Cheeseburger Gothic

Literary agents. Licensed to kill. Like a motherfucker

Posted April 26, 2013 into Writing by John Birmingham

So, you’ve written the final line on your soon to be best-selling novel, perhaps a high octane hyper-accelerated thriller, perhaps a dense and unreadably brilliant inner dialogue-driven character study of three generations of strong-willed women. ‘Whatevs’, as they say on ‘teh interwebz’. (‘Teh interwebz’ is also something they say on the internet, when they are trying for ironic distance).

The first question I’d ask as you hurried through shining black marble foyer of the international publishing house you have personally chosen to receive your heart breaking work of staggering genius, is what the hell are you doing? Where is your agent?

While it’s not unknown for publishers to pluck a diamond from the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts, such happy occasions are exceedingly rare. So rare, that it seems their exceptional, almost singular nature is imbued with the power to blind would-be novelists to the brutal realities of the industry.

Publishers hate unsolicited manuscripts. They do sift through them, because they are no more inured to the magical fantasy of that one, special find than are the army of unpublished authors burying them under a mountain of largely unpublishable books.

I believe Mr Birmingham will reserve his position on retaining the audiobook rights in the European market, unless you have an objection?

If you really think you have something special in your bottom draw, or nowadays in your Dropbox account, do yourself the favour of running it past the jaundiced eyes of one of the industry’s foulest, most nihilistic misanthropes – an agent. With an agent in your corner, you need not even read articles such as this. You would merely concern yourself with banging out five or six hundred pages of top shelf word processing, and they would do the rest; including the all important task of making first contact with whichever publisher you plan on shaking down for an unconscionably large advance. (More on this later.)

Publishers deal with agents all the time, and although they don’t necessarily like them, they do like what do. At least insofar as agents protect them from the shower of offal which pours into the slush pile, day and night. Granted they don’t much like agents when they ratchet up the size of that unconscionably large advance, but there is a price for everything, isn’t there? One caveat. When choosing an agent, avoid any that charge you a fee for their services. The only time an agent should put a hand in your pocket is when they have made a sale and are taking a commission. Reading fees, edit fees, manuscript assessment fees, they are all recognised as the work of charlatans.

There are manuscript assessment agencies around, and some are even worth the money they charge. But they are not agents.

So, lets say you have inexplicably decided to do your own pimping and negotiating. Perhaps you don’t fancy turning over somewhere between ten and twenty per cent of your income to the misanthrope. Perhaps in your day job you eat high priced negotiators for breakfast.

There is another difficult, preliminary question you need to ask yourself. It’s difficult because you’re probably not qualified to answer it, but without an agent with whom you might chew over these things, where would you turn for advice? As you hurry through the black marble foyer, tracked by the invisible lasers and defence turrets of the Pan Macmillan in-house security system, or the slavering attack dogs of Rupert Murdoch’s Harper Collins, perhaps you should first ask yourself, ‘Do I even need this publisher’.

It’s not the sort of question publishers like to encourage, but increasingly authors and the misanthropes who represent them, are asking the very same. Lets illustrate the point with a little experiment. If you have web access handy, pop over to Amazon, the world’s largest online book retailer and festering sink of evil, and do a subject search under Kindle for, say, mystery and thrillers. There you’ll find some familiar names. Lee Child, Janet Evanovich and so on. But who are all these people you’ve never heard of? With titles that seem to cost .99 cents?

Well, they may not be the future of publishing, but they will be part of it. Self published authors who moved swiftly into the e-book space while the slow, lumbering engines of olde worlde publishing were still banking up the coal supplies for their steam engines. There are now any number of options for unsigned authors to say, ‘The hell with Random House, I’ll publish myself’.

Some of them have made a pile of money. Not because they’re good, but because they were fast to market, they were cheap, sometimes even free while they established their name as a micro-brand, and because they could often put half a dozen small electronic books into the channel while the publishing houses were still dunking their Tim Tams into the Earl Grey at acquisitions meetings.

