Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Age of Service

Once upon a time, long, long ago -- and it was a very long time ago -- you would drive up to a gas station and a man in a starched and ironed uniform would hurry to your car, greet you and ask if you wanted a fill-up. Whether for two dollars or a full tank, he would then proceed to pump the gas, wash the windows, check the oil and air in the tires (replacing where necessary) and take your money with a smile, offering green stamps in return that could be exchanged for lovely gifts.

All of that is gone now with do-it-yourself and self-serve where gas station attendants stand or sit in booths behind glass and stainless steel walls and shove metal drawers at you with a nifty and handy little weighted cup to send back money, credit cards and receipts. The age of the polite and tidy service attendant is gone. Service has been glassed in or sent offshore.

This morning I was strongly reminded of the age of service with Dean Wesley Smith's blog post about what Joe Konrath calls estributors, which are distributors of electronic books and content. In other words, e-book packagers. This is what Konrath believes agents and agencies will morph into, a one stop service for proofing, formatting, book covers and uploading e-books. What it comes down to is cost. Should we continue to pay the estributors 15%, as in the old agency days, or should they be paid a flat rate that isn't tied into a book's earnings. There were compelling arguments on both sides, but I think we know on which side of this argument I weigh in. Like Dean, I don't what to pay what he calls "day labor" rates for someone who does so little. Barry and Joe were willing to give up 15% of all their future earnings to be able to write and produce more work for agents to take 15% of.

If the future looks anything at all like the present, it won't be long before agents will have authors doing more of the work for their 15%. Remember? The age of service is long gone. If the services remain, authors will have to pay an extra annual fee for the cost of doing business: long distance phone calls, copying, overnight mail, postage and paperclips. Not for me.

It all comes down to value and perception. We have been taught that an agent is key -- and in some cases necessary according to some big publisher's rules -- to get through the gate to be published. Authors have been taught that it is the way things are done to hire an agent and pay them 15% (what happened to the days of 10%) of earnings for their services. After all, the agent introduced you to the publisher and got you a deal. The publisher reciprocates by paying the agent, who then takes his percentage (the cream) off the top of your check and sends you the rest (you hope). You get to send in a 1099 at the end of the year to the agent, who has been keeping the books, so the government knows how much you paid the agent. Not all agents are honorable or even honest, but that's a tale for another time. One hopes the agent hired is of the honest and forthright type, and there is a clause in every publishing contract where the author gets the check first and then deducts the percentage and sends it to the agent. I wonder how many authors know about that little detail.

As for me, I figure if they're going to charge me for postage anyway, I should get to send them a check; it's my postage after all.

The best solution is for the agent to submit a bill each month, or quarterly, detailing charges and pay the bill. No more 15% with me doing most of the work. They get paid, I get to keep more of my money, and I stay in control.

In this increasingly serviceless age where the emphasis is on doing it yourself (gas stations, grocery stores, Home Depot, etc.) I keep wondering how much of that mentality will leach back into the system. Publishers and agents expect authors to do most of the marketing and publicity for their work, a task that once upon a time was handled by agents and publishers and the author just had to show up. (Check out Return to Peyton Place for a look at the good old days when publishers edited and publicized authors.) What's to say that the future agencies won't end up requiring authors to do more of the proofing, formatting, and uploading once they have their 15% locked in?

As Dean says, that is doing business the old way, the way we've been taught -- and have come to expect -- to do it. Times change.

Although it's more work, I'm used to doing things for myself and having control over the end result. I don't mind doing all the hard work, especially since the work gets easier with practice. It's not that much different than working a full time job in order to continue writing. I hope for a time when I can just write, but I doubt that will ever happen.

I've tried to come up with a better corollary for an agent's percentage than Dean's. He uses a gardener who, for keeping the outside of a house looking nice, gets 15% of the worth of the house. That doesn't really work. A gardener is day labor, but we need a stronger example.

I thought of pirates. On a pirate ship, the captain gets the biggest share of the booty and the rest of the crew, right down to the cabin boy, get smaller shares. The booty is a finite amount. Whatever is captured is divided up according to shares, sort of like a doubloon and gold ingot pie. While I like the pirate motif, and it does feel right, there really is nothing that compares outside of owning shares in a company. Those go on hopefully forever -- if the corporation continues.

For doing little more than loaning the company capital by buying shares, the shareholder gets a return on the investment.The problem with that example is that the shareholder puts up something of value -- his hard earned cash -- and gets a return based on how the company profits by using the shareholder's money. An agent puts up his connections and contacts and expertise to promote a book, so that is sort of like capital, and earns a return on the proceeds of said work in the form of a percentage of royalties, except that many agents don't put up enough capital. It's like expecting a shareholder who bought five shares to have more control than someone who bought 40,000 shares, which is the split between what agents and authors contribute. I still like the pirate motif.

At any rate, in this do-it-yourself world, it's best to be the head of the corporation delegating tasks that are compensated with flat rates. I do the writing and work, choose cover art and send out the marketing team to do their jobs, and I pay them and keep the rest for myself. I earned it and the others are just day laborers. I would feel different if agents and publishers did more of the work and offered more for their share. Since they have gone the way of the service station attendant and stand in a glass and steel booth shoving a metal drawer at me, I'm going to pay the amount on the pump and go my merry way with the rest of my money intact.

Now, if they start offering green stamps, I might reconsider.

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