Literary agents have been slow to incorporate the entrepreneurial publishing model into their business plans. It’s understandable. The world as they know it no longer exists. Their memories are sweet, perhaps even bittersweet. At this fall’s SCWC, literary agents spoke about the shift in publishing during a panel moderated by editor, Jennifer Silva Redmond. Their responses to the many questions posed by writers ranged from enthusiastic to cautionary. Agent Jill Marr from the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency shared a story that caused her to shift her point of view; a story involving the bestselling author that got away. A while ago, Marr signed a writer to this well established agency but could not sell her book. After a sufficient time of trying, Jill Marr let this writer go. That writer proceeded to jump on the entrepreneurial publishing train and you guessed it. She not only found her tribe of readers, she sold the bejesus out of her book, enough to get the attention of the film industry. Her book is now being turned into a film. Jill Marr leaned into the mic and said, “I’m not going to let that happen again.” That experience turned Marr into a believer. She’s now agenting entrepreneurial writers down the indie publishing road, too. Then there was literary agent Babette Sparr. European born and raised, she became an agent just as traditional publishing began its slide. She has yet to become a believer and urged writers to proceed down the indie publishing trail ‘with caution.’ “My contacts in Europe still want to know who published the book and if it’s not one of the big five, they aren’t likely to pick it up” she told the audience. As I listened to Ms. Sparr share her ambivalence about the publishing shift, I couldn’t help but think: Europe needs to catch up with American publishing. The esteemed industry that legendary editors like Max Perkins created a long time ago is long gone.
But the clearest message about the state of American publishing came just a few hours after the agents’ panel wrapped up. It was delivered by keynote speaker. Brett Battles, a traditionally published author whose many books got caught in the spiral of traditional publishing’s ‘downsizing.’ Battles’ road to publication tale was familiar to many listening to him speak about the arc of his publishing life. For years, he queried literary agents. For years he got nothing back save for rejection letter after rejection letter. He kept writing, book after book, despite the chronic assault to his ego. Why? “I’m a writer. Since I was 12, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” Battles told the packed room filled with writers. .
Finally, through the help of a published friend, his novel got picked up by a small press. Soon, more good news. One of the big five not only bought his contract from the small press but offered him a ‘several book’ deal. Every writer’s dream, right? In the old days, that was right. But Brett Battles got published in the late 2000’s just as traditional publishing began to downsize. Many midlist author careers got caught in this downsizing shift. Why? Traditional publishing has no money for books that don’t make lots of money. Fortunately for Battles, by then he had survived enough battles in publishing to endure this one, too. What did he do? He joined the entrepreneurial author movement and now publishes his own books. Listen to the final words of his keynote address at SCWC’s fall conference here
Then, make up your mind about where to put your effort. Just remember, we are in the middle of a seismic shift that agents have no control over. Some agents, just like some authors, are figuring out how to salvage their careers. The best of both will survive and thrive once all this dust settles. And those agents who don’t? Some will probably end up writing ebooks about their experience that they will indie publish someday.
Nothing lasts forever. God bless Maxwell Perkins, the editor emeritus who back in his day, made the American publishing movement the envy of Europe. If he’s watching from his literary desk in the sky, he’s probably rolling over.
Like I said, nothing lasts forever.