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November 2012

Richard Curtis on
Publishing in the 21st Century

Mastering the Business of Publishing

by Richard Curtis

Originally published by E-Reads


To Fee? Or Not to Fee?

TO FEE? Or not to fee? That is the question.

And for many literary agents, reading fees are a hot question indeed. In the eyes of many writers, publishers, and even other agents, the charging of fees for agents to review the work of aspiring writers is unethical at the very least. Some feel it is downright fraudulent.

There is a lot of evidence to support the detractors of this practice, I regret to say. But it may also satisfy some very important needs, and, if rendered ethically and responsibly, it can create opportunities for developing writers that are no longer available to them through traditional channels. Let's examine the conditions and problems confronting literary agents that often give rise to the necessity of charging fees.

Until the post-World War II era, the responsibility for discovering new writers belonged almost entirely to publishers. Although literary agents have existed since the nineteenth century, their emergence as a decisive force in the publishing process had not yet commenced, and authors almost invariably submitted their work directly to publishers. As the number of would-be authors was not overwhelming, publishers were able to sort through submissions in a relatively reasonable time. And though the ratio of unsuitable to suitable submissions was undoubtedly as high as it is today, the lower volume of manuscripts made it economical for publishers to retain editors on staff whose task was to find good material in what has come, lamentably, to be called the "slush pile." In short, the profits realized from successful books pulled out of the slush pile outweighed the cost of reading the rest of the material.

All of this changed as the century wore on. The publishing business became more competitive and expensive, forcing publishers to look harder and harder at their bottom lines. One of the items that didn't fare very well under scrutiny was the cost of reading slush. The chances of finding a best-seller there were about as good as discovering a diamond tiara in a corn flakes box. Several years ago, Viking Press vigorously publicized its discovery in the slush pile of Judith Guest's Ordinary People, a big best-seller that was then made into an enormously successful movie. But it was the first unsolicited novel bought by the company in twenty-seven years!

How many editors had worked how many hours at how much salary to haul that prize fish out of the sea of submissions? A little number-crunching might suggest some answers. I have it on the authority of several editors that unsolicited submissions received by the average publishing company number some ten thousand or more annually. If you figure that a reasonably intelligent editor can read between five and ten of these a day (assuming he or she has nothing else to do but read), he or she will be able to polish off approximately one to two thousand submissions in a year. Even assuming the higher figure, it means that a minimum of five editors is required just to read so-called over-the-transom submissions.

Starting salaries in publishing these days are approximately $20,000 annually; with fringe benefits and employer contributions to social security, it's probably closer to $25,000. Thus, the cost of retaining a staff strictly to read slush is at least $125,000 per year, not counting the cost of handling and postage for rejected material. Or the cost of the time that senior editors spend reading those manuscripts that may be recommended by the slush pile editors. All things considered, it probably costs close to $200,000 for a publisher to keep its doors open to unsolicited material—and that's every year. It would probably cost that much to publish works that are discovered there. And then there's a little matter of making a profit. In brief, a publisher would probably have to sell close to half a million dollars' worth of books discovered in its slush pile in order to justify the existence of a well-managed program dedicated to finding good books there. That's every year, chum.

Clearly, the game is not worth the candle; at least, not when publishers know that it is infinitely more cost-effective to acquire material from literary agents.

As the twentieth century progressed, agents grew more and more influential, and publishers increasingly relied on them for quality material. In due time, trade publishers began to neglect their slush piles, and ultimately, most of them abandoned them altogether. Today, most large trade publishers return unsolicited manuscripts unread or scarcely glanced at. Some houses, however, particularly paperback ones that publish a lot of genre material, do manage to read unsolicited books, at least books that seem at first glance to have merit. But, at a cost of between $25 and $40 per manuscript, which is the going rate for outside readers, the toll can be high. One editor told me his monthly nut for outside readers runs well over $1,000.

