Tough Economic Times

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jan 28 2010

In this current economic climate, with publishing cut-backs (less money per contract, fewer contracts offered, many mid-list authors being dropped, etc), how are agents weathering the situation? Agents make money when they sell their authors, which would mean you have less monies coming in to pay YOUR bills. How are agents dealing with this? I haven’t seen any evidence on the numerous agent blogs I read that agents are struggling, or wanting more clients, in fact, many agents are closed to unsolicited queries. So are you pushing your current clients to write beyond their current genres or go bigger within their genre?

I really liked this question (these questions) because there’s no doubt it’s a subject that’s been on people’s minds a great deal. In truth, not all agents are weathering the situation well. I suspect that if things continue as they have been we’ll see agency closings and/or more agents leaving the business. You’re right, agents are paid on commission, and for those agents who have yet to build a solid list of authors who are earning good royalties, things are looking bleak.

Let me take a step back and explain an agent’s financial situation a bit. The very best way for an agent to make money is not necessarily by selling a lot of books. Sure, advances are great, but as any published author will tell you, the real money is in royalties and subsidiary rights sales. The authors an agent really wants on her list are those who have written books that continue to sell and sell and sell and that earn royalties year after year, those authors who are almost guaranteed sales on future books and continue to make money on past books. An advance comes once, real success is when royalties come for years. The agents who, in this economy, are struggling the most are those who have relied primarily on advances to pay the bills and who don’t have many authors who are making royalty money. That means that to pay the bills they continually need to sell new authors and new books, and as we know, that’s not easy these days.

I know that in the past year I’ve made a slight shift in the books I’ve sold. That doesn’t mean it’s a permanent shift, but in times of trouble I’ve personally found nonfiction a little easier to sell. While I haven’t done a direct comparison, I would suspect that if you looked at my list you would see that I sold more nonfiction in 2009 than I did in 2008. Nonfiction tends to be less subjective and a little less of a risk for publishers since they can clearly compare it to other successful books. That doesn’t mean I’m not selling fiction, because in fact the proven authors on my list are continuing to sell and sell well, but it means that in looking at new clients I tend to look at nonfiction more carefully because it’s what I’ve had the most recent success with.

The one thing I need to address here is the feeling that if agents are struggling, shouldn’t they be open to queries and/or taking on new clients? Not necessarily. In fact, to some extent, it’s better to focus on the clients you do have and help them find a direction that will sell than to take on new people with no track record. What I’m suggesting my clients do is stay the course. That means keep writing great books and write what they love. There is no genre right now that’s a guaranteed sale, so if a client is ready for that next step I’m encouraging her to go there, but I’m also cautioning that she continue with what she’s having success with if that’s possible.

All that being said, I’m going into 2010 with great optimism. I’m feeling really good about the clients BookEnds has and the success we’ve had and are continuing to have. And as for what authors should do in a climate like this? Write the best dang book you can write. My advice doesn’t change in good or bad “weather.”


20 responses to “Tough Economic Times”

  1. Avatar magolla says:

    Thanks for the great info, Jessica! I've heard of a few agents going belly up, and it seems as if they had been in the biz for less than 3-5 years. Good to know.

  2. Avatar Rick Daley says:

    Great post. It's what any business strives for: recurring revenue.

  3. It's nice to hear the story from an agent's point of view. Thanks for this.

  4. Avatar Mark Terry says:

    A terrific post and one I've been wondering about lately, too. Trickle down theory, I guess.

    In terms of the backlist, etc., I've also been thinking a lot about that, too. I think any writer, nonfiction, novelist, or freelance writer (I'm all three) can sometimes feel like writing is like being on a gerbil wheel. It would be very nice if some of my previous books and future books created income in the upcoming years, rather than living from contract to contract or fee to fee.

  5. I understand where it can be a tough job for agents to take on new clients. Hey, if I was an agent I would take a step back and focus more on what I already have in the bank. But I also think this is a time for agents to be more connected with the unpublished authors. Having continuing blogs and holding contest to critique the first pages is a great way for agents to take a risk without actually taking the risk.

    The times are about social networking and now, more than ever it literary is about who you know "I mean who you network".

    Thanks for posting.

    Happy Blogging!

