WARNING: This is a no-edit zone…
Relevance and the Math Business
© 2011, Vicki Hinze
Most writers aren’t fond of math. We’re into words. And yet in our industry many are all about the math. Math over content often decides what gets published, and that simple truth makes it imperative that writers start getting into the math business whether or not they’re fond of it. Why? Because it isn’t just publishers and agents who need to stay relevant, authors do too.
The industry is in the middle of a revolution. Ebooks have come into their own and turned the “normal” paradigms on their ears just as a few years ago electronically tracking sales turned the selections for publication process on its ear.
There was a time when the decision on whether or not to buy a book was a subjective, gut-instinct editorial decision. Both the author and the editor were made or broken depending on the outcome in actual sales. Because the sales tracking took a good six months to get a firm handle on a project’s performance and even longer to know for fact, publishers took chances on authors. Built authors over three or four books provided the author’s sales showed progression.
When the electronic reporting went active things changed. Gut instinct was balanced with reporting and marketing decisions. More publishers began buying by committee rather than on editorial instinct. And now hearing that the editor loved and wanted to buy an author or a project and couldn’t get it through committee is a common refrain uttered by many across genres, across the market.
A similar thing is happening now with publishers on ebooks. And because authors have the option of becoming publishers, publishers are put into the position of determining relevance. For the first time, authors are asking, “What can you do for me that I can’t do for me?”
Publishers can do things that authors can’t—at least, today they do. Tomorrow? Who knows? Things are changing on nearly every front with lightning speed.
A few years ago an agent saw this coming and started an ebook arm that helped his clients get their rights/backlist up in ebook format. I’ve spoken to a few of those authors and found none who were not happy with the way the arrangement has worked out for them. But back then the agent took a lot of heat from other industry professionals, including other agents. Now some of those agents who gave the visionary heat are also setting up similar programs.
What that first agent saw that the others didn’t or elected not to act on until now was that as more avenues opened for authors to become independent publishers, like publishers, agents need to stay relevant in the process or lose the income for not staying relevant to the process.
Now some will say authors, acting as their own publishers, don’t need agents. Some will say agents are needed more than ever because agreements and licenses and secondary licenses are still there and are global and they require trained eyes and comprehension. That a literary attorney might review and comprehend and explain but if the author isn’t trained to comprehend and implement, challenges to the author can occur. That there are retail programs within retailing programs agents can access for their authors that aren’t accessible to authors on their own, or aren’t as readily assessable to authors on their own. Same holds true for publishers.
A case can be made either way—with or without an agent/publisher. A critical consideration in the assessment should be the author’s skill level and awareness/familiarity of licenses and opportunities. The lower the author’s skill level, the greater the author’s need for a skilled agent and/or publisher. Another critical consideration is time. It’s an investment. Time spent competently meeting business end requirements is time spent not writing. Not writing produces no product. No product equals nothing to sell. So there are different things to look at in making your personal call.
In the future, I expect that agents will become more like business managers and brokers. Aiding and assisting in licensing but also in areas physically impacting publishing. Coordinating a core group of associates who do specific things that need doing to take a book from manuscript to print/eformat. People like editors, copyeditors, cover artists and those who code the work for specific formats. Perhaps publicists and marketing professionals also because making readers aware of works is going to be the name of the game that next to content most impacts sales. There’s that math again!
In the future, I expect that publishers will become more like marketers and publicists. Their primary job, aside from getting the book “out there” will be making sure readers and industry pros know the work is out there. In other words, to elevate awareness. Why? Again, next to content, awareness will most impact sales. And again, there’s the math.
Authors can get the books to market in eform and in print. But unless readers of that type work know the works are available and buys them, the works are not going to sell. It is true that selling direct requires the author to sell far fewer copies to earn the same money as with an agent/publisher. It is also true that in an author selling direct there are no advances and there are upfront expenditures. Look for more retailers to develop their own programs where they do offer advances and/or to cover initial prepublication expenses. That’s happening already and I believe it will become more widespread. In these expectations are pros and cons that are directly relatable to the individual author and impact decisions on what the author will do and how s/he will elect to do it. Authors and their specific situations are independent. One size doesn’t fit all.