Publishers that refuse to read slush generally return manuscripts with printed notices stating that the firm reviews only submissions made by literary agents. In effect, agents have become the slush pile readers for the publishing industry. In certain respects, this task is not as burdensome for agents as it is for publishers, for agents' slush piles are excellent sources of potential new clients. Publishers offer narrower windows of opportunity to authors than agents do. A publisher seeks books to fill its own list only, but an agent seeks them to fill many lists. An author submitting a novel to a publisher that publishes only nonfiction will be wasting that publisher's time. But if he sends that same novel to a literary agent he won't necessarily waste that agent's time, because the agent knows of lots of houses that do publish fiction.

In another respect, the shift in responsibility for discovering and developing new talent has placed a heavy burden on agents, for along with the benefits go the expenses. After all, if it is costly for publishers to maintain a staff to read slush, isn't it equally costly for agents to do the same thing?

As a matter of fact it is. Indeed, it could well be argued that it is more costly, because agents work on a much lower profit margin than publishers do. The average literary agency is staffed by two to five people including the boss. It is well nigh impossible for them to read manuscripts during the day when the phones are constantly ringing. That means taking reading home.

Reading at home is the cross that everyone in the publishing industry must bear. It often intrudes on our evening and weekend leisure time. (Vacation time, too: my wife searches my luggage for manuscripts I try to smuggle to holiday resorts.) For agents, leisure time is too often occupied with reading manuscripts, contracts, and correspondence relating to our professional clients. It is difficult, and for some agents impossible, to devote quality time to the work of new authors.

Every agency that lists itself in the industry's directories receives a large quantity of unsolicited submissions from hopeful writers. I don't think my own agency is exceptional in this respect: on any given day, we receive between fifteen and twenty-five solicitations from unpublished or unestablished writers. The task of screening their queries, outlines, and partial and complete manuscripts takes my staff the better part of a morning. As you might expect, the material breaks down in the proportions of 5 percent interesting, 10 or 15 percent marginal, and the rest clearly unsuitable. (I hasten to add, unsuitable for us, but not necessarily unsuitable for other agencies.)

That means that I and/or my associates must find a way to seriously review ten submissions or more per week, excluding work by our regular clients. How much can I read without jeopardizing the interests of those clients? How much can I ask my employees to read beyond their normal burden of homework before they demand additional compensation? How can I ask outside freelancers to read manuscripts free of charge?

And that's just reading: What about replying? While much of the stuff we send back doesn't call for extensive analysis, many agents feel that it would be rude if not cruel to return it without a few lines of explanation, criticism, encouragement, or consolation. And if the material is above average, a thoughtful letter is certainly in order. Where is one to find the time, or the money to pay for that time?

I am not telling you all this because I want you to feel sorry for agents (that willbe the day!), but because it's important for everyone connected with publishing and literature to realize that the economics of slush are as inexorable for agents as they are for publishers. We are faced with the dilemma of either cold-bloodedly returning this material unread and thus making it even harder for promising authors to get a hearing, or devoting serious attention to new authors at the expense of our clients' interests, to say nothing of our own.

For some agents, the solution is reading fees. These fees are designed to compensate agents, their employees, and their outside readers for the time they must invest in reviewing the work of new authors and cultivating the better ones. Of course, for anyone interested simply in getting a manuscript criticized, there are a great many reading services that do not, and do not claim to, perform agenting tasks. The quality of their services and the fees they charge vary widely. One can, though, often come away with a helpful analysis of one's manuscript and perhaps improve the quality of one's writing skills, as long as it's understood that the reading service cannot place the work with publishers.

It is when reading services are combined with agenting capabilities that some troubling moral issues arise. If a manuscript reading is offered with the implicit promise that the work will be offered to publishers, or if an agent accepts reading fees without offering anything by way of constructive criticism, authors will justifiably feel that they are being ripped off. Most agents can judge the quality of a manuscript within the first few pages, and critics of literary agency reading fee services feel that if the agent were honest, he or she would simply return the manuscript with the fee and a brief note stating that the work lacks merit or is unsalable.

