Who Is Doing This?
So I was going to write a post about the sorry state of fiction publishing during this transition period, as we watch the established presses, gatekeeper agents, chain booksellers and respectable book review outlets grind through the death throes of their former heyday — those days soon gone forever when they got to decide what books we should read.
I was going to detail a few of the horrors that one former “mid-list writer” (me) witnessed as she set off on her lonely road to self-publication, and witnesses still as she trudges down the even more harrowing and thorny trail of self-published-book promotion. Several of the appalling sights I’ve seen have contributed to a precipitous decline in my faith in my fellow human beings, such as:
So, yeah. It’s a pretty disgusting time to be a fiction fan – as I am, both as a writer and a reader. I remember a bookseller once telling me (about 30 years ago) that she didn’t bother to take ID from book purchasers when they wrote cheques because they were all so honest. The nature of the beast seems to have changed, and I am very sorry to be seeing it.
What I was going to do was to just advise everyone to stay away from fiction–even mine!–until this all shakes down. If you can’t trust what is being published to be good, and you can’t trust the reviews to be honest, much less representative, then what’s the point?
But then I reminded myself that this IS just a transition stage. I reminded myself how far we’ve come in the past four years. I remembered how I’ve noticed that several of the newly published writers I didn’t feel were very good seem to have given up on their dreams to become millionaires from writing the next knock-off Twilight, and stopped plugging their books everywhere. It seems likely that many others who are not “real writers” will follow because this is (as it always has been) a hell of a lot of thankless work.
I thought about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours and reminded myself that I’ve been at this fiction-writing stuff – working at improving my writing – for more than thirty years now. I reminded myself that I finished my (first) half marathon back in the 1990s , and lost 30 lbs last autumn, by keeping on and keeping on–no matter what. Giving up on writing, even for a few months or years, is not an option anyway: I love to write. A writer is who I am.
I told myself that within another few years, there will be a new and much better system, in which the readers will find the good books for themselves from among all the self- and traditionally published books that are released, and then will tell the rest of us about them on book blogs that we will come to trust to point us in the best direction for our own personal reading interests. Within a few years, really good editors will offer to put their imprints on self-published books they’ve edited and liked. There will be awards programs that are open to both kinds of fiction publications. Writers who have established presses and agents will stop dumping and ignoring on principle those of us who are not dragging around similar litters of dependents. (See, for example, this.) We will have book review outlets we can trust to cover ALL good fiction writing, no matter where it comes from, and booksellers who will recognize their new roles as community gathering places for book lovers rather than as gatekeepers.
It will take a few more years for the evolution to shake down properly, but it will happen. And I am optimistic, despite my dismay and discouragement right now, that the world is going to be a better, more open and less expensive place for writers and for readers. And that we will once again be seen as a group as honourable people who are kind and supportive of one another.
So I decided not to write that depressing, bleak, discouraging blog post I had been thinking about after all.
- Directed by Lesley Manning
- Written by Martin Wagner
- Starring Stephen Kennedy, William Beck, Maureen Lipman
- 80 minutes, available on iTunes
“It’s not a real gun, of course. It’s more a metaphorical one.”
What more gratifying line could a scriptwriter invite a desperate novelist to deliver as he raises his weapon toward the head of his indifferent literary agent? Even more satisfying—both to the plot and to any artist-viewers who may have been feeling powerless or even disposable of late—the metaphorical gun will force agent Alexander Joyce to create a bidding war among publishers for Stephen Parker’s second novel, Black: a property Joyce has already dismissed as hopelessly unmarketable. In fact, until Parker’s threat completely changes the dynamics between the two, the agent’s greatest aspiration for their meeting (which he has somehow fitted in between the kinds of intriguing things that agents do all day) is that Parker will simply go away —forever. Joyce has bigger fish to fry.
