Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Year, Well, Career in Review

With the end of the year upon us, I wanted to take a moment and reflect a bit.

September 2009 marked my twenty-first anniversary of working in publishing. To celebrate, I threw away my fake ID and went down to a bar for a beer.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been twenty-one years. Shouldn’t I be president of a publishing house by now?

Many do not know that I came into this business hoping to be a science-fiction editor but, as many of you do know, I’m a very pragmatic guy. When I graduated from the Radcliffe Publishing Course, publishers were offering $12-14,000 a year. My first offer was $20,000, from a computer-books imprint of S&S. I na├»vely asked them for an “offer letter,” just as many of my college friends had gotten from big companies, so that I could have that while I was considering my options. I never heard from them again. Hmmm.

My next offer came from the Rights Department of S&S, for a whopping $15,000 a year. Fortunately or unfortunately, that job required me to work late two or three nights a week—late as in 11PM—and a least one weekend day a week. With overtime, I was on track to nearly double my salary. Alas, my bosses and I came to a mutual agreement that the job wasn’t working out. I was looking for a career and they, well, were looking for a slave. Or so it seemed to me.

I moved on to Warner Books—now Grand Central Publishing—and started to think I was finally on my way. I worked for two editors, Rick Horgan and Brian Thomsen. Talk about night and day! Rick was fond of suspenders (it was the 80s) and exercise. Brian was fond of polyester, endless cups of coffee, and baked goods. Both were good guys, but firmly in the “you have to crawl though manure and broken glass to get ahead” mold of publishing bosses. Brian, I’m sorry to say, passed away this year and I feel remiss in not having been a better friend and stayed more in touch. Rick is now a VP & Executive Editor at Crown. Not surprisingly, it was at Warner that I gave up on being an SF editor. SF&F was just treated poorly there. Like Westerns or “erotica” at many houses. The house liked the profits, but wasn’t that big a fan of the books. I started to pay a lot more attention to the books Rick did and it was at Warner that I started to acquire and edit my own titles.

I learned a lot from Rick, not least of which was that persistence is important in publishing. He had worked at a house called Donald I. Fine before Warner and the look of shock on his face when I told him I was leaving Warner to go to work for Don said all I needed to know about his experience there. I might as well have told him I was going to work in a sweatshop in Burma. But Rick had gone to DIF as an editorial assistant or assistant editor and walked out three years or so later with a cush job as a Senior Editor at Warner. I figured I could do the same.

DIF was hellish, there’s no doubt, but it was kind of like being Tom Hanks in CASTAWAY. There were some rudimentary resources, like pretty new computers, and a genuine desire to do good books and make money. If you could ignore the troll who owned the place and screamed at the top of his lungs most of the day, you could do good work there. Of course, there was the weeklong debate over the title of a book I thought could be the next SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Don started out wanting to call it HERE’S BLOOD IN YOUR EYE. We ended up with THROUGH A LENS DARKLY, which was fine, though the book did not tap into the marketplace as successfully as I’d hoped. Ironically, Rick picked up paperback rights for Warner, after I’d left DIF.

DIF was a crucible. There were ten people there when fully staffed. When I started, two other new people had just joined. Everyone who had been there longer than two months looked at the newbies the way battle-scarred veterans look at the FNGs straight from boot. I guess I’m lucky not to have been nicknamed “Cherry.” No, instead Don called me the “Fucking Amateur,” because when I suggested we do something the way we’d done it at Warner, he found it offensive. Of course, another assistant was the “Fucking Moron” and an editor there was the “Fat Fuck.” Yes, this man was my boss. He was also the editor who discovered more than his fair share of best-selling authors throughout his career and who had started one publishing house and sold it, and then started another and had a good, long run before Don’s age and illness, as well as the death of the reprint market, resulted in it being absorbed by Penguin. You see, DIF succeeded because Don found hardcovers that he bought for $5,000 and sold paperback rights for $50,000 or $500,000. But when hard/soft became the rule, and with his reputation for being, well, an asshole, it became harder and hard to close those reprint deals.

But I learned a lot working for Don. Not really from Don, but just because I was there and he needed books to be bought and edited and he had few people to do that. It wasn’t like Warner, where letting an assistant buy a book was about throwing him or her a bone. It was about helping the house survive. I negotiated and prepared the contracts for all of my acquisitions (and a lot of Don’s). I got to present my own books at sales conference. I wrote the flap and cover copy for all of my books. I edited my titles without anyone looking over my shoulder. It was hell, but it was a hell with opportunities that large publishers can never offer.

But I was thrilled when I got a call to come interview for an Editor’s job at Berkley. I’d gone to DIF expecting to spend a few years suffering but publishing books and hopefully demonstrating that I had some taste and talent. I was there eight months. I was originally offered the title of Associate Editor at Berkley and I asked the boss, Leslie Gelbman, “But is there really a difference between an Associate Editor and an Editor? Plus Editors get more respect from agents, so I’d be able to do the job better.” She asked me, “If I say you’ll be an Editor, will you take the job?” I said yes. She said, “Congratulations, you’re an Editor.” I was twenty-four years old.

