Literary Agents: Who are They?

Although separate entities from both publishing houses and authors, literary agents are extremely important to the publishing process as a whole. Although not often talked about in major news regarding publishing and the operation of large publishing houses, a Q&A published by Independent Publisher revealed that “the larger publishing houses will only accept submissions through agents, so authors should try to get an agent if they know they want a big-to-midsize publisher.” For those who wish to strike a deal with one of the Big 5 publishing houses, an agent might be an author’s only chance at getting in.

Much like the rest of the publishing industry, however, the responsibilities and roles of literary agents are slowly starting to shift with the advent of new technology and the push to go digital. Now more than ever, agents are beginning to pick up more public image and public relations responsibilities. Much of this is due to the fact that online reviews and feedback from the audience are more available than ever on the internet. As a result of more potential for author/audience interaction, many agents must make more calls on what reviews or comments are worth responding to, and which are not. In this sense, many of their responsibilities begin to overlap with the responsibilities of publicity and marketing teams within the publishing houses themselves.

Furthermore, literary agents must polish and edit the material before submitting it to the publishing house. Due to the fact that agents are paid on commission, only getting paid if the author is published, agents are very concerned with the content that is presented to the publishing house. Larger houses that have extensive teams that all work together are generally “looking for the whole package when acquiring a book: well-written, well-executed plot, commercial hook, possible platform to build-on or create based on the project/author,” etc. So, in a sense, literary agents act more as a buffer or a channel for communication and negotiation between the publishing house and the author.

With the advent of start-ups like Blurb (mentioned in a previous post), however, literary agents might soon become a relic of the past. When asked a similar question, Sandra Bond, stated that she doesn’t “think the big publishing houses are going anywhere soon, so agents will [continue to] play a role in submitting what they think is the best work to them.” As platforms like Blurb begin to grow and become more popular, however, how the role of literary agents changes or adapts will be an interesting aspect of the industry to track.

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Blurb: The Importance of Collaboration in the Age of Self-Publishing

A quick google search for “book publishing” will yield a number of links to self-publishing websites, articles with tips and tricks, and  lists of do’s and don’ts. Amidst these search results was a link for a self-publishing start-up named Blurb.

Blurb stood out from many of the other links and publishing websites due to a number of different reasons. First, Blurb provides a publishing outlet for professional print books, magazines, or e-books, whereas many other organizations specialize in only one of the three. Furthermore, Blurb has its own “bookstore” based on tags so consumers can easily search for content that appeals to their own personal interest. Interestingly enough, Blurb’s set-up appeared to mirror the organization of many of the Big 5 publishing houses in the sense that every stage of the publishing process is available in one place, or ‘in-house’: beginning with formatting and pricing, to the creation, and then finally the sale and distribution of the content.

One of Blurb’s most unique features, however, is the emphasis placed on collaboration. One of the major benefits of working with a major publishing house over self-publishing are the teams of editors, designers, and marketers who help to create and distribute an author’s work.

Under the “create” tab on their website, there is a new marketplace for authors to hire collaborators in one convenient location. Blurb refers to their new marketplace as an area to find “Dream Team Collaborators” for authors to find and hire professionals like editors, cover artists, illustrators, designers, photographers, and more.

This so-called Dream Team Marketplace has been applauded for creating collaborator profiles that link prior work and collaborator portfolios, and for allowing authors to give feedback to ensure that only the best of the best are available for hire. Supposedly, “Blurb has plans to improve the Dream Team marketplace over time based on the needs of authors. The marketplace will eventually add new types of collaborators like ghost writers, publishing business managers, marketers, publicists, and more. The idea, Gittins said, is to slowly transform Dream Team into a platform that offers all the services of a traditional book publisher, and then some.” Startups like Blurb should be an interesting development to the publishing industry, and may even have the potential to change the business model as a whole.

Women & Publishing: Why Are Salaries So Low?

While there is no contesting the existence of a disparity in pay among male and female professionals in any given industry, it unfortunately isn’t considered breaking news anymore. Known as the gender pay gap, it claims that women are often paid a fraction the salaries that men are for the exact same job. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the gender pay gap doesn’t quite stop there either: “when women enter fields in greater numbers, pay declines — for the very same jobs that more men were doing before.”

