Inflammatory post of the day • 3 May 2008 • The SnowBlog
Inflammatory post of the day
I have a contentious thing to say. Feel free to fight with me. It concerns the role of agents. Agents are advocates of the author, throughout their long term career, right, whereas usually a publisher buys a book at a time. There are two and three book deals, and publishers often hope to recoup the initial investment in a debut novel by signing up the subsequent books, but if an author is agented, it's the agent's job to sell each book that an author writes, to the author and agent's best advantage. In other words, it's an agent's job to manage the career of the author.
Not too contentious so far. But let's think this through.
It's a widely held belief in publishing that, for the most part, reviews don't sell books. Reviews are primarily to make authors feel better. I don't say this lightly: I have several years experience of seeing what affects sales. I am also very clear on the p&l of getting reviews. The costs are: staff and time costs in getting the book ready early enough to print a proof, creating the printer files and paying for the printing proof copies, spending time, or paying someone to draw up a list of who to send copies to, asking those people if they'd like a copy, and the cost and time of posting them. Remember that to get one review you probably have to send out 30 or 40 copies, since it's hard to get them. The sales spike I see as a result of this investment is never sufficient to cover the outlay. I am not alone: I know editors from major independent and conglomerate publishers who say exactly the same thing, sometimes directly to their authors. Reviews may have a long term effect on establishing an author; they may have a positive psychological effect on the author which helps her to write even better books; they may make the author feel that the publisher is doing something worthwhile; they may even sell some books. But rarely do they sell sufficient to cover the costs of soliciting the reviews.
(A brief aside: I class reviews as different to endorsements. I think having a line from a respected author on the front cover of a book makes a difference.)
(And as a further, psychological, aside, I know all this about reviews and yet I continue to solicit them. It's part of the 'hope' aspect of publishing - that nothing is certain, nothing is set in stone and since we don't, really, know what sells books (otherwise as an industry we'd publish a fraction of what we do and they'd all sell a lot more) we have to try everything. The evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of ditching the idea of getting reviews, yet still I do it. I am some sort of mug. Anyway, asides over.)
So you would be hard pressed to argue that reviews sell books in sufficient quantities to make the effort worthwhile.* And we agree that it's the agent's role to nurture and bolster and support authors through the long term. So, finally, to the contentious bit: since the agent is responsible for the career of the author, and since reviews are primarily solicited for the benefit of authors, then I think the agent should be responsible for soliciting, paying for and achieving reviews of the author's books.
Come on. Tell me how wrong I am. But provide statistically sound evidence.
Oh, and also: this is all strictly hypothetical. I am going to continue to solicit reviews. I just wish that agents did a bit more for their 10%.
* Cue clamouring from readers of the Snowblog saying "I read reviews and buy books based on them". Yes, but you are special. Here you are, reading a publisher's blog. You are so dedicated to books, and reading is so important to you, that you are even interested in the industry surrounding them. You, I am afraid to say, are in the minority. When I say 'reviews don't sell books' it's shorthand for 'reviews don't sell sufficient books to make the time, money and energy spent on soliciting reviews a profitable exercise'.
//update: and please see my clarification in the comments below about what I mean by a review. Summary: I am not talking about bloggers reviews which I think are highly effectual and trackable, not least because as soon as you've read the review and are inspired you can click through to the book on Amazon, Play, TBD, Snowbooks.com or whereever the blogger has linked to and buy it then and there, rather than having to wait until next time you're out shopping. Plus bloggers don't get funny about having the book 6 months before publication - they are happy with a finished copy. No, in this post I'm talking about broadsheets and journals. //