WRITING ON THE ETHER: Agents and Authors at the Coalface

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Table of Contents

  1. Agents and Authors at the Coalface
  2. Change Dynamics: ‘All Publishing’ (not)
  3. Community Emotions: Remember Pikes Peak

A reminder for regular readers: Thursday’s Writing on the Ether here at JaneFriedman.com is now a single-issue column. I like to use a table of contents to help divide sections of it, but our goal here is to look at one topic or event in depth. On Mondays at Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors covers multiple issues. I hope you’ll enjoy a snootful of Ether in both spots.
-PA


Agents and Authors at the Coalface

…if by some chance anyone DID think they were being insulted, I’d feel bad for that…

…I apologized to the conference organizers, and do so now to those who were in attendance, including Barry Eisler…

…I apologized because I took a potshot at your words, in a public post on Twitter. Not cool…

…thanks for having a discussion, rather than a shouting match…

…wrote and assured me that the conference is making conscious strides to bring in faculty who will better educate writers about the blossoming possibilities of self-publishing and its role in the future of the industry…

…apologies for misreading your position…

…maybe if I had brought up my own experiences in that regard while also using legacy publishing success stories as counterexamples, it would have been a good way to make my points…

…this might be part of the problem that leads to an us vs them mentality, especially among the self-published crowd. Most indies do write genre fiction, so I think we sometimes make gross generalizations about the publishing industry based on our experiences within that limited framework…

…huge respect and appreciation to you for coming by here to share your thoughts…

…what really matters to me is the presence or absence of reasoned argument…

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones
Barry Eisler

What makes those lines and many more like them so impressive is that they’re all from comments following Eisler on Digital Denial.

That’s the Sunday column Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath posted on Konrath’s site.

It followed a blitz of hostile tweets, mostly from literary agents, in reaction to Eisler’s keynote address at Pikes Peak Writers Conference on Saturday.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip JonesSo acrimonious was the incident that my headline on Monday’s Ether for Authors about it was The Establishment Snipes Back. If you need the background on the fracas, I’ll leave you to check it out there, at Publishing Perspectives.

What I want to do here, in this week’s Writing on the Ether, is assess some of the positive, healthy, and promising effects that may come from that bad moment in Colorado.

One of the most important aspects of the incident is that it involved literary agents.

Contrary to the comments you’ll hear at times about agents being relics of Old Publishing, some of us believe this sector of the industry can and should be a crucial part of many authors’ success in the future. Probably, the profession is evolving—in some shops already has evolved—to a role that looks more like a career manager than an old-style manuscript broker.

But many agents, themselves, have had a hard time reconciling agency support with self-publishing. As in every other sector of the industry! the industry! there are probably as many shadings, colors, and gradations of “new agent” as there are players.


One of the chief delineators, not surprisingly, is a question of when “assisting” a client with self-publishing becomes, in fact, publishing that client. Most look to the question of rights—as in, does the client still hold them, or has the agent taken them over (as in a classic publisher’s arrangement)—and to payment: In “assisting”: is the agent still at the standard 15-percent level, and on what scope of the work?

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip JonesThis week at Digital Book World, we hear briefly from agent Jane Dystel about her client, the ebook-chart-topping self-published author Holly Ward, who writes, as is the fashion, as H.M. Ward.

In Self-Published Ebooks Are Nos. 1 and 2 Best-Sellers, Average Price Drops to All-Time Low, Jeremy Greenfield reminds us that Dystel “has helped more than half a dozen self-published authors sign deals with publishers this year,” including Tracey Garvis Graves, Tammara Webber, and Abbi Glines—all, like Ward, of the Shirtless Men Kissing Beautiful Women ilk.

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Jeremy Greenfield

Greenfield quotes Dystal saying:

Everybody needs to have some kind of protection and help. These are very talented writers who are getting into this business very quickly and with very little knowledge. Sometimes we only help them to sell their foreign rights, audio rights and sometimes movie rights. We’re here to offer advice and when they want to be involved with a traditional publisher – and Holly [Ward] does seem to – then we see what these opportunities are.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip JonesShe’s right, of course, although not all agents working today with self-published authors see an author’s desire “to be involved with a traditional publisher” as integral to the experience. Dystel, in fact, may not be wedded to that element—taking a self-publisher to a traditional publisher—but it tends to be the action about which we hear the most.

