Sue Collier, a friend and maven in the indie book world, kindly ran an interview with me to help promote myWriters Digest Webinar on agents and self-publishing. The webinar is over and, update, Sue has left publishing and is now in real estate! make of that what you will… but for those interested in the topic, here’s the interview. I love talking about this stuff.
Why would a happy self-publisher want an agent? A Q&A with agent Jody Rein
My friend Jody Rein, a terrific agent and former Random House Executive Editor, will be hosting a hot webinar for self-publishers on Thursday, June 30! Writer’s Digest asked her to put together an insider’s take on how self-publishers can find literary agents. Of course this is a controversial proposition: why would a happy self-publisher want an agent? I decided to go to the source, and Jody kindly agreed to a quick Q&A, below.
You can find Jody at: www.jodyreinbooks.com
Sue: Ok, the big elephant in the room first. Why would a happy self-publisher want an agent?
Jody: Well, you know that there are hundreds of thousands of self-publishers out there, and each one has a different story. Some might benefit from the services of a literary agent, and others have no need or interest. Basically, a literary agent is a good choice for a self-publisher who hopes to publish some or all of his or her books through a traditional house, or who needs help and access to sell subsidiary rights (such as film or foreign) to his or her self-published work, or, possibly for a self-publisher who seeks sort of knowledgeable career manager for his or her work. The services I just listed are all in flux as I type—the whole publishing world is in the midst of a massive identity shift.
I’ve been thinking lately that what we’ll see, at least in the near future, are increasing numbers of people who jump in and out of self and traditional publishing over the course of their careers, and who end up with some books self-published and some books traditionally published. If this is in fact the way this world evolves, the role of agents could be quite important in helping authors make these decisions.
Sue: I guess we all know the Amanda Hocking story by now, are there other self-publishers who famously have or haven’t gone with agents, and what do you think about their choices?
Jody: I think looking at those 5 or ten people who have been getting all the press lately can be both constructive and destructive. Constructive in that if a self-published author has reached the mainstream vernacular, that means he or she has done something very, very right and we can all learn from him or her about both writing and marketing. Destructive in that these people have achieved success that is uncommon, and to use their decisions regarding agents as models of what to do probably won’t help self-publishers who haven’t sold hundreds of thousands of copies. These folks have established their markets and are in the lucky position of being able to pick and choose who they hire to guide their careers in the future. They may prefer hourly paid consultants to commissioned agents, or not.
At the size they’ve each reached, a team has to be assembled because nobody can write well and also run the business of pushing their writing out the door alone. Most do hire agents to negotiate for them and guide them (and lawyers, and publicists, etc.) A handful (at this point off hand I only know of a couple) has chosen not to hire an agent. Each self-published writer has to take a good look at his or her own goals, desires, strengths and needs when considering reaching out to a literary agency. If you’re an author who wants a traditional publisher for at least a few of your books, and an ally at your side during the process, you should consider hiring an agent to help. If you’re an author who is doing just fine, thank you, and would rather not relinquish any control, stick with self-publishing and don’t look back. Remember, it’s a financial and a psychological decision.
Sue: Any guidance on the financial piece?
Jody: There are several areas to look at when you’re analyzing the financial decision regarding hiring an agent, both tangible and intangible. Tangibly, you’re considering the agent’s commission, the royalty and advance deal offered by the publisher, the estimated reach and sales of the publisher across platforms and in various incarnations, and the proposed pricing of each edition. Frankly, it used to be much easier. I’ve represented self-publishers for a long time, and pre e-book, we just looked at what the SP author earned per book, what that same author would earn per book in a royalty less agent commission from a traditional house, and calculated how many more books the traditional house would have to sell in order to make it worth the SP’s while. We figured we wouldn’t accept an advance less than what the SP publisher would earn on his own in, say, two years, just to be safe. In some cases, it made sense to stick with self-publishing when the numbers seemed unattainable. In other cases, it made sense to go for the gold with a big firm. I advised my clients on a book-by-book basis. And that’s one of the good things agents: if the publisher didn’t come through with the advance needed, the author could walk away from the deal and not pay me anything.
With digital publication in the mix the numbers aren’t as easy to compute, but the thinking is basically the same. Do you believe a traditional house will earn you more money, even with lower ebook royalties and an agent’s commission? You have to make some educated guesses and do some number crunching.
But no financial decision is independent of the cost in time and, for some, the stress of self-publishing, which have to be factored in.
In the self-published books I’ve represented, the whole process was based on the author’s fervent wish to stop being a publisher, and his or her reasonable belief that the traditional publisher did in fact offer more access to readers around the world, and more credibility. This is still true for many writers—and not true for others.
Sue: Don’t most agents look down on self-publishers?
Jody: That’s a question people have been asking a lot lately, and I think the answer is deeper than a “yes” or a “no.” First of all, the first self-published book I represented as an agent was in 1994; You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Crazy or Stupid by Kate Kelly and Peggy Ramundo—it’s still in print with Scribner in a wonderful revised edition and earning royalties. Before that, as an editor I made my name in the biz partly by seeking out self-published and small press books to re-publish—now we’re going back to the 80s! It is now as it was then: books that were well-written with clear and established markets, and merited wider distribution, were terrifically appealing to any publishing pro with open eyes and and understanding of the bottom line—particularly in nonfiction. As long as the market hadn’t been saturated, a self-published book had a natural leg up as the biggest question then and now is: is there a reachable market for this book? In nonfiction in particular, self-publishers often are at the forefront of trends and pockets of interests. Of course in an instant society that’s not quite the case as much, but where in the past people couldn’t be heard because of a lack of a vehicle like the Internet, now they can’t be heard because they’re drowned out. Those books that break through and establish a market are as exciting as ever to agents and publishers.
The biggest difference I see now is that self-published genre fiction and to some degree even literary fiction aren’t dismissed out of hand because they have initially been self-published. But remember, agents weren’t looking down on self-published fiction from some unfounded position of bias—the self-published fiction historically wasn’t often the product of a schooled writer. Ten-twenty years ago there were still plenty of traditional outlets for the best work, pretty high cost barriers to self-publishing, and little reason to self-publish in fiction beyond having been rejected many times.
Now agents’ attitudes have changed because the product has changed. Cost barriers have dropped away at the same time traditional publishing barriers have grown enormously. This has encouraged serious novelists to pursue self-publishing in many cases, and will continue.
Sue: I have to ask: are you looking for self-published authors to represent?
Jody: Not right now; I stopped taking on new clients a few years ago to develop software for writers and focus on my existing clients, who were keeping me pretty busy. I just decided last week to open the door to doing some project by project consulting since this software is taking FOREVER to launch. Too much information? Update–Jody’s selectively taking on a few new clients these days.
Sue: So nothing to brag about?
Jody: I didn’t say that! Watch for the Fox movie The Big Year starring Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin coming out this fall! It’s based on my client Mark Obmascik’s terrific book (buy it, buy it—through an independent bookstore if you can!). And three clients have exciting proposals in the hopper–I’ll keep you posted.
Of course there’s my Writer’s Digest webinar this Thursday, June 30th: How to Secure a Literary Agent for Your Self-Published Book
And, I promised my intern: I’ll update my website & start blogging soon. I’ve got a lot to say about all this stuff…so we added a contact form yesterday to my website for people who would like to know when I go all 21st century. (Funny how you can be cutting edge one minute and old school the next…)