Interestingly, publishing has, for the past few years, been considered more ‘feminine.’ Women have dominated the publishing industry, leaving the act of writing for men. In 2010, Publisher’s Weekly declared that a majority of employees in the publishing industry are women: “85% of publishing employees with less than three years of experience are women.”

As an industry that is notorious for having low-paying entry level jobs, does the fact that publishing is a female-dominated (and potentially focused) field have anything to do with that fact? Suzanne Collier of BookCareers.com notes that “entry-level jobs are still paying the same amount they were five years ago.”

Additionally, Rachel Deahl, author of the Publisher’s Weekly article addresses the fact that statistically, women and girls are most likely to buy books. Upon hearing similar statistics, a former editor at St. Martin’s Press, Jason Pinter, asked if  this was due to the fact that women dominate the field and may unintentionally be producing and marketing the products to people similar to themselves (i.e. other women). If so, this connects to Suzanne Collier’s second claim that the lack of diversity in the industry is caused by the salary issue. If this is the case, the low wages of entry-level positions may be hurting the industry as a whole in addition to those working for those wages. If publishing professionals don’t come from a diverse enough background, can they rise to the task of selecting, publishing, and marketing books that will appeal to a diverse audience?

 

‘Unprintable Fiction:’ The Future of Publishing?

The introduction of the e-book may have been groundbreaking back in 2007, but just like so many other digital adaptations of legacy media, there have been critiques about simply copying and pasting the content from one medium (such as print) to another (in this case, a digital e-reader). Digital versions of newspapers and magazines have begun to format their online content in a more mobile-friendly format that mirrors the structure of blogs, but e-books seemed to be lacking any similar type change or innovation.

In an attempt to remedy some of these problems and construct a new type of novel with the mobile-device user in mind, Richard Lea wrote about a new type of book in an article for The Guardian just a month ago. Entitled “What apps next? Publishers and developers embrace ‘unprintable’ fiction,” Lea follows the efforts of publishers and developers like Anna Gerber and the folks at Google Creative Lab. This drive for ‘unprintable fiction’ is an attempt to solve the problems of readers who feel that printed material doesn’t translate well to a digital medium: “People like to talk about how physical books have qualities that don’t transfer well to digital. We want to show that digital books can have narrative and visual qualities that champion writing but can’t be transferred to print.”Lea notes that Gerber “isn’t trying to kill off the printed book,” and quotes her as saying “We don’t really think the point is to change the way we read, … but we do like the idea of trying to immerse readers in books on their phones.”

Despite these attempts, however, there are some unexpected problems. Similar to e-books, there have been issues with pricing (apps take considerably more time and effort to produce, but consumers tend to not want to pay a couple dollars for the product), and with the publishing houses and software developers working together. Although both are integral for the production and success of such a product, Lea notes that “software houses and publishers operate in entirely different ways,” which can cause some issues during production.

It’ll be interesting to track the development of such apps and forms of interactive fiction, and how they differ from video games and video-based narratives. At this point, it’s too early to predict whether such app-based reading will be a success, but maybe this will be a new industry standard to replace the e-book.

 

Penguin Random House: A Sign of Mergers to Come?

Prior to 2013, the publishing industry was vastly different than it looks today. I’ve already mentioned the “Big 5” players of the industry in past blog posts (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster), but prior to  July 1st, 2013, the “Big 5” was actually the “Big 6.”

The merger of Penguin and Random House has arguably been one of the biggest changes in the publishing industry since the introduction of e-books in 2007 with the Kindle. The merger has been referred to as a “mega-merger,” with a house that will now “control a quarter of world book publishing.” That’s not just 25% of the US publishing market, but the global market. That means this merger creates a new global house, with “locations in about 20 countries around the world, including China, India, all major English-speaking countries and many countries in the Spanish-speaking world,” and a control over about 40% of the US market.

As with all industries, company mergers tend to come with a lot of headaches – there’s concern’s from employees over the potential loss of benefits or change in workplace atmosphere. The Penguin Random House merger has worries employees, no doubt, but it also causes tension in the industry at large. According to an article published by the New York Times the day following the merger,”[t]here are no immediate plans for laying off employees or closing imprints. Both Penguin and Random House have long leases on their buildings in Manhattan, so they will not work from the same building anytime soon — maybe not for at least a decade, Mr. Dohle said.”

