Archive for December, 2010

Andy Ross Interview Part 2

December 26, 2010

  This is a continuation of  John Marlow’s  interview with me for his Self Editing blog. John is a novelist and script writer and editor. His blog focuses on people writing for movies.

JRM: A number of agents and agencies are now rebranding themselves as “literary management” companies. Does this, in your opinion, represent a fundamental change in the representation business-a shift, perhaps, toward the Hollywood model where writers often retain both agent and manager?

Andy Ross: In the book trade, so far, distinguishing between “agent” and “literary management” is like distinguishing between “used car” and “preowned car.” Different words for the same thing. The real distinction is between agents who do manage client’s careers and those who just flip contracts. The former are preferable to the latter.

JRM: You’ve just described the difference between managers and agents in Hollywood, though there are of course exceptions. But in the book trade-so far-they’re all still “agents?”

Andy Ross: Yes. I guess my simple answer is that, in the book world, good literary agents manage their clients’ careers as well as get them contracts. Bad agents just flip contracts.

JRM: What’s the industry-wide average or typical advance for a book by a first-time writer, and how is that paid out? Feel free to break that down into categories, or to qualify it any way you like.

Andy Ross: I can’t make any generalization about typical advances. But I can say that advances have dramatically decreased in the last few years. It is not unusual to get an offer of a $50,000 advance from a major publisher, for a book that may very well be a lead title.

Any agent will tell you that today, $50,000 is a very good advance. Five years ago, that same book might have garnered three times that amount. You read about seven-figure advances, but really these are for the big celebrities.

Advances get split into payments. Two, three, and even four. Smaller advances are often paid in two parts, one on signing and one on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript. Larger advances will have an additional payment at the time of publication.

I have a six-figure advance that has yet an additional payment at the time of paperback publication. So the final payment is likely to come over two years after the contract is signed. One questions whether this should even be called an “advance.”

 JRM: Moving more toward the classic Hollywood step deal.

While we’re talking left coast—any thoughts on books with film or other crossover potential, and how that potential affects the likelihood or ultimate price of a sale?

Andy Ross: Most good agents will try to reserve the rights for movie/tv/performance for the author. So a publisher won’t get a piece of that action. But in general, a movie helps the sale of a book. There are a lot of deals for “options” for movies, which give the production company the right to exercise an exclusive option for a given period of time. A lot of these deals aren’t worth much money. There are very few options that end up getting made into movies.

JRM: For readers who may not know the score, I feel compelled to say here that, while this is absolutely true of most options–typically those by lesser-known companies and individuals—it’s also true that many options pay more than a typical book advance, even if the film is never made. In which case, the author gets to keep the money-and option the work again, or sell it.

Also, some options involve the optioning party doing a significant amount of work to develop, improve, or adapt the work being optioned.

Andy Ross: That is certainly true. Options, like advances, come in all shapes and sizes.

JRM: What industry trends do you think writers should be aware of right now—what’s changing, and where is it taking us?

Andy Ross: The big topic of conversation right now is electronic publishing. It is growing exponentially, and will continue to do so as more consumers buy reading devices.

The reading experience with e-books has become pretty good now. I believe that this is the future of book publishing, as far as anyone can really predict the future in this fast-changing world. I think this will have tragic consequences for community-based bookstores and for the communities they serve.

I don’t think online bookselling is ever going to be able to recreate the ineffable joy and excitement of shopping at a real bookstore. I don’t think that e-books will necessarily change the way people write or the content of what they write. It is a neutral medium, just as a blank piece of paper is a neutral medium.

Of course the more substantial and, to my mind, more troubling trend is the reduction of reader attention span due to the Internet. Reading requires patience and time, and a kind of commitment from the reader that is missing when one is simply surfing the net.

And, of course, the culture of celebrity is driving bigger and bigger sales to fewer and fewer titles. These are very troubling trends, indeed.

JRM: Going back to your comment about the pleasures of shopping at brick-and-mortar stores, I have to agree. But there’s another issue in play here.

Once upon a time, the big chains drove the little independents out of business. Now the online behemoths are putting the hurt on the chains. Amazon has driven Barnes & Noble to the auction block, Borders has already gone under in Britain and was teetering on the brink last year in the U.S. The same thing is happening with dvd rentals: Netflix has driven Blockbuster into bankruptcy.

