Riva’s agency, International Transactions, Inc., specializes in a holistic approach—one that both nourishes its connections to the publishing and entertainment worlds and closely shepherds its authors through the world of publishing.
Riva brought decades of experience in the publishing industry to Antioch in December with his lecture on the business of writing. Lunch Ticket Editor in Chief Lise Quintana spoke to Riva about his views on the publishing industry, where it’s heading, and how new authors can become part of it.
Lise Quintana: The writing community has been given mixed signals lately. We’ve heard both that there’s no market for short stories and that e-readers mean that short stories are selling better than ever. We’ve heard that publishers are struggling—independent publishers are going out of business, larger publishers merging—and that more books are being published than ever before. From your perspective, what’s the truth?
Peter Riva: All of the above. The truth is, there are more books being published than ever before, but that doesn’t mean that there are more books being carried by the booksellers than ever before. In fact, that number is dwindling. There is a large number of backlist titles being sold as e-books now. All the publishers are rushing to digitize and sell their backlist in electronic book formats, and bear in mind that there are at least eight formats that they have to comply with. That’s taking up the publisher’s time, and that’s why the number of books published is growing. On top of that you have the independents, writers who are publishing their own books. Those are still books with ISBN numbers, and they are still “on sale” because the larger platforms do carry those books, even if they’re independently published. Insofar as short stories are concerned, there are short stories and then there are novellas. Novellas have a window of opportunity given to them by both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. They have a novella section published electronically that is doing exceptionally well and garners first-step reviews for many authors who wish to be published by a mid-stream publisher. It gives them an opportunity to air their wares and also generate revenue.
LQ: You’ve mentioned that because you work differently from other agents, you do not belong to any associations of literary agents. What experiences led you to that decision?
PR: I’ve been doing this since 1972, licensing in one form or another, and in my experience, the creative process is an involved one that requires the agents to advise, consult with, sometimes manage, but at all times act as a viable partner for the person who’s doing the creation. That includes editing, and it also includes offering advice. One of the things that the literary agents’ association does not want agents to do is manage the authors’ affairs. That’s all well and fine, but some of our authors didn’t even know what a taxpayer’s identification number was, had no idea how to structure their own affairs, let alone the editing and rearranging of text within their manuscripts. We’ve found that, in order to be a constructive partner, we’ve had to do things that were outside of the guidelines of the literary agents’ associations. Now, on the other hand, I do draw the line at some of the new conditions being laid down by the larger agencies whereby they say “If we are going to take on this book, we own a share of it, ad infinitum, forever and a day.” We don’t take that position. We are the representatives of the author until the day the author decides that they want to go elsewhere. If we’ve concluded a licensing agreement with a publisher, obviously we are the agents of record in that negotiation and that will continue, but if, for instance, the publisher releases the book after five years and we’re no longer the agent and the author takes that book to another publisher and we’re not the agent, we wouldn’t share in that.
LQ: From initial manuscript onward, how much interaction do you typically have with an author? (Daily emails? Weekly? Phone calls? In-person meetings?)
The need to see the author and press the flesh, that’s always nice but it doesn’t have to happen anymore. We live in a digital world and a telephone world, a videoconferencing world and really, you don’t have to [be there in person].
PR: It comes in spurts, and each author is different. We have an author who’s in Seattle, Washington. I’ve never met him, I’ve talked with him for quite a few hours on the phone, helped him restructure some of his proposals. The need to see the author and press the flesh, that’s always nice but it doesn’t have to happen anymore. We live in a digital world and a telephone world, a videoconferencing world and really, you don’t have to [be there in person]. There’s the old concept of the “agents’ lunch”. That really is over except for some backslapping that’s done at various conferences, either London or Frankfurt or New York or wherever. As far as we’re concerned, contact with the author is on a needs-must basis. My time’s much better spent placing the author’s work with editors and having that conversation with publishers and publicity people and so on, than hand-holding the authors. Some authors require more hand-holding, others don’t. To give you an example: John Enright, whose series has been taken up by Amazon Publishing. We handled his books and helped him reconstruct and re-edit and re-work those books over a period of five years and, as he was living in American Samoa at the time, our conversation was entirely either on the phone or by email. There were a couple of years when we only exchanged emails once a month or once every two months.
