President of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management Jane Dystel: Agents Unwilling to Adapt Won’t Last

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One of the hottest new places for agents to find clients and for publishers to find their next best-selling authors is the self-published best-seller list. As opposed to wading through a slush pile or searching endless Tumblrs and Twitter feeds for talent, looking at a list of self-published hits and choosing one sounds easy.

It’s not.

The competition for the authors is fierce – between the agents themselves and the idea that an agent and a publisher isn’t needed in the ebook era. Many self-published authors are going it alone. Some, like Hugh Howey, author of Wool, are crafting bespoke deals with publishers that underscore just how power has shifted to authors.

One agent in particular, however, has shown a talent for finding self-published authors who could benefit from her management and landing them big deals with publishers: Jane Dystel, president of the agency that bears her name, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management.

Dystel has helped more than half-a-dozen self-published authors sign deals with publishers this year, starting with Tracy Garvis Graves, who signed a seven-figure deal with Penguin in June after making On the Island an ebook best-seller. Dystel was also responsible for Tammara Webber’s two-book deal with Penguin in Oct. and Abbi Glines’ deal for her Seabreeze series with Simon & Schuster – both thought to be very large deals, both with best-selling self-published authors.

While it’s the first year for so many major self-published hits for Dystel, she’s no stranger to having an eye for talent. She was President Barack Obama’s first literary agent in the early 1990s.

Dystel started her career at Random House division Bantam Books. She bounced around to a few publishing houses until becoming an agent in 1986. In 1994, she formed her own agency, which became Dystel & Goderich Literary Management in 2003.

We spoke with Dystel about signing self-published authors with traditional publishing houses, what the greatest upcoming challenges for agents are in the ebook era and how agents who don’t adapt will not survive.


Hear Dystel speak on a panel at Digital Book World Conference + Expo 2013 in a session titled Straddling the Models: Authors Choosing to Both Self- and Traditionally Publish on Jan. 17 at 9:15 A.M. Register today!

 

Jeremy Greenfield: For those who many not be familiar, tell me about your agency.

Jane Dystel: It’s a medium-sized agency. We have 11 people and nine of us are active agents. Some of us have other jobs – like rights director, things like that. We represent all categories of books. We try to stay away from short collections — non-fiction and fiction — and we stay away from poetry. But everything else for us is something that one or the other of us will represent.

I represented Dreams From My Father [by Barack Obama]. I was his first agent.

 

JG: Before we go on, what was it like representing Barack Obama?

JD: It was terrifically exciting to be representing somebody who was so talented in terms of his writing and who had at the time I represented him enormous potential. When I first met him, I said to him that if there was going to be a black President in our lifetime it was going to be him – and it was not the first time he had heard it.

 

JG: Prescient words. Back to ebooks. A lot has changed since then in book publishing. How has your business changed?

JD: It’s changed a whole lot, as has everyone’s. I am personally really excited about the ebook revolution. I think we’re at the forefront. We have a digital publishing program that we began in April 2011. We help authors put their books up online. There’s books of course where the books go out of print and the author gets the rights back and they want to see them have a new life. And sometimes people come to us out of the blue, people who we haven’t represented before and if we think we can help we add them to the list.

 

JG: How is that different from being a publisher?

JD: We’re not acting as a publisher; we’re acting as an agent. Our commission is 15% on all those books as it is across the board.

We are not publishers. We don’t take 50% as some of my colleagues do. I think those agents, in my opinion, who have separate ebook publishing entities, I think it’s a conflict of interest for them.

What we do is we help them [the authors] put their books up. They pay for the cover, the copy edit. We actually put the books up for them and we have accounts with all the retailers and we collect the money and pay them. Publishers actually invest in the property as a publisher would. They [the author] get the copyright [when working with us].

 

JG: How did you work your way into the digital space?

JD: We’ve been representing people like Joe Konrath [outspoken self-publishing advocate] who moved into digital publishing quickly. John Locke [self-publishing success] was another one of our very early digitally published clients. And now we have a lot of the independent indie writers. We work with each of them in very different ways. Some of the books by all of our clients we don’t collect any commissions on. With Joe Konrath and John Locke we represent some parts of their publishing collection and we don’t represent other parts.

