Scott Waxman: Change Agent, Digital Entrepreneur
By Emily Williams, co-chair, BISG Rights Subcommittee
Scott Waxman – literary agent, head of the Waxman Literary Agency, and now co-founder of eBook publisher Diversion Books – has witnessed a lot of changes since he started in publishing as an editor back in 1990, enough to know that not all of the shifts the industry has undergone in recent years can be pinned on the digital revolution.
“When I was at HarperCollins,” he remembers, “we had an enormous number of editors, and it was just a huge number of books that was being published. Now the publishers are a lot more specific and focused and each book really counts. You’ve seen, especially the last few years, a sharpening of the editorial approach for each house and also a slimming down of the list.”
This is the kind of downsizing that can be difficult to navigate even for those watching from outside of the publishing houses, but Waxman is not one to get bogged down in trepidation. “It’s healthy and necessary. It’s painful for a lot of editors who have lost their jobs, and for agents who are having a hard time selling books, but I think it’s a natural progression.”
Slimmer lists and fewer editors has made the marketplace for submissions more competitive and agents have been forced to adapt as well. “The agents’ role has become much more hands-on,” says Waxman. “The agents have to take a very strong editorial hand in the shaping of proposals and making sure that what they submit is top quality.”
This is not a reflection on the editors’ craft, just the reality of a world where only the strongest submissions make it through the acquisitions process. Waxman elaborates: “Editors edit as much as they ever did, but editors are not going to be interested in a submission if it’s not in excellent shape, because it will raise too many questions about the project for them to take a chance on it. If they can’t put a proposal in front of a supervisor with good comp books and with strong Bookscan numbers, then it’s very tough to make the case. They have to be sure that what they acquire has a really good chance of being successful, rather than just falling in love with that particular project for what it is.”
“That is a big difference” from the boom days when Waxman was an editor. In response, he draws on his past life: “I scrutinize every project I take on like an acquisitions editor. If I don’t think it’s going to sell copies I don’t take it on. I think the best thing an agent can do now is to be selective in what they submit, be very specific in a category that they can be an expert in, and then be savvy about the digital side so that they don’t miss what’s going on around them.”
Waxman was an early mover in the digital space with his 1999 start-up LiveREADS, which produced enhanced eBooks. Now that an actual eBook market has grown up, he didn’t hesitate to stake out a space for himself again, this time with Diversion Books, a straight eBook publisher.
“My personality is entrepreneurial and I see an opportunity for growth,” Waxman states simply. “I’m excited by the creative aspects of it as well, in terms of the kinds of books that we can do, reinventing what a book can be in terms of length and focus. And timing, doing books faster and shorter. Bringing back anthologies for authors in a way that can be monetized. It presents a lot of interesting opportunities for an author that I wanted to investigate. I don’t know where the business is going to end up going, exactly, but it’s certainly fun to be involved in it.”
Not everyone in the publishing sandbox is having so much fun at the moment. With the announcement of agent Andrew Wylie’s e-publishing start-up, Odyssey Editions, a small brouhaha erupted, and among the accusations leveled at Wylie was that a conflict of interest exists for any agent who gets into publishing, digital or otherwise. Waxman set up Diversion apart from his agency precisely to avoid this conflict.
“Diversion is a totally separate company, with different personnel, and Waxman Agency is not a shareholder,” he notes. “I’m a co-founder, but I’m certainly not running it. We’ve brought in someone to drive the business, her name is Jennifer Segal, who’s going to be the one spearheading the initiatives going forward.”
As for the agency’s authors, Waxman says he’s heard nothing but positive responses, and a few of them have already chosen to publish eBooks with Diversion (which operates on a profit-sharing model): “Any author who has a project they think would fit, we’re happy to talk about it, but we’re not soliciting it.”
Diversion is also unlike Odyssey in that it publishes almost all original titles rather than backlist books where the digital rights might be in contention with the publisher. “We’re not carving out any e-rights for this,” says Waxman. “A bunch of our authors have [worked with Diversion] for books that don’t fit with the big houses or books where they have the rights back.” And of course Waxman is not focusing only on his authors, he’s been in talks with other agencies as well, feeling out potential partnerships.
No Magic Formula
It’s all potential in these early days for Diversion, which has only had books out for about two months. Waxman, a veteran in his second go-around at e-publishing, is not discouraged by the company’s so far modest beginnings. “I can tell you that most of the originals do not make a lot of money yet,” he admits.
And there have been a few speed bumps. “The production side has been a lot more time-consuming than we thought it would be. To get a book edited, formatted, and distributed everywhere has been extremely time-consuming and expensive, and it’s not an easy thing to do. But I think that with the right approach and the right books, it’s going to get there. You need to have a concerted effort on a book to sell it. There is no magic formula for selling books as eBooks.”
How long will it take for Diversion to come into its own? “I would hope within a year,” says Waxman, “but it really depends on what kind of content we’re able to get and what we’re willing to spend, whether or not we want to go out and raise capital. The agency is very organic, you build it with the authors you have. Something like Diversion could probably get bigger faster if we want it to, so we’re exploring all those options right now. I want it to grow, I want it to be viable, I want it to be a great destination for authors.”
The Balance Between Old and New
Like many publishing businesses trying to navigate the digital transition, the trickiest part for Waxman has turned out not to be the technical know-how. “The hardest part is balancing my time and knowing where to put my energy,” he explains. “Because on the one hand you need to sell books to make a living, but at the same time you want to make sure you are prepared for the future. And the future, in terms of digital publishing, is not profitable in a lot of cases yet. Realistically, you have to stick with the old media until the new media really takes root, in a financial way that makes sense.”
Looking ahead, Waxman sees more change, more tough road, but also light on the horizon.
“The electronic disruption is going to be significant. There are a lot of things ahead of us that we just don’t know what they are yet, all you can do is try to hold on, ride the bronco.” But at the end it comes down to that steady gleam of optimism.
“The enthusiasm is still there for good books, that’s always the main currency in publishing,” says Waxman. “The enthusiasm is there for the potential that eBooks present to get new readers, and try new ways to present information. The question is going to come down to economics. I think it will change, I think it will be disruptive, but I think a lot of the big publishers are going to figure this out. I hope they will.”
Scott Waxman founded the Waxman Literary Agency in 1997, a mid-sized agency with a roster of more than 200 authors, including many national bestsellers in a variety of fiction and non-fiction categories. Always looking for new ways forward in the world of books, Waxman launched Diversion Books, a publisher of eBook originals that connects authors with the freedoms of digital publishing, earlier this year.
Emily Williams is co-chair of the BISG Rights Subcommittee and a former literary scout who currently works as an independent publishing consultant.