HOLT UNCENSORED #84
by Pat Holt
Friday, August 13, 1999:
LITERARY AGENTS SPEAK OUT
LITERARY AGENTS SPEAK OUT
Over the years a host of accusations - none of them proven - have been leveled at the mainstream publishing industry . Even the allegations from credible sources like Holt Uncensored cry out for hard evidence.
Do good books go unpublished? Have marketing and sales departments taken over editors' roles? Are publishers giving up on independent bookstores while caving into the demands of chain bookstores? Do first-time authors command greater attention (and advances) than midlist veterans with proven track records?
People in publishing usually clam up when these questions are asked outright, and who can blame them? It's not easy to survive in the inbred, gossip-driven, takeover-clobbered publishing industry of today. But answers do percolate up from the boilerplate when someone like John Baker of Publishers Weekly writes a seemingly routine book about the way things work in publishing.
In fact, Baker's new book, "Literary Agents: A Writer's Introduction" (Macmillan; 256 pages; $14.95 paperback; order online from http://www.vromansbookstore.com ), offers an inside look at the way things work in publishing that readers won't find anywhere else.
Baker contends that in the midst of continued publishing upheavals, the literary agent has become "the only fixed element in an author's life." Because "many publishers and editors have become equivocal and migratory," he says, "agents have in effect supplanted the roles once played by the legendary figures" such as Alfred Knopf or Maxwell Perkins.
That's been true for some time, but Baker's book shows just how heartbreakingly true it is today. Publishers are "not so likely to stay with an author for the long haul," says the first agent interviewed, Dominic Abel. "They'd rather sign up a previously unpublished author."
It's a phenomenon in publishing that brings chills to any author's spine. "The junking of quality writers," Abel adds, "in favor of writers who may not have what it takes means the same process will just be repeated, again and again." And the deathblow can strike out of nowhere. As Ellen Levine notes, "An author may have won awards, got excellent reviews consistently, but poor sales on one title can doom his next."
So the options for authors are dwindling, these literary agents believe. According to Liz Darhansoff, some writers have even gone to the extreme of "chang[ing] their names so they can start again as if they are first timers, without any record of failure hanging over their heads," Baker writes.
But not to worry: The way to gain industry acceptance today is to build a "platform" - proof that the author has built up such a sizeable following that the book will walk out of the stores by itself. So much weight is now given to this and other kinds of "built-in marketing appeal," agent Barbara Lowenstein says, "that authors need to flash "good credentials, like television shows, seminars." She nods sadly to Baker: "Yes, I know, it used to be the other way around: first you made your name with the book, then the rest came along, but not any more."
Does this mean that if you don't have a platform, you'll have little luck selling your manuscript, no matter how good it is? Apparently, says Carol Mann. "I used to think that any good book would get published," she tells Baker. Not today: Manuscripts she could have sold 10 years ago, Mann laments, no longer command any advance. The reason: "There's a real danger now that a passionate editor may no longer be able to publish books for which an economic argument can't be made."
Of course, the idea of a platform doesn't exist in a vacuum; it affects the industry as a whole. Establishing an audience before the manuscript is sold means the author is doing the job of marketing for people who are supposed to be professionals at the task. It means publishers "want everything served up on a silver platter," Ellen Levine suggests, and it leads to what she senses is "a shrinking market" for manuscripts: Fewer houses will take a manuscript just because it's good. Even those who want to are "so unsure about their decisions, they can get so easily led by the marketing department."
And there goes the midlist. Publishers will pay "okay for brand-new authors they think may go somewhere," says Virginia Barber, "but nothing for all those very good writers in the middle." As a result (or is it a cause?), that great bedrock of backlist publishing, the mid-list editor, is also in jeopardy: "The mid-list editor is being washed out just like the mid-list author," says Peter Lampack.
