A few weeks ago, the wonderful people at Long Island Romance Writers asked me to speak at their annual luncheon. What follows is the speech I gave at that event:
In the summer of 1999, I had completed my freshman year of college and realized that the money I had saved up throughout high school to spend in college was all gone. I knew that what I made working at the mall Record Town for three months wasn’t going to keep me going through another year, so I made the obvious choice: I sat down in front of my school’s career database and applied for 40 part-time jobs. I was not careful about my choices. I had two criteria: they paid at least minimum wage and they were at least relatively easy to get to from my dorm.
The next day, I received a message that I had missed a call from Stacey Glick at what was then Jane Dystel Literary Management. At this time in my life, I was so scared of speaking to strangers that I would write down scripts of possible sentences I could use on the phone. “Hello, this is Jim McCarthy,” I wrote down. In case I forgot?
Within 24 hours, I had been interviewed, offered the job, and accepted. Knowing how awkward I was at the time, I can only think that there was a dearth of viable candidates. Here’s what I knew on my first day at a literary agency: Nothing. I knew nothing. I didn’t know what an agent was or what they did. I DID know that Judge Judy was on the client list. This was enough for me to feel preeeeeeetty fancy.
I interned off and on for a few years. I quit three times because I thought I needed to go get internships that would help me in my future career. Considering I majored in Architectural History and minored in Dramatic Literature and Women’s Studies, I welcome you all to imagine what that alternate career might have been.
The day I graduated from college, someone quit the agency. Miriam Goderich sat me down and said, “Listen, we’ll give you a job, but if you quit one more time, you can never come back.”
When I started to sign on my own clients in 2003, I didn’t really know what I would be looking for. I always heard how hard fiction was to sell, but I also knew that it was what I loved to read. My favorite authors through high school had been Stephen King and Jackie Collins. I wanted to read about what would happen if Lucky Santangelo had to visit Salem’s Lot. Conveniently for me, paranormal romance was beginning to break out. I hitched my wagon to that train and was off and running.
In the 12 years since I signed my first client, a lot of things have changed, and a lot of trends have come and gone. I represented chick lit until its ignoble death. I was selling vampire novels when they were the only things people wanted. I was selling vampire novels when they were the only thing NO ONE wanted. (On a side note, I asked Miriam Goderich to edit this speech for me, and she included this comment here: “This is the place to mention my philosophy that vampires and Elvis will always sell.”)
I’ve been told that the market for contemporary romance is dead. I’ve been told that the market for contemporary romance is super vibrant and then watched it become all that anyone seemed to buy for six months until lists were declared over-saturated with…contemporary romance.
I’ve witnessed the rise and fall and rise of self-publishing. I saw authors who struggled for years become millionaires. I saw bestselling authors whose sales slowed to a trickle.
I’ve had phone calls where I was told that novels with black protagonists are too hard to sell into the market. I’ve seen the WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign start to make a wonderful difference.
I’ve heard the romance industry derided for being the silly, frilly, fluffy stepsister of publishing. I’ve…okay, actually that still happens, and you know what? Screw ‘em. Romance is a $1.4 BILLION dollar a year industry that makes up a larger market share than any other genre by a large margin.
The romance market has the savviest readers and the most well-connected author community. All of the greatest innovations in the ebook market began with romance authors and readers. And in no other category have I seen authors band together to demand improvements in contracts, control over their careers, or more transparency throughout the industry. And in no other section of the publishing arena have I found writers more willing to support their colleagues’ efforts. I’ve seen friendships build out of initial meetings at RT or RWA that have lasted for years, brought about collaboration, and led to mutual marketing assistance or sometimes just to lending a supportive ear when the business gets tough.
Because this business does get TOUGH. As much as things have changed in my decade and a half in publishing, that has been consistent. I recently saw a well-published author compare writing to trying to build a castle on quicksand. And I understood where she was coming from—there are so many unknowables out there, and one of the most defining characteristics I’ve seen in authors over the past 15 years is that no one ever feels secure. Bestsellers worry that their next book will be the one to tank. Midlist authors convince themselves that if they haven’t broken out yet, their time will never come. And debut authors worry that they will never be good enough to have people want to spend money to read their books.
I’m sure there are SOME authors who feel secure, but I mean…even J.K. Rowling published under a pseudonym so that she didn’t have to deal with the weight of expectations that would be placed on her next book.
That may all sound very negative. But here’s the thing about the author who tweeted about the quicksand: she’s still writing. Passionately. She hasn’t given up. And while I haven’t spoken to her about this particular issue, I’ve heard from a lot of people in similar situations that there’s one reason they never stop: they can’t. Tough as this business gets, the rewards are simply too sweet.
