I guess it's that time of year when we talk about the year that was...
On the business end of things:
When you're a literary agent, your work often comes ahead of the reward. With the time lag between a book selling and the royalty reports coming along, a book that sells in January might not bring a royalty until November or with reserves against returns until the following May. So in 2009 and 2010, we were getting paid for when there were 8 or 9 Sookie Stackhouse books on the bestseller lists in 2008 and 2009. We were getting paid a lot. It was also a bit like a one-legged stool, a bit unstable because so much of the income was coming in just a couple checks each year.
In the years since, the business has become more stable. The Charlaine Harris business is still huge, not as big as when there were 9 books on the bestseller list but still big. Other authors have gotten bigger in the past few years, Brandon Sanderson or Peter Brett or Jack Campbell. Not so much bigger as to totally make up for that whole "not having 9 books on the bestseller list at once" thing, but bigger. So even if my total income is down, I'm happy because the overall business is somewhat more stable.
But 2012 and 2013 are definitely inflection years. The business is more stable, but because the income isn't just from two checks a year. So 2012 starts with me, Eddie and Jessie still working out of the living room of my old apartment. By February we are looking for a real office. By May, we are in one. By June, we have added another person to the staff with Brady McReynolds on board to handle foreign rights. By September or October it becomes obvious we don't have enough people to do everything we need to be doing and we end the year with two 2-day part-timers. New office, new staff, all of these things cost money, and we're making less of it in 2012 than in 2011.
But we've also had multiple clients move over from other agents to JABberwocky. Ari Marmell with Jessie, the Ellery Queen estate which Joshua had to leave behind when he left a larger agency to start his own in 1994 is back in the fold. TC McCarthy and Marie Brennan. And Ben Parzybok. The year ends with Joshua getting an offer on a first novel. We sell audio rights to upwards of 300 titles. The e-book program grows, and by putting some of the audio money to use on conversion and cover costs it may double in title count in 2013. Brandon Sanderson doesn't have a new book-length work come out but he has two novellas appear, we sell two new YA series, Rithmatist and Steelheart, that will come out in 2013, and he starts work on the 2nd Stormlight Archive book, so what seems like a quiet year for Brandon is actually a very important one. Peter Brett turns in The Daylight War, which goes on sale in six weeks and is going to be a major international bestseller in the New Year. The first of the YA/middle grade novels that Eddie has sold start to appear in stores, I'm a little disapppointed that the brilliant Chasing the Skip by Janci Patterson was so under-published by the people who grabbed it in a pre-empt with such excitement (everyone reading this post should read this book, everyone) but Adam-Troy Castro's Gustav Gloom and the People Taker is launched to good success. Even though it will never be 2008/09 for Sookie Stackhouse, the series conclusion in May 2013 will be one of the major publishing events of the year. All of these things feed on themselves, without Brady on board Eddie maybe doesn't have time to take on the new clients Eddie is taking on. So even though I am spending more money (money to update the databases that I thought we'd nicely updated not so long ago...) while my top line revenue is going down, I feel content. I will not be content if we're doing all this work and adding all this staff and not seeing some top-line year-over-year growth in 2014 vs. 2013, but that's for two years from now.
Idle thoughts on the business:
Do I mind that Charlaine Harris is winding down the Sookie Stackhouse series? No! One of the reasons Charlaine is so successful is because she's always stopped writing a series when she thinks it's run its course. I'm very excited about the new Midnight Pawn series she's working on now, about the Cemetery Girl graphic novel she and Christopher Golden are working on. And that's not just agent-speak. For all the success of the Sookie novels, my mom won't read them because they have vampires in them. Charlaine is ending a series that has done phenomenally well, in part because it appeals across genre lines, but there are also a lot of people like my mom out there.
I've said over the course of the year that I didn't think the e-book business would continue jumping up by leaps and bounds, that e-readers were cheap enough a year ago that the biggest book buyers probably for the most part had an e-reader in their hands by January 1 2012. There are signs that this is correct, publishers are saying digital growth is starting to moderate. However, we're still feeling our way to an e-book future with a lot more change to come from this transition. All of us can see Barnes & Noble, as an example, where growth in the Nook business is slowing when they want it to be growing because of saturation and the transition from e-readers to tablets. Their best locations are at risk because they can't pay the rent that others can pay (interestingly enough, Borders had longer leases on their stores which hurt them when their business soured, but now the generally shorter lease terms for B&N are a risk) while their lesser locations are at greatest risk of becoming unprofitable even with smaller drops in sales. Less obvious to readers but of crucial importance to writers and agents, the actual ability to sell English-language books in the US, the UK and Australia is still heavily driven by the commitment of a local publisher to publicizing books locally, but the growth in e-books and the power shift from local retailers to Amazon may make it harder and harder to sell books locally instead of to large conglomerates intent on a global strategy. There've always been little dust-ups over territoriality that end up not amounting to much at the end, this may be a little different.
