by L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers
Every year I think about going to Thrillerfest, but this time my reason for not attending is different. In the past, it was always a financial issue—an expensive conference and an expensive flight. But now that I can afford it, I've decided to pass for ideological reasons that recently become more pressing. The short answer: Agentfest, a sub-conference within the larger gathering.
Last year, I was invited to teach a workshop at Willamette Writers conference, and I turned it down because the conference is focused on writers pitching to agents. Agentfest is the same thing: hopeful authors trying to sign contracts with agents. This choice, of course, is for the author to make, but I can't, in good conscience, support a program that encourages new authors to sign with agents. (For established authors, it's a different decision.)
I don’t have anything against agents personally. But their role in publishing has become mostly obsolete. Yet, the 15% forever commission hasn’t changed. What has changed is how they earn it. Now many agents are helping their clients self-publish by performing tasks that authors can do for themselves or contract to professionals for a flat fee.
This practice seems unscrupulous. And that perception has been supported by recent blog revelations. Barry Eisler posted about the nasty reaction of agents to his self-publishing talk, where he sought to empower writers with specific information about the changes in publishing.
And David Gaughran recently blogged about the pitiful performance of Argo Navis, a digital distributor favored by agents who steer their clients into those contracts. Agents talk about how the Argo Navis distributor is a guarantee of quality independent publishing because it only deals with books submitted by agents. Yet, according to Gaughran's research, Argo Navis books don't sell. Hundreds of real indie authors sell more books in an hour than agent-supported Argo Navis clients do in a month. And the distributor takes 30%...in addition to the 15% paid to agents and the 30% to the retailer.
I would discourage authors from signing with an agent who makes self-publishing deals. I encourage authors to take charge of their careers and self-publish…in a way that allows them to keep most of the profits.
So for me, it doesn't feel right to attend—and spend money on—a conference that matches new authors with agents who may steer them into bad financial decisions, which, in my opinion, includes most contracts with traditional publishing as well. Especially now that big publishing owns the most notorious author-scamming vanity presses out there.
The main reader part of the Thrillerfest conference takes place on the last two days, and it would be great fun to hang out with thriller writers and readers. But spending my money on Thrillerfest indirectly supports Agentfest, and I just can't do it.
I would love to see Thrillerfest drop the agent portion of the conference. Many of the conference founders are now self-publishing, and it surprises and disappoints me that they still offer the old model to new writers. I hope it's only a matter of time before agent-based conferences become obsolete. They're a disservice to authors.
Readers, writers: What do you think?
First, I admire your sense of ethics. A lot of authors would overlook the strong ideological differences in order to make a few more sales.ReplyDelete
Second, I'm sure there are agents who have served their writers well, and are perhaps even continuing to be of benefit regarding foreign rights or film rights, although I'm no longer sure even about those.
And finally, I'm considering giving up membership in writer organizations who only consider an author to be published if they've been traditionally published.
I know there are good agents who have served their clients well. And this is a tough time for them. Many may not be fully aware that their decisions or directions are misguided. But they should be aware. The information is everywhere.Delete
You make some very good points, LJ, but as someone who has attended Craftfest and Thrillerfest for the last three years, I actually strongly encourage aspiring thriller writers to attend Craftfest, which is the first day and a half (all day Wed. & Thurs. a.m.) and skip Agentfest, then, if they can afford it, maybe check out Thrillerfest, the last two days of the four-day conference. Craftfest is excellent for those wanting to learn the craft, and Thrillerfest is great for established authors to schmooze, network, sell books, and meet more readers. And just ignore Agentfest, which is only half a day, and check out New York that afternoon! Or go take a nap - you'll need it! LOLReplyDelete
And you make a good point, Jodie. It seems like that part of the conference will be dropped eventually.Delete
I hope this post gets people talking. New writers need to learn that publishing has changed more than simply what's on the surface with respect to the advent of ebooks. The need for an agent and a publisher doesn't exist any longer. The need to give someone else a portion of your income is no longer necessary.ReplyDelete
I wonder if some of these conferences are in some way subsidized by agents. Do you think?
The big trend we're seeing is agents becoming publishers. That is worrisome for many reason. First is conflict of interest. Second, what do they know about being a publisher? They're agents.ReplyDelete
Many authors are simply too afraid to cut their umbilical cord to their agent. When we speak to an author who is interested in coming to Cool Gus, the minute they say their agent is involved, we know the conversation is over. That agent wants an advance and the money now, even if it's not in the best interest of their client. Agents are locked into an outmoded business model while also trying to hone in on a new business model they have no experience in.
All I can say to authors is, caveat emptor.
