Wednesday, February 12, 2014

An Open Letter to my agent Donald Maass

So last month, the CEO of Kensington (my first publisher) had made comments about the self-publishing industry that I felt needed to be addressed. And this month, it would seem I'm 2 for 2 on the self-publishing debate given that my own agent has also stepped into the arena looking to take a swing in the self-publishing industry. (I would like to point out that Donald Maass did NOT represent me in my Kensington contracts, for those of you who were wondering.)

This is my open letter to my agent after he had posted to Writer Unboxed. He was rather well addressed over at Joe Konrath's blog where Joe aptly named it Fisking Donald Maass. I don't think I need to add anything to what was said. What I'll be addressing is the side few readers and unpublished authors get to see. The real relationship between a writer and their agent.

Dear Donald Maass,
So last week, I was attending a fabulous Indie "Unconference" in San Francisco, learning more about the self-publishing business I'm in, and meeting tons of great professional people, when I stumbled across your blog called The New Class System. Fortunately, I had stumbled on it prior to the event because I was repeatedly asked by other indie authors face to face what I thought of your post given,'re MY agent and um...I'm self-publishing. It was an awkward position to be put in. After all, I've spent more than a few years getting to know you, your business, your model, your craft and what makes you the success that you are. I loved working with you and implementing your ideas and strategies of how to not only step out of the box, but smash it.

Not surprisingly, people had a lot to say about your post. But few (if any) who commented are actually represented by you. They responded to your post with two fists without realizing that you encouraged me to take up self-publishing and explore a world that I was too damn scared to venture into. You supported my decision to self-publish knowing that a.) you wouldn't see any money from what I was doing and b.) that I was walking away from a three book contract with Harlequin. Does this sound like a guy who believes there's a new class system being created? Or were you knowingly letting me get on Freight Class? (I'm being cheeky here, Don).

The class system you describe did surprise me. Because I think you're over-generalizing self-publishing by listing it as simple Freight Class and you know it. I've been in Coach, Don. You helped me get there. You did everything to ensure I was a success in Coach even though the seats weren't as comfortable as I thought they were going to be. But I stayed in my seat. Because I knew that by staying in my seat, the conductor would come around and eventually look at me and say, "You look like you should be sitting in First Class." Unfortunately, that conductor never gave me a second glance, no matter how many times you tried to wave that asshole down for me. In fact, the conductor took it upon himself to leave a window wide open, allowing eight of my books to fly out the window at a digital rate of 8% that I know I should have never signed. It was a digital rate you yourself didn't agree with, but we were dealing with Harlequin and I was told they don't negotiate their digital rates. And if Donald Maass can't negotiate a better deal for me, who could?

But here is the one thing that made you stand out as an agent, even after I've been through 4 others. The one thing that I believe will continue to make you successful regardless of how the publishing industry changes. That although high winds were blowing in Coach Class through that open window and I couldn't hold onto my thoughts or my words or my clothes, you held my hand and kept my thoughts focused on what mattered most: the writing. I learned SO much sitting in Coach Class there with you. I learned to be a better writer because of you and I learned to challenge myself because of you. To me, THAT is what made you earn your 15%. What author can say that or more about their agent? My experience says very, very few. When I finally had the guts to get up from my seat because I knew First Class wasn't going to be in my future for at least another 10 years, you helped direct me to what you now call Freight Class.

I have to say, Freight Class is awesome. No one left the window open back here. The seats are bouncy and let me swivel any way I want so I can write and deliver the books in any way I want. And the conductor isn't sticking his nose in on my business telling me what I can and can't write. It's soooo nice. I guess what you're not seeing is that I learned to appreciate the wonders and the joys of Freight Class after being stuck in Coach Class for so long. I'm loving it back here and I kinda wish you'd actually rename all the classes. Because the people in Freight Class deserve more respect. And let me tell you why.

