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Fiction, Publishing, The Writer's Life

Your Agent, Your Pal…Your Business Partner?

Just when you thought the writing business couldn’t get more convoluted…

Blogger acquaintance August McLaughlin recently posted of how her agent had failed to find a publisher for her book. He proposed that she self-publish the novel, but that he remain her agent. It’s yet another twist on the modern book publishing model. You might think that a self-published book would eliminate the agent, but with diminishing options for writers have come diminishing options for agents, and both have been forced to become more business-savvy.

The agent’s strategy is to partner with McLaughlin to provide professional and legal advice. If she sells books and gets picked up by a publisher for a future novel, he gets his commission and she gets her foot in the traditional publishing door. He might also secure additional and subsidiary rights for the self-pub book, and generally represent her best interests.

Although the right balance and monetary agreement in the relationship would have to be worked out, this idea has potential. First, McLaughlin would still have an agent, and considering how difficult it is to acquire one, this is a huge plus (I ought to know—I had one, and he passed away, and I have been agentless for two years). The agent (theoretically) knows the business and could provide invaluable advice and direction.

It’s an improvement on the traditional writer/agent arrangement, but there is still one thing that keeps me from endorsing the idea: with self-publishing, the writer basically becomes a full-time marketing person.

I didn’t become a writer to churn out ad copy, or to spend my days trying to convince local bookstores to take a half dozen copies of my book. I never planned to spend hours on the Internet researching Amazon’s worldwide marketing programs or learning how to turn my Word document into a mobi.

I won’t. Not yet.

Honestly, if I ever do find a publisher for my novels, I’ll be the hardest working, friendliest, travelingest author you ever saw. I’ll do readings and radio shows, podcasts and YouTube. I’ll rent an old school bus and go coast to coast with the Ponepinto Reading and Reality Tour. Those are writer things. You read your writing; you talk about your writing. Your writing is the truth within you, the lessons learned from your whole experience.

Marketing is something else. Marketing, as it has evolved over the last century, involves using one or two facts (or none, as in the case of the Tea Party) to the exclusion of all others, in an effort to convince people that what’s said is the entire truth.* It is essentially bullshit. To me, it is anti-writing. If I split my time and creative efforts between writing and marketing, can I say that the requirements of one discipline will not affect the other? I seriously doubt it.

I am a writer, not a marketer. I really don’t believe a person can be excellent at both. My goal is to be an excellent writer. Decision made.

This may mean I am completely out of touch with the modern publishing world. It may mean I’ll never see my books published. That is a possibility that writers, even excellent ones, have faced for centuries.



*I did it for more than a decade. I guess I wasn’t very good at it. Every time I tried to be more truthful with the targeted audience, I was overruled, even when I worked on a newspaper, even when I worked as an aide to a big-city mayor.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


25 thoughts on “Your Agent, Your Pal…Your Business Partner?

  1. Oooh, Joe, you’re gonna get some comments on this one! :-]

    I’m in the same boat as August, but haven’t yet resorted to that (though did it on my own in 2001). I have several mss my agent has had a hard time placing. One of them is at a small press, and haven’t heard back yet. I feel her pain. But as to the other sentiments, well, the reality of it is that authors are expected to do all the grunt work. Note the word “all.” The short answer is that *is* the answer. I personally think author can certainly do all they feel they are able to do (or considered “good at”), but feel that the brunt of social media is something that–in reality–is really used by the *readers*. Just like the old days of word-of-mouth and “clothslining” in the back yard with your neighbors.

    But I see a shadow coming down over me…oh, wait, it’s…a SLEDGEHAMMER…..

    Posted by fpdorchak | October 20, 2012, 1:09 PM
    • Honestly, I never know which blogs will get the big comments. Whenever I’m primed for responses I get a trickle.