Even established authors are beginning to examine the prospect of going it alone. Or perhaps not entirely alone, but certainly without the help of a publisher who’ll generously let you have a whole 10% royalty on your cover price, as opposed to the 70% you can earn freelance.

Of course, as a freelance, you’d have to organize editing, production, placement, marketing if you intend to do any, and so on. There are emerging into the market, a number of businesses providing these services. Some are reputable. Some are just retooled vanity publishers. You’ll need to do your own research as to whom you’ve fallen in with. Alternately, some agents are beginning to organise their clients as ‘stables’ where they produce copy for Amazon, or iBooks or Barnes and Noble, and the agency takes care of everything else, effectively cutting out the publisher but ensuring the production work is done professionally.

Publishers, as you’d imagine, are not happy with this. Some authors have seen existing contracts cancelled on the basis of entering into such arrangements.

Lets hand-wave all these modern confusions and tergiversations aside, however, and proceed on the assumption that you are an old school writer with an old school proposition. You have a saleable manuscript and you would like to sell it directly to a publisher. What do you need to know?

Firstly, what are you selling? It’s not just your beautiful prose. You are selling rights to commercially exploit that prose in any number of formats and markets. The publisher will want the right to everything, up to and including your DNA. When they rush you with a contract, fountain pen and a hypodermic syringe, just take a moment to say, “Whoa”. You may not want to assign a small Australian publisher the right to market your work in Romania or, possibly more importantly, in the US. You may want to withhold foreign rights, audio rights, video game rights, and so on.

There are many traps for young players in this area. For instance you may ‘invent’ a whole story universe, filled with compelling creatures and characters and worlds. Perhaps you write a series of successful novels within this universe but then move on, only returning to it years later. Suddenly, after announcing you intend to return to your roots, a lawyer’s letter arrives informing you that said roots are owned, root and branch by the original publisher. You didn’t just sell them the words in the manuscript. You sold them everything. The creatures, the characters, the world. The very fruits of your imagination.

This is why I say, you should either have an agent or an IP lawyer in your corner doing the talking. The power, unfortunately, is mostly with the publisher. Negotiations can be brutal. You’re an artist, you don’t do brutal. Unless you’re Tom Kratman. But your misanthropic agent or lawyer was born that way. Let them do their worst so you can be at your best.

They are the ones who will discuss the all-important filthy lucre. Just how much are you expecting to trouser for this deal? I hope it’s not too much. Advances are falling across the industry as it restructures to deal with the advent of electronic publishing (where the industry accepted advance for e-book only deals is one tenth of one per cent of fuck all; which is to say, zero). The virtual collapse of the US economy and subsequent contraction of its publishing industry is also feeding through to the rest of the world, undermining confidence.

There is no reasonable, generally agreed figure you can settle on for an advance. If you are a first time author, don’t be surprised at the insulting, piddlesome amount on offer. It’s an advance. If your work is that brilliant it will sell a million copies and you’ll be rolling in royalties with only the tax office goons to ruin your party. There are some authors who think making a publisher bet the house on a book is good business. Or rather, I should say there are some ex-authors who think making a publisher bet the house on a book is good business.

Having settled on who owns what, and how much dough is changing hands it’s time to think about the nuts and bolts of your agreement. You’ll want to know exactly what happens in the case of failure. Either you, failing to deliver, or the publisher failing to get to the book to market. Ideally, if they make a hash of everything you need to be in a position to recover your rights to everything. Alternately, if you make a cock up of things, how much are you going to have to pay them back? The full amount of the advance? With interest? Best to know. It used to be the case that in the days of gentleman’s agreements, advances were never recovered. Those days are over.

Will there be a marketing budget for your work? Will you tour? It’s a sad reality that the sales of books increase in direct proportion to the amount of effort that goes into pimping them. Be very careful that you’re not expected to organize and run your own publicity efforts. Unless marketing and publicity is your day job, you’ll fail. Get the publisher to spell out exactly what they intend to do in this area, in print.

