Marsha Canham's Blog

May 14, 2012

Time to vent on Agents.

Filed under: Caesars Through the Fence — marshacanham @ 5:05 pm

There have been a lot of blogs lately about the letter the Association of Authors Representatives (AAR) sent to the Department of Justice regarding their recent ruling against price fixing on ebooks. Several publishing houses along with Apple, got their wrists slapped hard for colluding and setting higher than reasonable prices on ebooks. The ruling  is good for readers and authors alike. Lower prices usually mean more sales, for one.  For another, this whole business has brought to light the archaic accounting systems and practices the publishers have been getting away with for decades. Hopefully, if the DOJ gets into those accounting files and audits their books they’ll be as outraged as authors have been for years.

The fact that agents have actually supported the publishing houses and protested to the DOJ, has left me shaking my head like a bobble-head dog again.

I’m not going to reprint the letter here, but if you want a detailed analysis, check out Joe Konrath’s blog where he not only reprints the letter, but tears it apart in a great analysis paragraph by paragraph. Another informative blog to read is The Passive Voice, where Passive Guy has blogged lately about agents too  They’ve done a great job chopping the actual letter, as well as the idiot who wrote it, off at the knees, so I won’t repeat much of it here, just the stuff that makes my eye twitch and my fangs grow.

Agents are supposed to work FOR authors. They’re supposed to look out for OUR best interests, to negotiate contracts in OUR favor and by getting US the best deal possible, they naturally improve their own finances since they get 15% of what we make. So why would they protest a settlement that goes against price fixing? Why would they claim to represent thousands of authors who want to see ebooks remain for sale at a higher price than their print versions?

Are they stuck in stupid or just stuck so far up the publisher’s asses they can’t see daylight?

There was a time when agents did what they were supposed to do. They fought for their authors, negotiated strong contracts, got better advances, better terms, boldly stroked out immoral and disgusting clauses like basket accounting. Some of the top agents were revered and respected and could make editors and publishers tremble at the sound of their voices on the other end of the phone.

Those days slipped away with the first big recession. Suddenly editors, VP’s, and presidents of publishing houses found themselves out of work. Publishing houses merged or were bought out by larger conglomerates. Smaller imprints vanished along with the scores of authors who wrote specifically for those lines. Big Name authors still expected their Big Author Advances, so publishers had to scramble to find the money, and their midlist authors took the hit.  Those who weren’t cut completely were offered smaller advances and were told they were lucky to still get a contract. Ever wonder why so many authors who were popular in the 80’s and 90’s suddenly vanished?

Agents no longer made the walls tremble. They took the paltry offers to their authors and passed along the same message:  that we were lucky to get a contract at all. Those revered and respected agents started turning into slick-haired used car salesmen…smiling and nodding and saying what a great deal we were getting despite the fact the car had no tires and the engine had a clunking sound.

In all my years of writing, (over 30…augh!) I’ve never once heard of an agent who publicly questioned the archaic accounting practices of publishing houses.  Oh, they sympathized with us in private and shook their heads and muttered a bit, but none of the hundreds of agents out there, those who boldly called themselves Authors Representatives…none of them ever banded together to get rid of the outdated and underhanded accounting practices of publishing houses. None of them ever sought to start some sort of protest against the twice yearly paycheques…I mean, after all, if we authors were only paid twice a year, so were they.  And by necessity, in order for them to make a living off our meager 15%, that meant they had to have hundreds of authors in their “stable” (and yes, that’s what it is called, pun probably intended) in order for THEM to make a living.

None of them rocked the boat. To my way of thinking, none of them really stood up for authors rights or the system would have been overhauled a decade or two ago.  But after the major bloodletting that came with the recession, it seems to me as though if they still had one Big Name Author as the cash cow, the agents had no reason to upset the dingy.  Certainly no reason to anger publishers who could cut them out of the picture as easily and swiftly as they cut all those authors.  You wanted to negotiate tougher terms? Piss off and find another publisher.  Supply and demand. There were suddenly hundreds of midlist authors scrambling to find new publishers, and the power was all with the publishers. They didn’t have to chase after authors or lure them with bigger, better perks. The authors, via their agents, were chasing after them and willing to settle for almost any terms.

Along came Amazon. Along came the Kindle reader. Along came Apple’s iPad and Sony and Kobo and Barnes and Noble with their Nook ereaders and suddenly authors had another outlet. We had another option. We didn’t have to follow the rules anymore because…hell, there were no rules. Amazon pays monthly. Amazon gives daily accounting of the numbers of books sold. Amazon gives authors the lion’s share of the royalties because…well…geez, guys, because WE write the damn books! WE do the majority of the work. WE produce the stories that have kept the publishing houses in business all these years. Without us, there would BE no publishers, there would be no agents, there would be nothing to read. Period.