We still get submissions, of course. We have for years and years. You have to weed through these submissions. More recently these indie authors, who were already tried and true because they have these great sales, would come to us. As long as they were good writers and they could tell a good story and I felt they had a writing future, I really wanted to try to help them.

We took on a lot of our clients and just handled the foreign and the British and the audio and the movie rights. In some cases traditional publishers would approach us and would ask us if the authors were interested in a traditional deal. And if they were interested we would try to make it happen and if not we would just continue on with what we were doing before.

 

JG: Tell me about the first really significant one this year.

JD: The first one where we really got a big deal was Tracy Garvis Graves who wrote On the Island and just delivered here second book to her publisher [Penguin]. We first just represented those other rights – the foreign and audio and movie rights. We did a couple of nice foreign sales. Then I sold the movie. There was a piece about that sale in Variety and publishers read that piece and then approached me. I was talking to the author all along and I asked her – she was reluctant to go to a traditional publisher until they made an offer she couldn’t resist.

 

JG: That’s a familiar trend today: indie authors wary of publishers.

JD: I think that this whole thing is a very exciting time in publishing but we don’t know what’s going to happen. The indie authors don’t know what’s going to happen and the publishers don’t know what’s going to happen. The publishers spending a lot of money on these indie authors have every reason to want what they’re buying to be successful. On the other hand, it’s a whole new ballgame here. If it doesn’t work out for the indie authors who are making these deals, they can go back to self-publishing. They have great followings, they know how to do social media very effectively. It’s very early days. There are some people who you see on the best-seller list who used to be self-published and are now on best-seller lists and who have done well but there are others who have not. It’s so early and everybody is trying something new. That makes what we’re doing very exciting. And we’ll see if it works. If it doesn’t work, we’ll do something else.


Learn what authors want at Digital Book World Conference + Expo 2013 when we reveal the results of our wide-ranging survey of nearly 5,000 aspiring, published and self-published authors (The Author’s View of the Industry, Day 2, 8:40 A.M.). Register today!

 

JG: Among your clients, are they selling more ebooks or print books? How has that changed in the past year and how do you see it changing in the next year?

JD: It really depends on the author and the subject, but the number of ebooks vs print books is going to continue to rise until print runs are relatively low and print sales are mostly electronic.

For some of the indie authors, ebook sales are outpacing the print sales. In terms of those clients of mine where we began in the traditional manner, ebook sales are increasing but they’re not bigger than the paper sales — not yet.

 

JG: Do you get authors who come in and say, “I don’t care about ebooks. I want to publish a book-book.”

JD: Not anymore. Years ago, people didn’t have the vision. But there are always those authors who would rather see their books in a physical form rather than a digital form.

I’ve had authors for whose books I’ve tried to sell and have failed and I’ve said okay, let’s publish the book digitally, see how it does and then if we have a story to tell in terms of sales in terms of the electronic self-published version, we go back out.

I have maybe two or three clients who don’t want to do that. They are very gun-shy and they only want their books to be available initially in physical form.

 

JG: Are you surprised at this?

JD: They’re not observing what is going on in the business and I find it surprising because it’s the business they want to participate in and if they don’t change their minds they’re going to be left behind.

 

JG: What made you start looking at self-published authors? What are some things you look for?

JD: I’m always looking for new things — everywhere.

The thing that’s happened is that as the mass market publishing industry is going into the toilet: the books that were selling 100,000-to-200,000 copies ten years ago are selling 10,000 today. And that’s because the distributor system has collapsed. So, I asked myself what’s going to replace it. And what’s replacing it is the digital publishing world. This all happened of course as the technology of the e-readers developed.

I look for good writing. I look for a good storyline. Somebody who can tell a really good story. I look for somebody who is very active in social media, very open in that world, a platform, a willingness to engage in self-promotion.