There may be costs associated with your work. Will there be an index? Under no circumstances agree to pay for it. Professional indexing is hell expensive. So too with permissions for photography. As perverse as it might sound, even public institutions such as libraries will try to charge you for access and publishing rights to material they hold (paid for by the taxes extorted from your good self before you foolishly gave up merchant banking for the composing of epic poems). If there is a production cost involved in bringing your work to print – don’t be the one left holding the bill.

On a related matter, if you are planning to defame anybody, you might wish to secure an indemnity from your publisher. Best not to defame anyone in the first place, of course, but given the antediluvian nature of Australian libel laws, even the best of intentions can go pear-shaped. Ask Bob Ellis. Or better yet, don’t. Just learn from his example.

Once these tedious issue are settled you can get to the very heart of the author-publisher relationship; power. In the end, whose book is this? Do you have final say over its content and form or do they? Again, be wary of coming on as an overweening tool. While you may have very strong ideas about, say, the cover design of your precious tome, it might be the case that in matters of print aesthetics you don’t know your arse from a hole in the ground. So too, with editing. What makes you think that after three or four rewrites you have any capacity to objectively judge what needs to happen to your manuscript before it is released to the paying public, who, believe me, can very quickly morph into the baying public. By all means lobby for final control, but try not to exercise it.

There are two last issues you need to bear in mind. Publishers get very jealous of their authors. When they say they don’t want you releasing ‘competing’ titles they mean it. Sometimes, in the real world, delays and changes of allegiance can mean you have an older title with a previous publisher coming out at or near the same time as your new book. It is should be possible to deal with such instances like grown ups. But publishers are increasingly on the look-out for authors going maverick. Releasing, say, a self published e-book of short stories or magazine columns at the same time as the publisher’s title.

They hate this, in the general and in the particular. Contracts have been voided because of it.

Which brings us at last to final consideration. What happens at the end? Chances are you won’t be with this publisher unto the grave. When the link is sundered what happens to all those rights you gave when things were fresh and the very air itself was humming with mutual love and admiration?

Perhaps you really should get that lawyer and/or agent.

32 Responses to ‘Literary agents. Licensed to kill. Like a motherfucker’

peteb reckons...

Posted April 26, 2013

Handy advice that, got my ebook number 1 up yesterday .. no surprise who bought copy number 1, @ $2.99 .. Bennison Books did all the work, she's a her, pom, therefore erudite and discerning.

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DrYobbo would have you know...

Posted April 26, 2013

Imma stick to selling crack to schoolies. Seems more reputable and straightforward.

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beeso reckons...

Posted April 26, 2013

Interesting about reading a slush pile. I read a lot of books for a normal person and sometimes i struggle getting into a book and discard it for a time. GRR Martins was a classic example, i struggled for a few weeks to get into it and it wasn't till i sat down for an hour and hooked in that it got going. It was a great book, but if i'd been trying to judge it on first look and didn't know that it was probably worth persisting with i probably wouldn't have come back to it.

Do publishers just understand that sometimes their mood is not right to judge a slower, longer book, or that it might need a longer reading to get into it? Or can they just judge things structurally and understand that it is worth putting more time into judging later?

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pitpat puts forth...

Posted April 26, 2013

Thanks for that, I think I'll stick with the misanthropic nepotistic mining industry. At least we start from the premise that everyone is a greedy bastard and are therefore pleasantly suprised when most turn out ot be reasonable human being.

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Barnesm asserts...

Posted April 26, 2013

Excellent piece, I am tempted to copy it and self-publish it as 99cent dreadful. I guess we now know how much a penny has inflated in literatry terms.

I am espcially greatful for the introduction of the word tergiversation, which is a great word but one with which I was unfamiliar. I had thought initialy it was a malapropism of yours untill I checked the dictionary.

