Alternative paths to publishing proliferate but the path for authors most likely to be lucrative is still the oldest one
The Guardian reports that Big Five British publishers are aggressively courting authors to come directly to them rather than through agents. The specifics cited make this sound more like “toes in the water” than “a change in the value chain”. The Tinder Press division of Hachette is holding an “open submissions fortnight”. The editorial director of Random House imprint Jonathan Cape tweeted a request for submissions one time and got 5,000 of them. And HarperCollins’s new Borough Press imprint is holding its second annual “open submission”. They got a single publication out of 400 submissions last year.
The same story also acknowledges that agents are changing their processes too (and have been, as we’ve noted, back in 2011), specifically pointing to a creative writing program operated by the Curtis Brown agency which has “found 15 debut novelists” (presumably meaning they got them publishing deals) “in two and a half years”. It is also true that many self-publishing successes, including Hugh Howey, use literary agents to help them reach publishers outside their home market or language.
The writer featured in the story, Andrea Bennett, was picked up by HarperCollins after getting nowhere submitting to “a dozen” agents and getting nothing but rejection letters, some of which came so quickly after her submission that it felt to her like her material was not even read.
The publishers quoted in the story, not surprisingly, indicated that their interest was in getting to promising talent that the agents might be weeding out. But with one of the houses working its way through 5,000 submissions (“three have real promise”, the publisher says, and I have no idea if they see the irony in that statement that I do) and another repeating the exercise when last year they published one out of 400, the data suggests that the curation the agents are doing is a valuable service for the publishers.
Of course, there is a compensating financial element for publishers who do the work to find unagented books worth publishing. They can almost certainly make a more advantageous deal than they’d make with an agent. Not only can they almost certainly secure the book for a smaller advance (a point amply made in the piece), they are also more likely to get world rights. A picture caption suggests that the Bennett novel HarperCollins picked up has been sold to six markets. If they’re not all English, that’s an opportunity most agents would have denied the publisher.
An unagented author is not without cost and complication to a publisher, who would have to take on the agent’s function of explaining the lengthy and sometimes complex process of publishing to the author every step of the way. This posting from HarperCollins, saying that only their new digital-first imprint accepts “unsolicited manuscripts” is typical. It contains language protecting themselves by explicitly rejecting any responsibility to read, comment on, or even return the unsolicited manuscripts sent to them. (This is almost certainly less of a problem than it was in the past when all submissions were paper, not files. One friend recalled an author who wanted to sue a major house 15 years ago because the author foolishly submitted his only copy of his manuscript and it was “lost” by the publisher.) The exception HarperCollins cites for its digital first imprint is mirrored in an apparently much older posting on the Penguin site which excepts DAW, their science-fiction imprint.
But even if a house would process its “slush pile” (the long-standing term for the unagented and unsolicited submissions) efficiently, and few, if any, do, it couldn’t be a big winner for the publisher to spend much time with it.
Nothing in the Guardian piece suggests to me that my advice to aspiring authors should change. I always tell them to get an agent if they possibly can. (And I also tell them to use the deal database in Publishers Marketplace to find the right agent.) No agent works with odds as long as 1 in 400 or 3 in 5000 with their submissions. Some of the submissions that got lost in those numbers might have been looked at differently if they’d come from an established agent. It is also extremely likely that those submissions that were agented would have been improved somewhat by the agent before submission. Agents don’t just curate. They also edit.
Even the lead author in the Guardian story doesn’t prove the case. Yes, she got a deal with HarperCollins after having had a few agents reject her. But might another handful of agent submissions have gotten her representation that would have resulted in a better deal than the one she got? Or, put another way, what are the chances that a competent agent would have failed to submit to HarperCollins? And then, what are the chances that as an agented author she would have gotten a better offer than what she got?
Patience here might have been remunerative.
Because there are self-published books achieving commercial success, publishers are well aware that the funnel for projects managed by the agents is not delivering them every book that might sell. It almost certainly never did, but, without self-publishing, the books they missed never got the chance to prove themselves in the marketplace without them. Now they do.
This is a great thing for authors. Self-publishing can be a path to a publisher or an agent as well as a way to reach readers directly. For those authors comfortable taking on the tasks beyond authorship — editing, creating a cover, cleaning up the text file, setting up their metadata, and publishing through the various portals — the new paradigm can be a valid alternative to the time-honored, and laborious, process of finding an agent and then letting the agent get the publishing deal.
And it is clear that both publishers and agents recognize that there are alternatives to the historical standard and that they’ll miss good projects from extremely capable authors if they don’t make themselves more accessible to aspiring writers.
But even an exponential increase in the number of self-publishing successes or, now, in the number of authors going directly to publishers without an agent, doesn’t change the realities of book publishing. The big money almost always goes to the agented author whose work is sold to a big house. The rest of it is, from an overall industry perspective, still a sideshow.
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