Power to the People

Here’s the second episode of Tim and my exploration of the current state of the book publishing business.

We talk a lot about the psychology of power in New York between book agents and publishers and how that dynamic affects the people that those seemingly omnipotent forces can’t do anything without…writers.  Seeing through the publishing game may not be the same as “winning” the game (whatever that means to you), but it sure helps to understand how the machinery of the business works.

My bottom line is that empathy is a crucial mind muscle to exercise and strengthen.  And if you can empathize with those creatures who serve as the gatekeepers to traditional publishing, the dividends (perhaps financial, but guaranteed psychological) will prove indispensable to you as artist and more importantly as a human being.

It’s been my experience that being a publisher is as excruciating as being an agent and believe it or not, both roles are far more psychically draining than confronting a blank writing screen.  When I write, I shudder at my ineptitude. But my writing screw ups only have my name on them. When I screw up as a publisher or as an agent, though, my mistakes hurt others…and that is one heavy load to carry.

So think about that when you’re spewing vitriol about how idiotic New York publishers and agents are.  Don’t stop venting. You need to and you are justified.

But find a tiny place in your heart too. We’re idiots, but we love writers and writing.  And that’s not nothing. Most people don’t even read.

To listen, click the play button or read the transcript that follows.

[0:00:00.4] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne, he has over 25 years experience as an editor, he is the creator of Story Grid, he is the author of the book Story Grid and he is helping me figure out all of this writing stuff and all of this publishing stuff as I dive into the world of writing fiction.

This is the second part in the Publishing 101 series that we are doing helping you navigate the world of publishing. This was a really fascinating show for me to learn from Shawn how it works on the agent and publisher side. He gives stories of how agents work inside of publishing and how editors work inside the publishing as well and walks you through how a deal is actually made behind the scenes. It’s really fascinating, if you’re interested at all in the traditional publishing world, you’re going to love it.

So let’s jump in and get started.


[0:01:04.4] TG: Shawn, last episode we talked through basically both of our backgrounds in publishing and started diving in to the initial question of indie pub versus traditionally published. As kind o a follow up to that, I would love to hear how you’ve seen the industry change over the last 25 years. I think there’s a lot of assumptions made about publishing, what they do for you, what they don’t do for you, marketing, all that kind of stuff and so as I was preparing for this episode, I was thinking like I would just like to hear about what you think are the fundamental shifts that have happened.

Because 25 years ago there was no kindle, there wasn’t much of an Internet and now a lot has changed on the buyer’s side which I’m sure has affected the publisher side. So would just love to hear you talk a little bit about the biggest meaningful shifts you’ve seen over the last 25 years?

[0:02:10.0] SC: Well, I like to look at this stuff in terms of sort of power systems, meaning where was the power centralized before and after and what does this mean for your average creative person who wants to write a book and how they can go about doing it? So before the advent, and believe it or not, I started in publishing before there was even any Internet to speak of. That was around 1991. The way it worked then was this, the only way to publish a book, to get your book into a book store was to go through the major publishers in New York City or the smaller presses around the country who had limited access to book stores.

So it was a big model of scarcity, and what scarcity means is that there was a limited number of bookshelves across the country for books to be stocked in. The people who controlled that space were the publishers for all intents and purposes. So the way the process would work is that a book would be published by a major publisher, they would have a sales force and the sales force would go to the retailers and they were only four major retailers at the time.

There was Borders Books, there was Barnes & Noble, there was Books a Million in the South and then there were independent bookstores all across the country who had smaller chains like Crown Books, which is a chain store in the Midwest and South. Now they’re all gone though of course, except for Barnes & Noble. The independent book stores were all across the country and these were the local stores owned by local people.

So the publisher would go and they would place sales calls on those stores and they would say, “Hey, here’s our list of books, we recommend the following. We recommend that you take five copies of this which is a major best seller and maybe order 10 for the back of the store too when you sell those out. Then here are the other ones, take one or two and see what happens.” So the only way to get in to a bookstore was to have your book represented by a major publisher in any real shape or form. The only way to get it on the New York Times bestseller list was to be with a publisher.

Now were there exceptions? Yeah, of course, every now and again, there was a breakthrough bestseller that came from a smaller press that would sort of come out of nowhere and that would be completely demand driven, meaning, readers would go into book stores and they would physically ask the guy at the store to order it so that they could actually read the book. The only way to get a book back then was to go through your local book store, there was no Amazon, there was no search engines.

So if you heard about a book, you went to your book store and if they didn’t have it, you would say, “Hey, could you order this book for me?” And they’d say, “Sure. That will be ready in about two and a half weeks,” and then you would come back in two and a half weeks and pick up the book. So you really had to be driven as a consumer to really want a specific title in order to get it. What that meant is all the power was in the hands of the major corporations who owned all of the major publishing houses.

So the barriers to entry meaning, even getting your title in front of a consumer were so large that everybody pretty much just gave up and they said to themselves, “Well, I’m not a writer, nobody would care whatever it is that I would do and even if I were a writer, I don’t have an independent fortune in order to try and learn my craft and then write a perfect book and then get an agent who would sell it to a major publisher and then maybe the local bookstore would carry it.

