Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Who Needs an Agent?
Last week the Times ran an obituary of Jeremiah Healy, the Shamus-award-winning author of the John Francis Cuddy mystery series. As a wannabe mystery novelist myself, I devour such things, and in this case was struck by the next to last paragraph of the news story.
Paraphrased, it said that he was one of the many mystery and mid-list writers who were slammed by the contraction of the book industry in the 1990s, and that his last mystery novel had been published in 1999. Doing the math, I figure he would have been 52 at the time, which is way too young for a good mystery writer to stop writing.
All of which got me to thinking. If an award-winning detective writer, one good enough to merit a significant obituary in the Times, can’t get his books published in the conventional way, why should the rest of us even try? Maybe the old-school book-publishing industry has become the sole province of the top bestsellers, and no one else need apply.
No Room to Grow
Once upon a time, book publishers felt that developing and bringing along new talent was an integral part of the business. A first novel was considered to be reasonably successful if it sold five thousand copies, and the publishers would keep such an author going a while, looking for a breakout.
The breakout wasn’t necessarily a million-seller blockbuster. Quite a few of these authors reached a level where they could consistently sell 25-50,000 copies of a book, and each new one brought a fresh batch of readers back to the earlier ones. Such mid-list authors could be steadily profitable for a long time, comprising part of a publishing house’s financial foundation. And occasionally one of the mid-list authors could have a big success that took his or her reader base to the next level.
I see myself as a prospective mid-list author of mystery novels, so the decline of the middle ground in publishing is an unhappy occurrence as far as I’m concerned. If the advent of e-books and the growth of self-publishing hadn’t come along, I’d be stuck with a bunch of manuscripts in my computer. Instead, those books have been bought and (if you believe the reviews) enjoyed by a modest number of people who are complete strangers to me.
Why Go Back to the Old Way?
A friend of mine recently suggested that, now that I have a couple of books up on Amazon, I should try again to find an agent and a publisher. My immediate reaction was, “Why?” The time spent trying would certainly slow down the writing of the next book or two, and it’s by no means clear to me that a) an agent would be interested in the first place; and b) an agent and publisher could get significantly better results for me than I could get for myself by sticking with Amazon. Plus right now I’m a self-employed author, and I get along with the boss just fine.
The agent-publisher route would make sense if I thought I had a book that could be a huge bestseller and possibly a movie. But my mysteries are in the classic tradition. There are enough potential readers to make them decently profitable, but top of the New York Times bestseller list strikes me as an unsustainable fantasy.
So for now I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. And if I were a mid-list author with an agent and publisher, I’d be thinking about moving into self-publishing anyway. I might as well get rid of them before they decide to get rid of me.