Do you want to break into the publishing industry?
Many authors have questions about how to traditionally publish a book and how to find a literary agent who can help with that process. This week, I caught up with Jeff Herman, who's been working in the industry for 25-plus years.
He runs a literary agency in the United States and has published over 1,000 different books. So, he has a wide variety of experience across different genres or niches.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Jeff: Everything should really be done on a contingency with agents. They work on commission. Because they work on a commission, they're very selective. So, it's not like they're out there begging the millions of romance writers to come break down their doors, because that would be unmanageable. But what they are open to are talented, publishable romance novelists, finding them. Because that's who they want to represent. So, how do you establish yourself as being one of those? Well, you just have to assume that you are.
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: Do you want to break into the publishing industry? This week, I caught up with a literary agent who's been working in the industry for 25 plus years.
Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins. Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast. Like many others, I focus primarily on self-publishing over the years. I've interviewed a number of self-publishing experts for this show. But a lot of authors have questions about how to traditionally publish a book and how to find a literary agent who can help with that process. I know I do, too.
So, this week, I caught up with Jeff Herman. He runs a literary agency in the United States. His agency has published over 1,000 different books. So, he has a wide variety of experience across different genres or niches. My key takeaway from talking to Jeff is that authors usually make a living if they have a back catalogue of books that sell. In other words, most authors aren't going to write books that are going to be sold in the airport and be number one bestseller for months. Instead, authors who build a sustainable career have a back catalogue of books that they can rely on. This is a theme I've come across when I've interviewed other authors who have published more than one book. It was also great to hear Jeff's tips on how to land a literary agent, and what you should put in your pitch.
So, I hope you enjoy this week’s interview with Jeff. If you do, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store, because your reviews will help more listeners find this show. You could also consider sharing the show with another writer or another friend. That also helps. At one point this year, I was considering pausing the podcast, but I've decided to recommit for another season. So, if there are particular topics you'd like me to cover, please feel free to send me an email or contact me on Twitter @bryanjcollins. Because over the past year or two, I focused primarily on interview episodes like this one. But one thing I want to do with the podcast is to experiment with the format. So, I'm going to do some solo episodes where I talk about what's happening in my writing life. I also want to mix those episodes up with interviews with experts like Jeff who know about topics that I haven't previously covered before on the show, such as traditional publishing. That said, let's go over to this week's interview with Jeff Herman.
Bryan: Welcome to the show, Jeff.
Jeff: Happy to be here.
Bryan: It's always great to talk to somebody who's been working in publishing, in books, and in the industry for such a long time because you've probably seen a lot of technological changes. So, how did you come to set up your agency in the first place?
Jeff: Well, even it sounds almost absurd, but I founded my literary agency without knowing that I had done so. When you're 26 years old, it's very easy to do things that you didn't know you were doing, or it's easier. I had my own publicity firm, public relations. Several of my clients were interested in promoting their recently published books, and they hired me for that purpose. I didn't really know much about publishing at that point, but I knew publicity. Then they asked me to help them get future books traditionally published. They just said, "Do you think you can pitch this around?" So, I figured, "Well, yeah, I guess I can call up book editors and pitch it." And that's what I did.
Next thing I knew, the publishers wanted to talk about a contract and terms, which I didn't really know what that was. So, I went to a bookstore. This is 1986, '87. I went to a bookstore, huge Barnes and Noble, down the street in New York City. I went to the section about book publishing. In there, staring me in the face, was an excellent book called How to Negotiate a Book Contract by a very experienced agent at the time. So, I bought that book and followed its guidelines. Therefrom, I became an agent. I started to get referrals. And soon enough, I made it my actual business and I stopped doing publicity shortly thereafter.
Bryan: Impressive. I started my business accidentally, as well. It was a project when I was unemployed. Then it slowly grew into a business, to my great surprise.
Jeff: Yeah, it's funny. People often would tell me, "Do you write down your goals? Do you make written plans, business plans?" I said, "I think there's different kinds of personalities. I'm very hesitant to do that. I don't know why. I just have to do what I think I'm supposed to do at the moment. I can't really write it all down and plan it."
