US literary agents question the business model’s viability, but some are missing the bigger picture

From The New Publishing Standard:

Today, publishing is a different planet. There is so much opportunity. So much potential. So much agents can offer authors, traditionally-published or self-published. And it is the younger, newer generation of agents, that are best poised to take full advantage and take their careers to new levels.

As September ended, the biennial report from the Association of American Literary Agents (AALA) was released, painting a bleak picture of American’s literary agents working long hours and struggling to pay the bills, while worrying for their future, and questioning the viability of the commission model.

I logged the report on my To Do List, where of course it was promptly subsumed in the flood of pre-Frankfurt industry news and reports, and only resurfaced thanks to Porter Anderson over at Publishing Perspectives, who summarised the report during Frankfurt week, to shine the spotlight on the Buchmesse LitAg programme. Anderson took time out to remind us literary agents work hard and are not always appreciated for their pivotal role in bringing authors and publishers together, and looking after author interests.

As an industry professional, there were few surprises in the Association of American Literary Agents report. Those of us who have had dealings with literary agents will know it’s not quite the romantic dream job those outside the industry might imagine.

Ready-to-print future bestsellers rarely arrive on the desk, and those that do, unless from existing clients, go through the slush pile process of being filtered and evaluated, with the AALA reporting some agents handling over 100 submissions a week, often without an assistant.

Separating the wheat from the chaff can be dispiriting, when you know the querying author may have spent years of their life working on a manuscript that they truly believe in, but that sadly isn’t readable past the first few paragraphs. I cannot imagine there are any literary agents who relish the next stage – the rejection email saying thanks, but no thanks.

And then there’s the anguish of rejecting a manuscript that shows promise, but just needs too much work, or a well-written submission that simply doesn’t tick the right boxes for the prevailing market conditions.

All this alongside the lurking fear that the agent might have just rejected what will go on to be the next publishing industry legend. Just ask the many agents who told JK Rowling not to give up the day job.

As an author and one-time editor, being a literary agent is probably the last job I would want to choose in this industry. Although sympathy towards the plight of the literary agents’ struggles as reported by the AALA is tempered by, as always, real life.

There are plenty of jobs out there that pay less, have longer hours, zero job satisfaction, and involve exhausting manual labour. So my gut reaction whenever I see reports emerging like this from any sector of the publishing industry, is to sigh and prepare for a pity-fest of victim-of-a-cruel-world gripes.

The latest Authors Guild report, published the same week as the AALA report, is an example, with Jim Milliot reporting for PW that “Writing Books Remains a Tough Way to Make a Living“, explaining that, “A new Authors Guild survey finds that median book and writing-related income for authors in 2022 was below the poverty level.

That’s an op-ed in its own right. The idea that book authors can somehow be equated with people who stack shelves in supermarkets, make bread or cars or widgets, serve coffee or pizza, or do some other weekly-waged job never fails to amuse me. Back in the UK I spent many years sat in coffee bars all day, slaving hard to keep the baristas busy replenishing my lattes for a pittance weekly wage, while I pecked away at the keyboard between blueberry muffins, writing books that in their time sold almost two million copies, and fifteen years on, still bring in a trickle of revenue. The barista, who worked far harder than I ever did, got paid for the day’s work and then had to do it all over again the next day to get paid again. My work, all those years ago still earns me something, and if I can ever find the time away from school and TNPS, there’s probably a lot more mileage to be had from them. Real life? No thank you.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

Of course, there are many ways to be poor. For the large majority of would-be authors who wish to be published by traditional publishers, absent independent means, that path is doomed to failure.

Being poor and young can be a hoot (PG speaks from experience). However, being poor and middle-aged or, worse, poor and old is a different sort of existence altogether (Thankfully, PG doesn’t speak from experience about that sort of life).

PG has helped/tried to help a number of people who have found themselves old or pre-old without enough money to make ends meet. More than a few employers would rather hire young and train than spend more money to get additional experienced employees. While it’s supposed to be illegal, there is more than a little age discrimination that goes on in contemporary US businesses.

