Who Is Doing This?
to have been selected as one of two presenters for Publishing 2.0: Tips and Traps, The Writers’ Union of Canada’s cross-country series of professional development workshops for 2014.
My fellow presenter is the noted fiction author Caroline Adderson, who has five books of fiction for adults and several books for young readers to her credit. Caroline will be talking about the traditional route to publishing – how to find a publisher, how to prepare your manuscript for a publisher, working with agents and editors, and doing promotion once your book is out.
I will be talking about independent publishing – why you might want to consider it, even if you’re a traditionally published author (as I am) – e.g., for getting your out-of-print backlist out quickly, and maximizing your returns on sales – as well as how to actually manage the self-publication of a book. I’ll be talking about finding editors and book designers, how to publish cost-effectively, managing distribution and, of course, I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned about promoting self-published books.
With the help of John Degen, executive director of TWUC, former literature officer with the Ontario Arts Council, former executive director of the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) and the former communications manager for Magazines Canada (formerly Canadian Magazine Publishers Association) – John is also a writer – we’ll also be covering contracts, royalties, and copyright issues, and discussing the current state of the publishing landscape from a writer’s perspective.
Appearing East, West and On A Computer Near You
The first installments of the tour will take place in Eastern and Central Canada in February, 2014. Dates and locations for the one-day (9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) workshop have now been announced:
We will visit four additional cities – in Western Canada – in the autumn of 2014. Dates and locations for those are still to be announced. It is anticipated that the workshop will also be available for purchase in digital format after the series of live presentations is complete.
It is not necessary to be a member of TWUC to attend its PD workshops.
About The Writers’ Union of Canada
The Writers’ Union of Canada is Canada’s national organization of professional writers of books, and has approximately 2,000 members. TWUC was founded 40 years ago to work with governments, publishers, booksellers, and readers to improve the conditions of Canadian writers. I have been a member of TWUC for a long time, and highly recommend joining – not only does it serve as a highly effective advocate for and promoter of writers with governments, the cultural industry and the public, membership offers a host of wonderful advantages that range from a community of writers to dental benefits. For more information, visit the TWUC website.
Although membership in TWUC is currently restricted to writers with “a trade book published by a commercial or university press, or the equivalent in another medium,” at its May 2013 annual general meeting, in a unanimous vote, members of the Union approved a resolution opening membership to professional, self-published authors. The resolution will be presented to the entire TWUC membership in a referendum, and will come into force with a two-thirds majority. For more information, view the Union’s June 1, 2013 media release.
- 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.
by Mary W. Walters
Update Sept 8, 2012: Four years after this post was written, it appears that very little has changed on autonomy. A reader of this blog recently wrote me to ask if things had improved, and since I rarely go over to authonomy any more, I decided I would ask the people who still did. Click on this paragraph to read the responses and watch me get sucked into yet another authonomy flame war.
After reading about what authonomy is intended to do and why, a writer might decide that if her manuscript isn’t good enough to get the kind of positive reception from the other writers on the site that it needs to rise through the ranks to the top five (aka the Editor’s Desk)—where it will at least receive professional feedback from one of the finest editors in the English-speaking world, and at best be snatched up for publication—perhaps it isn’t as good as she’s been thinking that it is.
But is that a logical conclusion for her to draw when after several months on the site she does not, in fact, reach the Editor’s Desk and realizes that she probably never will?
For the benefit of other writers who may be weighing the same questions that I considered six months ago when I decided to post my novel, The Whole Clove Diet, on authonomy, I here offer a summary of my experiences and observations so that others may be better equipped than I was to assess the potential value to their writing careers of participation in the site.
What authonomy is
authonomy (the “th” is pronounced as in “author”) is an on-line community of writers that was established in 2008 by HarperCollins Publishers. Although the site is based in the U.K., HarperCollins offices around the world participate in evaluating manuscripts, and the site is open to writers, published or unpublished, living anywhere—as long as their manuscripts are in English.
