AN ECONOMIST’S LETTER TO YOUNG LITERARY AGENTS: HOW TO SURVIVE IN TODAY’S PUBLISHING INDUSTRY

NEWS FLASH! THE ECONOMIST’S LETTER IS BELOW, BUT I HAD TO TELL YOU ABOUT THIS:
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 HERE’S THE ECONOMIST’S LETTER:

Sandy Nathan
SANDY NATHAN Award Winning Author

Greetings! I recently read a blog post by Nathan Bransford, a San Francisco based literary agent.  It “rang my chimes,” as they used to say on Laugh-In in the olden days. Mr. Lansford’s post quoted articles from the NY Observer, an interview with George Jones, CEO of Border’s Group, Inc. on HarpersStudio Blog,  and a video response to the NY Observer article from young literary agent, Jeff Moores. 

The post presented different takes on the future of the publishing industry by a number of industry insiders. I am not an industry insider, I am a retired economist. I wrote this and thought of putting it on the comments form of Mr. Bransford’s blog, but realized it’s a bit long for that. So here it is. I’ll put a link to this page on Mr. B’s Blog.

Dear Mr. Bransford:

Your 10/17/08 blog concerning the state of the publishing industry caught my attention. My first career was in economics––I hold a couple of degrees in the subject and was Economic Analyst for Santa Clara County until the Planning Department was eliminated. (That’s downsizing!)  I also worked in Silicon Valley for twenty years, coaching negotiations at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, among other things.

What wisdom do I have to add to the articles you cite? An adage from economic forecasting applies: The best predictor of the future is the past. Just throw a line on past data (do a regression analysis) and there you have it––the future. The only problem with this approach is that you miss the turning points. This is a very large problem.

We are in a turning point, or major melt down, now.

No one knows what’s going to happen except that what happened in the past won’t apply. The article from the NY Observer was well worth reading, and I loved the Interview with George Jones, CEO of Borders Group. He gets the problem: It’s”not the book business itself that is lacking, but it is the business model that has been in place for decades and is broken.”

The business model no longer fits reality. To address this, Jones says Borders intends to “know our customers and select those titles that resonate with our unique shopper.” And, “speaking directly to an engaged population of customers is absolutely the way to go and we’re leading the way on it … the sky’s the limit!”

This is a new way of doing business. It’s personally engaged business, its smart business, and it points to niche buying, with suppliers listening harder to customers––in the case of Borders, anyway. I also liked what he said about their doing “very little if any traditional advertising.” I’ve never seen it pay in any business in which I’ve been involved.

What’s going to happen in the publishing industry? I have no clue. No one else does, either. I do know publishers that made a lot of money in the 60s & 70s are groaning and have been for a long time.

How to address this? On the supply side, looking at large publishers, I would expect cut backs and increased conservatism. The financial people and investment advisers I’ve talked to recently are in lock-down mode. They’re traumatized and very tight. Turtled up, you might say.

That speaks to less innovation in buying by publishers and a tendency to hang onto what’s proven, which is what the NY Observer article pointed to. I can’t speculate as to what change in overall share in the GDP publishing the coming years will bring.

Many small publishers will fold, which is sad, because they tend to be the innovators. But many more will rise, including micro-presses. These businesses are fluid and can find and fill niche markets. With distribution open to them (and it is) and companies like Borders open to buying from really small publishers if they prove they can sell, the small and micro companies could flourish.

Such micro-publishers might be built around a single author who uses his/her books as large business cards, creating a platform for some other endeavors: consulting, coaching, or speaking. This includes the “out of the bookstore sales” that don’t get counted in bestseller lists.

What young agents and everyone else need to remember is that what is happening now has never happened before. I’m 63 years old. My dad was a major developer in Silicon Valley before it had that moniker. I’ve imbibed business since birth and studied business and economics academically. I’ve seen many economic cycles, with their “Whee!” and expectation of endless growth on the upside, and their black gloom after the inevitable bust.

The current situation is new and massively ominous.

Within recent weeks, a half dozen of the largest banks in the country have been bought out by other banks under duress or government orders and/or have disappeared. This includes both of the largest investment banks. Hundreds more, less prominent banks have closed, with many more to follow. The collapse of the housing industry is well documented and the national debt is beyond anything I could have imagined. China as been buying US government paper for years, financing our spending binge on Chinese goods. Read the financial pages, literati.

Are we heading for another Great Depression of the 30s? No. That will never happen again. We’re heading for What Happened in the 2000s and Beyond. Unknown territory. Hope our leaders are up to it.

Speaking to the young New York literary agents shown by video on Mr. Bransford’s blog––if I were a young literary agent what would I do? I’d keep my eyes open, read the Wall Street Journal as much as Publishers’ Weekly, watch my back, and learn new skills.

A friend of mine, an English major from one of the prestigious eastern colleges, is now taking a 16-week course allowing him to become an ambulance driver. Smart guy.

The more tools in one’s belt, the more likely one is to survive. Changes in job description are good; they provide material for a more interesting memoir. If one has been fortunate and deserving enough to attain a prestigious job title early on, that’s great. But it’s not who you are. Life can be brutal in ripping away illusion.

If I were a young literary agent shopping for new clients, I would look at the demand side of the book market, and markets generally. What are recession/depression proof products? Drugs, booze, and psychotherapy. Things that make people feel good and hopeful sell in bad times.

Find their literary forms. Look for books with titles like: “You can make it through the next five years …” Though I wonder if the spate of “You can get rich like me, activate your inner entrepreneur” books aren’t part of the problems we face.

