A little off the top

The Guardian Review has become a some­what tired pub­lic­a­tion in lat­ter days, but seems to have woken up with a splut­ter in the past couple of weeks. Writers like Ursula K Le Guin and Michel Faber are sup­ply­ing some insight­ful reviews to counter the book-weary scrib­blings of the staff crit­ics. One piece, in par­tic­u­lar, caught my eye this morn­ing (which is Saturday, 22nd September). It was writ­ten by Martin Wagner, an enter­tain­ingly-dis­gruntled chap whose play The Agent will be run­ning at the (fit­tingly bel­li­cose in name) Trafalgar Studios this sum­mer.

Wagner’s exper­i­ences with naff agents made me snig­ger in that know­ing way designed to make my girl­friend ask what’s so funny. To wit:

Chances are that if you are a writer little fur­ther down the food chain [than Julian Barnes et al.], but lucky enough to have an agent, they won’t be doing much for you. Restless writers, like I used to be, may change agen­cies fre­quently, only to find out that after a brief hon­ey­moon peri­od all is back to nor­mal — for most writers chan­ging agen­cies is like rearran­ging deck­chairs on the Titanic as they watch the prom­ises of their career go down the drain.

In this para­graph, dear read­er, blooms the bit­ter fruit of truth. Let us each take a sloppy bite.

To be sure, even the smal­lest of agen­cies will need incom­ings of sev­er­al thou­sand pounds a month. Given that new writers sel­dom receive advances, and that mod­er­ately suc­cess­ful books will only make a few grand over their life­times, it does make sense that an agent will pay great­er atten­tion to those cli­ents who pull in the green. Fair? No. But this is the pub­lish­ing industry.

Wagner goes on:

Maybe one of the prob­lems is that agents simply don’t get paid enough? While a 15 per cent com­mis­sion is plenty if you’re rep­res­ent­ing an [sic] JK Rowling, what about 15 per cent of an author who could reas­on­ably call him­self a suc­cess if he got an advance of £2,000 for his first nov­el — a mere £300?

Indeed. How much office space can one rent for £300? There wouldn’t be room for a tea pot.

Let’s recap. Being a writer in the sense of being an artist, pro­du­cing some­thing of worth, and hav­ing someone tell you it’s OK — that’s good. Being a writer in the sense of being self-employed, work­ing for free much of the time, work­ing sev­en days a week, count­ing pen­nies like an impov­er­ished stu­dent — that’s not so good. But the lat­ter is, alas, what the stars almost cer­tainly have writ­ten for you. Despite appear­ances, there is very little money in pub­lish­ing. It moves slowly because pub­lish­ers don’t have the resources to pro­cess sub­mis­sions. (My own agent, the redoubt­able and very nice John Jarrold, tells me not to worry that a giv­en pub­lish­er hasn’t got back to him after six months; some of his oth­er authors have had to wait years. That word bears repeat­ing: actu­al years. You know, those things you have less than one hun­dred of.)

I’m not sure if ‘the agent’ is the prob­lem. Indeed, it seems that they are now more essen­tial than ever because pub­lish­ers eschew the slush pile. This means — as Wagner points out — that agents have become, de facto, arbit­ers of manu­script sale­ab­il­ity.

What’s the solu­tion? Well, let’s go with the idea that pub­lish­ers — i.e. col­lect­ing of book-lov­ing people who want to make money — are not, in sev­er­al senses, in a pos­i­tion to best serve those who cre­ate the product that they wish to pass on, with a mark-up, to the pub­lic. Wagner makes the claim that ‘to most pub­lish­ers writers are about as import­ant as farm­ers are to Tesco — they know that there is an end­less sup­ply of pro­duce’. That will hurt the feel­ings of some pub­lish­ers, but isn’t a mil­lion miles from the truth. Of course, a pub­lish­er who instig­ates a rela­tion­ship with a writer on the basis of their sub­mis­sion will then trans­form the rela­tion­ship into some­thing entirely dif­fer­ent; there is now the poten­tial for the writer’s actions (i.e. the post-pub­lic­a­tion sup­port cir­cus known as ‘pub­li­city’) to have a huge impact on the num­ber of sales, and it makes busi­ness sense to treat the writer like one of the fam­ily. But, as any writer knows, the ini­tial reac­tion of (usu­ally embattled) pub­lish­er to the offer a manu­script is akin to that of a house­hold­er open­ing the door on a Jehovah’s Witness.

Let’s turn to the music industry. Apple (formerly Apple Computer) is the third largest music reseller in the United States, via its iTunes music store. This music is not sold through shops, who ask for a mark-up. It is sold dir­ectly to the con­sumer — though middle men still exist. They’re called Sony, Time Warner, and so on. They still impose their cut, but they’re get­ting squeezed because Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, has strong ideas about such notions as stand­ard­ised pri­cing for single songs, and is using his mar­ket dom­in­ance to sup­port changes that, to my mind, are quite prop­er and bene­fi­cial to con­sumer and record­ing artist alike (such as EMI’s recent decision to strip copy-pro­tec­tion tech­no­logy from its songs).