Berkley was an educational experience also, but unlike DIF, I failed the test. It’s hard to go from an environment where everyone screams at each other to one where people politic behind the scenes and, well, lie to your face. This, of course, describes most corporations in the world, but when I went to Berkley I didn’t catch on too quickly. I spent about a year and a half there and was nearly relieved when I was informed that my position had been eliminated.

So now what? Four houses between 9/89 and 5/92. Leslie Schnur, who was editor-in-chief at Dell, highlighted that fact at breakfast one morning, and then offered me a freelance gig. So did Bob Mecoy, who was running Avon at the time. And Berkley paid me to finish editing a novel, and Don paid me to edit a novel. And Jay Garon, who was John Grisham’s agent at the time, paid me to read potential clients’ manuscripts and find him good ones. I reviewed submissions for the Book-of-the-Month Club and reviewed a couple of titles for KIRKUS. A couple of agents asked me to read manuscripts and provide feedback. Then an author I’d first bought a book from at Berkley sold another book to Forge, part of Tom Doherty Associates. Coincidentally, I got a meeting with Bob Gleason, then editor-in-chief of Forge, who offered me the job of editing this new book. And thus I became a Consulting Editor for Forge.

I liked a lot of what I did at Forge. Parts of it reminded me of DIF, like writing my own flap copy and presenting at sales conference. I enjoyed that sense of independence. But other parts were more difficult. As a Consulting Editor, I was more out-of-the-loop than I wanted to be and I found it difficult to not be a part of decisions that were being made about my books and authors, like what would be on the cover.

One guy I edited there was Bill Harrington, who was writing a series of COLUMBO (from the TV show) mysteries. His agent was Ted Chichak, of Scott Meredith Literary Agency, a very established agency. But when Scott died, Ted and a couple of his colleagues launched a new firm, Scovil Chichak Galen, and I wrote Ted and asked about becoming an agent.

I could regale you for hours with stories about SCG (now Scovil Galen Ghosh or SGG), but I will save those for my actual memoirs and it will suffice to say that I learned a lot there also. I went out on my own, with Russ Galen’s encouragement, in 1996.

So, I’ve been an agent now for close to seventeen years, nearly fourteen of them with my own firm. It’s hard to believe. I’ve watched a business that used to deliver royalty statements typed with typewriters turn into one dominated by conglomerates that use SAP and Excel. I’ve seen wars over who will control the rights to put books on CD-ROM turn into arguments over who controls electronic book rights. I’ve seen novels written on typewriters and novels written on dot-matrix printers turn into self-published novels indistinguishable from those a publisher puts out. I’ve met and represented Hollywood stars and negotiated with lawyers from the highest end of the movie business. I’ve taken no-name authors and watched their careers grow book after book. And I’ve seen good authors suffer the downward spiral that results when a publisher no longer supports them. I’ve gone from shipping twenty 400-page manuscripts at a time to making all of my submissions via email.

What will the next seventeen years bring? Who knows? But I know what just a few more years will bring and I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t bode well for authors or their agents.

I expect publishers to become increasingly aggressive with regard to royalties, largely in response to efforts by Amazon and other large retailers to demand bigger discounts from publishers. Ironically, Amazon, a company that was founded as an online bookseller, is contributing to the death of the book business. Because Amazon can only deeply discount books at the levels it does by either getting deeper discounts from publishers or selling at a loss. Right now, it sells a number of eBooks at a loss, because it is trying to build a market for its eBook reader, the Kindle. And that market is certainly growing. But what are the effects? In a recent blog, I talked about B&N deeply discounting at super-stores and driving smaller bookstores out of business. Who is Amazon trying to drive out of business? Sony, with its own eReader? B&N, with its eReader?

Books are not cellphone minutes, but Amazon and other online retailers that are deeply discounting eBooks are treating them as such. They are willing to take a loss or zero profit on eBooks in order to sell their eReaders. Their model is the reverse of the cellphone business, which gave you a free phone and then made up the cost in the price of talk time. But just as your phone now costs you $50 or $199, your eBooks will eventually cost more.

What consumers don’t realize that is Amazon and B&N and other discounting chains are, in fact, driving up the retail cost of books. Since publishers’ discounts are based on the retail price, they must start at a higher price in order to accommodate the discounts being demanded by chains so that they can offer discounts to consumers. As Amazon and other retailers push to get higher discounts than 50% on regular books and higher than 60% on eBooks, the actual price of books and eBooks can only go up, because that price is the starting point from which discounts are calculated.

Some of this, of course, is tied to author royalties, which are often based on the “catalogue retail price” or “list price.” This is usually the price printed on the book. Eliminate royalties based on list price and start paying based on net and publishers can stop printing prices on books and then the pricing wars can REALLY begin. And publishers are going to start playing around with this, as they already have with eBooks. I recently negotiated for close to sixteen months on a new deal for a client. The first four to six months of that negotiation was an argument over the publisher’s attempt to switch my client to a “net” royalty system. Long conversations and conference calls took place, and emails were written. Spreadsheets were presented by the publisher, “demonstrating” that the average discount for this client was 47%. The only problem was that publishers’ terms of sale are posted on the web (a lovely improvement from the days when you would have to ask for their discount schedule and they would say “why?” and pretend it was proprietary, top-secret information). I looked up this publisher’s terms of sale and pointed out that the STARTING discount was 48% and that if you ordered enough copies, even mixed title, you swiftly qualified for 50%. So how on earth could they be claiming 47% was the average? I won the battle, for now, but I promise this publisher is likely cutting deals on a net basis with other authors.

