Tuesday, May 13, 2014

NINJA STUFF: Swimming with Sharks (Part One)

Click here to read the second part of this post.

I'm feeling a little nervous today, Esteemed Reader, but I hope you're doing well. Why am I nervous, you ask. I want to talk about literary agents and publishers today, subjects I've typically avoided unless I had something positive to say. I usually bite my tongue because literary agents have been kind enough to appear here and it's important to me to be a good host.

When one of the literary agents who appeared here made an absolute fool of herself online by telling a writer to change the sexual orientation of a character and then further advocated writing primarily about heterosexual characters to improve sales, actually arguing with writers in comments sections, I said nothing.

The agent (one of 75, so good luck guessing who) was good enough to make time for this blog and that puts her in my cool book. Plus, having had first-hand dealings with publishers, I can't say for certain that she was giving bad business advice. Morally bankrupt advice, granted, but advice geared toward being published that might be worth listening to for those writers without scruples.

Before continuing, please allow me a brief aside: I drank a lot of soda in my teenage years (for more of my thoughts on Big Soda, see my novel All Together Now) and I wasn't as diligent with a toothbrush as I should've been. Since then, I've changed my ways and I now look forward to seeing my hygienist as she compliments my brushing and flossing--I even swirl fluoride twice a day. Good for me and good for future author photos, though I'm really attached to my usual cartoon avatar.

At one point, I went to a corporate emergency dentistry service because I'd delayed long enough to let a tooth get infected--and I had some other cavities. I was cornered by two dentists who assured me my mouth was a ticking time bomb and I would be reduced to nothing but gums soon (maybe that very night!!!) unless I had a crown put on almost every tooth and gave them more money than I've paid for all the cars I've ever owned combined. Needless to say, I was distraught and stupid enough to give them some money because, you know, they were doctors and I was in pain.

Later, chatting with a hygienist and asking multiple versions of the right questions, I got her to confess she was looking for a new job because this particular practice (a conglomerate across multiple states) paid their dentists commissions for crowns. And she had incentives to recommend  products to me as well. This is America, after all, and we can't even trust our car manufacturers not to kill us if there's money in it.

A friend gave me the name of an older dentist who'd been in business far longer and he took care of my teeth for less than $500 (all of them). I told him my story and he wasn't surprised as it's apparently common. Most of the teeth the previous dentists wanted to put crowns on didn't even have cavities.

So, shall I extrapolate from this experience that all dentists are bad and not to be trusted? Of course not. Obviously, I found a good dentist and I'm hanging onto him. And so, I say it is also true that just because some literary agents are sharks, one shouldn't get the idea that all literary agents are sharks (except for Janet Reid, but in her case being a shark is a good thing).

I'm going to list some specific examples of agents and publishers (without naming anyone in particular) behaving badly, but allow me to speak in generalization just a moment longer. First, despite my dig at American capitalism, my intention is not to argue that America isn't a fine place. It is and I count myself lucky to have been born here.

When I criticize rampant greed demoralizing our public institutions, I try to maintain a historical and global perspective. I get a lot of blog traffic from other countries and should any of those folks be reading from a place where they have no dental care, they're unlikely to be moved by my being inconvenienced to get mine. Current Americans can compare their economic position to the overwhelmed majority of Americans in Gatsby's time, but we have iPhones and air conditioning and access to a vaccine for polio--so ya know, have some perspective.

Second, it is not my intention to argue ideology as this isn't late night in a dorm and we have business to discuss. If you think you'd like socialism, that's great, but if you live here, you're getting capitalism like the rest of us--for better and for worse. It's a good idea to learn as much as you can about the world and to have an informed opinion and to have idyllic beliefs (this blog is aimed at fiction writers), but that is not a substitute for acknowledging the reality of life as it is. I believe dentists should behave ethically at all times. In reality, there's a clear motive to bilk their patients and some dentists will. As a person needing dental care, it does me no good to pretend there aren't sharks just because there shouldn't be.

My, so much preamble shows me just how nervous I am to get at the heart of this post, but enough stalling. For years, I've depended on literary agents to grow this blog's readership (and I appreciate it) and I hoped to sign with an agent, so when I saw literary agents behaving in a questionable manner, I looked the other way. After all, it was only one agent, and then two agents, then ten, and now a whole flock of 'em... And it's been getting worse.

The reason I haven't had any literary agents here for a time is partly because I truly have been busy, but also because I've been a tad hesitant. To be clear, my featuring an agent on this blog is not an endorsement of their services and no writer should sign with an agent on the sole basis of the way they answered 7 Questions here. Sharks in suits like movies and books too and the fact that they like the same book you do is not the most important factor in deciding whether you should allow them to represent you.