It sounds like there is an oportunity for literary agents to take over some of the functions offerred by the publishers. You mention this in the article above. Certainly with the publishing houses trousering up to 70% then the literary agent has some room to manauver and still provide a better return to the writer. I would like to read Superagent Hughies thoughts on this development.

I am always suprised when people who think they have a talent for writing think the must also have a talent for editing, for intellectual property law, marketing and cover design. While I realise we all dream ourselves as Da Vinciesque Renaissance polymaths the cold truth is we are not and you are better off, much better off, finding someone who knows this shit better than you.

I think that is what you said, just more elquently. You know, with allusions and stuff.

DrYobbo would have you know...

Posted April 26, 2013

'I am always suprised when people who think they have a talent for writing think the must also have a talent for editing, for intellectual property law, marketing and cover design' - I'm equally surprised (as I expect are you Barnes) when people who have a talent for science think they also have a talent for personnel management, administration and corporate governance.... or at least are driven along that path by their developing career. But that's another argument.

Barnesm mutters...

Posted April 26, 2013

Oh no, Science is totally different. If you are good at science/engineering you are just an all round expert at everything. Well except maybe sports.

pitpat reckons...

Posted April 26, 2013

As someone who purports to be a scientist I reject the proposition that I am expert at everything or indeed anything including my specialist field. I am however pretty knowlegable with respect to sport.

Scientists at least in my field are a bit like literary agents. Our jobs are to reduce the probablitiy of complete failure. Or if you are an optimist to increase the chances of technical success- whether that translates into financial success is a different question.

insomniac puts forth...

Posted April 26, 2013

No no no, it's only chemists who are experts at everything

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w from brisbane reckons...

Posted April 26, 2013

Not too long ago, a colleague spoke to a lonely author doing a book signing at Bookworld in the Brisbane CBD.
She asked the author,
"It must be exciting to see your book on the shelves of bookshops".
"Not really" the author replied, "Do you know how much I get for each book sold?"
"No."
"$1.14."

And when you consider that 5000 books sold would make you a successful Australian author, the hourly rate is poor. There is also the long delay between the work and the payment.
A couple of years ago they did a survey of Australian authors with a 'successful' publishing history. They wanted to work out their average income. The authors generally used the 3 methods of deriving income for authors: book royalties, getting some articles in magazines and teaching creative writing.
They worked out the average reported income was about $33,000 pa.

John Birmingham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted April 26, 2013

$33K is higher than I would have thought. It's why I write for a global english language audience and keep working in media.

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w from brisbane puts forth...

Posted April 26, 2013

Semi-related, I worked across the road from Bookworld in the Brisbane CBD for a couple of decades and saw many a book signing as I wandered past at lunch. In that time, there were 2 authors who really had them lined up with 100's of people; Judith Durham and Pele.
Michael Connelly had about 8 people in a line. As I walked past, he heard him say, "Stuff this" and he got up from his little table and walked around into the queue and started chatting. Seemed like a nice bloke.

John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted April 26, 2013

I pretty much refuse to do them and have for years.

w from brisbane mumbles...

Posted April 26, 2013

I only mention the Michael Connelly anecdote because his book signing behaviour was so singular.
I saw him stand up, and start to move towards the people.
'Oh no! The author has got loose!' I shouted.
It was scary there for a moment.

RobertL would have you know...

Posted April 26, 2013
I remember seeing that Pele signing. It almost blocked the road.

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tqft mutters...

Posted April 26, 2013

Saddest thing? I have a mind mapping program open and am dumping that novel that has been running around my head into it and this article has not put me off.

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Rhino swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted April 26, 2013

Kratzman? Do you mean Kratman? He does brutal good.

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John Birmingham mumbles...

Posted April 26, 2013
Yeah, him. Scuse the typo.

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Murphy asserts...

Posted April 26, 2013

Why did I decide to try and get into this line fo work again?

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

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HAVOCK21 asserts...