The power was really not in the hands of any creative person whatsoever, it was in the hands of the major publishers meaning the people who chose the books from the literary community and the literary community I define is the agents in New York City and around the country but mostly New York City. Primarily, all the power book publishing was in New York City. Now the major shifter over the past 25 years is that that power center is still vital and still strong and still powerful but it’s lost so much of its claim on creativity.

People today can learn a craft, they can build their own tribes, they can become their own publisher and they can create their own wealth without ever having to give away control to the major publishers. Now the major publishers, what they do to combat that is they stigmatize self-publishing and they say, “Ah, those people are a bunch of amateurs. If you really want to be published, you got to go with us because we can put in a phone call and you’ll be on Jimmy Fallon next week,” which is a complete fallacy because how many book writers actually go on any of the major shows?

The other thing that has changed beyond the shift of the power base from a complete dilution of power in New York City to all across the country and all around the world but the other thing that has really shifted is the mass media, there is no mass media anymore. Back in the 90’s, if you got your book on the front page of the New York Times book review, you were golden, the book would sell another 4,000 copies the day that hit the news stand, your book would be on the best seller list and all roads were paved with gold.

Today, you can be on the cover of the New York Times book review. The best seller list is within the book review. You could be in Entertainment Weekly, you could get a starred review in all of the major trades for book publishing like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal and Krikus. You can be on USA Today, they could give you a great review, you can get a review on the Wall Street Journal and you still could sell three copies in the next day because nobody trusts one singular source of media anymore.

Book reviews are not really done by any of the major papers anymore because there isn’t a demand for them. The way people learn about books today is through their friends, through their tribe, through their acquaintances who say to them, “Oh did you read that book? Because it’s really good.” And then they go, “No, let me check that out on my search engine, there it is, it’s $2.99 today,” bang, I bought it. It’s done.

Back in 1991, that conversation would never ever result in a sale because what would happen is you would meet somebody at work and they would say, “Did you read the latest book?” And you go, “No I haven’t, let me write that down,” and you’d write it on a piece of paper and then you would stuff it in your back pocket and then it would go through the wash and you would never ever…

So the great power shift and everybody talks about, “Oh publishing is so difficult and it’s so horrible.” It’s incredible today. This is the renaissance of book publishing, this is a time to rejoice because when I started, the only way to get into a book store, to have anybody read your book was you had to go through this gauntlet of really snooty people who would depending upon the day, on their mood would reject you off hand without really thinking about the things that we think about today.

Now we just did a podcast a couple of weeks ago or maybe it was last week about targeting genres, right? About market place demand. The publishers back then, we didn’t think about genres or market place demand, we owned the market man. We would jam a book down the consumer’s throat and we would say, “This is the next book you should be reading and if you don’t’ read it, you’re’ a loser,” and there was a certain sort of New York intelligencia that would kind of like go along with that and they would say, “Oh Donna Tart is the new writer we should be following, let me read that book.”

They would go out and they would buy and The Secret History became a big bestseller based upon that kind of New York intellectual pressure. Now thank god the book was actually a page turner and then it exploded and sold even more because people actually started to read the thing and enjoy it. Then they started talking about it and then it slowly filtered down to normal people who just want to read a good book.

So today, what’s really interesting is that you don’t have to have a bestseller in the first week today, you can build and build and build, and build a career week to week with a slow drip attitude. Now, back in 1991, you had two weeks baby, if your book worked in the store in two weeks, then they’d buy you another week. Then if that worked another week then you would get another week.

It was really all about things that you had absolutely no control over and it was very despairing and it was sort of like playing Russian Roulette or any other strange game but today, the power and your ability to control your own destiny is so wonderful for the creative person that it’s, as I said, it’s the renaissance of book publishing and I think the more you work on your craft and the better you get, the better opportunities you’re going to have today and in the future to reach a very large audience.

[0:12:20.4] TG: Let’s just start at the beginning of the process. We’re not really going to spend a ton of time talking about how to independently publish, just Google it and you’ll find a hundred checklist on how to do it. I want to talk about traditional publishing and how to take advantage of that in today’s world. So let’s start with kind of the beginning of the process, which is I got to find an agent or I’ve actually seen more and more editors and publishers just saying, “Hey, in today’s world, you don’t need an agent, just come directly to us.” So what’s your feeling on the agent’s role in today’s traditional publishing marketplace?

[0:13:02.6] SC: Well the agent is crucial in a relationship with a big publisher and I’ll tell you why. Because you do not want to get into a fight with your publisher over certain terms of your contract or anything of that sort. You need somebody to be your advocate and so you can keep your relationships with the publisher and the editor and the marketing department and the advertising department at the major publisher pure. You can say, “Oh well, I don’t know what to tell you about that, just talk to my agent.”

[0:13:38.0] TG: Behind the scenes you’re telling your agent, you better fight for that one clause.

[0:13:40.4] SC: Exactly. Because the agent’s job is to find very talented writers that they know the publisher would want to publish. A lot of people say, “Oh, well my book’s so good, I just don’t know why no agent wants to represent me,” and here’s the deal. Publishers, they want to do the least amount of marketing and advertising work as possible. If they can buy a book that is already a best seller and then just keep the printers running and do the fulfillment and do all those things they do so well that are very technically driven.