Parker has arrived for this meeting—by bus, four months after he first sent in the manuscript—full of hope and at the end of his tether. If this second novel doesn’t sell, his wife will likely take the kids and leave him. He will have to find a job. Backpacked and rumpled, Parker (equal parts nerdy insecurity and steely overconfidence, played to perfection by Stephen Kennedy) plies an emotional razor’s edge through his meeting with Joyce. He wavers back and forth from cowering submission to his agent’s every word, to desperate self-assurance as he sees his beloved manuscript moving closer to rejection. He will “do anything” to get this novel published.
Joyce, for his part, is in the business of literary agency not because of any deep love for books: he’s a salesman, in it for the money. (“There are no real readers any more,” he scoffs to Parker at one point. “When is the last time you sat down and read a book just for the pleasure of it?”… to which Parker, mystified, replies, “Last week?”) In addition to his forceful explanation of the realities of publishing, Joyce (energetically and convincingly portrayed by William Beck) absently points out vague flaws in Parker’s new novel (the title is horrible, the characters too passive, it needs a bigger crisis … that sort of thing: unfortunately he can’t find his notes), and reduces Parker below even his normal level of dejection by reminding him that his first novel may have attracted good reviews, but there were no sales at all.
But Joyce does love his work. His passion is for the “the deal”: he loves to play one publisher off against another, to get the highest price possible for any book he does believe will sell—and then to wring out even more. As viewers, we are forced to ask ourselves what writers would not want agents just like this to represent them? We also recognize that Joyce’s concerns about Black sound valid—the novel is not dramatic enough to be commercial. Its author has no track record. He is not young enough, nor sexy enough, nor female.
By the time Parker draws his metaphorical weapon, we are utterly sympathetic to his plight—but, much to our surprise, we also feel some respect and understanding for the agent. We recognize that it is at this juncture, every day, in locations like this office, that creative genius meets the bottom line—the dollar, the yen, the pound—and we know that art does not often emerge alive from confrontations such as these.
The Agent, the film version of a play that ran in London in 2007, is in every way a story about perspectives. At the outset, only the writer has anything invested in the project—and he has everything invested (some might say too much, while others would say that without this degree of investment, “art” can never happen). To Stephen Parker, the 350 pages he is submitting to his agent represent several years of his past and all of his hopes for the future. But for everyone else along the line—from the postal clerk who stamps the package (and who forces Parker to admit straight off that it contains “nothing important”) through Joyce to the publisher (Lipman)—who is really looking for someone young and hot but will settle for a middle-aged author if a book is really really good (which this one is. She knows it. She has read it. Not in this case because the system works to get good literature to her desk, but rather because it doesn’t), it is just another manuscript, another day’s work.
But once the “gun” is drawn, the manuscript takes on new weight: suddenly its potential impact on the life of the agent is equal to its meaning for the writer.
One of the most remarkable achievements of The Agent is that it allows even the most irate and jaded writer in the audience to see that a literary agent is human too, with needs and goals that are important and worthy of respect in the larger world of publishing. Alex Joyce is not at all a bad guy. He is in business to feed himself, his family and the clients who are able to write in such a way that will earn them all a living.
There seems to be no doubt that Martin Wagner has written this script out of personal experience. The humour is bitingly real—from the writer’s knowing more about the agent’s assistant’s life than the agent does himself, to the physical inaccessibility of the agent’s office, to the parallels and variations between the lives of the writer and the agent (case in point: their dental work, or in Parker’s case, the lack of it).
Viewers with no connection to publishing (or filmmaking, or visual art, or to the music industry) will probably see The Agent as a droll drama set in a bizarre world far beyond their ken. Artists will see the film for what it really is: a story that contains the classic elements of both tragedy and comedy, with dialogue so real it will make them cringe, cause their eyes to tear up, and set their heads to nodding until their necks ache. They will find in The Agent a tale of horror, with a lining that—true-to-life—always seems for the artist to be more black and heartbreaking than silver.
The Agent was released directly to DVD, and is now available via iTunes and other outlets.
… or “Whoops! My book has started selling – I’d better get it edited.”
