The Problem With Traditional Publishing – Specifically Agents
Over on Twitter, I saw fellow copywriter and friend of the blog Lynn Swayze had retweeted a thread on traditional publishing. Specifically, it was an agent’s perspective on why people failed to find representation when it came to getting their book published.
The thread was good – and it listed all the guidelines that new writers should follow. Things like:
- Follow the submission guidelines
- Don’t be a creepy moron who keeps harassing people for updates on your submission (to the extent of visiting their house (!!!) which some people apparently think is OK behaviour)
- Target your agent – don’t send a horror manuscript to a kid’s fiction agent
This is all basic stuff, and I agree that if you’re going to submit to an agent, you should have the common courtesy to do what they ask.
What I don’t agree with is the idea that you should get an agent. Or a traditional publisher, in fact.
If The Traditional Publishing Proposition Is So Bad, Then Why Are Agents Still The Pickers And Choosers?
In 99% of cases, it makes no sense for a would-be author to try and get a traditional publisher. It makes even less sense for them to get an agent.
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Here’s the crazy thing about that agent’s perspective; those are a bunch of hoops you have to jump through if you want to get an agent to represent you.
You go through the process of securing a list of high quality agents who fit your criteria (This will take time and exclude the majority of agents) and that also give you the chance to fulfil their criteria.
Then you have to worry about submissions – and you can’t just submit your manuscript to all of them at once. You have to give them the chance to turn you down before you submit elsewhere.
This all takes time. Time which, if you just self-publish, is time that your book can be earning you money. I’m not talking a little time either. It can take years to jump through the hoops and get representation.
So what do I mean by representation?
In any traditional publishing situation, you want to get your book in the hands of consumers (the end reader of your book.)
An agent negotiates on your behalf with the publishers who do that.
This involves two things:
What An Agent Actually Does
- The agent negotiates the contract you have with publishers
- The agent uses their contact list to speak to the relevant acquisitions editor at various publishing companies
That’s what an agent does. We’ll look at the two in separate because they’re important.
For the first, you’re talking about contracts.
Most agents aren’t lawyers, and yet you’re allowing them to negotiate a contract on your behalf.
A lot of publishing contracts are, to a copyright or commercial lawyer’s eyes, scary as hell.
Many authors give away all of their rights for the whole lifetime of their copyright on a book (and the characters, sequels and everything else) for a fraction of what those things are worth.
Ask yourself; do you want a legally unqualified person taking care of your commercial law contracts? Probably not. Let’s move on.
For the second point; the agent uses their contact list to secure a publisher.
There are two key questions here:
- Can you get those contacts yourself?
The answer is probably “yes.” You can go to trade fairs and publishing fairs. You can look up people’s LinkedIn accounts and email address. Or you can do the millions of other things that people do to get contacts. There isn’t a magical agent training course that gets them top-secret contact lists.
The second question is more pressing:
- Do you want those contacts?
Traditional publishing is a dinosaur. The big publishing companies are slow to adopt to new technology and new fundamental business realities at the time where speed in adapting is more important than it’s ever been.
Do you want to give them the rights and control over your work?
With That Said, What Are Some Of The Opportunities Here?
Another fellow copywriter and friend of the blog, Nabeel Azeez, pointed out what’s important.
He said, “Having read all of this, there must be an opportunity here.”
That’s what this blog is all about.
There are plenty of opportunities in the new publishing world. Absolutely – the more you look, the more you find.
Now, obviously the first one is to follow the advice I’ve alluded to here and start writing for yourself as your own publisher and make money that way. But there are others. Here are a few I came up with off the top of my head that I’m 90% sure would work without requiring any particular skill or capital (outside of general business expenses that we all have to pay.)
1. Small Publishing House
Self-publishing is definitely a set of skills and a lot of authors don’t have a clue.
There’s no reason you can’t take your own self-pub experience and build a publishing company for others.
The key to success is to NOT fall into trap that traditional publishers do:
- Keep it small, niche and personal as far as author list goes
- Keep on top of the technology and opportunities
- Make sure you have the business stuff nailed down, because that’s what you’re paid for
… There are a lot of horror stories where publishers go under without paying their authors, or they withhold royalties. Crazy stories and as a publisher OR author you need to be careful about this.
Anyway… more opportunities:
You can’t compete with Amazon, but you could start a small online bookstore for a niche clientele. This is just basic info-marketing 101 stuff, but instead of selling weight loss ebooks you’re selling books in your genre.
3. Representation/Book Marketing Agency.
This is simple marketing stuff. You take an author on, agree to market the book and take a cut of the profits. They retain the rights and you work it like any other marketing campaign.
This can go in all the directions any marketing does. You can create simple services like Instagram marketing for authors or Twitter marketing or whatever. You could handle their PPC if they do that. (AMS is the big one there.)
- A ton of niche stuff:
- Book cover design
- Translation work (this would be a good niche bet where you could completely corner a market.)
The publishing industry in this decade is almost perfectly analogous to the record industry in the 1990s.
You had about 5 titanic companies that were the publishers, distributors and gatekeepers to a whole industry’s worth of talent.
In order for them to make the most money, they had to set the rules to benefit them. This meant that 1% of content creators got the deals and the stringent curation meant that everything worked out profitable; and moreso, content creators had to toe the line and beg for opportunities.
Then the game changed for the record companies. Suddenly, you had the fact that people could share music globally without paying for it. This meant the distribution stranglehold was broken. This was followed by legal technology in the form of the net: CDBaby and Myspace meant that artists could become their own distributors.
Then cheap desktop publishing software happened. You could literally produce from your bedroom, for better or worse. The publishing stranglehold was broken.
Those two things meant that the curation stranglehold was broken: Everybody could assess every band based on whether they liked them – the free market decided what they wanted to pay for and the end consumer now decides which music they listen to.
Sink or swim based on the content wanted, for better or worse.
The same is happening exactly in the publishing world.
It’s a one-way ticket; you can’t put stuff back in Pandora’s Box.
So, bear that all in mind if you want to work in publishing now and into the future.