      What we’re talking about here is the inevitable result of a market-based economy. Everything is assigned a value, and everything that has value becomes a commodity, even art and writing. But understanding this and even accepting it, and doing what we can to market ourselves as writers (such as penning this blog every week) doesn’t necessarily make it right. I feel that if I lose sight of that truth, I will lose something of myself as a writer. I may eventually cave and go the way of self-publishing, but I’ll always feel a little cheated by the realities of the writing business.

      Posted by jpon | October 20, 2012, 4:43 PM
      • Joe, all we can do is what we CAN do. Write like the WIND, man, cause it’s what you DO. If it happens that you–or any of us–finally nail a pub contract, we’ll do all we can to get our words out there. But it’s not just about US…it’s also about our READERS. If they like our work, they’ll help us out. After all, what do you do when you read a good work? :-]

        Posted by fpdorchak | October 20, 2012, 4:46 PM
      • Damn right. I have this silly dream that someday I’ll go the self-pub route, and some reader will be sitting on the subway with his copy of “Mr. Neutron.” Another reader will notice the imaginative cover, and ask, hey, what is that book? Oh man, the first guy says, this book is fantastic. You can guess the rest.

        Posted by jpon | October 20, 2012, 4:53 PM
  2. Can’t we just go back to the 1970s where publishing was all about the 3 martini lunch and women were burning their bras and Betty Friedan was the rage and the best show on TV was Charlie’s Angels?

    No. No, I suppose not.

    A few years ago a legendary agent contacted me based on a lit mag story. He wanted to see the book I was working on. I was so excited I sent him the first 100 pages (his request) and immediately dreaded it. The pages were nowhere near ready. He passed. My biggest fear (other than the book being bad) is that I missed my traditional publishing chance.

    And on that note, back to my little corner desk to see if I can fix the chapter that’s making me the most crazy this week. One thing at a time.

    Posted by Teri | October 20, 2012, 1:25 PM
    • That is truly a scary writer’s story. But what else could you have done at that point? Would he have gone for a “it’s not yet ready?”

      PS: the best show on TV in the ’70s was Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

      Posted by jpon | October 20, 2012, 4:45 PM
  3. The worst rejection (sort of, they didn’t out right tell me “no”) went like something like this “Great chapters, but you didn’t include your business plan. In order for us to seriously consider your manuscript you’ll have to send it along. We here at [I seriously do not remember the name of the publisher] don’t have a promotional/advertising department. Our authors do all their own promotional work.” It was a small publisher, but by all accounts it was a true, traditional press (not a vanity press or even a subsidiary press).

    That was about 12 years ago.

    I’m currently published with two fairly small presses. They both work hard to promote their authors in ways that make sense to them (and for us). For the non fiction book on local haunted places, I’m doing book signings and have gotten a couple of TV/news paper interviews. For my romance novels, I’m getting my table at a book/reading convention paid for and my publisher spends countless hours at industry fairs to push us into foreign markets, libraries, and is considering taking out ads in Cosmo and other mainstream woman’s magazines. Those ads won’t be for me personally, but getting the publisher’s name out there helps us all. Dreamspinner had tables at Yaoi Con in CA and another at GayRomLit. I wasn’t at either event, but I heard from friends who were that sales were awesome and several authors sold out (books were brought by the publisher, authors didn’t have to schlep their own).

    But it’s still on the individual author to blog, tweet, facebook… or “promote ’til you bleed” to quote my friend S.A. Garcia. And it’s hard. It’s spending time standing on the proverbial megaphone when you should be writing, revising, editing.

    Posted by H.B. Pattskyn | October 20, 2012, 2:33 PM
    • Yeah, if you find an agent or publisher, even one of the big ones, you’ll still have to do a ton of marketing. But as you said, Helen, some recognize that publishing means doing a lot of the marketing for their authors. As a BR editor, I’ve become familiar with dozens of small publishers. I know which ones I’d like to work with, and I’ve submitted my ms to several of them. I also know which ones won’t do much marketing for authors, and I avoid them.