"The publishers don't emphasize editorial skills any more," he adds. "They ask the editors only to acquire manuscripts that can then go into the production process as quickly and cheaply as possible." He describes editors having to "censor themselves to the point where they'll only do what they think of as sure things" in order to satisfy "corporate owners handing down financial budgets [the editors] have to keep within."
And enter, then, the corporate culture of decision-making by committee, so weighted on the marketing side that "editors with years of experience nowadays have very little control over their lists," writes Baker of Loretta Barrett's point of view. He quotes Barrett directly: "[Editors] have to get the approval of five or six people to buy anything, and then the decision is often no when they want to say yes."
What has creeped into the selection process, then, is "rather a monocular quality to editorial decision-making," says Faith Childs, "a rather limited range of interests. She wonders if it's "[editors] or their corporate surroundings," that have created a dependence on the safe, no-risk commercial book she calls "BSOs - book-shaped objects" written by celebrity authors and purchased by mass audiences "in the same way we buy bedsheets or ice cream."
BSOs, in turn, further influence the way books are published. "A publisher takes someone who's not a writer and tries to sell a book by that person because they're a successful actor or hairdresser or whatever. I suspect there's that infection everywhere: it's easer to take on what looks like a success than groom a writer, and build on a ten thousand- or fifteen thousand-copy sale."
Of course it still happens that editors feel the proverbial hair stand up on the back of their necks upon discovering original ideas and beautiful writing in a manuscript by an unknown or midrange writer. Then they face the prospect of gaining support in the house, which, increasingly, isn't easy. "Publishing houses are far less willing than they used to be to take leaps of faith," says Barney Karpfinger. "I worry that they're not investing in authors in small ways, keeping faith with them through the quiet times."
What keeps publishers from investing in midrange or unknown authors? "It's the power of the chains, making gambles much more expensive," says Denise Marcil. Editors are "far more cautious" about making risky calls and "less and less . . . ready to go out and fight for a book." Why should they, considering "the enormous power in the marketplace of Barnes & Noble," as Jimmy Vines puts it. "I doubt most publishers make an offer now without consulting their chain [sales representatives]," he adds.
Perhaps the need for a platform comes from "the pressure from the chains, who knows?" offers Carol Mann. What we do know is that chain bookstores with their push for heavily promoted big books they can sell by the tens of thousand can't help but lead the industry toward further commercialization. As agent Philip Spitzer says, "Everything has to be 'big' or 'high concept,' like a movie. It seems as if publishers are publishing DOWN now, almost as if they're saying people won't read a well-written novel any more."
It seems downright tragic that throughout Baker's book, few if any literary agents talk about independent booksellers as a counterbalance to publishers' dependence on the chains. You'd think they would, because literary agents are often the first to recognize that if anyone is out there looking, searching and hoping for those midlist or serious or literary or unknown books, it's the independent bookseller.
Perhaps agents don't talk about this because the realities of the retail marketplace are removed from their immediate job, which is selling the book to editors. So they talk about what drives the decisions in publishing acquisitions today, and that, editors tell them, is the influence of chain bookstores.
And all those rumors you hear from "paranoid" or "whining" independent booksellers - that publishers have abandoned independents, don't want to send best-selling authors to independents, are pulling their sales representatives out of independents and don't have the money to spend with independents - seems to be true.
What Baker could not describe within the limitations of his book are the Big Things a'comin' that will resurrect this balance. From the American Booksellers Association (ABA) alone, for example, we are soon to see: Booksense.com, a shared data base that will begin to make independents competitive with the chains and Amazon.com on Web; a national gift certificate program among independents beginning September 1; a national bestseller list from independent bookstores that will put the New York Times bestseller list to shame; a Book Sense 76 list of independent bookstore discoveries; a central information depot that will spread the word on up-and-coming authors, and so forth.
This kind of consolidation will take "the independent cause to an entirely new level," as the ABA's Carl Lennertz put it in a recent issue of Bookselling This Week, because it will provide "tangible evidence" of "the true combined power of the books [independents] handsell."
