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March 2005

8 posts from February 2005

Agents: Do You Need One?

Hear me out on this one before you assume I’m just trying to take advantage of any first-time authors who might be reading this blog…

First of all, my opinions are all based on the computer book business. Your “mileage will vary” if you’re looking for agency information on a novel you’re writing. In fact, you’ll undoubtedly find there are some areas of book publishing where you’ll never get anywhere without an agent. Computer book publishing isn’t one of them.

Before you agree to work with an agent, you need to ask yourself (and the agent) a few questions:

  • What exactly is the agent going to do for me?
  • Is it something I could do myself, without having to pay them a portion of my royalties?
  • What sort of reputation does this agency have in the industry? Do editors/publishers enjoy working with this agent?

Here’s the big reason why I’m so disappointed with this part of the (computer book) publishing equation: I see so many things an agent could do to help the author and the editor, but they generally don’t. That’s pretty harsh, I know, and I’m sure any agents reading this will chastise me. But there are just too many projects where the agent is acting like nothing more than a middleman, taking his/her percentage and moving on.  Sure, they might negotiate some language changes in a contract, but how does this affect the author’s bottom line? I guarantee you that there’s no correlation between an author’s royalty rate and whether or not they’re represented by an agent, at least not in the list my group publishes.

If you’re going to work with an agent, make sure they’re earning their cut of your royalties. For example, I strongly believe an agent should take a very active role in developing the proposal and the outline with the author. I’m not talking about a simple quick review of what the author submits – I mean the agent should roll up their sleeves and join forces with the author to help craft the book’s vision. The agent should also be there to help the author through bouts of writer’s block and other authoring ailments. Many of the agents in the computer book industry used to be editors or authors themselves. They’ve got the knowledge to do this. You’re paying for their services and you’ve got a right to ask for and expect their help.

As you would do with any other type of purchase or investment, be sure to research agent/agency candidates. This includes asking them for references, which should consist of authors and editors/publishers. Use this as an opportunity to see (a) how many references they’ll provide and (b) the quality of those references. Ask those references how happy they are with that agent and their agency. What do they like/dislike about them? Btw, the agent might be reluctant to provide references from the editor/publisher side. That would be a red flag in my book. Any reputable agent should be close enough to their editor/publisher partners to trust them with this sort of discussion.

The bottom line: I wouldn’t ask an agent to do anything more than what I’d expect the editor/publisher to do. By the same token, I also don’t think an author should accept any less than that!

Are there any agents listening in? If so, please give us your point of view.

Collaboration with NetMeeting

One of our authors, Danny Ayers, was kind enough to help promote my blog while simultaneously poking fun at the length of some of my initial posts. Yes Danny, I do ramble on a bit…I’ll work on that.

Despite the sub-title of this blog (Book Publishing and Technology Perspectives), I’ve been focusing on the former and haven’t talked much about the latter. I’ll work on more of a balanced approach going forward, starting with this post.

I consider Microsoft’s NetMeeting to be one of the most under-appreciated utilities available. Most projects require some level of collaboration. Regardless of whether your co-worker is in the next office or across the country, NetMeeting is a very useful tool that helps get everyone on the same page.

Up until about a year ago, my boss was in New York and I work out of Indianapolis. Every month or two we’d have to construct a set of documents for our latest business forecast. We’d hook up via NetMeeting, walk through the core docs, make changes on the fly, discuss the ramifications of changing x to y, etc. NetMeeting allowed both of us to see the same spreadsheet or other document at the same time and comment on the results. Sure, there are other collaboration tools out there. Many of them aren’t cheap. But if you haven’t done so yet, give NetMeeting a try and see if it doesn’t help with your collaboration efforts.

Insightful Author Perspective

Kathy Sierra, co-creator of O’Reilly’s popular Head First series has an interesting post on “creating a bestseller”. Btw, Head First proves that there are still opportunities to develop a new computer book series and have it do well – congratulations to the entire team that built this one.

I just wanted to add my two cents to Kathy’s post. While I agree with much of what she said, I’m not on board with everything. The first area where our opinions start to diverge is where she talks about the publisher not being solely in business to help an author build a better resume. While this is certainly true, there are other things implied in this part of her post. For example, the casual reader might think that many publishing/authoring deals are a one-sided decision, that the author simply tells the publisher what book to do and the publisher skips their own due diligence stage. I can’t think of any projects I’ve worked on where we simply published a book to help an author build their resume. Sure, we’ve all published books that haven’t lived up to expectations. But believe it or not, the editor, publisher, marketer, etc., go through a lot of industry and segment analysis before deciding whether or not to sign a book. In short, both the author and publisher need to feel they can make money on the project.

Kathy also mentions the self-fulfilling prophesy of an author going into a project not expecting to earn out their advance. Again, I agree that both author and publisher should be as optimistic as possible, there are also market realities to consider. Additionally, the advance on project “A” could be a significantly different number than the advance on project “B”. If the publisher does their homework, they should be paying out an advance that they feel will definitely earn out, preferably in the first year of sales. One of the most unpleasant aspects of my job is facing the prospects of an unearned author advance write-off!

When I was on the authoring side, I wanted to make sure I had enough of an advance to cover my expenses and hopefully cover a good chunk of my time. I say “a good chunk of my time” because I always hoped I’d earn more than the advance, making the project really pay off in the long run. The trap some authors fall into here is dividing their advance by the number of hours they expect to invest in the book – the resulting hourly rate is then compared to the rate they charge as a consultant, for example. If the “book rate” falls too far below their “regular rate”, they look for a higher advance. Negotiations often fall apart at this stage because it’s simply impractical (in all but the rarest of cases) for a publisher to match that sort of hourly rate on an advance.