Once upon a time, traditional publishers and agents defined what went on the shelf. In the gatekeeping industry, a traditionally published author had to please only a few people to get on that shelf: their agent and a core group of editors within the publishing house. If it didn't please those core group of people, a rifle was taken out and the book was shot dead on the spot and buried on the side of the Railroad tracks our Class System train is zipping by. Unlike Coach and First Class who are confined to this way of thinking, the bar has been officially set higher by those in Freight Class. You heard me. Higher. Because we, in Freight Class, have to please more than just a few people. We have to please THOUSANDS and we have to do it all upfront and on our own.

The cold reality is that readers are the new gatekeepers. They aren't the agents, they aren't the editors, and they most certainly aren't the publishing houses. The readers pay for an author's ticket to stay on the train, regardless of what class system they're sitting in. They've always been the gatekeepers, but for some reason, a core group of people in New York decided that their control of the industry held more weight than that of readers and authors.

These single-minded group of agents, editors and publishers surprisingly share a similar core and history with the same group of people who told Charles Dickens he was a loser for supporting International Copyright Laws because he wanted to get paid. Imagine that. We don't know any of the big wig names belonging to those core of people from the publishing industry who told Charles Dickens he was a loser, but guess what? We sure as hell know the name Charles Dickens. And that's something the publishing industry is forgetting. Believe it or not, Charles Dickens started out in Freight Class, too. Because he didn't print his stories in the traditional way writers were expected to in his era (books). He originally printed his stories through periodicals, which was a quick and very inexpensive way to get his stories into the hands of thousands (wow, sounds like a Kobo, Kindle or Nook) as opposed to a select few who could barely afford books (hardbacks come to mind).

Regardless of the class system a writer is put into by an agent or a publisher, ultimately, you and I both know that it's the reader who decides who is going to stay on the train and who is going to get off. And while I believe you aren't knocking the self-publishing industry, given the incredible and wonderful support you have given me, I'm rather liking the idea that I'm sitting here in the same class system similar to what Charles Dickens once hung out in. Being innovative, progressive and dedicated to craft all at an affordable price the masses can afford.

In closing, self-publishing is a lot of hard work, yes, but let's not fool ourselves into saying that the work-load is any different when under a publisher's wing. In fact, the amount of work I did while with New York prepared me to take on self-publishing without any problem. Because my New York publisher never created my website, they never took on my Facebook, they never took on my Twitter, they never promoted my blog, and they never provided me any guidance on how to brand myself. Everything I did, I did on my own all while writing my books. All of this was done while under a publisher's wing, or more aptly, while hanging from the feather of a bird who can't even share my digital numbers.

Delilah Marvelle AKA Freight Class Ticket Holder


Sharon Lathan said...

What can I say? You are awesome, and I love ya. Great letter. I would LOVE to hear the response. ;-)

Kimberly Rocha said...

Thank you so much for that very informative message. I wish you the best of luck with the self-publishing. You are one force to be reckoned with Delilah!..

Delilah Marvelle said...

Sharon, bless you. And yes, I'm hoping Don will give us a response too.
Hello, my dearest BookObsessedChicks :) Thank you for the luck! No matter what industry we're in, we authors need it! lol

Isobel Carr said...

If NY is so glad to be relieved of the "burden" of the midlist, why don't they unburden themselves a little more and revert our rights? Oh, that's right, because they're making money off of us, even if we're not.

Elizabeth K. Mahon said...

Awesome response Delilah. Very interesting that he encouraged you to self-publish. I wouldn't have thought that given the post. Would love to hear more about the Indie conference.

M. Malone said...

What a fantastic (and classy) response! I agree, Delilah. The seats back here in Freight are pretty awesome indeed.

Maggie Lynch said...

Great post. I'm really glad you did this because I've often heard you speak highly of Don and he does deserve some of the credit for helping you move your writing in a good direction.

I also love that you are very clear about what indie publishing is doing for you and how it is so much more fun and rewarding than it was when you were in traditional publishing.

Jackie Barbosa said...

Great post, Delilah. I have to say that, although I felt some of the metaphors Maass used in that original post were unfortunate, the one thing I didn't take away was that he was opposed to self-publishing or thought it was a bad idea. On the contrary, I got the impression he thought self-publishing might be the best option for a lot of the authors currently in "Coach," as he put it. Your post confirms that impression.

