Advanced Fiction Writing Blog

Agents in the Indie Age

So you’re an indie author writing fiction and you’ve been thinking of writing a novel for a traditional publisher and you need an agent. How do you make that work? What are the rules for working with an agent in the Indie Age?

“Jane” (not her real name) posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy,

I recently made a connection with a literary agent who is willing to represent me. I wasn’t seeking an agent; this happened through recommendations from a small press who is publishing my next series. I did all my due diligence and this agency totally checks out positive, but I need some advice from you.

A little about me: I have two ebooks indie published (one available in print), a contract with a small press for a digital serial style series with the option of print on demand copies later, and more ideas and drafts then I know what to do with other then publish them one at a time myself.

I looked over the contract and the exclusive clause gave me pause. They did say they could include an addendum that would allow me to continue indie publishing if I wanted, but made it clear they want access to all my writing since they will be putting work into my success as well now.

I’d love to have an agent, to be a “hybrid” author, but I’m not sure how realistic that is. The publishing industry has changed dramatically, yet lots of people are still in the same routines as before. Would signing with an agent be detrimental to me at this point?

I highly value your advice. Thanks for any input you can offer.

Randy sez: Well, I’m hesitant to give advice when I don’t know you and your work well. And I’d be hesitant to give advice even then. So consider this blog post to be “Randy’s thoughts” rather than “Randy’s advice.” I’ll tell you how I run my own life. That may or may not apply to how you should run yours.

You only need an agent if you’re working with a traditional publisher. That is, if you’re completely indie, then you don’t need an agent.

My opinion is that if you’re working with a traditional publisher, even a small one, you need an agent. Publishing contracts these days are complex, and you need somebody to explain the nuances of each contract and fight for you on the clauses that are important. The word I’m hearing is that contracts are getting less author-friendly, so you need all the help you can get.

In my experience, virtually all agents want to work with you exclusively–meaning they don’t want you to have two agents. If you happened to be working in two wildly different categories, it might make sense to have two agents, but that’s rare.

In my opinion, it’s reasonable for you to give an agent exclusivity on your traditionally-published work. An agent puts a lot of work into each client, and that effort needs to be rewarded.

Some agents are a lot more indie-friendly than others. The important thing is that you have an agreement with your agent on what your indie activities are going to be. Your agent is your business partner. You must keep them informed on what you’re doing, if you’re doing any indie work at all.

If you and your agent don’t agree on your indie publishing, then that’s a serious problem. It sounds like this agent is happy, in principle, with your indie publishing. The addendum to the contract sounds like a good idea to me, but you should also discuss it  verbally to make sure that you both agree on the meaning of the addendum.

Some agents, in my experience, are just not a good fit for indie authors. Indie authors typically believe that the more books they produce, the better, because each book promotes the others. Some agents just plain don’t buy that reasoning. (And it looks to me like most publishers don’t buy it either.)

If you believe that your indie titles help promote your traditional books, and if your publisher insists on a strict non-compete clause that keeps you from producing indie books during some long window of time, then you have a serious conflict. You need to have an agent who agrees with you on the issue. And not all agents do.

If you’re going to work with an agent, you need to have roughly the same set of assumptions. Some of the points where indie authors disagree most with traditional publishers are the following:

  1. Life of the contract. Should it be limited to a set number of years? Should it terminate when sales volume gets “too low?” What does “too low” mean? Or should the contract go for the life of the copyright?
  2. Option clause. Should the publisher get an option on your next book? Or your next TWO books? If so, can you live with the terms of that option?
  3. Non-compete clause. What is the length of time that you’re willing to NOT publish any indie material that might compete with the traditionally-published book? How broad is the clause? Who decides what “compete” means?

You need to be on the same page as your agent on all the important questions. Any decent agent will of course be working in what he believes to be your best interests. But if the two of you can’t agree on what your best interests are, then you’re working with the wrong agent. And it’s best to figure that out before you start working together, rather than after.

Publishing is more complicated than it used to be. The trend is for more and more traditionally-published authors to do a bit of indie-publishing on the side. The trend is for more and more agents to help them with this. The trend is for more and more traditional publishers to pursue contracts with successful indie authors.

