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On conferences and agents and the future…

I spent part of Friday at the PASIC Power conference, a gathering of published romance authors right here in midtown. I’ve done quite a few conferences, and for the most part they’ve long been the same. Agents and editors chatter on about how to go about convincing agents and editors to work with you, move on to listen to authors’ plea for consideration, and then retire to the bar confident in their feelings of superiority.

I kid.

Mostly.

There’s been a change in conferences lately, and it’s a fascinating one. The tone has gone from attendees asking, “How do I get you?” to the less ego-boosting, “Why do I need you?” Or, as someone in Friday’s audience queried, “What can publishers and agents do for me that I can’t do for myself?”

I happen to believe that agents do play a vital role for all authors and will continue to do so. I’m sure that will come as a complete shock and that you can all acknowledge that I have no bias whatsoever in this debate…

Buehler?

Buehler?

Okay, I have a huge bias, but a) I can admit it, and b) I still think I’m right. Because the role of the agent has long been as author’s advocate and manager. And however your career is going, I think there’s room for a partner in this process.

That said, I think this moment, wherein everyone’s worth is called into question, is a valuable one for all parties. It allows authors to really demand that they be paid attention to and that they be serviced properly. Obviously that’s good for the authors. But frankly, it’s also good for agents because I believe that being questioned on these topics makes us consider our work in very real ways and forces us to strive to do better.

Something else happened at Friday’s conference. I started wondering out loud. Is it possible that as more and more people start self-publishing, there will be a flood of books that aren’t actually ready for publication (either because they’re just not very good or because they’re by authors who still need to develop and probably should have waited until their second or third or fourth manuscript to share it with readers)? And if that’s the case, what is the effect on the reader? How will new authors get started if they’re competing for attention with a million other novels that possibly shouldn’t be out there?

That’s when I threw out an idea that wasn’t super popular: is there a chance that publisher branding will play an increased role in reader decision making? One less than thrilled attendee muttered in the back of the room that no one pays attention to who publishes novels. Another agent went on the record to disagree with me and state that author branding is what counts and not publisher branding. Certainly, those things are true. But for new authors trying to rise above the morass, it’s an idea that intrigues me. Is it crazy to think that the lay-reader will start paying attention to publishers? Could other publishers brand themselves as successfully as Harlequin has?

Or is it just as simple as the fact that word of mouth will drive people to (and away from) new fiction?

26 Responses to On conferences and agents and the future…

  1. Chris Kreie says:

    As a writer and a school librarian, I have wondered the same thing. How will librarians in the future determine which eBooks to recommend to kids, teachers and parents? How will we continue to count on professional journals as our source for quality fiction when there become just far too many titles for journals and reviewers to sift through? If ePublishers can market themselves in a way so that librarians and other selectors of books can rely them for high quality novels, the brand will matter. Much like the publisher brand matters now with children’s nonfiction.

  2. Loralie Hall says:

    I think this is a topic that could be discussed for hours on end. But the thing that stood out to me was your question about publisher branding. When I stumble on an author I’m not familiar with, one of the first things I check is who their publisher is.

    And yes, it deters me if it’s self-published. It may not stop me, but it will make me hesitate.

    But as a writer, things like publishing house names stand out to me and mean something. To my non-writer friends, even the intense readers, that name doesn’t mean anything to them.

    Maybe that will change though as the market becomes inundated with this new breed of novel and the reader is expected to adopt the role of gatekeeper to filter out what’s good and what’s not so good.

  3. Bryan says:

    I won’t lie: I’m probably not going to read something that’s self-published. The quality difference between it and something coming from a publisher is always better. And, whilst i put on my flame-proof jumpsuit, I have to wonder why something is self-published. Why they don’t have an agent and traditional publisher.

    Okay, point the flame throwers this-a-way.

