Free Agent, part one

This week – April 7, 2013, to be exact – a major piece of news becomes official. I have terminated my representation by Christine Cohen at the Virginia Kidd Agency after twelve years with the agency. I am now on my own.

Some friends and fellow writers have asked why I didn’t break my contract a long time ago. Especially when Amazon millionaires were popping up all over the place, major writers were turning to self publishing and calling those who didn’t house slaves, and the blogosphere was awash with anti-agent sentiment, many people thought I was dragging my feet, in denial, or downright contrary to keep mine. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain why I stayed with my agent for so long, and why I ultimately left.

I sat down to write Confidence Game in 1999, and finished in 2000. At that time, there was no Amazon Kindle, there was very little e-publishing going on, and self publishing of any sort was still considered vanity publishing, something pursued by people with more money than talent. The way you did it, and the way I’d been trying to do it since I was in high school (which, for those who are keeping track, was a lot longer ago than 1999), was to get an agent and wait for the agent to sell your book to a major publisher. It seems a little silly for me to justify this decision now; it’s like justifying the fact that we English speakers spoke German prior to 1066. It never occurred to me to approach publishing in any other way. I felt very lucky to be signed by the Virginia Kidd Agency, and if you know anything about Virginia Kidd and her history in speculative fiction publishing, you would have, too. The sheer prestige of the agency is undoubtedly one reason I stayed with them for so long.

Now, here’s a dirty little secret of the publishing industry, something that surprises my friends and family who assumed that signing with a good agency would be my “foot in the door” and my first step to fame and fortune: it’s harder to sell your fourth book than your first. If it’s your first book, you could be the next J.K. Rowling. If you have three books that didn’t earn out, publishers know you’re not. This has only gotten worse since the economic downturn and the publishing crash of 2008. Now you not only have to make your publisher money, you have to redeem the entire industry. My agent was trying to sell a fourth novel from an author with middling sales in a climate where editors have been laid off, the Big Six are fast becoming the Big Four, ebooks are making everyone nervous, and readers are less and less willing to pay more than 2.99 for a book. No surprise that she wasn’t successful.

Here’s another unspoken rule of publishing, or at least it was one when I got started. It was said that authors have three tactics for dealing with publishers when they stopped making offers: change names, change genres, and wait seven years. Back in the days before Nielsen BookScan, bookstores would decide how many copies of an author’s book to order based on prior sales numbers for that author, but those sales records didn’t seem to follow an author across pseudonyms or genres and they all seemed to reset themselves after seven years. I tried the first two. I wrote a manuscript under a pseudonym, tried my hand at crossover romance, even co-wrote a children’s book with my husband. But that seven-year date didn’t click over until 2012.

Yes, this could still have been a case of foot-dragging. BookScan certainly changed things, and that seven-year mark might have become utterly meaningless. I might have missed out on the first explosion of self-publishing – it might have been Amanda Hocking and me in the Kindle store, raking in the dough from the e-reader’s first users! But the remark I heard most often from people who wondered why I hadn’t fired my agent yet was “…since she’s not doing anything for you.” This assumes a false dichotomy, perhaps one that people weren’t even aware of when they said it: either my agent’s sitting around doing nothing, or she’s selling my books, and since she’s not selling my books she must be doing nothing.

This assumption is helped by the fact that there are some truly awful agents out there, doing some pretty questionable things. But there are also good agents, and plenty of reasons to have an agent**. I’m not going to come out on one side or the other of the should-you-have-an-agent debate. As with most things, YMMV, and each writer needs to decide what’s right for them. And I happen to believe Chris when she said she did everything she could, but the odds were against us. I am immensely grateful to her for everything she did do. I felt I owed it to her to try everything I could on my end, and that included giving her time. I wasn’t going to quit just to chase the money. I consider that unprofessional. Moreover, I think there is more to success than money, that some venues offer greater readership and recognition, and for the first several years I considered using a agent to be my best chance of success in those venues.

Gradually, though, I felt that scale tip away from traditional publishing, and I passed my self-determined time limit. At this point I consider my chances of success with those coveted venues to be zero, and so staying with an agent is no longer my door to that realm of success. Besides, if I haven’t sold a book in seven years, she hasn’t made a commission in seven years. It no longer seems like a mutually beneficial business arrangement. After a rocky start at a new writing project, I mustered the enthusiasm to strike out on my own. The next step is a story for another post.

**Again, the internet stymies me in my attempt to find a link. There was a survey a few years ago asking published writers if they still had agents and why. Some reasons, remembered – or misremembered – from the top of my head, include agents knowing the industry and what editors are looking for, freeing writers up to spend their time writing and promoting, pushing for the best contract terms possible, and acting as a cheering section and moral support.

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