Because of these trends, I’m guessing that ten years from now, all authors will be hybrids or indies, and there won’t be ANY authors who are solely traditional. I can’t prove this. It’s just a guess based on what I see, and so it could be wildly wrong. But ten years from now, if I’m right, then I’ll say I told you so.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Smashing The Fiction Writing Bottleneck

So you’re writing about six different novels all at the same time and none of them are getting done and you just can’t decide which to work on next. What do you do?

Katya posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I am 22 year old college student. I am immensely in love with creating my own characters and worlds. Currently I have six projects, most of them more than one novel. The trouble I am having is picking the right one to work on. Sometimes I work a bit on this one, a bit on that one, but that does not help me finish any of my projects. I want to sit down and just finish one crappy first draft so I can polish it and be proud of finally finishing my first novel.

Do you have any tips when you are stuck with several projects and do not know which one to go with?

Thank you for your time,


Randy sez:  Katya, the good news is that a lot of writers would pay to have your problem, which is that you have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to ideas.

The bad news is that you have a bottleneck in your writing process. That bottleneck is strangling your production. You are spinning your wheels and getting nowhere.

The good news is that you can break that bottleneck right now.

But first you have to identify it. 

Let’s start by identifying what you’re doing well. You’re generating ideas. Lots of ideas. So many that they’re competing for your attention, and you’re afraid that if you don’t work on them all right now, you’ll never work on them.

That’s an illusion. The reality is that by paying attention to all of them all at once, you are preventing ANY of them from ever getting published.

The Fiction Writing Bottleneck

That creates the biggest problem most novelists have: the fiction writing bottleneck.

What’s the solution?

Let me tell you a little story. About 15 years ago, my buddy John Olson had that same problem. I asked him what he was working on and he gave me a list of 10 different books he was working on. All at the same time.

I pointed out that he was working a full-time job and writing in his spare time. Even if he had 40 hours per week to write, he’d only be able to spend 4 hours per week on each book, and he was competing with professional writers who had 40 hours per week to commit to a single book. So John didn’t have a chance.

So I told John he had to pick one, any one of the ten, and commit to it. He picked one and agreed to make a firm commitment to write it, but only if I’d coauthor it with him. As it turned out, I really liked that idea, so I agreed to work on it. The result was our award-winning novel Oxygen.

Breaking the Bottleneck

Now how do you commit, Katya? There are two things you need to do, and these have to be firm decisions that you won’t back down from under any conditions:

  1. Pick one novel–any one of them. If you can’t decide, then flip a coin. Seriously. It truly doesn’t matter which you choose now, because ultimately you will choose all of them.
  2. Join the 500 Club. That means you commit to writing at least 500 words on that novel EVERY DAY until it’s done. No excuses. No rollover words from yesterday. Every day you have to put down 500 new words on that novel. You can write more words, but under no circumstances are you allowed to write fewer. You can edit some words from previous days, but that editing time doesn’t count. The only thing that counts is new words.

How does this solve your problem?

The answer is simple. At 500 words per day, minimum, you will finish that novel in just a few months. You can afford to set aside everything else temporarily because you are guaranteed to be done in a few months and then you can pick up the next project. And the next, and the next.

The fact is that just about every commercially successful novelist on the planet has a word count quota. Some of them have a time quota, but word count seems to me to be better, because you can waste 30 minutes staring at the screen, but you can’t write 500 words staring at the screen.

The Magic of the 500 Club

There is nothing magic about 500 words, by the way. Maybe you want to join the 250 Club instead. Maybe you can join the 1000 Club. Or even the 2000 Club. But whatever club you decide to join, make it a hard commitment. Absolutely no excuses unless you’re unconscious or giving birth or at the top of Mount Everest. And even in those cases, some writers would drill out their 500 words.

The magic comes from being totally committed. The bottleneck for most writers is the actual production of first draft copy. They don’t spend enough time on that. Which means they don’t have enough to edit or sell or promote.

Stephen King used to tell interviewers that he writes every day except Christmas, the Fourth of July, and his birthday. But he notes in his book On Writing that this was a lie. Because he writes every day including Christmas, the Fourth of July, and his birthday. And he’s in the 2000 Club. That is part of the reason he’s successful.

First draft copy is your number one priority as a writer. If you get that habit right, everything else will tend to fall into place.

The Fiction Writing Challenge For You

Katya, I challenge you to join the 500 Club for one month and then report back to me. Leave a comment here on this blog.

And the rest of my Loyal Blog Readers, I’ll give you the same challenge. Try the 500 Club for 30 days and report back to me in a comment here.