LQ: Most agents and editors, etc., still adhere to the thought that you have to live in New York if you want to be successful in publishing. How do you feel about that?
PR: I moved back from London to New York in 1981 and I was in New York from 1981 to 2007. There is an advantage to seeing people in that you can discuss their needs and desires better. Once you’ve developed a relationship with publishing houses and with editors, you don’t have to be there face to face all the time, once or twice a year is sufficient. As far as the principals are concerned, I spend a fair amount of time with them in Frankfurt, so I don’t have to go into New York. Although it’s always nice to see friends and colleagues after all these years.
Large advances are, quite often, detrimental to author’s careers. First of all, it sets them up for a bigger fall. Secondly, the advance doesn’t reflect what the publisher’s going to do with the book when they have it under contract.
In the larger literary agencies, when you work as a literary agency with a larger agency, your base salary is fairly low and you’re waiting for that bonus payment based on the revenue you’ve generated. That does cause people to hustle, to push and move and get as large an advance as possible. Large advances are, quite often, detrimental to author’s careers. First of all, it sets them up for a bigger fall. Secondly, the advance doesn’t reflect what the publisher’s going to do with the book when they have it under contract. I’ve seen many multi-hundred thousand and million-dollar advances where the book has never been promoted properly and it just languishes on the shelf and dies, and the author’s career has died with it. Let’s remember back in the 80s when publishers were writing huge checks and were dependent upon Ronald Reagan’s allowance of writing off all stock in a warehouse at the end of a year. So, there were these “accidental” warehouse fires.
The truth is that each author needs to be dealt with differently. There are authors who are entirely dependent upon any revenue that can be generated, and sometimes an advance will tide them over until the point when their book is going to sell. There are other authors who have other means of support, and in their case, handing them a hundred thousand dollar advance just means they’re giving the IRS fifty thousand dollars. It’s a whole lot better for them if, instead of giving them a hundred thousand dollar advance, we get a twenty-five thousand dollar advance and get a publicity and promotion clause that’s worth fifty thousand dollars, which actually means the book is going to sell for five or six years and spread the revenue out.
LQ: In your experience, in today’s market, what is the typical advance for a first-time author?
PR: It’s dropped. It’s plummeted. It’s in a horrible state. Anything from $5,000 to $15,000. There are exceptions you read about because somebody has a platform, and they’re doing the New York circuit and they do the sort of glitterati thing and they manage to keroger (that’s the Kenyan term for “stirring the pot”) things up to the point where they can get a really healthy advance of $65,000 or $70,000, and that’s fine. But those are absolutely less than 1% of the debut authors sold.
Debut authors are hurting because publishers, and we’re now talking the Big Five (since it’s no longer the Big Six), are heavily engaged in profit-taking based on turning their back-end list into e-books. Their resources are being directed in that way. There’s a second thing that’s happened in publishing in the last five years that I predicted 10 years ago and was laughed at by several publishers. It is that the brand is no longer the publisher; the brand is the author. As publishers have come to realize that the way to maximize profits is to build out those brands, it has, very much like a tornado, drawn everything to it as far as resources within the company is concerned. So you’ll get Patterson, who has tremendous marketing and sales support, to the detriment of any newcomer, who obviously doesn’t have the branding profile as an author. In the old days, if you got published by Knopf or you got published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux or whoever, you were pretty much guaranteed that you had your same foot in the same pool, and that you were going to benefit because Knopf’s name was on the spine. Amazon changed that whole game plan. In today’s market the publisher’s logo on the spine may help reviewers, but it doesn’t really help the buyer.
