Is the E-book the New Query?

If you’re like me, you’re getting a little bored with the indie vs. legacy publishing debate. People are talking a lot of crap on both “sides” of what shouldn’t be an either/or argument in the first place. (See sci-fi author Jeff Carlson’s great post on the subject here.)

But this week I heard some fairly earth-shaking news I figured I’d better share.

It came in an email from a self-published Brit friend who’s been having some success in the UK Kindle market.

He needed advice. He’d been approached by somebody claiming to be from a U.S. literary agency. He’s savvy enough to know agents don’t approach writers—it’s the other way round. So he figured this must be some bogus scam. But just in case, had I ever heard of these blokes?

Then I read the name of the agency.

It isn’t only legit—it’s big. Huge. Major prestige. They rep some of the most famous names on the planet.

And they were approaching HIM: a first time, never-before-published, single-title, self-pubbed author.

The great world spins.

I wrote back and told him to run, not walk to sign up with them.

Thing is, he’s doing quite well on his own, thank you very much. It’s fair for him to ask—does a writer even need an agent when he’s bringing in good money on his own? This guy has already done the work. Why give 15% to anybody?

My advice was—good agents earn their percentage, and usually a lot more. Even indie god Joe Konrath is represented by a prestigious New York agency. Agents provide contacts and legal and career advice a writer can’t get otherwise. (And—contrary to what author Stephen Leather said on Konrath’s blog on Thursday, they’re mostly helpful, and not entirely without social graces.)

Plus, the publishing world is changing so rapidly, the paradigm may have shifted entirely by the time the writer finishes his next book.

But regardless of whether or not he signs, this is big news: A major New York agency approached a first-time, self-published novelist to offer representation. A writer on another continent, no less. And this isn’t an Amanda Hocking or Karen McQuestion, with a half dozen books that have been flying off Amazon’s cybershelves for months. He’s got one book. Just released.

Of course, that one book has rocketed into the top ten on the UK Kindle bestseller list.

My friend says he was as surprised as anybody when the book took off. But he’s got social media and marketing savvy, a great online network—and a very tight, well-written novel. And it's not the first book he's written.

But you know what else? HE DOESN’T FOLLOW THE RULES. His book is not a copy-cat of the books on the bestseller list. It’s dialogue-heavy. It has multiple points of view. It’s also very dark and edgy. Too over-the-top to be publishable—or so he was told over and over again by agents.

That’s why he self-published.

And now the agents are coming to him.

This confirms rumors I’ve been hearing: some agents are no longer looking for new clients in slush piles, because editors will not take chances on anything new. They only want stuff with a proven sales record.

And where do agents find proven sales records? On the Kindle bestseller lists. Even ones in other countries. (Makes sense: look at how the US bestseller list has been dominated by Europeans in the past few years.) So that’s where they’re looking for fresh blood. Kindle lists provide the names of new writers who have proved they can sell.

But—doesn’t that mean they’re choosing books by sales numbers instead of content?


I know. It makes me throw up a little too. But I suppose it could be called democracy at work. Once The People have spoken (even if they’re Swedish or English people) you get a New York book deal.

So what does this mean for the Great Unpublished out here?

After hearing my friend’s news, I went through my list of queries, partials, and fulls that are out with agents right now—some for more than six months—and wondered if there’s any point in continuing this endless, grueling query process.

What if nobody’s even reading slush any more?

What if the ebook is the new query?

Should we all be learning to design covers and getting our books coded for Kindle instead of researching more agents and rewriting that query for the 100th time?

I wish I knew the answer to that.

But here’s my thinking: a rejected manuscript can be tweaked and re-queried ad infinitum. But a bumbling beginner’s ebook that has only sold three downloads, all to your Mom, is not going to attract any agents. And a bunch of negative reviews about your lack of writing skills could pretty much put the kibosh on a career.

And I heard of one e-book self-pubber who was told by an agency: “Don’t come to us until you have sold 20,000 books.”

For fence sitters, Writer’s Digest’s Jane Freidman had a helpful post on her “There Are No Rules” blog last week. It includes a check list for people trying to decide if they’re good candidates for self-publishing.

And Stephen Leather’s post I mentioned above did offer some solid, reality-check advice to potential self pubbers.

What their advice boils down to is this:

DO consider self-publishing if you’ve been writing for many years, have several super-polished, critiqued and edited books in the hopper—plus a marketing plan—and LOVE SOCIAL MEDIA.

DON’T consider self-publishing if you don’t have a large online network in your genre and don’t have time to blog or tweet. And (in Jane’s words) if “it's your first manuscript and you don't want to see all that work go to waste. If that's the case, wait until you've written book #2 or #3 or #4 before you decide to release that first one.”

I’ve also made some observations of my own that keep me in the legacy publishing camp--

Some genres do a lot better than others in the Kindleverse. It seems to be a great place for gritty crime stories and thrillers (especially those that appeal to men: the tech has made reading fiction macho again) plus paranormal romance, erotica, and fantasy/scifi.

But literary novels, cerebral mysteries, memoirs, and women’s fiction seem to do better with legacy publishers. This may be because these are genres where craft is more important than story, and with a legacy publisher, buyers know a book has passed muster with a lot of picky readers.

I think that’s why Book Country—Penguin’s experiment in creating its own self-regulating slush pile—is only looking at genre fiction. Readers take chances on “pulp fiction,” but they want the industry’s seal of approval on more serious stuff.

So the old order changeth. But it ain’t dead yet.

I get Publisher’s Lunch and see traditional deals being made every day. Big ones. Some for debut novelists. A few don’t even involve zombies and/or Snooki. So some agents must still be reading slush. And at least a few editors must be taking their calls.

So I guess I’ll keep querying agents.

But another alternative exists that’s looking attractive to me again. Not all publishers are greed-based conglomerates unwilling to take chances. There are thousands of small and medium-sized independent presses out there, and many are thriving. Author Michelle Davidson Argyle wrote a wonderful series on the subject that’s a must-read. Her publisher, Rhemalda, is doing lots to help promote her books, including a high-tech Skype booksigning. Try getting that kind of innovative help from a Big Six publisher.

Also, some smaller presses are much more savvy about Kindle than the Big Six. If a company does all the design work and editing (worth $1000 at least) and charges customers a reasonable price for the ebook (under $6) and splits the royalties with you, that’s a way better deal than you’ll get from the Big Six. Plus, they’ll publish a suitable-for-bookstore-shelf hard copy, too.

So some of my next queries are going out to small presses.

What about you? If it turns out e-books are the best way to get an agent’s attention, will that change your attitude about self-pubbing? Or are you like me: still fantasizing that some agent, somewhere is actually going to read your query? Have you looked into smaller presses?

Next week, while I’m off celebrating my mom’s birthday in San Francisco, I’ll have another guest post from a bestselling author: Ruth Harris. Ruth has not only had many books at the top of the NYT Bestseller list, but she also worked as an editor at several Big Six Publishers, so she has all the inside skinny. She’ll blog about REJECTION, and what it really means. May 22. Watch this space!

Labels: , , , , , , , ,