Thursday, February 19, 2009

In These Harsh Economic Times...

Dear Rejector:

The following is gleaned from the latest issue of Publisher's Weekly:

“With bookstore sales falling the last four months of 2008, total sales for the year fell 0.5%, to $16.93 billion.”

“Bookstore sales were off 4.7% in December, an improvement over the 13.0% and 5.6% declines posted in November and October.”

“Sales for the 81 publishers that report their revenue to the Association of American Publishers fell 2.4%, to $10.6 billion, in 2008. . . The 13% decline in the adult hardcover segment was the result of a 5.3% drop in gross sales plus a steep 10.8% increase in returns.”

As you know, Houghton Mifflin has stopped accepting new submissions and Borders is on the ropes.

How is the downturn in book sales affecting literary agencies? Are agents taking on fewer new clients? Are agencies relying more on their existing best selling authors? Are colleagues of yours in fear of losing their jobs? How should unpublished authors trying to break in view all of this? Should we follow in Hemingway's and Poe's footsteps and just do ourselves in? Worse -- get a real job?

Yes, chicken little was right. The sky is falling. Soon people will be burning books for fuel and attaching spikes to their cars. Me, I plan to camp out at Walmart. I think I could last pretty long in a Walmart in some kind of massive global socio-economic destruction. They have food and clothing and camping equipment and generators. I would be fine.

Despite the corporate doom-and-gloom, publishing is actually a fairly stable industry in that people always want/need books. It's either for school or escapism, and it's rather cheap escapism, as most mass market paperbacks are now cheaper than a movie ticket and the book will last you longer. And not all publishing companies are doing badly. Yes, I don't know an editor who isn't under a little extra stress (or a lot of extra stress because half her department was cut and merged with another imprint), but most companies are in the black or near the black, and the ones doing well are being tight-lipped about it, hoping no one will figure out their secret. (Hint! It's probably cheating the authors with low advances and bottom-level royalties!)

The one company that is actually gaining in this crisis is Amazon, despite the rising cost of postage and increasingly slow speed of mail, along with the bankruptcy of DHL (bad for Barnes and Noble). Their used book seller program is probably generating them insane profits, allowing them to slash prices on new books, which then increases buying and gets them more profits. My book was recently reduced by about $1.50 on Amazon and is now selling about twice as many copies. I don't care about the sticker price, as my contract stipulates that I get my royalties based on the established retail price (the price set by the book company), so whatever the stores sell it at, I still get the same $1.12 or whatever it is per copy. Also, another way Amazon is able to offer great deals is that while bookstores have earn 50% of the retail price (the rest going to the publishing company), Amazon earns 55%, meaning it makes more on each book and can afford to keep the prices down to attract customers. Also Amazon sells a lot of other stuff, which just generally keeps the company afloat. I recently bought $35 headphones through a used seller for $4.00 AFTER shipping. And they were new in box.

Will the publishing companies go bankrupt? I doubt it. They may decrease in size, merge imprints, merge companies, or just shift around their lists, but they will survive and then thrive when the economy picks up again. People need books and POD technology is not yet economically viable to produce those public domain classics; you need a real company to do that. When the cost of POD goes down significantly, we will probably see a real restructuring of the industry, but not before.

What does this mean to literary agents? Well, advances are lower and it's certainly a bad time to become a literary agent, but my boss doesn't seem worried at all. If anything, she's rejecting more because we're seeing more queries as people who've been laid off submit books now that they have the time to write them. A ton of queries in her inbox can put her in a rejecting mood if she's just gotten some contracts out for rights in Indonesia and the Korean translation of the newest bestseller on her list just came in. This doesn't affect my work. Actually, it puts you guys at an advantage, as I'm not prone to be busy with another area of the business and reject queries because I'm busy, as my primary (but not only) job is to read queries. So, I'll put the normal amount of maybe's in the pile until she says there's too many, and then I might get a bit more discriminating, but usually not by much.