Generally, PG advises would-be authors who aren’t able to crash on a friend’s couch each night to not give up their day jobs until they start receiving some actual money in meaningful amounts from their writing.

A literary agent

A literary agent is nothing but a cheap salesman (or woman); while a writer is a cheap salesman (or woman) who also has to actually write the books.

John Hodgman

The brutal truth about earning out

From Blake Atwood:

What does earning out mean?

When an author signs a book deal with a publisher, the publisher pays the author in the form of an advance on future sales, aka an advance against royalties, aka an advance.

Let’s be optimistic and say that your literary agent sold your book to a publisher for $100,000. That means that prior to your book having gone on sale, you will have made $85,000.

Don’t forget: your lit agent gets 15 percent of what you earn. That number isn’t always the same for every agent, but 15 percent is typical.

That advance money may be paid in a lump sum, but it may also be doled out to you at specific publishing milestones, e.g., when you sign the contract, when you submit your manuscript to the publisher, and when the book is published.

Let’s assume that it takes approximately two years for those three events to happen. At that rate, you’re paid $28,333 three times over two years. Can you already see how even a sizable advance may not mean an author can quit their day job? We haven’t even accounted for taxes yet!

To “earn out” means that a publisher sells enough of that author’s book so that the publisher recoups their investment in the author.

In other words, the publisher needs to earn $100,000 before the author will ever see more money as a result of sales of their book.

Considering that an author stands to earn maybe $2.50 per hardcover book and less for other editions, at best, the publisher will have to sell 40,000 books for the author to earn out their $100,000 advance.

. . . .

According to Jane Friedman, 70 percent of authors don’t earn out their advance.

In other words, a majority of authors are paid anywhere between $5,000 and $1,000,000 in an advance and their book sales never match how many the publisher thought they could sell.

Fortunately for these authors, they don’t have to pay the advance back to the publisher. The advance is a calculated financial risk that publishers take on their authors.

. . . .

Literary agent Jeff Kleinman shared an apt visual for advances and royalties: Imagine a jar filled with 100,000 marbles. When you sign a book deal, you and your agent are given those 100,000 marbles. The publisher takes the jar back. Once they fill it back up with 100,000 marbles made through book sales, then the jar overflows and the author (and agent) “earn out” and begin to see royalty checks on top of what they’ve already been paid through the advance.

But that only happens 30 percent of the time.

Link to the rest at Blake Atwood

Here’s a link to Blake Atwood’s Author Page on Amazon. If you appreciate Blake’s insights, you might want to check out his books.

PG notes that it’s not unusual for a wide variety of little nibbles that some publishers and agents sometimes take from the author’s royalties. Some publishers and some agents add little fees for this and that, which can add up. Fedex fees charged by the agent to send you your royalty statements and royalty checks are one small example.

PG regards items such as these as part of the cost of doing business as a literary agent and, as such, the costs should be borne by the agency.

(Note: For simplicity’s sake, the following hypothetical does not include book wholesalers that all large and many small publishers use to warehouse and ship orders to individual bookstores and book chains and whoever else wants to purchase them.)

And don’t forget the notorious reserve against returns. For those who are unfamiliar with this process and how it is sometimes manipulated, PG will provide a quick overview.

  1. Publishers are happy to ship bookstores as many printed copies as the store is willing to accept. How can you expect the bookstore to make towering stacks of a book unless they have lots and lots of copies?
  2. All big bookstores and most small bookstores have the right to return any unsold hardcopies of a book the publisher has shipped to them and receive for full credit of the wholesale price the publisher charged them for the books in the first place.
  3. As an example, Bob’s Big Books orders 200,000 printed copies of Lucky Anna’s first book at the wholesale price of of $10 per book. To spare you any arithmetic, this means that Bob is receiving books with a retail price of Two Million Dollars. If Bob sells all 200,000 copies of the books at the suggested retail price, Bob will be depositing Two Million Dollars into his bank account. Of course, out of the two million, he’ll be paying rent, salaries, taxes, etc., but if Bob is a good manager, he’ll make a bunch of money after paying the related expenses involved with selling 200,000 copies of the book.
  4. However, although Bob has plenty of Lucky Anna’s books to stack up in his bookstore, he sells only 25,000 copies of the book.
  5. What is Bob going to do with 175,000 unsold copies?
  6. Under a long-standing system used by traditional publishing in the US, Bob can send his unsold 175,000 copies of Lucky Anna’s book back to the publisher for full credit.
  7. Bob only has to pay for the 25,000 books he sells for a total of $250,000
  8. The publisher then has 175,000 more hardcopy books sitting copies sitting in a warehouse somewhere.