Donald Maass said...

Hey there, Delilah! I've mostly laid back and let the fuming fume but am very happy to chime in here with one of my favorite people in this biz.

Boy am I glad I whipped up the ironic terms "freight", "coach" and "first". Many folks got my point, other people couldn't see past the conceit.

Whew! That'll teach me, huh?

I continue to feel that readers, *generally speaking*, will pay $25 for certain kinds of reading experience, $15 for others, $2.99 for others and others only for free. Generally speaking.

Which is not to say that $2.99 (or even free!) means bad writing, or that you can't elect to self-pub and price in that range. Of course you can. Thank goodness.

One of the heartaches of my career has been the near-demise of the mass-market paperback. But rational pricing has returned. And you no longer have to ride your bike to the corner drugstore to try out new stuff. Click, click. I love it.

More: Look at Barry Eisler's John Rain thrillers. Good reading. Joe Konrath's "Jack" Daniels mysteries too. Their format of choice is e-books and hooray for that. And, hey, those gentlemen also chose to say no to the 25% net offered by The Big 6 (now 5). That makes them heroes in my book.

Where I differ is with the inference that self-pub is right for all, and the belief that "traditional" publishing is doomed to die, die, die. Far from it. That's one of the points I was making.

I also (being cheeky here) mildly disagree with your statement "readers are the new gatekeepers". They have ALWAYS been the gatekeepers. True then, true now. Which is why one's writing matters.

If Big 5 publishers decline to publish some novels at $15 or $25 it's not because they're evil conspirators but because consumers ultimately are calling the shots. One point that many can't get past is that the Big 5 also seem to put their money behind "bad" writing, so WTF, how is that fair, they must regard themselves as our overlords--down with them!

Well, choose your method and your price point but there's no getting around it: Readers are going to let you know how high they're willing to go for your fiction. It's blunt economics. And, hey, if you're crazy enough to want hardcover books in physical bookstores--who would want that, eh?--well then, hmm, you're going to face the challenge of blunt economics.

Which is why my mission, message, work, books and teaching (as you have found) focus first and foremost on growing more effective storytelling. Got that and you've always--whether "trad" or "e"--got the maximum options.

As to the future, here's the truth: Spin statistics to support any story you prefer, but the fact is that the future of fiction is known only to readers themselves, who vote not for formats but for stories.

Delilah, you are a good candidate for self-publishing, as you heard me say, for good reasons. You were dissatisfied with your publisher and their royalties. You are an enthusiastic do-it-yourself person with boundless energy. (Check out Delilah's self-produced book trailers!) You thrive when in control. Plus, you write (for now) romance, which is one of the categories that works best in "e".

I'd advise anyone like you the same way, but not everyone is like you. Folks need to look hard at their options, and if I (cheeky me!) chose a device that caused some people to examine certain orthodoxies, well, gosh, how is that bad?

But you know, I think everyone is saying make informed choices. Look at the industry a number of ways. I don't think that's anything to fume about.

You're tops, Delilah. So glad you're here!

Tammy J. Palmer said...

The Gatekeepers are frightened. They shook their heads at a few writers sneaking in the back door, but now that the gate has been trampled and writers have stormed the castle everyone is on even ground. The Gatekeepers will never admit this. They’d rather resort to name calling. They want to remain the popular crowd, and make sure that self publishers stay outcasts and rebels. I say hoorah to the rebellion!

That said, I read How to Write the Breakout Novel the way a devoted Christian reads the bible. If I succeed in my self publishing adventure I will have to give some credit to DM. He knows his stuff where craft is concerned.

Thanks Delilah for being unafraid of having your say. You’re such a rebel!

therese patrick, author said...

And to play on words some more: How much benefit do I personally get from those who are First Class passengers on a train or plane?

Freight brings me food, clothing, lumber, etc... After that, love is all we need.

Cathryn Cade said...


Thanks for being you, and for a shining example of how to argue in a classy way! I love a spirited discussion between 2 people who continue to respect each other from opposites sides of an issue as you and DM are able to.

And here's to Freight class--I'm loving it here as well.

