Thursday, December 22, 2011

MAJOR QuickBooks Suckage

A few days ago, I got a call from the Product Manager at Intuit for QuickBooks 2012.  Nice guy.  Wanted to know if it would be okay for him to email me some responses to some of my comments that I made in my prior reviews of QuickBooks.  Hopefully, before he does that, he'll read this post.

I bank at JPMorgan Chase.  It's a smallish bank with branches only in every state of our nation (well, not sure about Hawaii and Alaska, actually).  They are also very technologically behind.  I mean, sure, you can take a picture of a check with your iPhone and it counts as a deposit, but don't try that with a Blackberry!  I jest, of course.  Chase is huge and very on top of the technology for banking.

I have used QuickBooks to send transactions to Chase for years.  I even used the BillPay feature for a while, but gave it up because I found it too unpredictable.  I'd put in a date and then the software would tell me I was too late and change the date, etc.  But for simple transfers, it was a breeze.  Until recently.  Recently, it's a car wreck, pure and simple.  I've talked to Chase and they asked me to email my log files.  Alas, the email address I was given did not work.  Still, Chase insisted it was a problem with QuickBooks and I don't have reason to doubt them, especially since I'm scheduling transfers on 12/21/2011 and getting back messages saying "The transfer will be effective as of the end of 11/02/2010."  Huh???!



And it really does put the transfer back in November 2010.  The only way to fix it is to delete the transfer and then manually create a new one on the right date.

The other really fun thing that's been happening is that bank charges are not downloading into QuickBooks.  For example, I received a wire of funds.  Chase charges me $15.00 to receive that wire (yes, that sucks, but right now we're talking QuickBooks suckage not Chase suckage) and if I then turn around and wire the client his funds, Chase charges $25.00 to send that wire.  Each of these charges shows as a "Misc. Debit"  However, it seems that since I upgraded to 2012, these fees are not downloading.  So only because I know they exist and I go look them up on the Chase site and manually enter them, do I know they took place.  Things could get ugly without knowing about those charges, right?

So is this Intuit's problem or Chase's problem?  I'd argue both.  Though I've avoided the fees for years, Chase does charge a fee for the "privilege" to download transactions from their servers to QuickBooks.  If it isn't working right, I think the response should be "Holy sh^t!  Someone get Intuit on the phone."  Not, "Well, have you called Intuit to tell them about the problem?"

I did call QuickBooks support today.  I think the rep was in Manilla.  And despite speaking pretty good English, he seemed to have no understanding at all that I'd found a bug in their program.  I asked for a tier two rep and was put on hold for so long, I hung up.  Tomorrow I'm going to call the Office of the President at Intuit again.  And maybe I'll try the Office of the President at Chase.  Maybe someone from one of those offices might be inclined to call the other and get some kind of investigation going.

Of course, it could just be my copy of QuickBooks.  I could try and reinstall, but until someone tells me that's what I should do, I'm operating under the assumption that it's not my problem, it's QuickBooks'...or maybe Chase's.

Z

Friday, December 02, 2011

The November Monthly Round-Up

As a literary agent, the truth is that I'm only going to be in business as long as I keep selling books, and to do that I need books to sell.  Thus, submissions are actually an important thing in my life.  But like everything in business, priorities often shift.  But I do make an effort every month to both make progress on my submissions and also to report to you where I'm at.  So here, without further delay, is...the November Monthly Round-up!

In November, we...

  • Received 68 queries; declined 9;
  • Received 2 sample chapters; declined 12;
  • Received 2 proposals; declined 0;
  • Received 3 manuscripts; declined 1.

As of December 2nd, we have...

  • 166 eQueries to read;
  • 1 proposal to read;
  • 14 full manuscripts to read.

We are currently waiting on the following requested materials:

  • 5 sample chapters;
  • 1 full manuscript.

My goal is to get through all of the eQueries by the end of the year.  I have two of those fourteen manuscripts out with a reader and hopefully I'll be able to look at a couple before the end of the year.

Thanks, as always, for your patience.

Z

So What Do You Think of Self-Published Authors?

So, I'm curious then where you stand on authors who self-published (orig, not backlist) but are doing well? Not those pulling Amanda Hockings, but well. Do you see a way how agents could help them to do even better? Can an agent come in after the fact and open new arenas for them? Or is well not enough? Just curious. 

The short answer is that even the Chia Pet sells millions every year.  (This year, I'm getting Chia Obama!  Okay, seriously, is that not just a bit disrespectful and even borderline racist that there is a Chia Obama?)  How many crappy TV shows have stayed on the air season after season?  Germans really like David Hasselhoff's singing???!

Okay, that's a bit snarky.  I'm sure there are many excellent self-published novels.  Alas, over the years, none of the ones that have been sent to me have been that great.  I did take one on for representation in 1994 or so, the title of which I have completely forgotten.  It didn't sell.

I remember reading a review of Amanda Hocking's works.  It was not favorable.  Then again, I know plenty of editors laughed at David Gernert when he was an editor at Doubleday and paid, I think, $250,000 to acquire THE FIRM.  Now he's Grisham's agent and laughing all the way to the bank.  Plenty of editors have told me over lunch that they would not have acquired THE DA VINCI CODE, because they didn't think it was that good a book.

Now I enjoyed THE FIRM and found it to be a perfect "popcorn read."  Very good pacing.  But I thought it was written at an eighth-grade reading level.  I couldn't finish THE DA VINCI CODE, because I grew up reading Hardy Boys novels and then I moved onto more complex fiction.  THE DA VINCI CODE, bestseller that it is, is not complex fiction and is, I feel, not much more than a Hardy Boys novel.  I'm not even sure it's at an eighth-grade reading level.