What’s a Publisher to Do?

1. In a reasonable-sounding accounting manner, the Publisher holds a financial reserve against book returns. Lucky Anna is only paid a royalty for amounts the publisher has actually received, less a reserve for returns.

2. Let’s assume hypothetically that a salesperson for a traditional publisher makes a two million dollar sale of a single title written by Lucky Anna to Bob’s Bookstore. The Publisher determined that setting a return against reserves of $1,900,000 would be prudent.

3. Conveniently, even though the Publisher shipped Two Million Dollars worth of one of Lucky Anna’s books to Bob’s Bookstore, after subtracting the $1,900,000, the reserve amount the Publisher set, The Publisher is required to pay Lucky Anna royalties only on the $100,000 remaining after subtracting the $1,900,000, the amount the publisher has set as a reserve against returns.

4. Multiply the calculations for Bob’s Books by 1,000 other bookstores, and you can see the calculations getting very sticky.

5. When Bob’s Bookstore returns $1,750,000 worth of Lucky Anna’s books to the Publisher, theoretically, the Publisher should pay Lucky Anna royalties on the $150,000 Bob sold beyond the amount the Publisher estimated that Bob would return for credit.

6. “However,” the Publisher thinks, “not every bookstore is like Bob’s. Some of the other bookstores will certainly return a higher percentage of books they didn’t sell than Bob did.”

7. Traditional publishing contracts allow the Publisher to withhold “a reasonable reserve for returns.”

8. “Reasonable” is, of course, in the mind of the Publisher.

9. Back to our hypothetical, the Publisher has sold books to a zillion other bookstores. The Publisher reasonably decides that not every bookstore is exactly like Bob’s. Some will sell a higher percentage of the books shipped to them than Bob did and others will sell a much smaller portion of the books shipped to them than Bob did.

10. Theoretically, a smart and highly computerized publisher would have track records on what the rate of returns each bookstore demonstrated for at least a few hundred of the titles the Publisher had released. But that would require the Publisher to spend a lot of money on analysts and statisticians to examine the data and calculate probable return rates for fiction, non-fiction, various genres, etc. And what English major wants to walk into that bramblebush?

11. PG’s understanding is that, to the extent traditional publishers think about the number or percentage of books that will be returned for credit, they either use intuition and listen to the music of the publishing spheres or they just lump almost all books into a big bucket. Rules of thumb prevail to the extent anyone thinks about accurate forecasting.

12. Given this fundamental truth, PG understands that most traditional publishers hold a higher amount of reserves against returns than they expect they will ever need.

13. Whether anyone does an accurate job of recalculating Lucky Anna’s past royalties should reserves for returns be much higher than the number of actual returns would justify, PG doesn’t know. He has his suspicions, however.

14. However, PG is certain that mistakes will be made by the Publisher and its underlings. He suspects that, on occasion, a mistake will be identified and remedied. On other occasions, a mistake will go unidentified or be ignored on the theory that the Lucky Anna will never ask about it.

15. Theoretically, Lucky Anna’s literary agent is double-checking the publisher’s reports for errors and jumping on the publisher when she locates one. Or, more often than not, the agent is out pushing for new business and delegates the arithmetic to the agent’s underpaid staff. This brings in more English majors earning low salaries into the mix.

16. More than a few agents have lots of turnover of back-office staff and not a lot of time to train newbies thoroughly. Or they have close to no back-office staff.

17. In the United States, there is no official set of requirements that must be met before an individual hangs out a shingle saying they’re a literary agent and are accepting new submissions.