 

JG: What’s the biggest challenge you have today when looking for your next author?

JD: That we can help then do better than they’re doing themselves and that is a huge challenge because many of these self-published authors are doing phenomenally well.

Probably the majority don’t have a choice [between publishers and self-publishing] but the ones who are doing very well do have a choice and they will continue to have a choice as time goes on. I don’t agree with the traditional people who say they are making a mistake. They are operating in their own world and very successfully. They are making lots of money.

 

JG: Can you give me an example?

JD: I really can’t. I got some of the numbers this morning [this interview was conducted in Dec. 2012] from one of my new clients and I couldn’t believe it. Those who say that they’re stupid have blinders on just as indie authors who say publishers are out to get them have blinders on.

We’re all here to help writers find their audiences. Maybe in the indie world that might not always be the readers in the U.S. market, but we also enable them to sell foreign rights, translation rights, audio rights. These are worlds they don’t know and they don’t want to know. We also can free their time so they can sell their own books and do what’s most important and that is write more books. That’s what a good agent does. I’m available to my clients at home and in the office and I do have a role.

Just last Wednesday I looked at one of my client’s books and the publisher raised the prices way too much and the sales fell like a stone and I went to the head of the company and got them to agree to lower their prices to almost where they were before. They might raise them again, but slowly, so there isn’t a shock. If she didn’t’ have an agent, that never would have happened. That’s what we do. We’re always watching.

And an agent that isn’t willing to change with the times isn’t going to last.

JG: What do you think is a fair royalty for ebook sales?

JD: I don’t know, but I think it’s more than 25% of net [proceeds]. Would I like to see it at 50% of net? I would love that. Do I think that’s realistic in the near future? No. Especially as we have this consolidation that’s going on.

 

JG: You’re talking about Random House and Penguin.

JD: If they’re combining to be more of a force against Amazon, that’s not going to work. I think that a lot of very good people are going to lose their jobs. It’s going to make our business smaller.

 

JG: Will this make your job harder?

JD: Of course. But I’ve been in this situation so many different times.

 

JG: So you’re not deflated?

JD: I’m just like, “really?” I’m sorry, though, that so many jobs are going to be lost. No matter what anybody says, it’s going to happen. It’s people with significant things to offer who will be duplicating each other’s efforts.

 

JG: Will they get snapped up by rivals?

JD: How many rivals are there? Where are the rivals? Where can they go?

 

JG: If you look at the e-book best-seller lists these days, you’ll notice the usual suspects controlling the top. At the same time, self-published authors are having some successes. Will the complexion of the best-seller lists change in the next year or two?

JD: It will continue to change. It’s already changing significantly. It used to be that you couldn’t crack those old names — James Patterson, etc. — but now there are all these new names.

 

JG: What are you reading and on what platform?

JD: I read two or three newspapers a day and I read them all digitally. I’m reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks [by Rebecca Skloot, Random House] on my Kindle. Just finishing The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker [Random House] and I’ve read that both in book form and on my Kindle, depending where I am.

And most of the manuscripts I read – and I read a lot of them – I read digitally. On my Kindle reader and on my iPad.


Hear Dystel speak on a panel at Digital Book World Conference + Expo 2013 in a session titled Straddling the Models: Authors Choosing to Both Self- and Traditionally Publish on Jan. 17 at 9:15 A.M. Register today!

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24 thoughts on “President of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management Jane Dystel: Agents Unwilling to Adapt Won’t Last

  1. I enjoyed this interview. It shows the importance of similar goals between author and agent, and the necessity of trust between the two.

  2. Great interview. I like the idea that ebooks have become the new slush pile. I would have like to hear more about what you think about writers that give their work away free rather than sell it.

  3. "... the agency that BARES her name..." ? Really? On a blog about publishing and the written word? WTF? on said:

    “… the agency that BARES her name…” ? Really? On a blog about publishing and the written word? WTF?