LQ: What are the biggest mistakes a writer looking for representation can make?
PR: Writers have to realize that, with the exception of maybe ten editors, there are no editors left in publishing in the old-fashioned sense. Editors used to see the quality of the story and the ability of the writer to construct a book, and then aid and enhance that process. There’s a famous story that Maya Angelou tells about Bob Loomis in which she says that she got her first manuscript back from him with these little squiggles in the margin. She said “What does that mean?” He said “Well, in that paragraph, there’s something that broke my mental flow or there’s something that bothered me there.” She said “What?” He said “No, that’s for you to discover.” That kind of editing minutiae no longer exists. You’ll get people who will correct spelling and all the rest, but they won’t help you realize where your manuscript is less than perfect. You can talk with Martin Cruz Smith who was also first discovered by Bob Loomis—same thing. His work was impeccable while Bob Loomis was his editor, and when he moved elsewhere hasn’t been quite to the same standard. Now that’s not to say it’s not wonderful, it is, and I’m one of his great fans, but it’s just an indication that that level of care and attention from an editor doesn’t really exist anymore, by and large.
Take it one step at a time. Be patient. I’ve had authors write to me and say “I need a response within a week.” That’s a very simple response for me.
If I was an author writing a book, I would complete it, and I would put it aside for a period of time to clear my mind. Then I would edit it again, read it again, edit it again, read it again. Then I would have people read it. Not friends and neighbors—I’d hire people who are paid to read it to rip it apart and tell me where it’s wrong. If necessary and if I had the funds, I would either hire a professional editor, one of the people who’s no longer working at a publishing house who’s set up independent shop, or I would go to a university and find an English or literature teacher who’s willing to help me rip it apart and tell me what’s wrong with it. And I’d fix it. Then I would edit it again, and then and only then, when I felt that it was presentable, would I then seek to find an agency. Now, finding the right agent is a tricky thing. My advice to authors is always the same: go to your local bookstore (by definition this means that you should actually go look at books and read them) and find the author that you most respect in the same genre that you’re working in. Then phone up the publishing house and find out who the editor of that book is. Write a respectful letter to that editor saying “Would you please put me in touch with an agent who you feel would best represent my efforts. My work is similar to [name the author that the editor worked with].” And they would probably give you the name of an agent, because publishing houses want agents to act as the gatekeepers. They’re often generous enough to supply the names of agents. Write a letter to that agent, bearing in mind that the agent has 200 emails a day coming in, and you’ve got to fit into that. Say “I am a debut author. I have written a [novel, biography, whatever it may be], and I have contacted the editor at this publishing house who published the work of So-and-so, whose work I respect and which resembles my own. They have suggested that I contact you. I would like the opportunity to submit my work to you for consideration.” You submit it to an agent while following the guidelines of that particular agency (each agency has different guidelines). Take it one step at a time. Be patient. I’ve had authors write to me and say “I need a response within a week.” That’s a very simple response for me.
LQ: How much of a manuscript do you typically have to read before you know whether or not it’s saleable?
PR: There are two parts to that question. First of all, I need to read twenty pages and a biography of the author and a short synopsis (by “short synopsis,” I mean two or three paragraphs) in order to find out whether or not I want to read the manuscript. Carving out that much time to read a manuscript is an investment for our company. We’ll read that twenty pages and a short synopsis and a bio—we do that 40-50 times a month. But to call for the manuscript is rare. Then we’re asking the author to bear with us and give us 6 weeks to read the manuscript to come back with our decision or suggestions, as the case may be. We do read a whole manuscript before we take on an author. It’s expensive for us to make this a guessing game. We have to be reasonably certain.
LQ: Why is the bio important?