Publishers will also start to more aggressively push “deep discount” language in contracts. One publisher I deal with used to have language stating that sales had to be at a deep discount AND outside of normal retail and wholesale channels AND non-returnable before a deep-discount royalty was applied. Now all sales at 56% or higher are at a deep-discount royalty. St. Martin’s, which recently revised its boilerplate to make it even less author-friendly, lowers that bar even further, stating that all hardcover sales starting at 48% and all paperback sales starting at 50% are subject to a reduction in royalty.

The bottom line? Authors can look forward to a continued chipping away at their share of income from books. The only possible response? Agents will have to work even hard to get higher and higher advances, turning more and more books into effective buyouts. My advice to clients now would have to be to never count on royalties and look at them as “found money” when they come in.

Alternatively, authors can just say “no.” “No” is the most powerful word in any negotiation and only when enough authors are willing to tell a publisher that they will not do business on terms that are so unfavorable will publishers come to change their terms.

I suspect that, as time marches on, we will see publishers become more and more like the movie business. They will pay similar advances as they do now, but insist on all rights and NO royalties. Until book authors have something like the WGA to negotiate on behalf of all writers for minimum terms, publishers will continue to lower the terms for authors.

But the same can be said of publishers needing to just say Amazon and B&N and Walmart. At some point, publishers have to simply say to these accounts that they cannot sell them books at the terms they are demanding. Will this reduce the marketplace? I doubt any of them will stop selling books. Maybe they will order a few less, and return even fewer. That could be a positive thing for publishers.

What bothers me most about the marketplace today is how willing and eager publishers are to take money from authors to make up what they give away to the accounts. How can they complain about the “demands” of agents seeking higher advances when they work so hard to ensure that authors will never see royalties?

Perhaps we’ll see a groundbreaking publisher arise, one that operates on net royalties and only sells non-returnable, but with a reasonable royalty split, e.g., 20%/25%/30% or even just 50% of net. Everyone believes that there are MEGA-authors who already have such “partnership” deals with publishers. Why couldn’t it work for all authors? Of course, we’d end up back in the Hollywood model, arguing over definitions of “net,” but perhaps it would still be an improvement. On paper, at least.

I realize this is not the rosiest prediction of publishing’s future, but I will continue to do what I’ve always done: work as hard as I can to get the best deals I can for my clients. And all I can ask of you is to write the best books you can...yearly!

My best wishes to you and your families for a happy and healthy New Year!


Monday, December 21, 2009

It's Time for Publishers to PAY UP on eBooks!

Whenever I get a new intern, I take him or her down to the local Barnes & Noble and present a little primer on how the publishing industry works. They are always surprised. Heck, the last time I did it, we were interrupted by a store employee who overheard me talking about the business and told me she had just learned a lot.

First and foremost, you have to realize that the publishing business is a consignment business. Publishers provide books to bookstores, which sell what they can and then return what they can’t sell. There are very few bookstores that get stuck with books they can’t sell because most books sold to bookstores are sold on a returnable basis. Yes, that’s right, returnable.

The average bookstore gets a discount of about 50%. It may be a bit more or a bit less depending on promotions, volume orders, and the like, but 50% is a good average. So if a new book comes out priced at $25, the bookstore “pays” half that to the publisher. I put “pays” in quotes because the returns and credits game between bookstores and publishers is played with such gusto that the actual payment of cash by bookstores to publishers is likely far less often the case than you imagine, which is why publishers love shipping new titles like a Dan Brown or Harry Potter novel.

Ignoring the big chains, let’s consider how this might all work at an independent bookstore and imagine I own it.

In the average month, I might order several thousand dollars worth of new stock. The books come in, usually with the shipping paid by the publisher. I unpack the books and stock the shelves and wait for the books to sell. After a week, I notice that some books have not sold a single copy. I pull those books and set them in the back. I crack open the next week’s shipment and put out new stock. I watch to see what’s selling and find that of the new books, a few have not sold any copies in a week, while others have sold out.

I pull the copies that aren’t selling. The hardcovers get boxed up and the paperbacks get stripped. By “stripped,” I mean that I physically tear the covers off and throw away the actual books. If I’m dishonest, I might try and sell those stripped books for a quarter each to some guy who sells them for a dollar each on the street. If I’m honest and cautious, I tear the books in half and toss them in a couple of different cans to discourage dumpster divers from getting them. I ship the hardcovers and the stripped covers back to the publishers from which I ordered them and I receive credit. Yes, credit.

Have you ever charged something you purchased on your credit card and then returned it? The bill shows up with the charge, but not the credit. But you know you returned the item and the credit will be forthcoming, so you deduct it from the bill before you pay it. Bookstore owners do the same thing.

