Monday, May 19, 2008

Secret Agent #6 Speaks

From time to time Secret Agent #6 (aka The Legendary Masked Literary Agent) decides to drop by and share his thoughts, and he did so this weekend. The following is pieced together from a string of frantically scribbled notes. (When he's in Vision Mode, #6 talks very fast and non-linearly.) I will present this as a long quote, but it's actually a patchwork of quotes and paraphrases, and any errors in transcription are mine alone.
"Keep in mind, right now, every publisher, in every genre, is over-supplied with publishable quality manuscripts. Editors must choose what is most likely to sell well over that which is the best manuscript. In this case, the enemy of the potentially great is the apparently good enough.

"For editors, not making a mistake and breaking even is better than taking a big risk for a big reward [and possibly losing money]. Like Nigerian letters that promise 30% of fifty million, publishers will take a risk on a HUGE reward, but to do so they must see something stunning first.

"Publishers no longer want to work with authors who need to be developed. They want finished or almost-finished novels by authors who know how to reach the large audience they are appealing to.

[Where writers are supposed to get that experience from remains a mystery. ~brb]

"If they get ten publishable manuscripts from excited, confident authors, they will pick the two or three they think work for them and let the others go. Some of those eight will never get published, or will be delayed a year or two, but the publishers don't care. There are plenty more authors where those came from.

"The ABA [American Boooksellers Association. ~brb] is dead and gone. The independent bookstores and distributors are extinct. The publishers eventually figured out that all book-buying in America is really done by seven people: the buyers for Borders, Walden, Crown, and so on. With A.G. Bertlesman apparently intent on buying up every publisher in the country, editors were going to ABA conventions not to promote books but to network and pass around resum├ęs. The publishers got tired of paying for that.

"Del Rey is doing okay. HarperCollins is doing well with their EON line. I haven't submitted a book to Baen in years. The Baen contracts were good and they were always quick with the advance, but I never got a royalty statement from Baen that made sense or passed audit. Now that Jim's dead, though, Toni seems to be straightening all that out, so they might be worth another look.

"With all the consolidation in the industry and everyone worried about their careers, all the interesting action is taking place with the B- and C-list publishers. They can afford to take risks; in fact they have to, to survive. Most of them seem to be located in either Chicago or Texas. The advance money isn't as good, but they're more willing to take a chance. You'd think with the dollar as weak as it is against the euro that the European publishers would be over here bargain-shopping for books to import and translate, but that isn't happening.

"The hot category is still chick-lit with vampires, chicks who kick butt. The market is more open than it was, say, four or five years ago, and everybody says they want more hard sci-fi like Charles Stross or John Scalzi, but they're all really looking for the next Laurell Hamilton. Or maybe the next Buffy. Everybody wants the book that's going to become the next Moonlight. That's the TV series everyone is talking about this year. No, not Reaper; that's got a good Gen-Y thing going, but I'm amazed it's still on the air.

"You can still sell to the geezer market, but they're getting fewer every year and they have their favorites and don't like to try anything new. Everybody now is trying to find the thing that'll click with the Gen-Y market. It isn't hard SF. Gen-Yers don't care how things work. They care about where they can buy it and whether having it will make their friends think they're cool. They don't want to take an old backpack and go explore Europe and sleep in hostels. They want to buy a designer backpack and packaged hostel tour that will get them into the seven best nightclubs in Berlin and introduce them to a token Morrocan who speaks perfect English.

"Heinlein could never sell in today's market. Citizen of the Galaxy; Have Spacesuit, Will Travel; Heinlein wrote too many young kids who were loners and outcasts who had to learn things and too many old geezers who explained things, and the Gen-Yers don't care. They don't want to be identified with losers and they're not interested in listening to their own grandparents, so they see someone like Baslim or Jubal Harshaw as just another old windbag.

"I take that back. Heinlein could sell lots more stuff like Starship Troopers. I mean the movie, not the book. There's a market that calls itself military SF, but the galaxy-spanning empires and space fleets are over. Star Trek and Star Wars ruined that. What the readers want now is grunts with cool weapons and great gadgets slugging it out in the mud with nasty aliens. Warhammer 40K stuff. There's a small but steady market for that, if you like to splatter blood and guts."
There was more, but that's more than enough for one dose. Submitted for your consideration. Use at your own risk. Your mileage may vary.