Repost.Us

Friday, February 7, 2014

Literary Agent Donald Maass Is Eaten Alive by Self-publishing Sharks #Asshat #ASMSG

A good self-pub buddy of mine sent this blog post to me today, and I loved it so much, I had to syndicate it for y'all. I call it:


LITERARY AGENT DONALD MAASS IS EATEN ALIVE BY SELF-PUBLISHING SHARKS
(has a CNN sound to it)

Here's the link to the original post by JA Konrath with added coments from Barry Eisler:  http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/02/fisking-donald-maas.html

Fisking Donald Maass

Ah, class warfare. The royals vs. the peasants. The bourgeoisie vs. the proletariat. The establishment vs. the revolutionaries. The haves vs. the have-nots.
The gatekeepers spouting bullshit vs. the new breed of writers calling them on their bullshit.
I present literary agent Donald Maass from Writer Unboxed, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, currently $9.99 on Kindle and ranked at #25,065. 
Thank you, Mr. Maass, for posting your BS publicly so I may dissect it, line by line, exposing it for the utter crap that it is. Then after I wrote my responses, I asked Barry Eisler for his take.
Here's Donald... 
Donald: This month in keeping with our look inside publishing, I’m departing from my usual craft advice to give you my view of the new state of the industry.
I don’t see the new shape of things as many do: the twilight of the dinosaurs, the old-thinking Big Five print publishers staggering, falling to their knees and heading for extinction as they’re overwhelmed by a nimble army of small, warm-blooded mammals whose claws are the sharp, smart, flexible tools of electronic publishing.
Joe: I understand why you don't see the new shape of things, Donald. Neither did those in the travel industry. Or the music industry. Or the film camera industry. Or the network TV industry. 
Isn't is interesting how these billion dollar industries, when confronted with Expedia and Orbitz and Priceline (sorry Travel Agents)  and iTunes and Napster (sorry Record Company Executives) and digital photography (sorry Kodak and Polaroid) and cable TV, Netflix, and YouTube (sorry ABC, NBC, and CBS) also felt they had nothing to fear, until their market share evaporated before their eyes?
Within the past few years, one of the two major book chains disappeared, the Big 6 became the Big 5, the DOJ brought suit against many of the companies you regularly do business with (and the AAR stupidly defended), and ebooks have gone from idea to the increasingly preferable way readers buy media thanks to a new company that revolutionized the way books are sold.
But you don't have to see the new shape of things. You don't have to see the thousands of authors making more money than they ever could in the antiquated, archaic system you're attempting to defend. It isn't necessary for you, Donald, to recognize change. Change happens anyway.
Donald: It’s true that I’m a gatekeeper, a longtime member (to my surprise) of the industry establishment. But I am no worshiper of the old ways. Traditional publishing always was cost-heavy and inefficient. It’s a wonder that it worked. But the new electronic “paradigm” is not the glorious revolution that true believers would like it to be.
Joe: Well, you're right that it worked for publishers, and agents, and a few authors lucky enough to become bestsellers.
But for those countless midlist authors stuck with unconscionable contracts because they had no choice, and the multitude of authors kept out of the industry by gatekeepers such as yourself, it didn't work. It actually sucked wheelbarrows full of ass.
Your industry fucked the majority of writers it provided services for. And that same industry was built on the sweat, tears, toil, and blood of those very writers it exploited.
Have you actually ever listened to your clients' complaints? (Hint: Your clients are supposed to be the writers you represent. You know, the ones you sell your How To books to, giving them hope that they might someday, if they're lucky enough, follow the gatekeeper rules and get a shitty contract. You know the ones. They're theherd you describe below.)
I've never been a true believer in anything. I like data, and numbers, and facts, and persuasive arguments. I like experiments. I like logic. 
I like making money from my hard work.
And I've found that self-publishing gives me the opportunity to make more money than I ever did within the gatekeeping system. 
And I'm not the only one who knows this. Because others have data, numbers, facts, logic, experiments, and persuasive arguments to support them.
But why start listening to authors? They have their place. They're a lower caste, and only a few are appointed by the holy order of gatekeepers to take their place at the Publishing Industry Table, where they can make 8% royalty on mass market paperbacks. 
Donald: What’s happened instead is an evolution of the publishing world into a new class system, and like any class system it has winners, losers and opportunities. It’s a system that, if not recognized for what it is, will trap frustrated writers in a pit far more hopeless than the one they yearned to escape. Let’s start with a couple of cold-eyed realities.

