I’m hearing the Carpenters as I start this blog. “Longgggg ago…and oh so far away.” (I guess that has a Star Wars ring to it, but it’s Karen Carpenter I’m hearing.) I’ve been around the publishing block quite a few times now. This summ
er I begin my seventeenth year in the “biz.” When I started out, there were rumblings about digital books being the future, and as early as 1998 or so, I began retaining e-rights for clients when possible. Everyone knew digital would be the wave of the future. A point came, though, when it all seemed like a great deal of discussion and hype about a nonexistent trend. That changed somewhere shortly thereafter, as small presses began to emerge. I sold my first e-book to Hard Shell Word Factory in 2000. It even came out on diskette!
Time progressed, and lo, I resumed writing, which I’d quit when I began agenting (Come on, this is a long passage of time in my life, I can only summarize so briefly.) I set out to write the fabled “book of my heart”, BUTTERFLY TATTOO. I spent a year and a half crafting this novel, pouring my soul, some tears, and many hours of work into it. Then one spring day I was in NYC and I happened to discuss the book with an executive editor at Broadway Books. She was a “big gun.” I pitched my novel pseudonymously, so the editor had no idea it was actually by me (crafty, I know.) I’ll never forget her turning to me and saying with the deadly point-blank range of a .45: “You will NEVER sell this book. It won’t sell. Not in America.”
That was my last meeting of the trip, and I slumped in the cab all the way to LaGuardia. What had I done? I’d spent 18 months crafting a novel that nobody was going to buy! I was supposed to know better. I was an agent, an
industry professional, a marketing wunderkind. I’d screwed up royally on my own behalf.
Flash forward again. Twenty-seven rejections later, I became convinced the Executive Editrix was right: nobody was going to buy BUTTERFLY TATTOO. That is, until the digital market opened up yet even more, and I was able to offer it to Samhain. What happened with the advent of that opportunity was transcendent. Not just for Deidre the author, but Deidre the agent as well: NO, no
longer had to mean no. The digital frontier, that wide open terrain without borders, was a place where projects that I loved and adored but couldn’t place in NYC would find a home–could find a home. So long as a smaller publisher would buy them.
Roll forward a few more years. Self-publishing revolution occurs. Imagine a moment like the Berlin Wall coming down, at least in terms of how it felt to many authors—which is also not to belittle or demean the true significance of that political event. But it’s a good image. If digital publishing at large was a wide rolling plain of opportunity, then I do believe that self-publishing on Kindle, BN, Apple and so forth was the removal of a Berlin-style wall. Access was granted to all. At the airport last week, a baggage handler asked me, “Is publishing hard to break into?” My reply: “Not anymore.” He smiled, thinking, and said, “That’s good. It’s good that there’s not one big clique that only certain people can enter.”
I agree. I’m a huge believer in free enterprise on every level. In this new digital age, we’re in a time of incredible equalizing. There is no limited pie and everyone can take a slice. Talent can rise to the top, great ideas need not vault past committees and marketing teams in order to make it to the masses. An author may choose to work with, or without, an agent. It all depends on a writer’s working style and their goals—they may want someone to help craft a full portfolio of options (some self-pub, some traditional pub.) They might desire an agent to help them facilitate their self-publishing or might prefer to go that route on their own. But it’s a time when all the borders have been brought down.
For me as an agent, this is incredibly liberating. Back in 1996 when I began, I’d have to ask myself, “Do I legitimately think I can sell this book?” And that wasn’t all bad because, frankly, books were quite a bit easier to sell back then. If you found an awesome book on, say, single dating, you didn’t have to worry endlessly about the mammoth size of the author’s platform. In the past few years, prior to the digital revolution, I’d been forced to ask myself tougher and tougher questions: has this author been on the Today Show? Are they in national magazines? Do they have a sizeable platform?
This past fall, however, I signed on an amazing memoir—a Wall Street tell-all that had an incredible voice. Was super timely. Made me laugh aloud, over and over. I knew it might not sell because the author couldn’t blog or do interviews because of his job. I also knew that if it DIDN’T sell, I had other outlets. That, among other things, we could help this author self publish. I wasn’t locked in to just one avenue or route, we had multiple possibilities for bringing his fine memoir to the public’s attention. Ah. Breathing. I could sit back and do my job, which, in the end is this: To find quality, engaging, wonderful authors and spotlight them to readers.
In a few weeks, I’ll be excited for TKA to help Marley Gibson self-publish her YA, POSER. This book is a favorite of mine. It’s actually the work I signed her on for, and although we shopped it to a number of houses, it proved a tough sell. Editors worried about a YA featuring a teen model (I’m sorry, why?) So the amazing news? Thanks to the digital landscape, now Marley can take this fine book and make it available to readers. We can use our marketing “machine” (oooh, that sounds impersonal. Sorry, Jia) to support the title in many different ways. But ultimately, it’s like the BUTTERFLY TATTOO moment that I experienced. “No”—for me as an agent and an author—no longer has to mean no. This is incredibly liberating. I think it’s a great era for everyone who loves books and authors and writing.