So what's my point?  Well, the market is the final decider, though it's a shame that what that often means is that works with lower common denominators succeed better than more complicated works of fiction.

Now, could an agent help those self-published novelists do better?  Perhaps, but it depends on a few factors.  For example, is the book truly well-written and not just selling?  Because people who acquire books for foreign publishers or for movies or for audio tend to be "book people," meaning they may turn up their noses at anything that's just selling but isn't also well-written.  I have shopped books by at least one New York Times bestselling author and editors turned them down because they didn't like the story or didn't find the jokes funny.  C'mon!  The guy sells.  Put aside your personal opinion and make the house some money!

But if an author self-published and said to me, "I worked with Beth Lieberman or Ed Stackler [or another quality freelance editor I know], and then I had the book professionally copyedited by a copyeditor who has edited over one hundred novels for Random House, and I had it professionally proofread after conversion to ensure it was clean, and I've sold thousands of eBooks and really want a deal with a 'real' publisher,'" I'd certainly be interested.  But if the author just wrote it, self-published it, and didn't go through a true editorial process, I would have less interest.  Strong sales might be enough to get me to look, but in the end the person has to be a good writer, in my opinion, or I won't take him or her on.

Z

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Been Dying to Meet Me? Here's Your Chance!

Just a quick note to mention that I'll be attending the Southern California Writers' Conference in San Diego, Presidents' Day Weekend, February 17-20th.

Here's the link:  http://www.writersconference.com/sd/.

Hope to see you there!

Z

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Merits of Small Publishers


"I would love to read your thoughts on the merits (or lack thereof) of publishing via small, boutique publishing companies. As a first time author, I get the feeling that I have a better chance of being published if I am able to make a deal directly with a small company, but I fear that I may lose out on potential earnings and exposure versus working to get connected with a major publisher. What are your thoughts."—Kevin Jackson

Small publishers play an important part in the industry, often nurturing newer authors who would otherwise not see print at larger houses.  However, they often pay very small or even no advance.  And authors need to beware of contracts that are grossly advantageous to the publisher.  For example, such contracts may insist on World rights, including audio and even film and television rights.  Larger NY publishers would be less likely to insist on such terms, especially if the author is represented by an agent.

Additionally, smaller publishers may not have the resources to actively promote and market your work.  Even with larger publishers, much of the weight of promoting a first novel falls on the shoulders of the author.  The publisher is not looking to make a bestseller; it is looking to make a profit.

I once heard a New York Times bestselling author complain about how her publisher promoted her work.  It had hit the list around number eight.  She asked her publisher, "How are we getting it to number one?"  They informed her the marketing budget was already spent.  She said, "I understand, but we hit the list.  What can be done to move it up the list?"  They replied, "The marketing and advertising budgets have already been spent."  She ranted and raved about the stupidity of this publisher.  I sat in the back shaking my head.  She didn't get it.  The publisher never expected the book to hit the list.  When it did, it was like hitting a jackpot.  Why keep pouring money onto the table if you are up really big?  One could argue that you are now playing with the house's money, so why not?  I would argue that that is a sucker's bet, as the odds always favor the house.

And perhaps there was more.  Perhaps the titles already on the list were selling in such greater numbers that there was no way to move up the list.  Perhaps the publisher already saw a trend in reorders that said sales were going to drop off, so it would be a losing bet to spend more on marketing.  Either way, it seems petty of the author, whose book was made into a movie and undoubtedly sold hundreds of thousands more copies after that, to complain that her publisher got her onto the bestseller list, but didn't do enough to make it move up the list.

On the other hand, small publishers will do nothing.  Fortunately, in this day and age of blogs and websites, the cost of promotion has come way, way down.  Small publishers and authors can do far, far more for far less.  Alas, we are all inundated with information from websites and Facebook postings, so you have to constantly barrage the end-user to penetrate the natural defenses against such promotions.

So, for many, smaller publishers can be a great opportunity to get into the business.  But there are caveats and authors should given them close attention.

Z

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

QuickBooks 2012: The Adventure Continues!

Yesterday I reported on my starting up with QuickBooks 2012.  Here are a few more observations.  Today, when I launched the program I got an error message that presented me with a link to the support site.  Always interesting that they know the error comes up and, rather than fixing the software, they send you to the support site where the advice is to "toggle your UAC" settings.  Seems to me that QuickBooks should toggle something and fix the problem.

I did install the QuickBooks Contacts Sync add-in.  My first reaction was surprise that it wanted me to import my QuickBooks contacts into Outlook.  This seems completely bassackward.  Obviously, contacts will first be in Outlook, not in QuickBooks.  Additionally, I use many generic entries in QuickBooks, like "Gas Station" and "Restaurant."  I won't need to sync those, so why would I want to import them?

My first step in using this is to create a specific QuickBooks Contacts folder in Outlook and then start the Sync add-in from Outlook.  It wants me to map fields.  I find some of these fields a bit strange.  For example, it wants to put Contact from QB into the Manager's Name field in Outlook and the Alt Contact from QB into the Assistant's Name field in Outlook.  To quote the kids, WTF?

Okay, so I did all that and then I get a "Contact Sync Error:  Unsupported QuickBooks version | Contact Sync will only work with QuickBooks 2005 or later."  Okay, seriously.  I'm running 2012.  Why am I getting this idiotic error?