The agents’ corps, in other words, is fractured. As more authors see the field as a seller’s market, agents are in a difficult position and some are improvising more readily than others. And we see into this corner of things less frequently than we do into some others.

We’re accustomed to seeing and considering the pressures on writers, and this is appropriate—their work is the absolute foundation on which the industry stands or pratfalls, and the disruption has authors traipsing through a Chiquita processing plant worth of slips and slides.

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Barbara O’Neal

Here is author Barbara O’Neal at Writer Unboxed, talking Boundaries and Burnout:

One of the things you learn by simply staying in the publishing game for a long time is that today’s sudden superstar may or may not be writing and/or publishing three years from now. In a decade, who will we remember? Who will we still be reading?…

I’m also astonished by the schedule some of us are setting up for ourselves—doubling the word counts every day, adding to the number of books published each year. I get it—I am doing the same thing—but in the back of my brain, I keep hearing the foghorn warning of —Burnout.

Working writers are under a lot of pressure these days to produce, keep producing, produce more—and also keep up with their blogs(s), Tweet, post to Facebook, maintain a mailing list and newsletter, and show up at any writer’s conference that asks, because you can’t miss a single sale. It’s exhausting to even write it all down.


This makes the Pikes Peak incident all the more interesting and helpful, because we don’t see the strains on agents as easily and frequently as we see those on writers.

Comfortable? Hardly. Following the Pikes Peak incident, some comments have spoken of a “politician’s apology,” along the lines of a generic, “I’m very sorry I hurt your feelings, but I’m not budging on the position I’ve taken, only on the tone with which I laid it out.”

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones
Sorche Fairbanks

This, in fact, is probably the case, as I read it, with agent Sorche Fairbank and Eisler.

Think of it as the classic agreement to disagree. It’s a hell of a lot better than potshots and public animosity. And it’s an honorable stance, especially when both sides are willing to save the face of the other by declining to demand a resolution of “you are wrong, I am right.”

The more-than 170 comments at the Konrath blog include two- and three-part statements and clarifications, explanations and counter-claims.

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Livia Blackburne

I agree with our colleague and faithful Ether reader Livia Blackburne, who wrote in her own comment on Monday’s Ether:

The conversations on that blog entry are still going strong, and are remarkably civil, respectful and well thought out.

She’s right, and I want to commend Konrath again, for the constructive tone of his own participation.

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Joe Konrath

We read him at this stage of the comments, writing, truthfully but with honesty about his own representation to Fairbank:

Writers are adapting to this changing market. Your [agenting] services, once essential, have become optional.

Good agents have figured out how to bring extra value to their clients. My agent continues to make a lot of money for me. She’s looking at the future, and adjusting accordingly.

In what’s probably the conclusion of the original contretemps, we find Eisler and Fairbank arriving at this point in the back-and-forth with Eisler writing:

I think I’ve made a persuasive case about the relative value of distribution vs all other publisher services, but I recognize you’re not persuaded. And that’s cool: the main thing is that we’ve each made as persuasive case as we can, and people now have the benefit of diverse views to help them come to their own conclusions.

https://twitter.com/Ginger_Clark/status/327135642381324288

No guile. This is something we all can appreciate in Eisler, a man of sophisticated and ironic humor. A part of my career has been spent in and around major centers of negotiation, and what’s admirable here is how thoroughly Eisler lays down his familiar gifts of guile and charm when the time comes:

My comments were about the business — the new means writers have for reaching a mass market of readers, and how they can choose the means that’s best for them. Judging from the response I’ve received from the writers in the audience, my comments were useful in this regard, and that’s my primary concern. I never want to offend anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings, but those are secondary guidelines, subordinate to my primary purpose of getting to the heart of the matter and, in doing so, helping writers make good choices.