While the old guard in the books industry is still busy struggling to figure out how to give traditional publishers, agents and bookstores some relevance in the new order, a far more significant change is taking place just beyond their (albeit limited and utterly self-focused) lines of vision. Due to the availability of thousands upon thousands of free books by beginning authors in electronic format, and the proliferation of e-book reading devices with fodder-hungry owners, it is no longer editors or agents who are now combing through the slush pile looking for the gold: it is the readers.
A note to the non-writers: the “slush pile” is a term that has been used for centuries to describe the manuscripts that writers have sent to publishers uninvited, in the hope that they would be “discovered” and made famous. The term “slush pile” distinguished these unsolicited manuscripts from those that were sent to publishers by agents, established writers, or a senior editor’s aunt in Rapid City, Iowa. Interns generally read the slush piles, which were mostly full of dross, but (tradition has it) occasionally the readers found a Rowling or a Hemingway in there, and a career was launched.
The transition from editorial-office slush piles to online ones has happened so quickly that the mainstream books industry is largely unaware of it, as are most writers and most readers. The evolution has taken place in a climate where, over the past couple of years, new and inexperienced writers have proudly put their first books out in e-book format – usually created at little-to-no cost to them – only to discover that attempts to sell their novels or memoirs at $2.99 or $1.99 or even $.99 are fruitless. No one wants them.
That has led these writers to discover that if they put the same books out there at zero cost, e-book-reader owners will snap them up by the dozens—as if they were free marbles. Suddenly the writer’s “sales” figures shoot through the roof – from zero sales to 4,000 in a weekend is not uncommon among my social media “writer” contacts. Their books also start climbing up the bestseller-in-their-genre lists (romance, western, etc.) on Amazon.
Of course, their sales are illusions – nobody is actually “buying” their books and the writers are not making any money, and usually after a few days of skyrocketing numbers of downloads, when the writers put a price back on the book – having a new but deluded appreciation for their own worth— it drops off the bestseller lists and sales are once more insignificant.
Building An Audience of Readers
But what happens next? That is the question that all of us who are watching this phenomenon have been asking, and on a recent Monday I began to learn the answer. On that morning, I read a posting by an acquaintance on FaceBook that said, “Oh, whoops! My book has started selling. I’d better edit it.” Someone replied, “If it’s selling, why edit it?” to which the original poster responded, “Oh, nothing major. Just spelling, typos and formatting. Things like that.”
Coming from a background in the books industry—I have published four books with traditional presses, been editor-in-chief at a publishing company, and freelance-edited almost every kind of writing under the sun for thirty years—I was flabbergasted that anyone would put a book out there— in electronic or any other format—without editing it. I expressed my outrage on Reddit and a writers’ forum and attracted great interest from other writers and readers – most of whom were in my corner when it came to the importance of doing as good a job on editing as you can (and can afford) before you offer a book for “sale” – even at no cost.
What amazed me were the responses from people who have been downloading all these books for free. This was the first time I had heard them speaking – the first inkling I had gained into what was happening to cause all of those free books – good, bad, indifferent – to be downloaded onto all those Kindles, Nooks and Kobos. To my surprise, these readers (many of them quite literate) seemed far less perturbed than the writers were about the condition of the editing and formatting – what they wanted to see was good writing and good stories. They had downloaded dozens or even hundreds of free books by people they had never heard of, just because the books were free. They sampled them like new food: if they liked what they read, they kept going. If they didn’t they stopped reading after the first page, or the first few pages or the first hundred pages. They had no commitment to finishing the book: they had paid nothing for it. The only books they finished were the ones that kept them reading: which was, I realized, just the way readers of the slush piles in the publishing houses treated manuscripts.
More importantly, they said they would remember the names of the writers whose books they had liked, and they would follow up and read what these writers published next time. It sounded to me as though they might even be willing to pay for those next books.
It is in ways like this that a new books industry is being born, and the old one being swept away forever. The Publishers of the Future will not dictate what readers want to read, they will learn what readers want to read – from the readers. Then they will publish the NEXT books the readers have found in the new slush pile – which is what the mountain after mountain of free ebooks has obviously become – and they might even offer to clean up the editing on the first ones.