They would be much happier to pay far more money for a book like Hugh Howey’s series Wool or 50 Shades of Grey and they’ll pay whatever it takes to get that title on their list. Now, so what the agent does is they provide to the publisher opportunities for them to publish books that they think will be automatic best sellers. The only way an agent can really make that argument is to say something like, “Oh well Tim Grahl graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop, he’s a hot young writer, he took classes with Joyce Carol Oats at Princeton and now his first novel is just about done but before I show you that first novel, here’s a story collection that he created that we think would be really great for you.

That’s a way to get an editor or publisher excited about a fresh young writer that they can say, “Oh, Tim Grahl’s the latest thing and has the following credentials, he went to Princeton, he was a graduate of the Iowa’s Writers Workshop, et cetera.” If you’re Tim Grahl who didn’t go to the Iowa writer’s workshop and didn’t got to Princeton then you got to bring something else to the table.

[0:15:45.5] TG: So the other thing that I’ve always seen or I’ve seen with agents is they also… it’s like when I sold my house, I could have done it myself. I can look up all the forums and you can buy a book that shows you how to do it but I wanted somebody there that would point out to me when I was about to get screwed.

What I’ve seen with agents is that they can help you with your contract pinpoint things like — so I heard this horror story about this author who they sign their book contract, wrote the book, book was about to come out and they went to their publisher and was like, “Hey, I’ve got this great idea, I’m going to do this whole video series around the book and this series a blog post, about the book. Their publisher was like, “That’s fantastic, just know that we own all of that when it’s done.”

When he went back and looked at his contract, he had basically signed away rights that had — if it had anything to do with the book, no matter what he created, the publisher owned it. I had another friend of mine who had a really good agent that found similar language in his contract that he might have missed on his own that basically helped him, prevent him from making mistakes inside of a contract.

Because the agent had been doing it so long they’ve seen this a million times. That’s the other side of it that I’ve seen with an agent is not just to play it go between but you get — if you get the right agent, you get a lot of experience that can help you make good decisions and they can help you pick which fights are worth fighting.

[0:17:20.6] SC: That’s absolutely true and here is the other thing about agents and big agencies is that they have in house legal departments, what happens is that, like when I started my literary agency seven years ago, whenever it was, I wasn’t stupid, I got my own in house lawyer and it doesn’t mean that he works at my building, it’s just he’s a freelance great lawyer who used to work at ICM, which is a big agency, great literary agency and he negotiated all the contracts for ICM’s clients for years.

A guy knows publishing contracts like the back of his hand. When I sold my first project, I said, “James will be handling my legal and I told the legal department.” I think it was little brown I sold it to. He’ll be handling it and they were like okay, the reason why they say it okay was that they knew they weren’t going to send a contract to me that would have any of that language that you just mentioned in it because I would hit the roof and the blood would start squirting out of my eyes because I was just so mad at them. What do you think I’m like born yesterday? I’ve been in this business 20 years. You’re not going to get that.

The other thing is that, in terms of royalties and if you sell world rights to a publisher which has pluses and minuses, there are standard splits for translation rights and things of that sort. There is a very well-traveled legal landscape for book publishing. What an agent will do or she will make sure that you’re in that reasonable landscape of legal niceties so that you don’t get in trouble or you’re not signing over option clauses or ridiculous things that aren’t going to — that only benefit the publisher. So yeah, an agent who is an esteemed agent is going to make sure that your contract is fair and that you’re getting the best royalty rate et cetera.

Now, the royalty rates at the major publishers are pretty much standard unless you’re Stephen King or John Grisham and even they probably aren’t getting crazy royalty rates. What they’re getting are just crazy advances with the understanding that their advance will never earn out but the royalty rate will be the same as Joe Schmo from Cocomo. The reason why the publisher does that is that they don’t want to get in the situation where they’re raising royalty rates for authors because then, other authors can come along and say, “What? I’m not as good as Stephen King? Get me what he gets.”

The way they get around that is they just give a much larger guaranteed advance that they know won’t earn back but Stephen King is getting a large chunk of the net revenue, a much larger chunk than somebody who is on a straight royalty deal who earns back their advance and gets the royalty check every six months, they’re basically getting pennies on the dollar as opposed to somebody who gets a very large guaranteed events that never earns out. There’s a big agent named Andrew Wily and he was once quoted as saying, “If one of my authors earns out, I know I haven’t done my job.”

[0:20:56.7] TG: Yeah, I’ve heard that quote before. So if I’m looking for an agent and I get, maybe I have two or three that are interested in representing me, what kind of questions should I be asking them to make sure I’m not getting a lame agent. I’m actually getting one that will not only be able to sell my book but be able to protect me in those back and fourths and the kind of things we’re talking about. When I get on the phone with them, what should I ask them to make sure that they actually know what they’re doing and can help me?

[0:21:27.6] SC: Well, the first thing to do is even before you get on the phone with them is to make sure that you got to do a deep Google Search on them and find out who are the authors that they’ve worked with before? You should always be able to ask an agent to give you some references of authors who are on their client list that you could talk to and that’s a great way of making sure that the agent is good. So obviously, if you’re interviewing a couple of agents and one is at a major agency like William Morris Endeavor or International Creative Management or say Trident, which is a big firm. Writer’s house.

You can find all the big sort of center — Ink Well, these are all agencies that have very strict codes of behavior and honor where the agents who work there are brought up in a culture, they all share the same legal departments et cetera and even if you get a younger agent who is just starting out at one of those major agencies, you can be pretty assured that they’re getting help from their friends in the agency. Janklow & Nesbit is another great agency.

