Noah Lukeman is a literary agent, author, and industry thought-leader. Since founding Lukeman Literary Management in 1996, he has represented dozens of award-winning and bestselling authors, journalists, and celebrities, including Dan Chaon, Sting, and the Dalai Lama. Known for his innovative marketing strategies and his willingness to experiment, Noah has featured a number of successful price promotions with BookBub. We asked him for his insights on ebook promotion, the evolving publishing industry, and the continuing role that agents play in this shifting landscape:
BookBub: Could you give us a short bio of yourself and tell us a little about your agency?
Noah Lukeman: Sure. I’ve been a literary agent for almost 20 years, and have had my own agency for 19 years. I’ve represented over 200 book deals with all the major publishers, and have represented a broad range of commercial and literary fiction and non-fiction, including numerous New York Times bestsellers and winners or finalists for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. I’ve also myself authored several books on the craft of writing.
BB: How do you think the publishing industry has changed for agents specifically in the past few years? What unique challenges are you facing now?
NL: With the arrival of ebooks, the industry has changed dramatically in the last few years. Everything is faster, more global, and much more democratic. Self-publishing is taken much more seriously, and in many cases, the gatekeepers don’t hold as much importance, and I think that is a great thing. Some within the industry view ebooks as something to be feared — but I disagree. I view ebooks as a tremendous opportunity, and a wonderful thing for the entire industry.
BB: With the advent of self-publishing upon us, how can agents remain a valuable resource for authors? How can and/or will agents evolve to meet new demands from authors?
NL: A great question. In my view, there is still a role for the agent in ebook publishing — and perhaps an even bigger role — assuming the agent is tech-savvy and has truly embraced and understands the ebook world. For example, a good agent can advise on editorial issues — like title changes, synopses, the manuscript itself — and can also advise on price points, jacket design, and myriad other issues. A good agent can monitor sales daily and advise changes as needed; a good agent can advise on newly emerging distribution opportunities, which are popping up all the time both domestically and internationally. A good agent can help shape a career and help advise authors which genre to embark on or avoid. And of course, a good agent can negotiate a print deal, a film deal, and foreign rights deals. Let’s remember that print still accounts for a huge share of the market, and there are still very significant advances being paid, which an author might want to at least have the option to consider — if for no other reason than to broaden the readership for his ebooks. Not to mention, a good agent will know about places like BookBub and advise authors to use them. It could be that any one of these things (i.e. a title change, a price change, an ad on BookBub) makes all the difference in an author’s career, and earns the author far more than the 15 percent he pays the agent.
There also remains a firm place for agents of certain genres — for example, heavily illustrated titles like coffee table books, and serious works of history, for which authors often need substantial advances and which don’t always sell as well in ebook format.
That said, I preface all of this with “good agent,” because if an agent is not tech savvy and doesn’t have an extensive enough knowledge of the ebook world to be able to contribute something you don’t already know, then it may very well be that there is little, if anything, he can do for you that you are not already able to do for yourself. […] The last thing you want to do as a self-published ebook author is tie yourself up with an agent who does not tell you something you don’t already know, who takes 15 percent or more, and who ties you up in a long-term contract — especially if you are already doing well on your own. In this day and age, if you do decide to sign with an agent for a self-published ebook, I would advise you to limit your agreement to a term of one year, to protect yourself. If you are happy with him, you can always renew it.
BB: When and why did you start experimenting with running price promotions on your authors’ titles?
NL: I’ve been doing this since the very beginning, and I’ve noticed it makes a huge difference — especially when you are dealing with a series. What surprised me most was seeing the huge difference between a book priced at $0.99 and one priced at free, with the former sometimes selling a few copies a day and the latter a few hundred. Free can make all the difference in launching a series.
That said, free is no magic wand: the writing must be great; the jackets, the synopses, the plot, the characters, settings, etc. must all deliver. With a series, the books must also end on a genuine cliffhanger and propel you to the next. Even thousands of free downloads will not compel a reader to pay for your next book — you, as a writer, must achieve that. But, assuming you have the skills, then free can make all the difference.
BB: How do you use free promotions as a marketing strategy? Do you agree with some authors who argue that free promotions devalue their work?
NL: I strongly disagree with the notion that it devalues the work or the industry. With free ebook promotions, you are bringing in entirely new fans, those who are browsing for “free” and would have never encountered your work otherwise. If they are not downloading your book for free, they will be downloading someone else’s. Better to give up the earnings on the first title, and then have a smaller percentage of something rather than a larger percentage of nothing.
