Friday, December 21, 2007

The Benefits of Being an Agent

I had an interesting thought regarding Erik's comments considering this is an agent's blog. The hype machine costs money, yes. Didn't Trump just pay out something like $25K to about 1,000 people standing in line waiting to buy his book and have it autographed? Who bears the cost of promotion? Authors and, sometimes, publishers.

Do agents pick up the promotion tab, or do they simply reap the benefit of author and publisher promo? If the latter, then those NYT Bestseller spikes don't cost agents anything, and, in the long run, it's the agents that net out better than either the author or the publisher.

Interesting thought that at a 15% commission the agents ever net out better than anyone. No, agents don’t typically pick up a tab for promotion. That’s really up to the people who are making the money—the publishers and the authors. The agent, however, will often do her best to eliminate as much of that tab from the author’s own pockets as possible. In other words, the agent will do her best to get the publisher to pay.

Any author will always bear the cost of some promotion, even if it’s the cost of attending a conference, but the more successful an author becomes the more the publisher should and will bear those costs. And the publisher absolutely should. It’s part of the cost of doing business in the first place. Should an agent bear the cost of building an author’s brand? I’m not sure and I’d be interested to hear what others say about this. I do know that some of the larger agencies now are bringing on publicists. I don’t know how well that’s working or how much they are actually spending. BookEnds has started this blog, which we see as a promotional opportunity for our authors should they choose to use it. We also have a Web site where we heavily promote our authors. It only makes sense. Successful authors = successful agents.

BookEnds did briefly toy with the thought of hiring an agency publicist, but in the end we weren’t sure a publicist for the agency would do any more than a publisher’s publicity department does (or that we can get them to do). I guess I’m not convinced it makes sense.

Okay, that was not much of an answer, but I think this is worthy of more of a discussion than just one woman’s answer. Thoughts?



ORION said...

I think it's really important for a writer to invest in their career financially in this way.
I go to retreats and conferences and I hired an outside publicist (Goldberg McDuffie) to work with me and my publisher's publicists when my hardback came out.I'd do it all over again the same way. A separate publicist was invaluable fto help me learn how to navigate the system. I think it's really important for authors to understand what publicists can and can't do and how much and what type of promotion works best. There is no guarantee but I think it IS helpful for debut authors to talk to other authors in their genre to get a feel for what works and what doesn't.
It's interesting you considered an agency publicist...I think your website and blog are a better investment IMHO. I think conferences and writers magazines are great promotional opportunities.

Anonymous said...

orion, you say your outside publicist helped you "navigate the system" but isn't that what an agent is supposed to do? What else did this publicist do for you and how much did it cost?

Kimber Li said...

Well, it never occurred to me that an agent would bear any publicity costs. I assumed you all were the brains of the operation, juggling things back and forth between publisher and author, hearing cool stuff and passing it on. That kind of thing.

Anonymous said...

As a new author trying to put together a reasonable promotion package, I'd like an agent to give me an opinion about what actually works. Those of us who are computer-savvy can tap into any number of loops and blogs and come up with recommendations from both published and unpublished writers. The problem is, they don't agree. Go to conference; don't go, they're a waste of time. Buy ads in major publications; no, they're a waste of money. Mass-mail postcards; don't bother, because people don't read them anyway. With a small advance, how do we put our resources to the best use? I don't ask that an agent do it for me, but please point me in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

Sheila328 -- Let me be the voice of dissent and possibly discouragement. When my book (I write kidlit) came out last year I did some of those things you're angsting about -- the postcards, the targeted marketing. I even sent out many of my own books to organizations who worked in the environment that the book was about.

I think it pretty much accomplished nothing in terms of sales and cost me a lot of money I didn't really have.

Yet I've seen similar good books, with writing similar to mine, sell like hotcakes right out of the gate. What made theirs take off while mine barely got on a shelf at Borders?

Two words: Publisher Publicity.

If publishers pay a lot of money for your book they are going to promote the heck out of it in order to make that money back. In turn, from all the publicity, the book will SELL.

Not fair, but it did set my mind right as to how the industry works. Sometimes all you can do is work on your next book.