Whether you have to wake up at four in the morning to find some alone time to work on your writing or the responses to a submission make you feel like pounding your head against a wall, there comes a moment—when you get your first deal or receive your first fan letter, when your printed book arrives in the mail or you get that first check for earnings—there comes a time when you know that the words you passionately committed to paper are being read by strangers out there in the wild. There is someone out there who has read your work and been moved or excited, entertained or titillated. Someone out there had a unique experience because of something you alone have done.
I don’t write. I’ve never thought for a second that I have the talent or the discipline to do so. Hell, I joked about how I would stretch this speech out with sections of interpretive dance if I couldn’t come up with enough words to fill the time. (You all better hope I can fill the time because I cannot dance). But when I watch these moments of joy and of discovery, I do get jealous of my clients. I’m thrilled for my own small part of the process, but knowing that feeling of someone else lighting up over your written creation? There’s something magical there.
No one has ever taken up writing because it is easy. No one sits down at their computer and thinks, “I need some cash. Why don’t I just write a novel?” Or if they do, they are crazy people. No. I would venture to guess that all of you started writing because of a need. A need to express yourself. A need to get the stories in your head onto paper. A need to share some piece of your inner world with other people.
So whenever the business becomes tough, as we have determined that it will? Remember that. Remember you have already done something extraordinary and that whatever bad thing is happening at the moment (rejection, disappointing sales, rights reverting, rights not reverting)…it is a road block. It is one of the inevitable frustrations that comes from being brave and bold enough to be chasing your dreams.
The past few years have seen a lot of turmoil throughout the publishing industry. Two of the biggest publishers in the world merged. The percentage of books acquired electronically sky-rocketed. The number of authors finding a way to succeed outside of the traditional path went from zero to…like…a lot. (I don’t have exact figures. But seriously, it’s a lot). So when I’m asked a question like, “What has changed since you became an agent?” my answer is a forceful waffling. Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.
In the Nothing Has Changed column, you can argue that just as many people as ever are writing, there haven’t been enormous gains in the numbers of readers, so one basic tenet of the entire industry has stayed exactly the same. We (the royal we: authors, agents, editors, booksellers, the corporate drones at Amazon) are all trying to figure out how to get the most product by writers into the hands of the most readers. Author writes. Someone sells. People read. Who the someone selling is has more variations now, but it’s still a pretty straight line.
In the Everything Has Changed column, you can dump every piece of technology that has come up in the years since I started: iPads, Kindles, nooks… You can dump in various tech initiatives: Oyster, Kindle Worlds, Smashwords… You can pick trends that have taken the industry by storm whether they are super fun and encourage creativity like fan fiction or they were desperate attempts people glommed onto to seem relevant in a new technological age (…).
So when I try to balance these columns and decide whether much has actually changed in a real way, I arrive at this: for all intents and purposes, the system is very much the same with one crucial difference: authors are more empowered than they ever have been before.
THAT is the gift of the self-publishing boom. Over the past few years, romance authors have led the way in taking a degree of control over their careers that many others would never have even imagined. Authors who had robust backlists and were sick of being told that no one wants a reprint? They made their books accessible and sold tens of thousands of copies. Others who were told they had product that simply wasn’t marketable to any real audience? They tossed off rejection and went on to sell hundreds of thousands of books on their own.
And so publishing divided into maybe three camps: those who believed self-publishing was a threat to the status quo and would destroy the business, those who believed self-published books were trash and not worth their time since all of those authors would burn out quickly, and those that believed that all innovation was good for not only publishing as an industry, but for the future of the written word. Obviously, I am Team Trash: self-published authors will all burn out and things will go back to the better ways of before.
I kid! I once did a panel with an unnamed agent who WAS in that category. We stood in front of a room of 40-50 published authors, some of whom had moved parts of their lists to self-publishing. To them, this agent said something like, “I represent superstars. I don’t need you. There is better to be had.” Now, I am a generally a very relaxed person. But suffice it to say, things went…somewhat poorly. And while the red hot rage I was feeling blurred a lot of my memories of what happened, I do know for sure that at the end of the panel, I was holding all four microphones that had been on stage in the hopes that no one else would speak. I think I only succeeded in making people shout to be heard. It was…delightful.
Sorry for that tangent! Meanwhile, as you might expect, I am actually very much a believer that all innovation is for the better, and the fact that authors have become able to take more control over their careers is a wonderful thing. I do believe in the future of traditional publishing. I think there will always be authors who are best supported by having an agent, an editor, a publisher, and so on. There are enough potentially wonderful things built into the system that at its best, it is irreplaceable.