If you do that, one month from now you’ll have AT LEAST 15,000 words, and possibly much more. And 15,000 words per month, every month, is two full-length standard-size novels per year. Every year, for the rest of your life.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.


Are Flashbacks Allowed in Your Novel?

So you’re writing a novel and you really, desperately need to put some flashbacks in. But all the experts tell you that writing a flashback is a greater crime than torturing puppies. So what do you do?

Paul posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I am attempting to write an historical novel in which half of it is flashback – I know, that is just not done. It is a true bit of history; 2 set of fascinating characters interact for the current time with plenty of drama; One of the characters is trying to impress the others (and has their interest) with the story of his adventurous past (flashback) – both the current and the flashback scenes are equal in length and importance in the story I want to tell. Any thoughts?

Randy sez: Let’s be clear on why the experts create “rules” for writing fiction. It’s because the rules generally work. Not always, but generally. Those pesky “rules” have an element of truth in them. They guide us in our main goal, which is to give our reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. (If you need convincing that this is the main purpose of fiction, then please read my book Writing Fiction For Dummies.)

But let’s also be clear that the “rules” of fiction writing are much like the Pirate’s Code (in the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean.) They’re not rules, they’re guidelines.

The fact is that if the story works better by breaking a rule than by following a rule, then you must break the rule. (This is Randy’s Rule For Resisting Rules. And technically, it’s a meta-rule.)

Now the reason all the experts caution you about flashbacks is because it stops the main story cold in order to tell some backstory.

But if the backstory is just as important as the front story, then this rule just doesn’t make sense.

I can think of plenty of stories that skip all around in time.

One of my favorites is The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. This is a brilliant novel, and it’s hard to know where the backstory ends and the front story begins.

Another example is Neal Stephenson’s ubergeeky novel Cryptonomicon, which takes place partly during World War II, and partly in the late 1990s. The story skips between the two time periods and the reader is never confused. The reader wonders what the devil is the point of all the skipping until quite late in the story, but the payoff at the end is huge, and the story works. Technically, Stephenson isn’t using flashbacks here, but he’s most definitely mixing backstory and front story in a wild and happy mix.

If you must tell backstory, I would argue that flashbacks are the best way to do it, because flashbacks are shown, rather than told. They just interrupt the normal time sequence to do that. But nonlinear time sequences are fine. Readers are smart. They can handle it.

So Paul, the bottom line is this. If it works to have your story skip around wildly in time, then do it. If it doesn’t work, then don’t do it.

If somebody tells you that you aren’t allowed to do that, ask them why. And if their reason doesn’t ultimately come down to giving the reader a Powerful Emotional Experience, then my opinion is that they’re wrong.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.


A Home Run For Apple

When somebody gets it right, it’s important to say so.

So I’ll say it straight out—Apple’s iTunes Connect just hit a home run with its new reporting tools for indie authors. (iTunes Connect is the web site for managing your account as an indie author.)

Gack, who cares about reporting? That sounds so … dull.

Indie authors care about reporting. They care when they want to know how many books they’ve sold in the last day or week or month or year or lifetime. They care when they need to know how much they’ve earned.

Let’s be clear, those are the two main numbers indie authors care about:

  • How many books did I sell?
  • How much did I earn?

You’d think that all the major online retailers would make those two numbers easy to get. You’d think those would be the first thing the online retailers tell you.

Well, no, most of them make it hard to get that information. Some of them make it impossible.

But before we go complaining about who gets it wrong, let’s talk about what Apple has done to get it right. (And until last week, they were getting it horribly wrong.)

How Apple’s New Reporting System Works

You log in to the iTunes Connect web page and you see a page with a number of options. Click on the first one, “Sales and Trends.”

A page immediate appears that shows a graph of your sales over the past week. You see the total number of units you moved in that time period and you see the proceeds, in US dollars. (You can choose what currency you want for the proceeds.)

Scrolling down the page, you see a list of each book you’ve published, with the number of units of each one that you’ve sold in that time period. If you click the “Proceeds” tab, the graph changes to show your total earnings each day, and the list at the bottom changes to show the total earnings for each book. Simple and easy.

You may want to change the time-period for the report. No problem. You have several convenient ways to do that:

  • Click one of the links: “Last 7 Days”, “Last 30 Days”, “Last Year”, “Lifetime”.
  • Click on the calendar icons for the starting date and the ending date to manually set the reporting period.
  • Adjust sliders to change the starting date and ending date graphically.

