“I'm a huge fan of self-publishing” — An interview with literary agent David Fugate
You know we like to bring you some of publishing's most forward-thinking voices here on the Reedsy blog. This interview is one we've been meaning to do for a while, so you won't be disappointed… David Fugate is the founder of LaunchBooks Literary Agency. He had worked as a literary agent for 20 years before setting it up, and now represents renowned authors such as Andy Weir (author of The Martian), Scott Berkun (previously interviewed on this blog), or Chris Guillebeau. He has successfully represented a wide range of fiction and nonfiction projects to more than 40 different publishers that have generated in excess of $20 Million for their authors.
If you’re still unsure of what an agent can do for you and whether they’re compatible with self-publishing; or if you’re just curious about the current publishing landscape, this is a must-read.
Hi David. We’re honored to have you on the Reedsy blog today. You have started your own agency because "you knew exactly what kind of books you wanted to work on". What's been the biggest challenge in "starting from scratch"?
Thanks very much for having me. This August will actually make it 10 years since I founded LaunchBooks and so many incredible things have happened in that time that it almost feels like anything before LaunchBooks was another lifetime at this point.
There were plenty of challenges in the beginning, though. When I left my previous agency to found LaunchBooks in 2006, I left with nothing. The way that agency was set up, the authors were technically clients of the agency, not my clients. That meant when I left I had no residual income, no clients, and no guarantee that any of my clients would want to come with me to LaunchBooks.
I also left with the plan to radically change my focus from what had predominantly been computer and technology titles to a much broader range of trade nonfiction and eventually fiction. That meant some clients who did want to come with me wouldn't be a fit for what I was trying to do at LaunchBooks, which was as tough personally as it was professionally.
The goal was to focus only on projects I found personally compelling. My thinking was that with no one looking over my shoulder at quarterly numbers, I'd take on what I loved and let the chips fall where they may. If it worked, great, and we succeeded together. If it failed, then my author and I both failed working on something we really cared about.
Of course, all of that meant I had to really hit the ground running to find new authors and projects to represent. And since publishing money can be slow money, that meant lighting a lot of money on fire that first year while I started developing projects and getting things going. That part was thrilling, but also scary.
Luckily for me, things have worked out better than I could've imagined back then and after what will now be ten years of consecutive growth, my only regret in founding LaunchBooks is that I didn't do it sooner. I really love what I do and I've been fortunate to work with some truly incredible authors.
When you first approached Andy Weir about the Martian, he told you he didn't need an agent. What did you do to change his mind?
I'd like to say that I made some kind of grand, persuasive argument, but it was simple, really. I told Andy it wouldn't cost him anything to let me give it a shot. I don't make any money until my author gets paid and I made it clear that if he wasn't blown away by whatever deal I brought to him, he could pass and continue self-publishing the book. It's hard to beat zero risk and free.
I also don't think Andy had a real sense of the kind of deal (and publisher) I was talking about, so when Julian Pavia over at Random House was as excited about the book as I thought he'd be, and when I presented the terms to Andy, he was thrilled to take it. Thankfully, I think everyone is happy that he did (even Matt Damon and Ridley Scott).
You have been one of the first agents to embrace self-publishing as a valid publishing option for authors. The first ever author you represented, Ingrid Croce, has actually been successfully self-publishing since she got the rights back to her book. Now, for LaunchBooks you consider proposals from authors who are self-published and are looking for print and/or foreign rights deals?
I'm a huge fan of self-publishing (in all its myriad forms) and what it has done for both authors and readers. I think it's amazing that it's no longer a question of if your work will be published, but how. I also find it tremendously gratifying to know that if what you're doing is good, you absolutely will have an opportunity to find an audience for it. It just feels like a much more hopeful, positive environment in which to be a writer. In fact, I often tell writers that now is the best time, in the entire history of the written word, to be a writer.
I even self-published my own book, The Unconventional Guide to Book Publishing. Well, I say self-published, but it was actually published by Chris Guillebeau, who I also represent. So he's both my client and my publisher. How fun is that?
Many of the authors I work with — including some of my biggest selling authors — either started out self-publishing, or still self-publish certain works as part of their overall strategy. That includes NYT bestselling authors like Andy Weir, Chris Guillebeau, DJ Molles, and many others.
That said, I don't typically look for projects to pick up just for print or foreign rights. I'll of course consider anything, as every situation is different, but my focus is finding those authors I can pitch to the major publishers and help take their careers to an entirely different level.
A question I often get from authors is whether by self-publishing digitally they kill any chance of the book being really really successful in print later (if picked up by a publisher). What's your take on it?
Oh, I don't think it does at all. A quick check of Publishers Marketplace shows more than 400 deals in their database for books that were initially self-published, and that trend will only get stronger. And of course, some truly major books - The Martian, included! - started out life as self-published books.
When a self-published book does well, it can not only help your chances of getting the book picked up by a major publisher — if that's what you want — it can also put you in line to receive a much bigger deal than you would have otherwise.
Where it can be problematic is if you self-publish a book and it doesn't sell well. At that point there's really not much you can do because publishers' responses will essentially be "The market has spoken." When it comes to self-published books, publishers only bet on success, which makes sense when you think about it.
So my advice for anyone who wants to self-publish first is: do it well. And if you're unsure about whether you want to traditionally publish or self-publish my advice is often to try traditional publishing first. If you approach it the right way, you can figure out very quickly if it will work with a traditional publisher. And if not, you can always self-publish and all you've lost is a little time.
However, for anyone who wants to self-publish their book first, the key is to make sure you really go for it. Don't just put it out there and hope that readers will somehow discover it. Have a marketing plan and pursue it with more of an entrepreneurial mindset. That can be difficult for some authors, but given the amount of noise out in the market, if you want to really give your work a chance to do well, you have to do what it takes to let readers know it's out there.
When I read your fiction "submissions" section, I personally thought "I'd like to read every fiction work this agent represents". I wish you had an email list I could subscribe to. That led me to thinking: don't you think there is currently a lost opportunity for agents in building actual reader-facing brands?
I'm not sure about that. I tend to think that any time I'd have to spend working to develop a reader facing brand of my own — and we could be talking about quite a bit of time there — would be better spent working on behalf of my authors. After all, it's not about me. It's about the authors I work with.
I even find it a little uncomfortable when people want to congratulate me on books I've worked on, whether it's The $100 Startup, The Martian, The Remaining, The Fold, Ghost in the Wires, or any of the books I've been involved with. I'll often respond with something like, "Thanks, but I didn't write a word of it." "Yea," they'll say, laughing a little, "but you helped make it happen." That's true, but it's also true that none of my authors' books are successful simply because I represented them. They're successful because the author wrote a book that readers loved and told others about. And that's the result of the months and sometimes years of hard work their authors poured into them.
And just thinking about it at a higher level, does anyone outside of Hollywood know who represents Robert Downey, Jr? What about Scarlett Johansson, Chris Pratt, or Matthew McConaughey (all awesome, by the way)? People inside publishing might know who represents George R.R. Martin, Stephen King, or Haruki Murakami, but do any readers? I doubt many would and I also think that's the way it should be.
As long as I know that having me involved in the project is a net benefit for my authors then I'm happy. Let the authors have the recognition from readers. They're the ones who deserve it.
Would you agree that "now is the best time to be a writer"? How do you see the role of the agent changing in the next few years? Let us know your thoughts, or any questions for David, in the comments below!