Publishers are very concerned with maintaining price point for the sake of the industry. I understand their perspective, but I don’t necessarily share it. I think they should experiment more than they do, and be far more flexible than they are. I also think they should raise ebook royalties substantially, so that indie authors, if they choose, can go with a major publisher and have an equally substantial royalty. If they don’t, they will continue to lose many great new authors to the indie ebook world and will find themselves increasingly obsolete.
BB: Do you have any plans to make some of your authors’ titles perma-free? If so, what’s the strategy behind this decision?
NL: Yes. If you’re dealing with commercial fiction, and with a series with many titles, then in that case I feel it’s a good strategy to make the first book in the series perma-free. Free titles tend to receive significantly more downloads, and a certain percentage of those readers — who were specifically browsing for “free” and would not have discovered you otherwise — will decide to buy some or all of the titles in the remainder of the series. “Free” is also understood in every language and every country, and you will bring in a lot more international readers, too, especially in emerging markets. And in the long run, as these markets develop, you will be laying the foundation for global sales and readers you would not have had otherwise.
On the other hand, if there are only two or three titles in the series and the price point per title is higher, then this is a harder decision. One might want to experiment with free for a finite period and see what happens. If it works, one can decide to make it perma-free — or not. The beauty of ebooks is that one can — and should — continually experiment, and see what works.
What surprises me is that experiments which worked for me two years ago don’t necessarily work now — and thus I’ve learned that one shouldn’t necessarily be too quick to draw conclusions about what works and what doesn’t in this ever-shifting landscape. […] Likewise, I wouldn’t assume that what works on Amazon will also work on Apple, [Google] Play, or Kobo. In my view, constant monitoring and experimentation is necessary, and rushing to conclusions and generalizations should be avoided.
BB: Can you tell us about one of your recent BookBub promotions? What title did you run; why did you choose that title; how did you determine the price; and what kinds of results did you see?
NL: The most recent BookBub promotion we ran was Death by Deceit by Jaden Skye, which is book #5 in a very successful mystery/romantic suspense series. We set the price to free (down from $5.99) and the results were excellent, as they always are with BookBub, with tens of thousands of free downloads. We often find that after a promotion, readers will discover other titles in the series, too, and that sales will not only spike, but also linger at a higher level for some time — and that was the case here, too. In my view, BookBub is the single most effective tool an author/agent/publisher can use for ebook promotion.
BB: How do you see the publishing landscape changing over the next several years? What new challenges and opportunities do you think might present themselves?
NL: If you think about how much has changed in the last few years, it shows you it is impossible to project into the future — and that is one of the most exciting things about the time we are living in now. I think we will all continue to be surprised over the coming months and years, as there continue to roll out an endless stream of new e-tailers and new technology that we could never have anticipated. A few of my predictions: In the next year or two, I foresee Google Play becoming an even bigger player, perhaps even rivaling Amazon; I foresee Samsung becoming a much bigger player, perhaps even surpassing Kobo; I foresee the library market finally opening up and becoming a dominant force — I still think it remains a largely untapped market; I foresee global sales becoming as substantial as sales in the U.S.; I foresee more cell phone companies rolling out their own ebook stores; and I foresee major retailers who are currently not in the ebook business eventually opening their own ebook stores and becoming much more important in the ebook marketplace. These are just a few of my thoughts — of course, I could be wrong about all of them! Only time will tell.
BB: Anything else you’d like to share with fellow authors, agents, and publishers — about the future of the industry, marketing tips and tools, etc. — would be great!
NL: The most important thing for aspiring writers is to keep writing — no matter what. Be very disciplined. Every day, write more than you think you can. Stick to a schedule. At the end of the day, one of the most effective selling tools is your number of titles out there. If one genre doesn’t work for you, try another. Never give up, never allow yourself to get discouraged, don’t pay attention to negative reviews, and always keep writing. If you work hard enough, and stay in it long enough, and experiment enough, I have no doubt that one day you will find success!
To find out more about Lukeman Literary Management, you can visit their website at http://www.lukeman.com. The interview above was edited for length.
Want to share this post? Here are ready-made tweets:
Click to tweet: A Literary Agent’s Advice on Book Marketing & Discounting – http://bit.ly/1L5Inbf via @BookBubPartners #pubtip
Click to tweet: With the advent of self-publishing upon us, how can agents remain a valuable resource for authors? http://bit.ly/1L5Inbf