Where were you last night? At the pub with friends? Reading a fantastic new book by the fire? Watching some enjoyably trashy TV? At the theatre or cinema? I was home. I spent last night drinking really nice ale and writing a memo to a publisher about royalty statements, and how they could be improved. Ah…what a…lovely image. But don’t feel sorry for me. The sad thing isn’t that I spent the evening thinking about royalty statements. The sad thing is that I enjoyed it, and it wasn’t just about the ale. Look, I’m 43 now, I don’t care what you think of me any more, I’m just going to say it: I’m a nerd.
I’m not the only one. An agent friend of mine was emailing me at the same time about some data that has just been published on how many bestselling books each publisher has released. He loves a nice table with some numbers on it. But he wasn’t fully happy. “I wish they had indexed the data by total revenue,” he groused. “I don’t want to know how many bestsellers a publisher has. I want to know how many bestsellers they have pro rata.” Of course he does. What a nerd.
A dictionary definition tells me that nerds “lack social skills or are boringly studious”. Agent nerds don’t lack social skills. We spend all day every working day honing our social skills; everything we do depends on our social skills. Our job is to empathise in the round – to understand what authors need, and what publishers require, and to help them to collaborate together so well, they spend 98% of their time believing that their interests are 100% mutual. If I’m not on the phone, I’m writing a letter or an email; if I don’t have a breakfast meeting, I have a lunch meeting. By the end of the week, I have used so many social skills on persuading, on convincing, on arguing, on supporting, on cheerleading; all I want is a nice quiet room, a bottle of ale and a book or a laptop. Lacking in social skills? No. Socially bankrupt? Yes, maybe.
But “boringly studious” is a definition I can embrace. Oh yes, I have bored every editor I know to tears, countless times. Every time I sell a book, I get to bore someone to death. Just last week, I bored a fantastic publisher until she wanted to throttle me, on the subject of why she couldn’t distribute a book in Canada. The week before, I bored one talented editor so effectively on the subject of the new audio subscription platforms being launched in Scandinavia, she grew quite faint and had to pass the memo on to someone more senior. Boring publishers on the subject of export royalties is routine both to me and to all acquiring editors now and they know there is no limit to how many weeks I am willing to stand firm in this war of attrition. And, recently, I have surprised almost every publisher with how many hours I can bore on, on the subject of ebook pricing – a subject so fascinating to me, you could almost class it a hobby – but the great thing is that now, just to shut me up, some of them send me all their chronological sales and pricing data without my having to beg for it. Honestly, it’s a great thing. You can learn so much!
Editors I work with regularly are wise to this now. “Here’s a lovely graph, Lizzy,” they announce happily, at meetings. “We did this pie chart just for you.” Or, flatly: “I know you will want a year on year comparison so here it is.” Some of them are nerds too. When colleagues announce a rest break mid-meeting, we nerd friends gather round the spreadsheets to cram in a little extra-curricular analysis. “Fascinating!” we agree, blind to the appalled and piteous faces of onlookers with Something – Anything – Better To Do.
Here is another dictionary definition of nerd (agent nerds love dictionaries, along with thesauri and yes I looked that plural noun up in my dictionary): a “single-minded expert in a particular technical field”. Yes, that’s it, that’s the problem here, I’ve grown single-minded. I only have eyes for publishing; my brain is all used up on book publishing. I am 100% agent. (It’s partly genetic – my 10yo son and I recently shook hands on a deal over how much longer he could stay up before bed – “50 minutes,” he opened; “25,” I countered; “45,” he offered, holding out his little hand for a shake. “40’s my last offer,and I’ll brush my teeth now,” he finished, bafflingly winning with a flourish. Yes, he is my weakness, I guess this is how nepotism persists: publishers please note that hiring my son in ten years might be the only way to shut me up on the subject of downloadable audio royalties.)
All agents love to make a lot of money for an author: to find a book which sets their heart racing and to work all day and all night sending it to publishers, so they can feel the excitement too; to use their skills to make a fantastic deal or thirty fantastic deals. But every big advance, every competitive auction, every number one bestseller, offers us agent nerds the opportunity to “single-mindedly” try for that ebook royalty escalator, to push for an improved trade paperback royalty, to “expertly” pull back control over rights and terms; to contribute to the discussion around commercial decisions such as on format or price. My job is to promote, protect and defend the interests of my clients. I can only do that well if I argue passionately for royalties and contractual terms when I can and then pass the benefits onto my whole client list.
And I can only promote, protect and defend the interests of my clients if I nerdishly understand this business as a whole. Because publishing is a “technical field” in which to become expert, let’s make no mistake. It’s not: “isn’t that a lovely jacket?”, it’s: “will Asda like that jacket?” It’s not: “how lovely! a two book deal!” It’s: “is it separately accounted?” Yes, we mostly all like one another very much. Yes, we all love literature. But this is a business, not a mutual appreciation society or a bookclub. Publishers are interested in their bottom lines. And agent nerds are interested in authors’ bottom lines. Not just in the short-term but over the long-term. We are interested in the business of publishing because we have a responsibility to protect authors’ income into the future.
So not only are agent nerds in the details-game for today, saving pennies to make pounds this year, pushing for percentage points on special sales, combing through emails about Black Friday deals or promotional sales to The Works, asking for sales and pricing graphs, bothering about whether data is pro rata or not, reading royalty statements to check rights income. We are also in the details game for the future, because every nerd knows that knowledge is power and agent nerds know that authors need to be powerful in publishing.
And that is why I am campaigning for better royalty accounting – so that my authors can know clearly the advantages and lovely royalties their nerd agent negotiated on their behalfs, and have the power to do a little data crunching of their own.