When to sell your writing. When to pawn it.

Last night Igot sucked into the show, “Pawn Stars”, with DH.  It was more intriguing than the book I was trying to read.

The premise is to highlight the great treasures people bring in to sell.  The pawn shop owner seemed to have integrity and called in professional appraisers for items that might have been of significant historic or financial value. 

One guy popped in with a bar of gold.  After Granny passed away, the fam was going through her estate and found a hidden bar of golden goodness.  Pawn Shop Owner’s eyes bugged.  He held the bar and said, “Eh, you’ve got about $24,000 worth of gold here.  But…”

Yeah, the crusty white stuff on the bottom of the bar?  Coral.  The 1500’s bar was from a ship wreck.  Apparently, Granny and Grandpa hid the gold during the depression to save it from Roosevelt and his gold ban.  This little gem was found almost forty years after the ban was lifted in 1974.

The surviving family had no clue of its existence prior to dividing the estate.  The appraiser valued it at roughly $48,000.  Pawn Shop Owner bought it for $34,000–cash.  Gold Guy walked away with crisp $100 bills and a slight scowl.

Other people brought in worthless junk that Pawn Shop Owner wouldn’t touch.  Only one person with an offer walked away with her goods.  When Pawn Shop Owner didn’t settle on her price, she packed up and went home, believing she could find a more lucrative deal somewhere else.  One dude brought in his $100 artifact and walked out with a grin and $1,500.

Of course this got me thinking about the road to publication.  The process is really no different.

Fair market value (manuscript worth) is an estimate.  The real price is not known, can never be known, until the product is sold.  Anything is only worth something if someone is willing to buy it.  Period.  We might write up the cure for cancer, but unless someone will ante up cold hard cash for it, the formula remains worthless.

Take Gold Guy for example.  He wanted the entire $48,000 for his ship-wrecked gold.  Who wouldn’t?  After all, if it’s “worth” that much, why not pocket that much?

What Gold Guy needed to understand was that Pawn Shop Owner had the connections to sell the gold bar–something Gold Guy didn’t have.  Also, PSO was taking a gamble by purchasing said gold bar.  He still had to sell it and make a living in the meantime. 

Chances are Pawn Shop Owner will walk away with a hefty chunk of change for his effort.  But he has to work for that change.  He has to contact his buyers, haggle over a price and sign on the dotted line.  He may only sell the bar for 41 grand.  This can take time, energy and money.  In the interim, he has to pay for the lights, heat, rent, employees and those little trinkets that he loses money on. 

My assessment: Gold Guy wanted the full value–which can never be valued until after the final sale.  He was disappointed, yet sold anyway because on some level, he understood he couldn’t move that kind of artifact on his own.  Seriously, what’s he gonna do, sell it on ebay?  And get raked over the coals by someone with less integrity than the Pawn Shop Owner?

If we are smart, we will follow Gold Guy’s path.  We will realize our limitations within the industry and defer to the expertise of those more seasoned and better connected.

But sometimes we are like the lady who walked away.  We want what we want–ie, sell it now to the biggest publishing house in the world and get it on the NYT Best Seller List, yesterday.  We get grumpy when we our demands get turned down.  We pack up our manuscripts, shout invectives (from the comfort of our home) and covet our runaway debut novels because we know something great when we see it.  Even if the agent doesn’t.

If we are in that 2%, we are surprised to have our writing’s worth validated.  We hit the right agent who hits the right editor backed by the right marketing department that wants the publisher to print.  We hit the jackpot and end up turning our $100 worth of paper into a $1,500 advance.

Agents have the contacts that we don’t have.  They have the experience in negotiating contracts.  They have a far better understanding of the market value of our work.  Editors have a marketing department, and publishers have the cash for printing.  They can get our books on shelves where we simply cannot.

We need them as much as Gold Guy needed Pawn Shop Owner.  He could have taken his gold bar and gone home.  He could have told everyone he had a bar of golden goodness worth $50,000.  But really, until he had cash in hand, Granny’s hand-me-down gem was as worthless as our unrepped manuscripts.  

Conversely, he could have pawned it (left it sit in the shop until someone paid his $48,000 price) and paid a preset commission.  In this respect, he could have pocketed more money–whenever someone with a cool $50,000 stumbled into the store.  In other words, without active marketing, the gold could have sat unsold for an undetermined amount of time–and maybe even forever.  

Some publishing options sound frighteningly similar to this last scenario.  Unreputable agents and publishing companies can tie up manuscripts and rights and return little or no profit to the author.  Sometimes “repped” and “pubbed” manuscripts sit on the shelf collecting dust.  Self-publishing can work if writers are astute about the industry and know how to find buyers on their own.  Often, it fails and writers are left holding a gold bar with no customer base.

So, in the game of pawning your writing, how do you know when to sell or when to pack up and walk away?  At what point do we list our writing on ebay?  Do we go straight to the publishers and bypass the Pawn Shop Owner so we can keep a bigger cut, or do we trust in the value of an agent to have the better contacts?

All P’sOV are welcome here as long as comments remain respectful.



18 responses to “When to sell your writing. When to pawn it.

  1. I think there’s another layer of analysis needed here.

    There’s a difference between a pawn broker and a Sotheby’s agent. The pawn broker is an expert in pawning everything – being able to get rid of stuff at a profit. The Sotheby’s agent is an expert in knowing EVERYTHING about one item and arranging the best possible venue in which to put it before a maximum number of people willing to buy it so that they drive the price up.

    So, there are pawn shop publishers and Sotheby’s publishers, and everyone in between. The real question is how much is either going to add to the value proposition.