PR: The bio shows us where the author is in their life, what their capabilities are, whether this is a one-off or whether they’ll write a few more books. It can show me why I should spend time and effort on this person. If the author is talented and they’re going to write more books, that enhances the profile of the author vis-à-vis business. There are some times we get bios where we say “Hang on a sec, an author with that level of commitment and background and education, can’t be a 16-year-old. I doubt it.” There are things that sometimes raise red flags and we have to probe a little bit further. We don’t want to get caught in a situation where there might be plagiarism involved or a nom de plume that causes conflicts within the industry. We have to be careful, not only for ourselves, but for the industry as well.
LQ: In 2000, your company added an associate editor, JoAnn Collins, to represent women’s voices and issues. What does that mean, and why did you feel that was necessary?
PR: Given that 65% of all books are being bought by women, there were many titles I was not qualified to judge, particularly women’s issues and stories (both novels and nonfiction) that involved part of the women’s movement and sometimes abortion and other things like that. Since they were coming across the transom with fair regularity, we felt it would be wise to have someone with a degree in that subject matter. In addition, there were medical books we were being given that I was frankly not educated enough to judge. JoAnn Collins is also a registered nurse, so she was better able to evaluate these books.
LQ: With the advent of e-books and print-on-demand services that make self-publishing easier and less expensive, do you feel that the role the agent plays has changed? Do most authors still need an agent?
PR: Yes and yes. The role of the agent in the general marketplace has changed. The role of our agency hasn’t changed, since we’ve always been a hand-holding agency. Our agency works differently in that we help mold and refine the product before it’s taken to a publishing house. In fact, we’ve found that the demand for our agency has grown, since a lot of authors have published books by themselves and thought that makes them a “published author,” and therefore they can get their next book picked up automatically by a publishing house. Sometimes, having published a book by yourself, even if you’ve sold reasonable quantities (7,000-10,000 copies), red flags you at the publishing house, who think that you’re not going to play the game the way they want it played. Of course, people publish their own book and sell a hundred thousand copies suddenly become the flavor of the day in New York and they’re snapped up with big contracts and I hope that works out for them. I suspect that, given their ability in social media, and anybody who’s published themselves and been successful will know how to handle social media, they are more likely to do the job for the publisher. But they’re happy enough to have the publisher haggle the dead tree issue, which a lot of self-published authors don’t get into. They go straight for electronic. Electronic books and publishing by yourself is a viable way to make your voice heard, especially if you have your own platform. It is interesting to note that almost everybody who has a solid platform, whether it be in the religious arena or in the cooking arena or whatever else, seeks a traditional publisher rather than publishing themselves because the onslaught of work would stop them from doing their primary function. People who’ve been successful self-published authors have found that they’re running a business, and their second book gets delayed and delayed and delayed because the workload on the first book is overwhelming.
LQ: What are your thoughts about authors and social media? Some authors like Chuck Palahniuk use it to market their books and to offer advice to other authors, while others like Christopher Moore use it the way most people do—to communicate their everyday thoughts to their friends. Should authors build a platform with social media?
… readers don’t want to connect with the book, they want to connect with the author. If the author realizes that, they will build out social media to allow the reader to connect with the author always in a way that isn’t off target.
PR: Yes. Without exception. The English have an expression “horses for courses.” You have to have the right social media for the right project. The brand is now the author. The author is in charge of that brand in social media, or, if you’re with a good publisher like Open Road Media, they’ll handle the social media for you and give you a list of things that you have to comply with every week. “Don’t forget to post here, respond to that one there,” and it makes their job very simple. No one other than Open Road does that properly, by the way. If you look at the videos Open Road Media makes, they’re always about the author because readers don’t want to connect with the book, they want to connect with the author. If the author realizes that, they will build out social media to allow the reader to connect with the author always in a way that isn’t off target. If you’re writing a biography of Lincoln, you want to make sure that your comments are professorial and factual enough that the reader will have and gain confidence in your ability to be the purveyor of factual information on Lincoln or anything else. If, on the other hand, you’re the author of zany humor, you want to make sure that you constantly blog, tweet, maybe post funny photographs on Pinterest, in order to have people recognize that you’re a person with great humor. It’s all about author identification. It’s not about book identification.