Apple’s iTunes store is inter­est­ing because it demon­strates a poten­tial for ver­tic­al mar­ket integ­ra­tion. What’s that? Basically, a ver­tic­ally-integ­rated mar­ket is one that, as we look at the lad­der between con­sumer at one end and artist at the oth­er, Apple is in the pos­i­tion of sup­ply­ing each rung. We’re not far from a point, I think, where record­ing artists upload their con­tent to the iTunes store, bypass the tra­di­tion­al record­ing industry, and receive pay­ment dir­ectly from Apple on the basis of units sold.

But who will pay for record­ing stu­dio time and pub­li­city?

The same people who always paid for it, m’laddo: the artist. Most deals, as far as I can tell, build in pub­li­city fees, agents’ fees, and stu­dio time into the record­ing con­tract. The artist does not see a penny until all the paraphernalia of full pro­duc­tion are paid. This hap­pens too, incid­ent­ally, in book pub­lish­ing (as far as I know; cer­tainly in those con­tracts I’ve looked at). Writers effect­ively pay for their own pub­li­city because pub­lish­ers only cough up on roy­al­ties once the publisher’s own out­lay has been recouped; this includes all sorts of little charges, includ­ing pub­li­city. It also includes the advance…which makes the advance the equi­val­ent of a bank loan.

What is the tra­di­tion­al basis of the publisher’s exist­ence? (1) Centralised, pro­fes­sion­al mar­ket­ing skills. (2) Money to cov­er the ini­tial out­lay of a pub­lish­ing run. (3) Literary expert­ise with which to select the best works from the pro­duce they are offered.

As for (1), your mileage may vary, but I rather think that the author’s fin­an­cial and tem­por­al invest­ment in pub­li­city often equals or sur­passes that of his/her pub­lish­er, these days. For (2), it now costs very little indeed to pub­lish a book (so little, in fact, that I use Lulu.com to privately pub­lish single cop­ies of my manu­scripts in book form because they’re easi­er to read than on-screen or in loose-leaf). The caveat, though, is the iner­tia of brick-and-mor­tar shops like Waterstone’s. They demand such dis­counts that a per­fectly adequate Print-on Demand (POD) book can’t be sold through their tills. There is evid­ence, though — chiefly of dimin­ish­ing mar­ket share (see Scott Pack’s blog for sev­er­al pieces on this) — that these shops are under pres­sure to change. For (3), we’re all aware that slush piles have effect­ively van­ished from most pub­lish­ers because of their lim­ited resources, and have been passed on to agents.

Is there much of a role for middle­men any­more? Well, I think ‘yes’. At present, the curi­ously bonkers aspects of pub­lish­ing are main­tained by years of tra­di­tion and the iner­tia of book chains. There is suf­fi­cient pres­sure on the sys­tem to force a change, though, and that will creep on in.

Anywho, these are just some thoughts promp­ted by Wagner’s art­icle. Exciting times, I feel, are ahead.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

9 thoughts on “A little off the top”

  1. Thanks for your com­ment, Martin. Nay, sir, my thought­ful­ness pales in com­par­is­on with the ori­gin­al art­icle. Hope the film is a suc­cess!

  2. Thanks, Roger. How’s it going with you? Six minutes of bat­tery life remain­ing in this pub, unfor­tu­nately. Will check out the sketch anon. Love Mitchell and Webb, par­tic­u­larly their smug web adverts…

  3. Interesting piece. I’m cur­rently get­ting close to fin­ish­ing pol­ish­ing my first nov­el and am pon­der­ing wheth­er to send it out to bricks and mor­tar pub­lish­ers, agents or do it myself.

    Lots to think about.

  4. pub­lish­ers only cough up on roy­al­ties once the publisher’s own out­lay has been recouped; this includes all sorts of little charges, includ­ing pub­li­city.”

    I’ve not heard of that before.

    Royalties are a fixed amount per book, and they’re pay­able as soon as cop­ies sold * roy­alty is great­er than the author’s advance. (Leaving aside amounts held back for returns, reduced roy­al­ties for cer­tain kinds of sales, sev­er­al books on the same con­tract and so on.)

    An an example, if an author gets a $5000 advance and roy­alty is (for the sake of round num­bers) $1 per book, after 5000 cop­ies have sold the author is entitled to roy­al­ties of $1 per copy on any fur­ther sales. No expenses are deduc­ted from this by the pub­lish­er.

    Obviously, if I’m wrong about this I’m keen to hear about it.

  5. I guess it’s an empir­ic­al point, Simon, and the more counter­examples the bet­ter. My con­tract with my first pub­lish­er cer­tainly included this, though that might be because the pub­li­city was quite lim­ited (prob­ably less than one-hun­dred quid, but that’s a large num­ber of cop­ies I’d need to shift). Also included were ARPs, I think. I’ve heard oth­er authors talk­ing about this and they’ve stated that their roy­al­ties kick in once the publisher’s costs (includ­ing vari­ous pub­li­city things) are recouped, not before. I’m more cer­tain of this prac­tice hap­pen­ing in the music industry. If it is lim­ited with regards the book industry, well, that would be great.

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