Monday, July 28, 2014

Reflections On Things Heard At RWA 2014

For me, the year is over. When the RWA Conference rolls around, I start thinking about the coming year. Yes, I know there is a lot of 2014 yet to go, but this is always a nice way to wrap things up. When I sit on the airplane flying back home, I always find myself making a list of the things I heard and my reactions to those comments. This year was no different.

"Struggles with marketing and sales." It didn't matter who I spoke with and the approach they took with publishing, I think we are all feeling it. This is a tough market now and honestly, no one has the right answer. This is a business of needing readers to survive. This is also a business of needing a place for those books to be available to readers. The difficulties in sales is not due to a battle between self-publishing and traditional publishing. This is simply an issue of the buying population isn't buying. For many, it is still an issue of cost - Buy milk or buy a book. Unfortunately, for many more, it is simply about supply and demand. They can't get to the book. If bookstores are not there, or they don't carry the books, or the retail outlets are not making shelf-space available, they are simply losing out on a HUGE population. We have to remember the entire world has not gone digital. There are still a ton of people out there who are not going to go "online" to buy a print book and then wait for it to show up. This same population is also not going to go online and "download" a book.

And it isn't just the sales. I heard it over and over again of writers, agents, and editors struggling to find the right approach to getting the news out about their books. Twitter works in some cases, but not in all cases. Facebook works for some, but not for everyone else. Ugh!

I think the one thing I walked away with was the idea that we simply cannot place the blame on struggles with marketing and sales on one thing. This is a huge problem with a lot of variables. What I do know is that everyone is indeed trying to make this work again.  

"So tell me why I need an agent." I heard this one a lot and not just from writers but other agents who had the same question asked of them. What was interesting is that several of those agents voice what I think was going on in all of our heads. "Why do we have to defend ourselves?" I had one author ask me just that question so I told her all of the things we do for the author. For her, she then launched into how she was really loving doing everything self-published, and then followed that with the same question that started the conversation, "So why do I need an agent?" My answer was simple. "It sounds like you don't want an agent."

The deal is that in publishing, there are a lot of different approaches writers can take to get their work published. This is far from a battle and war between which approach is the best. For some writers, because of the path they want to choose for their career, or their ability level in publishing means the traditional approach is the way to go. For those who A) have been in the industry for a while; B) have an amazing backlist; and C) an active following of readers, then choosing the self-pub approach may be the way to go.

"I am pitching to you because I tried the self-publishing approach and it failed for me." This is sort of an extension of the prior comment. I have also said this before here on the blog. I have seen a ton of authors of late coming to agents because they dove into the self-publishing business blind and were completely overwhelmed by the knowledge it took to be successful and what they were lacking. Unfortunately, for many of these authors, they were finding brick walls with editors and agents saying there was nothing we could do with those books that were epic failures. Sure, we could look at new things, but resurrecting these dead projects was nearly impossible.

What I also heard were many authors who clearly were missing the idea of what agents do for authors. I had a couple of authors come to me with their previously published and horribly failing projects wanting me to do the marketing for them. This is not what the agents do for writers.

Agents on the outside This wasn't really a single comment but feelings and thoughts that came from several agents I heard and spoke to. There was this sense that agents were not really needed at the conference. For some, it was the heavy emphasis of workshops, presentations and guest speakers proclaiming things such as "Agents are far from necessary" to one comment by an author, "Fire your agent!" I do understand that RWA needs to present a range of workshops and sessions for the authors based on the current needs and desires, but we have to remember that, like I said earlier, there are a range of approaches to publishing. There are those authors out there that wanted the traditional approach and they too felt as if they were missing something. I spoke to one group of authors at a meal and they said they were frustrated that many of the workshops they went to on craft or the industry only pushed for the self-publishing model. Oh well, maybe next year.

"I couldn't get an appointment with an editor or agent." O.K. we get this one all of the time. 2 hours of pitches at 10 minutes a piece for editors and agents simply doesn't get a lot of people though the door. But, saying that editors and agents were not available is not a reality.

First of all, during my session, I did watch one author meet with 3 or 4 different editors or agents. That's right! It was like a revolving door. I kept seeing her come in over and over again. So, if you wanted to camp out and fight for those slots, it is certainly possible.

Secondly, and this is something I say every year. There are far too many authors out there filling up those slots and pitching to people who would never be a right fit for their story. This goes back to doing your research and pitching to the right person.

Next, and this one was big. Those editors and agents were always out and about. For over 2 weeks prior to RWA (and even the PNWA conference) I was pushing the idea of just seeing me in the hallway. All you had to do was come and talk to me. I also sent out TWEETS with the hashtag #RWA14 so I know those were making it to people. I reminded writing chapters to invite me to their gatherings to have their authors pitch. In the three days I was there, hanging out a lot in the main lobby, not one author came over. And this was not just me. I know other agents offered the same thing. Take advantage of it people!

