Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Agents Are Evil and Other Publishing Myths

The recent dispute between Hachette and Amazon has brought out the publishing industry haters again. I've been reading through some of the comments people have been leaving and are shocked by the number of people who are pro-Amazon and anti-publishing. The issue is complicated and nuanced and as an author whose books are available through Amazon, it would be hypocritical for me to take a stand at the moment--but I reserve the right to do so in the future. As a consumer I have enjoyed Amazon's low pricing as much as anyone, though I will say that the company's recent practices have made me re-think the true cost of underpricing books. From now on, I will be making more purchases at my local independent book store.

What I do want to take a stand on, though, is the constant demonization of publishers and agents. Yes,  over the past twenty years the major publishing houses have consolidated to the point where there are only four major houses remaining. Yes, the bottom line is important to them--and why wouldn't it be? Profit margins have been shrinking. Book stores are closing. People are downloading books for free. The industry is in jeopardy. Contrary to popular belief, books are not cheap to produce. Every book that is published is handled by a managing editor, a copy editor, a fact checker, a book designer, a publicist, and a sales team. Then there's the cost of production and distribution.

Even though money is a big issue at the corporate level, to say that these houses are populated by cynical drones is plain false. I have worked with three different publishers in the course of my career, and every editor I've ever met is an extremely hardworking, deeply passionate, certifiable book geek. Yes, they do edit--though the writer generally has veto power, so if I book seems like it wasn't edited well maybe you ought to blame the author. (Typos, on the other hand manage to slip through no matter how carefully you edit. Quite a maddening experience, to which I can attest.) Editors are very fond of their authors and only take on projects they feel strongly about. I'm sure they all want to find the next THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, but since no one can predict what will be the next big hit, an overall love of the written word is the major motivating factor. Publishing jobs pay too little and the hours are too long for it to be otherwise.

Good agents get paid well, but they earn their keep. I worked at Writers House Agency for six years in the accounting department and have had three different agents in the course of my career (two left the industry). I can tell you that an agent's primary concern is for the author. Period. Contrary to popular belief, they are not shills for publishers. They are not unnecessary middlemen. They act as contract lawyers, editors, mediators, accountants, and career managers. Whenever someone asks me if they need an agent, my answer is always an unequivocal yes. Sure, you can get your work in print without one given all the new methods of publishing these days, but I wouldn't try it. An agent's commission seems like a small price to pay for all the services you get in exchange, plus the time that is freed up for writing instead of negotiating a contract or scanning royalty statements for errors.

I just finished writing a novel and my agent has it right now. He's going to tell me where the weak spots are so I can polish it up before we send it off to find a publisher. As he's reading it, he'll be thinking about various editors who might be excited by this particular story and with any luck, we'll find someone who will want to spend the next year working with me to make it the best story it can be. Then we'll all work together to find an audience for it. And it will be a pleasure to be surrounded by professional people who truly have a love for the written word.

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