      Posted by jpon | October 20, 2012, 4:51 PM
  4. I would rather sit in front of a blank Word doc for eight hours, cursor blinking in the corner, than approach another librarian to offer a reading.
    When I write I feel large because I know what I’m doing. When I market I feel small, unprepared and somehow needy, like a beggar or a man selling pencils on a street corner.

    Posted by Jon Zech | October 20, 2012, 2:37 PM
    • Jon, I’ve spent many hours this week staring at that blinking cursor and you know what? I still agree with you. Even when I read in front of a group of people, I feel small, unprepared and needy. Too much focus going the wrong way.

      Posted by Teri | October 20, 2012, 4:20 PM
      • Oh, I love to read my work aloud (right Joe?) Shoot, I’d read my stuff on that street corner with my only audience being the guy next to me selling wilted flowers. I’d hold a sign, WILL WRITE FOR APPROVAL AND THE OCCASIONAL MUMMERING NOD.
        But actually selling my stuff? Difficult.

        Posted by Jon Zech | October 21, 2012, 2:53 AM
    • I am on that street corner with you. Makes me wonder how marketing people do it. Maybe my parents should have been nicer to me.

      Posted by jpon | October 20, 2012, 4:55 PM
  5. Dear Joe, Sometimes, the process of acquiring an agent is as intimidating as acquiring a publisher, as you obviously know. I can remember sending a now shelved novel in its various requested parts out to a beginning ten agents (they were as many as I could afford to send SASEs to at the time, which was the way it was done). One husband and wife team requested the whole novel and enough money to mail back the whole thing, but then only mailed back half of it and lost the rest. When I inquired, they claimed never to have received it. Since their review sent back to me included info from both parts, this obviously wasn’t true. They were friendly and mildly encouraging, but obviously unbusinesslike liars, to say the least. I gave up on agents after a while, and then decided to self-publish on my own website. I have a copyright on everything from Library of Congress and eCO (electronic copyright office), so it’s all hunky-dory. Even though I haven’t made pots of money yet, I feel better about my decision because at least I have a few readers now. Making money is the next step, I guess.

    Posted by shadowoperator | October 20, 2012, 2:48 PM
    • Which is why I believe in a certain logic of the old system (to borrow a title from Saul Bellow). Writers spending their time writing and editing. Agents agenting. Editors editing. Publishers printing and selling books. Technology isn’t always for the best. The realities of the online universe now force a lot of people to do things they’re not very good at, just to get by. And the people who’ve created this technology aren’t losing any sleep over the fact that they’ve reduced the quality of many published works, and put thousands of people out of work. They just check their bank accounts once in a while to make sure the money’s still coming in.

      Posted by jpon | October 20, 2012, 5:03 PM
  6. OK, I have lots to say, as an author who broke up with her agent to self-publish. I agree with the person who mentioned that you will be doing lots of marketing even with a traditional deal, so forget using that as an excuse for not self-pubbing. My friend who has a traditional deal is still knocking on doors at local libraries and bookstores in order to get readings/signings, just like I am. If you don’t believe in your book and spread the word, who will?

    Also, you say that marketing is about lying. I hope you could honestly endorse your own book with enthusiasm?! It’s not like a product you’ve been assigned to promote for work. Also, call me crazy, but I write with the hopes that people will read my stuff. The reader-writer relationship is critical to me. I now visit book groups every Thursday night and we sit around and talk about my book. It’s fascinating and fun, and, guess what? This will never happen if you don’t publish. After a year of working with an agent, I started to feel anxious. Why was this decision up to someone else? Why, when the editors loved the ms, did the sales teams get to say no? I hated that my future was in other people’s hands. I lacked control over my own work. So, I hired an editor from a big house and got an illustrator and graphic designer to help with my cover and here I am. It is a lot of work. But worthwhile endeavors are.