This would seem to bode well for indies, particularly small or niche stores with lower overhead—where the people working there actually know and care about the books they’re selling. But will customers be willing to pay more for that superior service and personal connection, when they can in most cases order the same thing online, for less?

Andy Ross: That is a very good point. My wife works at an independent store, Book Passage in Marin County, north of San Francisco. I used to be an independent bookseller, and I have a lot of friends who own independent stores. People in publishing and book lovers everywhere think of indies as the heart and soul of the book business.

Barnes & Noble is still a very robust company. It sells about the same number of books as Amazon. But they are closing a lot of stores and using more space for non-book items. In other words, they are having to make very significant adjustments to accommodate the brave new world of publishing.

Borders is a corporate basket case. They seem to be trying to shrink their way into profitability. Not a good sign.

And yes, you are right that smaller independents have some important advantages. They have low overhead and provide the kind of bookstore experience that is matchless. But unless they can find a way to adapt to the e-book revolution, their future will be in doubt.

JRM: What does your experience at Cody’s tell you?

Andy Ross: Cody’s was a large independent store and was probably a victim of history. The heyday of independent stores was in the 1980’s, before the chains started opening up superstores everywhere. Business began declining in the ’90s. And at the end of that decade we began facing extremely robust competition from Amazon.com. Cody’s had a very high overhead and faced eroding sales.

JRM: What do you like most about working with writers?

Andy Ross: I have enormous admiration for the vocation as well as the profession of writing. I think a lot about what Anne Lamott said in Bird by Bird. She advised the writer to stop worrying about getting published. Writing opens you to the world and makes you a better and wiser person. Getting published does none of this. And seldom brings wealth or fame.

I have said elsewhere in my blog [link]  that the work of the writer reminds me of the final magnificent sentences of Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus. Something to the effect that: “the journey itself is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Nothing to my mind is a more eloquent expression about the courage it takes to be a writer.

 

Interview with Andy Ross

December 22, 2010

A few weeks ago John Marlow, who is an editor and script writer in Los Angeles, contacted me and wanted to do an interview on his Self Edit blog. It is a fantastic blog for writers who are interested in writing for movies or getting movie deals. I liked the interview so much that I’m posting it here. We will do it in 2 parts.

JRM: Why did you become—and why do you remain—an agent? What got you started, and what keeps you going?

Andy Ross: Most agents come out of publishing. Usually editorial. This makes a lot of sense. They have experience in the decision to acquire books for publishers. They know the calculations that go into making the decision, and they usually know what general sorts of books publishers are looking for.

I came into this job from an entirely different background. I was a retailer for 35 years. For 30 years I owned and managed Cody’s Books in Berkeley. It was an extremely well known and highly regarded store that had a reputation for its unusual selection of titles and its commitment to books of literary and intellectual value.

This gave me an unusual perspective. I like to say that, as buyer for the store for so many years, I have been pitched over 50,000 titles. It was invaluable experience for understanding the tastes of a very wide range of publishers.

It is pretty easy to make a submission list of the imprints from the 6 major publishers in New York (Macmillan, Random House, Simon and Schuster, Harper Collins, Penguin, Hachette Book Group). But in the tough world of publishing, realistically it is going to be necessary to go down the list to smaller houses. As a retailer, I am more familiar with a wide range of imprints than many other agents.

When I left Cody’s in 2007, I wasn’t sure what skills I could bring to any new job. I had a sense that my future lay in…maybe…sacking groceries at Safeway. But I had a kind of epiphany that I would be a pretty good agent. I think I am. I’ve sold 21 books [link]  in my two and a half years at this job. Many are lead titles.

I love working at this other end of the book food chain. And getting an offer on a book is a really emotional experience. Getting rejections is also an emotional experience, but that is another story. Honestly, I love this work. I wish I had started years ago. It’s like Christmas every day.

JRM: Given your seen-it-all perspective, what still gets your attention and makes a query
stand out from the crowd?

Andy Ross: I see a lot of articles and presentations for writers about how to structure a query letter. Some of them even profess to offer a kind of kabalistic secret technique that will assure the writer of finding an agent and a publisher. I don’t buy that. The best kind of query letter is one that pitches a good idea for a book from a person who has the authority to write it and the platform to get attention for it

You should always look on an agent’s website for submission guidelines. Speaking only for myself, I like a short query (half page or less) sent by email with the text embedded in the email that tells me the genre of the book, succinctly what the book is about, the audience it is trying to reach and why the author has the authority to be writing about this subject.