This merger has also concerned a number of professionals in the industry at large. Just eight days after the merger was completed, another article posted in the New York Times discussed the possible impending dangers caused by the merger, such as the increasing disregard for the individual brands of the imprints that form these large houses, and issues it may cause agents and writers (both Penguin and Random House either forbid or restrict their imprints from bidding against one another for the same manuscript) which could lead to smaller and smaller advances.

I think it’s also important to consider what this means for the remainder of the Big 5 – with the consolidation of two major players in the industry, should we expect to see similar mergers in the future? It’s a scary possibility that many writers, agents, and readers may have to soon face.

Melville House

As noted in the previous post, independent publishing houses often run into more financial and distribution issues than larger houses do. With access to fewer funds, it is not uncommon for smaller independent houses like Melville House to take on more roles than larger houses may. For Melville House, that refers to selling their books in addition to publishing them. Although not the only independent house to take on this additional role in the publishing process, (Verso is another radical left indie publisher that operates its own bookstore) it is still a unique feature that sets Melville House apart from many other publishers.

What truly sets Melville House apart from the rest, in my opinion, is its origin. As taken from their website: Melville House “was founded in 2001 by sculptor Valerie Merians and fiction writer/journalist Dennis Johnson, in order to publish Poetry After 9/11, a book of material culled from Johnson’s groundbreaking MobyLives book blog. The material consisted of things sent in to the blog by writers and poets in response to the 9/11 attacks, and Johnson and Merians felt it better represented the spirit of New York than the call to war of the Bush administration.” In addition to this relatively radical and politically-based founding, Melville House also offers a range of news regarding books and the publishing industry at large through the MobyLives blog that the house grew out of (and has since been folded into Melville House’s website) – which does set it apart from almost every other house out there.

Although transitions are not unheard of in the publishing industry (especially in the large push to move digital), Melville’s story differs from what most people may assume a transition in publishing would mean. Rather than moving from the more traditional print-based media to digital, Melville began online as a blog and moved into more traditional print media. Although this occurred back in 2001, (a good five or six years before the introduction of the Kindle and the push for e-books) this is strangely reminiscent of a transition that appears to currently be happening in the magazine industry with digital properties like Airbnb working on partnering with companies to develop print magazines. With that being said, however, Melville House has also made some more anticipated transitions: primarily their move from Hoboken, New Jersey to DUMBO, Brooklyn in 2008.

Amid all of these transitions, Melville House is still thriving. Their store acts as a popular venue for the events of other independent releases and publishers, and they have been attracting the attention of award-winning authors who have been previously been working with the Big 5 (i.e.Nobel prize winner Irme Kertesz from Knopf and Paul Berman from Norton). It’ll be interesting to see if Melville’s radical, leftists, and avant-garde reputation is a part of their success, and what that means for the future of ‘the establishment’ of the Big 5.

 

Independent & Non-Profit Publishing: The “Big Five” Doesn’t Have All of the Fun

Despite the emphasis placed on the “Big Five” in previous posts, New York City is home to countless independent publishing houses, bookstores, and self-published authors. Although the large publishing houses may dominate the publishing industry, that doesn’t stop smaller houses and university presses from contributing.

While larger publishing houses work using for-profit models, many independent publishers do not – whether it be by choice or simply lack of income. Even outside of NYC, independent publishers are often struggling financially and forced into taking the non-profit route. The largest distinction between for-profit and even smaller for-profit, or non-profit publishing groups (aside from the profit distinction) is largely  in marketing and publicity strategies. While larger for-profit houses tend to have at least one commercialized best-selling author, smaller houses generally lack the marketing and publicity teams that accompany such an author. Despite this difference, however, all publishing houses have the same goal: to find and publish novels with literary merit.

Interestingly enough, independent houses and authors have their own association, online publication,  and award competition – all of which intend to “bring increased recognition to the thousands of exemplary independent, university, and self-published titles published.” Although the award ceremony has specific guidelines to qualify for an award, many sources consider anyone who publishes outside of the “Big Five” as an independent. Although such a definition includes those who opt to self-publish as an independent, revisiting the map of NYC publishers I first posted about shows that the city isn’t lacking in independent houses, bookstores, or publisher/bookstore combinations (i.e. Verso Books, The Feminist PressSeven Stories Press, and Melville House to name just a few).