    • So, what you’re saying is that having an agent who typically reps horror is not necessarily the best agent to rep my picture books on bunnies? If I had fuzzy, bunny books.

      Hear, hear. Every agent brings something different to the table. It’s our job as writers to know how our expectations match up with the agent’s. I fear too many writers simply jump on the first postitive offer and don’t care what kind of service they get. Until it is too late.

      Thanks for weighing in.

      • No, I’m saying that one agent might find you a pub who gives you a $3000 advance, prints 20000, does nothing and drops you, another will give you $5000, print 50000, sell them all and send you another check!

      • I want the second kind!

        But again, there are no promises regardless of who reps you. Ultimately, it’s all in the buyer. Even with the best marketing, should-have-been-great novels have tanked, while unexpected gems seem to pop up out of nowhere.

        Big names come with better contacts, but that alone cannot guarantee success. As writers, we have to know what and who is right for us at a given time in our journey. I have one chapter book that I think can/will be huge. I have another that I know is a great book, but will never be more than a niche novel. These require very different approaches and each have different expectations attached to them because of it.

  2. So long as you keep your expectations realistic, I think sell to whoever will buy. Believing your debut novel will hit the NYT best list is like walking into Vegas and expecting your debut dollar to break the slots.

    Not going to happen. It might happen, sure, but what are the odds.

    It’s a good point to remember that your work is only worth what someone will pay, nothing more. That’s true of anything you sell. Ask your husband about tractors. It’s the same gig.

    – Eric

    • Eric,

      I think we often fall into the trap of pitting our work against other work out there. We don’t focus on the business aspect of publishing, which is that our work is only worth something if someone will buy it–regardless of if it’s still in manuscript form or already pubbed and sitting on the shelves in hardcover.

      All we have to do is look at the remainder tables to know that some books make it and others do not meet the reading public’s expectations and demands. What sells today for fifty bucks may only sell for $15 tomorrow.

      That’s why we have to learn all we can about the industry and the professionals within it. We also need to be proactive about understanding our needs and how we can help meet them.

      Thanks for your input. Every little bit sheds light on the subject and can potentially help educate other writers on their journeys.


      • Oddly, it seems to me, the remainder table contains many New York Times bestsellers. A ton of Patterson books. The Pulitzer-winning Oscar Wao. Why? Because the print runs (which are what triggers the NYT bestseller label) were ridiculous.

      • Yes, I’ve seen those big names there as well–in the midst of authors I’ve never heard of before and will never hear from again. Regardless of how awesome the writing might be.

        There is no doubt that every side of the publishing coin has pros and cons. Big name authors have stumbling blocks, as do debuters. The Big Names just have more money and can afford bigger mistakes.

  3. It might be more of an issue of A list versus B list agents. The question is probably moot, however, because unless agents are knocking the door down to sign them, I think people pretty much take who they can get. Like Gold Guy did.

    • Layinda, you may be right, but I think we owe it to ourselves to determine where we try to peddle our goods. We forget that we are previewing the agents as much as they are previewing us. I firmly believe that no representation is better than bad representation.

      As much as I believe in my work, I don’t want to be so hungry that I sign with the first person who shows me a french fry and a burger coupon. I want a sit down dinner with good company and few awkward silences.

      On the other hand, I don’t want to be so pretentious and picky that I end up having to eat my words just to stay alive.

      LOL! Is there anything else I’d like to order up in my perfect little world?!?!?

      • I didn’t mean bad agents, just B list (not necessarily the cream of the crop, but researched and reputable). 🙂

      • Layinda, as astute writer Elana Johnson once said, “The perfect agent is the one who is passionate about your project.” or something paraphrased in that likeness.

        But she’s right, which is what we are both trying to say. No matter where an agent ranks on our submission list, we need to want them for whatever virtues they can share with us. If they are undesirable and untrustworthy, we should never submit to them in the first place.

        That is why I have a hard time buying into the “it’s a numbers game–the more you submit the better your chances of getting repped” philosophy. I think judicious sorting of agents via available info and writer’s needs/expectations should happen as a rule, not as an exception.

        But again, we’re kicking around the same idea, but using different words!

        Thanks so much for continuing this discussion. I think it is so important for us to keep in mind.

  4. I’m trying the “send it to all the agents who rep my genre” route, while still researching them to make sure they’re not a scam. And I think I’d take a small press if they didn’t feel they could sell to a large one. I’d be a little disappointed, but it would be a stepping stone.

    • Barbara,

      I wouldn’t mind a small press at all. I think there is a greater potential to sell niche or out of the box novels to them than there is the big houses. Of course, I’m unrepped and unpubbed, so what do I know?

      Although I have heard authors rave about their small presses and the wonderful attention they get with them. It’s kind of like going to college. When you’re a freshman, you sit in classes of 200 kids. By the time you hit your specialized classes for your major, you share the professor with a handful of students. I personally liked being on a first name basis with my instructors instead of being a number in a sea of faces.

      Of course, that just might be me, because I still like living in a small town where I can wave to 75% of the drivers that pass me by versus speeding down the highway in utter anonymity.

  5. I can’t even imagine navigating the ins and outs of the publishing world without an agent. *shudder* Not that I’m even querying yet, but I hope to snag an agent some day!

    • Jemi,

      I used to be okay with that thought, but things have changed so much, so fast, in the industry that the thought of going agent-less does send a bit of a shiver down the spine.


  6. I’m with Jemi (and you), I couldn’t imagine trying to walk the publishing tightrope without an agent. How scary would that be?

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