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.