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Tuesday, February 27, 2018
Tuesday, December 19, 2017
Posted: 14 Dec 2017 10:17 AM PST
Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware
I've recently gotten a number of reports about a literary agent with a major agency who is offering representation with a "handshake" deal: representation based on a verbal commitment, rather than a binding author-agent agreement or contract.
There are a number of reasons why authors should be wary of such offers.
1. A handshake is not today's professional standard.
Decades ago, so-called handshake deals were common in the agenting business. You and your agent agreed that the agent would represent your work to publishers; once your work sold, the agent's right to receive commissions and to act on your behalf was formalized in the agency clause of your book contract. Before publisher consolidation created the mega-houses, before the digital revolution and the array of new rights and markets it has spawned, before authors' backlists became valuable, most authors, agents, and publishers deemed this to be enough.
But the present-day publishing landscape is far, far more diverse and complicated than it was then. There are more rights, more avenues to sell and re-sell them, and--at least potentially--much more money. In this increasingly complex environment, a simple, informal handshake and an agency clause are no longer regarded as sufficient. While there may still be some long-time agents who work on a handshake basis, author-agent contracts have become the professional norm.
2. A handshake doesn't protect you.
Oral contracts do carry weight--if they can be proven. For authors, though, the concern isn't so much proving the relationship exists as it is setting out the terms of it.
As noted above, publishing is far more complicated than it used to be. As a result, so is agenting. Myriad issues need to be addressed when agreeing to representation--from commissions and payments, to expense reimbursement, to termination provisions, to what happens after termination or if the agent goes out of business.
It is very much in your interest--and also in the agent's--to clearly and precisely lay all of this out at the outset of the relationship. Otherwise, you not only lack a clear understanding of what the agent can and will do for you, you have severely diminished recourse to demand accountability or to take action if the relationship goes bad.
3. A handshake may be a warning sign.
And not just of a lack of professional knowledge or practice. Putting it bluntly: a handshake deal makes it easier for an agent to get rid of you.
Maybe the agent doesn't want to bother with clients whose work doesn't sell in the first submission round. Maybe the agent isn't all that enthusiastic about you and is hedging their bets in case there are no offers (and if there are offers, is this really the agent you want representing you?). Maybe the agent has one publisher in mind and is up for a quickie sub but not a longer-term commitment. Maybe the agent only offers contracts after a manuscript finds a home, so they can disavow the authors they aren't able to sell and look like they're batting a thousand. (Be especially concerned if the agent works at an agency where contracts are the norm--as is the case with the agent I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post.)
Over the years, I've gotten complaints from authors who've experienced all these things as part of a handshake deal. As these authors know, it's incredibly hard to walk away from an offer, even if the offer isn't a good one. But if the offer is a handshake deal, you just might want to make that very tough decision.
Wednesday, November 15, 2017
Wednesday, September 6, 2017
Posted: 05 Sep 2017 05:58 AM PDT
I read an excellent book by John Sutherland, A Little History of Literature, which shared a historical perspective on novels that covered an array of topics, from book clubs and best-seller lists to great writers, censorship, books turned into movies, poetry, and mythology. But the most revealing chapter was its last one, about the fate of literature.
The author notes the marketplace is flooded with too many titles, that we suffer from “too-muchness of literature” and it’s expanding all of the time.
“This mind-crushing plentifulness creates whole new sets of problems. There are those still living (and I am one) who were raised in a cultural environment whose central features were scarcity, shortage and inaccessibility. If you wanted a new novel, you had either to save up the money to pay for it, or put your name down on a waiting list at the local public library. It was annoying. But, in a way it made things simpler. You had fewer options. In a single lifetime – mine, for example – shortage has been replaced by an embarrassment of choice. So how is one to navigate the onslaught of books?"
He later notes: “In Shakespeare’s day, there were, it has been estimated, some 2,000 books available to a bookish person like him. You could be, as the phrase was, “well read.” That is a description for which no one in the future will qualify.”
Today the book industry easily produces more than 2,000 new titles every single day, 365 days a year. How can one keep up with what’s new, let alone visit the millions of volumes stored online and in libraries?
People read books based on the time available to them. Will they form a literary diet of the classics or of what a review, friend or store recommends? Will they experiment and diversify, or will they read more of what they believe they like to read, sticking narrowly to one’s specific genres?
And how will people consume their literature – with a paper book or a digital scroll on their smart phone?
“The printed book,” writes Southerland,” a physical thing made up of paper, type, ink and board, has been around now for over 500 years. It has served literature wonderfully: packaging in cheap, sometimes beautiful forms that have helped to sustain mass literacy. Few inventions have lasted longer, or done more good.
“The book may however, have had its day. The tipping point has come very recently in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when e-books – digital things made up of algorithms and pixels – began to outsell the traditional book on Amazon. An e-book, as it’s currently marketed for handheld tablets, looks eerily like a ‘real’ book just as the early printed books such as Gutenberg’s looked just like manuscripts.”
There’s still evidence that paper is favored over digital. E-book sales have dropped much of the past four years while print has risen. But there’s no doubt the digital world is creeping into every aspect of our lives.
“Literature,” concludes Sutherland, “that wonderfully creative product, of the human mind, will, in whatever new forms and adaptations it takes, forever be a part of our lives, enriching our lives.”
Sunday, July 23, 2017
Posted: 12 Jul 2017 07:28 AM PDT
Many authors that I speak with, whether self-published or published by a leading publisher, regardless of genre, a writer’s credentials, or the marketing campaign behind their books, will ask about how they can become a best-selling author. It is understandable that they’d want to make a list – they seek fame, fortune, and to be heard in a big way. But do our best-seller lists really represent the best books out there?
Best-seller lists are in today’s world a manipulated reward for those who know how to game the system. Through pre-launch orders arranged by an author’s marketing team, family and friends, one can hit a best-seller list not because of the merits of the book but the proof that expensive and persistent marketing has a pay-off. Nothing wrong there, but one should not be fooled into thinking that a best-seller is necessarily a great book. Heck, it may not even be a good one.
Once a book gets on a best-seller list it tends to beget more sales. More people – reviewers, media, consumers – pay attention to these lists and further create a demand for a book they know little about. It’s a process similar to when people choose the brand item vs. the generic or unknown label simply because it seems familiar and recognized in an authoritative way.
Then again, there’s almost a deliberate opposition to best-sellers by the literary snobbery. Whether it’s jealousy or something else, the elitists may purposely damn a book because it is popular and on a list. Everyone likes to knock a leader off his perch. But that kind of prejudice seems uncalled for. A best-seller can be a very good book. But its selling status is not necessarily an indicator of the content quality, just as a beautiful person may be ugly on the inside. No guarantees there.
Best-seller lists used to be influenced by a number of factors, including traditional reviews by a respected handful, huge advertising campaigns, big publicity tours, and positive word-of-mouth. Now a big player is pre-order shenanigans arranged by people who know how to process a certain amount of orders by reaching out to an author’s list of connections, including ones the author will underwrite book purchases for. Further, social media is now dictating popularity and fueling book sales, but again, the buzz is not necessarily based on the book’s purity – just its author’s financial ability to get influencers to post on his behalf.
Best-sellers are created and rarely just materialize organically. It’s a crafted, controlled process that represents not so much the best of books but the best of book marketing.
What will it take to make these lists purified and truly representative of real consumers and their reading judgments? We may never know.