(And if the publishers are lucky, the writers might actually deign to give them their second books. However, after having tested their mettle on real readers without the interference of the books industry, and enjoyed the power and freedom of creating and marketing their own books, they may decide to self-publish the second ones as well. We’ll see what happens there.)
In the meantime, it is nothing but great news for writers that books in the slush pile are no longer being read by those who THINK they know what readers want (publishers and agents), they are now being read by those who DO know what they want: the readers.
I love this brave new world.
Predicting the rise of the literary editor
In addition to the potential to reach a wider audience, my major reasons for wanting to get to the desks of the major publishers are two-fold.
First, the major publishers employ many of the world’s finest books editors (yes. They do so. Granted those editors are usually busy with a million other unrelated tasks, but they can also edit! I am not talking about the publishers or the business managers. I’m talking about the editors).
The other reason is looking after all the hassle of the business end of things–warehousing, distribution and some of the promotion (a job that is increasingly shared by the writers, which is a relief to me. And I am not talking about writing jacket copy, but about dreaming up and executing unique and interesting sales and marketing approaches.)
Most literary writers know that trying to edit one’s own work is as potentially fatal as is trying to remove what appear to be superfluous organs from one’s own body. If these writers are unable to find publication by the world’s major publishers, they are going to self-publish. They are going to hire editors first, and they are going to hire business managers next, and they are going to take on the marketing of their own books with a passion no agent can equal. They are going to do it all themselves.
And this means that the best editors will leave the publishing houses and become self-employed, finally earning what they are worth (I charge $80 to $100 an hour for writing and substantive edits, and I never made anywhere near that when I was employed) and they’ll be able to focus on editing–which most of them love–and forget all the crap like sorting out contracts with agents.
Editors will set up boutique shops of their own. The best will become well known and highly sought. It will be a brave new world indeed.
Note: Amazon is hastening this process by promoting its own self-publishing arm, CreateSpace. Have you noticed how impossible it is to find out who published a book on an Amazon posting lately? Self-published or Random House? It’s not easy to figure that out. Coincidence? I think not.
I have been amazed and perplexed by the traffic that has visited my “Talent Killers” article. In the first ten days, the post received more than 13,500 “hits,” and more than 300 comments.
Here’s what I have observed in the feedback I’ve received:
In addition to the above agent-specific points, many people (including a number of self-appointed critics and those who wanted to be seen merely as “interested readers”) came by to argue that:
I am unmoved
NO ONE who has responded to my article has said a word to dispute my underlying assertion (or accusation, if you will), which was—and continues to be—that literary agents are excluding from consideration by major publishing houses those writers who, after one or more books with smaller presses, have reached a stage where they are ready to reach a much wider audience–and whose books have the potential to make substantial sales in that wider market. Most agents do not want to work with these writers because they do not command the kind of advance that makes them worth the bother from an immediate economic point of view for the agents (and the agents alone: everyone else stands to benefit economically). Major publishing houses therefore never become aware of the existence of these writers.
Nearly two weeks after this article’s originally posting, during which time I have carefully read all of the responses (some of which agreed in whole or in part with my thesis, and even enhanced my position), two possible solutions to this problem have suggested themselves to me–aside from the one I proposed in the original essay (which was to eliminate agents as a group).
Here are my ideas:
1) Those agents who believe that mid-list writers are essentially over-the-hill has-beens who are never going to make it in the world of commercial publishing–whom they would love to help, if they could only afford to do so–should say so publicly. They should announce on their websites that they discourage contact with them from all writers who have published books with established literary presses in the past. (This would be a huge relief to those of us who fall into this category, for several reasons. We would at least know what we are dealing with. It would save us significant amounts of time–it takes me about an hour to develop each and every query letter–that we could be using to write our next novels. It would allow us to realize that it is not our writing but our status that is being rejected); and
2.) Little side doors should open in the walls of established publishers that permit writers with one or more books previously published with established literary presses (NOT self-published writers) to bypass the agents and go directly to the editors–and to negotiate their terms with them directly if they wish to do that. This option simply acknowledges the excellence of an entirely different kind of jury/gatekeeper (the literary press) that is, like literary agents, pre-sorting the slush piles and picking out the very best writers. It also contributes to the idea that writers — like filmmakers, visual artists, actors, and flautists — may actually get better with time.
