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.

Published by Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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  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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