One can't help reflecting on these literary agents' observations of the state of "merger mania" in publishing and how often we are told, when one publisher acquires another, that this kind of takeover is good for publishing, even good for literature.
After all, the promise goes, houses that merge get to save money by combining marketing and accounting departments, as well as fulfillment and printing functions. This frees up greater resources for the creative side, allowing editors greater range and flexibility in the selection of manuscripts.
But what we hear from agents who talk to Baker is that conglomerate publishing instead produces huge overheads, awesome inefficiencies, displacement of editors, loss of standards and unbelievable arrogance, right down to the practice of sending a check, however late, on Friday so the house can reap the benefits of interest accrued over the weekend while both author and agent tear their hair out waiting.
And that's just for starters. Corporate ownership has led to a "homogenized, Disneyfied" industry, says agent Arnold Goodman, with "more layers of bureaucracy" in each house. Routine procedures have bogged down increasingly. "They seem to need six signatures for a check," he says. "And the marketing department has an inordinate influence. I lost a sale not long ago because it was felt that publicity MIGHT not be able to get the author on 'Oprah'! And I feel that the big bookstore chains are dictating too much of what gets published."
This bureaucracy in the book industry leads to "too much inefficiency in publishing houses" is Joy Harris's contention, because the result is that agents end up doing much of the publisher's work. "I'm having to become the shadow publisher, which means following up on every detail during the publishing process. It's endless and endlessly time-consuming."
The consolidation of publishing among corporate owners has also led to "a loss of suppliers," says Harvey Klinger. "There are now only 20 wholesalers buying paperbacks instead of 200, and there used to be a lot more places to take a manuscript."
The consequence of all this is pretty bleak. While many caring and professional people work in the publishing industry today, the system itself has become heartless, not only toward independent booksellers, which it has abandoned, but the people who pay all our salaries - the authors.
Of course the adversarial relationship of publisher and author has always been a source of tension and conflict. But when publishers stopped selecting books because they were good and started selecting books because they would keep stockholders happy, a huge wedge slammed into the acquisition process that tried to make authors just another cog in the money-making machinery.
That's the message these literary agents feel publishing is giving to all of us today: If your book fits the system, line up for the money. If not, if it's too risky or too original or too unpromotable or too offbeat or honest-to-heaven too good, take a hike.
Of course literary agents have their own axes to grind. The one positive observation they mention - that smaller independent publishers are filling in some of the gaps left by the mainstream - comes with in a rather self-serving disappointment that smaller publishers can't pay a lot of money up front.
Perhaps one day both mainstream publishers and literary agents will learn from independent publishers that working in partnership with authors on the long-range marketing of books can lead to far greater sales than dependence on surfacy front-list promotions.
Meanwhile, viewing Baker's interviews through the lens of what's happening to literature at the turn of the century, readers will have to say that few greater eye-openers about the industry have been published than "Literary Agents: A Writer's Introduction."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In response to "Following the Money": For years, drug dealers have supported their communities -- buying clothes for kids and sponsoring sports teams -- while simultaneously destroying them. There are more problems with tainted money than "tain't enough of it." I don't mean to suggest that we not accept philanthropy, only that we not be so short-sighted as to sell anyone the right to destroy our communities.
What is most sad to me is that in a country as wealthy as ours, government can't or won't provide adequate resources for education, literacy, libraries, etc. (not to mention food, housing, and medical care); "enlightened" governments are those which return tax money. Perhaps if we spend enough of that money at B&N, they will build more libraries. Maybe our local governments could become amazon.com associates and use the money to pave the streets (with embossed logos, of course).
Hungry Mind Bookstore
St. Paul, Minnesota
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Most of what you wrote about Kay Scarpetta applies to Clarice Starling, Thomas Harris' redoubtable protagonist. Is Scarpetta the older character?