So now, suddenly, publishers are falling on their swords and blaming  Big Bad Amazon.  They ARE  stuck in stupid and not seeing that Amazon is only doing what Publishers should have been doing for the past few decades:   they pay us fairly for our work and they pay us on time. Publishers still think of us as slave labor, peasants who should be grateful for the crumbs tossed our way every six months.  And agents? They’re in a panic too because they’ve seen the writing on the wall.  Authors who self publish don’t need them. And authors who still publish in print are eventually going to get smarter, wiser, and hopefully grow some balls now that they know they DO have options. They don’t HAVE to settle anymore. They don’t HAVE to sign on that dotted line.

The argument comes flying back that not all self published authors are going to sell enough on their own to make a living.  Well, neither are all authors who sign with publishing houses.  Not the way the royalty schedules and payment terms exist up to now. Not with the creative accounting the traditional publishers practice. Not when publishing houses don’t have to account for what they sell and when they sell it. Not when they can use basket accounting and get away with it. Not when they can use “reserves against returns”  as a catch phrase to delay paying out monies earned. Not when there is no way short of a full forensic audit to know exactly how many books they sell.

I said in a previous blog that I would be interested to read my royalty statements for the three Scotland books. They arrived the other day and according to Dell’s accounting department, my three best selling books have sold a total of 3000 ebooks over the past six months. That’s combined.  Total. Seriously. My big paycheque for the six months, should I have been waiting patiently to pay my mortgage and pay down some of my post-divorce debts…was a staggering $3,600.00.  Woo farking hoo.  (And just to drive a point home, those same 3000 books, sold for an average of $10.99 by the publisher through Amazon, earned THEM $22,890.00)

Do I believe the numbers they sent me? Not for one effing minute.  Could I possibly survive, keep my house, put food on the table, buy clothes, feed my dog, keep a car, even put gas in the lawnmower for the staggering sum of $3,600.00 every six months??????  Could you? Could any one of those hundreds of Author Representives who protested the DOJ’s ruling against the publishing houses price fixing?


Let them walk a mile in my shoes. That way I can run faster and farther barefoot when they chase after me wailing and whining that they can’t do it.



  1. Just curious if Amazon allows you as the author to check the number of downloads so you can tell if Dell is being honest or not? It seems they should!

    Comment by Robin Searle — May 14, 2012 @ 5:50 pm | Reply

    • Robin…it seems that they should, but they don’t. Authors have no access to their numbers at publishing houses. None at all. Not through Amazon, not even through the publishing house itself. In this day and age of computerized everything, it’s hard to understand why the publishers say they can’t do the same thing as Amazon…give us a site where we can check daily sales. Oh. Wait. They probably can, but won’t because then we’d know for sure they were ripping us off.

      Comment by marshacanham — May 14, 2012 @ 6:02 pm | Reply

      • I have always wondered how authors can be sure the publisher is giving them real numbers… Scary that you can’t… Yikes!

        Thanks for the informative blog!


        Comment by Lisa Kessler — May 16, 2012 @ 11:01 pm

  2. Interesting post. Thanks for sharing it. I’ve self-pubbed a book and been very happy working with Amazon. Problem is distribution and writing YA, it is still really helpful to have print books on bookstore shelves. I’m planning on shopping my next series to agent/publishers, but I read posts like this and I wonder if it’s the right thing to do?

    Comment by Natalie Wright (@NatalieWright_) — May 14, 2012 @ 7:34 pm | Reply

    • Natalie, that has to be a personal choice. I can only recount my own experiences and those of many of my fellow authors. Some writers do well in print, some do well in both print and self pubbing. Some, once they’ve experienced print and compare it to self pubbing, would never go back to print (that would be me) regardless if they never get the distribution they would if someone else was peddling the books. Changes are happening and hopefully, if enough dust is stirred up, traditional publishers will realize they HAVE to adapt to those changes. They can’t keep clinging to archaic methods just like print authors can’t keep lifting their noses in the air and po poo-ing their self published peers. Publishers rely, in part, on the lingering belief that an author can’t be a *real* author until he or she is in print, but that myth is being shattered every day as more and more self published authors sell in the hundreds of thousands of copies. I’m not anywhere NEAR that number, but I still wouldn’t trade my freedom to shackle myself to a publishing house again. Nope. No way. But again, it’s a personal choice. The beauty of it is that we now HAVE a choice, whereas before there was only that one well trodden path.

      Comment by marshacanham — May 14, 2012 @ 7:54 pm | Reply

  3. This is a great post, and thank you for skewering one of the biggest misconceptions about self-publishing: that the pay’s crap. Well, okay, it is (labor of love for, definitely), but all writing pays crap unless you are very, very lucky. I like the odds on this lottery better. 🙂

    Comment by Mari Stroud — May 15, 2012 @ 12:51 am | Reply

  4. Thanks for taking the time to write this, Marsha. We need to know this is happening. I, for one, think it’s worth trying to go it alone without an agent if you can. But then I never liked going through a middleman.

