Laurie McLean is a literary agent specializing in genre fiction and middle-grade/young-adult children’s books. She has really become a guru on this subject and is the agent I always turn to when I need to know the ever-changing fads and fashions of fantasy, science fiction, supernatural fiction and young adult fiction. A few months ago we had a great interview with her about the subject on “Ask the Agent.” If you want to know whether the vampire train left the station, ask Laurie.
Laurie has been a literary agent for 6 years and works at the Larsen Pomada Agency in San Francisco. She has a fantastic blog, Agent Savant, which is a good place to start learning about genre fiction.
Laurie has started a new consulting business separate from her agency called Agent Savant Inc. She specializes in creating custom digital marketing plans for eBook authors, authors with significant back lists of titles who want to get their rights reverted and sell them as eBooks and POD books, and midlist authors who want to know how they can market their books more effectively online.
Today the publishing landscape is changing almost weekly. Commercial publishers are struggling to redefine themselves in the new digital marketplace. And new venues seem to be sprouting up almost daily that give writers alternatives to traditional publishing. Today I want to talk about what these transformations mean to writers. Both the challenges and the opportunities.
Andy: First of all, Laurie, congratulations on your New York Times best seller. Tell us a little about it.
Andy: It seems to me that there is an awful lot of good writing being done today and most of it is having a hard time getting published in traditional channels. That’s true isn’t it?
Laurie: That’s one of the reasons I am so bullish on digital publishing and eBook publishing. A writer commented during a writers conference workshop I was giving several years ago that the worst part of my job must be reading so much bad writing, and I replied, “No. The worst part of my job is reading good or very good writing and knowing that I was going to have to reject it because it either wasn’t marketable at that point in time or because it wasn’t perfect.” The bar has been placed so high for writers, it’s made it nearly impossible for even the strong writers to break in. You must be good at every facet of writing and marketing and know the publishing business inside and out to even have a chance at the brass ring. But now opportunities have opened up with eBook and POD (print on demand) indie or self publishing, and the successes of some of the early adopters have destroyed that notion of who is a published author and how you can make a living as a writer. You can publish your book on Kindle Direct Publishing, Smashwords, or Barnes and Noble PubIt! sites and, voila, you are now a published author. Does that mean you don’t have to put in the hard work of always improving your craft and marketing your books? Hell, no. Cream will always rise to the top. You still have to learn and grow and pay attention and be diligent.
Andy: I know this changes every week, but can you go over the kinds of options available if you can write great books and still can’t find a publisher? Tell us the pros and cons of each. (POD, ebooks, smashwords, etc.)
Laurie: Boy, I could blog about this for weeks on end, Andy. So instead I will challenge your readers to discover how easy it is to post an eBook themselves. And I’m not doing this to be mean. Part of do-it-yourself publishing means you have to roll up your sleeves and actually do it! No agents or editors or cover designers or sales force will be there to hold your hand and make it happen. Give one more polishing edit to that work in progress –or to an old manuscript, novella, short story or article that has been sitting in a digital drawer on your computer–and at the very least go to Kindle Direct Publishing and then Smashwords and see how simple and straightforward it is to take your MS Word document, cobble together a cover from clip art or the like, and publish that book. Oh, and did I forget to mention that IT IS FREE TO DO THIS? Well, it is. Price your book anywhere you like it or give it away for free to generate some buzz. Then dive into social media (Twitter, blogging, Facebook, etc.) to let the world know you’re out there. If readers request a print copy of your book, go to Lulu.com, CreateSpace, Author Solutions or directly to a printer and make POD available. Some options will give you a number of books in return for a price and then you keep 100% of the sales dollars, like in the old days of vanity publishing, but newer options like Lulu cost you nothing up front and you collect a small royalty on each book you sell and they ship.
Andy: So it is pretty cheap and easy to get your book published either in print on paper or in e-book format. But the real challenge is how do you get the word out. Can you give some advice to the reader on marketing your books?
Laurie: Here’s a link to my blog post that presents a digital marketing plan writers can use as a starting point. I spent 20+ years in high tech marketing and publicity before I became an agent, so this has a lot of knowledge behind it.
Andy: Internet gurus used to use the term “disintermediation” to describe the new world of Internet commerce. What they meant was that the Internet would eliminate the middleman and allow consumers to buy direct from the producers at a reduced cost. It hasn’t exactly come out that way. In our business Amazon.com is a classic middleman. A typical retailer, really. But with the explosion of self-publishing, disintermediation seems to be a real possibility, no?
Laurie: That’s the billion-dollar question, Andy. How will this incredibly disruptive technology change the publishing industry? No one knows the answer, even though many offer their guesses daily. My informed opinion is that indie publishing will progress along the same lines as indie movies and indie music. You’ll have some overnight indie sensations that either thrive (for example American Idol megastars Carrie Underwood or Jennifer Hudson) or fizzle (can anyone remember AI runner ups?). For every self published Amanda Hocking superstar (and if you don’t know who she is, please find out), you will have hundreds of eBook authors making a decent wage and doing what they love without the baggage of being a household name. Yet, like Carrie Underwood, 26-year-old Minnesotan Amanda Hocking now has an agent who is about to sell her next series to a traditional publisher for seven figures.
Andy: Laurie, if Amanda Hocking is doing so well self publishing, why on earth should she bother to sign a contract with a commercial publisher. I bet she is getting better royalties on her own.
Laurie: Why? Because Amanda would rather spend her days writing than tweeting, giving media interviews, working with cover artists and editors, and negotiating with foreign publishers. There is so much work that must be attended to if you want to become successful in publishing—whether indie or traditional. And so when fame finds them, I predict indie authors will eventually straddle the line. They may continue to self-publish work that the traditional publishers don’t think will sell (short fiction, non-fiction, blogged books of advice, experimental writing, co-authored work, etc.), but their bread and butter mainstream books will come out in digital and print from established multi-national conglomerates. That’s why this chaotic stew is driving publishers insane. It’s impossible to predict the outcome of any decision. Everyone’s experimenting from authors to agents to publishers. I think your concept of ”disintermediation” is really a fancy word for do-it-yourself. And some DIY projects look homemade, while others look crafted. It all depends on skill level and attention to detail.
Andy: Other than Amanda Hocking, are people really making money doing this kind of self-publishing?
Laurie: Some are, some are not. Self-publishing juggernaut Author Solutions estimated that the average number of books sold by their customers last year was 150. That’s not a lot. It’s not going to make you rich. But one of my new clients, Kait Nolan, sold 1,000 copies of an e-novella herself in January at 99 cents each. And she’s sold more copies of her three short stories in the first three months of 2011 than she did in all of 2010. So her momentum is growing to the point where I found her because of her awesome social media presence last month and offered her representation before she had even written one query letter to an agent or editor! The point is that some indie authors who really work at it are making money. Some are not. Which one will you be?
Andy: You have set up a separate business recently to help people navigate the new landscape. Can you describe what you do?
Laurie: Anyone interested in Agent Savant Inc. should check it out. For a flat fee I help authors discover their unique author brand; I help them publish their writing online as an eBook; and then I create a customized digital marketing plan to help them sell their eBooks and POD books more effectively. I don’t do the work for them. I create the plan and get them started. Sometimes all it takes is a push with some direction behind it to take off.
Andy: Thanks, Laurie. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have to go make a phone call to Amanda Hocking to see if she needs a new agent. I think I’ll tell her that I can get her an 8 figure deal!