Cathryn Cade

Tamara Hogan said...

That last paragraph? BOOM. /Delilah drops the mic. Nothing more needs to be said.

Paty Jager said...

Great post filled with heartfelt truth and wisdom. I do believe self-publishing is getting readers more of what they want to read. And I for one have always been comfortable in freight. My husband was a truck driver and he made lots of people happy.

Laura K. Curtis said...

I absolutely believe that both self-pub and traditional pub have things to offer. My argument with Don's original article was the division he presented, which I thought was too clean--and which he addressed in his comments.

I trust my agent. I adore my agent. I cannot say enough good things about my agent. And she has supported me. I wanted a contract with a traditional press to start my career, but I've always planned to be a hybrid author. And she's always helped to advise me on both sides of that.

I could probably do without a traditional publisher, though I like my traditional publisher, but I wouldn't want to be without Jessica!

Grace Burrowes said...

I read Don's article too, and will have to go back and look at it again. One thing that surprised me was how small a portion of the market (the entire market--children's, nonfiction, everything) ebooks are, and then indie is a smaller subset of that. For now. My numbers are 70 percent ebook, so...

And again, I'll have to go look, but my sense was freight class is for weak books, regardless of how they got to the market. There are crummy indie books, there are crummy trad books. Lots of crummy books, but I agree with Don (who has done a LOT to improve my writing), without some outstanding strength, a book won't linger on the lists.

I applaud you, Delilah, for bringing some first hand insight to a debate that very often degenerates into the ad hominem waste of time.

Delilah Marvelle said...

Wow, thank you so much for the great responses!!!

Thanks for responding and sharing the "behind the scenes" we didn't get to see on your blog post :) That blog post should have really been a book, lol. And I agree, the readers have always been the gatekeepers. And I love that other people get to see your take on self-publishing. It's all about being driven AND challenging one's self to honoring good writing. That's what makes an Indie a true success.

Isobel, BAM. Nothing more needs to be said, lol.

Elizabeth, that was another reason why I wanted to share this letter with not just Don but the world. A lot of people only get to glimpse one side of things. I tried to show my side :) And email me and I'll catch you up on that Indie Unconference!

M.Malone, glad you're comfortable in that seat! lol.

Maggie, thank you. You've taught me a lot about self-publishing. Your book DIY Publishing is one of my top must read books for anyone who wants a step-by-step into self-publishing from start to finish.

Spot on. I never saw what Don was saying about self-publishing as being bad (like many did), I just wanted to address the over-generalization I thought that was going on, which I felt couldn't be addressed in a single blog post (obviously, lol).

Tammy, you're so awesome :)

Terri, exactly. Start with what you need and then eventually get what you want. Butt in seat and always writing, I say, lol.

Catherine, thank you! I know when it comes to this industry, we're all in this together, no matter what side of the fence we're on.

Tamara, thanks for letting me drop that mic, lol.

Paty, yes! Giving readers what they want to read. That's just glorious to hear, isn't it?

Well said. Everyone's experience in this industry is going to be different but those experience is what will ultimately allow us to thrive and move on to whatever level we want to take it to. Thanks for posting!

Thank you for sharing that tid bit about your numbers. It makes you realize where the trend is going but also reminds us it's still a constantly changing market. And in Don's article, Freight class did, in fact, refer to self-publishing and micro-presses. Which is why I addressed it here. Because I felt he was over-generalizing that particular class, lol. Because some of the things mentioned, as you said, could have been applied to stuff in New York. And I think Don knows that. Thanks for joining in on the discussion and adding your thoughts, Grace!

Ella J. Quince said...

The seats are more comfortable in freight class because we bring our own chairs. ;). I'm self-published and I don't think I will ever be published traditionally, not because I don't think I'm good enough--response from readers proves otherwise, but because I love having the control. I'm an introvert, I'm not good at standing up for myself, so when pressured I tend to do what others want. Self publishing gives me the freedom to be me. Though I was initially insulted by his attitude, its just his opinion and has no bearing on my success.

Asa Maria Bradley said...