I present information and that's all. I can't be an agent watchdog as I haven't the time, resources, or interest. Swim at your own risk. Read the interviews here, but read other online information about an agent that interests you. I would never sign with an agent I hadn't met or at least talked to on the phone and the details of our business relationship would have to be in order, regardless of how I felt about them as a person.

The impetus for this post is that a writer has signed with an agent she discovered through this blog and the result has been disastrous. It's not my fault, of course, but I do feel badly that it happened. Not so badly that I'm going to take the agent's interview down, but badly enough to finally write this post. I'm going to repeat that: Of the 75 agent interviews so far available here, I know for a fact at least one of these agents engages in questionable business practices and I suspect a few others. And I'm not going to do a thing about it.

I'm presenting data on these agents. It's up to the reader to decide whether or not the agent is a good fit for them.

And that's how it has to be. On what basis should I remove an agent's interview? How could I make sure I was being fair? If anything, reading an interview with a bad agent can be just as illuminating as an interview with a good one. Also, many things about a literary agent are subjective. I've met agents I thought were rude and hostile, but who got great contracts for their clients and that is, after all, what you want an agent for in the first place.

Here's another judgement call writers have to make for themselves: 

There are imprints of major publishers now "going indie." They're multiple variations of this, but I'm speaking of a specific imprint's contract terms I found particularly egregious. This is an imprint of the Big Five (soon to be the Big Four and so on) that is offering to "partner" with writers.

There's no advance, but you get 35% of royalties on ebooks, the imprint gets the other 35%--except not really. This imprint is putting together an ebook with a professionally designed cover, professional editing and formatting. A print-on-demand book is also made available so should bookstores decide to stock your title, they can. Wow!

You know who else has all of those things? This guy (points thumbs at self). And it didn't cost me half my royalties to get it either. I've paid out some cash for professional work, but I've already made it back and then some because I get 70% on my ebook and however much I deem appropriate on my print-on-demand book (not much).

Ninja, I hear you saying, you're a work-a-holic and your first cover had to be changed because you don't have years of professional publishing experience. Neither do the interns you're likely to be working with, but your point is well taken, Esteemed Reader. Not every writer wants to be their own publisher, nor can they afford the start-up costs (pretty negligible as business starts-ups go, but still). For this reason, I say signing such a contract is a subjective decision.

From what I've read of this particular imprint and what I know from an acquaintance who signed with them, being your publishing "partner" means they pick the cover without your approval,  demand whatever editorial changes they deem necessary, control pricing and the book's blurb and description, and most egregious of all, they insist on a non-compete. Not to worry. This is a professional publisher and professional publishers are never wrong and understand books better than their authors, so naturally there will be no need for you to publish elsewhere. And after all, the writer is getting half the royalties.

Except not really. The writer gets 35% of the publisher's 70% royalties minus miscellaneous expenses (all legitimate, I have no doubt) and of course, minus the literary agent's 15% for recommending this fabulous package. The imprint keeps tabs on books sold (you can trust them, they're professionals), your royalties are sent to your agent (you can trust them, they're a professional) who forwards the money onto you minus their expenses when they deem appropriate. And you Mr. or Mrs. Writer can go on writing your stories and never worry your pretty little head about the business aspects of all this. You're in the hands of professionals.

My acquaintance hasn't made a dime thus far, but I'm sure you'll do better, Esteemed Reader. You just have to believe and clap your hands and think a happy thought. Every book ever published by a professional house has been a bestseller and I'm sure you'll be no exception:) I maintain that being single is far superior to being in a bad marriage and being an independent author is better than being trapped in a bad contract.

I've got more specific examples for you, but I'm saving them for part two to make sure you come back:) For today, I want to loudly declare not all literary agents and publishing professionals are your friends. It would be nice if publishing professionals everywhere always acted in the best interest of writers and the surest way to land yourself in a bad contract is to behave as though they did.

Until tomorrow, you might be interested to read this, this, and this. After that, you'll need cheering up, so read this:)


  1. I think that these are balanced and fair comments. I recently had two infected teeth myself, had the bad luck to go to one of the dentists you mentioned, but ended up with trustworthy people I knew. That's the moral of the story, I guess. Know people. Investigate.Thanks for letting people know the whole picture!

  2. People should definitely research agents more than your 7 questions before querying and signing with them. Don't feel responsible if someone didn't. Like everything in life, there are good and bad ones. I've always enjoyed your 7 question series.

    1. Thanks Natalie. I think if people follow the links in these interviews to Literary Rambles and do more poking around there, they can make a more informed decision. But there's just no substitute for meeting an agent in person, which is a great reason to attend writers conferences.

  3. Good, sobering stuff here, Robert~ am reading this on Friday, so I'm off to read your next post on the topic.

  4. Savage! Seriously though, pretty compelling. I'm brand new to all of this, so this is a wrinkle I need to take seriously...


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.