It's hard to argue with these criticisms, but some agents who charge fees justify them on the grounds that they never mislead authors about the unpublishability of submissions; that the quality of their evaluations is high, and many authors genuinely benefit from them; and that from time to time, salable works and talented authors are discovered in agents' slush piles. I myself know of a number of books discovered in agents' slush piles that went on to get sold, initiating successful writing careers for their authors. And I can cite many authors who feel they profited immensely from literary criticism and marketing expertise for which they paid fees to agents. If handled properly, a fee system might provide one way of keeping stocked the literary breeding grounds that have been drying up on the shifting sands of modern publishing.

Unfortunately, some fee-charging agents have taken advantage of authors, and the taint of fraud hovers over the business of reading fees, making even the most ethically and responsibly run services suspect. As a result, the Association of Authors' Representatives has prohibited the practice among its members, for it's impossible to police it, and trade laws make it illegal for the organization to regulate the fees charged.


Extraordinary Expenses

LET'S TALK ABOUT the out-of-pocket expenses that agents charge to their authors.

Among the commonest classes of such expenses are long-distance telephone calls; faxes; photocopy of manuscripts and documents; messenger pickup and delivery of urgently awaited manuscripts, contracts, and checks; special delivery and overnight mail charges; purchases of extra copies of authors' books for exploitation of subsidiary rights; international postal charges for submissions of books to foreign agents and publishers; and loans to authors.

These are a perpetual source of friction between agents and authors, and the policies on charged expenses differ from agent to agent. The reactions to them differ from author to author, too. Some will resignedly accept a deduction of hundreds of dollars, others will fight like trapped beasts over a dollar that they feel has been improperly ascribed. But if these charges area source of irritation to authors, you should be aware that they are not much fun for agents, either. The bookkeeping on them is complex, energy intensive, time consuming, and thankless. It is also an absolute necessity. Looking at it positively, "extraordinary" expenses help us to make extraordinary deals, move properties and money faster, and serve our clients more effectively. Extraordinary expenses would sap an agent's profit if they weren't charged off to clients. While the debits may not be huge for any individual author, in the aggregate they can be so high that they could force an agency out of business if they were not paid out of author income.

Many an agent's session with his bookkeeper has been devoted to questions of what are appropriate deductions, how costs can be reduced, and how to get publishers to pick up some expenses that are currently laid on the shoulders of authors, and I assure you we take these matters very seriously. Never think that, since it's not our own money we're spending, we're unconcerned with holding costs down. Most agents lay the money out on behalf of their clients, and although they ultimately recover it from money flowing to those clients, they no sooner collect it from one client than they must lay it out for another. So we are always out of pocket in that respect, and it may therefore be fairly said that it is our money, and the less we can get away with spending, the less, you may be sure, we will spend.

Because the headaches surrounding this issue are intense, some agents have raised their basic commissions in exchange for the assumption of some or all extraordinary expenses. Authors selecting an agent will want to weigh the value of extraordinary expenses against the value of that additional commission—all other factors being equal in the choosing of an agent, of course.

The conflicts surrounding these expenses arise over the definition of what is a "normal cost of doing business" for an agent. It would be impossible for an agent to do normal business without making long-distance phone calls, making photocopies of manuscripts, or purchasing extra copies of books for servicing subsidiary rights. Yet the agent justifies charging some or all of such outlays to clients on the grounds that they are expenses the authors would have paid if they were operating on their own without an agent. A reasonable author, for example; faced with a choice of making a photocopy of his manuscript in response to an inquiry from a movie producer, or waiting until his book is published nine or twelve months later, wouldn't hesitate to opt for the former. But he could wait. His decision not to do so incurs an extraordinary expense for him. If he has an agent, his agent makes those decisions for him and advances the money to pay for the additional costs.

