The New World of Publishing: The Myths Are Still Strong

Sometimes, those of us playing out on the new edge of fiction, striding out for ourselves in the indie landscape trying to connect personally with readers, flat forget that the traditional side of this industry is still full of “the way it is done” and “flat silly myths.” (The quotes are just mine and mean nothing.)

I think there are a few reasons for this kind of thinking on our part. (And honestly, I’m talking some about myself here, but I am far from alone in this.)

Reason one: “If I have learned how to use indie publishing, then everyone has learned it, because it has to be obvious. Right?”

Reason two: “The old ways make no sense when looked at in a cold business eye, so no smart person would go that way now that there are options. Right?”

Reason three: “I’ve read about traditional publishing contracts and no way would I sign one of those and let them control what I write and give my book away forever. So no one else will either. Right?”

Well, not so much.

When you talk with insiders in the publishing business, off the record, they are not worried in the slightest about the books drying up. Not in the slightest. Thousands and thousands and thousands of writers are still flooding at them at full speed with new books. And as you can tell from the questionable comments from the likes of Scott Turow, most of the bestsellers aren’t paying any attention.

This also came clear to me at a writer’s conference a couple weeks back. I wasn’t there long, but had the pleasure of talking with a number of young (meaning just starting out) writers.

And of the ones I had never met before and who didn’t really know me, they wanted to tell me their exciting news for the conference. And without fail that news was that some agent wanted to see their work.

One young writer actually flashed the agent’s card to me like it was something collectable and to be cherished.

Of course, I said nothing.

Why? Simply put, it was not my place. I congratulated each writer in having someone interested in their work. Outside of their family, more than likely this was the first time for many of them that anyone showed an interest. And that fact is very, very cool.

So no problem there. They didn’t need me tossing cold water on their excitement and I didn’t.

(See how these myths just keep going and going?)

On the indie side, to be honest, I get excited when anyone reaches for their wallet and spends money on anything I wrote. Period. Never fails to excite me. I doubt it ever will.

So, I honestly do understand the excitement of having someone interested in work. Honest, I do.

But what really worried me was the fact that it was agents at a conference that were interested.

I know how that system works.

— Agents glance at something or listen to a quick pitch, give the writer a little hype about how the book sounds good, and the writer should send it.

— The writer thinks they have made progress (when in most cases, the writer could have done the same exact thing just mailing the manuscript to the agent without going to the conference).

— The writer, thinking they might “have” an agent, doesn’t mail the book to anyone else for months and months, just waiting for the agent response.

— Then when the rejection comes, the writer has built up a hope that is unfounded, and thus might have their dream killed.

It’s a stupid and ugly system for 99.9% of all writers out there.

Plus, on top of that, I really, really, really wanted to ask any of the writers (bragging about getting an agent interested) if they had checked out the agent’s financial statements, or criminal record. I really wanted to know if the writer had figured out where the agent lived. Or how many clients they had, or what kind of agency agreement they were going to be forced to sign by that agent or agency.

You know, basic business stuff you would do when hiring a contractor to work on your house.

But I didn’t ask, because I knew the answer. These writers, clearly hard-working and sincere, believed in the myth that they needed an agent to sell their work. Any agent who liked their work. And they were willing to send their hard work to that agent, give that agent all their money if the book sold, and the paperwork on that money.

They were willing to just trust a perfect stranger with their dreams and their money and their hard work. All because that stranger had handed them a card and showed some interest in their work.

The myths are still very, very strong out there in new-writer-land. (And with the bestsellers, but that’s another matter.)

So here is what agents need to do to get my vote and my trust again.

First off, agents, stop this crazy policy of going to writer’s conferences and feasting on the writers who don’t know better than to trust you or even ask a few basic questions about you. Wow, does that smell of a scam. So stop it. If you want to go, go to teach and help new writers understand the business. Nothing more. Don’t you have enough slush as it is, anyway?

(I know, some agents hate the entire thing and never go and I applaud those who don’t buy into that writer-dream-crushing method.)

Second, kill all agency agreements and have the publisher split payments in contracts. Make that your policy and tell people up front that is your complete policy. You don’t need an agency agreement if you just split payments. Stop trying to own or control a writer’s work. You are an employee, hired to do a job. Do the job and leave. If the writer likes the work you did, they will call you to hire you again. If the writer doesn’t like your work, let them go.

(I know a couple agents who will split payments, no problem, but still work for agencies who want to control a writer’s work.)

Third, if you are going into publishing as a side business, go read agency law. You are breaking a ton of it. Also, stop pretending you understand contracts. Tell your clients to spend the money on an attorney to do the contract and you do your job with everything else. That gets you off the hook with the publishers in negotiations and keeps you from practicing law without a license.

Of course, not one of those things will become “the way it is done” until writers start demanding it in mass, and trust me, from what I saw at that writer’s conference, that’s not happening in my lifetime.

Ah, well, tilting at the windmill can be fun at times. Now how do I get off this stupid donkey?

So writers who want to learn business and do understand some of the myths, what can you do?

So now I’m going to talk to writers who are worried about the “system as it has been” and don’t much like it. Here is what you can do to play both sides of this new world of publishing and avoid a ton of myths in the process.

One) Never stop writing. And having fun.

Two) Try some books indie, try some books the traditional route. Try some short stories indie, try some short stories the traditional route.

Three) When going traditional, send your work directly to editors working at lines of books you would like to be published by. Ignore the agent roadblock. Never deal with one. And if an agent comes to you with promises on a book, CHARGE THEM to represent your book. It’s called a “shopping agreement” and such agreements are standard in Hollywood. Make the agent pay you $1,000 up front for the right to take your book out to traditional publishers for one year. If the agent won’t do that, they don’t really believe in your book. Make them put their money where their hype is.

Four) If you get an offer from any publisher, hire an IP lawyer. They are surprisingly reasonable. The lawyer will tell you what you are signing. Then you will have data to understand if you need to walk away or sign.

Five) If you are going indie, make sure you are not shooting off toes in your sales. (See those two posts.)

Six) Keep writing. Figure out ways to spend more time in the chair. Follow Heinlein’s Rules for a year or two to understand them and see if they work for you. Then adjust. But give Heinlein’s Rules a year or more. Stop being in a hurry.

Seven) Learn business and don’t get in a hurry. It takes time, meaning years and years, to learn an international business.

Eight) Keep learning craft and don’t get in a hurry. It takes time, meaning years and years, to learn how to be a good storyteller.

A couple of last thoughts

This is a thought for you young writers out there who are reading this and getting mad at me. An agent wanting to see one of your books is just one person.

When you indie publish and sell one copy, that’s one person paying money to read your work.

Trust me, the reader paying money for your work is far, far more important than some scam agent at a writer’s conference.

And that’s called perspective.

And keep having fun. (I said that, didn’t I?)

Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime

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