  4. KP Simmon says:

    I don’t think thats a crazy question to ask at all. The reality is people already do that to some degree. The more bloggers join the fray of the literary world, the more you see the same publishers over and over being reviewed and recommended. This is because those publishers are interacting with them regularly by sending books, setting up giveaways and interviews, etc. Whether publishers see it this way or not, they are marketing themselves as well as their authors by doing this-not just to the blogger/reviewers, but to all of their readers as well. I write for 4 book websites. Between the four, we have between 80,000-100,000 readers a month. Every time we review a book, do an author interview, or host a contest, we make note of the publisher. Our readers are smart people. They are noticing if they are always drawn to HarlequinTeen or Egmont, as examples, and making note of it-looking to see what’s coming out next from their “favorite” publisher. Look at Scholastic’s This is Teen program. Aren’t they doing exactly this-trying to brand themselves and make the lay-reader know exactly who they are? I think it would be wrong to NOT ask these questions honestly. People don’t like change, but change is happening. All the time. I think those who ask the hard questions, aren’t afraid of the change, they are the ones usually prepared and on top when all is said and done. But then, you can’t ever stop asking the questions because change is always happening. Kudos to you for asking amidst the grumbles.

  5. Kaitlyne says:

    For what it’s worth, I’ve heard a couple of people over the past several months point out that they check publishers before buying ebooks. I have a few thoughts on this that are of course pure speculation on my part and therefore probably not particularly reliable. This is something I’ve been following for awhile, though.

    In terms of paying attention to publisher, I think right now the main thing to look for is “not CreateSpace.” I guess my main thought here is that big publishers may not have to worry so much about branding while there’s an easy category to avoid. That being said, there are self-publishers who are creating their own publishing companies to avoid that stigma.

    I think quality of product matters a LOT. A lot a lot. The biggest problem I’ve seen with most self-published books is that they look self-published. The covers aren’t very good, and even when decent they often just don’t match the quality of what you’d find in a bookstore. Even when the cover is decent, the blurbs are often poorly written or even confusing.

    I imagine that most readers don’t need to check a publisher to know that something is self-published, and to be honest the couple of self-published books I’ve seen that were professional looking were the only ones I’ve considered buying.

    Something that I’ve seen discussed just recently is the fact that the $.99 price point is now losing readers. A year ago, it was touted as the holy grail of self-publishing, and many of us predicted that as more poor quality self-published books came on the market this would diminish.

    Recently, several people have been saying that they’ve seen their books sell fewer copies at $.99 than they sell at two dollars higher. It looks like there is definitely an influence on reader behavior going on. It will be interesting to see what happens in another few months.

  6. Andrea says:

    I do look at publishers when deciding if I want to buy a book, although it´s not that much of a determining factor as the blurb, author, style etc.

    Bryan, I´m with you (she said with her fire-proof suit already on…). I think there are some legitimate reasons to self-publish, and I might miss a gem of a book with my attitude, but there are so many books out there that I´m not willing to take the risk of wasting money on a badly written book. Even quite a few traditionally published books (and even those by established writers) could have been improved a lot before publication, so I´m definitely not taking any chances with self-published books. The only exception would be a recommendation by a valued friend.

    Although it´s my dream to become a published writer, I´ve already decided I don´t want to self-publish. It´s an achievement to complete a novel, but anyone can self-publish. The challenge I´ve set myself is to write a novel that´s good enough to be noticed by agents and “traditional” publishers. And if it´s not good enough, I need to try harder with my next novel. I don´t have any experience with the publishing industry yet (which is why I hope to find an agent when my novel is finished), but I cannot believe that nobody in the publishing world would notice a really good novel. It might take a lot of patience and perseverance, though.

  7. Lance Parkin says:

    I was looking for an old (public domain) book on Bookfinder the other day and 80% of the results were from print on demand services.

    Amazon’s now cluttered up with the same sort of thing, as well as all those companies that just reprint Wikipedia articles in book form.

    Anyone can get a book printed, now. It doesn’t mean they’ve had an editor or proofreader look at it.

    Without wanting to insult agents or publishers, a big part of their function has always been to act as a spam filter. I think from a reader’s point of view, that role will only grow. So, yeah, there’s an ebook, but look, it was published by Random House, and they also printed a hardback. It passed a few tests.