  4. “I look for good writing. I look for a good storyline. Somebody who can tell a really good story. I look for somebody who is very active in social media, very open in that world, a platform, a willingness to engage in self-promotion. ”

    Very smart woman.
    This is one of the best interviews I have read in a long time. The amoung of good business sense is overwhelming.

  5. I heard Jane speak at a writer’s convention, and of all the agencies, hers was the most open to representing indie authors in this changing climate using more non-standard methods. She \gets\ it, more so than anyone else I’ve seen. Good work, Jane! Keep it up. Indies, publishers, and readers all need people like you who can change with the times and get better reading material out there for the world.

    • I have to amend my own comment. I just realized that this agent charges 15% for LIFE to an indie author for subcontracting out a couple hours of work (formatting, uploading, etc.). RIPOFF ALERT! Authors, do yourselves a favor: Go direct to her subcontractor, pay a fixed fee one time, and keep your 15% for life and have it direct deposited into your bank account!!! You don’t need an agent to suck the life out of your income for something so simple. Geez. Here’s the place that does their work: https://www.52novels.com/

  6. How many industry professionals does it take to set a book price at a competitive level when most modern authors can do it in 30 seconds?

    Then you realize publishing professionals don’t really WANT to compete, they just want life to be like it was.

  7. Very interesting interview. Fascinating how agents are adapting to this rapidly changing industry. I also find it interesting she’s working with John Locke. I didn’t know that. He and I have had some email conversations. He’s also on my “Fan Email List” as I’m on his. I’ll have to ask him about this. Great interview!

  8. You have to ask yourself: If you are a self-published author with good writing, a good storyline, can tell a good story, and your active in social media with a platform and a willingness to engage in self-promotion, WHAT DO YOU NEED AN AGENT FOR?

    • That is a good question. I think an agent is for building relationships beyond just the author and vendor. Self-published authors hold all the rights, however, they have a very limited ability to pitch those additional rights. Yes, the author could also translate a book into spanish, and then try and sell it in the spanish market, but I believe there is a limit. There is a moment where it is far better to seek out a relationship with someone who can sell those rights for the author. Option for movie rights is the same problem. Yes, it is possible that a self published author could pitch the movie rights all on their own, but it is very unlikely it will be pitched to the right people. Then, lets say, the author does somehow achieve that miracle, then there is still the problem of needing an agent or an attorney to negotiate the deal. I think self-publishing is a great way for a new author to establish a platform, and can do very well, however, there are limits. The idea of being totally self-suffient is attractive, up unto the moment that it holds you back. Then it becomes a handicap instead of a benefit. Self-publishing is a little like a man as an island. It might be a good idea to at least have a bridge to the main land, if not at least a boat.

      • Good question, Travis, and good points, David.

        Another commenter made an additional point on Travis’s blog, which calls into question the value of agents. They said that agents and publishers generally know from years of experience what goes into making a great book and that they can add value that way.

        In response, Travis points out that this isn’t always true. Both points of view are valid, in my opinion.

  9. I don’t get it. What does the 15% earn you? What would 0% earn you, for that matter? All it does is put your book in someone else’s hands, and takes away your ability to change your description, upload new versions, adjust prices, and run promos. Amazon’s payment system is super easy; the money goes directly to your account once a month with a modest delay. How is putting the money in D&G’s hands going to make this easier?

    Authors, don’t fall for this. It’s scammy.

    • Hey Michael — Thanks for the comment.

      Obviously, some authors are better off doing everything on their own. But authors who want to sell foreign rights, movie rights or have their book appear in bricks-and-mortar bookstores nationwide have had more success working with others, usually an agent or publisher.

      Look at the example of Tracy Garvis Graves in this interview.

      That said, there is at least one author I know of doing all this herself (I believe). Her name is Bella Andre and she has become quite successful at it. However, as she told me at Digital Book World last year, she now works six days a week, over 12 hours a day. So, there’s a tradeoff.

      Thanks for reading!