A bookstore may order $10,000 worth of books, but then return $5,000 worth of books or the covers of the stripped books a month later. With that credit, the owner may then order another $5,000 worth of books, or even $10,000, ratcheting up what he owes the publisher, but always knowing that he can return books for credit. He may let an invoice age sixty, ninety, or even 180 days before he sends in any actual cash on a single invoice, waiting to see how many of the books on that invoice actually sold and how many he returned.

But not with best-sellers. When a bookstore places an order for 500 copies of the new Dan Brown or Harry Potter novel, the publisher may turn around and say, “You’ve got $6,000 in unpaid invoices. You are on credit hold. Pay your bills and we’ll ship the books, or we’ll ship the books, but you will have to pre-pay or pay COD.” This changes the playing field pretty significantly. Bookstores want those best-selling titles and they will do what they need to to get them. In some cases, bookstores may return unopened cartons of other titles to build up as much credit for returns as possible. They want to avoid being told by the publisher that they can’t get those big titles without paying COD.

The returns that go back to the publisher will sometimes go back into stock, if they are full cartons. But mixed cartons go right into the “remainders” bin, to be sold off at pennies on the dollar. This is why you find hardcovers of books that have been out for just about a year on sale for $6.99. Or, in some cases, the publisher simply overprinted and had too much stock in the warehouse, so the extras were remaindered.

Returns and remainders aren’t completely bad. You want to have maximum sales and saturation of the marketplace with a title. If you fail to, then you lose sales. Publishers put some of their greatest efforts into cutting returns, but only to acceptable levels. A 35% return level on hardcovers is considered good. Fifty percent on paperbacks is average and if you do better (i.e., less than), then you’re in good shape.

Of course, now we have eBooks, which have no returns. eBooks don’t require you to print 100,000 copies to sell 65,000 copies. The savings could be huge and here we have a fundamental difference of opinion between publishers, authors, agents, and booksellers.

Ignoring the fact that brick-and-mortar bookstores are eventually doomed, since they will never be an outlet for eBooks, you get into the arguments over the costs of eBooks.

Let me be the first to say that until you get to the printing part, there is really no change in the cost of eBooks. You still have to pay an editor, copy-editor, typesetter, proofreader, publicity person, marketing person, and sales person. The “making” of the book is the same, right up to printing, which, of course, you no longer have. Assuming it costs $2.50 or so to print a hardcover book, the publisher saves $250,000 in paper, printing, and binding on a 100,000-copy printing. And no one outside of publishing houses thinks that it costs a publisher that much to deliver an eBook. Though I’ve yet to see a publisher offer up what it costs to create an eBook from start to finish, with no paper edition. And by “finish,” I mean a file that is ready to be sold via Amazon,, or off the publisher’s own site.

Next, keep in mind that most publishers offer “free freight,” meaning they pay to ship the printed books to bookstores. Without printed books, they save that cost. Plus the cost of the boxes to ship them in, plus the cost of the warehousing services to have books in stock to ship. Once upon a time, certain contracts factored freight into the royalty equation at fifty cents per book. If we use that figure on the 100,000-copy printing, that’s another $50,000 saved, for a total of $300,000. These are all my estimates, of course, and I welcome any publisher commenting on this with its own actual experience.

So what should happen with this massive savings, presuming the savings exists? Should publishers cut the price of books? Amazon certainly seems to think so, given that it is selling many eBooks for $9.99. Or should publishers share the savings with authors in the form of higher royalties? Agents and authors certainly seem to think so. Or should publishers increase their discounts to wholesalers, like Amazon and, so that those companies make more per copy? I’m confident I know the answer from those parties.

Publishers have been saying for years that paying royalties based on retail prices doesn’t work anymore, because retail outlets don’t sell books at those prices. Publishers want to pay on net and many have aggressively altered their royalty provisions for eBooks to a net formula. Agents and authors oppose this, because it means far, far less money to them than to publishers.

Okay, let’s twinkle think here for a minute (Yes, I watch a lot of SESAME STREET with my son). Publisher sells a $25.00 hardcover to bookstore for 50% off ($12.50 net). Author receiving retail royalties gets $2.50 in royalties on first 5,000 copies sold; $3.125 on the next 5,000 copies sold; and $3.75 on all copies sold thereafter.

Now, let’s say the publisher sells the same $25.00 eBook to Amazon and has a 25% of net royalty structure for eBooks. Amazon, I’m told, gets a sixty percent discount on eBooks. So that $25.00 eBook nets the publisher $10. The author gets twenty-five percent of net, which is $2.50. Wow! It’s the same number. Well, for the first 5,000 copies, after which it’s 62.5 cents less and ultimately $1.25 less. Where are the escalators on eBooks! Further, of the $10 the publisher receives, it no longer pays approximately $2.50 just in paper, printing, and binding. And since they save at least ten percent on production, giving up ten percent to Amazon in increased discount isn’t that big a deal, one might argue.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for eBooks and for a competitive marketplace, but publishers have to stop all of this bullshit about how expensive eBooks are to produce and maintain. Server storage space is dirt cheap compared to warehousing printed books. Every office that’s working to go paperless and get rid of the file cabinets knows this. Okay, paying a couple of IT guys to manage it may be more expensive than five warehouse guys, but you’ll more than make-up the difference by buying a few less forklifts.