You have no idea how often I get queries that begin with a kind of breathless narrative. Two long paragraphs later, it is still unclear whether the book is a novel, a memoir, or something else. I don’t like that.

But, notwithstanding, if I get a query with a project that excites me, it doesn’t really matter if the format is different. I just did an entry on my blog called 9 Tips for Effective Query Letters, which conveys a better idea of what I’m looking for when I read query letters.

JRM: What are some of the mistakes you see new writers make in their approach to people or the industry?

Andy Ross: There is an old cliché that publishing is the marriage of art and commerce. In these hard times it is a kind of S&M marriage with commerce being a rather harsh dominatrix. Publishers are under huge pressure to make money. I suppose they have always been. And their first concern is how to find an audience large enough to make publication a viable commercial venture.

This is only to say that the decision to publish a book is quite different than a judgment about whether a book is high art or intellectually worthy. And writers need to have no illusions about that.

JRM: What are the most important things for a writer to know—in general, and when approaching an agent?

Andy Ross: It’s important for writers to understand that publishers are going to expect the writer to do the heavy lifting in promoting the book. A writer can’t just write. He has to be a savvy marketer as well.

And writers should also be realistic and be aware that we live in a world obsessed with celebrity and driven by mass media. Increasingly the books that are selling are the books that are getting media attention, books by personalities.

Sarah Palin’s rather mediocre book was the best-selling nonfiction book of 2009. All of the best selling fiction books last year were by name-brand authors. Chances are that if you don’t already have a mass following, your book will sell in modest numbers. The most difficult job I have as an agent is managing my clients’ expectations.

JRM: What qualities do you look for—and look to avoid—in a writer-client?

Andy Ross: It is always easier to sell a book by a writer with “platform”. Platform is a word you hear a lot in publishing. It means that you are famous or otherwise important and will have access to media and reviews.

A professor with an endowed chair at Harvard has platform. Anyone you see on the tabloids as you are checking out at Safeway has platform. Sarah Palin has platform. The Chilean miners have platform. Oprah’s hairdresser (or anyone else associated with Oprah) has platform. Writers, like everyone else, are all different. I try to be tolerant of their virtues and vices.

JRM: What should a writer look for—and avoid—in an agent?

Andy Ross: I hear a lot of myths about what is good and bad in an agent. I hear that it is always best to get an agent from a large prestigious New York agency. Certainly it is always nice to impress your friends by namedropping your celebrity agent, but it isn’t necessarily going to help your career. Some of these agents are pretty good. But they may not have much time to work with you. Some of them think that it is their job to flip contracts, rather than help the author develop her ideas into good and publishable projects.

A lot of authors think they need an agent, because they can’t get published without one. That is probably pretty realistic, at least with the major publishers. But no agent, no matter how prestigious, is going to be able to sell a book that would otherwise not interest a publisher.

A lot of writers think that an agent can get them a big deal with a big publisher and negotiate a very favorable contract. Agents generally have some knowledge about what to ask for in a deal and sometimes how to leverage a situation into getting a bigger advance. Some, but not all, agents know the pitfalls of publisher boilerplate contract language and can make some limited beneficial changes. But these are not really the most important parts of an agent’s job. You can check out my blog article about the book deal for more detail [link].

If you speak to published authors, most of them feel that their agents are essential and that the commissions are well-earned. But they also will tell you that the real value that the agent brings is to be a creative advisor, first line editor, business manager, intermediary with the publisher, a person who works to advance the writing career of the writer, and is sometimes a shoulder to cry on.

Watch out for agents who are not willing to go the distance to see your book get published. I have worked with a number of authors whose agents submitted their projects  to six big houses, and then gave up after six rejections. Those are not good agents.

I was on an agent’s panel recently, and another agent had a very telling story. A novelist came to her because she was unhappy with her previous agent. She said that the agent had submitted her novel to 40 publishers and it was rejected by all of them. My agent friend advised her that if she could find an agent who would do that kind of work for her even after facing so many rejections, that was a sign of a very good agent.

That said, there are a lot of people selling themselves as literary agents. Some are pretty marginal and some are scammers. Never hire an agent who charges money up front or who accepts you as a client conditional on your being willing to pay for other services. A good agent works on commission only. Anything else is a red flag. So watch out.