A friend of mine is an editor at Double day named Jerry Howard, he’s a legend in the business. He did some figuring and he figured out that there’s probably about a hundred agents in the entire business that he really pays attention to. What that means is that, if one of those hundred emails and then says, “Hey Jerry I have a book, do you want to read it?” He’s going to get back to them immediately.

There are tangential agents that he’s never really heard of who might see his book in the credits of some big name author that he’s edited and they would email him cold and he won’t get back to them. So there is a level of, there’s a hierarchy like in everything else where the agencies and the agents have certain mojo and juice in the industry. The best way to see if they have any is to check out their career.

How many people have they worked with? How many houses do they know? How many sales have they made? Another great resource is Publishersmarketplace.com, which you can actually do a search to find out how many deals those agents have made over the past, I think it goes back 10 years and Publishersmarketplace.com is also run by a friend of mine named Michael Cader who — he’s been in the business as long as I have and that’s a really great resource. You can get a lot of stuff there for free and then he has some kind of subscription thing too that you could probably sign up for a month and do your deep dive into the database and then cancel the subscription and I don’t think he’ll come after you or anything. I think that’s perfectly reasonable.

[0:24:44.7] TG: The other thing I wanted to mention here is that I thought it was interesting too that these agents that are like well-known for getting huge advances. I have a good friend that was an editor at Penguin Portfolio, McGraw Hill, even Amazon Publishing when they were doing publishing and an author friend of mine, they just started shopping the book out and so I was talking to him about it, he’s like, “Oh I might be interested in that.”

He asked me a couple of questions about it and he’s like, “Oh well who is their agent?” And I told him, he’s like, “Oh no, I won’t bid on that book.” I’m like, “What do you mean?” He said, “That book’s going to go for at least six figures because as soon as that agent starts putting a book out, everybody just starts going nuts and bidding way too high just because it’s that agent.” I was like, “That’s fascinating.” Is that true? Is that how it works?

[0:25:35.7] SC: Yeah it’s true. There are certain agents who have gravitas in the industry such that people believe them. I mean it’s like anybody else who is really good to what they do. I don’t think there’s any conspiracy about it and I also know that editors like to say that kind of stuff but I know every major agent in the business has at least five or six projects, probably each year that they don’t sell. Those ones don’t mean that there’s not a market for those books. It just means that sometimes you get in a place where the tea leaves just don’t work out for you.

Now in my agency, I’ve sold books for a lot of money and I’ve sold books for a nice advance and there is some projects that I hadn’t sold. I’ve got to tell you, the ones that I haven’t sold aren’t any worse than the ones that I sold for a million dollars. So there are probably, let me just name a few off the top of my head who I know Tina Bennett at William Morris Endeavor. She’s a really great agent, really great person, she’s Malcolm Gladwell’s agent, she also represents Laura Hillenbrand. Just really works her butt off and does a great job for her clients and she gets great advances for her clients too. There’s no secret to it, it’s a lot of hard work.

Let me see who else at William Morris Endeavor. Jenifer Rudolf Walsh, she’s another terrific agent who has a lot of great clients. Richard Abate at Three Arts Entertainment. He does a lot of huge deals, he used to be at ICM, he was my old boss when I was at Endeavor. His my agent for stuff when I sell to the major publishers. Esther Newberg at ICM, Sloan Harris at ICM, Pinky Urban at ICM. Oh boy, there’s just so many. I’m going to feel really terrible by not saying a whole bunch of other people but I think you get the drift. There are — Robert Gottlieb with Trident.

There are a lot of really, really good agents who do a really, really good job who handled the clients and handle the publishers and they’re not only great advocates for the writer but they’re also seasoned veterans of the industry. So if the writer’s crazy, right and they’re going, “I don’t understand why I’m not getting in my own private parking space,” they’ll talk them off the cliff and they’ll say, “Hey look dude, the publisher doesn’t owe you that. Here’s what the publisher owes you, they owe you a really great cover, they owe you great distribution, they owe you your money and you owe them stuff too bro. You’ve got to promote for them, you’ve got to listen to them, you can’t be a prima donna.”

And so that’s what the other great agents do too is that they tell the writers what’s expected of them and they pulled them out before they make an asset of themselves with the major publishers. So that’s the other role that they play, they kind of play like psychiatrist/psychologist to both publisher and writer. It’s a very tricky place to be because you really want to be an advocate for your writer but you also have a relationship with the publisher and most of these people have been on both sides of the desk, they were editors too at the majors that’s why they have such great connections.

So getting a great agent is not going to guarantee you a great advance, it’s not going to guarantee you anything. What it will guarantee you is professionalism. So you know, “My agent is respected in the industry, people are going to call him or her back and even more importantly, they’re going to get an answer.” Yes and no are great answers. No is a great answer. There’s nothing worse for a writer than radio silence. When the editors just don’t even have any respect for the agent, that they put them at the bottom of the reading pile and then they just never get back to them.

When you’re that agent, you want to kill yourself because all you want to do is get an answer for your writer. Of course you want to sell the book, but it’s even better to take them out of their misery you know? I always say to my clients — I’m not taking on any more clients, I got plenty. But I always say to any new client that I take on, “My goal is to get you an answer in two weeks. If I can get you an answer in two weeks, whether I sell it or not, I’ve done my job.”