18. Someone can get out of prison after serving a ten-year sentence for accounting fraud on one day and open up shop as a literary agent the next day.

19. What could go wrong?

20. PG acknowledges that there are some very hard-working and dedicated employees in at least some publishers and at least some literary agencies. He has no intention of slandering such individuals. However, he will say that for most authors, accurately assessing who will do a good job on their books and who will not is effectively impossible.

Anatomy of a Fake Literary Agency Scam

From Writer Beware:

Among the most common scams targeting self-published and small press authors these days are fake literary agency scams.

These are slightly different from the agent/agency impersonation scams I’ve written a number of posts about, in that they don’t appropriate the identities of real people (most of the time). But that doesn’t mean they’re not equally deceptive.

They work like this.

  • You’re contacted out of the blue by phone or email by someone describing themselves as a literary agent, offering to represent you or endorse you or otherwise transition you to a traditional publishing contract or have your book made into a movie. Sometimes they’ll even tell you they already have interest from a Big 5 publisher or a major film studio. The agent claims to work on commission only–no upfront fees!
  • But wait–there are things you need to do in order to access that coveted contract or movie rights offer: re-publish your book, have a screenplay written, undertake a PR campaign, buy “book insurance”…the list goes on. If you don’t have those things on hand, or don’t know how to access someone to provide them, the agent just happens to know of a trustworthy company that can provide them for you. Of course, there’s a fee. But you have to spend money to make money, right?
  • You hand over the payment: anywhere between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars. Sometimes that’s the last you’ll hear from your “agent”. More often, your payment tells the scammer you’re a willing mark. And so….
  • You’re bombarded with offers to spend more money on book fair representation, bookstore promotions, book-to-screen services, New York Times ads, pay-to-play radio and TV interviews, and more. Every time you pay, you incentivize the scammer to ask again. The prices get higher, the services more fraudulent–all supposedly in aid of obtaining the coveted contract you were promised at the start. Eventually you may receive forged contracts from Big 5 publishers or production companies–always, somehow, requiring you to pay enormous sums of cash.
  • Once you get suspicious and start asking questions, or balk at payment, or the scammer decides you’re tapped out, they ghost you.

I’ve heard from writers who’ve spent $70,000, $100,000, $300,000, and even more on such frauds.

There are three components to a fake literary agency scam.

  • One (or more) fake agencies
  • One (or more) “trustworthy” service providers
  • A parent company overseas, usually in the Philippines, that runs the scam with a brigade of sales reps using American-sounding aliases. This is where your money ultimately goes.

Here’s a real-life example.

Acquisitions NY purports to be a literary agency with a mission of “Empowering Authors Everyday…by providing contemporary solutions that have been tried and tested throughout time.” Its web domain was registered in July 2022.

If you visit Acquisitions NY’s website today, you’ll note that it’s bare of certain things a reputable agency’s website typically includes, such as a client list and a list of recent sales. In an earlier incarnation, those things were present…but oops…

Tweets from editor Virginia Lloyd about her clients' books and testimonials appearing on Acquisitions NY's website with her name removed from testimonials

Acquisitions NY removed the pilfered book images and testimonials, but continued to use them in solicitations for some time afterward, as you can see from this flashy document they were sending out as late as last December. (Here’s Virginia Lloyd’s testimonial page for comparison.)

In another theft, Acquisitions NY’s Who We Are page for some time falsely claimed real agent Ian Bonaparte of Janklow & Nesbit as part of its team. Again, they got caught out:

Tweet from agent Ian Bonaparte confirming that Acquisitions NY is falsely using his name: "THAT IS NOT ME!"

Ian’s (real) bio and (fake) photo are no longer on the website, but his name is still being used, as you’ll see below.

Acquisitions NY’s solicitations have varied over time, but the ones they’re currently sending out claim that authors have been chosen for “one of the most-coveted 10 spots” in the (entirely fictional) Mark Twain Literary Fund, which supposedly makes it possible for representation to be provided “pro bono” (which of course is not a thing).

Link to the rest at Writer Beware

Lots of links in the OP.