Plus, as I mentioned above, WHERE ARE THE ESCALATORS?! I challenge any publisher to announce a change in eBook rates and policies that DOESN’T take money away from authors and actually starts to pass along some of the increased profits from eBooks. Start with adding escalators. No one is “going back to press” for another five thousand eBooks. The longer the book is in print, the greater the costs of producing that book are amortized over a larger number of books. This is true in printed books and it’s true in eBooks. An eBook that stays around a decent length of time will be costing the publisher pennies per unit sold to keep on its system. And the author will never participate in the extra profit on a system locked into 25% of net.

For legal reasons I’d don’t pretend to understand, agents’ organizations like the Association of Authors’ Representatives can’t get together and tell publishers to go to hell with these sweeping changes to rates. And publishers don’t care what individual agents say, even if those agents are at huge agencies representing dozens of authors. A publisher could change its entire royalty structure and make it a deal-breaker and agents would still submit. Because, like it or not, every single publisher is a monopoly. Sure, maybe not the way Microsoft is a monopoly or the way AT&T used to be one, but with all of the mergers and acquisitions and the adoption of “uniform” boilerplates across multiple imprints, they are monopolies just as well. It’s a shame the government doesn’t take note of this and take action, as it surely would if the AAR started telling publishers that its members will no longer be accepting 25% of net as an eBook royalty. It would be quite something to see the Justice Department tell Random House and Macmillan that they have to break up into a half-a-dozen competing houses again, wouldn’t it? And, I assure you, agents would love it. It would expand our marketplace to sell books and introduce new competition in the marketplace. And that’s what the American business world is all about, isn’t it?

So, what can authors do? Honestly, nothing. Except, maybe, self-publish. Certainly there are many authors with the means to do so, and, frankly, I wish more would. But I don’t mean paying iUniverse to publish your book. Imagine if Dan Brown just asked his editor to quit Doubleday and come to work for him, full-time, editing him and managing the publication of his books. Imagine if Tom Clancy did this, also. And many other best-selling authors. You don’t think that the accounts would place the orders? I do. In fact, I bet they’d place them non-returnable in exchange for a slightly higher discount. Let the bookstores remainder the books themselves. And let the author pocket the entire proceeds.

While this is likely more of a headache for printed books than even a best-selling, millionaire author wants to endure, it could be far, far less of one for eBooks. I bet Amazon would happily take a Microsoft Word file from any one of thousands of successful authors and handle the conversion to Kindle in-house and pay sixty percent of the price at which the book is sold to the author directly. And if eBooks are the future and this is possible, where does that leave publishers?

It’s time for publishers to stop reducing author participation in profits from eBooks and start INCREASING it, or the authors who can afford to do so will quickly start looking to do it themselves.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Help Your Local Bookstore...Please

It seems that every day I see a notice in PUBLISHERS WEEKLY emailed news that another local bookstore has closed. It's heartbreaking.

As a kid, my mother always went food-shopping for the week on Wednesday and I went along with her to the mall (the grocery store was on the end of the local Village Mall). From what was likely far too young an age, I would run down to the bookstore while my mother shopped. Comic books were a quarter back then and the hardcover Hardy Boys novels were $2.50 (I still have all of the Hardy Boys novels.)

At some point, the mall was renovated and a new, two-storey bookstore opened, Wilmarc's. It's owner is still in the business, but on the distribution side. From about the age of fifteen or so, I started talking to the owner about working there. When I was seventeen or so, he finally offered me a job. Minimum wage was $3.10 and the employee discount was 10% off retail. When I started working there, I found out the standard discount to booksellers was 42%.

Oh, how far we have come. 10% off retail is a joke and now B&N and Amazon will give you at least 30% off any new hardcover. Their standard discount from publishers is at least 50% and sometimes more. And the "retail price" published on the book is merely a suggestion.

When B&N started building superstores, they started discounting books 10%-25%. Not just best-sellers, but pretty much every book in the store. Local bookstores were discounting best-sellers, but every book in the store? They couldn't survive doing that and so neighborhoods lost quaint bookstores that made book shopping a treasure hunt and turned it into an experience as frustrating as trying to find the right washer for a nut at Home Depot. Shopping at B&N in New York City, I often waiting for the clerks to ask me if I "wanted fries with that," so impersonal and "retail" had the experience become.

When I worked in a local bookstore, even at the tender age of seventeen, I got to know the regulars. And when people came in and said they needed a book for their dad, I would ask them what books they saw him reading and could recommend a new one by one of those authors or something similar. Try that at a "superstore" and see how well it goes. Presuming you can find someone on the floor or willing to leave the register to help you.

There are, I know, people who still appreciate customer service and the idea of being "hand sold" a book. If you are one of them, then be willing to pay an extra 10% or even 20% for a book and shop your local indie bookstore. You'll appreciate the experience and the owner of that store will certainly appreciate the business.