On authonomy, participants read excerpts from books by other writers on the site, and they “shelve” or “back” the ones they find of merit. They are also encouraged to provide the authors of the books they read with some feedback in the form of comments. Those with the most backings (subject to an algorithm that recognizes users’ reviewing experience on the site) rise to the top and when they reach the top five, they are read and provided with an evaluation by a HarperCollins editor.
The authonomy site is still in beta format, but as of this writing it has more than 3,000 users–each with at least one and sometimes as many as three books posted on the site. Some users are very active (a recent forum question was “How many people spend more than five hours a day on authonomy?” and several people actually raised their virtual hands, albeit a little sheepishly). Many writers spend at least an hour or two a day on authonomy, reading, critiquing, commenting and sometimes contributing to the forum. Other writers show up only occasionally, and still others have not been on the site in months.
HarperCollins (HC) states that the purpose of authonomy is to “flush out the brightest, freshest new literature around” and on the last day of each month, authonomites gather around to see which five books will be whisked away for review by the HC editors. Approximately one month after starring them for selection, HC editors deliver critiques of the five top manuscripts to their respective authors. These evaluations ideally include suggestions for revision and some indication as to whether HC might be interested in seeing the manuscript again after the author has worked on it.
A word or two about the Golden Goose
The hope of almost all of those who officially join the site and post a book is that that HC will recognize their work of fiction, non-fiction or (less frequently) poetry for the masterpiece it is and want to publish it. Subsidiary hopes include that, as it is rising to the top but before it actually reaches the top five, the manuscript will be discovered by an agent, another publisher or even HC itself. This has, in fact, happened once or twice–although it hasn’t happened very often. Nor, to my knowledge, have any books that have actually reached the top five yet been selected for publication by HC.
Since getting an agent or a publisher is pretty much a crapshoot in this day and age no matter how you go about it, a more significant problem than the dearth of publications from the site is one that anyone can see who reads the HC editorial responses to books that have reached the Editor’s Desk in the past. (This feedback is almost always posted by the authors who’ve received it, although they are not required to make it public.) The problem is that while some of the editorial feedback is constructive and helpful, even insightful and brilliant, some is next to useless. The site administrators have said that HC editors for each book in the top five each month are selected on the basis of its genre or subgenre (young adult, for example, historical romance, or literary) and the location of the writer—but clearly, some HC editors are better readers and feedback-writers than are others.
I have read HC evaluations on authonomy that were little more than summaries of the excerpt. Others have contained errors that could only have been made if the editor had not read the submission very carefully, or had not consulted the “pitch” which is also a required part of the submission. Several comments from HC editors have been marred by typos and even grammatical errors, which seriously undermined their credibility.
After waiting months and months to obtain feedback from the powerhouse publishing giant that is HarperCollins—which is one big dream of a lifetime for many—to receive a less than professional evaluation on one’s excerpt is more than discouraging. The recipients of such evaluations are upset when this happens, and so are the other authonomy community members who have also read the excerpt. Contributors to forum threads disgustedly point out the flaws in various HC reviews every month, sometimes out of loyalty, but often also on the basis of solid evidence.
My authonomy history
I joined authonomy in February of 2009, posting my novel in its entirety (at the outset) on the site. The Whole Clove Diet rose steadily albeit slowly toward the Editor’s Desk, garnering many positive reviews along the way. In the first few weeks I learned from comments left on the forum by site administrators and other users that by the time I reached number 50, particularly if I also maintained some visibility on the forum, I could feel fairly well assured that HC had seen my novel. If they had not by that point contacted me by email, I could assume they were not interested in it.
By then I had begun to appreciate how hard it was to reach the Editor’s Desk/top five and how small the advantages might actually be to getting there. I decided that if HC and other publishers and agents were trawling the top 50 on a regular basis, I would set my sights on reaching the top 45 or so.
