Market and Novel Talk
by Michael Neff
Still in His Salad Days - A Conversation With Daniel Lazar
Daniel Lazar is an agent with Writers House Literary Agency, one of the industry's oldest and largest agencies. For over six years, he has been on the lookout for distinct fiction, and lively non-fiction. Daniel represents a broad list: literary and commercial fiction, middle-grade and young adult fiction, narrative nonfiction, parenting, pop culture, and humor. Recent and upcoming books include: ISLAND OF LOST GIRLS by Jennifer McMahon; SAVVY by Ingrid Law; HOW TO TELL IF YOUR BOYFRIEND IS THE ANTICHRIST by Pat Carlin; THE LITTLE GIANT OF ABERDEEN COUNTY by Tiffany Baker; THE LAST INVISIBLE BOY by Evan Kuhlman; and DUMBFOUNDED by Matt Rothschild.
Essentially, the heart of a book's success relies on the same thing it always did. Person A getting their hands on the book, starting it, finishing it, loving it, and placing it in the hands of Person B with the promise of "you must read this because you'll love it…"
- Dan Lazar
MN: How have your opinions or conceptions of the agent business or book business evolved since your early days as an agent? Do you see things differently now? Have you come-of-age so to speak?
DL: Today I had lunch with an editor who told me I was still in my "salad days" as an agent. So it's funny you ask this! I've been in publishing since 2002, not decades yet to comment on, but in the last few years I've seen the explosive growth of the children's book market. I'd point, for example, to Writers House authors like Stephenie Meyer and Christopher Paolini. (I worked on ERAGON and ELDEST when I was Simon Lipskar's assistant. It was an amazing experience watching those books take off.)
The market for adult fiction also seems to grow more challenging by the season—and as a result, the balance between hardcover and trade paperback originals is a big part of my perspective when I'm selling a book. That's perhaps a sign of the times, as opposed to what I'm told the market looked like 10 years ago. And editors move around so rapidly that an agent's role in an author's corner is more vital than ever. I learn something new with every book I sell, so I'll probably still be coming-of-age for a while longer…
MN: Do you think it is more difficult these days for a first-time author to earn out an advance? If so, why?
DL: Earning out the advance isn't really the issue. From a publisher's perspective, it's not relevant if there an unearned advance when the book is still making money. What matters is profit—meaning, the book takes in more money than it cost to publish, so "advance" is just one cost on the spreadsheet. (Other costs include printing, shipping, design, editorial, etc.) Publishers can still make a healthy profit on books that don't earn out, so the bigger question is how many books are profitable in this way? I would guess more than the books that simply earn out, but not enough to make the classic model a healthy one.
It does seem that advances are going up for the "big books," those (usually debut) novels that light a fire under everyone in town, and the competition gets more and more heated. I heard one editor joke that "a million is the new 250." These books are selling for astronomical sums that no author can realistically earn out, unless every star aligns for the publisher and author. And even then, how many books—even the megasellers—plow through a million copies!? However, I certainly wouldn't complain if a publisher wanted to pay a million dollars for an author I'm excited about.
MN: An advance is part of the cost on the spreadsheet, of course, but how can a new work of fiction gleaming from the table in Borders, e.g., fail to sell enough total copies to earn out a 30 thousand advance given to the author, yet still be profitable?
DL: The advance is paid back by royalties. The publisher receives, at standard discounts, about 50% (usually a bit more) of the list price for the copy they sell to whichever account. So for every dollar they take in, they deduct costs-- be it an advance, printing, editorial salary, design, etc. The rest is profit. So let's say they buy a hardcover for $30,000 from the Author, as you're suggesting. For a major house, this is probably not a big book that they're throwing huge amounts of promotional money into.