    As for keeping the agent on board, I think that could work. But it was not the right decision for me, at least not right now. In the future, I may seek an agent, but because I have much more experience now in the industry, I would be looking for different qualities than I did the first time around. And learning about business is not a bad thing. It is not anti-writerly. I balance my day between writing and promotion and it seems to be working, although, to really focus on my second novel, I will pull back from the promotional noise and choose to dedicate entire days to the novel. It’s exciting to be many things: a mom, a wife, a writer, and a business person.

    Just sayin’. ;)

    Posted by Julie Gerstenblatt | October 20, 2012, 3:40 PM
    • I didn’t exactly say marketing was lying (although often it is). I said it typically promoted one or two facts and excluded others that might be detrimental to a product’s or campaign’s success. Marketers expect the targeted audience to take the information presented as truth, and hope they won’t investigate the claims further.

      As for my writing, I promote it as best I can, and I totally believe in it. As my friends know, I can talk it up as well as any writer. But that doesn’t mean I have the desire to cold call bookstores or write reams of jacket copy and press releases. Some of us just ain’t that way.

      I do feel that marketing detracts from my time as a writer, and if nothing else, that time could have been better spent improving my craft. Have you ever asked yourself how good your novel in progress could be if you didn’t have to spend so much time marketing?

      If we can agree on one thing, it’s that the writing and marketing aspects of being a writer must achieve some kind of balance. Our difference, I’d say, is in where that balance lies. You don’t mind splitting your days. I’d be happier if the marketing were limited to maybe one day every two weeks.

      Posted by jpon | October 20, 2012, 5:24 PM
  7. “I am a writer, not a marketer. I really don’t believe a person can be excellent at both. My goal is to be an excellent writer. Decision made.” To that I’d like to add a tiny bit of advice: Close the door but don’t lock it, in case you change your mind.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | October 20, 2012, 4:04 PM
    • Which is why I said, “Not yet.” The realities of the modern publishing business haven’t completely escaped me. I have a ways to go before I exhaust all the more traditional publishing avenues. After that, we’ll see. For now, somebody has to provide a counter to the runaway train of self marketing and promotion.

      Posted by jpon | October 20, 2012, 5:30 PM
  8. As you’ve said, Joe, the good part about writing today is that there are a variety of options, and something to suit every writer. I’m a middle-of-the-road type. I don’t mind maintaining a blog and I may get into Goodreads at some point. I’ll put up a website once we have a cover, and do some marketing if that’s what my publisher wants. But that’s today, for this book and the next one under contract. Who knows where I’ll be after that. I’m glad to have the choice to self-publish if I can’t sell the next one.

    Posted by Averil Dean | October 20, 2012, 10:50 PM
    • And I’ll promote your book on my blog Averil! But honestly, that’s almost as far as my mind can go in the home-promo department. I simply have no idea or interest in marketing. But who knows, maybe it’s more fun than I think. I wouldn’t mind trying. Hell, I’d wear a sandwich board and drop flyers from a tall building if I had a reason to.

      Posted by girl in the hat | October 21, 2012, 4:21 AM
    • Yes, it’s good to have those options. Writers should evaluate them to determine what will work best for them at different points in their careers. I’ve noticed that the most successful self-published authors are the ones who already have a following.

      Posted by jpon | October 22, 2012, 12:46 AM
  9. “Honestly, if I ever do find a publisher for my novels, I’ll be the hardest working, friendliest, travelingest author you ever saw. I’ll do readings and radio shows, podcasts and YouTube. I’ll rent an old school bus and go coast to coast with the Ponepinto Reading and Reality Tour.”

    love it. i want a seat on that bus! sounds like a wild ride.

    seriously — great post. the whole biz is rather bewildering, and we appreciate your taking us through the weirder and tougher aspect.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | October 21, 2012, 6:20 PM
  10. Joe, even if every reader of your posts doesn’t comment, I’m convinced that you’re a welcome and needed voice for your followers. You say the things we think and doubt and wonder about.

    Posted by Jon Zech | October 21, 2012, 6:30 PM

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