Monday, December 07, 2009

I know this will make me sound like a jerk, but...

I've been getting email and regular mail lately, asking me if I've read various chapters or manuscripts and I have to admit that I'm a bit annoyed. So annoyed, in fact, that I actually rejected something without reading it today. Why? Because the author sent me two emails via Facebook asking me if I'd read his material.

Folks, forgive me, as I know this probably makes me sound like a jerk, but the request letter that is sent out specifically says we are unable to respond to inquiries regarding the status of the submissions. And the monthly round-ups make it very, very clear that I've gotten very, very little reading done this fall, as I've been busy with my actual clients and without an intern (not so secret fact: my interns do a lot of the first reads on material). So if you submitted to me and haven't heard from me, that means, with 99.95% confidence, that I simply haven't read your material.

Now, for those of you who submitted an actual mailed query and got an actual request for material, you also got an offer of a service called Express Review™. This is why that service exists. If you don't have the time or patience to simply wait for me to read your material, you should have ordered Express Review. If you queried by email, you were not offered Express Review because I've yet to develop a form for it that will email, but if you are unwilling to wait for as long as it takes for us to read your material and want more information about Express Review, simply visit my website and use the FAQ form to indicate that you have a submission with me and would like more information about Express Review.

Otherwise, your patience is appreciated. Please do not email or mail or call with requests for updates on the status of your submissions. We still have sample chapters from July to read. If you sent in your material later, then we have not read it. If you sent it in but are afraid we did not get it, resend the entire package and use Delivery Confirmation from the USPS to ensure we receive it. Or you can presume the USPS got it to us and check back here periodically to see where we are in our reading.

I apologize, again, for sounding like a jerk, but I'm tired. Wiped. My poor infant son is teething and none of us are getting sleep, and people are bugging me about things they sent a month ago. Patience is a virtue. Be virtuous.


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The November Round-Up

Holy Turkey Pucks! Is it really December? I can hardly believe it. Where did November go?

Well, somewhere in the month, I embarked on refinancing the mortgage (gotta grab a lower rate when you can) and applied to mentor another century bike ride with Team in Training. Hopefully they'll accept me and I can start working on losing all of the "daddy weight" I've put on since my son was born.

I did do some reading also, but clearly not enough. Since the eQuery™ form went live, I've seen a bit of an explosion in queries received. Not surprisingly, many are a pass. Also not surprisingly, my response time has increased, as it is far easier to let email queries pile up than paper ones, since the paper ones literally pile up on the desk and give me dirty looks until I read them.

Here are the stats:
  • 85 queries received; 38 declined
  • 11 sample chapters received; 2 declined*
I am currently waiting to receive 2 requested sample chapters and 1 proposal.

I currently have 33 sample chapters on-hand to read, as well as 2 proposals and 5 full manuscripts.

In addition to the above, I thought I should mention that today, 12/1, I got in another 10 queries and declined 30.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Where oh where should my agent be (located)?

Do you request many full manuscripts? You wrote that you requested zero and rejected one.

Here's my question: When looking for an agent should you ony look in the country you live in or look one in which your current manuscript is based? My current WIP is a MG historical fiction about children who were evacuees during WWII in England.

I actually do not request many full manuscripts. If I like a query, then I request a sample chapter and a synopsis. I can usually tell from that amount of material if the author has real skill, and then I request the full manuscript.

As for your agent, you agent should not be based on where the book is set (how many Vietnam War novels are repped by Vietnamese agents to US publishers?), but should be based on where you want the book published, keeping in mind that very few authors have more than one primary agent.

If you get a US agent, that agent will most likely represent you around the world, either directly or via a network of sub- or co-agents. There are some authors who have both a primary US and a primary UK agent, but they are few in number.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Monthly Round-up: October 2009

About a month ago, I wrote what I'd term the "mother of all updates." It was long, it was detailed and it covered a wide variety of topics. And then it wouldn't upload. Oy. And in my attempts to conduct trial and error experiments and make it upload, I actually managed to lose the entire thing. So I threw up my hands in the air and took a few weeks to recover.

So, let's try this again, shall we?

Somewhere below, I'm going to put the submission update, but first I want to plug a few things, so please keep reading.

I've often said that ninety-nine percent of an agent's job is follow-up and truly this month proved that. For example, I have a book that's supposed to be on a semi-annual reporting schedule, but for some reason, the publisher had it in its system as annual. Using some figures the publisher sent me, this book should have earned tens of thousands in royalties, yet my client has not received the money because the publisher made an error in its systems. I'm still awaiting the report and any payment due. Not to mention that since the payment is nearly six weeks overdue, I'm going to have to chase an interest payment on the late payment. Joy.

It's a sad reality of the publishing business that royalty departments are quite low on the totem pole. Many publishers have quite simple reports, showing only net figures upon which the royalties are paid. Some don't even show the reserve for returns, but simply factor that into the net number. The result is that authors are forced to put an enormous amount of trust into publishers. Yet, as in the example above, accidents do happen.

