Thursday, July 19, 2012

Aspects of the Novelist's Dilemma (7)

7. Agents still matter, sort of.
What we’re talking about when we talk about digital publishing vs mainstream publishing is that loaded word of the internet age: disintermediation.
In the old system, of which many remnants remain, everyone has a hand in the novelist’s pocket. Let us count the ways: agent, subrights agents, publisher, printer, wholesaler, bookseller. Six intermediaries at least. Directly or indirectly, each of these takes a piece of the cover price before that check finally reaches the author.
In the digital system, the fixed costs of editing, proofreading, formatting, and cover design remain. They must be paid upfront, but their providers do not get between the buyer and the author on every sale, as they do in a mainstream publishing deal. If one digitally self-publishes, the only one who's still interposed between novelist and reader/customer is the bookseller. If one uses an indie publisher as distributor, as I'm inclined to do, that distributor also takes a cut, of course, so there may be two entities between author and reader/customer. But that's a far cry from six or so under the old model.
What of the agent?

One might argue that the agent's role has diminished, but one might also say that it makes sense to keep the agent in the equation. For one thing, writing is a lonely game and it helps to have a friend. More deeply than that, it also helps to have an advisor, someone who knows the business and can help you strategize, do quality control, make creative decisions. The agent can also help you sell rights to your work, presuming he or she is willing to stick his neck out. (If you make yourself a bestseller without the agent's guidance, who needs him when the phone starts ringing? Just hire an attorney.)
But, even if you do value an agent relationship, a big question hangs in the balance: if you’re only or primarily publishing digitally, is this a relationship the agent is prepared to have? Well, you have to ask the agent.

At the moment, most authors' representatives remain stuck in the old paradigm, focused almost entirely on attempting to get conventional print book deals. But eventually, I think, agents will begin to sell their advice to high-quality digitally published authors on a percentage basis, the way managers have long done in the music business.
Some agents — very few so far — have already begun to offer “assisted self-publishing” and marketing services. Forward-thinking agents like these may very well be worth keeping in the equation.
Dilemma: Can my agent and I work out a new relationship where he’s not doing the same old thing but he continues to add value?
Looking back over the seven dilemmas, I see that they may point some authors toward self-publishing. I do still believe (though it’s a subject for another post) that under certain circumstances novelists can continue to benefit from a mainstream publishing relationship. But taking that relationship, if offered, drifts farther every day from a slam dunk. After all, the mainstream publisher's greatest strength remains distribution to bookstores, but fiction is rapidly migrating to digital.
One dilemma I might have included involves time. The novelist who doesn’t already have an agent might expend a year trying to find one and still come up dry. If one does get an agent, it might take that person six months to shop a novel, an effort that — even for a good novel in the hands of a good agent — is highly likely to meet with futility. Then, if you do get the mainstream publishing contract, it might take another six months to a year for that book to get published.

Months...years. What might you be doing with that time instead of waiting? You might be selling books, for one thing.
In opposition to the once-conventional path, the quality self-published or indie-published novelist, even while making allowances for the editorial process and a few other aspects, might take just a few months to get his work out into the world. Earning is better than waiting. More important, you can't begin building a name for yourself until you have a product in the marketplace.
So your choice boils down to the old cliché: the bird in the hand (get it out now to the wide world) versus two in the bush (broader but later distribution from a mainstream publisher). But -- wait! Maybe I was just seeing double when I looked in that bush. After all, how many books will move through the shrinking bookstore market before I've established my brand?

Dilemma indeed.