On a second try, I don't mess with any of the mapped fields.  I just let QB use the defaults.  I have the sudden realization that I am syncing with an empty Contacts folder in Outlook and said that Outlook wins in any disagreements with Outlook and QuickBooks.  I wonder if a ton of data will now be deleted from QuickBooks and am praying I backed everything up!

Looks like I am okay....

Looking at the data in Outlook, though, I have to say I'm not impressed.  Addresses in the imported data are often missing line breaks, so the street address and city are running together.  Additionally, do I really need the address for American Express or Citi Cards in Outlook?  There are some addresses that need only be in Outlook and some that need only be in QuickBooks.  Perhaps what we need is selective syncing or integration of the Outlook files with QuickBooks in a manner similar to how the Stamps.com software integrates with Outlook.

Right now, I'd say that the Outlook/QuickBooks Sync Add-On is not ready for Prime Time.  It still feels clunky and not completely functional.  I'll be uninstalling it.

Z

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

QuickBooks 2012: Worth it or skip it?

I just installed my review copy of QuickBooks 2012 and wanted to share my immediate impressions.

Install went relatively easily.  I was asked if I wanted to replace my 2011 edition or put 2012 in its own directory.  Since 2011 was in a directory labeled 2011, I opted for a new directory and can uninstall 2011 when I feel ready.

Of course, you have to register by logging into your existing QB account online or by creating one.  I find this pesky, but standard.

QuickBooks 2012 did not automatically update and I can't say I understand why.  There was a prompt about it and I said go ahead, but it did not seem to happen.  So I did it manually.  First attempt failed with an error.  Second attempt worked.

In launching, I noticed that the Sync Manager was closed.  2012 doesn't use it the same way that 2011 did, which I consider an improvement.

Online Banking worked with two credit cards, but failed with my bank until the third attempt.  After the first attempt, I got an error message telling me to call the bank.  Fortunately I ignored it and kept trying.

QuickBooks 2012 includes a calendar on which you can enter To Do items and "Leads."  I can't think of a more useless feature and waste of resources.  Any business user has already got a To List process and probably a Leads process.  Why would QuickBooks want to try and replace such systems, e.g., the Outlook calendar or a lead system like ACT! or Salesforce.com?  There's no chance  it will compete, so why waste the resources?

QuickBooks 2012 now includes a Documents Center, where you can store scanned bills, invoices, etc.  You can then attach them to specific items, such a check.  On the one hand, this makes sense; it allows you to attach everything related to a job to that job.  Presumably you can then drill down and look at each item by opening something related to the job.  My issue with this is stability.  I simply don't imagine that storing a lot of attachments linked to QuickBooks items will increase the stability of the program.  I presume it increases the chances of file corruption and makes the amount of work required to recover from a corrupt file that much greater.  Geometrically greater.  I won't be using it.

QuickBooks 2012 also includes a Leads Center.  This aspect is presumably to compete with ACT! and other lead-tracking and sales-tracking programs and software.  It's exceptionally simple:  just an address book really, plus temperature-based tracking options (warm, hot, etc.), and the ability to "Convert to Customer" in one click.  Again, to me this seems like it will only create a more bloated file and increase the odds of errors and corruption in mission-critical software.

A better use of Intuit's resources would have been to increase integration with Outlook.  Seamless integration with Outlook would help users keep contacts' information in QuickBooks up-to-date.  Or how about simply coming up with a system that let's one contact be both a vendor and a customer, instead of having to have two different lists?  That would be far more useful than either a calendar or a lead-tracking option.  QuickBooks does offer an add-on option involving Outlook but I have not yet tested it.  I will report when I do.

Looking around the menus, I see that there is now a Condense Data function that replaces the Clean Up Company Data utility.  It seems pretty aggressive and should be used with care.  I would check with my accountant to determine the exact date before which I can condense all data.

QuickBooks 2012 works with both Intuit Payment Network and Intuit Payment Solutions and there are options for both within the program.  Confused?  I think Intuit maybe also.  IPN allows you to transfer money from you to vendors or customers to you for only fifty cents per transaction.  The party getting paid is charged the fifty cents.  Intuit Payment Solutions lets you accept credit cards and eChecks and the like.  It is essentially full-on merchant services and it all runs from within QuickBooks.  A lot of what you do with IPN may require you to go to the IPN website.  IPN also lets you accept credit cards and is less costly than IPS, but it's not as streamlined a solution.  My suspicion, though I have no evidence to support this, is that IPS is really a third-party vendor and that Intuit is getting ready to transition that service in-house to IPN.  I wouldn't be at all surprised to see that IPN is fully integrated by 2013 and that IPS as we know it is gone.  But will this mean lower prices for QuickBooks users who want merchant services?  Only time will tell.

Looking through the rest of the menus, I see the standard and annoying options to order checks and supplies that Intuit still puts in there.  Unfortunately, Intuit is still massively overpriced compared to other check-printing services and I've never had a problem using the checks I've gotten from Costco Check Printing or Checks-in-the-Mail.  If you really want to overpay, you can go through Intuit or Deluxe, but why would you?

Now Intuit has added some new features to QuickBooks over the years, including major improvements in the ability to file tax forms and pay taxes online.  Also Direct Deposit for Vendors (and a menu item to send those Direct Deposits; previously you had to know to use the menu item under the employees menu).  I can't tell if they yet allow Direct Deposit from two different accounts (say you have one for paying vendors and one for payroll), but I hope so.  I still think it's a must.