Let's oversimplify here and figure the cost of production and promotion equal $35,000 to get that 10,000 copies of the book out the door, into stores. Plus the $30,000 advance. That's $65,000 in direct costs. But let's say they'll sell 7500 copies. They're getting paid $12.50 a book for a $25.00 hardcover. That's revenue of about 93,000 dollars. A little over $25,000 in profit, therefore, and yet the author won't yet have earned out. That profit can still be whittled away down the road by heavy returns, but still, we're showing profit on a book that hasn't earned out and for this fiscal quarter, the publisher would be in the black on this book.
MN: Would you generally say that authors, especially first-timers, need to develop a marketing strategy for their novel once it is published? Do you have marketing suggestions? Does Writer's House assist authors with any advice in this area?
DL: Well, we of course advise our authors as best we can, and we can try and pull strings (for blurbs, reviews, coverage) with our connections—when the situation lends itself to that. But we don't have a dedicated marketing department. The reality is that publishing is a bit old school, but then again, books are old school. There are some very innovative tactics publishers are testing to harness the internet and bring their books to readers that way. So the messenger is higher tech, but the content is the same.
Essentially, the heart of a book's success relies on the same thing it always did. Person A getting their hands on the book, starting it, finishing it, loving it, and placing it in the hands of Person B with the promise of "you must read this because you'll love it…" Authors should do whatever they can to help this process, and this level of effort is different for every author. Beyond that—pray for co-op. (That's when bookstores offer the publisher the chance to pay for optimal placement for a book.) Lots and lots of co-op.
MN: Do you see any new trends in the fiction market these days? Any genres losing or gaining market share? (Paranormal romance? Thrillers? YA fantasy? etc.)
DL: The disclaimer here is that I'm writing this in June 2008. All these impressions could be wildly outdated in 6 months. But yes, paranormal seems quite popular right now. Psychological suspense, like my author Jennifer McMahon's work, is doing well. Children's books are going strong—YA might be softening just a bit, but nothing drastic, and middle grade is growing. Despite what the press seems to think, memoirs are still wildly popular; I think publishers are being more picky and careful (is it true?) than ever with this category, but readers are still hungry for them.
MN: Not long ago, there was a lot of hype over the potential for Internet to market and sell books. In your opinion, have blogs and Internet in general produced a measurable impact on the marketing and selling of fiction? If not, why not? Where are they succeeding? Failing?
DL: Yes and no. There are some blogs that have become de facto venues for book reviews, in the way USA Today or People are de facto print reviews. Sarah Weinman's blog is a great example, or Mark Sarvas, Maud Newton and Bookslut. My clients Sarah and Candy run a very influential blog in the romance world, Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books. So the internet has given readers more places to turn to for expert advice on what to read. In a larger sense, though, like I said earlier, the greatest success a book can enjoy is word of mouth. Blogs now play a very important role in this effect, but not in a way we can control.
I've noticed that when my books are doing well, you feel a groundswell of good buzz—from trade reviews, booksellers, seeing it on the subway, etc. And blogs are a big part of that buzz. But trying to intentionally harness blogs in a more concentrated (and therefore artificial) way… I've rarely seen that work. The one effective example I can think of was how a group of bloggers rallied around Patry Francis's "The Liar's Club," which seemed to bump up sales for a short period of time.
MN: What do you see as the future for E-Books and other forms of publishing? Do you see the classic publishing model taking a hit? Adapting?
DL: The "classic" publishing model (if we can still call it that) is already taking a hit these days, e-books notwithstanding. I personally can't imagine e-readers like Sony or the Kindle taking over hardcopy books completely, but I also remember—barely—using a typewriter in first grade to type a book report and by third grade, I was using a computer and that typewriter was a dinosaur in the basement. This is really my way of avoiding the question, but acknowledging that we're watching these new devices (and how they impact our authors' income) very carefully and, hopefully, proactively. I'm pretty certain that if we ignore new technology, eventually we'll be forced, kicking and screaming, into a business we don't recognize anymore.
MN: What does the future hold for Daniel Lazar?
DL: It's 1 am right now, so the future happily holds bedtime.
About the interviewer:
Michael Neff is the creator and director of WebdelSol.Com and the Algonkian Writer Conferences.
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