So what does this whole event give us? Two levels of gain, actually.

  1. I’ll call the first one a chance to study “change dynamics.” It takes us beyond our useful look at the struggle of agents.
  2. The second, I’ll call “community emotions.” As in, boy, do we have some.

Back to Table of Contents


 

Change Dynamics: ‘All Publishing’ (not)

Although it can sometimes appear like we are discussing “all publishing”, we are not. Both Eisler and Konrath write commercial genre fiction, as do many other successful self-published writers. However, there are other bits of the market that lend themselves less well to these self-publishing market forces, where publication, if it is to be done, needs a full range of services to back it (not just print distribution). Where publishing’s “value-add” is still quite broad. 

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones
Philip Jones

The Bookseller’s chief editor Philip Jones in London is rightly calling out me and others in Publishing is more broad church than national lottery.

He’s writing at The Bookseller’s FutureBook blog site led by Sam Missingham as “a bespoke area dedicated to digital” and lying outside the Bookseller paywall. You can get to this and other FutureBook writings free.

Jones notes that I package some Porter-presumption into my writings of “intemperate and unhelpful reactions from ‘the industry.'” He’s right, I’ve posited the tweeted hue and cry of some agents as a geek chorus representing the established business-at-large. That’s reachy of me.


But, no minor negotiator, himself, Jones is equally gracious about the use Eisler and Konrath (and others) make of the term “legacy” for traditional publishing:

Though I think both Eisler and Konrath don’t help themselves in this debate by using the prefix “legacy” when referring to publishers, they are undoubtedly at the coalface of this shift, and living it in ways others are not.

I love that phrase, “at the coalface of this shift.” There you will, surely, find Eisler and Konrath, and these agents, as well.

Canaries do their singing, or not, farther down-shaft. And that’s exactly where Jones is headed. Helmets on, please:

Eisler’s view of the traditional publishing system — “an editor falls in love with a manuscript, the writer is showered with a large advance from the publisher” etc — is heavily skewed to the notion of being a writer of bestselling commercial fiction. But there are plenty of books, particularly non-fiction or children’s titles, that don’t fit this paradigm, and are produced much more in collaboration with a wider team. Eisler’s view is that a writer goes to a publisher with a manuscript, but of course this is true only of some titles, and some bits of publishing. In many cases the book originates with the publisher, who then commissions a writer, or it arrives out of collegiate discussions between publishers, agents and writers. Or it arrives unready, mal-formed, and the publisher (heaven, forfend) makes it better.

https://twitter.com/ChrisKubica/status/327115332164648960

I would add to those comments literary fiction as an element of the industry’s output that may not “fit this paradigm.” I’ve written before of my concern for literary work in a time of weakening traditional forces and so very many Shirtless Men Kissing Beautiful Women. Our major houses pant for more fanny fiction, we’re a market choked with bare-chested affection.

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From Philip Jones’ essay at The FutureBook

But Jones is rightly revisiting the self-publishing stage from which Eisler scaled Pikes Peak, not to discredit the podium but to be sure we don’t forget that we don’t have the numbers to prove many assumptions on which lots of arguments rest.

Much is made of the streets of gold self-publishing has supposedly paved. In a note below Eisler’s blog, Konrath writes that many self-published authors are making more of a living now than when they were traditionally published. Writes Joe: “I haven’t taken any polls, but I know many former legacy authors who are making more self-pubbing than they ever did, and many authors who were never invited into the legacy industry who are making money for the first time.” Some of this is self-evident, but if we are to have a reasoned debate, I reckon those “polls” are important.

https://twitter.com/pkedrosky/status/326487239020396544

And here Jones nails an important point that I find many folks keep forgetting: We don’t have the numbers we need.

Amazon, without which this self-publishing conversation would not be happening, releases too few numbers to make any reasonable analysis possible…In the UK at least, those numbers I have seen suggest that self-published writers sell far fewer copies than traditionally published titles, and do so at much lower prices. But of course their royalites are greater. One might think, from reading these blogs (and others), that the choices here are simple, but until those “polls” are more widely taken, I remain dubious that one route is necessarily better than another.

