Authors, Agents, Editors, and Publishers —Who’s the Devil in Disguise?
By Doug Owen
Years ago, an author would write their manuscript, polish it, have people check spelling and grammar, and then submit it for publication. That author could wait for months before hearing any type of hint about possibly getting their work into print. A frustrating experience for anyone.
Along came the agent—that special person who promised the golden key to print. They took the manuscript, edited it with the author, held their hand, hugged them when needed, lifted their spirits, and generally became a buffer zone between the author and publisher. Negotiations happened and the agent grabbed at every scrap of fat left in the coffers of the publisher, trying desperately to earn one more cent per print copy.
Then self-publishing erupted around the world. Authors, regardless of their skill, ability, patience, or care, could have their work out in the wild through print or digital. Gems have come into the world through this practice, but it’s still been mostly coal that has populated the bookshelves of readers everywhere.
Regardless of the desire, many authors have relied on lesser-skilled individuals, sometimes not because they didn’t care, but because they were taken in by the promises of greater things. And even I, a steadfast content editor only looking for a second pair of eyes, have been taken by those just looking for a quick buck.
Sites like Fiverr, Upwork, Freelancer, and such are magnets for those has-beens and wannabes trying to separate you from your money. They promise the world at a cut-throat rate, only to supply very little in return.
As an author, I always hire someone to look over my offerings. Sometimes I’ve been surprised by the response and pleased by the results, while others have taken me for a ride. This is what happened on my first book: a wannabe talked me into believing they were an editor of renown, citting novels they’d worked on and projects they’d completed. The second editor was not much better. Now, I look closely at credentials and do research on everyone who looks at my work. I’m not saying that my work resembles the likes of Terry Brooks or Issaac Asimov, but to many fans, it is right up there.
So, keeping this in mind, what should a new author do? What are the mistakes and pitfalls to look out for? How do you protect yourself? Well, here are some simple things to look out for.
Mistakes when Dealing with Agents
One of the biggest issues is an author submitting to both an agent and a small press at the same time. Agents don’t have the staff to review submissions quickly. Generally, there are only a few people (if not only one) looking over the submissions. The same goes with micro presses. A small press publisher could have a few people whose job is to just read submissions and decide if they are good enough to fly through. They devour submissions at an alarming rate and, sometimes, grab even the questionable ones in order to get something out there.
Also, some of those presses may have predatory deals, no distribution other than what YOU—the author—secure, and their covers look no better than what my cat left on the kitchen floor last night. Good luck to your baby, and I hope you have a lot of friends who will make the publisher money.
All is fine if what you want is someone to publish your book, but don’t expect an agent to sign you. Probably, you’ll never get another response from that agent again. You could have gotten better. At least you’d know how far that mass of words would go.
Self-Publishing a Book that is Submitted
You just signed up with an agent, and they are working the manuscript through some big name publishers, but rejections start to come through. Panic rises in your throat and you push the novel through CreateSpace or Book Baby. Now, you are self-published.
What is your agent going to think? They need to be told. Always keep communications open with your agent. Talk to them; they are spending an awful amount of time trying to get your manuscript purchased by a publisher, and nothing will kill a relationship like going behind their back. It will also mean they have to pull the book from submission, for an editor would be furious if they found out the author had already self-published the work they were considering, and they did not know about it.
Note: most publishers will not sign a manuscript that has previously been self-published.
An Agent is not a Publicist
If a manuscript is self-published and does poorly, some authors think they need an agent to help market the book. The agent can’t help. A publicist is what you need, not an agent. Yes, they may have publicists in house, but that is not what they are for.
Self-publishing is a business. You must be an author, editor, publicist, marketer, and salesman all rolled into one. Thinking that the world will beat down your door to purchase that book is something unrealistic in today’s bloated publishing world.
The internet is not the answer either. Slinging your book out there like a log on fire and expecting it to become a bestseller will only leave you with disappointment.
Self-Publishing Because an Agent Said No
So, one agent told you ‘no thanks,’ and you fling the work into self-publishing, hoping for that brass ring. Why?
There could be a number of reasons why the agent turned you away. Maybe they have a lot of manuscripts they are working on, or your genre is way out of their grasp. Could it be that you have not put the time nor effort into the work to make it sign?
Negotiate Foreign Rights
You self-publish and sell a few thousand copies. Thinking this is great, you contact an agent and ask them to sell the foreign rights to a publisher. But the actual book has run its course.
Most agents don’t negotiate only foreign rights, they do all or none. So asking them to do this would be like asking a plumber to do electrical work. What you need is a foreign rights specialist. Yes, some agents are specialists in this, so you have to find one of those to approach.
Do You Really Want an Agent?
Agents are great, but they do cost money. The average agent takes 15 percent of your novel income. Generally, they deserve every penny. Most agents work ten hours a day, seven days a week, 364 days a year. It is a nonstop business of proposals, contracts, and hand holding. They read more words than you could imagine, talk to editors from many different publishing companies, and do more to earn every single penny they take from you.
But if you are going to self-publish, you really don’t need an agent. If you submit to small press publishers, you don’t need an agent. The only time you want one is if you are after one of the big five publishers; then you need an agent.
Editors and Predators
Yes, there is a website by that name, and they track those poor souls who think they can get away with ripping people off. When you are looking at a website advertising editing services, or hiring a freelancer, always run their name against that website. It could save you a lot of money.
Even if your editor checks out, you should test them. Put some homonyms (not hominins) in your writing, but record where they appear. If the editor catches them, they did a good job. Also have a few style changes, like one or two sentences with double spacing after the period (if you don’t use single spacing after a period by now, change it). You could also use some very obscure grammatical errors to see how advanced they are, like ‘chomping at the bit,’ because it is actually ‘champing at the bit’.
Publishers are Greedy!
Actually, if you saw how much money they gamble on an author you wouldn’t think so. Yes, they are a business and looking for profit, but what they get out of your book may not be as much as you think. Let’s break it down to what they spend before they even see one cent of return:
- Advance— If warranted, they will give an advance to a writer. (From $500+)
- Editing— Yes, they pay for editing. (Editors do not work for free). (Around $3,000 depending on length of manuscript)
- Artwork—An artist or digital artwork creates the cover and other products. ($500+)
- Advertising—Costs money, and depending on their resources, could be large. ($300+)
- Ingram Distribution (Minimum $50 per title/format)
- Printing— The wild card. They usually order at least 3,000 print copies, say $3 each. ($9,000)
- Audio Book— Creating one involves hiring a voice actor. ($5,000)
- Press Release— Someone has to write it.($25;Distribution, $100)
- Meetings and Discussions— People are still paid. ($5,000)
So, that is just a light overview on one publication, say a 300 page novel. Imagine, if you will, if that book does not sell. The only thing they can recoup is the advance. So, they are out $14,000 before a single book sells. Still think they are greedy?
As the creator of the work, you sweated, toiled, cried, screamed, banged your head, and otherwise died inside to make this manuscript. And that is only the first draft. After a year of writing and rewriting, the thing stings your eyes so much you cannot see anything wrong on the pock-marked screen. Then you have people critique it and rewrite a few more times. An editor goes over it for you, both content and SPAG (Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar, if you didn’t know). When you get it back, the work is polished.
Agents will see your work or a slush pile is created for it.
Yes, you bled for it.
Yes, you cried for it.
Don’t be demanding.
The publisher, unless they are really a poor excuse for a company, will make sure you get every cent owed to you. Always read your contract. If they are demanding rights without paying you for them, that is a problem. But if the contract says you receive X percent for revenue generated by the work, just ask where to sign. That is being fair.