Anonymous said...

With my four published non-fiction books, the funds for publicity tended to dry up as we went. My first book was about a well-known entertainer and we got $50,000 for publicity; that meant cross country trips, national tv shows, etc. The second book was about a national tragedy with international implications, and that was more limited since we were dealing with national/international news but not big name movie star. This included a couple of cross country trips, and several national television shows. The third book also dealt with an incident that got international publicity in the news, but even less money for publicity from the book publishers. This meant one trip to NYC for television and radio shows and that was the extent of the publicity. The fourth book was a true crime and there was no funds for it, although, it had international publicity.

So, I guess I say all this to point out it depends on the publishing house and how much they think they can make through the additional publicity other than reviews; all four were reviewed extensively.

This is just one person's experience, and all the costs were carried by the publishers, who would reap the most benefits from the dollors spent in airfare, hotel costs, etc.

Hope this helps someone.

Karen Duvall said...

This is an real interesting subject. I personally don't think an agent needs to get very involved in an author's publicity other than to advise about what works best, and to buzz about the book inside those industry circles unavailable to the author. When the author's book does well, earning out its advance and going back for second and third printings, the agent benefits as well, so that's something to think about. But I don't think the agent should fork out any money to help make this happen. That just doesn't make any sense considering what her ROI would be.

Buzz sells books, period. Ads don't, blog tours don't, newsletters don't, postcards don't, and the promo goo-gaws everyone gets so excited about (bookmarks, key chains, pens, etc.) are a complete waste of money. If you write a great book that gets talked about, there you go. Getting the word out, IMO, via reviews is probably the most helpful. If your agent can get you reviewed more, all the better.

Anonymous said...

Books with larger print runs & good distribution tend to stand a better chance of doing better.

No amount of p.r. in the world will do any good if a book is not in the bookstores.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me the agent's job is to GET A BOOK DEAL ... THE BEST BOOK DEAL POSSIBLE, FOR THE AUTHOR.PERIOD.

When and If ... no,WHEN ... I am ready to seek representation I want the agent who is going to get me the best book deal, and I consider publisher promotion a big part of the deal.
My job is to write; someone else's job is to promote. I'm not naive and understand my responsibility to promote my own book and will do whatever the promotion department of the publishing house my excellent agent, the one who got the very best deal for me, suggests I do to promote the book ... as long as it's ethical and legal, of course.
Anonymous ... for Now!

Sally MacKenzie said...

I only have any experience in the romance genre, but in that field I'm skeptical that anything authors do really helps sell their books. I do the things I enjoy and can afford, because I'm not quite brave enough to do nothing. And some of it I find fun, which is reward in itself. (May as well enjoy this author gig as much as possible!)

I don't think reviews, at least in the romance genre, sell books. I've had friends with great reviews--including great PW reviews--not sell well. Most of what I think works I have little to no control over--good print run, good distribution, good cover, and, perhaps most important, coop--the publisher paying for good space in the bookstore (eg. up front, on a center kiosk, etc.). I've found as my books sell well, I get more publisher support.

I also wonder if the subgenre makes a difference. I write historicals, but perhaps folks who write paranormal might get more mileage out of on line stuff like booktrailers because their core audience might be more attuned to that medium.

And if your agent tells you you have to do X because X definitely works, get a new agent. He/she is delusional. (All right, if Jessica told me to do X, I might, unless I hate to do X and doing X would make me miseable.)

Adrienne said...

anon 805:

Not to answer for Orion . . . okay, to answer for Orion . . . I think you may be confused as to what "navigate the system" means in this case.

An agent works within the publishing industry. Sells your rights to publishers. Sells your foreign rights. Deals with contracts and is the middle man when it comes to finances. An agent can also even help you with the manuscript itself.

An independent publicist works outside the publishing industry. ie in the field of PR. They get articles about you into magazines, get you on the air (both radio and film), help book personal appearances and also do a lot of out of the box stuff (which I can't elaborate on because I am very much still in the box).

Now the publisher's publicist, if you are lucky, is already doing the stuff the independent publicist would do for you, but chances are the publisher's publicist is also working on many other books and with many other authors. Some publishers have very little budget for publicity. Some a lot. It all depends.