Barry: 
Well, at least he’s recognizing that there’s a class system at work, even if he’s not able to see, or admit, who up until now have really been the lords and who have really been the serfs. I’m not sure this is progress.
Joe: It isn't.
Donald: First, e-books have not hurt the print publishers but rather have helped them. Especially in the recent recession, low-cost/high-margin e-books have been a bright spot. They’ve kept publishers profitable even as brick-and-mortar book retailing has shrunk and consumers have grown cautious. With the mass-market paperback pricing itself nearly out of existence, low-priced e-books have arrived (with help from the Department of Justice) to keep value-conscious readers reading. Of course, the difficult and expensive business of selling print books must still be faced but at least there’s some gravy to make the task tasty.
Joe: Indeed, ebooks have helped publishers. Even after the lame ass attempts at high prices and windowing and collusion.
Do you actually understand why ebooks have helped publishers, Donald?
Hint: Because publishers screwed the writers. Where were you when the lock-step 25% ebook royalties crept into author contracts? Are you currently fighting for better ebook royalties on behalf of your clients? Did you read my post ridiculing David Gernert for saying stupid things like you're currently saying?
Are authors an unlimited resource, like oil (ha!) to exploit for you and your industry? You continue to sell them books on how to succeed. You continue to do deals with the Big 5. It's easy to see what your agenda is.
My agenda? All of the information I provide, I give away for free. This blog is a public service to my peers. I don't take 15% for helping them. And I don't charge $9.99 for a Kindle book. Like your ebook Writing the Breakout Novel. Now, I may be missing something, but I don't see any breakout novels available on Amazon written by Donald Maass. But I'm sure your advice is good, even if you didn't take it yourself. After all, you've been so persuasive so far...
Donald: Second, the self-publishing movement has been a boon to the print industry. Far from being threatened, print publishers instead are now gratefully relieved of the money-losing burden of the mid-list. Like giant banks that have discovered that banking is boring and the real money is in gambling, big publishers are now free to focus on the high-risk/high-reward game of finding the next Twilight, Hunger GamesGame of Thrones or Fifty Shades of Grey.
Joe: Wow. Just wow.

Barry: He’s comparing legacy publishing behavior to the banking behavior that nearly destroyed the global economy? And he just described thousands of authors as a “burden” of which publishers are now “gratefully relieved.” Leaving aside the nomenclature, where will these authors go once their publishers have relieved themselves on — sorry, of — them?  Why doesn’t Maass want midlist authors to have options?
Joe: How many clients do you have, Donald? They're all huge bestsellers, right?
Wait... they're not? Do you actually represent (gasp!) some unwashed midlist writers?
Good to see you're in their corner, fighting on their behalf, rather than siding with the relieved publishers who no longer have to give your clients contracts.
Donald: Better still, because some authors are now—voluntarily!—willing to bear the expense and undertake the effort of building an audience by themselves, print publishers have the luxury of culling the prize cattle from the herd.

