A Novel Idea: How E-Publishing is changing the face of Literature
Randy C. Hice
Available on Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords and several other ebook outlets.
Tucson FBI agent Danny Hawkins is reluctantly dragged into a homicide investigation by his two Border Patrol buddies after they inform him that the body of a man they originally believed perished as a result of a failed illegal immigration attempt, was in fact a Nobel candidate physicist who had once worked in the CIA’s Project Stargate; an elite team of psychics known as remote viewers. While investigating Dr. Ramu Shandru’s death, Hawkins discovers a link between the dead physicist, the world’s leading “glamor psychic” D.D. Barrington, and renowned televangelist, Reverend Alton Samuels. But within days of Shandru’s death, law enforcement personnel investigating the case are murdered by a relentless killer with unknown motivations and devastating resourcefulness. Complicating matters is the all-too-coincidental appearance of Marcie Gill, a beautiful, gifted woman whose flirtatious nature and effervescent personality obfuscates her own deadly agenda.
Well, having honed my fiction writing skills on a steady diet of corporate expense reports for years, I have released my first novel, a thriller. Writing a novel is hard enough, but among writers, the sardonic joke is that writing a novel is the easy part; getting a novel published is far more difficult, because only a few elements are in the control of the author. It starts with the literary agent, or more precisely, the search for an agent. Agents, for 15 percent of the royalties, hard-sell the novels they represent to publishers.
Why does a writer need a literary agent? Why not just send your masterpiece directly to a publisher and cut out the middleman or middlewoman? Submitting a novel directly to a publisher guarantees that your sweat-and-blood work will end up in the “slush pile” literally a mountain of manuscripts sitting on the floor of publisher’s offices. Few publishers accept direct submissions, so we’re back to the agent hunt.
I was lucky to have been referred to a big-time agent by my editor, herself a seven-time novelist, one of which had been rendered into a movie. After I sent her my first draft of Agbero, I literally didn’t know what to expect. What happened next shocked me like “that scene” in The Crying Game. A few weeks after my editor received the original 125,000 word text, I received this note:
“Randy, I finished my first read of your manuscript and I had to take the time to tell you that it is amazingly good! It also has ‘movie’ written all over it. Congratulations on a great piece of work. I’m going to do something I’ve never done for any of my clients: I’m going to recommend you to my agent who also represents New York Times bestselling author XXX.”
Forgive the above hornblowing. I mention it only because I had an instant pathway to a top agent. 99.999% of first-time novelists go through the agonizing process of researching agencies, writing a query letter, and then carpet-bombing agencies with said query letters in the hopes of obtaining representation.
It is said that 1/11,000 submissions to agents end up published. This is a somewhat misleading statistic because agent blogs largely indicate that somewhere around 90-95% of novel samples or manuscripts they receive are “unreadable.” But do the math: of the palatable excerpts and manuscripts received by agents, the odds are still long as only 1/550 will be published. That means agents reject at a rate higher than a supermodel at a monster truck race. The rejections come at all points in the process. The vast majority of would-be authors are rejected at the query stage. Agents may be lone-wolves, or may belong to huge literary agencies — most of which are in New York City for one obvious reason: that’s where the publishers are.
So, dropping back a moment, consider that writing is the ultimate work-at-home job. Anyone with a computer and Microsoft Word is a potential novelist (staying with fiction for the sake of argument). Can you imagine how many query letters an established agent receives a day? Anywhere from a hundred to many hundreds, depending on the stature of the agency. So, it’s time for our second math lesson. If an agent receives so many query letters, how can they read them, evaluate the potential, and also be hawking their represented properties to publishers? Well, it ain’t easy. Many agents or agencies use junior agents or interns to pre-screen queries. I read in one agent’s blog that, when they personally read query letters, they generally spend eight to fifteen seconds on the query and, if it doesn’t pique their interest — rejection.
Rejections are not limited to hack writers. J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, Tom Clancy, Stephen King, and dozens of high-profile authors were all rejected by agents or publishers, and they went on to sell millions of books. One cynic excerpted (I guess a polite term for plagiarized) a few chapters from Gone with the Wind, and, you guessed correctly—it was summarily rejected by numerous agents.
