Why I Left My Mighty Agency and New York Publishers (for now)

Olivander / via Flickr
Olivander / via Flickr

Note from Jane: Today I’m beyond honored to feature bestselling author Claire Cook (@ClaireCookwrite), who has just released Never Too Late, from which this post is excerpted. Claire has a fascinating story to tell about her decision to leave her agency and traditional publisher, and chase after her publishing dreams.

As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only thing constant is change.”

I was cruising along, represented by a powerful literary agent from a mighty agency that I both liked and respected, published by a series of big New York publishers that believed in my books and helped me make them better, and receiving advances for my novels that were substantial enough to live well on.

And then the publishing world began to get rocky, just like the music world and the newspaper world and so many others had before it.

I was one of the lucky authors. I had multi-book contracts, I was still being sent on book tour by my publisher and published in both hardcover and paperback, so I was able to put on my blinders and ignore the changes at first. Eventually, I couldn’t help noticing my career stalling out, but I’m a glass half-full kind of person, so I just shrugged it off, and figured if I dug down deep and worked even harder than I was already working, I could make up for the shrinking energy and resources being put behind my books.

And then, after years of stability and support, it was jolting when a single one of my novels made the rounds through three separate editors, because the first two left the publishing house. I lost count of the in-house publicists disappearing through the revolving door—even their names began to blur. But the good news was that this was my final book under contract with this publisher, so I’d just find a better home for my books and myself when I was free.

When the time came, my agent and I made the rounds, meeting with editors at the big publishing houses. I signed a two-book contract with the one who promised they’d put all their resources behind me to grow my readership and to get my career moving again in the right direction.

It didn’t happen. I think they tried hard with the first book, but the things that used to work for traditional publishers trying to break out a book weren’t working so well anymore. I wrote the second book I owed them. And then I found out that their entire plan for this book was to do all the things that hadn’t worked for the first one. Even I couldn’t find the glass half full in that. So I spoke up, verbally, and then in writing, and then in writing with lots of detail, even some bullet points.

Let’s just say it didn’t go over so well. And then my editor went off on a three-month maternity leave that would end just before my book came out, leaving her assistant, a very nice young woman a couple years out of college, responsible for the care of my novel. Less than a month before my publication date, I received an email from this very nice assistant telling me she was leaving publishing to start a takeout food business with a friend.

What a coincidence, I almost wrote back. I’m leaving publishing to start a takeout food business, too!

And now no one was in charge of my book.

Oh, it was such a low point. I’d spent thirteen years trying to be the hardest working author in the universe, and I felt excruciatingly let down by the institution that was literally feeding me. And paying my bills.

It gets worse. Around this time I started receiving emails and calls from booksellers telling me they were having trouble ordering my backlist books that had been published by my last publisher. And then that last publisher went under and was bought out by another publisher who inherited all their titles. So in another huge bump in the road, these five backlist books went from being ignored to being part of a fire sale and were now owned by a new publisher that quickly demonstrated they had absolutely no interest in them.

One day right around this time it hit me: I simply can’t do this again. I cannot let another publisher break my heart.

It gets better. Independent self-publishing had taken off and grown into a viable alternative. Authors in situations similar to mine were becoming hybrid authors—both traditionally and self-published. And in this new world, there was little of the cloak and dagger stuff I’d experienced in traditional publishing where everything from money to marketing was kept secret. Indie authors were generously sharing everything they learned to help others on the same path. Via message boards and blogs and conferences, a great support system was bubbling up.

I’d already dipped a toe in this new pond, back when I first began to feel the changes. Ebooks were taking off like crazy and my readers were embracing them. Since I owned the rights to Must Love Dogs, I reformatted it and uploaded the ebook on Amazon. I gave it away on Mother’s Day to thank my readers for their support. No advertising, just an email blast, a post on Facebook and another one on Twitter. It had 32,000 downloads in that one day and reached the No. 1 spot on the Amazon free list, right next to Fifty Shades of Grey on the paid list. And now a whole bunch of people wanted to hear more from these characters. Amazing.

So the pieces of my new dream started to come together. I would find a way to get the rights to my backlist books reverted, and then I’d republish them with my own publishing company, which I’d call Marshbury Beach Books after the fictional town in my novels. Then I’d turn Must Love Dogs into a series—my readers wanted more, series were becoming more popular, and it would be fun to have a new kind of writing challenge since I’d never written a series. After that, I’d just keep writing, maybe even that nonfiction book about reinvention I’d wanted to write for years.