Because what that means is that the editors respect me as the agent and have to at least dip into the book. They’re going to call me and say, “Hey dude, it’s not for me.” Or, “Hey, I like it, I’m going to get more reads,” and I can get information to the writer as soon as possible because there’s nothing worse than running into a writer and saying, “Hey, how is your project going?” And he go, “Well, it’s been four months and I’m just waiting for that final rejection.” And I’m like, “Don’t worry about it, just consider it rejected.”

[0:31:00.0] TG: Actually, tell me a little bit more about that process. So I don’t really want to get into the proposed, like creating the proposal process because your agent should help you do that but once that proposal’s ready to go, how does it work on the agent’s side as far as like, how did they approach the editors, how are editors kind of going through these pitches from agents?

Then I would love for you to talk too a little bit about what I believe how it works is that the editors take them to a weekly meeting and if they have a book, they want to publish, they got to kind of pitch it to the group and the group’s got to convince their group at their publisher that this is something they should go with. Talk a little bit about that you said you can get an answer in two weeks, what is that two weeks look like behind the scenes?

[0:31:49.2] SC: Oh okay. All right, I’m going to drop some bombs here so get prepared.

[0:31:53.9] TG: Yeah, that’s what I want is like there seems, when I talk to writers, they feel like there’s this very sophisticated, unemotional or something kind of process that things are put through and every time I hear about it, like you mentioned, like if somebody had a bad lunch, your book’s getting rejected that afternoon. So anyway, I would just love to hear what goes on in that two weeks on the agent side and the editor’s side from getting a book rejected or getting a book accepted or an offer on a book.

[0:32:27.6] SC: Okay well part of being a great agent means knowing the terrain, right? Knowing the territory, knowing what’s going on in the industry. The way I handle submissions is that months before, while I’m working on the proposal with the writer, and it can take months. One of my clients is a great writer named Scott Patterson and I sold his first book, he’s a writer for the Wall Street Journal. I sold his first book years ago but it took us nine months to write a 32 page proposal and he’s a great writer.

So anyway, while I’m in that nine month nook of time, I’m watching the industry, and what that means is I’m watching all of those editors who concentrate in the arena that I’m going to be pitching. So I’m just going to use Scott as an example, I hope he forgives me, I don’t think he would mind. Scott is a great business narrative writer. He concentrates his expertise is in the high tech Wall Street trading world right? His first book was a book called The Quants which became a big bestseller around the world and he was the first guy to really sort of look at the culture of quantifiable trading, which is basically robotic trading.

He wrote this proposal about this whole phenomenon and what it means in the cultural shift on Wall Street and it was a big idea book about a shift in the paradigm from gut traders to tech traders. I’m thinking, while we’re working on the proposal, “What editors in the industry at the big five houses,” back then it was big seven I think. “Which one of those editors that I personally know would love this book? Who has the clout to be able to get this book through the acquisition board and even better, can he or she skip the acquisitions board?” What do I mean by skip the acquisitions board?

[0:34:37.9] TG: What’s the acquisitions board?

[0:34:40.0] SC: The acquisitions board is a weekly meeting where all the editors at the publishing house get together and they talk about the projects that they read the previous week that are up for acquisition meaning, “Should we acquire this book and publish it or shouldn’t we?” In that same meeting, they have a pitch meeting where they pitch new projects and then the colleagues will all raise their hand and say, “Hey, I’ll give you a second read on that.” What the second reads do is support your point of view.

So if I want — say I’m the editor who has read Scott Patterson’s proposal and I want to buy it. I would have to go into acquisitions board and say, “Hey, I have this great proposal by Wall Street journal reporter, what he’s doing is he’s doing a narrative nonfiction project about the shift in the culture on Wall Street from gut traders and the Michael Lewis era to high tech traders that are dominating the industry today. What do you guys think?”

Then the other people in the room will say something like, “Hey man, that sounds pretty cool, I don’t know of any other books that are like that and obviously business books targeted to Wall Street when you hit them right, they can be big best sellers. So if you need a second read on that, I’ll take a look.” So the editor would write down the name, “Get this to Jim, he said he would read for a second look,” and always the editor in chief for the publisher if they’re interested and they think it has juice, they’ll go, “Yeah, put me down too, I’ll take a look at it.”

Then you ended discussion, you go back to your desk and then you email the proposal to the other people in the company who agreed to look at it for you. Meanwhile, I’ve sent that to proposal to seven other editors who are just like that editor and they’re doing it too. They’re going to their acquisitions board or even better, they have so much juice in the company that they can knock on the publisher’s office and say, “Hey, Mr. Publisher, I got in this really hot proposal from Shawn Coyne by this Wall Street Journal reporter and it’s hot man. I think we should take it off the table.” The publisher would say, “Let me read it overnight, get in my inbox.”

That editor will call me and say, “Hey man, I read this, I want to do something fast, I’m going to get this to my publisher tonight and then we’re going to talk about it tomorrow, don’t do anything without calling me.” So I’m the agent and I say to myself, “Okay, I’ve got some heat on this thing, I’m now going to email or call the other editors who have this proposal and say, “Hey dudes, there’s some heat on this, I’m getting a lot of great reads from other editors and I’m always open to preempts so just a heads up.” What that means is…

[0:37:30.2] TG: What’s a preempt?