And I'm looking forward to processing my 1099s electronically this year, rather than using pre-printed forms.  Will it save me money?  I'm not sure, but I'm hopeful.  In playing with the process to see how it might go, I was confused by one Vendor item that did not seem to be showing up.  However, when I went to Preferences and 1099 Payments and opened the mapping window from there, it did show up.  Now, opening up the Print/File 1099 window includes it.

Mapping 1099 fields is entirely different in 2012, so be sure to double-check all of your fields.  Printing also appears to be different and likely going to present a headache for some.  For example, I have clients outside of the US.  I can't issue them a 1099, but I do need that 1099 figure to print out the form they get.  I'm not sure I'm going to be able to get that via QuickBooks now, since it didn't like the foreign address in one field.  Actually, looking at it, it appears QuickBook has a major bug!  It won't accept a non-US address in the 1099 Vendor list!  So even if you have US citizens living abroad, you won't be able to send them a 1099!  As Scooby Do would say, "Ruh roh!"

After going through the 1099 wizard, if you select print, you get back to the interface you'll recognize and you can preview your 1099s.  However, if you select "Go to Intuit E-File Service," it launches Intuit's Sync Manager and opens a screen that tells you you cannot file until January 2012.  You can print your 1099s on plain paper, it says, and you won't need a 1096.  There is no pricing information on the site, though, which is annoying.  If you are like me and trying to figure out which way to go, it would help to know what it would cost you.

Additionally, there's no sample form to show you what it would look like if you printed your own forms.  As I said to the rep when I called, using the pre-printed forms is pretty painless.  But if I have to print my own forms and those forms then have to be folded and put in envelopes that then have to be labeled, that's more of a pain than using the pre-printed forms.
Having now spent more than an hour and having spoken with several departments at QuickBooks, I could not find anyone to help me with this.  Thus, once again, I'm going to have to call the Office of the President at Intuit and see if someone there can actually get me an answer.  I've got Chad on the line now and we'll see what he has to say....

More to come!

Z



Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The October Monthly Round-up

Better late than never, here's the October monthly round-up.  I have to say, October and November have been crazy busy here.  First, there's been a top-secret negotiation and contract done that I could tell you about, but then I'd have to kill you...or at least be prepared to get my butt kicked for violating an NDA.  Next, my son, Sam, turned one, and so we had family in town.  Oh, and we were all sick.  And, last but not least, I never did find a fall intern, so I currently have no first reader.

So let me be frank.  I'm behind.  In fact, I'm quite behind.  And that situation is unlikely to improve until the holiday break.  So please be patient and remember that with everything we request, we offer the opportunity to order Express Review™ (so if you are really tired of waiting for me to read something, that's always an option).

Okay, here's where I currently stand:

In October, I received...
  • 79 queries and declined 5
  • 3 manuscripts and declined 2
  • 1 sample chapter that I declined.

Now, I have on-hand...
  • 118 queries that I have yet to read
  • 19 sample chapters to read
  • 2 proposals to read
  • 16 full manuscripts, of which three are from current clients

I will let you in on a little clue:  I read paper queries faster.  eQueries™ are easy to let pile up.  They don't take space on my desk.  But paper queries do take up space, so I try to get rid of them one way or another quickly.  The downside, of course, is that if I request something, it's just getting added to the pile.  Then again, I'm only waiting on 5 requested sample chapters.

There's a temptation to close to new queries, but where's the logic in that?  The reality is that I need to get more reading done.  This, of course, is highly dependent on my kids sleeping through the night, so that I'm compos mentis enough to get reading done.  So if you know any tricks to get a three-year-old to stay in bed the whole night (and perhaps a way to increase the size of his bladder), I'd love to hear them.

In the meantime, your patience is, as always, appreciated.  And if you know anyone who wants to intern for me (preferably locally; a "virtual intern" isn't really accountable enough), I'd love to hear from him or her.  Just send him or her to my website's Internships page.

Z


Monday, October 31, 2011

Intuit Payment Network Adds Credit Card Processing

If you've never heard of the Intuit Payment Network, I don't blame you.  I can't say that I feel they are marketing it much, since I rarely see mention of it online anywhere.  But if you are, or you are a regular reader of this blog, you know I've written about the major weakness of IPN:  it didn't process credit cards.  Well, now it does.

I've previously written that IPN appears to be competing with PayPay, but that it didn't want to compete with QuickBooks' built-in credit-card processing, so it wasn't an option.  They seem to have "cut the baby in half," so to speak at Intuit.  There now is credit-card processing via IPN, but it's not within QuickBooks and requires more steps than the built-in processing does.  Still, at least it's offered and there are no monthly fees, as there are with the built-in feature.  However, the processing fees are higher with IPN than with PayPal, at least if my math is correct.  So how can they expect to compete with PayPal?

I posted a comment on the IPN blog at http://ipnteam.wordpress.com/2011/10/18/coming-soon-donate-buttons-for-non-profits-credit-card-on-payment-requests-and-a-slick-new-home-page/, but they apparently didn't approve the comment or don't moderate comments very often.

My other peeve is that IPN is supposed to "sync" with QuickBooks, at least if you have Intuit Sync Manager running.  This is to save you the double-entry that you have to do with PayPal.  If it worked, it would be one advantage IPN has over PayPal.  Except it doesn't work.  And when I called Support there for assistance, they said the issue would be escalated and that was the last I heard.

Ironically, I just completed one of those online questionnaires from Intuit, asking me what I thought of their customer service.  The last question was, "On a scale of 1 to 10...I think QuickBooks values me as a customer."  I answered zero.

