Monday, April 17, 2006

Spring Cleaning the Agency

Well, spring has sprung here in New York City and I have to say it’s quite beautiful. While the weather remains on the cool side, the sun is shining and that’s always good for the mood.

I’m crazy like a squirrel in November, trying to get my act together as I prepare to move West. I’ve gotten an email and phone call or two asking when I’ll again be open to queries and the truth is, not anytime soon. My guess is that I could be closed to new queries and submissions for several months, while I get reorganized in my new space and take care of the submissions that are here.

Now, that said, someone recently sent me a note saying that I had been featured in a magazine (I’m unsure if it was The Writer or Writer’s Digest) as being open to new authors and queries. Honestly, I’m not sure how that happened and I apologize if someone read that and went to my website and found out that I wasn’t taking new queries. And thank you for checking out my submission guidelines before submitting.

So what I have been up to, since obviously it’s not reading new queries (well, a few still trickle in, despite my many posted requests)? I did read and ultimately pass on a fantasy that I’d hoped would be better than it was. I also have been editing a new proposal by fitness author Adam Weiss, and have three full manuscripts from current clients that I need to read, on top of the twenty-five or so from prospective clients.

Also, lots and lots of housekeeping. Can you believe that a contract negotiation can produce over one and a half pounds of paper, before the contract has been signed? In anticipation of my move, I’ve been purging files and I have to say I’m a bit surprised by how much room I now have. I’ve also purchased a neat new scanner, a Fujitsu ScanSnap and, while I can’t claim it is perfect, it’s changing my life a little.

Most authors probably don’t realize how much of an agent’s life is taken up with paperwork. For example, according to Tom Maciag, CFO of Hachette (formerly Time Warner) Book Group, about 90% of the books they publish do not earn out. Tom shared with this the AAR Royalty Committee back when I was the chairperson. That means that HBG sends out thousands (tens of thousands?) of royalty statements every year that don’t have checks with them. But each of those statements has to be dealt with in some fashion by an agent. Now, some agencies may have accounting departments or bookkeepers who take care of that, but since most agents are operating on their own or with a partner and have little or no support staff, most of this paperwork falls on the shoulders of the agents. And that is incredibly time-consuming and expensive. The standard Simon & Schuster statement is about four pages, I’d say. There’s a Payee Summary that shows what my firm, as the payee is receiving. Then there’s a Proprietor Summary that shows what the author is receiving. Then there is a Title Summary, which shows the activity for each title. But, in reality that Title Summary is more an Edition Summary, since each edition, be it hardcover, paperback, or electronic, gets its own statement. So a book that was published in all of those formats can easily have a statement that is six, seven, or eight pages long. Multiply that by the dozens of titles (hundreds or thousands for larger, older firms) any agent may have, and you’re talking a ton (perhaps literally!) of paper!

Which brings me to my little scanner. It makes very quick work out of statements and on a going-forward basis I’ll be scanning and forwarding statements in electronic form, rather than making thousands of pages of photocopies each year. Think of all the trees saved, not to mention all of the polluting toner and ink that won’t be used. Authors can then keep the electronic copies or,if they must, print paper copies.

My question, though, is why can’t publishers deliver this information in a more useful form? Why not send royalty data in Excel spreadsheet form? Or at least in a capturable PDF form? Why make agents and authors redo all of the data entry? Did you know there are about a half dozen different software programs out there to help literary agents do their accounting? The problem is that most are very expensive ($5,000 minimum, I’d say) and that they require the user to input all of the data from the royalty statement. Now let’s say you have a statement that is unearned by several thousand dollars. Is it worth your time to crunch the numbers on that and look for errors? What are the odds that you’ll find something that pays you back for all those hours? For most agents, the answers are “no” and “slim.” That’s not to say that statements are always correct. I’ve found thousands for clients in statements. I’ve also been told by one VP & Publisher that one agency hired a forensic accountant who has found tens of thousands of dollars for various clients by examining the differences in discounts granted and the royalties paid. Because that’s where the errors inevitably seem to creep up. The wording in the standard contract may be “sixty percent or more,” but a smart agent might get them to change it to “more than sixty percent.” Well, if that publisher makes thousands of sales at sixty percent and it’s not until 60.1% that the rate changes from 10% of retail to 10% of net, you have just made your author the different between $2.50 and $1.50, or a buck a book! Times 10,000 books sold, that’s a nice chunk of change!

Okay, that contract I’ve been waiting for just him my in-box, so it’s time to go read that.

The old saying is, “The Devil is in the details” and in this job, that’s certainly true.



Alex Geana said...

Just wanted to say I just discovered your blog and really like it. :-)

Abel said...

Any idea when you might be accepting submissions again?

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