If you want to see how you’re doing in various territories (the iTunes store currently lets you sell your e-books in 51 different territories), you can click a tab to display your results by Territory.

If you want to see how your different categories of books are doing, there’s a tab to break out the results by category.

You can also see results for preorders.

It’s hard to see how the system could be simpler or better.

If you want your results in a spreadsheet, there’s a link to click that will take you to a page where you can choose the reporting period (annual, monthly, weekly, or daily). Then you just click the download button and you’ll download a text file with a table of data that you can load into a spreadsheet.

Authors tend to be obsessive about their sales numbers. Many indie authors log in every day to check their sales on various online retailers. Knowledge is power, and knowledge about your sales numbers gives you extraordinary marketing power. You can try a marketing tactic and measure in real-time whether it works or not. This is a huge advantage that indie authors have over traditionally published authors.

Apple’s new system is so simple and obvious, you’d think that every online retailer did something similar. But tragically, they don’t.

Let’s look at some of the other online retailers to see how they handle reporting.

Amazon’s Reporting System

Amazon makes it easy to view on the Reports page the total unit sales for the current month for each of your books for each of the online stores where your books are sold. This is nice, as far as it goes, but there are a number of shortcomings:

  • You don’t see the revenue you’ve earned.
  • You don’t see the total units sold for today (or yesterday or any day). If you want to know how many you sold today, you have to subtract the total sales for the month yesterday from the total sales for the month today. And if you didn’t write down the total sales yesterday, you’re out of luck.
  • You don’t see the total units sold on all the retailers. There’s a combo box you have to change so you can see the different retailers in various countries—the US, the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Japan, India, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, and Australia. It’s a major hassle to manually click on each of these and write down the totals for each so you can get a grand total.

Amazon also provides you with the ability to download a spreadsheet with the results for previous months. These are not available until 15 days after the end of the month. And they give you the numbers, but they’re extremely inconvenient.

  • Sales are broken out into groups of rows, where each group of rows contains results for a given country.
  • There will be a row for each book with sales at the 35% royalty rate, and another row for that same book at the 70% royalty rate. But there’s no row that shows the total sales.
  • Each row ends with the revenue to the author, using the currency of the retailer. But there is no exchange rate given, which means you can’t convert to one common currency.

The bottom line is that you can laboriously add up the various rows to determine the total number of units you sold for each book. But you can’t add up the rows to determine your total revenue. You don’t have enough information.

The Smashwords Reporting System

Smashwords gives you a dashboard where you can immediately see the total lifetime sales of each book. But it doesn’t show the total lifetime revenue.

If you want more detailed information, you can get it, but you’ll have to download it. And the time period of each report is a full quarter—three months. You can choose which retailers and which books you want a report for and click the download button. Then you get a large spreadsheet with numerous columns. With some work, you can find the columns you want, sort them by book, and then add up the results to get a total for unit sales and revenue for each book. It’s clunky, but it’s possible to get the results, which is better than Amazon’s system.

Barnes and Noble’s Reporting System

Barnes & Noble’s system has a Sales tab that shows you a bar graph of total units sold by month. The graph shows total units for all your books, so if you want to know the results for a single title, you’re out of luck. You can also see total units and total revenue for this month and last month, but this is not broken out for each book. You can also see yesterday’s sales, both in units and in revenue—but you can’t see today’s.

If you want more information than that, you can click on the “Monthly Sales” button to see sales data for any given month. There’s a table that shows sales for each day of month, broken out by title. But the totals at the bottom are for all your titles summed together.

You can download the same information for any month to a spreadsheet, but if you want total units sold and total revenue, you have to do some manipulation in the spreadsheet to get it. B&N only sells in the US and UK, and they do the currency conversion for you. It’s a hassle to get the total units and total revenue for each book, but it’s possible to get the information if you do some work.

What About Kobo?

I’ve not used Kobo directly (I get my e-books onto Kobo through Smashwords), but it appears that they’ve done a very good job of reporting sales to authors. I can’t tell exactly how good the system is. The info page on their web site displays an example page showing total units sold and total revenue earned all-time for all books. It appears that you can break that out by book. If you can break that out for any given time period, then that would be truly useful to authors.

I’ll probably create a Kobo account and upload my books to their store soon. Their system looks to be very author-friendly.