It is always a good idea to find an agent with some experience behind them, some one for whom agenting is a full-time job. But new agents can be good too; I was a new agent about 30 months ago. New agents will take more risks and may very well be willing to work harder for you.

Phil Wood: Rest In Peace

December 20, 2010

Phil Wood, the founder of Ten Speed Press in Berkeley, died  of cancer on December 11. He was 72.

Phil got into publishing after spending most of the sixties selling Penguin Books out of his car. In 1971 he founded Ten Speed Press, named after his first title: Anybody’s Bike Book. The following year, he published a  job hunting book, What Color is Your Parachute. Ten Speed Press just published the 40th edition of this book. It has sold over 10,000,000 copies, one of the bestselling books of all time.

Phil was one of the last great individualists in publishing.. He was also incredibly savvy about finding books that were very weird, sometimes even tasteless,  and turning them into improbably best sellers. Books like: How to Shit in the Woods, White Trash Cooking, Why Cats Paint,  Kill as Few Patients as Possible,  and Flattened Fauna.

Phil’s great love was gourmet food and  he became the publisher and developed the reputations of some important culinary figures. His first cookbook was The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen.  In cookbooks, as in all other areas, he brought his own idiosyncratic style to publishing. When he visited restaurants that excited him, he would develop a cookbook with the owner. The vast majority of copies would then be promoted and sold to customers in the restaurants.

Now here is a dirty little secret. I once asked Phil what his greatest mistake was in publisher. He said: “Don’t ever tell anyone this, but I rejected The Chez Panisse Cookbook by Alice Waters.” Oops. I let the cat out of the bag.

Phil relished being  an eccentric  with flair at a time when book publishing was increasingly dominated by corporations and corporate types. His office was stuffed, almost like a warehouse, with his beloved Asian antiques, another of his great passions. The offices of Ten Speed in Berkeley always had rather odd wooden lambs placed around the front entrance. They were almost like a logo, but nobody ever seemed to know what they meant, if anything.  Phil could always be seen at the Ten Speed booth of the book conventions dressed in a panama hat, brightly colored Hawaiian shirt, and flip-flops. The booth was always guarded at either end by the wooden sheep.

When Cody’s was struggling to stay afloat in 2007, we were running out of cash and I was having a very difficult time paying publishers. I felt pretty bad that so many of the companies I dealt with over the years were going to lose money from Cody’s. I was having lunch with Phil one day and told him about this and how it was so troubling to me. Cody’s owed some money to Ten Speed, and I was feeling a little uncomfortable talking about this with Phil. Phil said that every publisher in America had made a lot of money from Cody’s over the years. He advised me  to  stop worrying about them and start worrying about taking care my family. That’s the kind of guy he was.

In 2009, Phil sold Ten Speed to Random House and became publisher emeritus.

 I loved that guy.  I think about Phil a lot and will miss him dearly.

E-book Economics 101

December 7, 2010

 The e-book is turning the  book business upside down. No one in publishing  seems to be talking about anything else. Manufacturing costs, retail prices, competition, author royalties, the future of the physical bookstore, the future of the novel, enhanced books, book reader technology, eye strain, how to read an e-book on the beach, are commercial publishers out-dated dinosaurs; these are but a few of the subjects that are generating the most agonizing soul searching in book publishing. Nobody knows how these things will ultimately sort themselves out. The changes are just coming too fast.

  In this post I am   going to analyze the economics of publishing and compare the cost of publishing a hardback book to that of the e-book. I’m an agent, so I have an ax to grind.  It looks like the bottom line is that book publishers stand to  make more money on e-books and authors will make less.  

 For this post, I am using information that I took from an article in The New York Times. Here is the link to the article.

First let’s look at the costs of publishing a traditional hardback. The numbers  in The New York Times article  were calculated for a  hardback with a $26 suggested  retail price. (Remember that booksellers can charge any price they want. And a lot of bestsellers are discounted to the book buyer.  Here is the breakdown.

Amount paid to publisher by bookseller: $13.00

Printing, warehousing, shipping: $  3.25

Author Royalty:  $   3.90

Design, editorial, typesetting:  $      .80

 Marketing:  $  1.00

 Profit before overhead:  $4.05

I am not entirely pleased by the robustness of this analysis. It neither accounts for all of the expenses nor all of the income associated with a particular book.  But it is a good indicator of the relative costs of publishing a title.