I hired a lawyer to help me begin the arduous process of getting the rights to my backlist reverted. But this time I did it the smart way. I reached out to a wonderful organization I belong to, Novelists, Inc., which has a legal fund for its members I could apply to for help subsidizing my efforts. NINC had a list of lawyers, and once I’d chosen one, they even made the initial contact for me.

I finished writing a draft of Book 2 of the new Must Love Dogs series. My agent not only read but also gave me helpful editorial advice. We seemed to be on the same page in terms of the steps I needed to take to get my career back on track. I’d already self-published Must Love Dogs and Multiple Choice with her full knowledge and support. It seemed to me that if I could get my career moving again, it would only benefit us both down the road.

And then one day on the phone my agent informed me that in order to continue to be represented by this mighty agency, I would have to turn over 15% of the proceeds of my about-to-be self-published book to said agency. Not only that, but I would have to publish it exclusively through Amazon, because the agency had a system in place with Amazon where I could check a box and their 15% would go straight to them, no muss, no fuss.

There was no deal, no sale. There would be no self-publishing assistance, no special treatment from Amazon to give my books an extra push, no marketing. Why would I pay 15% of my profits—forever—simply for the privilege of being represented by a big name agency? And this might well turn out to be representation in name only, since it was made clear to me that the mighty agency’s subagents could not be expected to devote time and energy to selling rights to works that were not traditionally published.

It was wrong, ethically and financially, and I just couldn’t do it. I Googled and searched message boards and was introduced to the term revenue grabbing.

To say it rocked my world would be an understatement. I was stunned, in part because I had several author friends traveling the same road, whose agents were supporting their indie journeys to get their careers back on track in a big way, and only commissioning the sales of subrights like foreign and audio.

A lawyer at another organization that I’m a member of looked over my breakup papers furnished by the agency, and told me to look on the bright side: They never would have bothered if they didn’t smell money. I was hardly a big fish at this agency, so in my mind it was more about getting caught in the crossfire as agents and publishers alike try to reinvent themselves and stay relevant in these quickly changing times.

I cried. A lot. At one point, I remember Googling Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief and realizing that I was cycling through them all, from denial to anger to bargaining to depression to acceptance. And then, once I finished wallowing and being pathetic, I shook it off and got back to work, more determined than ever.

As much as this whole thing totally, totally sucked, as much as it felt like my entire support system had been pulled out from under me, I never once questioned that I would continue writing. And I never once questioned that my readers would want to read my next book, no matter how it was published.

I tell this story not to point fingers or to badmouth anyone, but in the spirit of those indie authors who have so generously shared information to help others coming up behind them on the road.

Onward and Upward

I loved having a savvy, formidable literary agent advocating for me, and a connected group of terrific subagents going after foreign and film rights. I loved working with publishing teams made up of smart people who knew how to help me make my books better and had the clout to get my books much wider distribution than I could ever get on my own.

If the right literary agent comes along, one who gets where I’m going and can support my new journey in a meaningful way, that would be great. But I’m in no rush, and it’s been both good to take a break to think about what I’ll need moving forward, as well as empowering to take control of my own career.

I consider myself a hybrid author, both traditionally and self-published. If the right traditional publishing offer comes along, especially one that would get my paper books into bookstores in a more widespread way than I can on my own, I’d absolutely work with a traditional publisher again. As Guy Kawasaki, the former chief evangelist of Apple, said about his own hybrid author career, “I’m not for sale, but I am absolutely for rent.”

But the magic for me is that I don’t need it anymore.

Jumping off the traditional publishing treadmill I’ve been on since 2000 has meant making some short-term sacrifices, the biggest of which was letting go of the money it provided. But my self-published checks come monthly, not twice a year, and I get much higher percentages of sales without sharing a percentage. The income gap is closing.

I now own seven of my twelve books. I control pricing and promotion, and I can balance my need to earn a living with making my books available to my loyal readers at the best price I can offer them. I can add fresh content and switch excerpts and change covers any time I want. By the time I have ten indie-published books, I think Marshbury Beach Books and I will be doing just fine.

But already I’m happy. Instead of waiting for the next thing to go wrong, instead of feeling like I can’t get close enough to my own career to move it in the right direction, I wake up every day and get right to work. I’m ridiculously busy, but I’m learning so many new things about writing and publishing and connecting, and I spend all day (and often a chunk of the night) doing the work I was born to do.

Never Too Late by Claire cookIf it’s time for you to reinvent yourself like Claire did, be sure to check out Never Too Late. You can also stop by Claire’s website, ClaireCook.com, to download your free Never Too Late workbook, and to sign up for her newsletter.

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