Hiring an independent publicist guarantees you get personal attention. Like with everything else, some are better than others. But in theory that's the idea.

They navigate the complicated system of self-promotion. Agents don't do that (as this blog post has just explained).

Anonymous said...

It seems to me the agent's job is to GET A BOOK DEAL ... THE BEST BOOK DEAL POSSIBLE, FOR THE AUTHOR.PERIOD.

When and If ... no,WHEN ... I am ready to seek representation I want the agent who is going to get me the best book deal, and I consider publisher promotion a big part of the deal.
My job is to write; someone else's job is to promote. I'm not naive and understand my responsibility to promote my own book and will do whatever the promotion department of the publishing house my excellent agent, the one who got the very best deal for me, suggests I do to promote the book ... as long as it's ethical and legal, of course.
Anonymous ... for Now!

ORION said...

Thanks Adrienne!
anonymous 8:05- The financial aspect is a personal question and varies depending on the contract you negotiate with the publicist.
It can cost anywhere from a thousand a campaign to several thousands a month depending on the publicist and length of campaign.
My publicist was able to get my book profiled by USA today, Redbook, Good housekeeping and helped me determine where to go on tour for the most bang for my buck.
Yes I agree. There is no telling what works and what doesn't.
Going to Seattle on a book tour got me on a bestseller list for August at Elliot Bay Book Store which got me placement in the store. It got me coverage in the Seattle times. Did it sell more books than I would have anyway? I don't know. But I will tell you this. Each time I go into an independent book store and sign stock they hand sell my book and order more copies.
Doing nothing? Well that's just not my style.

Kate Douglas said...

I want my agent working on getting me the best deal possible, which is something tangible, not publicizing my series--advertising is not her field but the business end of the contract is. I was lucky enough to help launch a new line with my publisher, which got me a lot of "general" publicity up front. When my first books released, I paid for my own ads, worked very hard on getting my name and titles in front of the public via online chats, and continued writing stories that I knew would appeal to my readers, who then go out and talk about my books, resulting in more sales. My publisher began to pick up more of the promotional costs once I had proved myself as an author. My agent benefits from my efforts, just as I benefit from hers. It really is a partnership and I don't begrudge one penny of the 15% commission my agent earns doing her job. In the long run, I like to think we both benefit by holding up our own ends of a mutually agreed upon bargain.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Wow! Great discussion, all. I'm the anonymous poster of that "interesting thought" and am delighted to see it spark so many more interesting thoughts! Promotion truly is an art, and until the industry as a whole figures out how to identify and analyze metrics around promotion, I'm sure debates on what works and who should pay will continue to abound. Of course, we may never figure out how to measure public appeal, eh?

Kate and Orion, I especially appreciate your thoughtful remarks.

On another note, I find it quite heartening that Jessica actually reads the comments posted! Not sure why I posted that one anonymously - probably just too lazy to sign in :o)

And I know 15% is far too little to begin with! I think I just meant that the agency wasn't having to pay anything extra out of their commission, while the author/publisher pays promotion costs out of their royalties/profits.

I'm still on the fence about the agent helping to bear the cost of building an author's brand. If the agent is helping guide the author in their writing career, does the agent stop short of promoting the brand author and agent are both gambling on? I suppose that's why some agencies do have their own full-time publicists or other people on staff to help build author websites, set up reviews, etc. But, as someone else pointed out, if the ROI isn't there, then that's bad business. See, still on the fence!

Kate Douglas said...

Phoenix, to comment on your comment (ah, the joy of blogging!) I prefer to have my publicity under my control and don't feel that I would be comfortable with my agent taking on that part of my career. Publicity is, to me, a very personal part of the business aspect of my writing. When my publisher promotes (and believe me, they do a lot behind the scenes to further my career) it's generally done with the imprint in mind as much as my books. When I promote, it's all about me--I promote my name as much if not more than my books, because I intend to be writing long after my series ends. Even replying to blog posts such as this is a form of promotion that keeps my name in the public eye--people may get sick and tired of "Kate Douglas," but they'll recognize the name when they go into a bookstore! (Oh, THAT pain in the ass...)