LQ: How does any agent justify the payment they receive?
PR: First of all, you should never pay an agent. An agent should only earn money if the book is successful. If the agent takes on a book, they are taking on an equal risk. As agents, we never earn a dime unless our authors are making their money. The notion that agents are “paid” also creates this falsehood that the agent is an employee of the author. That is never the case. Where author relations have soured with their agents, it’s because the authors have this misconception that they were hiring an agent. They’re not. They’re appointing an agent to act as their representative and junior partner in the business they’re working on together. The agent is an intelligent (hopefully), experienced (hopefully), honest (definitely hopefully) person, and the fact that they’re only making 15% on a book project doesn’t mean the author gets to order them around. What agents know takes too long to explain to authors. There’s got to be a level of blind trust at a certain point. You can always ask your agent questions. But there are authors who say “Before we sign up with you, we really want to have a wide-ranging conversation about publishing” and I say “Now hang on a second, if you don’t even understand what publishing is, or what the word “royalty” means, or what quarterly payments, half-yearly payments, yearly payments, advances, all that is, we’ll explain it to you, but don’t question us as to whether that is fair or not fair. That’s the way the business is run.” The difficulty for authors is that they may wish the business were run differently, but it’s not. Agents aren’t able to re-educate publishers on behalf of authors. We’ve tried that in the past and it doesn’t work.
LQ: How do you feel about publishers as the gatekeeper? There are a lot of people publishing now. Do you feel that’s making it harder for readers to find good books? Are there fundamental changes that the publishing system might make to make itself more relevant?
PR: There are models that have gone before. Take television, for example. There was a time when there were three channels in the United States. I produced a television show in 1988 that had a 14 share and 22 million viewers. If I had a show on television today that had those kind of numbers, I’d be the richest guy in Hollywood. When you have a lack of competition, you garner a greater share of people partaking in whatever you’re offering. Today, there is so much competition out there. There are great authors, great titles getting lost amongst this myriad of publications. We’ve gone from 120,000 books published a year in the mid-1990s to 500,000 or more, and that causes a great scatter on your radar and you don’t know what book to choose. That’s why people find Amazon useful, because they have a system whereby if you bought this, you’d like that.
In the 80s, I used to spend a lot of time on the train going from home to the city. In the lower level of Grand Central, there was a bookstore that was 20 feet wide and 40 feet deep, and there was one man who owned and ran the bookstore. It was only science fiction, and it was only paperbacks, and he had maybe a 1,000 or 1,500 titles. The thing was, he had either read every one of them or had read enough of each one to know what each book was about and what it was similar to and what genre it was in, whether it was fantasy or science fiction, and so on. I could go in there from each train trip and say “I finished So-and-so,” And he’d say “Oh, then you’ll like this.” And he knew immediately what book to sell me. I found about 50 authors over ten years that I otherwise wouldn’t have read, and I enjoyed all of them. This man was the gate keeper of taste and linking authors and titles.
That’s what Amazon seeks to do. By and large, Amazon allows even the self-published authors to get within that pipeline, particularly if the self-published author takes the time in a business sense to find out how to dot the I’s and cross the T’s of Amazon’s system. For example, if you write a book that has railway stories in it, you should identify on Amazon those other titles that are selling well that have railway connections. When you’re asked to put tags in about the book you’re putting up on Amazon for sale, you put tags that link you to those other books. It’s as simple as that. Somebody reads a book by a published author that’s selling well, it says “People who bought this also might be interested in that,” and there you get the independent author’s book. Goodreads, weRead, Book Glutton, Wattpad, Readernaut, and Bookish are other great platforms. Getting friends and relatives to read your book and post honest reviews, good and bad, get them to post on various websites. That’s all part of the business game that the author has to engage in.