note, IIRC Rusch (Smith's wife, also a writer) recommends agents for foreign rights, even though she's otherwise pretty much just as down on them as Smith.
pameladean
Nov. 21st, 2011 04:17 pm (UTC)
Um, yeah, really. The bit about spending more time on writing than on marketing or mailing is excellent, but also gives me reason to completely ignore the advice to get rid of my agent. Because if I did, I could not follow the earlier piece of advice, which seems much more germane than this vaguely paranoid "get a lawyer" stuff.

Also, even IP lawyers do not know the ins and outs of specific publishing contracts the way an experienced agent does. I had peripheral dealings with some early in my career, and there were a lot of things they did not get. They also, though this may have been the specific lawyers, took a really unnecessarily adversarial approach to things.

P.
jimhines
Nov. 21st, 2011 04:45 pm (UTC)
I suspect a lot depends on the individual agent or lawyer. I've only needed to retain a lawyer once (we ended up going through two of them). Both did a good job in helping us get what we needed, but I can see where that background might lead to a more adversarial approach. And my experiences definitely didn't leave me with the sense that a lawyer would be a good money-saving option...

And yes! One of the reasons I need an agent is because I'm working two jobs, and I don't have *time* to do everything he does on top of the rest. I'm struggling enough with making time to write the books!
burger_eater
Nov. 21st, 2011 04:24 pm (UTC)
The guy seems to have had some bad experiences, which he assumes are universal--he's been bad mouthing agents for as long as I've been glancing at his posts.

And yes on the bad advice mixed with the good. I've pretty much given up on his posts because I'm tired of trying to tease them apart.

And important thing to remember is that this is all the language of flattery. Look at this recent post: it's a glad hand to the self-publishers who are reading him to butter them up and encourage linking. That's clever marketing and I hope he sells a lot of his books. For me, though, it's not worth reading.
cathshaffer
Nov. 21st, 2011 08:20 pm (UTC)
Whenever one of Dean or Kris's posts get discussed on the internet, I see responses that assume they are just bitter self-publishers who haven't been able to sell their novel or "had a bad experience" or something. So I think it's worth noting that Dean and Kris are both longtime publishing insiders who used to run their own traditional publishing company (Pulphouse) and were grizzled veterans of the business back when many current writers were in diapers. Whether you agree with their ideas or not, I think it's only fair to give them credit for knowing what they are talking about.
(no subject) - burger_eater - Nov. 21st, 2011 08:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Nov. 21st, 2011 10:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - burger_eater - Nov. 21st, 2011 11:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Nov. 21st, 2011 11:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
firynze
Nov. 21st, 2011 04:40 pm (UTC)
Couldn't agree more; there is no one-size-fits-all solution in the UNIVERSE, let alone in the microcosm that is professional creative endeavours. Trying to imply that there is - now that is the real bonehead maneuver, if you ask me.
deborahjross
Nov. 21st, 2011 05:06 pm (UTC)
Joining the chorus here. My agent helps me to work toward a long-term career, to be patient when necessary and to take action when not. Not to mention negotiating on my behalf far better than I could do on my own.

I admit to being just a tad leery of advice from someone who seems to have made most of his writing-related income from teaching "how to succeed" seminars. But I could be way wrong about that; it's just an impression. In person, he's a nice guy.
(Anonymous)
Nov. 22nd, 2011 08:39 am (UTC)
It's simply not true that Dean Wesley Smith has made all of his income from teaching "how to succeed" seminars OR indie publishing. He had published over 100 novels traditionally, including many new york times bestsellers, and was advising people not to use agents long before he was self publishing.

(no subject) - ursulav - Nov. 22nd, 2011 04:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nobu - Nov. 23rd, 2011 09:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - deborahjross - Nov. 22nd, 2011 07:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
twilight2000
Nov. 21st, 2011 07:57 pm (UTC)
Let's also note that by the time Mr. Smith went Indie he had Quite The Name and fans would read his stuff published on a roll of paper towels if they had to. That makes a bit of a difference :>.
twilight2000
Nov. 21st, 2011 08:00 pm (UTC)
Hey, here's an idea - if folks are up for it, list their "good agent" under a separate post? It's even better than the general websites, cause we get exposed to agents with stories and a face!

It's just an idea...
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