Another recent example was that a publisher paid a subsidiary rights share at an incorrect rate to my firm. In fact, they did know the correct rate, but for some reason chose to send fifteen percent (my commission rate) to my firm and the balance directly to the author. This, of course, was not just wrong, but it was also a breach of contract (as is the late statement and payment noted above). When I contacted the publisher, the person responding explained to me what they did in a manner that indicated he thought they'd done everything just right. My response was to call the royalties manager and explain what a massive error this was in so many ways. Eventually I was informed that the publisher's contracts department had incorrectly entered the information into their system, resulting in the error.

Because royalty departments are low on the pole, they often don't get the funds needed to have the personnel or resources to really do their jobs with the same degree of checks and double-checks that, say, a credit-card company or bank do. The press in the first example has, I'm told, one royalties person for the whole company. Many years ago, when Macmillan revised their royalty statement, I was a member of the Association of Authors' Representatives Royalty Committee. We met with reps from Macmillan and expressed some further improvements we'd like to have seen. We were told, essentially, that Macmillan had just spent $2 million dollars on their new systems and they weren't going to be spending any more on it. That may actually have been as long as ten years ago, and their statements still have the same issues as they did then.

The lesson here is that every author, whether represented or not, has to carefully read his or her statements, check the balance forward against the last statement, look to see if that sub-rights license they heard about from the editor actually shows up on the statements, and make sure the rates being paid are correct. Any questions or issues should be addressed to his or her agent first or, if there is no agent, to the publisher in writing. Be sure to keep your paper trail and the dates and times of any contacts with the publisher as a part of your records.


So recently I got in a few finished books you'll certainly want to read:

The paperback edition of THE BRENNER ASSIGNMENT, by Patrick K. O'Donnell is out. And I have to admit, I think it looks even better than the hardcover.

But you be the judge. Buy them both, put them on the shelf, and compare them.

The hardcover edition of Pat's latest is also out. THEY DARED RETURN is the thriller story of a team including Jewish spies who went back behind the lines in Germany during WWII. It's been published in the UK also, by Simon & Schuster UK, for those of you reading from overseas.

Reviews have been terrific, as usual.


Also recently received was the Russian edition of Sheryl Anderson's KILLER HEELS. Just goes to show you that everyone loves sexy shoes and a good mystery. If you've never caught onto this fabulous series (four titles in all), you can pick them all up in paperback now, from Minotaur.


As you may have noticed from walking through any store recently, the holiday shopping frenzy has begun, which means we are that much closer to the end of the year. So buy the golfer in the family another year's worth of helpful tips and tricks in the form of BILL KROEN'S GOLF TIP-A-DAY CALENDAR 2010, now out from Andrews McMeel.


We're deep into the school year, but if you are home-schooling your children, then you definitely want to pick up a copy of the REVISED edition of HOMESCHOOL YOUR CHILD FOR FREE, by LauraMaery Gold and Joan M. Zielinski. As there are still copies of the first edition in some stores, be sure to check that you have the new one.


For the fantasy reader on your holiday list, be sure to pick up the latest (or all!) of Ed Greenwood's Falconfar series. The first book, DARK LORK, is now out in paperback from Solaris Books, with the second, ARCH WIZARD, out in hardcover. The third book, FALCONFAR, has been delivered and may be out for the holidays, though more likely it will be February or March of 2010. The entire series is or will be available on audio from Brilliance Audio, also.


Okay, you've been very patient, so here's the monthly round-up for October 2009:

We received 30 queries and declined 24;

We received four sample chapters and decline none;

We received no full manuscripts and declined one.

We are waiting to receive:

Nine requested sample chapters and two proposals.

We have on-hand and need to read:

24 sample chapters and 1 proposal;

Five full manuscripts, plus one from a current client.

The new eQuery™ form seems to be working well, after a few kinks were worked out. If you tried it but didn't get a "Thank you" page after submitting and got an error message, then I did not get your query. Please try again.

As always, I'm happy to answer questions about the publishing industry on my blog. If you have any, please send them to blogquestions at the zackcompany domain.



Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Power of Fear

As many readers here know, one of the clients I am most proud to represent is Dr. Paul Offit, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of several books on vaccines. Paul's latest book, though, is about more than vaccines, it's about the controversy of vaccines and whether or not they cause autism. They do not, as Paul demonstrates very well in latest book, AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS.

Due to his stance on vaccines and autism, Paul has been on the receiving end of an enormous amount of grief and quite a bit of misinformation has been published about him. Recently, though, two items have appeared that help to counter that misinformation and I wanted to point you to those items so that you can see the primary resources.

Some of Paul's detractors call him "Dr. Proffit," because he helped invent a vaccine that was then purchased by a pharmaceutical company. Incorrect reports say that Paul received tens of million of dollars and that he helped ensure that the vaccine he helped invent became a part of the CDC recommended schedule of vaccines. This post, from the Countering Age of Autism blog, provides the correct information.