Bryan: Yeah, I do like to write down a plan, goals. I guess that's the way I like to think, it's through the written word.
Jeff: It's a good idea. But there are some of us, myself included, that doesn't really work that way.
Bryan: Yeah, everybody thinks differently. Some people think visually. Some think through talking or explaining. So, it was interesting to read — when I was researching your agency — that you've published more than 1,000 books over the past 25 plus years. So, could you give our listeners a flavor for some of the types of authors that you've published or the types of genres that you've published within?
Jeff: Yeah, sure. I mean, one of the very first books I was involved with became a major international bestseller, Chicken Soup for the Soul. That sort of set the pace for many of the books that I went on to publish, which were really all in the non-fiction space: motivation — what I think is called Mind Body, Spirit — health, reference, biography, memoir, everything pretty much within the non-fiction sphere, a little bit of fiction, and a little bit of children. Several of them made it to the primary bestseller lists.
But even more interesting is, the ones that didn't make it to the list are the ones that have sold the most copies over time, because they never went out of print. I mean, I have books that never sold more than maybe 10,000 to 15,000 copies in a given year, but they're still in print. And over their lifetime, they've sold close to a million copies.
Jeff: Well, I mean, the math adds up. There were some years there where there were some big boom sales of 50,000 to 100,000 copies. But the point is that the real measure of a book success is sustainability.
Bryan: It's interesting you say that. I was talking to an author a few months ago, Jeff, and she also explained that she earns most of her income from her back catalogue rather than whatever books she's published on a given year.
Jeff: Right, and that's the publishing model. I mean, most of your large publishers lose money on their frontlist. That's the most exciting part of their job, it's coming up with new product and putting it out there. But the real revenues are all sustained by the backlist, the catalog, which has titles in some cases that are 200 years old. No matter how many mistakes they make with the frontlist, they're always going to be on their feet because they have this huge backlist that's going to sustain all those mistakes.
Bryan: So, do you find that the type of self-help books that you published perhaps 15, 20, 25 years ago dates, or does that still continue to sell as well? Because I'd imagine a lot of thinking and writings in that field would move on, apart from a big brand like Chicken Soup for the Soul?
Jeff: Well, the thing is, self-help technology — I'm using that word holistically, broadly. Self-help technology is pretty much the same today in 2023 than it may have been in the year '23. I mean, basically, because the mind, the human personality, hasn't really changed very much in that time. People have to — you might say, "Well, how can they keep new books about it?" Well, the point is that with pretty much everything else, what people do needs to keep getting reinforced and reinforced and reinforced. There's always a new way to sing the same song. So, with the books in the self-help, how-to category, they can last forever. I never really have to explain them. There are certain terms that may become archaic or anachronistic.
Bryan: Yeah, I can imagine a lot of the psychology and the principles around mindset and so on are still as relevant today as they were when the book was first written. So, you have published or written the Jeff Herman's Guide 29 times or 30 times. Is that right?
Jeff: Yes, 29 times now. It hasn't been every year. Sometimes we take two years off. Sometimes we've taken three years off. But the point is, this is now the 29th edition. What changed is, well, first of all, the hard data. Because we give a lot of information about who the agents are in their own voices, and we give a lot of information about who the publishers are and who the editors are. So, that information will always be in flux. People die. They retire. They get to move around. So, that always is subject to revision. Then the patterns, the culture in publishing, and the methods of getting published has actually changed quite a bit in over the past 29 years. So, with each new edition of the book, we try to reflect what those changes have been.
Bryan: What would you say has been the biggest change over the past few years?
Jeff: Well, there's two things. First of all — this, I think, is across the international economy — is when I first started out, there were a few large corporate owned publicly traded houses, but they were just sort of a large percentage of the publishing landscape. But the majority was really the independent mom-and-pop publishing houses — independently, privately-owned small businesses with maybe 50 to 100 employees. There were up to 200 of these companies at any given time. They were dominating the publisher landscape.