Such a classy post from a classy author. I love this exchange of ideas between two people who like and respect each other. Thanks for sharing your story Delilah.

Miss Viola said...

Delilah, You're amazing and much loved darling! Well said and thank you so much for saying it. XO
~ Viola

Amy Jarecki said...

Thank you for sharing. That takes guts!

chris keniston said...

Very well done Delilah - I'm very glad to have met you in San Francisco and delighted to be on this train with you!

anna brentwood said...

You addressed this fairly honestly and entertainingly and I loved it!

Sydney Jane Baily said...

Tried to comment and it wouldn't let me. Trying again: Just wanted to say I love your writing style, Delilah. I'm still hanging off the caboose, hands firmly gripping the railing, hair blowing fetchingly in the wind (I hope). I'm trying to get a good seat in Freight where obviously all the cool and fun people are. Thanks for this great letter.

J. R. Tomlin said...

I can understand your sympathizing with Mr. Maass since you know him and apparently like him. However I am forced to ask you this. Ignoring the 'class' comment;

How did you feel about his describing you and all authors as cattle to be culled? Funny, that he didn't mention what happens to those cattle afterwards, don't you think?

lisekimhorton said...

Informative, enthusiastic, even-tempered commentary. Charles would be proud.

EC Sheedy said...

Very well said, Delilah, and thank you for presenting such a balanced POV.

Forgetting all the rhetoric about trad versus self pub, the one thing writers have in common is that we want to be read. If we didn't we'd still be writing in our teenage diaries and have the key dangling from a chain around our necks. And it's reasonable to assume that we will all try to publish in a way that will satisfy that want. Like who's going to stop that train?

I for one hated your "cull the cattle" comment, Mr. Maass, :-( but I've learned a ton from your craft books. I thank you for taking the time to write them and applaud you for having them published. (I think I have them all...)

Renee said...

Okay, I have tried twice now to explain why readers have not been, until recently, gatekeepers but both rants got increasingly long and twisty as I tried to put too much into it so I will leave at this: As a reader and librarian, with no close friends or family in the writing game, we have most certainly NOT been gatekeepers.

Woelf Dietrich said...

Oh, wow. This was a beautiful read. And to amplify things, and by accident, Florence and the Machine's Only If For A Night played in the background. Thanks for writing this, Delilah.

Vanessa Grant said...

Great posting, Delilah. Kudos to you!
And Donald, excellent response.

I agree that self publishing is a challenge for those who want a more defined "map" of the route. Like Delilah, I like being in control, and after a couple of decades publishing for Harlequin and Kensington Zebra, I got itchy from the increasing lack of flexibility. I'm happy to be steering my own canoe ... or is that a coach?

Have a great day

Nicole said...

Oh my goodness. Yes. Bravo. I applaud you (digitally and physically!). Most certainly going to share this on my blog so more people get the chance to read it.

Mick Haven said...

I'm with some of the other posters: awesome letter--fun, funny, but POINTED.

I do want to hear D.M.'s response, pretty please with sugar on top!


Mick Haven

Isobel Carr said...

What I got out of Maass's original post and his comment here are very differnt. Had he talked about how mass market is dying in print and the kinds books that sell at that price point are going to end up migrating to e (which is what he appears to be saying here) I think most of would have agreeded. Too bad his point got caught up in a denegrating metaphor.

I do still wonder how NY is going to pay for those Trade and Hardback books though. For years, "prestige" projects have mostly not earned out. Their advances tend to be oversized for the print runs, and that's seen as ok. In fact, my MFA cohorts who write mainstream and lic fic feel entitled to those large advances and are now shocked that they are shrinking to reflect actual earning potential. So it seems to me that Trade may be the new freightclass.

Genene Valleau, writing as Genie Gabriel said...

Ah, Delilah, as always you keep speaking up and giving us more reasons to love you! And so glad Donald dropped in to give us more of the story. (((HUGS)))

Ellen Harger said...

Why is the no way to share this? I don't see facebook or twitter.

Great post.


Tyrean Martinson said...

Excellent post! I enjoyed how you addressed your points with the insider knowledge you have.