So an author must do a full-scale assessment of his/her specific situation and goals, and then do the math. Not just for a body of work, but perhaps also on specific projects within the body of work. And based on that assessment, the author then must decide what route s/he wants to take based on the specifics revealed in thorough, practical and realistic evaluation (both personal and relative to the work or body of work).
One thing I have not touched on that I probably should. I didn’t speak to it before now because it was rumor. But it’s happened in multiple places with multiple people now and authors should be aware of it because it can have a direct impact on them.
Before now few authors had the luxury of publishing their own work. They were more or less at the mercy of the publishers or they had to put a ton of money and effort into forming their own traditional publishing company. That gave authors far fewer options and alternatives. The author wrote, submitted, and then prayed. A lot and often. Much of the division of power in the strategic business alliance—whether it was agent/author or publisher/author—was weighted in the agent or publisher’s favor.
The downside for the agent: Time is money. Every author acquired required time. With every submission, an agent risks his/her reputation. The upside for the agent: S/he has other clients, so the risk factor is diffused more so than the author’s. The author has all his/her eggs in one basket—the agent’s.
The downside for the publisher: It risks its reputation in taking on an author/work. If the author/work doesn’t perform well, it reflects and impacts the publisher’s credibility and fiscal stability. The editor who acquired non-performing author/work risks current and future employment prospects. The publisher takes risks, putting its resources and reputation behind the author/work. The upside for the publisher is that it has many authors and many works and that diffuses its risks. If one project tanks and other exceeds expectations, the publisher’s version of income-averaging investing comes to its rescue and aids the health of the publisher overall.
The author’s risks are not diffused. If the project tanks, the author tanks and that’s that on that project and beyond. Numbers and sell-through follow an author, so the next book becomes more difficult to sell. Bear in mind that the author takes these risks with no idea what s/he will earn, how his/her work will be packaged, marketed or distributed. Most authors don’t even know in what form a work will be sold. (That’s often the case for most new authors. Those authors higher up the chain get consultation rights and input and can split and define formats and such in the contract. But while the author has input, the final decisions are still the publisher’s, including even titles of the works. It’s rare that this is not the case. Publishers feel they take the lion’s share of risks so it’s fair and right that they retain the lion’s share of say. Some are reluctant to even tell the author what the print run will be on a project. (There’s that math again.) I’ve never understood that beyond the obvious of a publisher not wanting to announce to its competition its numbers so therefore considers it proprietary information on that basis. But withholding that information from the author creates challenges for the author. Math challenges.
The author can’t budget or do the most basic math projections without specific expectations. While more and more publishers expect the author to promote and market, the author can’t do either rationally because s/he doesn’t have essential information to make the best or wisest decisions. That hurts both author and publisher—agent, too, for that matter. Yet this is how things have are/were/have been. And again, this strategic alliance has benefits and risks for both publisher and author. The publisher’s risks are more diffused. The author’s got all her eggs and reputation and next-work potential in that one basket.
Do note that none of this, or the other tangents applicable in the author/agent or author/publisher relationship, make the relationships adversarial ones. Far from it. In these strategic business alliances all parties have a vested interest and a common goal: to make each work the most successful work possible. Each party has to do the math.
So to stay relevant or establish your relevance, should you go the traditional route for publishing your work? Do it with or without an agent? Do both? Publish both? I can’t answer that for you. There are too many variables in every single author’s case/work(s) to make a simple deduction. Oh, I could line up authors, say: “You, yes. You, no. You do a hybrid. You need an agent. You don’t.” But that’d irresponsible because it’d be based only on my subjective opinion. It’d be arrogant and I’d certainly be wrong. Since you and not I will live with the results, it should be your decision, not mine. You make it. You’ll be accountable for it and you’ll enjoy the success and failure. Remember, we all have different definitions for success and failure. Mine are likely different than yours. The author’s bottom line: Use your math, make your call.
What I can say responsibly is this: In today’s publishing climate, authors need to look at all options and then weigh and consider those options as they relate to the specific author and the specific project at this specific time and under the author’s specific current circumstances, and then make the call for him/herself.
Any decision made by the author most impacts the author. It should be based not on another’s opinion but on the author’s assessment of his/her relevance, and to determine that, s/he must do the math.