And just to mention again in a year-end wrap-up, 2012 was clearly a year in which we could see the ability of the internet to sell books, NPR for Tobias Buckell, iO9 for EC Myers, general blog touring for Myke Cole. I was once worried about how people could find books without physical bookstores to find them in, but I am comforted to see that it can be done. New thing in 2012 that I've never done before, calling some clients about cover reveals that their publishers have offered for the client websites and kind of ordering them never never never ever never to do such a thing, if you know anyone in the internet besides yourself you find a good third party location to do reveals where they will be discovered most readily by people not already your fans instead of doing them within your own community, they may want to have an exclusive for a day or an hour after which you can do whatever you want on your website, but let someone else present you to the world. Some publishers are better than others about arranging third party reveals on their own (and in general I find UK publishers to be ahead of US in this regard), authors seem to get it when I explain but often don't understand it instinctively on their own.
I never expected this to happen, but I've virtually stopped visiting bookstores. I don't like Barnes & Noble very much, so many of their stores now have such awful selections, and they bore me. Indies often don't have sf sections. Just in general, if I could justify making a trip to a DC suburb to visit a B&N and a Borders and maybe a lingering mall store, I can't justify an hour or more of round trip transit time to spend 10 or 15 minutes visiting just a B&N. So much of our business is now coming from e-book sales instead of sales in actual bookstores. There's logic to it, but it leaves a bit of an empty pit in my heart. It's as recently as ten or fifteen years ago that I could spend a day visiting bookstores, spending a half hour more more in each Borders and feeling something special about it.
On a personal front:
Which means, since I'm not visiting bookstores, that I have time to do other things, but it's a struggle for me to spend that time productively, or to think of the excuse when I'm visiting a new city to get out and see the world. When it works, finding time to do a first-time walk on the Custis Trail to get out to West Falls Church for a dinner instead of taking the Metro, it's nice, but too often I can feel like I'm stretching for a reason/excuse to get out of the routine.
But the big news in 2012 was to have my parents moving back north, from a retirement community in south Florida to an assisted living facility in Connecticut. My mother had a very bad health scare in the spring, bad enough that I spent my first days in London ahead of London Book Fair wondering if I might be leaving an empty spot at our tables. It got to be as bad as it did because it was difficult for my parents to deal with it on their own, and once they got some help to get the process going it wasn't a difficult thing to treat. But I and my four siblings had to have an intervention, as good a word as any, and tell my parents that things had to change. Not an easy conversation. Once my parents took the (not so subtle) hint they ended up moving within a few months. Happily, my parents are now complaining about everything. Why happily? They are eating better and have more energy. They have a zest and thirst to be doing more than they are. In Florida, they were doing less and less and not really noticing it. I'm very happy I have four siblings, with four of them the transition cost me around two weeks out of the office spread in bits and pieces over the year and we were all able to do different things at different times. I don't know how anything would have happened if there'd been just one or two children to help out with things.
During Sookie's peak years, I was able to buy a very nice apartment which should be affordable come what may, short of all the wheels coming off everything. I've taken advantage of the space to start hosting regular games events for people to play old-fashioned word games like Scrabble and Boggle and new-fangled things like Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride. I can't tell you how much pleasure I get out of this. I enjoy playing the games, having people over, the people who come seem to have a good time, I've always gone to conventions and looked enviously at all the intriguing games in the games room, now I own some of them or have friends to bring them and actually get to play them. I still have insecurity issues, and I worry with each games event that I schedule that it will be one of those embarrassing things where it will be me, Eeyore, and one other person. I'm also always very insecure that all my clients will leave, after 25 years without too much of that happening maybe I shouldn't, but that insecurity does drive me to keep trying and doing my best.
The apartment also has a large walk-in closet. A few years ago I discovered Express sold these brightly huged crew-neck Ts that looked so much nicer than the typical tee-shirt for summer wear or as part of an ensemble. This year they started selling brightly-hued jeans that look decent on me even though I'm heading toward 50 and struggling not to go up a waist size. But then the more hues of jeans they have, the more hues of Ts I want. And then I want brightly hued shirts to go along with the jeans and the shirts. I'm starting to feel like Imelda Marcos with the shoes as I fill the available space in the closet. As recently as 2004 and 2005, I was making less money than what I now pay any of my full-time employees, in the early years of JABberwocky in the late 1990s I was a little embarrassed to admit to myself that I was making less running my own literary agency than if I were an editorial assistant for a small publishing house. So I know there are times you don't have money to spend. But if you don't have to do Old Navy, just to say I've been much happier going to fancier stores, the ones they have at the "good mall" like Kenneth Cole or Armani Exchange, and hunting in store or on-line for the things that are on the sale rack. And the thing that annoys me is that I could have maybe started buying better stuff on sale for $40 over lesser stuff for $20 years before I actually started doing it. Right now with sale items and a coupon I have three really nice snazzy pair of pants in my shopping cart at Express for $65 total, which is not much money for three nice pair of pants. Bottom line, I enter 2013 feeling like I have the wardrobe I should have, spending less than even I might think. Alas, I then decided to splurge on a really nice designer label suit to end the year, I don't think it's something I could have done for $200 at J Crew, it certainly cost more than that.
So let's leave it at that. I think I've covered the major events for 2012.
- The Brillig Blogger
- A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.