My, How Things Have Changed: Jenny weighs in on industry changes good and bad

I have been in this business for what might be considered an embarrassingly long amount of time: since 1992, to be exact, when I started as an assistant to a brilliant agent named Raphael Sagalyn down in DC.

So I realize when looking back that a lot has changed, of course, since then and I was thinking about what has changed for the worse and what has changed for the better. I thought I’d make a laundry list–these are just a few off the top of my head, I’m sure there are many more that I’m not thinking of. And then I did another list of a few nice things about the industry that haven’t changed at all.

For the Better:

1. More transparency. It’s hard to remember now, when publishers like Simon and Schuster make all sales information available to their authors online, that publishers actually used to be reluctant to give their authors sales information. Now, I call an editor and get first week sales breakdowns by account, including e-books. Before the book ships I get an accounting of orders, again broken down by account. But in the old days, there would be hemming and hawing, and even outright refusal to give numbers outside of the royalty statement that was provided twice a year.

2. Self-publishing via e-books. Hooray self-publishing! I’ve always been a fan, since way before e-book days, but now self-publishing is a possibility for so many more folks. A great way, as I’ve said so many times, to prove that there is indeed an audience for your book.

3. Less territorialism. Is that a word? In my experience, anyway, publishers seem to be more accepting of the fact that an author will write for several different houses. As advances go down, and payments get more and more spread-out (see below), it becomes a financial necessity for some authors, and I think publishers get that now.

4. Authors are so much better informed. I used to have to basically reinvent the wheel with each new author, breaking the bad news to them one thing at a time. Yes, it will take a year for your book to be published. Yes, you will only get a royalty statement twice a year and it will be for the period ending three months prior. Now, authors know so much more about the process. Via social media they’re able to connect with published author friends and really learn the ropes before getting tossed in. It’s one of my favorite things about the way technology has changed the business.

5. A corollary to #4: Authors who query now have access to so much more information. The only resources about agents really used to be Jeff Herman’s guide and the LMP (who remembers the LMP?). Now, there are almost infinite sources of information about agents. Beyond just access to sales (which I think is so important) authors can get a real sense of the agent’s personality via twitter, blogs and facebook. It’s a wonderful way of figuring out who might be a great agent match.

For the Worse:

1. Payouts. Don’t get me started. An author’s advance payment almost always used to be half and half–half on signing, half on delivery and acceptance. Now it’s thirds or even fourths–1/4 on signing, 1/4 on d &a, 1/4 on hardcover pub and 1/4 on paperback pub. Sigh. Authors have to write a lot faster these days to make money on the same kind of schedule that they used to.

2.Hard/soft deals. You used to be able to sell hardcover rights to one house and then turn around and sell paperback rights to another. Two separate income streams. Now publishers buy all rights to a book. One income stream.

3. Audio. Again, don’t get me started. You used to always be able to retain audio rights and sell those separately. Another income stream for the author. No more. Publishers are increasingly (I can think of two right off the bat) insisting that audio be part of their overall grant of rights.

Things that are the same:

1. Editors do edit. I know everyone says they don’t, but they do. Trust me.

2. Innovation. I see it everywhere, in publishers and authors, and I’m always so impressed by the creativity around me.

3. Nice people. Publishing is full of smart, nice, funny people, united by their passion for reading and books. That hasn’t changed. I’m always surprised when I mingle with people out in the “real” world by how less cool they are than publishing people.

4. I still think I have the best job in the world. That hasn’t changed a bit.

That’s all for me, folks. Would love to hear from other industry long-timers about their better/worse impressions as well.

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26 Responses to My, How Things Have Changed: Jenny weighs in on industry changes good and bad

  1. Bethanne says:

    I'm just a long time aspirer, but I see lots of good coming from the changes. LIke you said, transparency. But I have to admit, the same pluses can also be minuses. Sometimes I feel like I know too much, that I just want to sit down and write and not worry about who, what, where and when. LOL That's just the lazy in me, though.

    One thing I love about how things have changed is the freedom to write outside the box. I don't feel hemmed in by industry standards or expectations. 🙂

  2. Joseph Baran says:

    It’s funny Ms. Bent that you have made your new post today at lunch time. Last night had a dream in which you and I had a business lunch in NYC. I suppose responding to your blog now is the lunch meeting I dreamed of.

    I admire your acceptance or acknowledgment of self-publishing and the authors who are really working hard to get their stories out. Of course not just you alone but also other agents who have similar views as well. That’s a good thing, perhaps the best thing, that I came to experience so far on my own publishing journey.

    The worst thing is the fact that some agents and some established authors, look upon unpublished writers with sarcastic skepticism and ridicule, just because they have decided to seek their own publication. They obviously have forgotten that the same unpublished writers are their very own readers who propelled their careers to what they are today.

  3. Wonderful post, thank you for sharing.

  4. This was a fun post! It was interesting to read about all the things that have/haven't changed. And, wow, you've been at this for a while—clearly, you love what you do! 🙂

    Random, off-topic thing: going back to our twitter conversation about the blog's new look, I think the change you made to your sidebar is perfect. New readers shouldn't have any trouble noticing the links to your agency/agent profiles.

    —Kayla Olson (@olsonkayla)

  5. Colin Smith says:

    Thanks for this insight, Jenny. I've often thought as I've been querying agents for my novel what it must have been like querying 20 years ago. First, everything was done on paper and through the mail. J. K. Rowling talks about having to type out her manuscript and pull together the money to get it copied and mailed out. Today, it's all word processing and email.