QuickBooks continues to be that kid that you know that you sense wants to do right, wants to be good, yet can't stop sticking his foot in his mouth or acting out.  The lack of coordination and planning is apparent.  As always, I keep wanting QuickBooks to be better, to do better.  But the waiting continues.

If you've cracked open QuickBooks 2012, I'd love to hear your comments on what works or doesn't work.  I'm still waiting...and waiting...and waiting...for my review copy, but once I get it, I'll be sure to share my thoughts.

Z

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Sort of Mid-October Monthly Round-up

A very happy New Year to all of my Jewish friends, family, and colleagues.  I hope you all had good holidays and easy fasts.

Life here at The Zack Company has been moving slowly, as I have no current intern and the entire family has gotten an early start to the winter cold season.  Don't worry.  I do great sleeping no more than thirty minutes at a shot before being woken up by a crying one-year-old or a crying three-year-old.  At least I got my flu shot.  Of course, for about two days after, I felt a bit like I had the flu.

Funny story.  Every year, my wife makes big plans for the Jewish holidays.  Often I'm a bit resistant.  I'm not a great Jew.  I'm a proud Jew, but not very religious.  This year, I tried to get on-board with the program.  I went out and bought two new suits and we joined a shul and everything.  We were all set.  Then I got sick.  So I missed Rosh Hashanah services because I was sick.  No worries, there's still Yom Kippur.  Except then our one-year-old got sick.  So I stayed home with him.  So, two new suits in the closet, never worn.  I better get invited to a couple of weddings soon, dammit.

So, the monthly round-up....  Here's the story.  I stayed up until eleven last night, trying to reconcile what we had electronically and what we had in physical format and where I am with all of it.  Lacking an intern, the reading has really slowed down.  I did, however, read a new novel by a new client that I took on not that long ago, and it's awesome.  A few tweaks here and there, and I'll be headed out to publishers with it.

So, here's what's been going on submission wise:

In September:

...we received 45 queries and declined 4;
...we received 3 sample chapters and declined 1;
...we received 1 manuscript and declined 1.


In October, so far:


...we received 19 queries and declined 3;
...we received 1 manuscript.


We currently have on-hand (give or take one or two):


...18 sample chapters;
...3 proposals;
...12 full manuscripts, including 2 from current clients;
...52 queries I have yet to go through.


I also discarded a number of queries that we'd answered with requests for more material, but never received.  We followed-up on most if not all of these at least once.  For the life of me, I can't say why someone would query me and then not submit when asked to.  Maybe I need to add a "confirm email" requirement on the web form, so that people don't give me bad addresses?


Obviously, as I am currently without a first reader, things are going to be going a bit slowly in the reading department.  I looks like we are currently reading material that came in in July.


As always, your patience is appreciated.


Z

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Where's the Monthly Round-up?

Regular readers of this blog know that I try and post every month with a round-up of where we are with submissions.  Alas, I never did the September round-up as I'm currently without an intern and life has been extra busy.  I'll post one at the end of this month.

I will offer that I actually have been reading current clients' works and haven't responded to a lot of new submissions, just a few queries here and there.

I also want to share a tale that might make a few of you tear some hair out.  It certainly frustrated me.  I just had a client terminate representation because she decided she wanted to self-publish.  That's her right, of course.  However, I only signed her in July!  That's right.  July.  This client was so impatient and apparently so unprofessional and immature that she signed with me and, roughly six weeks later, quit me.  And that's after two readings of her MS by my office, and editorial notes.  Practically wants me to add some kind of termination penalty clause to the representation agreement!

Now, this client complained that she originally queried me over a year ago.  That it took a while for us to read her sample chapter and her full MS.  But, in the end, we did offer representation.  And clearly no one else had, since she waited on us to respond to her work and accepted representation.  And then she quit us.

So if you've been waiting for an answer from us, one reason you haven't heard back is that we've been reading and providing editorial notes to this client who clearly wasn't committed.  I wish I could get back all the time we wasted on her, but we can't.

Folks, if you are going to submit to TZC, please be ready and willing and able to be represented by us.  We offer an immense amount of information on our website and our turnaround times should be clear by the month updates we've provided.  If we take you on, we will work tirelessly to get your work published.  But if you're just going to bail six or eight weeks after you sign with us, you're just wasting our time and yours.

Thanks.

Z

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Only YOU Can Stop the eBookocalypse!


“I don’t know, Andy.  Twenty-five percent of net doesn’t seem like a lot.  Maybe I should just publish it myself through Amazon.”

Editors, authors, and agents everywhere have been hearing this from clients for some time now.  From Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Program to Barnes and Noble’s PubIt program to Smashwords, “author-friendly” direct publishing programs are having a real impact on the publishing business.  And stories of authors who are selling millions of eBooks they self-published and then landing million-dollar print publishing deals from traditional publishers are leading authors to think, I can do that.

Unfortunately, this is somewhat akin to watching a lottery winner on the news and thinking, I can do that.

Like a lot of agents, I have been digging deep into the various options to bring my clients’ out-of-print works back into print and even to publish some originals.  This digging has included looking at Amazon, PubIt, Smashwords, and conversion vendors like Aptara, Impelsys, Constellation, codeMantra, and others.  It’s included conversations with agents who have launched their own operations using some of those vendors or other solutions.  And it’s included talking to some authors who have gone through the process.  And here’s where I’ve come out.