Political extremism and agitation flourish in hard or changing times. Look at the 30s and 60s. One side blames the other for the history of humanity and plots revenge. This is a fertile, though repulsive, area to mine for top selling books. Hate books. Blame books. Incendiary books.

Still another and very important area of demand are books that offer people meaning and hope in a shifting universe. A philosophy professor emphasized how hungry people are for meaning. He said that his wife (then an undergraduate at UC Berkeley) spoke of the subjects we discussed in our philosophy classes. After her classes, people followed her around the UC campus, wanting to talk about meaning, existence, values, anything that feed their souls. In an age of sophistication and materialism, our spiritual (sorry to use the word) needs remain.

We can’t help it. The search for meaning is hardwired into our brains. We are purposive creatures that seek meaning almost as soon as we seek air. See the writing of Andrew Newberg MD on brain science and religious experience. The need for meaning isn’t an add-on.

People seek meaning harder when they feel shaken. Feed that need, and you’ve got a hit.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” is a brilliant example of this. It combines all the most basic human needs in a beautifully written package that let’s people vicariously go on her search for MEANING. (Everything I’ve seen from Elizabeth on this subject says, “Find your own meaning, don’t use mine.” That’s the idea.) “The Life of Pi” is another brilliant example: existential anxiety in a rowboat. Author Yann Martel was a philosophy major.

The upside of demand in bad times is that readers exist; some people will always like to read. Some people like to read interesting stuff, and will buy it. We’ve got new technology to help us get it. (But really, how can holding a Kindle compare with experiencing the elegance of a high quality book?)

If I were a young agent wanting to survive, I would notice that the model is broken. I would notice that profitable sales are and will be what allows the large publishers to survive and that as a literary agent, I need go where those who provide my income go. Publishing is sales driven and so am I. (Which you already know.)

I would also notice, by the long hours I work if nothing else, that the query system doesn’t work. It’s a cumbersome, labor-intensive process for you which doesn’t pop out likely prospects reliably enough for this market.

If I were an agent, I would scrap the query system. It’s too much work and misses books or products that might be very profitable. “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” for one. The Kiyosaki’s self-published to get their start. [Oh, my God! Don’t use those words!] The NY publishing establishment shunned the entire Chicken Soup Series. Big mistakes, which were later rectified. The querying system doesn’t pick up the most important point in today’s publishing industry: Can this author sell?

I’d scrap queries entirely and have anyone wanting me to represent them send me a: (1) resume and a (2) position statement: why I am the person to write this book. I’d sift through those and get the candidates that might be able to succeed in the marketplace.

I’d interview them. You can do interviews by video, but most people look lousy on video unless they’ve been coached. So they can come and see you in your office. If prospective clients want your representation enough, they’ll come to you. Don’t pay for it either.

“The author’s persona is most important element in the success of a book,” Victor di Suvero told me. Victor is a poet who used to hang around City Lights Bookstore with the great San Francisco poets in the 50s and 60s. It’s charisma and ability to transmit it that makes people plunk down their bucks.

Get your prospective client in your office and talk to him or her, silently asking yourself the questions: “Would I buy a pair of socks from this person? A used car?”

The possible answers are, “Yes,” “No,” and “Maybe, with coaching.” (Make them pay for it.) When you have those answers, you’ll have trimmed the seekers to a manageable herd. Then talk books.

Remember: You can hire someone to fix a book, but you can’t make a platform or a selling personality.

With my method, your client candidates will have proven they can sell before books are mentioned. Many really good writers will probably get screened out, as well as those who can’t afford to come to you, but literary fiction doesn’t pay the corporate debt.

Sound radical? Sound crass? Yes to both. Would you rather drive an ambulance?

Just a suggestion,

Sandy Nathan …

Cutting this post here would be mean. I have a story for you to round this out. My daughter, Zoe Nathan,  recently won her black belt in karate at a competition in Seattle. (If you click the link you’ll see after pictures. I understand she was mostly airborne in the “during competition” phase.)

Like you young literary agents, Zoe is an under thirty, gorgeous, multi-talented, sensitive and really smart, liberal arts graduate of a very good east coast school, Sarah Lawrence. She had to miss the Santa Barbara opening of an art show featuring one of her paintings because she was in Seattle winning her black belt. You relate? She’s like you.

She’s studied karate religiously for many years. combining it with her ballet to be the most beautiful and graceful karate woman in the world. Winning this belt meant a lot to her. The process was “extremely intense.” This is what she said of the process of winning (via text message):

I’M NO MORE BRUISED UP THAN USUAL!

She spoke of all the drills and other things aspirants had to do to get the belt. (I didn’t know what she was talking about.)  Then she told me about a difficult part, sparring with an opponent in front of a small mob of judges. I’m paraphrasing:

“The woman I sparred with was the daughter of a tournament orientated black belt in our school. In his dojo, they train to compete in international tournaments. His daughter has been competing in and winning such tournaments for years. She’s a phenomenon.

“When she was throwing me, I kept thinking, ‘Why am I still in the air?’ And then I realized that she was placing me so that when I landed, I wouldn’t get hurt.

“Both of us advanced to the belts we were testing for. When they gave us the belts, the judges complimented her on her control.  I.e., for not beating up a less experienced contender while illustrating that she could ––and easily!

“They complimented me on my spirit in keeping going through it all, and the fact that I was still standing at the end.”

That’s my message: The goal is to keep going and be standing at the end, no matter what. Everyone has to find out what that means and do it.

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