Despite all this, I accept the fact that some authors are only writing a book for the advance. They assume that’s all they’ll make and anything above that is gravy. Here’s one reason why this isn’t as unhealthy an approach as Kathy suggests: it prevents the author from mortgaging their future and being disappointed. It also helps them from over-extending themselves financially, waiting for the arrival of that “first, big royalty check to make up for the missed mortgage payments.” I’m not trying to “set the bar too low” with this. I’m just trying to encourage fiscal responsibility by both the publisher and the author.

Finally, I wanted to speak to Kathy’s point about the publisher keeping the book available. There’s no doubt that it’s critical for the publisher to keep the book in stock. On the plus side, more sophisticated modeling systems have helped many of the chains/stores do a better job of managing inventory. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a totally automated process though. I review the in-store inventory levels of a large number of my group’s books every week. When I see a stocking opportunity I alert the sales rep and they present the case to the chain/store buyer. Keep in mind that all stores across a chain are not equal. The A-level, or lead store for chain “X” in New York City should probably stock more copies of your book than their B- or C-level stores in Ohio, for example. These chain buyers are pretty smart. They also have a good feel for what sells in certain pockets of the country. That means that the author might not find their book on the shelves in Davenport Iowa and assume it’s nowhere in that entire chain. Bad assumption. The buyer may have decided to put it only in A-level stores. If it takes off, that same buyer is likely to place a follow-up order and stock the book deeper across the chain.

Also, it’s important not to lose sight of the key online accounts. Sometimes the inventory they sell isn’t at their warehouses anyway – it’s sitting in a wholesaler’s warehouse and gets shipped directly from the wholesaler to the customer. Therefore, “stocking” levels are less meaningful for these accounts as long as they can fulfill through one of their wholesaler partners

Publishing Passions (Wrap-Up)

Rather than dragging this out any longer, let me briefly outline the other 3 things that I love about my job.

Working to Become #1
It’s invigorating to shoot for being the #1 publisher in a topic area. Based on sell-through data we receive from Bookscan, the likely subject of a future post, I can say that we’ve been the #1 publisher of Linux books for the past few years. We also have the #1 title: Red Hat Fedora Linux Bible. We weren’t always the leader, however. About 4 or 5 years ago I sat down with the acquisitions editor on my team who was responsible for Linux and we laid out a plan to climb to the top. The strategy featured a lead title (the Bible) along with several others on Red Hat and other distributions.

My favorite part about becoming #1? Dislodging a competitor! For a while there, we had the top of the Linux heap to ourselves. Our good friends over at Pearson, however, have done a nice job stepping up the efforts with their Unleashed book. That’s the beauty of competition though: It forces us to keep innovating and raising the bar on our own products.

Pitching New Ideas
A lot of jobs out there don’t leave much room for creativity. I know it because I’ve had a few of those jobs over the years. Fortunately, my job is (mostly) free of that sort of mind-numbing repetition. I’m encouraged to study the market and work with the rest of the team in developing new product ideas.

The flip side to this is that I also happen to work with some of the toughest critics on the planet. I’m not naming names (Jim, Bob, Carol, Chris, Katie and Debra), but these guys can be brutal. I mean that in a good way though. We wouldn’t get anywhere if we didn’t kick the tires on each other’s ideas. I know that if I can convince this team that an idea is worth pursuing, we might be on to something. Here’s a tip for managers: Be brave and surround yourself with people who challenge your thinking. Sure, you’ll go home some nights second-guessing yourself, but in the long run you’ll have a much stronger team.

Helping Customers Develop New Skills
Our group publishes several dozen new books every year. These books cover programming languages, operating systems, hobbyist topics, etc. It’s cool to think that someone right now is probably using one of our books to learn something new. What could be more rewarding than that?

One last point… It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day activities of this job and lose sight of the most important person in the publishing formula: the reader. That’s why I try to spend time each week reading through customer postings on Amazon, for example. Another great resource that we have at WROX is our programmer-to-programmer forum. Readers are encouraged to go there to present problems, share solutions and give us feedback on our books. Sometimes the feedback isn’t what you want to hear. While that can be painful, it’s important to keep an open mind and try to understand their frustration. Who knows…their point of view might just lead you to an entirely new product idea.

Publishing Passions (#2)

The second part of my job that I truly love is the opportunity to build new businesses. It’s fun to come up with new ideas, whether that means a single book or a whole new series. But what really gets me jazzed is the idea of carving out a whole new market segment. Building something new where yesterday there was nothing…that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning!

Anyone who has worked with me knows that I enjoy prospecting for partnerships and alliances. As the publisher, you might be in an excellent position to help someone else leverage their name/brand. A good example of this is our company’s alliance with Ziff-Davis.

Chris Webb gets all the credit for this one. He identified an underserved market segment (the tech hobbyist) and built great products with a couple of the most trusted and innovative names in the tech magazine/online business: Ziff-Davis’s PC Magazine and ExtremeTech. The result is a list of very edgy books that show you how to do everything from hacking Windows XP to creating some cool wi-fi projects. Sure, there were a few books that covered a small number of hobbyist topics before these ones hit the shelves, but nobody else ever offered the breadth and depth of content we’ve got in this list. Plus, we’ve got a great partner in Ziff-Davis because they bring an element of tech credibility to the table and they understand and appreciate our strengths as well. We work closely with them to promote the list and make sure all their loyal readers are aware of every new title we publish.

The result? We’ve got a leadership position in the rapidly growing tech hobbyist market. I wouldn’t have been able to say that 2 years ago. Today, however, it represents a solid portion of my group’s total business.

Here’s a tip for any authors who might be reading this: Rather than proposing a single new title or even a new series, see if you can take things to the next level with an idea that could blossom into an entirely new business segment. Instead of an individual book idea, what sort of new franchise can you help build?