  6. I recently discovered your site and plan to return often. I also just found a contest for middle-grade and YA writers that you might want to let your readers know about. Here's the info:

  7. Avatar Mira says:

    Great post, Jessica, thank you.

    I appreciate the information from an agent's perspective about income and survival. I also love how you consistently support the artist in the writer.

    Have a great weekend.

  8. Avatar Mira says:

    Oh. It's not Friday yet is it? 🙂

    Well, have a great Thursday, then.

  9. Avatar Steven Till says:

    Great info, Jessica. Interesting insight for sure. Can you explain briefly subsidiary rights sales and what all that involves?

  10. Avatar Jme says:

    This was an informative and encouraging post. Thank you!

  11. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Obama's awesome speech last night should give us all hope that the economy is definitely looking up!

  12. I actually have noticed a few agents leaving the field, but as you said, they seem to be newer (3-5 years of experience).

    It definitely makes sense that having an author with long-term, stable sales would be more profitable in the long run than signing a bunch of clients who might just be flashes in the pan. Sure, if you can get a nice advance for them, you would get a couple thousand dollars (more if it's a really nice advance), but if the book flops, that one-time lump may be all you get if you can't sell any more of their books. But if you get someone who sells well consistently over time…well, even if your portion of those royalties is less than the one-time advance, it adds up after a few years, and if the author can have steady sales for multiple books, then it's a really sweet deal.

  13. Avatar nightwriter says:

    Yes, Kristen, but how do you know if a debut author's novels will or won't sell until you give them a chance? They may turn out to be your best client yet. It's the old Catch-22…

    THE HELP is #1 on NYT–written by a debut author. All bestselling authors had to start somewhere!

  14. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Miss "Snark" is the scam that put the industry out of business and into the toilet, and all the literary agents and blog writers who promoted that fraud should be run out of town on a rail along with their crappy books too! I hope each one of them ends up selling apples on the street.

  15. Avatar Donna Hole says:

    In researching you for a potential query, I had noticed you do a lot of non-fiction. It does seem that with the popularity of reality shows, readers might be more interested in personal stories than fictional worlds.

    Thanks for the info. It's a good insight to have when deciding which agents to query. I've been reaching out to newer agents with shorted sales lists, but that might not be the best policy for a new author either.

    Who can tell about anything anymore.


  16. Avatar Susana Mai says:

    Reading this, I wonder how agents have time to do anything, much less make money doing anything. Reading queries alone seems to be a full-time job, and then there are partials and proposals to publishers and of course taking care of your previous clients! How do you balance it all? What does that typical day of an agent look like?

  17. Avatar clindsay says:

    Additionally (and what most writers don't know) is that most new agents (agents who have been agenting for less than three years) have another job. There would be no other way to make ends meet otherwise. A lot of us do freelance publicity, marketing and copywriting. That's been true for new agents since long before the recession started.

  18. Avatar Anonymous says:

    That's very true for writers too, as we all know–many of whom worked unrelated jobs before hitting the big-time. Sadly, most writers never become bestselling authors so must work 24/7 to pay the bills and take care of biz.

    Agents are no different than anyone else who must work for a living and have a life too–but they often can work from home at their own pace while most employees/self-employed workers don't have that luxury.

  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    "I've been reaching out to newer agents with shorted sales lists, but that might not be the best policy for a new author either."

    Nope. Best policy is Q all of them who 1) handle your genre and 2) are currently accepting subs

    Don't do them all at once though, say 10 at a time. After you Q 75 or so with no deal, it's time to move on to a new project or perhaps Q small houses directly…then if that doesn't work, if you still want to give life to the project, it's time for e-book pubs or POD.

    Always be working on a new book while you shop the old one.

    Buena suerte!

  20. The publishing market is crumbling, and agents will be the first to feel the effects. Of course, they are sales people so they will always project an image of success in public.

    As for authors, sorry, to burst y'all's bubble, but the Stephen King dream is dead. It died with the rest of the American dream. You know what I mean: the idea that with minimal talent and pulp junk you can make hundreds of thousands of dollars and get a movie deal.

    All you're going to get today is ripped off. It's best to hold on to your manuscript and see how the independent presses take over and then go that route. Giving your e-book rights to a major publisher today, is just throwing away the only gold you might have.

    Gordon Jerome
    A Literary Experience