We are on the verge of an eBookocalypse.  Melodramatic?  Perhaps, but allow me to try and create an analogy.  Imagine if you went to Macy’s and started to find a lot of hand-sewn clothes from different, small lines.  These were not quality boutique items as we’ve come to expect such hand-sewn clothes to be, but instead were low-quality, with inconsistent sizing.  Next, imagine going to a car dealership and finding cars that were manufactured by companies the names of which you did not recognize.  The interiors seemed cheap and the engines did not perform like those of name-brand cars.  Now the quality of such items might be readily apparent to any potential buyer and they could steer clear.  But the same cannot be said of eBooks.

We have all had the experience of buying a book we don’t like.  But even if we don’t like the book, we can usually count on the book to have been printed and bound by a quality company.  We can usually expect the design and typesetting to be professionally done.  We just might not like the writer’s work.

Now, think back to an indie movie you might have seen and didn’t like.  You found the production quality lacking (“Hey, I can see the wires on that spaceship!”) or the lighting poor, or the sound quality bad (“Huh?  What did he say?”).  You wouldn’t know these things until you paid for and watched the movie.  The sad thing is that the acting could be great.  Even the writing could be great.  But the movie is ruined for you by bad production quality.

The reason I say an eBookocalypse is coming is because eBooks are vulnerable to failure both in the manner of a bad book and a bad movie—the writing could suck and the production quality could be poor.  And you won’t know it until you buy it and read it.

As a publishing veteran, I value the works published by different publishers in different ways.  I expect a higher quality of writing and production from Knopf titles.  I expect a different quality—say a more “popcorn read” quality—from Putnam books, and a lower production quality, such as cheaper paper, no endpapers, and no headband.  But I do expect decent typesetting and proofing from both companies and I know that every book published by both of those houses has gone through an editorial acquisition process, where more than one editor read it and deemed it publishable, and it went through an editing process where an editor read through the work and provided feedback and requested revisions.  It also went to a copy editor who looked over the work for issues with style, spelling, grammar, etc.  A designer worked on both the interior and the cover, to make an attractive book.  And a proofreader went through first- and second-pass proofs to ensure the typesetting job was as error-free as possible. 

Most, if not all, of these steps are missing from many of the eBooks hitting the market today.  And readers are starting to notice.

Creating a quality book is a time-consuming process and publishers are correct in their positions that there aren’t that many steps that can be skipped when creating a quality eBook versus creating a quality printed book.  Yes, printing and binding are eliminated, but not acquisitions expenses, contracting expenses, royalty reporting expenses, sales expenses, marketing and publicity expenses, editorial expenses (both development and copyediting), proofreading expenses, and distribution expenses (even if many of the distribution expenses related to physical books are eliminated, there are expenses to electronic distribution).

Dominique Raccah, Publisher and CEO of Sourcebooks, was kind enough to allow me to use this slide to demonstrate the value Sourcebooks feels it brings to the table for every book.  It’s compelling when one thinks about all it takes to publish an eBook or POD book into today’s marketplace.


In my search for a solution for my clients, I chatted with one new venture in the publishing world.  The venture, started by the former CEO of a major publishing house, has been partnering directly with authors, as well as with publishers, on bringing eBooks to the marketplace, as well as printed books in some cases.  In their model, the publisher and author split the proceeds from sales of the work 50/50, but all production costs, such as digitization, formatting, and distribution, are recovered from the author’s first proceeds.  And that’s just for reissues of out-of-print books.  On originals, the publisher gets world rights—including film!—and splits everything 50/50 with the author.  All “third-party costs,” e.g., developmental editor, copy editor, proofreader, design, publicist, and digital conversion, are recovered from the author’s first proceeds.

Compared to a traditional publishing deal, this seems a tough pill to swallow for any author.  For starters, traditional publishers pay authors an advance against which royalties are earned.  Those royalties in the eBook world are running mostly at 25% of net, but some publishers are rising to 35% of net.  On the sub-rights, for say translation and UK, the author usually gets 75% to 80%.  And the publisher pays all of the costs associated with editing, design, etc.  For an increase of 15% of net on an eBook and a loss of 25% to 50% on rights, this publisher wants to pass many costs along to the author, albeit on the back end.  But then there’s that pesky rights issue, too.  This publisher insists on controlling all rights, including film.  Rarely does a traditional publisher take that position.  And while this new model may include different opportunities to get the work made into a film, i.e., an association with a film production company, is that worth 50% to an author?

Thus, faced with the option of not finding a publisher or going with a publisher that takes half of everything, more authors are choosing to go the self-publishing route.  The problem is the steps that are being skipped and, let’s face it, just because an author can afford to self-publish doesn’t mean he or she has a book of high enough quality to deserve publishing.

As an editor, I worked on some questionable books.  All were books I did not acquire, but that I was assigned or hired to edit.  In such situations, I didn’t have any say in the acquisition for publication.  Yet these books were acquired, meaning editorial judgment was exercised.  And we’ve all read books and thought, This got published?  How?  Now, imagine what happens when the only editorial judgment at work is the author who decided to self-publish that book.  When I was an editor and was handed a book to edit that I found a difficult read, I did everything I could to make that book far more readable.  I tore books apart and put them back together.  I line-edited aggressively.  I wrote long, long editorial letters and made the author rewrite two or three times.  In one case, I just wrote the opening three chapters of the novel, to make it easier to get into the story.

Does every editor do this?  No.  In fact, I’d say there’s a growing tendency by editors to look for books that don’t need editing, so that their time can be better spent looking for new things, than editing the titles they’ve already acquired.  But there are still editorial meetings and there are still generally multiple reads on a title before an offer to publish it gets made.