The typical rejection contains words such as:
“Thank you for your query letter, after careful consideration (I suppose this is the aforementioned eight seconds referred to above), we have decided it doesn’t fit our needs at this time. Other agents will think differently, so we encourage you to keep trying.”
The frustration of working with agents is something all aspiring writers share. If Internet stats are any indication, 25 to 30 percent of agents don’t even take the time to send rejections. No word at all is an indication of no interest. Of a hundred queries, the luckiest authors may receive five to 10 requests for a partial (10 to 50 pages) manuscript. Maybe 1/100 queries result in a request for a full manuscript. Those manuscripts are read, re-read, and read again if they have merit, but most are rejected out of hand. Many agencies will not respond to a query letter in less than two weeks, and it is not uncommon for authors to receive rejection letters a year after they have sent a query. Authors who have made it through the gauntlet to the point of being asked for a manuscript are asked to allow the agency to have exclusive reading rights for anywhere from 30 to 90 days. Remember: the agency is likely to reject after that period of time. That’s the third math lesson today: maybe a month to get past the query letter stage, maybe a request for a partial manuscript, another two to four weeks. Maybe a request comes back for the full manuscript. Ninety days. If you intend to make it big in writing, you’d better plan on living a long time.
Let’s skip ahead to that rare author who is offered representation by an agent. This is like those 10K races with 50,000 runners — it takes a long time to get to the starting line, and that’s where the race really begins. Consider that a great number of agents descend upon the far fewer publishing houses. That means there are folks at publishing houses whose lot in life is to listen to agent pitches. They must sort through those novels vetted by their most trusted agents and a few move forward.
Don’t forget the rewards are huge for all involved if a novel succeeds and triggers more great work from the author, but many novelists are one-and-done. Publishers have to guess how many hardcovers to print in the first run. When a Barnes & Noble near you sells only a few copies of the 25 they may have ordered, the rest are returned to the publisher. At a cost.
But the few that make it through and sell well make a lot of money for the publisher, for the agent, and for the author. The top authors are multi-millionaires and their success is also their doom. Publishers, reluctant to take on new, unproven authors, pressure their horses to kick out their next work at a pace not conducive to allowing the creative process to ferment into a decent book. The Internet is full of condemnations of the assembly line work kicked out with unreasonable frequency by James Patterson, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, and a raft of other popular wordsmiths.
So, we now consider the gist of this column — the changing face of publishing.
Imagine an X Y plot. The first data set is the demand for e-books — rising in direct proportion to the incursions of e-book reading devices into the wild. Now, imagine another data set describing the number of conventional books kicked out by brick and mortar publishers. Well friends, those two graphs will intersect like the skull and crossbones they represent for the publishing industry. Expect the number of hardcover novels to decrease, along with the number of novels accepted for publication. Also expect the number of authors to be offered representation by agents to drop precipitously. All in all, the spiral continues, and more brick and mortar bookstores will close forever.
Electronic publishing is forever changing publishing. Have you noticed that your corner bookstore that had been in the same location for 10 years just closed shop? E-publishing has a lot to do with that, not all, but a lot.
The phenomenal change from paper-based publishing to e-books has picked up at a logarithmic pace. I know, I know. How many people actually own a Kindle, a Nook, an iPad, or some other tablet?
Obviously more than you think, and that number is changing daily. I walked to the back of a plane the other day and estimate I saw maybe 30 of the devices in use. A small fraction of all readers, to be sure, but ebook devices are mushrooming. Travelers are great targets because they can carry hundreds of books on a simple device weighing the same as a paperback. if it is a e-reader such as a Kindle or a Nook. They are not exorbitantly priced, but the second class of e-readers are tablet PCs with heftier pricetags.
Let’s look at how the tablet PC is influencing the informatics world and how that influences, among other things, e-publishing.
I just returned from a project meeting where a mobile device, a tablet, was a compelling part of the proposed solution. Now, let’s remember that, by and large, tablets like the iPad, are still, forgive me, toys. There is a coolness factor associated with them, but the price tag is somewhat steep for many. So, what if a business solution could put an iPad or Windows tablet in the hands of people? Might that tablet also have some utility as a toy? Of course. More and more business cases are being written for mobile solutions because they are useful devices, but also very versatile.
