Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Letter to Peter Cox regarding agent ethics and other matters

(Peter’s article, see below.)
Hello Peter,
I have just read with some fascination your argument regarding the ethics of the agent’s role. I can’t remember how I found it but my trail started with the Nosy Crow defence of the Sainsbury’s award.
As an outsider with neither an agent nor a publisher who has sold, mostly undiscounted, around 7,000 copies of my first, illustrated nonsense children’s, in hardback at £14.99and 1,200 of my second, adult gothic ghost tale, in paperback at £9.99, traditionally printed, I am merely an observer of the tribulations and machinations of both sides of the “added value” chain.

In her defence of Sainsbury’s I was a little shocked at the extremely modest figures, both in sales and revenue-to-author, of the examples she quoted: 3,000 copies sold through Sainsbury’s equating to 2,000 through an independent bookshop to realise £900 for her client (the creator as author or illustrator). I was not shocked at the percentage but at the low expectation of sales figures.
Is it really the case that a publisher, with connective, logistical and marketing power at their disposal, has such low expectations of sales volume while accepting such drastic discounting? (It may be that this was an abstract random example merely to show the relative sales between outlets but her introduction of the ALCS’s median author income figures leads me to believe otherwise. I realize the publisher benefits through the accumulated title income but this little helps the individual author. [Which relates to your issues with agents becoming publishers I guess])
Ok, she is one publisher, and a new one, but her ability to self-promote is peerless (she is everywhere to be found plugging NC or pontificating on publishing futures), so it is doubly disheartening to see that she, apparently, has such low volume expectations (I also read a sub-text into her article aimed squarely at her authors and illustrators), and I wonder if this translates to the major publishers for the majority of their new titles (we keep hearing about the onus incumbent on non-A-list authors to ‘get out there and promote your own work’)?
You, as an agent, should be in a position to answer this question and I hope you will be kind enough to do so.

How does this relate at all to your article? Indirectly, inasmuch as your discussion of agent integrity conflicting with the trend to agent-publishing leads me to the other half of my concern: the agent half of the value-added question.
Again, as an outsider I watch the publicised mega-deals which give no indication as to the median agent-struck deals with publishers. In the case of a non-mega deal what does the agent bring to the party? How does he/she justify his/her existence in a world where deals are struck with no advances to help the author live while penning his next book and where publishers do increasingly less to push the book, once published?
In such a situation and disregarding e-books for a moment, I would see a distinct opportunity for a new type of publishing concern – a developmental/copy-editing, proofreading and pre-production company working with authors to facilitate the production of their own work under the aegis of their own companies under one of the following agreements:
  1. Prod Co contracted at straight flat-rate payment for work done for Author Co that pays the printing, shipment, and storage etc., costs. Author Co benefits by lowered print rates through Prod Co’s total printing volume.
  2. For new or cash-strapped authors, Prod Co, after initial editorial viability vetting, enters an arrangement balanced between direct payment and royalties (i.e. in reverse of the current norm, with the possibility that some of these will achieve high volumes and continued income for the Prod Co)
Here the Author Co takes the 42.5-60% share of list price through wholesalers or bookshops direct for street sales or the equivalent through e-tailers.
Basically this is what I have been doing these past two years, paying for runs between 1,000 and 3,000, taking advantage of the print deals* through volume my production company provides (they merely check my pdfs for anomalies and negotiate prices), warehousing and distributing through wholesalers (no Amazon Advantage here – more from Amazon sold through Gardners).
[*Well, I thought they were providing such an advantage! After a falling out I was forced to find my own print deals and found an ace Chinese company, with a London office and an extremely nice and efficient representative here, that printed my Curd the Lion hardback book, retailing at £14.99 on a run of 2,000 at £1.75 including delivery to a UK warehouse – the cheapest by far I’ve had – and perfect quality. DIY strikes again!] 
Ok, I have to pay for printing up front, but I have geared it so that the profit from each pays for the next. Since Gardners take my books in batches between 200 and a thousand my warehousing costs are greatly reduced (and I have found a very cheap warehouse for the remainder).
I originally took the stance, having heard of the self-promotion being demanded of mid-list authors, that I would rather self-promote for 42% than 8% of each sale made. With that in mind I have established a great working relationship with the Waterstone’s chain at which I do signings every Saturday, through half-terms and holidays, just chatting to customers who have never heard of me and talking them into my stories with very consistent results. (Most Saturdays now over 40 books between the two and over 30 weekdays).
I work otherwise illustrating for a range of publishers adult non-fiction titles (Penguin Group, Osprey, Windmill, Hachette Partworks, Aurum, Ivy) plus occasionally for architects (John McAslan & Partners and others) and writing whenever I get free time.
I guess my activities parallel those of a lot of authors represented by agents and published by major companies with the exception that I reap a far greater reward per unit, even after printing, warehousing and distribution costs. (In my position the Gardners business model is so much more viable than the Bertrams where the latter overtly pay when they order, rather than when they sell, but in reality their 90 -120 day payment cycle coincides with an automated returns cycle so that one can be paid just prior to returns being notified and further orders placed for the same books coincidentally.)
It is obvious that everyone concedes that e-publishing is easy (with the caveats of the observed shortfall in proofreading/copyediting for each format in which the e-book is distributed) and in ignorance of that caveat, cheap. Apps are a different matter.
Agents, like authors, it seems, are tempted by the apparent lack of infrastructure needs to set themselves up as e-publishers.
In my case, to avoid the fraught contractual niceties, I have signed up to work under the aegis of Faber Factory (iBookstore deal announced today) – they chunder through the contractual mires while I pay a percentage for the privilege of collecting a cheque each month. Neither has worked out an effective pricing or marketing strategy though their (and others’) success in tactically lowering to 99c. leading to exponentially increasing sales to a plateau, followed by a slow decline, largely upholding sales after returning to the original or a price somewhere between, has worked very well.
But this is merely a short-term big deal for the early adopters, and already it is being said that reduction per se will not be enough, but that every book will have to find a ‘gimmick’ to raise its profile above the horizon, or by exploiting or creating interest-group communication and loyalty (‘verticality’ in Shatzkin’s jargon).
Here publishers are disadvantaged in that the main retailer, Amazon, and Apple, to a lesser but growing degree, know every purchase and the addresses etc., of every customer and can extrapolate from these their interests and tastes to a degree unheard of before. Publishers are left out in the cold and must find ways to generate their own feedback loop to and from their customers as some are trying.
The FT’s adoption of a pseudo-app (Majoobi – see Tech Digest for details) for all devices announced yesterday is a major step in this direction, if not quashed by Apple, in that they have what appears as an app downloadable but not subject to the App store conditions and vetting procedures. It gives them direct purchasing and access to what is read by whom, with all the information that carries
Whether this leads to the Android-style chaos that is a direct result of unvetted apps allowing malware onto their devices, has yet to be seen. If so, Apple will assuredly find a way of banning such pseudo apps. [Otherwise pretty damned exciting especially for small guys like me because cheap and cheerful but looking good.]
It is very difficult to see how publishers can catch up with direct sales or persuade the major e-tailers to divulge their customer preference databases since the latter would facilitate the former undermining their own information-advantage and market dominance.