Holt replies: I would have thought Kay Scarpetta predates Clarice Starling but as it turns out, "The Silence of the Lambs" came out in 1988, and the first Cornwell novel featuring Kay S. was "Postmortem" in 1990.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
One further note about Len Riggio and his attmepts at largesse. It is interesting to note that his (and Borders') Internet sales divisions are not collecting sales tax (very probably in violation of existing "nexus" tax laws), thereby costing local communities literally millions of dollars that would otherwise go to fire and police departments, health and human services, public education ... the list goes on.
He might argue that as long as Amazon is consciously ducking sales tax collection, he needs to do the same. Of course, he could also use his influence to lobby in favor of an Internet sales tax that would restore several hundred million dollars in lost revenue to communities across the country. But I guess it's easier just to not collect.
So as Internet book sales take away sales from bricks & mortar independents, they also rob state and local governments of critical sales tax funds. Philanthropic?
Hut Landon, firstname.lastname@example.org
Northern California Independent Booksellers Association
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Someone mentioned the proximity of Walden Pond Bookstore and Waldenbooks in the Grand Lake area of Oakland. This is no longer the case; the Waldenbooks closed years ago, while Walden Pond is still going strong and has, in fact, opened a second store called Earwitness, devoted to CDs and books about music.
About eight years ago, K-mart, the parent company of Waldenbooks, sent a threatening letter to Walden Pond, charging trademark infringement. After a fierce letter-writing campaign by Walden Pond patrons, they backed off. Obviously, they felt as if they had ownership of a book title that has long been in the public domain, or at least that they could bully an independent into thinking so.
Since Waldenbooks closed, the building that housed it has been home to a Payless Shoes, now closed, and a Boston Market, now closed. Neighborhoods that put their faith in chain stores to sustain them aren't always rewarded.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Am just astounded by Linda Maloney using ACSES as a supposed comparison shopping guide. It is bought and paid for by about 8 bookstores, including Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, and compares prices only among those stores. Especially for used books, this is a stupid place to look, but people are doing it every day, including my own niece who I had to set straight the other day. Let's push http://www.bookfinders.com for a little more for comparison shopping.
P.S. An interesting thing about ACSES--they are ready to take orders for books to be published in 2002 (I know about advance orders, but this is ridiculous), and they have categories with no entries at all, like FILM, for instance. Really a strange site.
Alyce Cresap, books & ephemera
Germantown, NY email@example.com
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I do want to chime in on the letter from Linda M. Moloney. Linda raises an interesting point that you seem to slide right by -- and not only in her letter.
One reason we do not see universal support from book buyers for independent booksellers is that the LAST thing independents are is universal. For every Kepler's or Book Passage there are independent booksellers who do not strive to serve customers or provide an intelligent alternative to shopping from conglomerates. Maybe you don't see it so much in the Bay Area, where strong vibrant independents are the rule. But it's tough to hear your cheerleading for indys as if they were one unified body---not unlike the conglomerates we decry.
I've worked in the business for 15+ years and have always bought books at a mix of stores -- and still do. I'm hardly an unenlightened consumer, but I spend so much on books that if someome wants to sell me "Hannibal" at half price, I'm going to take them up on that. You don't have to agree with that, but you do have to understand why it's so.
Holt responds: I'm a fan as well of the curmudgeonly narrow-focused and downright crabby bookseller, but I don't expect everybody to be. Wandering around these offbeat and eccentric stores almost always turns up a unique approach to books and bookselling that makes the visit worthwhile. But the point you raise is important - that independent bookstores are all very different (hooray for that) yet can still be considered one unified body when compared to something like chain stores. Take inventory, for example - taken together, independent booksellers carry a wider diversity of books than the chains, and so forth. I think that is crucial for all of us to remember when the half-price discounts look like such a good deal: Knowing there's a lot more at stake in "the bookstore wars" than saving money is on a bestseller is, for me, enough reason to give my business to the independent.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
As the small press buyer for an independent feminist bookstore, I understand Hal Zina Bennett's concern about the ways in which independent booksellers and publishers can/should/do/don't work together. This has been an issue for years among the feminist book industry as well, with greater and lesser degrees of success and misunderstanding and difficulty.