In fact, I only made it to about 110 before I quit. Although I developed some rewarding on-line friendships at authonomy in the four months or so that I was a regular participant, and received some useful input that was helpful in the revision of my novel, and discovered a few writers who I really think are going to make strong literary contributions in the future, the experience of being on the site nearly drove me crazy—several times. And so I removed my novel, although I am still a member of the community and enjoy popping in from time to time to exchange comments on the forum with my friends and colleagues (and fellow-sufferers) over there.
authonomy intention vs. authonomy reality
authonomy has been described as a “do-it-yourself slush pile” in which readers (mainly other writers) do all the work for HarperCollins by finding the best books on the site and pushing them toward the top. This is fine: times are changing and most writers are willing to do a little work in order to attract professional attention to their manuscripts.
The only problem is that the way the authonomy system works does not contribute to finding the “best” books, no matter how you define that term. It appeared to me that at least 90% of the writers on the site have joined with one goal in mind, which is getting themselves to the Editor’s Desk. (The others insist they are there only to receive feedback from other writers that will help them improve their work.) This means that the primary motivation for most people who will read and back other people’s manuscripts on authonomy is not to find good books for HC to publish—but rather to find other people to read and back their own books.
If a writer who joins the site decides to stick to the stated guidelines and her own ethical principles, refusing to back other people’s books if she feels they are not very interesting or well written (or worse, if she points out such major defects in her comments on those books), the writers of those other books are not likely to be inclined to back her book in return (are they? Remember that we are dealing with human beings here). The new writer quickly learns that in order to get a backing on your book from someone else, you really need to give that other writer a backing first.
As a result, on authonomy you can almost never trust a backing to mean that someone likes your book, since almost everyone on the site backs almost everything. The books that rise most quickly to the top are not those that are the best or the most fun to read, but rather those whose authors spend most time on the site, networking with other people, raving over everyone else’s books, backing everyone in sight, and thereby attracting hundreds of backings in return. The more quickly the determined writers can read and back an excerpt, the more they can read a day, and these speed demons may sometimes be accused (and sometimes are) of skimming only a few paragraphs before passing judgement. And the judgement is almost always favourable.
authonomy is not about excellence in writing. It is about becoming as popular as possible as quickly as possible. As a result, and ironically, rather than a supportive writing community authonomy can often seem to be a dog-eat-dog arena where you can’t trust a soul. Those who aren’t showering you with false praise are slamming you for your reviewing tactics.
Getting to the top 120 is the easy part. After that it gets much harder—mainly due to those algorithms I mentioned earlier. Trying to get to the top five requires hours and hours of commitment every day. On average, to get into the top fifty or so and not fall back again within a reasonable period of time (four months, let us say), you have to start by reading about three or four excerpts a day, commenting on them, and backing them. (I read about two excerpts a day, three chapters each, almost every day. After three months, I had not yet reached the top 100.) Those who have risen higher than I ever did have reported that when you get into the top ten you have to read eight or ten excerpts every day to get into the top five and stay there. At about 45 minutes per excerpt, this means that for at least a month out of your life, and probably more, you are doing little else but authonomy readings. If you happen to go away for a week, you start sliding backwards. Before long, rather than looking for the best books, you reach a point where if you find a book you think is terrible you are heartbroken because it means you are either going to have to lie your head off or give up the possibility of getting a backing in return.
In the race for the top, honesty flies out the window.
In order to be visible and attract readers on authonomy, most participants find it useful not only to read and comment on other people’s excerpts but also to participate in the forum. As is true of most writers’ websites, there are several very witty and knowledgeable people there, and the forums can be great fun. (I found myself inclined to read the books of those who impressed me on the forum—they didn’t need to plug their actual books to me; their forum comments made it clear that I would be interested in what they’d written. I was rarely disappointed by such hunches. By contrast, some people never do anything on the forum beside promote their own books: the number and character of some of the “shameless self-promotion” threads grew so nauseating that I put several of these authors on a mental blacklist and never did read their excerpts.)
Unfortunately, the forums are not always fun. People can be nasty, small-minded, offensive, arrogant, self-serving—even racist. If you begin to work very hard on getting to or staying in the top five, you are likely to start attracting verbal abuse on the forum. As Ambrose Bierce once said, “Success is the one unpardonable sin against our fellows.” Some people have found the comments against them so demoralizing that they’ve left the site even as the summit came within their sights.
