Why Mid-List Indies & Agents Don’t Add Up

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Many indies view self-publishing as a springboard to an eventual relationship with an agent, hopefully to increase their income and expand their market presence. For me, as well as the vast majority of mid-list indie writers, I think this view is unrealistic.

Columns, Guest Column, Homepage Sub  •  May 22, 2013

by Joe Nobody

I see a fair amount of forum traffic by independent authors concerning the topic of agents. Many indies view self-publishing as a springboard to an eventual relationship with an agent, hopefully to increase their income and expand their market presence. For me, as well as the vast majority of mid-list indie writers, I think this view is unrealistic, and here’s why:

I would assume most agents are business-savvy folks. They already grasp that “promising” increased revenue to a prospective author isn’t going to cut it, even with a Joe Nobody like me. There’s no way I’m just going to hand over 15% of my ongoing, hard-earned revenue, particularly for previously published works? Why would I do that? The logical opportunity is for the agent to be compensated based upon incremental performance. In other words, Joe is selling n books a month right now, making x amount of revenue. He’ll be glad to give you 15% of however much you increase those numbers. Business can be a cold, cruel master – put up or shut up.

Agents probably can’t survive under those parameters, and they know it. There are very few avenues available to them to create substantial incremental dollars. Let’s look a few of these options realistically:  

1). The fabled Hollywood deal: While I would love to see my novels turned into a television series or movie, I can’t believe any businessman would pay a significant upfront fee just for the rights to a book selling around 100,000 copies per year. Yes, if the movie is a box office hit, or the TV show attracts a wide audience, there’s big money involved…but not before.

2). The print-only deal that Hugh Howey and others have managed: Unless you’re selling on a scale like Hugh, H.M. Ward and others were/are, the profitability of this endeavor is questionable. Regardless, those authors could hardly be considered mid-list. For us mid-list writers selling between 50,000 and 150,000 copies per year, what would the advance be? $10,000? I make that on a good weekend now. $100,000? That’s a couple of good months. Would it be realistic to expect any publisher to cough up a significant advance based on the ratio of sales to theirprojected revenue?

3). Foreign rights: This is one of my favorites. Let’s split foreign rights into two categories, ebooks and paperbacks. Unless you’re writing under a rock somewhere, your ebooks are already for sale in foreign lands. Amazon, KOBO, iTunes and now B&N are already hawking your wares across the pond (whichever direction). So for anything new to enter the income equation, translation has to be a factor. Translation is expensive, time-consuming, and risky. Even if perfectly converted into, say, German, would my dystopian books centered around the West Texas desert resonate with the average German reader? Would my protagonist’s cornball humor translate? Again, the publisher’s risk is high, and agents know this. The jeopardy doubles when the price of printing physical copies of books is considered.

So the opportunities that an agent can offer rarely attract mid-list indie authors. Further complicating the potential relationship, the typical mid-list indie is a victim of current success. The pay scale is the reason why agents are struggling to play in our indie economy. The mid-list penmen like me are making way, way too much money. Go lower in the rankings, writers who are selling less, and now you are competing with new submissions where the agent gets in early.

For arguments sake, let’s say that my analysis is abnormal because of how I price my books ($9.00 and up). Fair enough. Even if you have someone selling 5,000 books a month at $2.99, that’s 10K per month to the writer. What kind of deal is an agent going to bring to the table that will make both representative and author serious money? A $10,000 advance? I don’t think most of us will give up our rights for one month’s worth of income. This scenario assumes an agent invests a lot of work to land an offer…an offer that would most likely be rejected by the author. Bad investments lead to failed agencies.

There is another factor here that can’t be ignored. While I may sell upwards of 130,000 books this fiscal year, those figures are the sum total of several different titles. Remember the old indie mantra of “Write more books…keep writing…new titles are the best marketing…etc…etc?” I may reach that level of sales, but my best selling title will probably only represent 25,000 copies. Now take that number into account while punching the agent’s calculator.

That leads us full circle back to the traditional route, and there’s a critical fulcrum that seems impassable given the current state of the industry. Again, let’s use the example of an indie selling 5,000 books a month at $2.99. This writer is making 120K per year, probably has additional books in progress, and is reading about mega-sellers like Hugh. The author mindset is “I can double my income by releasing a couple more books.” What logical, common-sense deal can a publisher offer this author? In most cases, it can’t be done, and the agents already know this. Another option is pulled from the table of win-win deals.

So I plod forward believing most agents probably know all of the above. They’ve no doubt run the numbers and talked to peers in the industry. Until someone comes up with a value-add beyond what’s already available to the average word-peddler, I don’t see the current stable of mid-listers as a target rich environment.

Agents and publishers aren’t evil, greedy barons protecting some old-boy network of ancient rituals and secret handshakes. They, for the most part, are intelligent business people who are trying to make an honest living. We indies need to increase our understanding of their profit and loss world. Once we do, realistic expectations and solutions can be accomplished together, and the industry as a whole will reap the benefits.

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Joe Nobody is a self-published, Amazon best-selling author of both fiction and non-fiction works.  

  • http://www.remcdermott.com R.E. McDermott

    Dear Joe,

    I concur. My sales are considerably lower than yours (about 80K copies last year on 2 books) but even at that lower level it’s hard to see where the math could possibly work out. I’m not anti-agent either, and I’d love to achieve better print distribution, but it does seem unrealistic to think that agents have any magic bullet for achieving that. Then again, the world is changing as we speak, so who knows what the future holds.

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