Anonymous said...

I can't help wondering, if an agent spent part of their commission on an author who eventually became successful and then changed agents, would that come under justifiable homicide?

I gather to be an agent and be taken seriously by major publishers and editors you have to work full time. It's not like being a writer where you can have a day job. In a sense the successful authors are subsidizing the newbies by paying most of the overhead. If agents did spend money publicizing authors, I suspect it would go to those who I consider the wrong people.

ORION said...

kate I think you bring up a really good point. Much of the publicity from my publicist focused on me and my career and the publicity from the publisher more about the book.
My publicist was fabulous at saying what she thought would work for me and what she thought wouldn't. They were even more careful of my money than I was...
The thing is. You are only a debut author once. You can't do back and do it all over again with a publicist after the fact.
You have to buy that LOTTERY ticket before you even have a chance at worked for my dad...

Aimlesswriter said...

I never really thought an agent would do my adverstising for me but I would hope for some guidance in what would be good for me to try in way of promotion. (being a newbie) I mean, wouldn't they do that so the book suceeds for both of us?
I see a lot of author's I know doing many things on their own to self promote. The question I have is this; what really works? And what is useless?

Kate Douglas said...

I started out in epublishing where, in most cases, ALL promotion is up to the authors. I learned that anything that got people talking about my books was good advertising, and using resources online worked really well. The whole point of viral marketing is to get word of your product to spread across the Internet, voice to voice and completely beyond your own efforts. I signed up for Google Alerts which tells me where I'm being mentioned in blogs and chat rooms, and believe me, it's amazing where you find folks discussing your books! I also use book teaser videos, as they are a good fit for my erotic paranormal stories.

Sharon Page said...

I'd just like to add that while I've taken care of my own promotions (ads, mailouts of ARCs and excerpts, etc), Jessica has gone above and beyond for me in a lot of ways. Since I live in Canada, many things are awkward to do, because of border issues. Jessica has done many things I never expected an agent to do to ease my promotional way.

But as has been said, what I want my agent to do is be "publicizing" me to the editors. Making them excited about my work, so I'll be getting that great book deal.

And having an industry professional to give her two cents on what she's seen work and not has be incredibly valuable.

Anonymous said...

My agent gets me great deals that are backed by publicity budgets, and that's enough for me. I'm not interested in having him be part of my publicity staff, and we actually disagree quite a bit about how my publicity should be handled. To be perfectly frank, I think his ideas about publicity are utter crap. He makes a great agent, though.

I don't expect my real estate agent to know the finer points of interior design. Same thing goes for books.

Also, I don't think an author can do anything to make a difference in sales. Only publisher push in the form of distribution, buzz, and co-op, can do that. I've had books reviewed in all the major newspapers and then I've had books that got a trade review or two, but if the publisher buys co-op, the titles sell equally.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the support on my original comment, Jessica. I consider this to be the real meat of the problem in front of me right now.

I'm a self-published author, and I'm trying to generate as much buzz as I can. My fans do a great job of that, which is why I keep in touch with them. It's helped me quite a lot.

I'm also a consultant to a small publisher on how to sell books over the internet, and I'm trying to whip up a proposal right now (as an atheist, I work over Xmas). On the internet it's all about buzz, and I hope I can apply what I've already learned.

But the real question at the heart of it all is one of timing. Does a big splash really matter in the long run? I can't point to a controlled experiment on the topic, nor is one easy to do. But my gut says that in this changing world, we have to know what we're getting for large expenditures on PR and whether or not the old channels (newspaper, etc) are still effective, if new channels are more effective, or if ANYTHING is effective at all.

People tell me this industry is all about money. Great! I'd like to make some - I have a mortgage. But I see it run through a balance of habit and fashion than any real analysis of the situation.

There are many ways that this industry is simply not responding to changing markets, but to me this is the most potentially damaging. It involves a lot of money spent on PR, and the buzz that is needed to sell books in the first place utterly depends on it. I think we need good answers to the questions I posed in October (and a bit earlier on my own blog).