Hachette Book Group

Hachette Book Group, one of the New York’s “Big Five” publishing houses, is headquartered only a couple blocks away from Rockefeller Center. As a part of the Big Five, Hachette is often grouped into generalizations about the industry and publishing houses more generally. Despite this, Hachette is actually one of the smaller publishing houses, even though its parent company, Hachette Livre, is third largest in the world. Despite this, Hachette still publishes around 800 books a year, with about 120 of those titles hitting the New York Times Best Seller’s list annually – a statistic provided by Brian McLendon, an associate publisher and vice president of his division, Grand Central Publishing and Twelve.

Despite being one of the smaller Big Five houses, Hachette is still a competitive player, publishing four of the top ten best-sellers of the last decade – including but not limited to, Nicholas Sparks, Stephenie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, and James Patterson. The company also has a global reach, thanks to parent company, Hachette Livre, and its associated companies. Even with such big names, however, Hachette Book Group still has to accommodate the demand for e-books, something McLendon states is becoming more and more manageable. According to Hachette’s models, e-books account for about 20-25% of the industry, a number that has shrunk in recent years, and is anticipated to remain relatively steady for the future. A statistic that suggests that the modern publishing industry is not doomed in the way that many people think it is.

E-books and Publishing Houses: Friends or Foes?

It doesn’t take a lot of Internet exploration to  discover that people largely have mixed feelings about e-books: some people love them, while others aren’t too fond. Although many debates about e-books focus on the benefits and drawbacks of e-books versus traditional paper books, there is a bigger picture to be looked at: how is it affecting the publishing industry as a whole?

At first glance, one may think that a push towards digital publishing would hurt major publishing houses, it appears that the opposite rings true. Rather, e-books are saving the industry. It’s been reported that book sales have actually risen quite steadily since 2008 (just after Amazon’s release of their e-reader, the kindle, in 2007) despite the struggles that physical book sellers like Borders and Barnes and Nobles have faced.

Although it is true that publishing houses have of lot of adaptation and adjusting to do in the coming years, digital publishing and e-books are still so new that everyone involved is learning: from digital publishing conferences, graduate programs, and even grammar and spelling disputes on the usage of ‘ebooks’ versus ‘e-books’ – so everyone seems to have a lot to learn. With that being said, I’m not so sure that publishing houses have too much to fear just yet. The playing field appears pretty level – even with the rise of digital publishing start-ups and an increase in self-published digital content.

New York City: The City That Never Stops Publishing?

According to a 2013 article posted by Publisher’s Weekly on BEA (BookExpo America), “Publishing is to New York what filmmaking is to Los Angeles, or what automobile manufacturing used to be to Detroit. And publishers old and new continue to have prominent bricks-and-mortar presence in the city.” The article even provides a visually appealing map to prove it (attached below). Although the map may look like a nice visual representation of the spread of major publishing houses located within New York City, it is devastatingly incomplete – a fact noted by multiple commenters on the original source. Although I am not entirely sure why some houses made this particular map while others did not (perhaps only those closely involved with BEA were included, or simply to keep the map from looking too cluttered), it’s still a nice glimpse into how many publishing houses are in New York – and how the industry is beginning to change.

As an undergraduate English major, I have always considered publishing a potential career path, much to the dismay of one of my professors. Although no one within my department voiced these concerns directly, I can recall a few conversations about the “unease” and “drastic changes” that were occurring and would continue to occur within the industry – primarily the push to becoming more digital. It doesn’t take much to look for similar opinions as my professor’s concerning the nature and future of the book publishing industry. Simply turning to the internet, you can find numerous articles sharing similar view points: on Forbes, The Next Web, The Huffington Post, and NPR, to name a few. With so many changes occurring – and the awareness of the industry and journalists alike, it leaves one wondering what the future of traditional book publishing will be in New York. Will it soon be replaced by another new media? Or will it simply transform and evolve, ultimately leaving publishing houses relatively intact? I suppose that’s something that only time and close observation can truly tell.