What does this mean to you? It could be good news, despite what I just said about my boss. (She really is a nice person, and takes on new authors all the time, but a large query pile can be staggering) Even if money is coming in from old backlisted items and current bestsellers, a good agent is always on the look out for new things, and probably on the lookout for more things with the knowledge that the advance is going to be lower for each book. In other words, agents have an incentive to actively look for new clients.

Either way, if you've written a good book, submit it. Just don't expect a big check to come if sells.

14 comments:

mari said...

Thanks for the bolstering words. With all the stress of the economy, it's nice to hear reasonable chin-up-and-tighten-your-boot-straps remarks.

J. Mayhew said...

that was very informative - thank you!

L.C. Gant said...

God bless you for your positivity! All of the negative comments about the economy were really getting me down. It helps to hear a balanced perspective from an insider: yes, things are bad, but it's not the end of the world. It was just what I needed!

james said...

Thanks for the quick reply to my question. While your answer seems a bit counterintuitive, it nonetheless keeps a writer from setting his/her hair on fire.

Charlie said...

This recession has hit us especially hard. I've been out since mid-november and my wife is in real estate!
File me with the other writers who now have plenty of time to finish their projects.

Tiffany Schmidt said...

Thank you for taking all the doom & gloom statistics and headlines and finding an optimistic stance. I find that within my circle, people are reading more than ever (since weekends away, nights out, and tickets of all sorts are now so expensive). Let's hope that a reading revolution emerges from this economic climate and continues beyond it as well.

Brian Crawford said...

Over the weekend I attended the SF Writers Conference, where I heard a lot of doom and gloom about the publishing industry. But there was much optimism, too – mainly from the unflappable writers.

There was something paradoxically comical about writers trying to sell themselves in every breakout session, bathroom, and buffet line. If you want to feel like a god for a day, fashion a name badge that says "editor" or "agent" and stroll around a writers conference. Jesus himself could've floated through the crowd, and he would've been trampled on the way to the agents' table. But the editors and agents all handled it with grace and professionalism. Witnessing the milieu, I gained a deep respect for editors and agents (and assistants), and a better understanding of what it's like on their side of the table.

The Rejecter said...

Brian,

This is why many agents do not go to conventions.

To all users,

Just a note that I rejected a comment today (something I rarely do and really don't care for doing) because it was a plug for a personal blog, which the URL listed twice. Do not plug your blog here, however relevant your blog might be to the conversation.

Jim MacKrell said...

Tough times are fruitful for bringing worthwhile material to market. Remember Sylvester Stallone carried around "Rocky" for years until someone said.."yes lets make it" I watched the demise of boutique talent agencies in Hollywood. Yet with the right client may grew into mega houses. Same is going to happen to Literary Agents when and if they decide that they must put the old "format" of the all knowing and all seeing expert on the back burner and really get involved with writers who have new and different ideas of marketing.

Jim MacKrell said...

Tough times are fruitful for bringing worthwhile material to market. Remember Sylvester Stallone carried around "Rocky" for years until someone said.."yes lets make it" I watched the demise of boutique talent agencies in Hollywood. Yet with the right client may grew into mega houses. Same is going to happen to Literary Agents when and if they decide that they must put the old "format" of the all knowing and all seeing expert on the back burner and really get involved with writers who have new and different ideas of marketing.

Anonymous said...

I'm repped by a top agent who sells an average of 200 books a year (herself, not counting the books her junior agents sell), and even she acknowledges that the pub industry is in the toilet right now. A bunch of deals she had inked in the fall got abruptly "cancelled" in December, and publishers also starting cancelling second and third books on multibook contracts she negotiated. Meanwhile, many of the editors she works with have stopped buying. She doesn't expect things to loosen up for at least six months, if not longer.

But she says that it WILL loosen up, it's just a matter of when.

Rick Chesler said...

I like your blog, Rejecter!

ALR said...

Thanks! I really needed to hear this. I can take less money, no problem. The important thing to me is getting published and sharing my story with the world.

Heather Massey said...

[...]The title from one of The Rejecter’s recent posts, In These Harsh Economic Times, belies what is basically a hopeful message[...]