    Comment by Regan — May 16, 2012 @ 3:43 pm | Reply

  5. This is a great post, Marsha. I’m just a reader who loves reading romance to relax (big fan of yours), but my day job involves figuring out how industries and markets work, particularly when technology comes along to mess everything up, so the ebook revolution just absolutely intrigues me on an academic level, and your posts give a wonderful insight into what happens before I get to read the book. It’s absolutely dreadful that authors cannot see how many books they’ve actually sold. I really hope someone takes publishers to court and kicks their arses. In my ignorance, I never have understood what publishers do now really. OK, I think there are some who are pretty good at getting the word out on authors, but then with the internet, it strikes me that authors are incredibly successful at getting the word out themselves. I can “friend” authors on goodreads and read their blogs etc, and then I can tell all my friends about the fabulous books I’ve read, and it makes me wander what the hell publishers can possibly add to that.

    Comment by Ruth — May 16, 2012 @ 9:32 pm | Reply

  6. Marsha wrote: “There was a time when agents did what they were supposed to do. They fought for their authors, negotiated strong contracts, got better advances, better terms, boldly stroked out immoral and disgusting clauses like basket accounting. ”

    I’m always hearing this, and I’m always thinking… “Oh? When was THAT?” I’ve been in the business 25 years, and I know not of this magical era of yore of which so many people speak when agents were good and competent and did their jobs well and with dedication.

    In my own experience (and, indeed, in a lot of the anecdotes I’ve heard from old-timers who were around long before me), most agents used to be pretty much the way most agents are now: not very good at business, pretty weak at negotiating contracts, and much less ethical than you want in someone to be who’s handling your money, contracts, and professional business.

    There are a very good ones. And as near as I can tell, that’s always been the case–only a few very good ones. Certainly for the past 25 years, it’s been the case, anyhow! My experiences of literary agents (I first started querying or speaking to them around 1987) were every bit as farcical was back then as the absurdly pathetic anecdotes I regularly hear from writers in private today about their current problems or experiences with agents. Most agents I encountered back in the 1980s were =every bit= as lacking in ethics or business sense as that recent letter to the DOJ reveals the AAR is currently lacking in same.

    What’s changed, I think, is that there’s more exposure of this behavior in the internet era than there ever used to be, and the publishing business has become bigger and more complocated than it used to be, the inadequacies are becoming increasingly more and more apparent of this idiotic business model where writers’ LEGAL negoations are handled by people who no expertise or training in contracts or legal matters, their MONEY and fiscal business is handled by people with no licensing or oversight, and their professional business is handled by people with no business background, qualifications, skill, or competence.

    I don’t think agents or the AAR have particularly changed. Rather, I think the business is changing so much that more people are recognizing that there is perhaps something wrong with a business model wherein a writer puts her legal, fiscal, and business matters into the hands of someone who is not a legal, fiscal, or business professional.

    Comment by Laura Resnick — May 19, 2012 @ 11:02 pm | Reply

  7. “The fact that agents have actually supported the publishing houses and protested to the DOJ, has left me shaking my head like a bobble-head dog again.”

    Yeah. I think Bob Mayer put t really well in an article last week on Digital Bookworld when he wrote: ‘”I find it odd that the AAR has yet to send a collective letter to the Big 6 asking for higher, and fairer, royalty rates for their authors’ electronic rights.”

    Indeed. First of all, the mundo bizarro implication of the AAR’s letter is that if there was price-fixing, then it should be ignored and allowed on the basis that breaking the law is a perfectly reasonable response to facing tough business competition. (God forbid that something like–oh, say, for example–completing with WITHIN the law should be experimented with as a possible alternative.)

    Moreover, yes, what the hell is AAR doing going to back with the DoJ on behalf of publishers. Confusing and improbable as it by now seems, literary agents DO NOT REPRESENT PUBLISHERS. Their clients, the people from whom they actually earn their commissions–as increasingly hard as this is to beleive–are writers. And yet when it comes to egregious royalty rates, and archaic royalty sytems, and very poor sales reporting practices, have AAR written to -publishers- on behalf of what’s good for writers? Er, no.

    The AAR’s investment in protecting publishers even at the expense of writers (as we saw in the AAR advocating support for a pricing system which it says itself actually reduced clients’ royalty earnings) has made it clear where they stand. And since they’re standing so firmly on the side of publishers and NOT on the side of writers, these are not people whom writers can afford to have negotiating their publishing contracts for them–no more than you’d want your own lawyer to be married to the person who’s on the other side of table from you in a legal negotiation.

    Comment by Laura Resnick — May 19, 2012 @ 11:18 pm | Reply

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