The line between ordinary and extraordinary expenses can get fuzzy, though. When I started my agency I charged clients for long-distance phone calls. It was easy to keep records of such calls when I had only a handful of clients; it was something to do while watching New York Giants football games. But as my firm grew larger the task of poring over multi-page phone bills became intensely agonizing, particularly because the years of my company's most rapid growth coincided with the period when the Giants were playing awful football, so that by the time I'd finished the task of charging calls to authors I was fit to devour carpets. Add to this the grousing of clients about being charged for what they contended was undeniably a normal cost of doing business and I was obliged to drop such charges. With phone bills running around $2,000 a month currently, I look back at my decision with pangs of wistfulness, but that's the way it goes.

Let's go over some other types of expense.

Faxes. With the tremendous advances in telephone technology, the necessity and cost of communication have declined sharply. But faxes are vital for furnishing written confirmation of deals when urgency is called for, and for expediting contracts. Faxes and long-distance phone calls are an absolute necessity in this age of high-powered international electronic negotiations, but even when they are cheap they are expensive. Yet, no author would want to risk blowing a deal by insisting that his agent convey decisions and information via old-fashioned airmail. As more and more agents and authors go online, we can expect even cheaper and more efficient means of transferring documents electronically, and perhaps at last agents will no longer need to charge their clients for this service.

Photocopies. The photocopy machine has been a prime factor in the transformation of the publishing industry into the high-powered business it is today, creating the immediate accessibility to material that makes for more dynamic book auctions and early sales of subsidiary rights. The process has also added to the burden of expense for author, publisher, and agent, and that burden upon even the smallest of agencies is tremendous. In New York City a price of ten cents a page is standard, with discounts offered for high-volume jobs. An agent must usually make at least one photocopy of any manuscript that he believes has subsidiary rights potential, so that he can make more copies from that one as the need arises. And the need arises all the time. If a book has any subsidiary rights potential at all he will probably need a dozen copies to service first serial submissions and to hit movie producers and foreign publishers eager for an early look. Figuring twelve copies of a three-hundred-page manuscript at eight cents a page, that's more than three hundred dollars for the job, including tax.

At any given time in the life of even a modest-sized agency, there may be between five and ten such literary properties in circulation, an outlay of two or three thousand dollars. I invite authors who think they can make their own copies cheaper to do so by all means, bearing in mind the cost of shipping those copies to their agents, the inconvenience of arranging for their own photocopying, and the time lost in getting sub-rights submissions in the works while the agent awaits the arrival of the copies shipped by his client.

By the way, an intermediate stage between manuscript and printed book is bound, uncorrected proofs, and agents frequently use these for subsidiary rights submissions. They cost about ten dollars a set on the average.

Messengers. Like most other businesses in New York City, the publishing industry runs at a breakneck pace, and while routine submissions, contracts, and checks are sent by ordinary mail or United Parcel Service, a day seldom passes in the life of a literary agency when some exigency or another doesn't require the use of a messenger, and sometimes the sheer importance of a project or deal demands use of a messenger to deliver a long-awaited manuscript or pick up a huge contract or check. The same exigencies demand the employment of special delivery or overnight express mail. Seldom do authors complain about these expenses as long as their agents use common sense in incurring them on their behalf.

In New York City, messenger services charge by the zone for routine errands, with one-zone deliveries and pickups starting at about $7. Parcels that are too weighty or bulky to go by bicycle (the standard messenger conveyance) must be picked up by van at extra charge. If you figure two or three calls daily for a messenger at a small to medium-sized agency (the largest agencies employ their own messengers rather than outside services), that comes to $400 or $500 a month. Overnight mail charges start at $10 or $12.