You also had a much wider diversity of large bookstore chains. I'm not talking about just Barnes and Noble. There were at least half a dozen, plus a very vibrant mom-and-pop bookstore environment. There were also more places to find books, especially what we used to call big box or department stores. Department stores like Macy's are not the big deal. They used to be just 20 years ago. But these department stores, which were much more frequent especially in urban areas, they all had huge LP and record and book departments. They were as good as the book department you would find at a Barnes and Nobles. And the malls. Malls used to be a much bigger deal than they are today. Every mall tended to have at least one, if not, two or three, excellent bookstores. Now malls aren't what they used to be. It would be unusual to find a bookstore in a mall today, even if you find a mall.
Bryan: Yes, I'm in Ireland. We would have a similar experience here. There are less local bookstores. More people are just simply buying online.
Jeff: Yes, the online experience. Even though it's a different experience, it's not as interesting as walking into a bookstore. But it's immediate, and you don't have to go anywhere. It became very attractive during the pandemic. Let me add to that, that a lot of post-retirement baby boomers and younger people have been finding that it's very easy to open a small mom-and-pop bookstore. They find space in maybe even as little as 500 square feet in a small town, in a large town, wherever. They find that they can sustain themselves. There is now a big subculture of that. It's making a comeback, the small bookstore, mom-and-pop bookstore. Probably not in big urban areas where real estate is very expensive, but outside the urban areas.
Bryan: It might be a response to digital overload and too many apps and notifications.
Jeff: Yeah, especially in small main streets and so on, people like wandering into bookstores and having that experience, and looking at the books they wouldn't have ever seen if they're simply on Amazon. Because Amazon will basically show you the book you've asked for, and then maybe try to upsell you to some similar books. But the people who are pitching the similar books, they've paid for that space.
So, if you go to a mom-and-pop store, you can have a relationship with the owners. They may even sell coffee or wine. They'll have a conversation with you, or they'll have staff who will have a conversation with you about different books they've read and the ones you might enjoy. So, it's actually a very wholesome experience that you're not going to get online. So, I think that's a healthy comeback.
Bryan: A lot of new writers listening to this, Jeff, are probably wondering how can they find a book agent or a literary agent. What are the steps to finding a literary agent today?
Jeff: Okay. Again, the method has not really changed that much for how you would do that. The technology has changed, the delivery technology, but not the method. Basically, you obviously have to know what you've written. So, let's take a common category, romance novel. The first step is to find legitimate agents who have a history of representing romance novels.
The first thing you want to do is, anytime a so-called agency or publisher for that matter asks you to send the money before anything else happens, it's a very easy assumption that they're not legitimate, and that the way they're making their money — and sometimes a lot of money — is just telling people to send them money. That's the only service they're providing. They're saying, "Here's my address. Send me the money."
Everything should really be done on a contingency with agents. They work on commission. Because they work on a commission, they're very selective. So, it's not like they're out there begging the millions of romance writers to come break down their doors, because that would be unmanageable. But what they are open to are talented, publishable romance novelists, finding them. Because that's who they want to represent. So, how do you establish yourself as being one of those? Well, you just have to assume that you are. Then you have to unapologetically and modestly tell whoever you're pitching that, "Basically, I'm an excellent romance writer. The proof will be in the evidence." But you have to have that attitude of confidence.
Bryan: Could you walk me through what makes a good pitch? Because I would imagine a lot of this are cold emails.
Jeff: Yeah, I think you should avoid trying to write it like you're filling out a job application — which is what a lot of people do — and staying away from anything that's bureaucratic. In your language, the biggest mistake would be to say, "I am writing to you for the purpose of getting you to read my book." I mean, it's obvious why you're writing. You don't have to give a whole paragraph explaining it.