Eisler, in an extensive response to Jones, doesn’t dodge this:

I’m grateful for your perspective for a number of reasons, not least my concern that I don’t fall into the trap of engaging only with or even primarily with likeminded and similarly situated authors…I’m particularly grateful for your thoughts about how being a writer of genre thrillers might skew my view of the industry. A friend of mine — a top nonfiction agent — made a similar point to me offline, reminding me that I shouldn’t assume that all authors are going to love the “do it yourself” aspects of self-publishing as much as I do. He’s right and so are you.

To Jones’ qualms about the concept of a “lottery” in publishing, authors vying for the Publishers’ clearing-house win that somehow never happens, Eisler responds:

The reason I think the lottery analogy is useful is this. Empirically speaking, we know that neither system — no system — of publishing is a guarantee of commercial success. Of course skill, craft, persistence, etc. can affect the odds of success, but almost everyone in publishing is trying hard and yet it’s still true that only a tiny percentage succeeds…It’s important to understand this in part because many new writers mistakenly believe that self-publishing is an uncertain enterprise while legacy publishing offers some guaranteed outcome. I think it’s more accurate to understand that *both* systems offer wildly long odds of success.

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David Gaughran

And author David Gaughran is here in a comment on Jones to remind us that in one of the key elements of the weekend fray, Eisler never was saying that traditional publishers’ distribution mechanisms were the only value those houses bring to the table.

When [Eisler] says that “Paper distribution has traditionally been legacy publishing’s primary value-add,” he’s *not* saying that paper distribution is the only thing of value a publisher can add – a point he underlines repeatedly in the comments of his blog post. What he’s saying is that paper distribution is the USP [unique selling proposition] of a traditional deal for an author weighing up both paths. He’s saying that great editing, covers, and marketing can be purchased on the open market by self-publishing authors, but effective paper distribution is something that tends to remain out of reach.

https://twitter.com/KatMeyer/status/327160374078078976

https://twitter.com/KatMeyer/status/327160986526171139

Jones’ headlamp finally spots the way forward for all of us:

We all need to get smarter about how we talk about publishing. There is, of course, a big part of publishing that is about distributing the likes of Barry Eisler and creating commercial hits; but there is equally a different part of publishing that is not about this type of writing at all, and to characterise all of publishing in this way is to undermine the quality and veracity of the debate.

Just to be sure you exit the mine with our “takeaway,” as the TV people inevitably call it:

We all need to get smarter about how we talk about publishing.

Back to Table of Contents

Community Emotions: Remember Pikes Peak

We can all cut ourselves some slack and realize that disruption, as the linguists have it, can include (ready?) “derangement.” Even career trauma. Any of us can be moved off our usual, grounded center by the uncertainty and outright disappointments that the digital disruption is driving in publishing today.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones
Pikes Peak by Hogs555, Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0

Thinking clearly? Not always. Not any of us.

Feeling strongly negative about something? Maybe that’s a time to consider stepping away from the Tweet Machine. I recommend a Campari d’orange instead.

Our foremothers and foredaddies didn’t have access to public address 24 hours a day, did they? A strong letter to the editor (sometimes regretted as soon as it went into the mail) was the long and the short of it. Even with those slow tools, people counseled each other to take deep breaths (not as good as Campari) and count to 10.

Sit on it. Sleep on it. Wait on it.


Today, what goes through your mind at this instant can be slapping your cohorts in the face the next instant, and halfway around the world. Every person you know and a whole lot of people you don’t know can see your rawest, least considered idea within seconds of it ticking you off royally. This is one way in which the social media (still a plural word, damn it) are disruptive, and not in a helpful way.

No buffer. Gonzo everything. Look out below.


But this is actually part of the digital disruption, itself, not some sideshow.

Remember, the engine of digital is distribution. And the social media lie murmuring at your fingertips, always ready to distribute the spur of your moment.