Next come book purchases. Although agents utilize manuscripts or proofs to exploit subsidiary rights to key books, much of the time we can wait until the book comes off the presses before offering those rights. Authors are entitled to a certain number of free copies, but anything beyond that must be bought, usually in hard cash, by the author or agent at a courtesy discount of 40 or 50 percent. If an agent is to do a thorough job of covering potential subsidiary rights markets—and sometimes the demand for a book extends over decades—he's going to need between twenty and fifty copies of a book. In the foreign market there are about a dozen key language territories, and in some cases the agent or his sub-agent partner in those territories will want to submit a book to more than one publisher at a time. Furthermore, after buying the rights to a book, a foreign publisher will usually request between two and five extra copies for translation, production, cover art, and other purposes.

If the book in question is a paperback original, the cost of buying extra copies is not excessive, but in the case of hardcovers the cost can be awesome. A $25 book discounted by 40 percent is $15, and thirty copies will set you back close to $500 including shipping costs. Publishers refuse to charge most such purchases to authors' royalties as they once did because so many books fail to earn out their advances and the publisher is thus left absorbing the cost of book purchases. So they demand cash on the barrelhead before processing book orders, and most agents cannot count on their clients to afford them or pay promptly. In any given month, therefore, an agency of any dimension will have to shell out $1,000 or more for book purchases. I try, when I negotiate contracts, to raise the number of free authors' copies to the maximum I can get away with.

Then there's the cost of marketing books overseas. Whenever possible—that is, in cases of routine submissions—agents use surface mail to submit books overseas. It may take months for books thus submitted to reach their destination, but when you hear how much it costs to airmail a book you may well decide the tradeoff between cost and time is an acceptable one. Airmailing a hardcover book costs four or five times more than shipping by boat; if the book is important or timely, if the author is eager to see results, or if there are guaranteed sales awaiting the delivery of a book, it is penny-wise and pound-foolish to send books via surface mail. But postage to service a book via airmail to all major territories can run $500 or more. If the book is hot, an agent may even airmail a copy of the manuscript. The cost is so obscene it will nauseate you. I try to remind authors that the cost of foreign submissions is easily wiped out by just one foreign sale, but they have a tendency to overlook this when they get a check with hundreds of dollars deducted for foreign postage.

Advances. You may not think that loans to authors should legitimately be classified as extraordinary expenses, but I suspect you would feel differently if you were sitting at my desk poring over that particular column in my ledgers. I can't speak for other agencies, but for mine, despite every effort to harden our hearts to pleas for advances, these "quick" loans to authors represent a larger debit than all the others that I have listed combined. An author who recently joined our agency told me he'd chosen me over two competitors because, "Another client of yours told me you were a sucker for a hard-luck story."

I suppose I am. At this writing, I have succumbed to the following hard-luck stories: (1) "My wife just left me and cleaned out our account" ($1,500); (2) "The hurricane damaged my roof and when the engineer inspected it he discovered extensive termite damage" ($2,500); (3) "I have to go into the hospital for diagnosis but they require prepayment" ($500); (4) "It's Christmas . . ." ($750); (5) "It's the end of the month . . ." ($650); (6) "The Internal Revenue Service . . ." ($1,250).

Most of these advances will be recovered within a month or two out of monies soon payable to my agency, but then, as surely as rent is due monthly and taxes quarterly, I will be besieged by a new wave of requests, so that the balance of unrecovered advances seldom drops below $10,000, which the clients are getting at a most attractive interest rate: 0 percent.

If robot-like efficiency were the goal I could slash many of these extraordinary costs to the bone. I could submit all manuscripts by fourth class mail; send checks and contracts to clients by routine mail; require clients to run off their own photocopies; submit books to foreign publishers via banana boat; and slam my teller's window to even the most abject appeals for loans. I would then take the savings and plunk them down on a hot sports car.

But then I start thinking, and at length I say to myself, How ridiculous it is to prefer the thrill of pushing a gorgeous piece of automotive engineering to the max on an open highway over the pleasure of hustling my tail off to cover a monthly out-of-pocket deficit of fifteen or twenty thousand dollars. But hell, a man's entitled to daydream, isn't he?

All the best,

Richard Curtis


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