Barry: One unfortunate metaphor might be an accident.  Three begins to seem revealing
Joe: Ah, yes. All the dumb cattle, waiting to be culled from the herd.
I love this analogy because it perfectly encapsulates the unbelievable disdain you have for the writers that you parasitically leech off of to make your living. 
Of course, we all know the fortunately culled cattle get to retire to a long life of luxury and happiness.
Oh... wait. They're actually slaughtered, butchered, and eaten.
This is such an appropriate thing for you to say, and you are completely clueless why.
Donald: Even print-only distribution deals with a handful of successful e-published authors are terrific: easy pickings and effortless profit. Most authors are still knocking at the gate, too, since after all seventy percent of trade book sales are of print editions. In many ways these are good times for print publishers.
Joe: Have you spoken to those who got print-only deals, Donald?
I have. I've corresponded with many.
Here's an email I just got, name omitted to protect the victim.
"What I wanted to email you about, though, was how shitty this legacy publisher has been to me. I turned down a $1.5 million offer for my next books and became persona non grata. They stopped supporting the print version of the book they bought, just fulfilling orders by popular demand from bookstores, which still resulted in 1,000+ sales a week. They resent me, and they hope the book dies. It won't, because readers are demanding copies. I know another indie who did a major deal with them who can't wait for the contract to expire. These are evil fucks."
Donald, how can you actually believe that writers will continue to be culled? We talk to each other. We read each others' contracts. We know how much we can earn on our own.
And more and more of us believe the publishers you work for are, indeed, evil fucks.
You don't see the shape of things? Are you sitting in a corner with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears yelling "Neener neener neener!" so you don't see or hear what the rest of us do? 
Donald: Third, the self-publishing movement has produced gold-rush hysteria in the writing community. While not exactly a mass delusion, questionable beliefs have been widely accepted. True believers sneer at doubters. 
Joe: Great points. Can you show me?
Show me the mass delusion. I go to Kindleboards and see a lot of level-headed writers making money. Where are you looking?
Show me the questionable beliefs. Find something, anything, questionable that I've said. Or anything said by Barry Eisler, Courtney Milan, David Gaughran, Kris Rusch, Bob Mayer, or Dean Wesley Smith,.
Ebooks aren't a gold rush. I dispelled this years ago.
Gold is finite. Ebooks are forever.
Donald: So what is the real truth? High success at self-publishing has happened only for a few who have mastered the demanding business of online marketing. A larger, but still small, number of authors have achieved a modest replacement income from self-publishing. Growth from there will be hard for them, however, because wide print distribution still is needed. (Seventy percent of trade book sales are of print books, remember?)