What I tell people to do is, you should research who the agents are — which you can get from my book and other online sources — and find those agents who are in the romance category. Then research a little bit about them and some of the books they've agented. Then start that first paragraph by flattering them, saying, "I really love your background. I really respect the books you've published. I hear great—" The point is that, if someone is getting 100 of these a day, and the two or three that opened the first paragraph talking to you personally as an agent, or an editor, for that matter, those are going to rise to the top. Okay. It may sound, "But what about the quality of the work?" Well, yeah, you'll get there. You'll get there later. But first, you got to get the person's attention. So, if you start talking about the person who's reading the letter, you'll get their attention, believe me, even if it's clearly servile.
Bryan: Are the authors including a finished manuscript along with their pitch?
Jeff: If you're talking about fiction, it's expected that you have a finished draft that's in pretty good condition. That's the expectation. Because it's very risky to acquire books or put any energy into a book that's only partially written. We're talking about fiction, not non-fiction. The reason for that is, too often, the fiction writer doesn't finish if something happens, or they don't finish at the same quality if something happens. It's just fiction is a relatively fragile practice. So, by having the whole body of work in their hands, they now know, gee, at least this person got to the end zone with the craft.
Bryan: And non-fiction?
Jeff: With non-fiction, non-fiction writing is much more sustainable. So, if somebody sends a very good non-fiction book proposal — there are guidelines for that — and maybe one or two actual sample chapters, on that basis, they can get a contract and get an advance before they finish 80% of the book. They won't get the rest of the advance until they finish the book. If they don't finish the book, they'll have to give back the advance. But 9 out of 10 times or 95% of the time, they finish the manuscript right the way it was expected by everybody. And everything goes well. So, it's much easier to get a contract on spec, obviously, with non-fiction than fiction.
Bryan: You mentioned about getting an advance for non-fiction. Do you think, in your time working in the industry, it's gotten harder for authors to earn a living from writing a book?
Jeff: The statistics and my experience say yes. The reason why is all the wealth in book publishing — there is wealth there — these now are mostly corporately owned companies, big, massive—
Bryan: The big five publishers.
Jeff: Yeah, big, massive media companies. They have access to serious capital. So, if they want to get Prince Charles to write a book, they can throw 25 million or more at him just to write the book. Hopefully, they'd figure they'll get it back from future royalties. Because advances are never returnable even if the book does not recover the advance in royalties. But because now all these massive advances are going to celebrities, people in government and so on, there's less wealth to go to everybody else. There's also loss of what used to be called the midlist.
The midlist were frontlist books that didn't get big advances, that weren't expected to be major sellers right away. They were expected to feed the backlist, the self-sustaining, maybe sell on a good year, 20,000 copies a year. But do that for 20 years every year, and make a profit for everybody every year. Modest advance, that's quickly recovered. That was a very good model for book publishing for 100 years, especially for the mom-and-pops. Because they didn't have the capital reserve to go give somebody a high set six figure or seven-figure advance. They could maybe, on a good day, give someone $100,000, which sounds like a lot of money. But compared to $25 million for a celebrity, it's not that much money.
The design of publishing, the modeling of publishing, has changed. That makes it very difficult, more difficult, for what I would call the middle-class writer to earn his or her living simply as a writer. They're probably going to have to have other sources of income, including a full-time job in addition to their writing.
Bryan: I have found a lot of non-fiction authors tend to supplement their book with a course or public speaking or perhaps coaching or some other sort of service.
Jeff: The book could be a sales leader. If you have a big program, an online program that people have to subscribe to, the book becomes a way to attract subscribers. Some people even offered their book as a freebie. They'll purchase it at a high discount from their publisher and then say, "Sign up for my free 20 minutes, and you'll get a free copy of my book." Enough people then will click on for the $500 program or $1,000 or $10,000 program so that it's worthwhile to give away a few 1,000 free books a year.
Bryan: Yeah, when the big five publishers were about to merge, or at least two of them, in December of 2022, I think authors like Stephen King were claiming it would lead to lower advances and book deals.
Jeff: Yeah, because it was going to, again, lower the competition for publishers. They weren't going to have to fight as much to get what they want. There wouldn't have been as much space for the non-millionaire writers. The 99% of people who write are not millionaire writers. They're not going to merit a meaningful six figure or seven-figure advance. It's easy for them to get lost in the shuffle.
