By Shawn Coyne
Published: September 19, 2014
So despite your literary agent’s best efforts, your first novel/first nonfiction proposal didn’t sell to any of the Big Five publishers.
Bowker's 5400-page 2014 Guide to U.S. Publishers
What do you do now?
You ask your agent to plumb the directories of small presses and start cold calling.
Well, if your agent is a realist, that is if she has a family to support or she isn’t in the habit of taking money (her time) and throwing it out a window, she’ll beg off.
She’ll tell you that your time is better spent writing another book and trying your luck again with one of the majors in 9 to 12 months. To take whatever editorial advice you can glean from the pile of rejection letters she’s sent you and move on with your life.
But if you continue to insist she submit the book to Podunk Press, she will tactfully suggest that it would be best to part ways. Not because you are a terrible writer or a nasty person, but because she’s already blown a ton of time on you (that means money that she could have been earning with someone else) and she has no intention of throwing away more.
I own a literary agency, Genre Management Inc., and I represent a small list of writers myself. [FYI, I no longer take on any new clients. My plate is full! Please don’t ask me to read your book! Don’t be offended. I’m sure you’re great, but I have too much work as it is!]
Now, the first thing I used to tell potential clients is that I would do everything possible to get their book sold to a major publisher for the highest guaranteed advance possible. But if I didn’t sell it to a major publisher, it’s the end of the line for that project for me. I won’t submit the book to small publishers.
Hey, I was the publisher of a small press years ago and I never expected agents to submit to me. Instead I cooked up all of the book ideas myself, contacted the writers myself, and made the deals usually directly with the writers themselves. I didn’t sit around waiting for agents to send me stuff that the majors had already passed on…
If an agent represented a writer I wanted to work with, I wouldn’t discuss my book idea with him/her until we agreed on general financial terms. If we couldn’t agree, then I’d find another writer. The last thing I wanted (because it happened to me on more than one occasion before I wised up) was to give a writer and his agent a book idea without having their agreement to write it for me on my terms…signed, sealed and delivered. If I did give them the idea before the money was agreed to, they’d usually discover that what I was offering them to write it and what they would be able to find on the open market if they’d come up with the idea themselves were vastly different opportunities.
So what would happen is that they’d stall on deciding to do the book with me and send the idea that I gave them out to the major publishers. Then they’d come back to me with offers in hand that were often ten times the amount I could afford. Not cool, but that’s life baby!
Could I sue them and make their lives miserable for “stealing my idea?” Probably, but then I’d make myself miserable too. So after this happened to me (yes, it happened to me more than once…Duh!) I learned to get the money settled up front before pitching them my project.
But I digress.
Why again, do most agents not submit to small publishers? Here’s why:
The guaranteed advances from small publishers (if they offer any at all) are not anywhere near the level of the majors. What’s worse is that their royalty structures are often lower than the majors. So tiny guaranteed money up front, and less money on the back end.
Why would you do that deal unless you were convinced that the small publisher had magic dust that would guarantee that your book would break bestseller records?
Well, you’d do it for third party validation… Proof that you were chosen as “worthy” to exploit and not having to tell your friends that no one wanted to publish your book. I get it. But you don’t have to do that anymore…you can bet on yourself and do a whole lot better.
Let’s look at it from the agent point of view.
The 15% commission for an agent on $1,000 advance is $150. That’s it. But the amount of work for a book that gets $1,000 advance is almost exactly the same as a book that receives a $100,000 advance of $1,000,000 advance. The agent still has to vet the contract. She still has to field all of your phone calls. She has to review the copy, the covers, the “marketing” plans etc.
If you were an agent would you rather handle one book that gets a $100,000 advance or one hundred books that get $1000 advances? You’d make the same money ($15,000) but you’d to do 100 times the work in small press land. Trust me. No one loves books enough to be paid $150 to do $15,000 worth of work.
Now a smaller publisher may have a book that becomes a huge bestseller, but in all likelihood, unless they came up with the idea themselves and commissioned the work, the publisher’s efforts will have little to do with the book’s success.