I encourage readers to submit other solutions and/or to comment on the ones I have suggested.
Note: Future installments of The Militant Writer will
Dear Senior Editor, Any Major Publishing House, Anywhere:
I am a member of a growing company of writers of literary fiction whose works you have never seen and probably never will.
It’s not that we are lacking in the talent and credentials that might attract your interest: indeed, we have already published one or two or three books with respectable literary presses, attracting not only critical acclaim but even awards for writing excellence. Our work has been hailed as distinctive, thoughtful, darkly comic. As fresh. Even as important! Reviewers have compared us to Atwood, Boyle and Seth. To Tyler, Winton, Le Carre.
That you have never heard of us nor read a single paragraph we’ve written is not—as you might think—a side effect of the cutbacks, mergers and downsizings that have devastated the book-publishing industry in recent months. Nor is it yet more evidence of the impact of electronic media on the printed word.
The substantial and nearly unassailable wall that separates you from us has been under construction for decades. You can find the names of its architects and gatekeepers on your telephone-callers list, and in your email in-box. They are the literary agents—that league of intellectual-property purveyors who bring you every new manuscript you ever see, those men and women who are so anxious to gain access to the caverns of treasure they believe you sit upon like some great golden goose that they would likely hack one another’s heads off were they not united by one self-serving mission: to ensure that quality fiction never hits your desk.
I am sure that this news comes as a surprise to you, Dear Editor. I am certain that you were drawn to your career—and by “career” I mean “vocation,” including the spectrum of responsibilities that ranges from new-book acquisition to the kind of excellent substantive editing that makes great novels outstanding—because of your love of literature. You probably started with an education in the literary classics which you have since enriched by reading the very best writing being published in the world today. In your few spare moments, you may wonder why it is that aside from an occasional new voice that may become great in another twenty years, the only authors of literary value have been around for decades.
I can answer that question for you. I can tell you why your desk is piling up with flimsy bits of vampire literature, fantasy, romance, detective stories and the kind of first-draft bubble gum that used to be called chick-lit but is now shuffled in with other women’s writing in order to give it heft—although as far as you can see, neither the quality nor the subject matter has improved—which you are required to somehow turn into publishable books. It is because the vast majority of literary agents do not, in fact, have any interest in literature. They are only interested in jackpots.
As you know—better than anyone, perhaps, since you are the one who needs to negotiate with them—agents’ incomes come off the top of royalties that publishers pay their writers. The agent’s cut is generally 10 percent of the writer’s portion, which is in turn about 10 percent of the book’s cover price. Ten percent of 10 percent is not a lot. (Correction: I have been advised that the industry standard is 15%.) In order to create a decent cash flow, literary agents can only afford to represent writers who are going to sell truckloads of books (or millions of megabytes in the case of e-books) and therefore merit significant advances. The bigger the better: a substantial advance is money in the bank.
As you also know, publishing is a business, which means that publishing houses can only afford to offer advances they are likely to recoup—which means that advances only go to established writers with massive followings, and to particularly brilliant (or particularly sleazy) first-time novelists. They are generally reserved for what’s known as “commercial” fiction. (Of course, an advance is no guarantee that a book will sell. But that doesn’t matter to the agents. By the time the book’s not selling, they already have their cuts. They simply abandon writers whose books did not hit their projected sales numbers and move on to the newest shiny thing—indifferent to the fact that they’ve turned those abandoned authors into the pariahs of the slush pile.)
Clearly it is not in the best interests of literary agents to represent writers whose book sales are likely to build only gradually—perhaps after a well-thought, positive review appears in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail or on a high-quality books blog, inspiring a few people to buy the book, read it, and then recommend it to other readers who will also recommend it. It can be years before a literary agent can start sucking a living out of a writer with a book like that. Frankly, who has time?