    I wonder if the relative ease with which authors can query agents is a positive thing for an agent? I imagine your slush pile is a lot bigger (and contains a lot more dross). But on the other hand, you have a greater chance of getting really good stuff.

    And you're right, the possibilities with e-publishing are very exciting.

    And congratulations on 20 years in the business. It's truly something to be proud of when you can say you've been doing the job you love for so long. I wish you all the best for the next 20! 🙂

  6. Kelley says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Great to get an agent's perspective on the changes in the industry.

  7. Thank you for sharing this information.

  8. Michael G-G says:

    I remember the LMP.

    I also remember all-paper queries and rejection letters, being told that querying by e-mail was gauche and would never catch on, and that the phrase "multiple submissions" was a swear word.

    So many changes for the better.

  9. Bethany C. says:

    Love this post. It's nice to know industry folks aren't the dream crushing trolls we think they are–when we're bombarded by rejections, that is 🙂

  10. Jenny Bent says:

    Colin, I can't tell you how happy it makes me not to have so much paper stacked up everywhere. Those horrible blue manuscript boxes, argh. The photocopying costs. The manuscript that would arrive in your office reeking of cigarette smoke. So glad those days are gone.

    For the most part, I think it's a good thing that it's now much easier to query agents. I can sift through and find the good stuff relatively quickly and it's nice to have a larger pool from which to choose.

  11. Jenny Bent says:

    I know, right? So many agents refused to take e-queries for so long. I was young then, so it was easy for me to embrace that–always seemed like a great idea to me.

  12. Jenny Bent says:

    Just remember that we get rejected too–all the time. Sometimes it's hard to keep your chin up, even. But being surrounded by books and great people is definitely what keeps you going even in the tough times.

  13. This is a great post. Very interesting! Thank you for sharing your long view on this.

  14. ryan field says:

    I've been writing and getting pubbed for almost twenty years. I like some changes, others take some adjustment. The pace nowadays is exciting. And, editors do, indeed, edit. The more complicated aspects now include authors learning more about the business end and trying to make good decisions on their own.

  15. Rich says:

    What I love is that I was able to write a slew of articles back in 2007 and garner over 1,000,000 readers worldwide. When I released my first self-published book, Seven Murders In Sussex, I already had an audience. But I find I still need the staunchy old publisher behind the oak desk for translations and foreign rights. So we move twenty steps forward and a few back. I do miss my good old days at William Morrow when we answered every call and drank mud like coffee in the back rooms. I hope that hasn't changed.

  16. John Harbour says:

    Jenny, I love the perspective you bring and your blog. Great stuff.

    Just a quick question about the role of agents and how that has changed during your career. After reading the letters from the great American writer period of the 30's and 40's, it seems that agents were more interested in finding promising writers and not specific projects and there was more loyalty on both sides during the length of a career. Do you see that it has shifted over the past few decades to agents looking now for individual projects, or do you still keep your eye out for that voice that you like that might not have the right project yet?

  17. Jenny Bent says:

    books and authors and not to make money. So they had the luxury of spending a lot of time nurturing talent. Most agents now have to make a living doing this and so it's a different kind of scenario.

    I still think there is a lot of loyalty in this business, however, and I think it's inevitable when so much of what we do is based on personal taste and relationships.

  18. Diana Stevan says:

    Thanks for your overview on how the industry has changed. As someone who is throwing her hat in the authorial ring for the first time, I find the whole self-publishing explosion exciting but also precarious. When I weed through various self-published author sites,I don't see a lot of compelling material. I still think a novelist would do better going through an agent or a publisher who knows the business and can help them put their best foot forward. I guess time will tell which direction I'll take. If only I could stop writing and just market, maybe I'd get somewhere.

  19. Derrolyn says:

    It's interesting to hear what's going on from an insider's perspective. I queried my first book series in 2010 with no success, finally self-pubbing in 2011. My books review very well with the YA bloggers, but sales are lackluster (probably due to my crap-tastic marketing program).
    My question is, do publishers take self published authors seriously? It's hard enough to get bloggers to take a look when you're an indie. I mean, now that I have something of a track record, will my next book series be more likely to get a once-over?

  20. MadMan says:

    Jenny Thank you for sharing such insights. I've been studying the art of writing for the 20 years you've been working and I am glad for the changes you mentioned. The most interesting to me is the fight over the 'other' rights.

    Is it possible for an author to retain the e-rights to his novel? There is a lot of discussion about how conventional publishers aren't serving the author's interests in the ebook market.

  21. Jenny Bent says:

    Publishers are not going to give up e-rights anytime soon. Think about it from their perspective: why would they give up such a profitable (or potentially profitable) income stream?

  22. Great post–definitely tweeting. I had no idea about the current payout amounts for writers, but I'd heard it had gone down overall.

  23. polka dot says:

    Having just stumbled on your site, I read this post and that's it: I am submitting to you soon as I send this. I love your voice: you really should write, Jenny!

    (I am Jill Carin Adams, by the way, and will be checking your submissions guidelines soon as I post this).

  24. fulmoonmajik says:

    I am finding your blog to be very helpful. I look forward to meeting you in a couple of weeks at the Converse College MFA Residency. –Donna Girouard, author of The Other Side: A Memoir (nearing completion)

  25. Aurelia Blue says:

    This is so interesting. Thank you for posting it. You can read in trade mags and writing courses all about this stuff, but you, make it so much more understandable, Jenny!

  26. This was a great blog very beneficial, and alot of information I didn't know. Jenny i'm a Self Published Author/Writer of a new book Called My Life, My Pain No None Heard My Cry. Self Publishing it's great, but with my new books coming I want to go a different route this time. Thanks for the info. I appreciate it.