    (The corollary of this is that major publishers have to double down – they have to *improve* their editing, proofreading and general quality control.)

    As for agents … now, more than ever, writers need agents. I’ve only been writing for fifteen years, but in that time, contracts have shifted dramatically so that writers are expected to do more, hand over more rights, while getting paid less.

    We’re in a world now what an author does with his rights are more important than what he does with his writing. We’re ‘content providers’ now, and the system is weighted very heavily to those who control the platforms content is delivered on. The upside of that is that nothing ever goes out of print. The downside is that nothing ever goes out of print.

  8. There are a few publishers that have done a good job of setting up a brand. Harlequin, as you mentioned. Tor, Baen, for others. As for the rest, their brand is more along the lines of “not self published” as Kaitlyne also pointed out. Which isn’t the most distinctive brand, but I think you’re right that readers will become more savvy about this as self publishing becomes more popular. A while ago, I ran across an Amazon forum thread about 1000 messages long in which readers were trying to figure out how to distinguish a self published book so they could avoid buying one. There’s a bit of a backlash. Of course, it will always depend on the reader. Some will care, some won’t. It’s very possible that in the young adult world, the vast majority of teenagers won’t be able to notice any difference in writing or production quality as long as there’s a good story.

    However, even if only “book people” fully know the publishers, that is still an advantage for the unknown author trying to decide between the two. I’m guessing that that book bloggers, librarians, bookstore owners, other book reviewers, etc. are still more likely to pick up a traditionally published book, and when you’re trying to rise above the self published masses, that just might be the leg up that you need.

    Should publishers work on developing their brand? It can’t hurt, but my intuition is that brand building is only helpful to the extent that it helps them in their direct-to-consumer marketing. What authors need is someone to knock on readers’ doors (e-mail inboxes) and say, “Hey, we have a new book out. You should read it.” As long as there are readers who trust my publisher as a source of quality books, I don’t care so much as an author whether that publisher has a well branded line of YA-high-fantasy-with-strong-female-characters, or remains just a general YA publisher of enjoyable books. As long as there are readers who trust them.

    • Kaitlyne says:

      I’ve actually been surprised at what my non-writer friends know. I always have assumed that I know more about this stuff than the average person because I’m a writer and I make an effort to know, but I went to a work function not long ago and my colleagues found out I’m a writer and started discussing self-publishing. They didn’t know the ins and outs, but they knew a lot more than I expected.

      I think it’s easy for writers to say readers don’t care about this stuff, but they’re more savvy than they get credit for, I think.

  9. Julia Pierce says:

    I think that as this area continues to grow, there will definitely be a need for some kind of quality measure. I would certainly look at the publisher for an indication of what kind of quality I might expect from a book. Self publishing is just too easy. I am (as are most people these days) pretty busy. Any time that I choose to devote to reading is whittled out from time spent with my family, or working on my own writing. When I devote time to reading, I want to know that I’m not wasting said time on something sub par. I’m also frugal. Even if it’s only $.99, I’m still going to be cheesed off if the book is crap. I also share the opinion mentioned above in a couple of the threads (I’m expecting my computer’s firewall to do the work of the jumpsuit) that I am unlikely to ever read something self-pubbed. Going through the arduous process of getting a big publisher indicates to me that there is at least some sort of baseline quality. I know, I know- there are traditionally published books that have made me wish I’d never picked them up, but it happens less often, I think, with traditional publishing.
    All of that being said, it sounds like all of us who have commented thus far are also a tad bit biased, as I see at least a couple of aspiring writers chiming in. We know a bit more about the process than your average person. I’m willing to be that most of America doesn’t check the publisher of a book, and if they did, wouldn’t know what they are looking for. But I suspect this will change with time, especially as certain “brands” demonstrate that they carry only quality work.

  10. If it’s a book that hasn’t been personally recommended to me, then I absolutely check who the publisher is. I’ve have some fellow writers who’ve been offered “ebook only” contracts from publishers and their question is exactly what you brought up. What can a publisher do for me in the ebook space that I can’t do for myself?