Thankfully you really are saying more to authors than caveat emptor. You, L.J. and others are doing what you can to shine a light on what's working today and what isn't, and we're all better for it.Delete
Bob wrote: "The big trend we're seeing is agents becoming publishers. That is worrisome for many reason. First is conflict of interest. Second, what do they know about being a publisher? They're agents."Delete
And one of the Blazing Red Clues about just HOW unethical this whole trend is, is that it now includes agents who publicly DECLARED it unethical just a couple of years ago... but who also now do it. And, like all the others, they brush off (sometimes quite irritably) any suggestion of conflict-of-interest issues.
I'm waiting for the agency-as-publisher that steps forward and says, "Yes, there is indeed conflict of interest in this scenario, and THESE ARE THE PARAMETERS AND PROCEDURES we're establishing in OUR self-publishing venture to avert and avoid such conflict."
Because right now, they all just keep denying such conflict even EXISTS. Which behavior is about as credible as a Nigerian email scam.
I'm going to ThrillerFest for the first time this year--and it's affordable for me (though still horrendously expensive) through my indie publishing income. I'm going for Craft Fest, and simply because I want to get close to so many authors whose books I've admired for years. I will try not to embarrass myself by jumping up and down or sqealing!ReplyDelete
Lots of conferences (most, I think) have agents and editors and publishers in attendance, and according to the Thrillerfest FAQs, the ones coming to the conference aren't being paid to be there. I can't really use that as a reason to skip if there's other stuff I think will be helpful. I hate to think that "all agents are bad" and if there are those who want to go that route, let them. Bob summed it up. Caveat emptor.
I never said all agents are bad. The point is that, as long as conferences sponsor agent pitches, they are giving new writers the message that agents are still a good idea. I can't support that message.Delete
They're also giving writers the message that a verbal pitch is how you sell your book to an editor or get an agent to represent you. It's not. Good ideas are common; good execution in a manuscript is what's rare. What publishers are looking for in newcomers is a good book, not a good verbal pitch. You may be BRILLIANT at pitching, but nobody cares. What they need is a manuscript they think will make money; not a winning verbal presentation of the story idea.Delete
Pitches sessions are about generating conference income (it's a way to get people to pony up and attend; at conferences that charge extra for scheduliung a pitch appointment, it's a way to cover the expenses they're compaing for agents and editors, or a way to cover other conference expenditures), not about getting work as a writer.
I'm with two small presses, no agent ever did anything for me, though I've been with a few. I may self-publish some older books, but right now I have no time, I need to right. I'm happy where I am, covers are great, editing is done and I don't have to pay for it or figure out how to put the books up on Kindle or anywhere else. And the print books look super.ReplyDelete
I need to write, not right. It must still be too early and I've only had two sips of Chai.Delete
LJ, I really appreciate such a thought-provoking and well-reasoned post. It highlights, I think, the turmoil within the publishing industry. As a friend in the business has told me, publishing (and I'm not distinguishing between methods of publication) provides five services: publishing, marketing, distribution, editing, curating. Each of these are necessary to sales and each comes with a cost. Traditionally, publishing (printing) was the biggest cost or investment. Who had $10,000 to spend and wait for enough sales to make a profit? Hence, publishers made that investment and like most investors, got the biggest return. With ebooks and POD, the creator-author can afford the investment.ReplyDelete
The same applies to marketing and distribution. What agents offered, and what traditional publishers claim to still offer, are editing and curating. But Jodie is proof that "in-house" editing is not necessary or necessarily the best. So all that's left is curating. That's what the agents are offering. But if we do our homework and are professional about the other elements, the public (word-of-mouth) will curate for us.
I'm not saying agents are obsolete. I am saying, like you, I think, that they need to change their job descriptions and rethink the services they offer and how they can be part of an author's team. Have you read the "agent seeking" blurbs recently? If we submitted a pitch that read like an "agent seeking YA mystery with interesting characters," etc., we'd know where the pitch would end up.
Perhaps the new paradigm might go something like this: we authors are seeking our audience. (Each of us has a unique one, though there will be overlap.) We are looking for other professionals to help us define, reach, connect with, maintain and grow our audience. We are not interested in selling to a publisher. We are interested in reaching an audience. (Does this sound a little Seth Godin-ish?) Help us do that, and we all benefit - and profit.
P.S.: In a similar way, I think the role of the critic must change, or the critic will become, unfortunately, irrelevant.
Thanks again for such a wonderful post.
Thanks, David, for reading and commenting. I agree that agents need to rethink their descriptions and services. And their fee structure. Assisting authors with self-publishing is a viable service, but charging 15% commission on sales is not reasonable. A flat fee would be more in line with the market.Delete
Very much appreciated your post, LJ. I absolutely concur with you that NO ONE or NO ENTITY will take better lead of your career than you! This is powerful!ReplyDelete
While attendng a large conference several years ago a 'Five Star' agent asked for my full. Two days later I overheard this agent joking with another that she lived for these conferences. Free lodging. Free food. Everyone sucking up to her. My full was returned with one gigantic fold through all of the pages. A. It was obvious it hadn't been read. B. It rendered it useless to send out to anyone else. Dead tree manuscript. The entire event left me with a sour stomach.