Barry: Needed for what? This is the same argument Gottlieb made. These guys really seem to need to believe they’re necessities.
Joe: High success at self-publishing has happened only for a few?
As opposed to legacy publishing, right? Which is why every client you have is a #1 NYT Bestseller, and every author pubbed by legacy is rich.
A modest replacement income? How about actual money for the first time ever? Bill-paying money. Life-changing money. Full-time writing money.
I made $1 million last year, with no paper distribution. Why do these myths persist that writers need to be in print?
Perhaps so you can sell more How To books?
Perhaps so you can cull a few from the herd and make a killing while the others you rep get butchered?
Donald: As for the rest…well, the position of the vast majority of self-publishing authors is no better than it ever was, though probably there are fewer cartons of books in their garages. Consultancy to self-publishers is a new job category, however, and that has to be good for the nation’s employment stats.
Joe: You're apparently confusing vanity publishing with self-publishing.
Vanity is when you pay a disreputable service to print copies of your books, sell them at a high cost with terrible covers and editing, and let them keep the rights while receiving terrible royalties.
The only difference between predatory vanity publishing and Big 5 publishing is the author gets hurt a little more with vanity. Sort of like being beaten with a whip instead of beaten with a rod. 
Self-publishing is where authors keep their rights, control price, and get 70% royalties (instead of the 12.5% you get the majority of your authors). There's no beating involved. 
Did I clarify that for you?
Donald: Fourth, as I said, a new class system has arisen. Here’s how it breaks down:
Joe: Because the one thing this world needs is another way to divide classes of people based on subjective, prejudicial nonsense. 
Barry: Okay, let’s short-circuit this.  Leave aside Maass's obsession with dividing authors into classes, and his inability to see the real class distinction he is part of and supports: publishers and agents as royalty; writers as peasants. The real problem is with the analogy itself. Because when it comes to freight/coach/first, all that matters is whether you have the money to buy a ticket. But publishing is a lottery, not a sure-fire ticket you can buy if you just have enough money. Also, while there’s no reason to prefer coach to first class other than price, there are lots of reasons many authors seem to prefer self-publishing to legacy publishing — some because they’re making more money self-publishing, and others because they prefer the flexibility, control, and time-to-market. Something odd has to be going on in your mind if you miss differences this obvious and come up with analogies this incoherent.
Donald: Freight Class
Self-published authors and electronic micro-presses must haul themselves. While the means of production are easy and low-cost, the methods of marketing are costly either in terms of cash or time. Success is rare. The pleasure of being in control is offset by the frustration of “discoverability”.
Joe: I must interrupt the bullshit to point out, for the nth time, that this is EXACTLY THE SAME WITH LEGACY PUBLISHERS.
Success is always rare. That's why so few authors become bestsellers. And the frustration of discoverability is worse on a bookstore shelf when you have one book spine-out in section. At least on Amazon every author has their own page and can compete on an even playing field.
Donald: Online retailers are whimsical and ludicrously over-stocked, both barrier and open door. Lists, blogs, social sites and the like are plentiful but of only spotty help. Trusted filtering of self-published books may arise (watch the recent sale of Bookish to Zola, two recommendation sites started by—gasp!—publishers and agents) but don’t hold your breath. The real problem is that fiction at this level has trouble appealing widely to readers. It can sell when priced at $2.99, sometimes a bit more, often less.
Joe: There are over 100,000 books in a Barnes and Noble. Is that not ludicrously overstocked?
Donald, is it easier to search for books online using a mouse, or walk through aisles of paper books hoping they stock something that appeals to you?
Are you aware of the filtering systems known as customer reviews, bestseller lists, and also-boughts, that Amazon utilizes extremely well? 
As for appealing widely to readers... well, my sales increased by 800% when I got my rights back from my legacy publishers. And I work a lot less promoting now than I did when I was published by them.
Donald: Why? Let’s look at what characterizes Freight Class fiction. While the Kindle bookstore can be an incubator of innovative fiction, for the most part it is an ocean of genre imitations if not amateurish writing. Freight Class novels generally take few risks. Too often they rely on character stereotypes, heavy-handed plots, purple and obvious emotions, and messages and themes that are time-worn. Justice must be done. Love conquers all. Good vs. evil. Freight Class fiction can be easy to skim. Literary flourishes are few, cliffhangers are many. Genre conventions are rigidly honored. Characters are not motivated from within, for the most part, but instead are pushed into action by external plot circumstances.
Joe: First, I congratulate you on reading tens of thousands of self-pubbed genre novels to arrive at this conclusion. Kudos on being an objective arbitrator of quality. 
Second, anyone who has ever bought a legacy paperback they didn't like probably believes that those books relied on character stereotypes, heavy-handed plots, purple and obvious emotions, and messages that are time-worn. Which is why many bestselling legacy books have lower customer ratings than bestselling self-pubbed titles.
But what do readers know, with their subjective tastes? They aren't self-appointed gatekeepers like you are.
Donald: Coach Class
Here we find decently-written literary fiction and nicely-crafted commercial fiction that achieves print publication but sells best at trade-paperback level ($14.99 or so), or discounted in e-book form. Coach Class novelists support each other yet find it difficult to gain a foothold with the public. So-called “marketing” by their publishers is disappointing and, truthfully, can only do so much. Traditional tours (when they happen) accomplish little, front of store incentives are costly, and online marketing sometimes seems to consist of the hope that Amazon will do a price promotion. Coach Class authors, however, are professionally edited and get goodies like nice covers, ARC’s, and plenty of blurbs. Plus, their books are in bookstores, a big boost in visibility.

Barry: So far, Maass’s thinking exhibits two primary, and pretty obvious, flaws: one, he talks about the ideal of legacy publishing as though it were the widespread reality; two, he discusses challenges in self-publishing as though they don’t exist at least equally in the legacy world. In fairness, he’s not unusual in this regard.
Joe: Dammit, where will the herd of self-pubbed authors get nice covers, review copies, blurbs, and professional editing?
Oh yeah, we can outsource it. And we don't have to give the extra 57.5% ebook royalties to the publisher, forever, when they could be one-time sunk costs.  
But perhaps I'm being unfair. Perhaps I'm the only writer who ever got bad covers, zero blurbs, and lousy editing from my publishers. 
Am I? All you authors reading this, feel free to chime in.
Donald: What characterizes Coach Class fiction? Readable pages, appealing characters, clever premises, attention-grabbing plot hooks, a display of craft and art, emotional engagement, and themes that “resonate”…which is to say, that stir readers without greatly challenging them. Coach class fiction is less easy to skim. While characters can be motivated from within, their inner journeys can feel somewhat painless. Readers are “engaged” but don’t always feel deeply moved. Coach Class fiction sometimes borrows secondary characters from history or classics, retells other stories, or stretches into series that can become thin. Genre conventions may be borrowed or blended but essentially they are not violated. Coach Class is a moderately comfortable place to be, though one can feel stuck in one’s seat. Economy shocks can hurt.