[0:37:31.5] SC: A preemptive offer is when, let’s just take the story to the next stage okay? The next day comes and that editor that I sent the proposal had spoken to his publisher, the publisher. The publisher read it overnight, walks into the publisher, the publisher read it overnight, walks into the editor’s office that morning and it says, “You’re right man, this is hot, let’s buy it. Let’s put together some numbers.”

What they’re going to do then is they’re going to come up with some crazy idea what they think the book will sell in the marketplace. What they’re going to do is they’re going to look at complimentary titles of books that they have published in the past, that they think this new book can sell like. They’ll dig up something like Michael Lewis’s book Liar’s Poker, which was a monster best seller. Millions of copies sold.

They’ll say, “Well, Liar’s Poker sold 50,000 hard cover copies in its first year on sale. Let’s put that number down as a starting point for an offer.” Then they’ll run what they call a profit and loss report and at the end of that report, they’ll be able to read that report and say, “This book is worth a half a million dollars. If we can buy this book for half a million dollars, we’re going to make X amount of dollars and we’re going to return at least 10% to the corporate coffers, let’s preempt this thing for half a million.

Then that editor calls me and he goes, “Hey Shawn, I really want this project. How’s a half a million dollars? I’ll go, “How is a half a million dollars for what?” He’ll make a formal offer to me but he’ll also put a time clock on it. He’ll say to me, “You only have this offer until 3 o’clock this afternoon and then I’m pulling it. So you can go talk to your client and get me an answer by 3 o’clock and if you don’t give me an answer by 3 o’clock, the offer is off the table.” So a half a million dollars for a project that I submitted only 24 hours before is definitely worth the conversation with my client.

Then I’ll call the client I’ll go, “Look, we have an offer for half a million dollars for the project. Here’s my take.” This is where an agent really earns their commission. Because if I said to them, “I think we can get two million if we just ride this thing out,” and we let the offer go and then nobody comes to the table, then he gets zero and I look like an idiot.

[0:40:12.5] TG: Oh, I would stab you.

[0:40:14.6] SC: Right. So I would say to him, look. A half a million dollars for a first book is a terrific advance. Basically what they’re doing is they’re seeing this book as Liar’s Poker in the first year.” Because I was an editor, I’m able to run the same PNL that all the editors are running at home. I can figure out how much money the publishing house would make based upon a half a million dollar deal and how much the writer’s going to earn.

I will say to the writer, “Look, they’re basically giving you a piece of the net profit without earning out. This is a really good deal. But before we accept it, let me just shoot a couple of emails out and let people know I’m close to accepting a preempt. Because then, that will let the other people know, “Oh my god, I got to move on this immediately or this book’s going to go.” So before I make that call, I’ll shoot an email to all the other people and say, “Look, I’ve got a preemptive offer in hand, my client and I are considering it, no pressure but I thought you should know.”

If somebody else in the industry loves it, they’re going to call me immediately and go, “Hey, I want this too, don’t take the preempt.” I’ll go, “Why? Are you making an offer or you just telling me not to take an offer that’s already on the table?” They’ll go, “Just hold on a minute,” then they’ll go and rush and try and get the money at the same level and…

[0:41:44.7] TG: Now, are you allowed to tell them like what the current offer on the table is?

[0:41:48.3] SC: No, I can’t tell them what the offer is but this is the other great thing about an agent, when it’s me calling and I say I have a preempt, they know I’m not calling about a $10,000 preempt. They know my reputation, they know I’m not bullshitting. That’s the other thing. The editors have to trust the agents or none of this works. The agents have to trust the editors too. This is why it’s really important to get an agent who has some standing in the industry and has some experience because it’s still a gentleman’s game.

All of this stuff has no paper attached to it, it’s all verbal and will run down the royalties, we’ll run down — so you need to speak the language of the industry as an agent in order to negotiate properly. Because nobody’s going to send you an official four page document that says, “Here is our offer for Tim Grahl’s book. You have three,” — it’s not like that. It’s a very fluid gentlemanly transaction. So if those people who have alerted, if one of them calls back and says, “You know what? I don’t know what kind of preempt you have but we’re definitely there at mid six figures if you decide not to take that preempt.”

Then I’ll call the writer and I’ll go, “Look, there’s another house that didn’t make an offer but they did say they were in there for mid six figures which is code for half a million. If we decide not to take this preempt, that chances are, we’re not going to lose the 500 because this other house will step in.” Guess what happens? That first preemptive people, they’re not going to pull the offer, I’m going to call them back and say look, we really appreciate the offer but we’re going to. Instead of taking your offer, I’m sending a closing date for Thursday at noon. We’d love it if you came and made another offer at Thursday at noon and usually what they’ll say is, “I don’t want to go to Thursday at noon, what will you take, what do you want?”

Then you say, “Oh let me get back to you.” This can go on and on but the point I’m making telling this story is that there’s a lot of inside baseball in book publishing. The more of it your agent knows and all the agents that are talking about earlier, the Binky Urban’s, the Esther Newberg’s, the Jennifer Rudolf Walsh, the Richard Abate’s, the Sterling Lords, the Stuart Krichevsky’s. All of these people know this language in a way that is really in depth and they know the best houses, the best editors, they know whether or not an editor is really has the juice or if they’re like kind of faking it a little bit. There’s so much institutional knowledge that can be to your benefit as a writer if you find the right agent and you trust them and they’ve got a great track record, I highly recommend you trust them because they know what they’re doing.

