Tuesday, October 13, 2009

This Week: In Diana's Head

diana's head Are Literary Agents going the way of the Travel Agent?


Let me explain. I was a travel agent for about three years. (My specialty was Las Vegas and cruises yeah baby!) A great career idea with some stupendous perks, but it was at the worst time possible to try to earn a living at it. The Internet stole a huge chunk of what was a travel agent's business: Direct personal reservations. Flights, cars, hotel. Now you can get those on any number of websites, often in strong competition with the providers themselves.

How does this relate to the publishing industry?

Let's look at this in segments. First you have the POD (Publish on Demand) ideal of self-publishing. Not always the best route for every writer out there. Like any other avenue, it has pitfalls, but it also has great potential. You don't need an agent for any portion of it, either. (This is a different topic from the POD of the Espresso machine, mentioned here.)

Then there's small press, or e-publishing who go to print. Again, there's no agent involved. Typically there isn't quite the amount of risk because you have a publisher creating cover art, providing editing services, and if possible, some form of promotion. However, a huge chunk, if not all, of any print sales fall on the author. Don't expect any small press publisher to get you on your local or national bookstore shelf. A very nominal few can, however it is a finite few and not all print books have this benefit. The RHC (Royalty Held for Credit) is a huge cut into the author's pay for returns, which are going to happen. Book stores do not "risk" profit on anyone.

Above this you have 'no agent required' New York houses. Harlequin is one. At a glance, this looks like a wonderful option. For some it is. But beware. Harlequin has annual book requirements. You can't "do it when you get to it". There are deadlines. Then there's also the latest advance decreases and decreased book runs, not to mention the very real short shelf life of a New York title book.

Lastly, there are the agents. They have the clout to stand up for authors with those remaining houses who like to have their submissions filtered. Some have specific tastes, or contract for particular houses in mind when they do sign a book and its author. For many, this is the holy grail of writing. An agent = a New York sale!

Um... No, it doesn't.

There is no such thing as the Holy Grail in publishing any more, if there ever was. Unless you've been living under a rock the last five or so years, the industry is changing, and as of last year is making some of its largest and most profound changes to date. Agents are still in demand, kind of. As you can see, there are more options available now than ever before, and more are coming. Just like when there was only the travel agent and their knowledge, you suddenly have beaucoup websites with information, pictures, reservation tips, and special prices to entice any buyer to jet to Jamaica on a whim.

Today, there are boutique travel agencies. Want to take a trip to the Himalayas? Want to cruise the Continent and the Med? A travel agent really is the best way to go there. There's passport issues, possible unrest in the area, things that the generic booking site won't be able to tell you. But want to fly from Denver to London and visit the Eiffel Tower in France? You can do that, plus rent a car and book a hotel in about an hour on line. A huge portion of the travel agent's business has evaporated into the ether of the 'net.

Will Literary Agents follow? To a degree, yes. I don't think their dissolution will be as devastating or as deep but as a friend points out regularly, "The landscape is changing". What it will look like when the dust settles, no one knows, and in truth, that's part of the problem. No one knows what the transformation will bring when the new era of publishing breaks free of its chrysalis. There are more options that don't require agents, just as there are options that don't require you stepping anywhere near a New York publisher. There's distribution which is becoming paltry at best for a new author if you're with New York, or the expected zilch distribution for small press. Agents have little control over that aspect anyway. To me, it's a wash. The only way to make a dime in a writing career is being proactive and kicking your own butt on a regular basis to get it done. Publishers no longer coddle writers. Those million dollar contracts? Not in fiction, folks. Sorry. 

I would like to have an agent to move my career to the next level, but by the time I find one willing to take a chance on an untried nobody (remember, without a New York track record, you're still a nobody to New York regardless of previous publishing records) I may not have a need for an agent. And that in truth may be the blow of extinction for many. If there's no need, they will fade away, just the same as the world-wise travel agent has. I feel the loss of their experience and knowledge would be huge, but who's to say in another ten years what will be available to the new writer just getting their feet wet?

Different publishing models, different roads to get there. How will an agent play in the new landscape? How much will their expertise be needed, by either side of the publication model? Will New York still be the final step to an author throne with so many now turning to e-publishing and ebook formats for their own profits, where so many authors and writers have begun their careers? Authors will have to be proactive about their writing if they want to see it move forward, there is no escaping that. Publishers won't waste time on those who aren't. Slackers get fired. Writers who aren't working their careers will be dropped. New York already does this, and oftentimes there is no second chance for a new contract afterward.

Watch how the landscape changes over the next year. Expectations were fall of '09 for a sign. That didn't happen, because it's still changing. All we can do is hang on for the ride. And write.


Christine said...

Dang, no magic agent to sweep me to the top of the NY Times Best Seller List... I also suppose there is no man on a white horse that is going to gallop into my cubicle and ride off with me either... and I suppose the Easter Bunny really isn't Santa Claus dressed up in a rabbit suit ....

Go thing there is Great Fiction to read to wisk me from reality

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Diana,

The landscape is constantly changing in the publishing world. However, as long as some top publishers require subs by agents, there will be literary agents.

I've had agents during my career, I have one now in fact. Both of us are hoping for a big house sale. Will it happen? Depends on the landscape.

Sigh. Catch 22 is real.

Diana Castilleja said...

Because some houses require the agent submission is one of the reasons the literary agent won't face full extinction. In fact, I honestly don't think they will suffer the near decimation the travel agent faced at all, but there will be less of a need for them and their experience will be harder to get. If there is a "harder" from this point forward, it's a scary concept.

This blog came about because of something that was said not too long about how the 'only' way to succeed today was with an agent. That belief is outdated. I'm not belittling the agent's part in the industry, but after losing one career to the internet, the signs are strong that there will be collateral damage in this one as well, and there has been already. So all we can do is wait out the storm and hope for good things at the other end. And write. :)

Sarah Simas said...

Hi Diana!

This was a very informative post! I really enjoy it! Being so new to writing, this is a topic I hear discussed a lot and don't often know what's best. It was nice to have the issue thoroughly laid out. Awesome!

Diana Castilleja said...

Thanks for coming by Sarah! I'm glad it was helpful.