As a reader, I’ve long looked at who published a book before buying it.  If I’m browsing books on Amazon, I certainly veer away from publishers I don’t know and anything via iUniverse.  Why?  Because I don’t yet know if I can trust the editorial judgment of those unknown houses and because I know that no editorial judgment was applied to the iUniverse title.  But I suspect most readers are more likely to look at a cover and read a blurb and thus may not realize how many steps might have been skipped in a book’s self-publication.  They may not know that “Abysmal Press” has published only one book and that the author never even spell-checked his own manuscript.

But I think readers are starting to catch on.  From comments on Amazon to articles in major newspapers, some of the bestselling self-published authors are taking heat for the production quality of their books and the quality of their writing.  Perhaps we can’t pick on the quality of the writing if the masses like it (plenty of publishers turned down THE FIRM and other bestsellers), but certainly we can expect that if you are going to put your name on the book, you need to put in the time and money to make sure you are producing a quality work. Because, if you don’t, then readers will find themselves more and more often turned off by the book they’ve just paid to read and may be more likely to put their money elsewhere next time, as in not into books, but into a movie or a videogame.  So, for all you authors out there thinking about self-publishing, do it right, or don’t do it at all, please.  For the sake of readers everywhere.  Only YOU can stop the eBookocalypse!

Z

Friday, August 26, 2011

New Formatting Tips

Most authors may not realize it, but editors and agents now do a lot of their reading on eBook readers.  The most popular seems to be the Sony Reader, since it works well for both Word documents and also PDF documents.  Keeping this in mind, there are a few things authors can now do to facilitate making their works easier to locate and read on Readers.

If you have a Word document, you want to navigate your way to Properties.  Here, fill in your name as the author in LastName, FirstName format.  Next fill in the title of your work in ALL CAPS.  Under category, you can fill in the genre or subject area of your work and under status, you could fill in the format, e.g., Manuscript; Proposal; or Chapters and Synopsis.  Next, under comments, you can fill in a one- or two-sentence summary of your work.

Last but not least, do a "save as" and rename your file.  I always use the following format:  LastName, FirstName, TITLE, v[#] where [#] is the version number.  I used to tell authors to date their manuscripts, but since that can sometimes make a project that's been kicking around for a while seem outdated, I've switched to versions.  You can also use the "save as" function to trick the "date created" field into thinking it's a new file.  This is useful if you revising an old project and want to submit it without readers knowing that it's an older work of yours.

Z

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Seems It's Time for Another Reminder

This week, we sent out "reminder" emails to more than a dozen authors from whom we had requested materials but never received them.  For a couple, it appeared to be an email glitch, but for some, we also heard back things like, "I haven't sent my manuscript since, in the meantime, my beta readers have made a number of useful suggestions and I'm re-editing it."  Fair enough, but shouldn't she have known that before she submitted it?  Later, she writes, "I thought it was when I queried you, but of course I was wrong."  Don't get me wrong; I appreciate that she wants to get me the work in the best possible shape, but I think she made a crucial error:  she started querying agents before she was 100% satisfied with her work.  You shouldn't.

Querying agents is a bit like going to an open house and making an offer on it.  Can you back out?  Sure.  But you look like you don't know what you are doing.  The seller presumes that if you are offering, you are ready to follow-through.  Similarly, if you query an agent, the expectation is that your material is ready to go.

I know that some agents take forever to respond to queries (we sometimes take a while, also), but all it takes is one that reacts immediately and favorably to get you to the next step.  But if you aren't acutally ready to show your material, you risk losing the interest of the agent.

Now this woman didn't lose my interest because of the delay.  I suggested she query me again when she is actually ready to show the material.  Thus, what she did lose was time, because she is now going to have to restart the process with my firm.  Seem unfair?  Consider what happened.  She queried.  We answered and requested material.  She didn't respond. We followed up.  She finally responded that she wasn't ready to show the material.  Are we supposed to keep track of her query and keep following up?  Or should we be spending our time on the projects we already represent or on the works of prospective clients who waited until they were ready before querying us?  Seems more fair now, right?

So, do your editing.  Get your reads.  But don't query until you are ready to email the entire manuscript if the first agent you query says she wants it that day.

Z

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

In Search of...Better eBook Royalty Rates


As a literary agent, I’m deeply immersed in the ever-changing world of eBook publishing.  At times, it’s like trying to buy an airline seat at the best price.  Policies shift and change, rates shift and change, and the way eBooks are sold shifts and changes.

For example, once upon a time, eBooks were sold like regular books, meaning that Amazon, for example, essentially “owned” the eBooks it was selling, having “bought” them from the publisher at a standard discount.  Having “bought” them, Amazon could then sell them at whatever price it chose, ignoring the publisher’s suggested retail price.  This, of course, is how Amazon built market for the Kindle, by selling eBooks at a loss.  Then publishers changed the game, announcing they were switching to an agency model (I should give credit to Apple here, for essentially forcing publishers into changing the game).  In an agency model, Amazon doesn’t “buy” the books from the publisher, but sells them as the publisher’s “agent.”  Thus, Amazon is forced to honor the price the publisher sets and currently receives 30% of that price as a commission for the sale.

Under this model, publishers have been trumpeting that they make less money and that authors will make more money if they agree to accept a net royalty, usually set at 25%.  In fact, at least one publisher unilaterally started paying authors at that rate, despite what contracts may have said, but then sent out a letter requiring an amendment to continue receiving the new rate.  In the drug business, they call this “giving the customer a taste.”  Most authors see they are making more money on the net rate and happily sign the amendment.  They don’t really ask any questions.  Agents, of course, have to wonder, is it really a better deal for the client to make this switch?  After all, since when do publishers try to increase the amount of money authors make?