[0:45:03.1] TG: Okay, tell me — so you told kind of a best case scenario which is a bunch of publishers start bidding on your book. Tell me the bad case? You said, even the best agents have four or five projects a year that don’t sell, tell me a story about a book not selling and what that looks like on the agent editor side as well?

[0:45:29.5] SC: Okay, here’s the worst thing that happens to an agent and the writer is that you do all the work, you help them edit the book, you think it’s great and you do a great pitch and your pitch is basically giving them complimentary titles right? When I pitch Scott’s book, I said, “This is the new Liar’s Poker,” right? Because I knew all the editors are like, if they agree with me, they’re going to check liar’s poker’s number and compare my project to Liar’s Poker.

If I’m selling a novel, I’m going to compare it to Stephen King. Not to some unknown self-published guy who nobody knows about. He may have written a great book but if he doesn’t have a sales track record that the editor can use to make an argument to acquire the book, it does you no good. This has happened to me, I have worked on a great thriller and I’ll say, “Not since Michal Crichton has somebody really brought technology to bear in a hyperactive thriller that will leave you breathless.” I just made that up.

I would send it out and the first thing I would do is I would email all of the people who I think would love this kind of book. I know all the editors in the business who focus on this kind of book right? Because it’s not the same editor who is going to buy the Scott Patterson book that’s going to buy my thriller that’s Michael Crichton-esk. I need to know the editors who concentrate on thrillers and all editors say, “I love everything.” But yeah, they might love everything but they don’t have gravitas in every genre.

Like when I was in publishing, if I try to buy a love story, people would look at me like I had five heads. Because I wasn’t known as a love story guy. I was a thriller guy, I was a military war novel guy. I was a guy who could do really great crime stories. If I brought in a piece of romantic fiction or a love story because I loved it, people would look at me like I was crazy because you know what? We’ve had much better editors who knew love stories. They’re going to listen to them about love stories and they’re going to listen to me about thrillers and that’s the way it works, people have a specialty.

So the agent needs to know the specialties of each of the editors. For example, say this Crichton-esk thriller, I find my seven really great, top notch editors in the business that I know love Michael Crichton-esk thriller. So all I have to do is email them and say, in the subject line, I’d write, “New Crichton-esk project.” Then the only line I’ll put is, “Dear Bob, do you want to see it? All the best, Shawn.” Right? Because I’m not going to give him the pitch in my email to see if has time to read it, right? Chances are, the guy wants a Crichton-esk thriller. So I’ll email him and he gets back to me in 10 seconds from his iPhone, “Yes, send it idiot. Of course I want to read it.”

Now I know, he’s going to take me seriously, it’s on his radar, when I send him the book, he’s going to send it directly to his phone so he can read it that night. He might not read the whole book but he’s going to read at least a page, because I’ve published a lot of bestselling thrillers, right? So this is what happens when I know the shit has hit the fan. I send it out to my eight peeps, right? The guys and women that I know, they are far more women editors in the industry and women editors are fantastic and just as good as men, better in my opinion. But anyway, the women and the men that I send it to all say, “Yes, send it to me immediately.” So by the end of that day, they all have it.

The next morning is really excruciating for me because I know if they love it, if they started reading page one and they went to page two and they ended up reading a quarter of it that night, they’re going to email me the next morning and say, “That’s a shit hot book, I’m loving it, don’t do anything without me.” But if they don’t email me, I’m like, “Oh no, what am I going to do now?” Then if days go by where I’m not hearing anything, the silence is defining then I’ll call the writer and I’ll go, “Look, it’s still early but I need to prepare you for the worst. It doesn’t mean that your book isn’t great, it just means that we may have hit it at the wrong time. I’m not getting back what I usually get back and I’m concerned.”

Now even books that I haven’t sold, I have to say to you Tim, at least one or two people did email me the next day, and they did love the book, and they did take it to the acquisitions board, and they did push. But when push came to shove, somebody said “no” and that’s what really hurt because — and then meanwhile, what happens is that I also have relationships in Hollywood and so I do the kind of book that Hollywood is interested in and often times, the project that I’m really excited about, Hollywood will get interested and then I can use that to get people to read the book in New York.

But then if New York doesn’t buy it, Hollywood won’t buy it. So I’ve been in a position where I’ve had major studios want to buy the movie rights to a project and they’re just waiting for a major publisher to buy it and my auction day comes and nobody shows up. Then all of that Hollywood interest goes away and that is devastating. But it doesn’t mean that the book didn’t work, it doesn’t mean that the book was bad. It just means, “Oh okay, the big five didn’t work there. Let’s move on.”

[0:51:46.1] TG: Is it true that you basically get one shot at a book?

[0:51:49.6] SC: Absolutely, there’s no second chances, none. Don’t ever ask your agent to resubmit a novel that he’s already broken his heart on because he’ll want to kill you, he’ll say to you, “I don’t care that you revised it. Did you write a whole another book? Because that’s the only thing I can go out with. I can’t go out with your revised thing that everybody in town knows I couldn’t sell.” Because guess what? There’s going to be a whole bunch of editors, I didn’t send the book who are going to be happy the book didn’t sell because then, they’re not looking like an idiot to their publisher when their publisher said, “Hey, did you get in that thing from Coyne?” They’ll go, “No, I didn’t.” “Well it sold for a million dollars idiot, why didn’t you get it in?”

