No wonder writers have a problem

Michael Bourne wrote an interesting article about navigating the world of literary agents. No doubt others have already mentioned it and I’m late to the party, as they say. In his article Bourne says that one agency he spoke with receives more than 100,000 queries a year which translated into 200 queries a week for each agent in this particular agency or 10,000 queries a year assuming two weeks off for vacation.

When I sat down with another agent … as she read her slush pile, I watched her power through 19 query letters in 14 minutes, rejecting 18 of them and putting one aside for more consideration.

Yikes. Imagine that query letter you sweated hours over being glanced at for a mere 44 seconds.

BUT … agents have to earn money too. As does everyone else in the food chain connecting writers to readers. Just like other commodities – let’s face it, a book is a commodity – consumers exert pressure on the economics of publishing by demanding lower prices. Have a look at those shrinking $$$ in the diagram below.

What else has happened?

  • Writers are proliferating. More and more people are writing stories, self-help books, memoirs, non-fiction books, blogs, books based on blogs and so on. Many are writing for free, for the sheer pleasure of expressing themselves in a public forum.
  • Agencies are relatively small. Agencies are often one to five person outfits which means they don’t have scale to invest in technology, news ways to operate, extra manpower and so on. They only make money when they sell a writer to a publisher and subsequently when that writer sells sufficient books to payback the advance. They need a lot of writers to make sufficient income or a small number of authors who sell mega-quantitites of books. If they serve a lot of writers, they have to parcel out their time in small bits.
  • Publishers are taking fewer risks. Which means agents are taking few risks. Just like publishers, agents have an incentive to remain with the tried and true.
  • Retail is dominated by one very large outfit. Not only has Amazon rewritten the rules for book distribution, but it has opened its own author publishing platform. And the Kindle has changed the way readers experience books.
  • Readers can access writers from around the world, not merely their own locale. A writer from Australia can access a reader in Chicago almost as easily as a US-based writer can.
  • Writers are bypassing agents. Faced with an increasingly daunting path, writers are taking indie publishing and self-publishing models seriously. Writers have found that they can secure a larger portion of the revenue stream associated with book purchases using direct to reader mechanisms. And why not? Writers have already taken on roles like marketing, brand building, responding to readers, blogging on the side.

What does all this have to do with historical fiction? I suppose I just needed to rant!

Historical Fiction Survey Musings

After an incredible eight weeks consumed with survey responses and results, I’m attempting to pause and think. The process reminds me of wading through reams of consulting analysis to find the few gems that would make a significant impact for a client. After twenty years in that profession, such synthesis was relatively straightforward but today I feel less confident, as though I’m trying to find my way through a faintly lit tunnel.

Here’s a diagram I created a few months ago:

Coloured boxes represent the main players in the book business whose primary roles are listed beneath each box. Forgive the simplicity but I hope it helps illustrate a few points. Each player faces challenges, I have chosen what I think are the main challenges. The question I’m musing on is whether the survey augments this diagram in any way.

  • When asked about favourite authors, 404 different authors were chosen by only one person; a further 99 authors were chosen by only two people. Not only are historical fiction authors faced with a highly competitive marketplace but the chances of becoming a top twenty or even top forty author are very, very slim.
  • In response to questions about favourite digital and non-digital sources for recommendations, survey respondents told us that they do NOT look to publishers for that information. Only 3% mention industry sources such as Publisher’s Weekly or Ingram Advance. Only three publishers are mentioned by name – Random House, e-Harlequin and Harper Collins – and these only once.
  • Traditional book reviewers like The Guardian and New York Times were mentioned, but I believe one of the most interesting statistics is readers’ overwhelming preference for small blog sites as a source for recommendations and a place to connect over books. Readers are pushing traditional reviewers out of the endorsement space.
  • In the retail space, the survey offered no surprises. Historical fiction readers, like all other readers, have moved online. The selection role of retailers is seriously threatened. And what about Amazon? Readers told us that although they buy online,  Amazon is not a favourite source of recommendations.
  • Readers have embraced social media as a way to share their love of books. Faced with abundance, they seek like-minded people to discover new books. Readers also look to author sites for recommendations. I believe authors should ask themselves what else readers expect of them.
  • Readers told us they intend to read more in the future than they do today. Those readers who discovered historical fiction early in life continue to select historical fiction as a significant percentage of their reading and in higher than average volumes.

I’ll leave you – and me – with a few questions: (1) are readers becoming more powerful? (2) is this a good time for historical fiction authors? (3) can new authors find markets for their books through the blog community? (4) what should historical fiction authors do differently?