Barry: I dunno. Some of this sounds like what Shakespeare did. Secondary characters from history and all that.
Joe: And this class of fiction is written by... wait for it...
Authors.
The same herd of authors who write ALL fiction in all of Maass's so-called classes.
Donald, every writer worth their salt realizes the benefits of a good editor. But we can find good editors on our own, and pay them hourly instead of forever. And it is writers who write the books, not editors. Show me a single editor who worked more on a book than the writer did, to warrant their huge royalty cut.
But you're already in a hole, so why stop digging?
Donald: First Class
The cream class gets a double shot of extended life in bookstores, both in hardcover and later in paper. Their books can sell well at $25 and live long in trade paper. For First Class authors, success looks effortless. Goodies accrue easily. Recognition is instant and wide. Sub-rights sell. Awards happen. Insulated from economy shocks, authors of this class never seem to worry about the industry. In interviews they talk only about their art and process. They mentor. Lines are long at BEA booth signings and readers are fiercely loyal.

Barry: It’s weird how he consistently talks about the price books sell for, not how much authors make from them.  Which I imagine is how publishers look at the world. Telling, that.
Joe: I had multiple printings. Then got my rights back, and made a shitload more money on my own.
If my "extended life in bookstores" continued much longer, I'd still be poor and depressed.
For every author mentored by the Big 5, thousands are bent over and abused. I had a longer signing line at BEA than James Patterson. It was flattering. I would have preferred his income. But, alas, I wasn't first class.

Barry: Yes, again, these guys never want to talk about the system’s losers. The whole thing is designed to hold out the winners as somehow the norm.
Donald: Why all that seemingly-effortless success? First Class fiction is characterized by memorable characters, unique premises, story worlds instantly real, plots that grip even when slow, gorgeous writing, and themes that surprise, challenge and change us. Not only do we read every word, First Class writing makes us whistle in admiration. Characters are not only likeable and self-aware, but also follow a singular destiny. First class novels shake our way of thinking, challenging us to see the world in new ways. They confidently break rules, may transport us to unlikely cultures and times, teach us things we knew little about, and always feel utterly unique. Each novel creates its own genre. First Class fiction is imitated but never matched. Its authors are revered and for good reasons.
Joe: Let us look at all the first class fiction currently on the NYT Bestseller List, and marvel at how it can be imitated but never matched.
Then let's come back to real life and understand that massive distribution is the reason for much bestseller success. 
I never got to compete with bestselling authors, because I never had their distribution.
Guess what happened when the playing field was leveled? Hint: I owe more in 2013 taxes than I made in five years of legacy royalties.
Donald: So, in which class are you? To which class do you aspire? Here’s the thing: In the real world, one’s class can be a prison. Politics plays in. The upper class can use its money to buy itself tax advantages, legal wizardry and gated communities that keep the rest out. Other classes stick together and stick with what they know. Revolution is rare, costs blood and doesn’t happen where minimal comforts are available.
In the world of publishing, though, it’s not like that. Authorship is a true meritocracy. (Sorry, it is.)
Joe: No, it isn't. Not even close. 
It's luck and visibility. It's hard work. Talent can play a part, but I know plenty of talented authors who got screwed, and plenty of authors with dubious talent who climbed to stardom. Apparently you haven't. But I bet if you opened your eyes, you'd see a few.

Barry: In a true meritocracy, luck would not be a factor. He’s describing what he wants to believe, not what remotely actually exists — not just in publishing, but anywhere in the world. I’d be curious to hear him name another “true meritocracy.” He can’t. There’s no such thing. Certainly not in publishing. In fact, he is now describing what is essentially a lottery as a meritocracy. This is a fascinating — and deeply dishonest — sales pitch: “Come one, come all, if you’re talented and work hard, you are guaranteed success!”


I don’t think he’s a deliberate huckster. I think he really believes these things, presumably because he badly wants to.
Donald: In publishing there is social mobility. As an author you can change your class, though of course it’s not always easy to do so. It takes education, time and effort. It means seeing yourself differently, having courage and violating the norms and expectations of your community. (One of the most common laments I hear is, “I got published…and lost a lot of my friends.”)