I try as much as possible to buy whatever small/independent presses I can and we DO feature them in our window, storefront display areas, and our newsletter staff raves. But as Hal mentioned, there are some deep issues that need discussing. What Hal perceives as an unwillingness by independents to carry small press books may NOT be so at all but perhaps just really be the manifestation of frustration in time, work, effort, money needed to invest in these presses.
Perhaps one of the biggest losses to independent bookselling was the demise of Inland Book Co. and some of the other small press wholesalers that have gone out of business. Though Koen and Bookpeople (and New Leaf within the realm of what they carry) do their best to fill this gap, MANY small presses are not represented by these wholesalers (for whatever those reasons are, which, too, are probably many!).
Here's what I know. As the small/independent press buyer, it takes a lot of time to go through all the many flyers and samples I receive on a daily basis to decide what best fits in our specialty store. After that, I have to then figure out if they are wholesaled or distributed -- by far the best option. If they are not, then it takes time to generate individual orders (and eventually get the receiving done and the payments made).
Perhaps the BIGGEST single factor in my decisions NOT to carry titles from a small/independent press is its terms. Minimum of 5-10 quantity (when I know I can only maybe sell 2 or 3) for a decent discount (which needs to be at least 40%) combined with required prepayment makes it impossible for me to sometimes get books I'd really love to have and sell in the store. (I know why independent presses want their $$ up front; it's just that I can't very often do it that way! It's not that I'm unwilling -- sometimes I just can't!) When our cash flow is tight -- which is just about always -- it's hard for me to convince the bookkeeper to give me checks for prepayment on specualtion that some books are very deserving and MIGHT sell compared to the very real fact that distributors such as Consortium or LPC or PGW (or Baker & Taylor) want to be paid -- for books I've already sold and want to reorder!
This is one of the reasons why Inland -- or any small/independant press wholesaler/distributor -- remains important. It allows me a way to take on the books of so many smaller publishers -- all at one time -- when time and cash flow forbid me to do so otherwise! Yes, I understand it's about priorities -- it's not like I NEVER take these small press books that demand individual attention or prepayment. It's just that I really can't take them all! Often reviews, customer demand, or the word of other feminist bookstores helps me to take on books that I may have otherwise missed or passed over.
By the way, I see MANY reps with all kinds of small press books -- and quite frankly, if a sales rep comes to my door with a catalog, AND the publisher is willing to give open credit, AND the minimum is one I can reach, I will ALWAYS buy books from small/independent presses.
I don't consider myself a "rare exception" as Hal asserts, but a real buyer with real concerns - not unlike those I've heard expressed by buyers in many other small/independent stores. And I ALWAYS special order books for customers -- regardless of terms -- should they happen on the review or advertisement or word or mouth that made them interested in that independent press book in the first place.
Mev Miller, Book Buyer
THE Amazon Bookstore, Minneapolis
PS. Small/independent presses could also learn about making small press buyers' jobs just a little more manageable. It's unbelievable the amount of stuff I receive that doesn't even have just the BASIC information on it! Please be sure your flyers or press releases include the following: Title, subtitle, author, price, ISBN, binding specifications, page count, date of publication, availability at wholesalers/distributors, a BRIEF description of what it's about -- also, your complete press name, address, phone, fax, email, disocount, minimum, terms. If the book is an anthology, a list of contributors is also useful. And it also helps if we know something about the author - where the author lives (locality of author can and does make a difference) - what makes the author a believable writer of this particular book (especially if it's non-fiction), etc. Also, save yourself some money. One or two pithy reviews are helpful but don't send me pages & pages - I just don't read them all.