The past couple of weeks have been eye-opening for me. I am not professional writer, but I hope to be someday, and so I have made a point of learning some of the basics of the business side of publishing. After all, writers are not just artists but also small-business owners.
Here's how I assumed it went: Write a spectacular novel. Hire an agent. Let the agent sell the book, negotiate the contract and handle all the legalese and business details. Watch the money roll in. Repeat.
And maybe that's how it worked 10 years ago. That's certainly how literary agents would like us all to believe it still works because their continued livelihood depends on writers believing agents are a necessary part of the process.
I'm learning that my assumptions are naive and the reality is much more complicated. I'm not anywhere near an expert. I've never seen a book contract let alone had to negotiate or sign one. I've never had to decipher a royalty statement. But here's the thing: Even I, ignorant shlub that I am, could call myself a literary agent, take on clients and have them pay me 15 percent to handle their business. That is because -- and I didn't know this until recently -- agents are not regulated. They don't need a law or business degree. They don't have to pass a test or earn a certification.
Take note: I'm sure there are excellent agents out there. But how am I supposed to know which ones have some business and legal smarts and will negotiate with my best interests at heart, and which ones are either incompetent or most interested in bettering their own position with editors and publishing houses?
I'm starting to come around to the opinion that, if or when I reach the point in my career in which all this becomes a reality, it's better to hire an IP lawyer. I'll make my own mistakes, learn from them and do better next time. Or I'll go into the rapidly expanding world of e-publishing and skip the traditional publishing houses altogether.
What brought me around to this change of heart? Mostly, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who seem to have made it their mission to education writers of all levels about the realities of publishing. A lot of other writers have also been using their blogs to tackle the subjects of agents, e-publishing and the changing nature of the business.
Here's the main lessons I've learned so far:
- Don't blindly hand your money and your career over to an agent because you could end up losing money or following bad advice. Trust yourself, instead.
- Educate yourself. Keep educating yourself. Because what is true about publishing today might not be true six months from now. That's how fast it's changing.