Bryan: I was looking through your most recent edition of your book, Jeff. On one chapter, what stood out to me is post-publication depression syndrome. Would you be able to elaborate on what that is?
Jeff: Yes, that's actually not anything that's new. Most writers, before they get published — this may have been more true actually in the past — they thought, "Oh, my book is going to come out. I'm going to be on top talk shows and radio shows." Now, there aren't that many top talk shows anymore. But there are still the morning news shows and so on. They just had an assumption that they were going to become very famous. Or not very famous, but they were going to have a lot of fun out there in the media world, newspaper, interviews, and that anybody could walk into any bookstore and find their book.
What they quickly found — this was true even when I was first starting out in the '80s —most bookstores didn't have copies of their book. They weren't told that that's normal. Unless you have a bestselling book or a big selling book, it's very normal that most bookstores won't have your book in inventory. That's a whole other discussion, how that can happen. But there's a lot more books out there than there's space for. It's not like paper towels where you have three or four paper towel manufacturers. So, that was a disappointment.
The other disappointment is, they don't get any interviews. They don't get any reviews. It's kind of like, yeah, they've got a book out. It might be with Simon & Schuster or Random House. But they can't get themselves arrested on the basis of the fact that they wrote what could very well be an excellent book. So, that. Then it's just silent. You'd never have a reason to hear from your publisher again. It's during the writing of the book and the initial conversations about how it's going to be marketed, that's a very exciting dance to be at. But then, all of a sudden, you're thrown out with the pumpkins, and you didn't leave a glass slipper behind.
Bryan: It sounds like the promotion and marketing of the book is really up to the author rather than relying on someone else.
Jeff: Right. No one tells them that. Even when they're told that, it's like it doesn't matter because they don't know what it means. Why should they know what it means? That's not a business they're in. They may not even really be on the writing business. But whatever that means, it has no relation to marketing or publicizing? It's like, they're clueless. What do you mean I have to market? What do I do? Where do I start? There’s some good coaching for that, but there's also a lot of piranhas and sharks who will take a lot of money from you.
Bryan: Are there any specific tips or approaches that have worked well with your clients?
Jeff: Well, I would stick — I don't want to be an advertiser for big firms like maybe Amazon, things like that. But they have tutorials. They have a pay for programs, which will show you, depending on whatever your budget is, how you can leverage their website — which is 50% or more of book sales — how you can leverage their website to sell more of your own books, whether you're a self-publisher or a traditional publisher.
Like I said, they have a program to fit pretty much every budget. They walk you through it. They won't rip you off. It's not designed to rip you off. It's designed so that they make money from you. Every time you sell a book, they get 40% or more of that book sale. So, it's really very self-serving. But because it's self-serving, it serves everybody.
Bryan: Which explains why it's good to have a business model or something behind your book if you're writing non-fiction, or a back catalogue if you're writing fiction.
Jeff: Yeah, but like I said, as an individual, in my experience, it's very difficult to build a car from scratch if you've never worked in an auto company.
Bryan: Yes, it makes sense. So, Jeff, where can people read your book or learn more about your agency or your work?
Jeff: Okay. Well, it's sometimes available in bookstores. It distributes. It's also widely available on Amazon as a print book or as a Kindle digital download. They can reach me, if they want to talk about anything, at jeffherman.com. I'm happy to hear from people. I like writers. I don't try to bite their heads off or do other things that might discourage them. I won't take your money. But if there's a way we can make money together, that's a beautiful thing.
Bryan: The book is called Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents. I'll include links in the notes with this episode. But thank you for your time, Jeff.
Jeff: Thank you.
Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. If you did, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store or sharing the show on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening. More reviews, more ratings, and more shares will help more people find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. And did you know, for just a couple of dollars a month, you could become a Patreon for the show? Visit patreon.com/becomeawritertoday or look for the Support button in the show notes. Your support will help me record, produce, and publish more episodes each month. And if you become a Patreon, I’ll give you my writing books, discounts on writing software and on my writing courses.