"The point is that, as long as conferences sponsor agent pitches, they are giving new writers the message that agents are still a good idea."Delete
I was a speaker (I'm a writer) at a conference a while back where there were about half a dozen agents who were also conference guests. It was clear from their ages, their bios, and their conversation that they were all very junior agents. On Monday, they'd be back in their usual spots on the very bottom rung of the publishing ladder, with most of their submissions going into slush, editors not returning their calls, making coffee for their bosses, etc.
But here at this conference, these people whose comments about the business repeatedly demonstrated their inexperience... were treated like ROCK STARS. Immense crowds of attendees gathered around these inexperienced, unaccomplished individuals to fawn, gush, praise, seek their attention, and hang on their every word. The most obscure literary agent there, with the most scant resume, was treated by attendees as more important than the conference keynote, the bestselling author of about 30 novels, i.e. a person who had -actual- accomplishments (and many of them!) in this profession... But the attendees were focused on these obscure, powerless, unaccomplished people from NYC (at least a couple of whom quite agenting within a couple of years)... just because they were literary agents, and there is this erroneous mystique that getting an agent will get you a book deal (or even get you a career).
Whoops! Misquote posted. THIS is the commenting I was responding to with this post:Delete
"Two days later I overheard this agent joking with another that she lived for these conferences. Free lodging. Free food. Everyone sucking up to her. "
Good for you, LJ--I hope you've started a trend!ReplyDelete
I have been making my full-time living as a novelist for 25 years. Although I self-publish my backlist, I still write my frontlist under contract to traditional publishers (and am very happy in my current publishing relationship).ReplyDelete
One of the common misconceptions still circulating (though not quite as fiercely as it did for years) is that you need a literary for a career (or for a -good- career) in traditional publishing. In my own experience (and in the experience of a growing number of other writers, too), this is a completely false, erroneous, inaccurate assumption (though one heartily encouraged by most literary agents, for obvious reasons).
I've sold over 30 books in my career, mostly to major houses. I made all but 7 of those sales myself (though I paid agency commission on several others, because when I would sell a book while agented, agents often insisted I pay them a 15% commission--even in instances where they had declined to send out the book in question). That figure includes my selling my first 9 books myself before I ever had an agent, as well as more than a dozen of my most recent book sales.
In between those early and recent sales, I worked on-and-off with 4 different agents. During those years, my quantity of deals were down and, most years, my income was down as well. (And to be clear, 1 of my agents was established and reputable, 3 were high-profile bigshots and VPs or pres of well-known NYC agencies, and 2 of them are still cited and quoted often in publishing articles--IOW, I was not working with unknown charlatans or hangers-on.)
One key factor in my struggling income and weakened career during those years was that my various agents kept declining to send out my work, and/or would declare a project "unsaleable" after 1-4 rejections and retire it forever, refusing ever to discuss it or send it out again. Of my many agentless sales, 9 have been with books that various agents declined to handle at all or refused to send out again after 1-2-3 of their pals turned it down. (A number of my other sales have been deals that subsequently arose out of relationships that I established when selling those "unsaleable" books myself.)
Long story short, 6 years ago, I wound up deciding to cease working with literary agents at all anymore... and the results, both immediate and long term, have been so positive that my only regret, ever since then, is that I didn't make this decision years earlier. Ever since making that decision:
Since I'm no longing donating 15% of my earnings to an agent, my income has improved substantially. It has improved even MORE because, in complete contrast to "conventional wisdom" about the negotiating power of agents, I actually started getting BETTER advances as soon as I fired my last agent. I hired a literary lawyer (with whom I still work) to negotiate my contractual clauses, and as a result, I also immediately started getting much better contractual terms as a direct result of no longer working with literary agents. Moreover, my response times on submissions DEcreased once I shed literary agents from my business; and my payment lags have decreased substantially. Additionally, my subrights business has ALSO improved. Finally, a LOT LESS of my working time is wasted in the pointless, useless, idiotic stress of dealing with agents and their egos and their unprofessional tantrums and sulks, trying to convince them to send out my work, trying to convince them to address or follow up on a business problem, etc., etc.
So keep in mind--it's not ONLY in the self-publishing world that the traditional agent-author business model is a bad fit. I frankly kept finding it a bad fit in my traditional publishing career and am doing MUCH better without it.
Dang, I want a "like" button!Delete
Thanks, Laura. You're echoing a lot of what L.J. is talking about and expanding the concept.