[0:52:38.6] TG: All the horror stories of like how many times does Harry Potter turned down and he didn’t want to be that editor? Yeah. Okay, it’s so fascinating. So basically, if you get turned down or your book doesn’t get picked up, in today’s world, you’re kind of like, “Okay, I can self-publish it.” But really if you’re still going after traditional publishing it’s like, put that proposal in the drawer.

[0:53:04.1] SC: Yes.

[0:53:04.5] TG: Start working on a new book. If that book really does well, somebody will buy it. Then you can go back and resell an older novel if you have one that hits right?

[0:53:14.9] SC: Right, look at A Time to Kill by John Grisham you know?

[0:53:16.4] TG: Right. Okay.


[0:53:16.4] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. This was part two of the Publishing 101 series, the final part three part is coming next week so stay tuned for that. For everything Story Grid related, you can see that at Storygrid.com. If you’ve missed any past episodes or you want a reference any of our show notes, all of that is at Strorygrid.com/podcast.

Thanks as always for continuing to share this show with your friends, this is a great time to do it as we’re doing this special series around publishing. If you have any writer friends that have been struggling with how traditional publishing works, make sure you share this series with them, I know they’ll love it.
So thanks as always for listening, and we will see you next week.

6 comments on “Power to the People

  1. mlibdoyle says:

    This is a fascinating inside look at traditional publishing. I’m still left with the feeling that navigating through this process and actually getting published, even with a great book, is akin to lining up the week’s winning lotto numbers. Looking forward to Part 3 next week – as always, thanks!

  2. Thanks for doing these, guys. I don’t know what the motivation is for you both to pull back the curtain like you do, but it is tremendously helpful for those of us who would like to publish something.

  3. Amy CyganAmy says:

    Thank you! For someone who knows very little about the publishing industry, I am really enjoying the “peek behind the curtain.” I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so generously thorough about the book acceptance process. I am wondering, too, if at some point, you can address something that I hear all the time, that editors/agents now take into consideration the strength of a writer’s social media base, to the point that it can be a deal-breaker or a deal-sealer. Do you feel that today’s author is certain to be snubbed if they haven’t developed a sizeable online presence? THANKS!

  4. Christine W. says:

    Question for Shawn: You said, “There’s a big agent named Andrew Wily and he was once quoted as saying, “If one of my authors earns out, I know I haven’t done my job.”

    A big name author once told me that if you don’t earn out on your first book, your career is essentially over. He related a story about his own experience some 20 years ago. He was concerned that his publisher was too ambitious in the proposed first printing of his book, so he and his agent asked them to either print fewer copies or give him less of an advance (I don’t remember which he said). His rationale was that if he didn’t earn out, they wouldn’t take a chance on him on a second book.

    I always took that as gospel (if you don’t earn out on your first book, you can tank your career) but what you said about agents getting as large an advance as they can seems to contradict it. Were you (and Mr. Wily) talking about huge advances and bidding wars? Or should all first time authors try to get as big an advance as they can?

    In other words, what determines success, and a continued career, for a first time author?

    Thanks Shawn.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Christine,

      The thing to remember is that a publisher can still make money (lots of money) even when a book doesn’t earn out. Knowing the math of the publishing business is extremely important. Check out this post I wrote for Steve Pressfield’s site to get a global sense of book publishing profitability math, http://www.stevenpressfield.com/2016/01/the-story-behind-the-random-house-gives-5000-bonuses-story/. For an author to feel frightened of a big advance and to “give back” money is a big mistake in my opinion. And I’ve never heard of an author doing so. It is true that if you are paid a million dollars for your first novel and it sells less than 10,000 copies, you’re going to have a major monkey on your back with the publisher and retailers for your next novel. But you also were the beneficiary of one million dollar guarantee which should keep you plugging away at your craft for years in the future. And with today’s technology, if the Big Five decide that your future is behind you and that they don’t wish to publish you, then you have the option of creating a platform and publishing your work yourself.

      Success is a personal choice. For some it’s being on the New York Times bestseller list every single time they publish. That for me is beside the point because bestseller lists are notoriously inaccurate and game-able. So for me success if in finding an audience for your work that will grow year after year so that your work continues to influence and help others (or purely entertain them) for generations. Would you rather sell 10,000 copies in a week and make it to the to top ten of the New York Times bestseller list and then never sell any more? or sell 10,000 a year for 20 years and never get near the NYTimes list?
      That’s the question you need to ask yourself. Nothing wrong with shooting for third party validation, but what you’ll find after you’ve gotten it is that it doesn’t pay off in the way you think it will.
      All the best,

  5. Christine W. says:

    Thanks for this great response. Not sure about the truth of that story about “giving back the advance”–this was at a conference about 10-12 years ago. Back then writers and agents were telling me that they knew lots of new authors who didn’t do great on their first book and then couldn’t get anyone to publish them again. Back then, small and independent publishing still had the taint of vanity publishing and the industry folks I talked to still thought of them that way. I’m learning from you and Tim how much things have changed. It truly is an awesome time.

    Thanks again for your response and for doing this!

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