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Don Burleson Blog 









Computer book authors agencies and computer book agents

Don Burleson

As an experienced computer book author who has published more than 30 books over the past decade, I have watched in-wonder as desperate computer book authors (mostly author wannabees) hire a computer book agent to represent their interests!

As a successful computer book author I've never had any trouble getting book contracts with major publishers including McGraw-Hill, Wiley, CRC Press, O'Reilly, Rampant Techpress, and many others.  Talent agents for technical authors are virtually unknown in the IT publishing industry.  Various estimates indicate that less than 1% of computer books have authors who are represented by a talent agent.

I once called a computer book agent to see what a "computer book talent agent" was all about. The agent reminded me of a Amway evangelist, pumping me up with all sorts of promises. I was told that a computer book agent would negotiate contracts and easily pay the cost of their 15% of my royalties. I was told all sorts of things that I knew to be false, and I got the distinct impression that this person knew very little about the computer book industry.

Later, when I became a series Editor for Coriolis Publishing, I learned the realities of computer book publishing:

  • Publishers are choosey about authors - Publishers invest tens of thousands of dollars in books, and they are very choosey about the author. Newbie's and first-time authors are especially dangerous.  I've had desperate first-time authors plagiarize book proposals, falsify article records and deliver content that was directly stolen from other works!
  • The author reputation sells the book - A known computer book author with lots of online articles and an industry reputation can double the sales of any computer book.  These are no shortcuts.  I published over 50 articles before I was approached by a major computer book publisher.
  • It's a buyers market - As a computer publisher series editor, I was able to find dozens of authors for computer books just by perusing the online portals. There never has been a shortage of computer book authors, and any agents who say that they can give a first-time author a list of titles to choose-from is ludicrous..
  • Agents can ruin author opportunity - When I was with Coriolis (and later Rampant TechPress), I located over 50 authors for computer books.  In every case where an author was represented by a computer book agent, the deal fell-through, mostly because of the agents lies and high-pressure tactics. I dreaded talking with any computer book agent because it usually meant listening to hours of lies and manipulation.
  • Why pay an agent? - Fifteen percent is a huge cut of computer book author royalties and I'm told that the agents tell their authors that they can negotiate a higher royalty rate!  Ha!  Most major computer book publishers offer non-negotiable royalty rates for first-time computer book authors. 

For example, O'Reilly computer book author contract royalty details are published for all to see, and I know that I got the "standard" 10% for both O'Reilly books that I published.  I'm told that some computer book agents tell clients that they can negotiate a higher rate from O'Reilly, and I find this very hard to believe, especially after talking with the O'Reilly acquisition editors who vehemently deny the computer book agents claims.

Why many computer publishers hate agents

In my years as a series editor for computer books, my job is to identify hot computer topics and then find the best possible authors for the computer books. Finding authors is the easy part, and the hardest task is finding a top niche topic.

  • Computer book agents steal my book ideas - I've had arrogant computer author talent agents offer-up a mediocre author and then steal my title idea and start offering it-up to other publishers with the same author that I had rejected!  I don't trust computer book agents, and believe me, I'm not the only computer book publisher who feels that way.
  • Computer book agents can be unreasonable - In more than one case, the agent's ridiculous demands made it impossible to sign-on their author.  Like most publishers, I'm not going to pay for an attorney to re-do a fair boilerplate contract for a first-timer or an unknown computer book author. I once had an agent try to get the publisher to waive the authors liability! Really, I'm not making this up. The computer book agent insisted that the author should have no responsibility for any plagiarism or copyright violations in their manuscript! Of course, Coriolis told the author to take-a-hike!
  • Some computer book agents lie - In case after case, computer book agents over-zealously represent their clients to me, exaggerating the author's popularity, reader base and popularity of their titles. In one case I had an agent tell me that so-and-so's book sold over 40k copies. I check the real sales on Bookscan and discovered that the actual sales were less then one-fifth of the agent's claim. In one case, an agent told me that so-and-so publisher was bidding on the same book project and offering a 15% royalty! I knew the person at so-and-so, and quickly confirmed my suspicion that the scumbag agent had told them that my publisher was offering 15% too! Of course, the author lost the contract, and I eventually learned not to bother with anyone desperate enough to need a computer book agent.

I recently talked with an author wannabee who has just signed with a computer book agency. This guy had never published any book and told me that their new computer book agent was a Godsend:

"They have already sent me a list of over 20 potential book titles to choose from. Best of all, they handle my contract negotiation and get me the very best deal."

This nonsense reminds of when my 16-year-old son was taken-in by a Cutco (Vector marketing) get-rich sales pitch. Personally, I don't "suffer fools gladly", and a computer book author who has an agent is a run-screaming red-flag for me.

What kind of authors needs a computer book agent?

Many computer book author agents claim that they deliver hundreds of "publications" every month. However, when you tale a closer look you see that most of the publications are tiny whitepapers and technical documentation that are published for a very limited audience. In my humble opinion, these are the types of people that I see who "need" a computer book agency to get a contract:

  • I can't read hard words - "Gee, this computer book publishing contract is too hard for me to understand. I don't comprehend written words too well, so I'd better get a computer book agent to tell me what my contract says." 
  • I'm lazy - "It's way too much trouble for me to build my reputation by writing dozens of articles for computer magazines. The agent says that publishers are lined-up to offer me exciting big-money book contracts.  Plus, it might take two hours to negotiate the contract, and I'd rather pay the computer book agent 15% of my royalties."
  • I don't want to be responsible for my words - "How dare the publisher ask to make me legally responsible for my own words? If I plagiarize or steal content, it's up to the publisher to find it. I'm not going to get sued, and besides, the publisher can afford it."
  • I deserve big bucks - "I want the money and nice things that I deserve. Mom says I'm special, and all those article rejections were only because the magazine was out to get me. I'm tired of being told that I'm risky.  I deserve the same $30k advance that the top computer book authors get."

Personally, I can't stand people to feel falsely self-entitled, and these must be the people who buy-those get-rich-quick things on late-night TV, you know, the ones that say "Get the money you deserve". Grow up. Nobody owes you anything; you have to earn it.

Here is what a successful computer book author Philip Greenspun of M.I.T. says about using a computer book agency:

Folks on the Studio B mailing list were generally in favor of hiring an agent, delegating to him or her the contract negotiation, and giving the agent 15 percent. If I'd had a proposal and no publisher, I would have hired an agent, mostly to save myself the degrading process of selling the proposal/manuscript. However, I did not hire an agent for the following reasons:

  • I discovered that authors with agents were still having to swallow the indemnification clause, which was the part of Macmillan's standard contract that upset me the most.
  • I discovered that authors with agents weren't getting substantially better financial terms than I'd negotiated for myself.
  • Macmillan had approached me to do the book and if they were willing to offer reasonable terms and do a good job selling it, I thought it would be a waste of time and rude to shop it around to other publishers looking for an extra 10%.
  • My philosophy is that Internet should eliminate a lot of middlemen and agents fall into this category.

Again, these are only my personal opinions about computer book agents, but I've talked with many fellow series editors who quietly question the skills of any potential computer book author who "needs" an agent to get a computer book contract.



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