I also don’t believe that independent publishing will go anywhere. There will always be authors whose work is either misunderstood or belongs in a market that publishers don’t know how to reach. It is invaluable to be able to reach audiences without having to go through the admittedly cloistered publishing community.
I’ve felt the changes most when I’ve been at writers’ conferences. Five year ago, if I was at a conference, you could feel an odd sort of deference to agents and editors. There was that sense of, “Oh my God, there are so few of them, and they determine whether I have a future at this thing that I love.” I’d get the question, “Do I really need a literary agent?” and my answer was always yes. Now I walk into conferences, and I’m not scared to wear my Agent name badge. People still want to talk to me, but I don’t get pitched at urinals. No one breaks into agents’ hotel rooms to leave manuscripts on their pillows anymore (yes, those things really happened). It’s because there is an alternative, and that is such a good thing.
Do I believe that agents are incredibly helpful to authors? Of course I do. I don’t know if I could handle going to work every day if I didn’t believe that. But there is something both challenging and delightful about knowing that whereas clients may formerly have felt like they needed to clutch on for dear life, we all are that much more aware now that we have to be great at our jobs or else people will leave us. I don’t know if it’s masochism or misplaced enthusiasm, but I find that incredibly exhilarating.
As someone whose job description is Author’s Advocate, I have to be happy that those authors are becoming more empowered, increasingly pro-active, and better informed by the day. That happens right here in rooms like this and with authors like you, and I thank the romance community for supporting each other, for keeping us honest, and for keeping us on our toes. We are all the better for it.
I want to tell two quick stories of authors I represent who to me stand out for their incredible strength.
Victoria Laurie was the second or third client I ever signed on. We’ve done more than 30 books together across multiple series—adult, YA, and middle grade. She first queried with the book ABBY COOPER, PSYCHIC EYE, a novel about a psychic intuitive who accidentally gets involved in a murder investigation. I rejected that book. I sent Victoria a letter saying that I loved the main character and thought her voice was incredible. The book, though, didn’t know whether it was a mystery or a romance, so the pacing was wonky, and it didn’t hold together. I said I’d be open to considering future work. Victoria wrote back the next day and told me that it was the nicest letter she had ever received. I momentarily panicked and thought she somehow missed the part where I rejected her. But she hadn’t. Six days later, she sent me a revised novel. I rolled my eyes because I thought there was no way she could have done the necessary work in six days. Long story short? I sold the book about a month after that, and it became the first in a series that continues to this day. What I discovered after we agreed to work together? I was the 114th agent that Victoria had queried. One hundred and fourteen. I don’t think I’m strong enough to be rejected 112 times and keep going. But I’m so glad that Victoria did. I adore her. I adore her books. And she even modeled a character in one of her series after me. I’ll never tell which one.
And then there’s Michelle Rowen. I sold Michelle’s first novel BITTEN & SMITTEN very easily. It went on to very solid sales and the publisher bought more and more books by her. Then her editor left. Sales stopped being what they once were. And we had to move publishers with her. Again and again. And again. It was a tough road. I remember sitting with Michelle at a Romantic Times convention several years ago, as she said that there were times she wanted to give up because it was hard and it was frustrating, and sometimes she didn’t know if she had the strength to keep going. And I remember telling her that it would kill me if she stopped because she was too talented to give up. She kept going. Not because I asked her to, but because she was always strong enough to keep going, even if she had doubts. Michelle wrote the novel FALLING KINGDOMS under the name Morgan Rhodes. It was her 25th book. It was her first New York Times bestseller. I’ve had other bestsellers. This is the only one that I cried over. Because the road was so long and so hard, Michelle’s persistence was all the more inspiring, and her success was all the sweeter.
I share those stories because to me, they’re the best to hear at the beginning of a career. Publishing can seem so impenetrable and impossible. And it can, truly, be incredibly difficult. Everyone needs to know that. But everyone should also know that even when it isn’t working out, it still can. Your greatest asset is your writing. But almost equal to that? Your endurance, your fortitude, your belief in yourself. Ignore the overnight successes. You only hear so much about them because they’re so rare. Go into publishing with your game face on—prepared to fight for your shot and open to enjoying the good news along the way, even when the road is bumpy.
On June 10th, it will have been 13 years since I went full time at Dystel & Goderich. Since then I’ve sold over 300 books by more than 45 authors. It has been an incredible experience. Or a series of incredible experiences, depending on how you look at it. I’ve watched publishing change from the inside for long time, but this remains the same: Being an author is one of the world’s hardest dream careers. But when it works out (and it very often does), nothing could be sweeter.