Next, well, there's this little magazine called WIRED, and they just published a cover story(!) about Paul and his efforts. You can read it online at


Friday, October 02, 2009

Sometimes I am Just an Idiot

I just wrote an extensive--I mean EXTENSIVE--monthly round-up for the month of September, but various publishing headaches with Blogger made me abandon it and then it turns out the place I thought I had a draft saved, I did not. So, I'm going to go take a nap and perhaps I will think about writing it ALL OVER AGAIN! Or not. Oy.


Wednesday, September 30, 2009

An Open Letter to the President of Intuit

September 30, 2009

Mr. Brad Smith



PO Box 28867

Tucson, AZ 85726-8867

Dear Mr. Smith:

As a long-time user of QuickBooks and Quicken, I am writing to express my very real frustration with the off-shoring of QuickBooks technical support. I challenge you, sir, to call your own company’s Payroll Support phone number and try to solve a technical issue using your Philippines-based technical support representatives.

I spoke to one of these representatives today. I found the connection horrible, no doubt because VoIP isn’t immune to distance. I also found the representative’s accent extremely hard to understand. And I found that when I started to describe my problem, the representative was clearly trying to find the right page in her script to come up with a response to my statements. She otherwise appeared unfamiliar with the program.

I write a blog that can be found at Quite a while ago, I wrote one titled “Why QuickBooks 2009 sucks. Let me count the ways....” As of today, I have fifty-nine comments, of which fifty-seven agree strongly with me and go into great detail of the problems others have suffered. Of the other two, one was Greg Wright, Director of Product Management for QuickBooks, and one was not on topic. Thus, other than your own employee, every person reading the blog agrees that the program sucks. More interestingly, since my blog is not about QuickBooks in general, the only way that users are likely to discover this particular entry is by searching on the phrase “QuickBooks sucks.” Sir, your customers are searching the web for this phrase. That should tell you a lot about the levels of customer dissatisfaction out there.

Beyond the basic issues of the program, though, are the headaches and hoops that people have to jump though to get technical support. US customers universally hate dealing with technical support located in other countries. I’m sure you personally hate having an issue with your computer or credit card and ending up on the phone with India or the Philippines. So why do you subject your customers to this hellish experience?

I personally believe that there is a strong issue with one of two things at Intuit, possibly both:

  1. Groupthink: As defined on Wikipedia: “Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group. During groupthink, members of the group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking. A variety of motives for this may exist such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group. Groupthink may cause groups to make hasty, irrational decisions, where individual doubts are set aside, for fear of upsetting the group’s balance. The term is frequently used pejoratively, with hindsight.” I believe Groupthink is what resulted in the new online banking module that was so bad your company actually went back and reinstalled a means to use the old version. I strongly sense that employees are encouraged not to rock the boat by being a customer advocate, but simply to embrace the Intuit way. What you need is a team of customer advocates whose job it is to constantly question why the engineers are doing things that make the program more complicated for users, rather than less complicated.

  2. Institutionalized arrogance: I have long had the feeling that Intuit is not interested in the way that customers do business or even use the program. The company decides how the program “should” be used and then designs it in that manner, despite that customers may find it counter-productive, counter-intuitive, and annoying. The errors in designing the online banking module are a perfect example.

    Further arrogance can be found in the way that Intuit structures its Payroll Services, making it increasingly difficult and increasingly expensive for users, rather than simpler and less expensive. The pricing of products in the Intuit marketplace, such as checks and deposit slips, is not competitive with companies such as Costco Check Printing. Does Intuit honestly believe that its products are one hundred percent better and thus should be one hundred percent more expensive? I respectfully submit the products are not better and the Payroll Services have not been made easier and more effective, only more expensive. Intuit even had the arrogance to increase the price of Direct Deposit during the worst economy of our lifetimes. Way to support the customer base in a down economy!

I have, over the years, seen some improvements in the program. The ability to file tax forms electronically on both the federal and state levels is one of them. But otherwise, I feel I have seen few improvements. I have asked for years that the Job Description field be made part of the Memorized Transaction list or that the name field for that list be longer, or both. That change has never been made. I have asked for years that calculating items be created, so that you can use percentages of item X for item Y. That has never been added. I have urged QuickBooks to have true synchronization or coordination with Microsoft Outlook and with software (being able to tie shipments to QB customers or Vendors) and that has never happened. QuickBooks has never even been able to differentiate Customers and Vendors with the same name without the user customizing the names! Really, where is the innovation that would inspire customers to stay with and upgrade with QuickBooks? Thank God I’m a PC user. If I were a Mac user, this letter would be five times longer, given that lack of support, improvement, and innovation Intuit has provided the Mac community.

QuickBooks has, in essence, become nothing more than an American automobile model. It changes colors and shapes a little bit now and then. It adds a bell and whistle here and there, but is as likely to remove it in the next version. And like American automobile companies, Intuit will crash and burn if it doesn’t start listening to the customers and giving them what they want: a better program, that makes their lives easier, not harder, less expensive options for add-ons like payroll and supplies, and technical support that is located in the United States.

Thank you for your time in reading this letter. It would be greatly appreciated if I could receive confirmation that this letter was actually given to and read by you and not intercepted by administrative personnel tasked with keeping the “little people”/customers from bothering you.

Andrew Zack