Since the beginning of eBook publishing, agents have sat back and pondered, What do they know that I don’t?  After all, publishers have far more information and actual bean-counters and MBAs they can afford to pay big money to ponder the financial impact of switching from a retail-price-based royalty rate to a net one.  Agents and certainly authors may not have the same resources.

So I turned to a very bright friend, Ciara Kennedy, who has an actual MBA and mad skills with Excel, and presented her with a letter from a publisher that is telling authors they must agree to an amendment to continue getting the 25% of net rate versus, say, the 15% of retail rate that might be in the contract.  She built a dynamic spreadsheet for me that showed me the following:

Based on a $15.00 cover price and a 30% commission to Amazon, the publisher makes $10.50.  At 15% of retail, the author earns $2.25.  At 25% of net, the author earns $2.63.  Hence, net is better.  This remains the case up to a commission of 40%, which is the tipping point at which a retail-based rate is equal to the net-based rate.  And at 40.14%, the retail rate beats the net rate.

So what should this mean to authors and agents?  And why is such a big issue?  Well, the answer to the second question is the same as the answer to the question, Why do I want to invest my money rather than keep it under my mattress?  Because you want to make money off your money.  And you want to make money off your eBooks, since over time they will be the only editions of your book out there.  At some point, there will, in fact, be vast, vast libraries of eBooks and the books will never go out of print.  Like characters from a Star Trek episode, readers will be able to browse vast electronic libraries and pick and choose what to read.  As an author you will want to have your books available, because even if you only earn pennies from each reader, over decades, those pennies will turn into thousands of dollars.  But you want to make sure you are making as many pennies as you can.

When I was in high school in 1983, I started working in my local independent bookstore.  I packed a lot of returns and looked at a lot of invoices.  The standard discount to booksellers then was 42%.  Today, that “standard” is more often 50% or higher.  And just as that discount got bigger, I have to presume that the commission to Amazon and other sellers will eventually get bigger.  Now, publishers will argue that it will get smaller.  That as more markets that sell eBooks open up, publishers will be able to demand better deals.  I don’t believe it.  Amazon already charges a “delivery fee” on top of its commission.  Eventually, it will probably offer to drop that for a larger commission.  Or some other game-changer will come along and figure out a way to get a better deal, thus increasing commissions to sellers of eBooks, perhaps to the point where authors would be better off back at the old retail-based rate than the new net-based rate.

Additionally, if you read publishers’ contracts, there are rates for nearly every kind of sale.  How long will it be before publishers start charging different rates for different types of eBook sales?  For example, most contracts include “direct-to-consumer” rates, which used to be for when customers used those little forms in the back of books to order copies directly from the publisher.  Because of the additional costs of processing and fulfilling such sales, publishers pay a lower rate to the author.  Very soon, if not already, publishers will argue that eBook sales directly from their sites should be at a lower royalty.  Agents and authors know, though, that cutting out the middleman means saving a 30% commission, and should fight such rate changes tooth and nail.  Publishers should be paying significantly higher rates for sales directly from their websites, e.g., 50% of net, which splits the savings from cutting out the middleman, e.g., Amazon.  Publishers will argue that building their website cost money and so they need a bigger piece of the pie.  I call, “Bull—!” at such claims.  Publishers have already built those sites and they would with or without a bigger piece of the pie.  Their costs are amortized over thousands and thousands of titles and, more importantly, they are saving money on printing, paper, and binding and on warehousing and shipping on all of those books they let go OP other than the eBook edition.  Let them put those savings into the website development and pay a fair rate to the author.

There are also rates that change over time, often escalating.  Yet most eBook rates do not escalate, and that’s one of the bigger problems with them.  Publishers have made acquiring eBook rights a deal-breaker across the board.  Printed books are going away sooner than later (already many publishers have eBook-original lists), so having eBook rights are a must.  But why doesn’t the eBook royalty rate escalate as sales increase and increase, just as the printed-book rates did?  I have yet to hear any argument that justifies not raising them.  All I have ever heard is “it’s a deal-breaker, Andy.”  That needs to change.  In fact, I would argue that, over time, the publisher’s share from eBook sales should reduce significantly.  However, I don’t imagine that publishers will ever agree to pay 75% of net to authors.  But I do think we can and should get to 50% of net quickly, though I do not look forward to trying to define “net,” what with Amazon charging fifteen cents per megabyte as a delivery fee for eBooks and no doubt looking for other ways to carve a bigger piece out of the pie.

So where does this leave authors and agents trying to decide whether or not to sign an amendment that takes them from a 15% of retail rate to a 25% of net rate?  I’d say there are few things one should do:
  1. Include language that states the author will be paid based on the actual commission to resellers, before deductions for charges such as Amazon’s delivery charge, such commission not to be accounted for at greater than 40%.  In other words, even if the commission rose to 50%, the author’s royalties would be calculated as though it were 40%.
  2. Ask that direct-to-consumer sales via the Publisher’s own website be at a rate greater than 25% of net, ideally 50% of net.
  3. Ask for escalators similar to hardcover escalators, e.g., 25% of net on the first 5,000 copies sold, 37.5% of net on the next 5,000 copies sold, and 50% of net thereafter.
  4. Always include renegotiation language following the first two years and at any point thereafter should Publisher’s standard terms improve to the Author’s advantage.
Of course, not all authors or agents will succeed at getting these terms, but the sooner we start asking, the sooner we might get there.

Z