Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Agent’s Corner: What We’ve Gained and What We’ve Lost (Part I)

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By Samantha Haywood

I’ve been working in publishing for over a decade, and one of the biggest changes of note has been the shift away from an industry mentality of publishing an author over the course of his or her career, to publishing an author book-by-book. There are still notable exceptions; but, these days, more than less, when agents sell debut authors we rarely hear that key phrase, “We want to be your publishing home for your career.” And frankly, I really miss hearing it.

Typically that’s the hope, likely on both sides. The reality, however, is that it’s a nearly impossible promise for publishers to make, certainly to new authors, as ensuing book sales have become the primary factor in determining what happens to their next book. Because book sales have become king, just as sales departments have become more powerful than editorial in publishing houses, everything hinges on what BookNet or BookScan reports for an author's last book, a repercussion that affects all authors at every stage in their careers.

Ironically, tracking sales is at once a help and a hindrance for our industry. My fear is that the trend toward predicting the future based on the past (call it marketplace fatalism) will breed cautious authors rather than brave new voices, not to mention publishers who are shackled to publishing programs based on sales rather than literary worth and prestige. From author to agent to publisher to reader, we're in dire need of new routes back to balancing the act between art for art's sake and art as product/commodity.

But I’m going to try and avoid the theoretical and stay in the specific, so here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

  • In a weird twist of fate, it's possible for debut authors to have an easier time selling their books to conglomerate publishers precisely because they don’t have a track record to overcome. But this advantage is short lived, and if the publisher doesn’t push the book, or if the book misses its audience for a host of reasons (flooded market, lack of book review pages, etc), then the new writer with one book of weak sales is looking at a pretty bleak picture. And pray for those overly lucky debut authors who are the one in a million that get a massive book deal only to later find themselves close to destitute because there was no way the publisher could ever come close to recouping their advance unless over 50,000 copies of the book was sold.
  • On the other hand, the well-respected mid-career author who publishes good books that sell well but not over 5,000 copies for their latest effort is likely looking at moving to an independent publisher in an effort to re-launch his or her career, because conglomerates just aren’t willing to buy into an author whose brand and platform doesn't appear destined to create a bestseller.

With these losses comes great opportunities, however. If only because our industry has been forced to change its perspective, there are significant gains to be made for ambitious, smaller independent publishers, who have a real chance now to breakout and grow their lists with wonderful, experienced authors whose future books may still yield award winners and perhaps, yes, even bestsellers. Certainly the average amount for paid advances to authors has come down to such a point now that smaller presses are more able to compete for established authors. With this, maybe someday soon they'll also be able to keep those authors in-house.

I regularly sell to conglomerates, big independent publishers and occasionally to the smaller presses. And I’ve had experiences with clients who are much happier at smaller presses after having been published by one of the Big Six. Sometimes it is a matter of "be careful what you wish for," but not often enough to truly make Canadian publishing a thriving marketplace of varying competitive publishers both big and small. The truth of it is that most of my clients still hope to publish with a conglomerate publisher, and for good reasons.

I'll be quick to add that smaller presses have a lot to offer, things that stand to democratize the industry as more “name” authors leave larger publishers. Attention is a major factor. Smaller publishers have less crowded lists; and some work extremely hard at pushing their books for awards and festivals, sometimes remaining active in the marketing of books years out of season, even if those books are not selling over the desired 5,000 copies. This is a major plus and creates a happy author in the long-term, a key factor when I’m arranging a deal.

How else do I hope to see smaller presses compete? Distribution and ensuring that their authors' books get good placement in bookstores. Front-of-house placement is something, besides the big advance, that the major publishers can still offer more easily — they simply have deeper pockets and more influence in the marketplace, something that will continue until ebooks become so ubiquitous that the playing field begins to level out. (Although, even there the conglomerates have moved faster than the small presses.)

We all know that lots of money upfront and neglect and low sales afterwards is not a winning situation for agent or author, even if the money is great, which is a concern for me as someone who remains a constant in the author's career. In fact, instead of hearing it, now I'm now the one to say, “I want to be your publishing home for your career.” It's what I intend and offer when I take an author on for literary representation. So perhaps that is something authors have gained in the wake of this publishing shift: a long-term partner in agents as their publishers become more interchangeable. This development is, however, putting more pressure on agents to become innovative in their approach to career management, and that in itself is easily the topic of a future column.

I can’t end this column without recognizing that this book-to-book business practice has been, in part, supported by agents because we push for as much as we can get, and are expected to do this with good reason. And as soon as an author “breaks out” and becomes a bestseller, we agents are then eager to (potentially) move that author to another house that might offer more money, or force their home publisher to pay such handsome advances and royalties that the publisher literally loses all the profits it would otherwise payout to its non-bestselling authors.

I recognize this as a reality. One of my key responsibilities is to help my writers survive in a business that doesn’t pay anyone that well, save for a few. So when our clients get to a bestseller status, agents do push all the limits, and because of this the publishers have less money to pay every other author on their lists, along with a host of other ensuing problems for their business model.

In all honesty, I’m still working out this puzzle. For a start, I’d like to propose to the conglomerate publishers that if they are always chasing the next book by a bestselling writer, they may, in the end, risk losing more money, since the second book after a bestseller usually doesn’t sell as well. So why not push back at sales departments and remind them that everything is not predicated by the author’s last book sales? And to trust their editorial department’s vision more often? Even more important, we need to get that message across to book buyers at the book chains because they are the major source of this problem.

In the meantime, I expect this trend to continue for a while longer, and every season I look forward to those terrific surprises when authors ignored by the big houses break out and become bestsellers and award-winners. And so the cycle continues as those new big authors then turn around and sell their next book for a lot of money to a big house only to see it....


Samantha Haywood is a literary agent who has been combining her love of Canadian literature with an eye to international publishing for over`a decade. She launched her client list with the Transatlantic Literary Agency in 2004, and represents adult trade authors of literary fiction and upmarket fiction, narrative nonfiction and graphic novels. Clients include: Martha Baillie, Dave Bidini, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, Michael Cho, Jane Christmas, Kristen den Hartog, Marni Jackson, Steve Murray, Ray Robertson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Claire Holden Rothman, Ian Weir and Zoe Whittall, among others. She splits her working year between Toronto and Amsterdam where she lives with her daughter and husband, Pieter Swinkels, Publisher of Cargo and Associate Publisher of De Bezige Bij. Find Samantha at www.tla1.com and @s_haywood on Twitter.
1 comment

As an author, I feel a little vulnerable. I went to BookNet but they just say you should contact your publisher for your sales figures. I can't as an author access BookNet. My first book did well enough to have at least the same publisher interested in another book (it was the language book Samantha - it finally came out) but I'm conscious now that any agent or new publisher I go to will instantly be looking at the figures before looking at my writing.

Not even the name writers now can afford to have one bad (read poor selling) book.

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