After the usual niceties on the phone, which take all of five seconds, they launch into a mantra I’ve heard dozens of times before, going back to the early 1980s when I had the first of my 15 books published, that last being two years ago: “The business has changed! Publishers don’t operate the way they used to. They want a proven commodity with a platform and a track record. They won’t take a chance if they don’t think they have a sure thing.”
All of which is true, but it’s hardly what I want to hear from someone who is going to fight hard to get my next book project bought.
“I see you had very good sales from two books, but they were ten years apart,” said one agent. “Publishers don’t like that. They want to build on your last success.”
“Do you have a big social footprint?” asked another. “If not, publishers won’t touch you. I need to see your numbers for your newsletter and Facebook and other social media.”
And when I sent a proposal for one book, with chapters, one agent said bluntly, “Who’s gonna buy this book? I thought the proposal was very good and I love your writing. But is there an audience for this kind of thing?”
“Thing” is a word they tend to use a lot.
I tried to point out that there are many books that get very good reviews on topics that might need to find an audience with a supportive publisher’s promotion.
“Forget it,” said one agent. “Publishers don’t do promotion or marketing anymore. They depend on the author to do it.” This reminded me of a coinage a writer friend of mine came up with in regard to publishers: The Department of Sales Prevention.
I pointed out that right at the moment there are new books with titles like Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, and I wonder why would a publisher would buy such a book? And how about The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts. What’s the audience for that? Librarians?
Don’t even bring up fiction, which most agents regard as they might the appearance of plague. “No one’s buying fiction these days,” said one. “It’s just impossible.” When I point out that newspapers and magazines review scores of novels each year, she said, “That’s what I call the two-percenters: maybe two percent of novels published will do decent sales.”
And when I mentioned that I had three novels I wanted to propose, I was told, “You’ve done very well as a non-fiction writer, so no publisher’s going to want to a chance on an un-proven writer at your age. They still publish first novels by young writers, but they pay them crap as an advance.”
So, with that kind of negativity on the part of professional agents who are supposed to be in the business of believing in authors and their work and to push them passionately in the market place, who needs one?
Sadly, it’s Catch-22: If you go to an agent they don’t want to send your book to a publisher; if you send it on your own, the publisher won’t look at it unless it comes through an agent.
Brave new world.