The scary thing is that too many writers think the traditional agent model is the most desireable without considering the alternatives.
Again, thanks for your comment.
Oh, also wanted to mention, about agent-focused conferences... A couple of years ago, a conference in New York that was entirely focused on agents and editors (not authors)... included among its featured guest a literary agent who'd previously been arrested (and hauled away in handcuffs) for embezzlement. (A friend of mine, from whom the agent had embezzled about $12,000, was one of the key witnesses in the case against her.) About a decade later, this agent was back in business under a slightly different name... and apeparing as a FEATURED GUEST at a conference focused on agents and editors, marketed to writers seeking good contacts and advice.ReplyDelete
Which gives you some idea of how carefully (er, not at ALL, apparently) agents are vetted when being presented enthusiastically to a paying audience as a reputable professional.
(As a sidebar, Writer Beware posted information about this agent, warning people of her past... And aspiring writers got ANGRY at Writer Beware for being "mean" about an agent they thought was so "nice." (weary sigh) So people like this agent will always find new sheep to fleece, alas.)
I apologize for horning in so much on L.J.'s post, but I just can't help myself.Delete
In a past life I was a mortgage banker. When I realized I was no longer flying with the eagles but was instead hanging out with a bunch of turkeys, I got out.
Peg, it's quite all right!Delete
And thanks, Laura, for such an informative comment. I had similar experiences with big name agents who sent my work out to five editors, then promptly gave up. Now I'm grateful they didn't sell them because I'm making good money on both stories without having to share a chunk of the profit...forever.
LJ, I find International Thriller Writers (ITW), the sponsor of ThrillerFest, to be an organization attuned to what its members want. There are no dues for full members. They are the first writers’ organization I belong to that has a prize for best e-book with no requirement that it be published by a “recognized” publisher. This prize was added in response to member demand (including mine). The ThrillerFest Conference itself is great. I have made many friends there. ITW offers AgentFest because there is demand for it. And there are members who have had great experiences with agents they met at AgentFest. Speak up at the all-members’ meeting and give your opinion on having it, but don’t skip the whole conference. That’s like boycotting a restaurant that offers your favorite entree because you don’t think it should have an unhealthy dessert on the menu. (Selfish motive: I’d like to hang out with you there.) KeithReplyDelete
Thanks, Keith! I really want to go. And I like ITW! They are more forward thinking than any other writer's organization, and they let me in when no one else would. I just worry about the message the conference sends to new writers. And I wonder where the demand for Agentfest is coming from and whether the point of it is to make money from writers to support the rest of the conference.ReplyDelete
LJ, I really agree with Keith about ITW and Thrillerfest. As I mentioned, I've gone to the last 3 in a row - just to Craftfest for the first 2 years, then last year one day of Craftfest and one day of Thrillerfest. Craftfest is just excellent for aspiring thriller writers, with top-notch workshops presented by bestselling thriller writers.ReplyDelete
This year I've been invited to be on a panel of editors, so I've decided to go again, since it'll be the first time I'll be a participant.
And although hotels in NYC are expensive, I stay at the nearby Bedford Hotel, which is a pretty good price if you go through hotels.com or one of those sites. And it's relatively cheap for me to fly there from Toronto.
The reality is, most conferences need those agents there to take pitches because, sadly, that's the biggest draw to get newbies to come.ReplyDelete
Agents are great for some people, but the more experienced writers are beginning to see things differently. Thus the scramble to become the agent-publisher.
Thanks for commenting, Bob. Your point about attracting new writers reinforces my other concern about Thrillerfest: that it's mostly for writers...and not focused on attracting readers. I know it would be fun, but I need to spend my marketing budget connecting with readers.Delete
Great post. Thanks!ReplyDelete
Thanks for the informative post, L.J., and the great comments from others. I have wondered about this as well, from a newbie's perspective. A couple of years ago I would have been itching to pitch an agent at an event like this. Now, having made the decision to self-publish and take control of my own career (with the help of fantastic advice from so many who have gone before me), I couldn't care less about Agentfest.ReplyDelete
It would be very interesting to see attendance numbers, and whether they were down or up on previous years. I wonder if that information is available?
Thanks for the informative post. I admit, I'm torn. I'll be at ThrillerFest precisely because of AgentFest. I'm one of those new writers. What I know about publishing you could put in a thimble, although I know writers make a much larger percentage of profit if they self-publish smartly.
What I hear constantly at SleuthFest, writers conferences here in Florida and other conferences is that if you want to publish traditionally, you'll never get your foot in the door without an agent. Established authors say, "Get an agent. The publishing business is too complicated to go it alone."
What now seems complicated to me is that there are so many choices to make, so many potential pitfalls.