Barry: Think maybe he’s been reading too much Ayn Rand?

Also, have you ever heard of someone lamenting how he lost his friends when he got published? I haven’t. But maybe I hang out with the wrong class of cattle.
Joe: One of the most common laments I hear is, "How do I get my rights back?" 
Donald: Do things look different inside publishing today? Yes and no. There’s innovation all over the place but also for authors a picture more challenging than ever. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Inequality is vast. But change doesn’t require billionaire money buying elections. You don’t need a phony revolution. You can change your class by yourself, right at home, one keystroke at a time.

Barry: Sounds increasingly like the one percent blowing smoke at everyone else. “Yes, you plebes are worse off than ever and getting poorer every day, but why would anyone want to change a system where every now and then a miserably poor person gets to become one of the super wealthy first cream class?”

I’m not saying there are no winners — huge winners — in legacy publishing. I’m saying it’s dishonest (or, more charitably, delusional) to talk about the winners and not to talk about the losers. Or to otherwise pretend the winners are remotely the norm.
Joe: I've noticed some of the rich aren't getting as rich, and many are making more money than they ever did.
This isn't a phony revolution. This is an actual change of power. That power is going to where it should; to the people writing the goddamn words that support the entire industry.
Writers need a way to get their work in front of readers. In the past we had to go through gatekeepers like you.
Not anymore. Thankfully.
Donald: I’ve exaggerated the above for effect, obviously, but in a lot of ways that’s how the industry looks to me now. How does it look to you?
Joe: Honestly? It looks to me like you have an unearned sense of entitlement, and that you're frightened for your future so you spout nonsense to cover up for your obvious insecurity. You're deluded, or lying, or evil. But you aren't making sense.

Barry: Well, it looks at least in part populated by navel-gazing stuffed-shirt MOTU wannabes pontificating a slick line of bullshit to the underclass they’re concerned is starting to develop an unwelcome understanding of how the system really works, along with the tools to walk away from it — the underclass of which they pose as champions. Since you ask.
Joe: As a literary agent, you have an opportunity to help authors. Helping them doesn't mean selling them How To books. It doesn't mean genuflecting before the legacy industry that made you rich.
It means taking a hard look at what is actually happening, and acting accordingly.
You aren't doing either. You're spreading bullshit. And shame on you for it. I haven't read your How To books, Donald. But are you sure they don't belong in the fiction section? Because if they're anything like this nonsense I can't imagine them being helpful.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, way back in the 1990s when I was getting rejections for my writing, I did get one from the Donald Maass Lit Agency. Here it is:


So perhaps my overly harsh attitude is simply resentment toward the fact that Mr. Maass never culled me from the herd because I wasn't First Class, even though the book he rejected went on to earn me over $100,000.

But what really irks me is that this rejection letter hawks his book The Career Novelist

Maybe it's just me, but using SASEs as a way to advertise your How To book to authors you rejected seems, well, yucky. I wonder how many authors bought it, then wrote him back leading with, "I read your book, Mr. Maass, and followed it to the letter." How many of those authors went on to become career novelists?

As I said, I've always known publishing is a lottery. The harder you work, and the more you learn, the luckier you may get. Authorship isn't a meritocracy. But what do I know? I'm just a small, warm blooded mammal with sharp claws, grateful I have fur because it is getting awfully cold since that meteor hit.

5 comments:

  1. This was delicious. Thank you. I, too, have a rejection letter from DM somewhere in my files (i.e. the trash).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Vic! You have to tell us, did he try to sell you his 'how to' book as part of the rejection?

      That is a genius marketing tactic!

      Why don't we all call ourselves agents, write a book on publishing, and then send out sales letters to every author who submits their manuscripts?

      That right there is a path to conversion. A captive audience, awaiting your every word with baited breathe. I bet he sells at least 30% of his rejections.

      Guerrilla marketing at its finest.

      Delete
  2. Brilliant reading. The man certainly knows how to make authors feel welcome.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Since when have agents been interested in the quality of the writing? They are salespeople, interested in cashing in on the easiest genre to sell.

    ReplyDelete
  4. This dude is delusional. A "royalist" only thing is, monarchies don't mean shiznit anymore.

    ReplyDelete

Repost.Us