Frequently when someone flies off the Twitter handle and wants to offer an excuse, the word “passion” comes into play. “I just have so much passion for what I believe.”

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, Tools of Change, O'Reilly Media, author platform, blog, blogging, journalism, Authors Launch, TOC Authors, Author (R)evolution Day, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, FutureBook, #fbook12, Philip Jones, Sam Missingham, Nigel Roby, The Bookseller, TheFutureBook, Digital Census
Jane Friedman

I recall one of Ether host Jane Friedman’s best posts being Placing Too Much Importance on Passion. It’s from early last year and in it, Friedman writes:

It seems like the cultural myth these days is that we ought to be pursuing our passion; otherwise we will be unhappy. I’m not so sure that’s true any more. As long as we do work that feels satisfying—that complements our personal values and strengths—we can all do just fine, especially if we have relationships that are also fulfilling and satisfying.

Pulling the passion card just isn’t much of an option, if it’s used to suggest that rattling all cages is appropriate. Paul Revere’s ride worked once. Don’t try it at home.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones
From Friedman’s original post on passion, image from Flickr by Bruce.

Friedman’s post on passion includes a telling quote from Robert Sternberg:

“Passion is the quickest to develop, and the quickest to fade. Intimacy develops more slowly, and commitment more gradually still.”

Publishing, as we know, is fond of the term “passion,” and its people today are heavily into the various social media, especially Twitter.

Many of us have friends and co-workers in publishing who don’t seem to understand that demeaning various people and groups in their tweets, raging about politics or religion, and dropping f-bombs right and left on Twitter is unprofessional. It makes them look bad. It diminishes us all.

You park your trailer on a separate, private account. You do your public business mindfully.

https://twitter.com/janchip/status/327392967713247233
So I recommend we create a little code for our community. “Pikes Peak.”

As in “Remember Pikes Peak.” If we see a conversation, a presentation, a thread online starting to spiral out of control, maybe if we remember Pikes Peak it will help us recall a sequence of negative emotions and reactions that we really don’t need to revisit.

 

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones
Benjamin LeRoy

If we think before we tweet, we can avoid even the kind of unwitting involvement that Benjamin LeRoy of Tyrus Books encountered. He has thoughtfully written to me to explain: 

My Tweet to Sorche Fairbank (“Call them out. You have to.”) was made prior to knowing whom she was talking about specifically. It was a response prompted by a conversation Janet Reid and I had had earlier in the week about an entirely different conference and my getting into a public disagreement on a panel with an agent who I felt was giving bad advice. The “them” referenced in my Tweet are “people giving bad advice” in the abstract, and not a jab at Barry Eisler or what he was saying at Pikes Peak.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones
From Benjamin LeRoy’s essay, The Goodness of Others

This is from a publisher whose latest personal blog post is titled The Goodness of Others, written before the incident involving Eisler and in a reflection on other strains and stresses:

The truth of my life is that even though I’ve met some jerks along the way, I am endlessly impressed by the decency of people everywhere. It could be that I’ve just been extremely lucky with the people I’ve met, but I’m near certain that for every awesome new friend I’ve made, there are hundreds behind doors I just haven’t opened.

That’s hardly the work of a hothead, is it? And yet even LeRoy found himself somehow entangled in that bad moment at a westerly writing conference last weekend.

https://twitter.com/ChuckWendig/status/327217261393883136
&

This is hardly the end of the long industry disruption. And yet some folks seem to accept intra-industry bashings as a legitimate aspect of the experience. Why should we let that violent view of things prevail?

“Community emotions” will continue to rise and fall, sometimes along rancorous oppositions of idea and feeling.

https://twitter.com/TheAdamChromy/status/327104111663263747
But pulling back before being hurtful—simply stopping to ask ourselves if it’s really worth it to wade into an argument and have to spend four or five days sorting it out?—will keep us on a more even footing when the angle steepens, and the gravel starts rolling, and the slope gets slippery.

Remember Pikes Peak.

Back to Table of Contents


Main image / iStockphoto: Tomas Sereda

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