There is no room for gourmet tastes or discerning palates in this system. Agents’ websites may trumpet their dedication to literary fiction, but what they really want is books that sell. These purveyors of literary costume jewelry seek out the kind of quirky but unsubstantial mental junk food that is as similar as possible to last season’s bestsellers—fiction that will sell quickly and widely by association with the almost-identical books that have preceded it. See last week’s best-seller list for an eloquent guide to this fad-based publishing system.
Since they know what they are looking for, literary agents are able to post tips and pointers on their websites and blog posts for the benefit of would-be clients: they want books that are going to get their immediate attention, impress them within the first five pages—books that are going to sell. (If you click through the links I have provided here, Dear Editor, you will become aware of a certain tone of disdain toward the target audience. This tone is very common among literary agents, who are doing their best to undermine the confidence of writers as a group. Please also note the fawning tone of the comments by the authors responding to these blogs. We have lost our self respect, I am afraid. We have learned to see ourselves as unworthy, stupid, and probably unclean. We’ve forgotten we’re the talent.)
Having set out what they do and do not want from writers, the agents then demand that we, their would-be clients, condense our novels into 300-word “pitches” that will convince them of the marketability of our books. (One might think that this would be the agent’s job—to develop pitches for the manuscripts by the writers they represent which they will then present to publishers. But no. That is not the way this system works.)
Next the agents engage “interns”—usually selected from among the wannabe writers enrolled in one of the creative-writing courses that proliferate at our universities and colleges—to read the queries that we, the writers, have written about our books. The interns measure our pitches against the criteria the agents have devised, find the disconnects, then write us our rejection letters. These interns don’t get paid, of course: they get credit for “work experience.”
The upshot is that fine fiction writers who are crappy copy-writers attempt to write fast-paced pitches about their own serious novels that will make those novels sound as much as possible like commercial drivel. Most of us aren’t very good at that (how do you describe The Road in 300 words and make it sound like a piquant coming-of-age story? Or A Confederacy of Dunces a sweet novel of redemption?) but we have no choice but to try. We submit our pitches in good faith by email or snail mail (depending on the dictates of the individual agent-god. They tell us how they want us to submit right on their websites!) where they are read by interns with little experience of literature or life, and are rejected.
Some of us have had our query letters rejected more than 50 times.
No one has asked to see our manuscripts.
Read any good Kafka lately?
What, you may well wonder, do these agents do with all of the spare time they have carved out of their lives by creating query-letter formulae and “hiring” unpaid minions to reject the pitches that don’t meet their gutter-level standards? Well I can answer that question for you, too. They sit on their high horses and concoct blog posts, listing all the things that would-be clients have done to offend them in the past (such as describing their books as belonging to a genre that the agent does not believe exists, or writing a bigger paragraph than the agent is able to read: see http://www.queryshark.blogspot.com/ #84 and #97 respectively).
Occasionally, especially in groups, these snakes slither off their horses and coil up together in the grass, pour themselves a scotch, and forget to even attempt to conceal their contempt for writers. Several of them had a fine old time on Twitter one morning recently, mocking the efforts of inexperienced would-be-published authors to attempt to get their attention in a query letter. (Writer: “Keep in mind that this novel is a bit of my imagination …” Agent: “I’m just glad its [sic] not ALL of your imagination. #queryfail”; Writer: “Imagine a world where Camelot had never existed.” Agent: “Wow. You’re blowing my mind. #queryfail”; Agent: “Seriously? Your last name is ‘[insert unusual but real name]’? Oh, that will look awesome on a book jacket. #queryfail”; Writer: “I have designed a unique cover for my book.” Agent: “Unrealistic expectations #queryfail”; Writer: “How do I submit queries to you?” Agent: “Um, meta #queryfail.”)