 What is an E-book?

 If you don’t know the answer to this question, what have you been doing for the last two years? And if you are reading this on a Kindle, skip to the next section.  E-books are like iTunes. And, in fact, the  iTune division of Apple will be managing  the Apple e-book store. New technology for the e-book changes almost daily. As of (let’s see now) yesterday I believe, you can even  download e-books onto your iPhones. The largest selling e-book reader is the Kindle. But the Apple iPad is moving up fast as of this writing. There is also the Sony Reader, the Nook, the Kobo reader and new brands popping every month.  Readers are beginning to get sold at the big box stores and should be a popular item this Christmas. It is estimated that by the end of the year, there will be over 10,000,000 readers sold.

 In 2009, e-books accounted for about 4% of unit trade book sales, but sales are increasing exponentially.  E-book sales  in 2010 are up over 150% from previous year’s sales. Unit sales of  cloth and paper books have been decreasing.  Amazon.com claims that they are now selling more Kindle Editions than traditional cloth titles. Most major publishers though are showing less dramatic e-book sales. But they are reporting that 10%  or more of  bestselling new titles are e-books.

 The advent of the iPad creates a suitable platform for visual books as well. People are already experimenting with books that incorporate multimedia integration. The first “enhanced” e-book was published last July.  Perhaps soon you will be able to buy a cookbook that includes film demonstrations by the author. Or book group editions with film clips of interviews with the author.

 The e-book is a perfect fit for our gadget-obsessed world.

 And what are the costs of publishing an e-book?

 Let’s go back to The New York Times article that we discussed above on the cost of publishing a book. There are some substantial savings to the publisher on e-books. No manufacturing costs, no warehousing costs, no shipping and receiving, no returns. Sweet!

 Like all other things e-book, the economic model has been changing protean-like, and no one in publishing can predict what it will look like in a month, let alone in a year. Let’s take a look at the $26.00 hardbound book from the example above. Currently publishers are giving book lovers a break and selling e-books for about half  the price of the hardback. Sometimes Amazon is selling these books even lower and at a loss in order to gain market share. About 90% of all e-books are currently being sold by Amazon. And Amazon is hoping to keep it that way, in spite of fierce competition from Apple.  Google recently w rolled out its e-book store and is selling in a variety of formats. (Amazon only sells Kindle editions that only can be read on the Kindle reader). Independent stores have linked up with Google and are selling e-books on their sites as well.   

 There are several different systems of selling e-books, but let’s keep it simple and look at the sales for books from most major publishers. So here are the costs and the profits:

 Price to the consumer:  $12.99

Cost paid to publisher by bookseller: $ 9.09

Author royalty:  $ 2.27

Digitization, typesetting, editing :  $   .50

Marketing:  $    .78

 Profit before overhead: $   5.54

 The first and most astonishing thing you will notice is the hit that author royalties have taken on the e-book economic model. Authors will receive a royalty of $3.90 on the hardback vs. $2.27 on an e-book.  (Actually that may not be the first thing you notice, but agents and authors are understandably  concerned about this. “Livid” might be a better characterization.) Note also that even with consumer prices being half of the list price of a traditional book, publishers stand to make considerably more money on each sale, because of negligible manufacturing and distribution costs.

A lot of people think that e-books don’t cost anything so they should have a price that reflects this.  Amazon seems to be promoting this idea for their   own reasons. But remember e-books still have costs for royalties, marketing, and editorial. There are a number of Internet gurus who think that “information wants to be free”. But most writers feel that their work is worth something and they should be paid for the ten years that they toiled on their novel, for instance.

 There are some other, as yet, unquantifiable factors that would tend to make e-books an even better deal for publishers. E-books will not generate costly returns of unsold books from the bookseller. They are sold to consumers non-returnable. You can’t even give it away to a friend. And you can’t sell it to used book stores. My gadget -obsessed brother, Ken Ross, (check out his company, Expertceo.com)   now only reads books on his Kindle. He claims that he buys many more books than before, because of the ease of purchase. If he gets bored with what he is reading, he just hits the button for a new book and moves on. That is what publishers are hoping for – more readers like Ken. And if Ken’s buying patterns are anything to go by, reports of the death of the  book  and of book publishing will have been greatly exaggerated.

 

 


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