"I wish we had..." or "I wish we could..." Several writers I spoke of would frequently tell me of things they wish they had access to outside of the RWA conference. They wanted more sessions on craft. They wanted session on pitching, synopsis writing and marketing. They wanted to meet with editors and agents in Q & A sessions. Now I know a lot of these sessions were were available at RWA but I did find it interesting that so many just didn't initiate these ideas within their own chapters.

I know several were completely shocked when I told them I did SKYPE pitches or that I am promoting remote webinars with writing chapters. Even other editors and agents thought the idea of working with writing chapters digitally was great. This is especially great for those chapters with limited budgets.

But as I said, these writers simply said they wish they had the chances but did nothing about making it a reality.

This is a business of being proactive. If you want it, all you have to do is ask.

"Well you know, this industry is changing." I think it is funny but I hear this every year. It is as if things have all been status quo up until [insert current year]. This is an ever changing industry. Our readers have different needs and desires. New technology is always becoming available so we can try something new. I think the one thing we have to remember is to always be thinking of how we can change and grow. I know I walked away with some new things I am going to focus on in the coming year until #RWA15. Two in particular: Developing a series of online workshops available to writers world wide and Collaborating with more agents in other agencies to find solutions to those perplexing issues.

I know I am excited about the coming year. I would love to hear the things you are looking forward to between San Antonio and New York!


  1. I'm an independent author making a living for my family of 6 solely from my writing. I have queried agents in the past, sharing my sales figures and info on new books I'm writing. To my disappointment, no one seems to want to partner with me to expand my brand into other markets. I thought that any good agent would be able to show me why they could help me make more money than I could make on my own, even after paying them a cut. Why is it that most literary agents only seem interested in taking books through the traditional publishing process?

  2. Do any of these conferences ever have vetted independent marketing consultants as guests? It seems as if they would be in great demand.

  3. I come to reading this as an about to self publish author, but not in the RW area (Fantasy, SF, YA, Christian, and non-fiction). As _I_ see it, you're battling two problems. 1) Too many agents (maybe the bigger ones) aren't being proactive. Their attitude, as _I'm_ hearing it, is. "We only want the real powerhouses, that we like." 2) _Publishers_ are not doing a good job of keeping up with what's actually happening in technology/book buying. I could do 1000 words on those subjects, but I'll try to be concise.
    What I hear, in _other_ areas, is that many "agents" have a dismissive attitude towards the authors they "represent." That info filters out, and smears _everybody_ in the field. Secondary to that, is the question. "Are you making clear that "publishers" (second part) are doing a lousy job of publicizing their authors. So, are you telling authors, here's what I/my agency can do to help publicize your books?"
    Point 2, The Tragic 5 Publishers are locked into "we make money selling books, and authors are a dime a dozen." Granted, there are more potential authors than possible books to publish, but that is very short sighted. (It may also violate fiduciary responsibility laws and regulations.) That makes _your_ job harder, and authors can't see that. Also, judging from what has "made it past editors and 'quality assurance' people, is as bad as vanity press quality at times." I've seen typos, outright bad spelling, and grammar in a _St. Martins Press_ book. =8-0 I also hear about multiple editors/book buyers in a project. (I know, not _your_ fault, but authors don't know that.)
    I would suggest that you offer marketing assistance, if you don't already. Also, is a "bad book" really unsalvageable? Yes, it will cost, but maybe a service can be offered at a price, to do just that.

  4. Scott,

    Some good news. I believe that self-published and hybrid authors do still need agents. But, as with each other role in the publishing ecosystem, the role of the agent needs to evolve. I've expanded on what that role would look like here, and you might find that it provides some food for thought:

  5. "Why do I need an agent if I am doing fabulously well as self-published author ?" I think your answer is spot-on, Scott. I am a little confused about why agents are being asked to defend their position. I adore my agent. ADORE HER. I am a hybrid author, so yes, I needed her to go through the traditional stuff. But I didn't need her for the self-publishing and yet I specificially asked her to include my self-pub work under our contract. To take her cut so she could manage that book for me as she does my others. I know she has clients with whom she works strictly on their traditional pub stuff and others for whom she helps to source self-pub stuff, but what I wanted was a different kind of relationship.

    I think agents' roles are going to change over time. They already have. But anyone who goes into it with a "what can you do for me" attitude isn't ready to listen. Someone ready to listen is someone who says "hey, here are the things I find problematic--are they things you can help with?"