Quite aside from the public ridicule, we have been belittled by agents personally, by phone (“Tell me about that other book you mentioned in your query. Keep in mind that I don’t want to hear your life story”) and by e-mail (Agent, March: “Love your book. Cut out 20,000 words and change this to that, and I’ll have another look at it.” Same agent, December: “I’m sorry. We did receive your revised manuscript in August, and we appreciate how much work you must have done. Unfortunately I’ve been sick and had to go to Frankfurt for the Book Fair, and I just haven’t had time to look at it again. In fact, I’m so busy at the moment, I think I’m just going to have to say No. I can’t take on any more clients at the moment.”) When we asked how to improve our pitches, they have told us not to mention the two or three books we have previously published because that makes us sound like “has-beens.” (For further reading on this subject, check out this interview with “four young literary agents”, where you can learn among other things that submitting letters on pink paper is a clear indication of lack of literary talent.)
Amanda Urban is one of North America’s leading literary agents and one of those who does command respect for the quality of her clientele. (The few that are of her caliber, unfortunately, have “stables” already full of well respected, established writers, and they respond to query letters with an automated reply that says: “We are unable to take on any new clients at this time.”) Urban told an audience in Israel last year that in future, “Fewer books will be published, and those whom we call mid-list writers will no longer get published. The major writers will keep publishing, debut books will always be published, and the ones in the middle will have a problem.”
We’re losing at least one generation of writers here, Dear Editor.
While it is true that there are a lot of very poor and/or inexperienced writers out there who can turn into real pests, the agents’ automated system is specifically set up to protect you from not only them, but us. The “mid-list” writers of which I am a part may be very poor at summing up manuscripts to make them sound like fluff, but we can sure as hell write fiction. We’ve been doing it for years. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this phenomenon just a few months ago in The New Yorker, in an article that explored the relationship between genius and precocity. He pointed out that many of the world’s most significant artists (among writers he mentions Elizabeth Bishop and MarkTwain) did not create their most important works until they had been practicing their art for many years.
It is not that the agents don’t know that we can write: they do. It’s just that they also know we won’t make any real money for them up front. They suspect we are more interested in finding audiences and writing books than we are in helping them pay their bills—that we might accept ridiculously reasonable advances rather than participating in extortion. They want us to go away.
You, Dear Editor, are unknowingly complicit in this debacle. By refusing to accept direct submissions (just check your website! It says you will never accept a manuscript that is not submitted through an agent. It warns us that you will return our manuscripts unread if we try to foist them off on you! It even offers us helpful suggestions on how to find an agent—as though Google weren’t able to throw a hundred of them at us at a time!) you have become an unwitting accomplice to the devastation of the literary arts.
The agents have convinced you that the gated wall they built around you, to which they gave themselves the only key, allows them to protect you from hordes of grasping, pesky writers, a loathesome group they are willing to handle on your behalf in exchange for the opportunity to find the occasional wonderful new writing talent among them, which they promise to bring to you.
In fact the wall has made you a prisoner to their commercial tastes.
There is a simple way around this. All you and your colleagues at the world’s leading publishing houses need to do is to acknowledge that there are nearly as many literary agents squirming around out there these days as there are writers, and that the agents add no value to the book-production process. They have the writers doing their sale pitches for them, and the interns doing the rest of their work. Their role consists entirely of driving up the cost to you of acquiring the few manuscripts that fit their formulae, and therefore padding the cost of each and every book. When it comes to pestering you, they have become as irritating as an unfiltered mass of writers. In this economic climate particularly, they are a luxury that neither you, the readers, nor the writers want—or can afford.
Publishing companies can “hire” unpaid interns too. You can tell those interns what you are looking for—real writers who are passionate about what they do, who have been working at their art for years and know the business, who understand that audiences take time to grow and that books are expensive to produce, who appreciate the value of discerning editors, are looking to attract positive reviews from intelligent reviewers, and maybe snag some more awards, and to gradually build the appreciative critical mass of readers who will complete and affirm the value of their art.
By eliminating the agents, you will be able to reduce advances (including those you will still need to pay to the commercial writers) to sane and reasonable amounts, and you will get to publish some exciting new books while you are at it. The accounting department will thank you. Your own literature-loving heart will thank you.
The writers, of course, will also thank you. But the real winners will be the thousands of intelligent and discerning readers who will be permitted to discover a whole range of literary voices that, under the current system, they are never going to hear.