Tablets are already displacing laptops and desktops as the solution of choice, but as I have mentioned in other columns, tablets like the iPad are clumsy at best to use as a desktop or laptop replacement for pure business reasons. Boy, did I touch a nerve from people when I said as much a few months ago. But I stand by the statement in terms of the iPad.
My son has one, and we considered trying to assign the iPad double duty as a device for schoolwork. The problem is that no Microsoft Office suite exists for the iOS. Macintosh, yes, but iOS, nope.
Yeah, there are wonks out there who talk about Documents to Go, Office2 HD and Quickoffice, all apps rushing to fill this critical void, but all have major drawbacks. I found them clumsy and not-quite-there as an MS Office workaround. Don’t forget, to be really productive when cranking on a big Word document, PowerPoint or Excel spreadsheet, a physical keyboard is still a must. So, now, to work well with your iPad, you carry a physical keypad and something to prop up the tablet. Kinda sounds like a laptop, right.
Not quite. The elegance of the iPad is also its curse. Where is the USB port for the thumb drive to move documents around? Ah, you say, “Randy, just use the iCloud!”
In my son’s school, this means when he has to print documents, he must upload them to the iCloud, download them to a school PC, and then print them. While other students are slamming their USB chips into school computers, my son is logging on, uploading, downloading, etcetera.
Windows tablet PCs, while not as sexy, at least for the moment, as an iPad, do run MS Office, and many have USB ports. Some even connect to projectors or flat screens to run PowerPoints directly. I’m not saying Windows tablets running some version of Windows 8 are superior in all respects to iPads — clearly they aren’t, but they are handy when performing the mundane “MS Office” tasks.
With that said, please excuse my ADD as I return to the literary process from the author’s perspective.
What if the entire literary agency and publisher process could be eliminated?
What if you could complete a novel today and publish it a few minutes later?
You can see where I’m going with this, of course. These capabilities exist today. You can upload an e-book to either an e-publisher/distributor, or an e-bookstore right now and leapfrog the whole miserable mess I’ve spent the past few hundred words describing. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords and iBookstores will take a cut of your royalties off the top, but the lion’s share comes to you.
Of course, the ease of e-publishing has at least two drawbacks. The lesser of those drawbacks is the lack of e-book reading devices out in the wild. The greater problem is a product of the ease of e-publishing. Remember that 1/11,000 stat I quoted earlier and attributed the lopsidedness to a plethora of poorly-crafted books? Well, with minor exceptions, those books will often make it to the e-storefronts. If Ralph down the street wants to write a books about his pet iguana, no problem. If Mary wants to piece together a quilt of stories about all the jerks she’s dated since she was 15, it’s there. So, finding the nuggets amongst the chaff is an issue.
Many e-storefronts are opening for heretofore brick and mortar publishing houses. This is part acknowledgment of the emerging e-book market and part an accommodation to the great many authors that are good enough to be backed by a major publisher, but not good enough for the hardcover production process.
And what of those unresponsive agents? Remember, they get 15 percent for domestic sales of books, and maybe 20-25% of foreign sales. Do you see why they crack the whip on their small stable of NYT bestselling authors to crank out blockbusters? Many are now telling their fringe writers — writers who have made it into hardcovers, that they will “find an e-publisher if the hardcover deal falls through.”
So, what does an agent bring to the table in that scenario? Presumably, they talk the large publishing houses into featuring their author’s works, and rake their commission off the top of those sales. But, with the ease of publishing e-books, if a visible storefront is all that agents bring to the table, are they long for this world? Who will cry for the literary agents who were refusing to treat authors with courtesy and consideration?
To distill the argument a bit further, if somehow a process emerges to separate the aforementioned 95 percent unreadable books from the cream of the publishing industry — a vetting and marketing arm — well, I don’t know what effect such a process would have on the publishing world, but I do know e-publishing is encroaching on the brick and mortar publishing business faster than Brazilian lumberjacks on the rain forest, and the effects will be long-lasting and profound.
Randy Hice is Director, Strategic Consulting at STARLIMS. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.