      • “Obviously, some authors are better off doing everything on their own. But authors who want to sell foreign rights, movie rights or have their book appear in bricks-and-mortar bookstores nationwide have had more success working with others, usually an agent or publisher. ”

        Yes, true, and for that agents earn their 15%, but that still doesn’t explains, if you self-publish through agents and give them 15%, what kind of value do they bring for that 15%.

  10. I suspect people have called into question the value of agents just moments after they were invented. I am also sure that agents have to question the value of authors, because they can only represent so many authors until the job they do suffers. It appears that Jane has committed herself to making sure that argument continues to rage on into this unchartered frontier of hybrid-publishing, where an author might have several phases in their career, each one requiring a different approach. I can see why an indie author may by-pass an agent, or any contact with traditional publishing. It may not make sense given their goals. But just like not all agents are the same, neither are all indie authors. People may question the value of agents, but the idea of a publishing world without any agents I don’t find attractive. Then, everything is reduced to business by mob. Agents exist because they do a job which the market place demands and continues to place a high value upon. The value of an agent and an author to each other depends upon any number of variables.

  11. have mentioned above – I don’t understand what’s in it for the author to work with this company. Not at all.

    The author is paying for the cover, paying for editing, getting the work ready for publication. OK. Then they hand the work to the agent, who uploads it to retailers as an ebook, and the agent gets 15%.

    Folks, I have uploaded a number of works. It takes me a total of about an hour to get a new work uploaded to every major retailer and a bunch of minor ones as well.

    So for one hour of an agent’s time, you’re paying them 15% of your earnings on that book forever? Really?

    Jeremy commented above that writers want to sell foreign rights, movie rights, and get books into brick and mortar bookstores. And I’ll agree – those are hard things for the indie writer to do alone. Not impossible, but hard. So I think an agent taking 15% of any foreign sales, movie rights deals, or sales to brick and mortar stores is very reasonable.

    Then they would be getting paid if they were actually doing something.

    As it stands, this deal leaves the agency getting paid for doing, essentially, nothing at all. And that’s beyond ridiculous. Honestly, it’s a little insulting that these folks think writers are foolish enough to fall for this sort of shenanigan. ;)

  12. Nice article. I have one traditionally published book, and boy I can’t wait until I can cancel that contract! I don’t want an agent or a traditional publisher. I don’t care about being in stores. I just care about writing my stories and people getting easy access to them. I don’t care if I don’t become a millionaire. All I know is I get a few emails a week from people who like my stuff. I make enough money to pay some bills every month, or pad my savings account. That’s good enough for me. My life is low key, low hassle. I’m not interested in forking over any percentages. If any agent or publisher comes around, he or she better have an offer that I cannot refuse. I can guarantee that unless they have a detailed marketing plan, I won’t be interested. And yes, I expect to see the marketing plan. I don’t care what numbers you throw at me.

    Viva La Indie!

  13. I think what might help a lot of people to understand this issue, is to look again at what has been said. The agency here pride themselves on flexibility; they take on what they can, and what the author is prepared to give them. Not to say it’s a struggle between the two – more that, if a person is happy with the way their digital products are selling, then the agent can take on the task of selling the hardcopy rights – or if not those, perhaps just the movie rights. The very point being made here is how this agency is adapting to the digital revolution by changing their approach – they’ll take 15% of digital sales for sure, if you’re the kind of author that would prefer them to press the ‘publish’ button. Not all of us – even the mega-sellers – are comfortable doing it all ourselves, controlling our outsourcing etc. But an agent who will take you on, just to sell the deals you can’t find yourself? Like translation, film rights, audio books? Priceless! In my opinion, this is the direction all agents should be taking. Sure, every agent on the planet would love to take a 15% bite of Hugh Howey’s sales, but he negotiated a print-only deal – pretty much a first. Why? Because he was shifting (pun intended) a ton of ebooks, but had nothing in bookstores. And there are still a few of those about, here and there… and not too easy for an indie author to get into. So, that’s the kind of deal this agency seems to be brokering – the tailor-made kind, in which everyone is a winner. Sign me up!
    Tony

  14. Great post however I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this topic?
    I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little
    bit more. Kudos!

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