The day after she returned from winter break, my assistant Maddie asked if she could meet me for coffee the next morning. There she told me that, having gone home to visit her family over the break, she had decided to leave New York, leave agenting, leave this model of the publishing industry (at least for now, and at least most likely), and go back to California.
All of this was understandable, if disappointing. She has many pulls to go back West, and she’d clearly thought it through carefully. But there was a professional reason as well, which says a lot about this industry even if changing it would require blowing up a model that has existed for decades.
Let me back up a second. One of the disappointments to me for Maddie’s departure is that in fact she had been doing so well—and not just in her assistant role, at which she excelled. She had made a large group of friends and contacts within the industry—she’d networked within her “class” of junior agents and younger editors, and had been an active and competent presence with the editors I worked with on my own books. When she came to me after a somewhat shorter than usual time and said that she had been working on a novel and asked if she could represent it, I felt she would be able to do the job. She did, and had an auction on her first submission: Mary McCoy’s wonderful and chilling historical YA noir Dead To Me. She seemed to be very much on her way to proceeding—pretty quickly—toward success as a literary agent.
That’s why her professional rationale for leaving publishing made me really sit up and take notice. She is leaving, she said, because traditional book publishing the way it is set up is simply too slow-moving. She’s young and capable, and she took a look and saw that it would take years for her to see the fruits of this labor, both in terms of the satisfaction of building a list and seeing the books come out, and building up her commissions to the point where she’d be able to make a good living.
I think the turning point here was when, after a taking on Mary’s book and selling it quite nicely at auction, she found out that Dead To Me was scheduled to be published in September or October of 2014. So it would be a year and 10 months from Deal to Shelf. That’s a hell of a long time. But because of the timing of the deal (and all the publishers time their cutoffs slightly differently), Hyperion had closed its spring and summer 2014 seasons and the first slot they had was in the fall. Perhaps they’d been buying YA more aggressively and were crowded; perhaps there were competitive titles. Whatever, it was going to be almost two years before Maddie and Mary were going to see their book out in stores.
This isn’t particularly strange, either. I’ve had three novels in the past two years be purchased and come our more than a year and a half after the deal was done. There wasn’t much editorial work or any complications. Just scheduling.
So that was a particular frustration, and it feels counter-intuitive when writers are independently publishing their books very quickly, and some e-original or e-first publishers are able to get books out with a very short lead. An example would be Elaine Powell’s historical thriller The Fifth Knight, which Thomas and Mercer published in serial form. We made that deal in September, and the first piece of the serial came out at the end of November. I received a finished book last week, and start-to-finish it was four months.
The problem there is that The Fifth Knight received no traditional reviews (Publisher Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, etc), and couldn’t be publicized in the traditional ways.
So Maddie’s conundrum, which I think translates to just about anyone involved in the greater publishing world, is that while there are ways to be very quick, to be very efficient in the physical production of books (particularly digital), the traditional seasonal timing of publishers’ lists creates a frustrating backlog between deal and publication. The tradeoffs are clear, and at this point (at least while there are still enough brick-and-mortar bookstores to matter) unsatisfying.
Now, is it unreasonable to want both efficiency in timing of publication and payment and effective marketing strategies that remotely resemble the traditional journalism-based review-driven campaigns? Perhaps. But I think it’s going to drive a continued wedge between traditional and independent publishing until we do, and will create a somewhat divided, inefficient industry. And it will drive more and more smart young professionals like Maddie out of the industry, to businesses with greater flexibility and speed.
So Godspeed Maddie—we will miss you. You will succeed and flourish. Thank you for everything.