    My thoughts apply to first-time authors:
    1. A publisher will give you professional editing. Pretty much priceless. Yes, you can get that for $1,000-2,000 if you seek out an editing service. But are you willing to pay for it? Many self-pubbed authors I work with are not going to consider major revision suggestions, or even some minor ones, because it’s “their book” . . . enough said.
    2. A publisher will design a professional cover and create a professional layout. Are you willing to pay for that? Most writers are not graphic artists, and what you think looks acceptable, actually looks quite shoddy.
    3. A publisher will promote your book on their already established platform. Even if they are offering ebook release only, they can put you in their advertising streams. Can you duplicate that? Are you willing to pay for the marketing that it would take to do that?
    4. Like you mentioned, if I had two MG books to choose from for one of my kids and one was self-pubbed, and the other was pubbed by a respected publisher, I’d go with door #2. I totally don’t buy someone saying readers don’t care about publishers. Maybe I don’t care if something is pubbed by Random House or Harper, but I do know there would be a big difference in the editing process between a publisher who has a budget for editing, and an individual writer who may/may not skip the process. How will I know? I don’t know. But I don’t want to spend my dollars to find out.
    5. There are ALWAYS exceptions, of course. But many writers think they are the exception . . . so the final result? Writers jump the gun and self-publish a book before it’s ready to see the world. And the reading public is left with thousands of self-pubbed books to try to sort through. Makes it really tough.

    • Brian Taylor says:

      I applaud your list and second it! So many self-published works are steaming piles of words that muddy up the water for authors who are willing to try and do things the right way. I’m not saying that one shouldn’t self-pulbish, as long as it is done for the right reasons.

      I think many self-published authors were simply tired of the rejections and too egotistical to realize that they weren’t ready or good enough to be published traditionally. Self-publication has become a quick fix for error filled works that’s largely unregulated. It’s like the lawless frontier out there, or maybe the Califonia gold rush. Everybody with a story to tell thinks they’re going to strike it rich. The intelligent reader can spot the difference in quality almost immediately.

      What also gets me is how every e-author would jump at the chance to land an agent and a traditional publishing contract. If they don’t need those sorts of relics, then why do 99% of them jump at the opportunity to work with them? Sorry, I think I’m ranting……

      Maybe I’m old-school, or maybe I actually care that my work is the very best it can be. I wouldn’t want my name attached to a steaming pile of words for the rest of my writing career.

      Anyway, great post and some great responses too.

  11. As self-published books continue to degrade the reading experience, more and more readers will pay attention to the publisher. And the question isn’t just whether to buy, but how much to pay. I won’t pay more than $2.99 for a self-pubbed book by an author I haven’t read before. The only reason I’d consider buying it at all is if I know the author, or the book has been recommended to me.

    There are sometimes good reasons to self-publish. One author I know had a novella-length manuscript that she couldn’t get an agent for, so she self-pubbed. She’s had phenomenal success, with her books becoming best-sellers in their category on Amazon. Also, a lot of traditionally published authors are now self-publishing their backlist. I’m not unwilling to buy self-pubbed books, but I’m wary. I make sure I know what I’m getting into.

  12. emily says:

    The publishers brand is important to as a reader but I recently purchased a romance novel based on the excellent cover art [age of sail theme] and the time frame of the story [War of 1812] and the setting [Boston area].

    I did have to special order the book and I did not know the publisher’s name — although so many publishers are adopting new little niche markets I wondered if that might be the case.

    Sadly the story is a mess.

    It’s Christian romance, which could really be done well I suppose, but in my opinion, the author is pandering the market for those stories and doing truly horrible job.

    To characterize the plot and characters, I suggest it is aimed at parents of ten to twelve year-old girls who want their little girls to attend Sunday School and use the story to determine how well they are learing certain iconic Bible stories.

    My guess is that those girls are secretly reading The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, Hunger Games and all those tales of reformed vanpires and flying wolves with red eyes.

    Tra-la. So much for unknown publishers! But that publisher did buy a fabulous cover artist/designer.

    Kind regards…

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