An agent's manifesto
16.03.12 | Jonny Geller
It feels like a perfect storm is brewing; publishers battening down the hatches, retailers at war with one another, e-tailers deactivating “buy” buttons as if it’s a game of Call of Duty.
One person has been forgotten in this unholy maelstrom: the author. Remember, we don’t have a job without him or her. For those of us still working in the legacy business of publishing books, here’s a reminder of the primary mover in this chain—an Agent’s Manifesto, as it were, to All Those in the Business of Publishing Books on Behalf of the Author:
» The author is the expert. Why assume that the one person who has spent the past 12-18 months on the subject, the story and the world of their work, knows least about how they should be represented to the trade and to the reader?
» The author is not an object which a publisher has to step over in order to achieve a successful publication. If they have a problem with the cover, blurb, copy or format, then something isn’t right.
» The author loves bookshops. Bookshops need to learn how to love authors again. We need to bring them back together.
» We publishing professionals are the ones who bear the risk—agents with time; publishers with investment; retailers with space. Authors risk only their whole life, self-esteem and their babies.
» Publishers need to understand that “Author Care” is not a euphemism for “Care in the Community”. Authors who are valued, understood, appreciated, included, nurtured and spoken to like an adult will experience a phenomenon called Trust. Trust breeds loyalty; loyalty means longevity; longevity means sales.
» Authors will endeavour to understand better what a publisher does—e-books are not created after two minutes of scanning and ticking a series of boxes on Amazon’s self-publishing program.
It’s not exactly the Independence Charter, but hopefully a reminder of where the core of our business lies.
I recently attended a conference, happily entitled “Disintermediation—who will be left?”, and the clear inference was that agents would be “disintermediated” out of the picture. I’m not so sure. Which author truly wants to close their Lithuanian rights deal (at midnight) while updating their blog (at 6 a.m.), revisiting the copy edit for the fourth time (a whole morning’s work) and keeping an eye on the hourly change of their book’s pricing? As Amanda Hocking, a returnee to “legacy publishing”, recently said: “It drove me nuts.” J K Rowling didn’t publish her adult novel on Pottermore or a variation thereof, and Vintage US has just bought the erotic sensation Fifty Shades of Grey after 250,000 downloads of this independently published novel. Authors need publishers; they need experts to guide and protect them.
However, the arguments I heard on a recent trip to New York suggests publishers are still focused in on themselves. An Amazon surge in sales of one of their backlist publishing titles was greeted by the same question: “yes, but at what price?”. The answer is “several thousand more sales than the previous five years”, but publishers don’t want to hear that. They are, understandably, agitated about the falling prices of their products (a concern shared by every agent and author I know), but publishers must understand that their inability to offer viable alternatives to the “publish or not publish” offers available will drive more authors to self-publishing initiatives.
The book industry needs to listen to authors and readers more so we can win back the argument that publishing is filled with skilled professionals seeking excellence in their fields, determined to publish works of commercial and cultural significance. Amazon is not the devil, but a different route. Booksellers need support; but they, in turn, need to bring a higher level of service to their customers. I’m sure none of the above applies to you, but if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, do pass it on.