Posted April 26, 2013

Interesting read, I received a slightly more brutal, and thats still not the right term, ..forthright and honest divulgence from the large hairy beardy at times angry, cook, cleaners, writer and general all round wrangler in Tasmania some years ago. That then was fkn awesome to read and rather fascinating to boot, like above.

I KNOW I"M FKN MARKETABLE...so long as its abbreviations, bad fkn typing and fkn swearin!...not sure what sorta fkn book that would be!

Therbs puts forth...

Posted April 26, 2013

Always room for heaps of explosions in abbreviated form.

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Therbs has opinions thus...

Posted April 26, 2013

Sounds too much like hard work that scribbling for a living caper. I prefer being a deaf poet.

simon bedak mutters...

Posted April 29, 2013

"I am blind. It is Spring. Deaf am I to that lawn-mowin' thing..

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MickH swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted April 26, 2013

Wow JB thanks for that.

I have been thinking along those lines for a while, but it was sometging I ewas going to find out more about once Q7S is closer to being finished.

For those of you that are interested, Queen of the Seven Seas is going to get a 50 shades of Grey job done to it. When I said this to my writers club ladies they got all interested, but by that I mean I'm taking it out of fan fiction by de-copyrighting it, with JBs enthuastic support.

But I was always under the assumption that scoring an agent was even harder than scoring a publisher and that it was essentually a catch 22 situation with them.

So how do you get an agent?

My strategy is to get one of my short stories published if I can, so I can approach one of these demi-gods with at least some street cred.

Barnesm reckons...

Posted April 27, 2013

I suggest chloroform.

MickH has opinions thus...

Posted April 27, 2013

You may well be right Barnsy but first I'd have to find one of the fuck'rs.

How do you hunt down a ligit agent who is open to new talent? Is it easier to hunt unicorns?

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Dino not to be confused with ducks in to say...

Posted April 26, 2013

Thanks JB,

But I am confused.

One post about the literary world is all about beer and skittles and the next is all Alice in Wonderland.

Is writing worth it? Money be nice. I find writing therapeutic, honing the words a challenge but as you and others mention it is very hard to edit your own work.

In this way most books are probably a collaborative effort.

I've done four chapters now of my previously mentioned coincidental 'Magic vs Science' themed novel. Not a chance of 50 shading it like MickH, good luck MickH.

Self Publish? Maybe.

I am getting into After America too. It is starting to roll and has a 'good Rhythym'.

MickH asserts...

Posted April 27, 2013

Thanks Dino, you too.

Self publishing or ePublishing seems the way forward given the apparent collapsing of the standard publishing houses. But Its still evolving I think, The key will be getting your work noticed and I see some things happening in that direction already. I think the future will be your agent/publisher will primarly handle marketing, while the traditional editing of the work will still be there.

I will repeat though that Q7S will have no sex scenes in it :) 50 shades of grey started out as fan fiction as did Q7S. Apparently the 50SQ author approached the publishers and worked out what needed to be removed to make it legal. Thats what I meant lol

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Len has opinions thus...

Posted April 27, 2013

Of course, the key here is to actually get an agent interested in your work so they'll want to represent you. Not as easy as one thinks with all the queries they get. Got any advice there?

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Tom Kratman would have you know...

Posted April 27, 2013

Okay, that was funny.

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Simon Bedak asserts...

Posted April 29, 2013

Hey Len, got an idea.

The big question is this: will I get Mr 10% Simon Bedak to try and not fuck up the stage adaptation or will I get one of Birmo's troup of type-writing monkeys who is not only cheaper, but more talented?

Strategy wise, saying the unpublished manuscript's been turned into an inexplicably popular stage play might be worth a crouton in the Caesar salad of sell-out in hawking yourself.

Never know. I imagine literary agents are like the rest of us and enjoy a nice drunken handjob at the theatre

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damian would have you know...

Posted October 3, 2014
Okay, so double plus good to this still-tasty morsel too. And I hardly evah pay attention to the twitterz

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