Wow! I didn’t mean to get this carried away, but it all leads back to my basic question: what advantage, in the emerging ecosystems through which readers are connected to writers (and illustrators) have the massive (statistically-savvy but individually-ignorant) behemoths of the last publishing century over “early-mammalian” micro-publishers?
It seems a particularly fruitless quest for agents to aspire set up as publishers at the same time as the mega-e-tailers (Amazon, Apple, B&N, etc.) are doing precisely the same thing but with direct access to individual consumer taste, purchase frequency, type and price point, indicating wealth level and increasingly revealing social demographic status, permitting irresistible advertising, according to their evolving models, on an individual level.

As an outsider I would be only too pleased to have someone come along and say, “Hey, I’ll take all this load off your shoulders to let you get on with the task of creating,” but all I see from this side of the fence is seeming confusion and uncertainty fuelling panic and withdrawal of that real support, cultivating authors through time, that was a hallmark of the great editors and agents.

I would greatly appreciate it, if you have time, if you would give your viewpoint on these issues.
Best wishes,

He very kindly and interestingly replied, agreeing with many of my points and giving me some fascinating insights, for which I am grateful.
I post this as a spur to debate, in the vain assumption that someone reads this blog!

Article: Your agent should not be your publisher. Peter Cox.


  1. Dearest Alan,
    A coincidental catalonian pays homage and would like to affirm the presence of attentive viewers of both blog and book.
    Bought your book last year largely due to a recommendation by the inky mass man and it is the favourite book of 2 of my 4 children - however the one who would enjoy it most is too perturbed by the cover to let the message breach his sensory defences.
    I can't fathom how you have not had an agent before now nor sold considerably more but then i find much is remiss.
    Bon chance

    1. Dear B.(T.),
      Thank you for your attention and your children’s love of my ‘Curd the Lion’ book.
      I would be very pleased if they (or you*) took the trouble to write to me at to let me know their opinion. In the absence of attention from newspapers (the nationals studiously ignored it) I do rely on the enthusiastic words of those who have bought and enjoyed my books when doing signings every Saturday to persuade potential purchasers.
      More anon should you care to write directly,
      Best wishes,
      *Invite extends to ‘the inky mass man’ also.