There are also huge multi-participant battles—mainly at the end of the month when tensions start to run high and those who don’t like the tactics of the writers who have made it to the top five start trying to overthrow them. At other times, writers have what has come to be known as “authonomy meltdowns” from all the stress of trying to get to the top five and stay there: they go verbally ballistic.
While I was there, it seemed to me that most of the battles (and there were several) concerned how the authonomy site itself either works or does not work. Almost always you can find at least one active thread discussing the mechanics of authonomy and how the operation of the site could be improved. One day one of the forum participants started a “backing” thread that encouraged authonomites to back as many books as possible by people who were also on the thread within a specified period of time. The instigator did this as a protest against “the system,” but many others on the site clearly leapt at the chance to get ahead of others without having to do all the work of reading excerpts. Still others protested loudly about the lack of ethics of those participating in the backing thread (I was, of course, one of those. Taking the ethical high ground, and voicing my opinion when doing so can only be compared to shooting myself in the head? That’s me every time). Mayhem ensued.
Feedback from other writers
You will get some good feedback about your writing from several people on the site. I made hard copies of all the comments I received, and several of them were very useful when I did my final revisions. However you will also receive many comments that are utter drivel. (You can see examples of good comments and totally useless ones by reading any excerpt on the site, and then reading the comments under it.) In general, many of the compliments are hollow and meaningless, posted only to attract a return read. Some people come up with the equivalent of a boilerplate response and post it with small variations on every excerpt they “review.” Others tailor their remarks more carefully, but still lean heavily toward the positive to ensure their own survival. (Some on the forum insist that they really did love reading almost every book on the entire site and would buy them all in an instant if they had the chance. I think those people are dishonest. Either that or they have no standards and are careless with their money.)
It is certain, at least to me, that those who insist on being honest with their evaluations ultimately pay a heavy price. There are of course many writers on the site who appreciate constructive criticism, but there are many others who do not. The latter group will call down those who have criticized them–usually on the forum rather than privately–and will even occasionally attempt to organize counterattacks and boycotts. (authonomy can be instructive to those who wonder how well meaning human beings ever get involved in wars.)
Once I realized how the authonomy system works, I stopped taking any of the compliments and rave reviews I received seriously, although they were nice to get. I also ignored comments from people who clearly had no idea what I was doing with my fiction (many are reading outside their genres and don’t understand or like what they have to read in order to move ahead. Threads that pose such incisive questions as “Why do writers have to use big words?” and “Conflict… or not?” often make for illuminating and amusing reading.) In short, the people who say they are on authonomy for the great writing advice they get from other writers, and insist they aren’t interested in getting to the Editor’s Desk at all, are for the most part in the wrong place as far as I can see.
How to survive on authonomy – for a while, at least
Not an entire waste of time
authonomy has its benefits. It is a good way of keeping your manuscript “out there,” building an audience for your book, and getting to know a few more writers. You will get to know some of the authonomy regulars, several of whom are characters as diverting and eccentric as those you’ll meet in their (or anyone’s) fiction. (These include: a writer who appears to deliver intelligent pronouncements from a horizontal position on a couch—he maintains he’s dead, and as under-appreciated as Chatterton, after whose post-mortem portrait he has modeled his own avatar; a man with a blue face who expounds literary theories and criticizes others’ approaches to writing while maintaining that he never reads a book; at least two divas who’ve been on the site forever and pop by with witty or snarly comments from time to time; a hot young lawyer who is swooned after by most of the female writers on the site; and several young women who keep taking more and more clothes off their avatars in an apparent attempt to attract more readers. There are lots of warm and welcoming people on the site who will go out of their way to make you feel at home, and there are several insular cliques. Strangers conjoin on authonomy in unexpected ways: I watched with amusement one evening as a thread involving three apparently quite drunk authonomites devolved into highly graphic cybersex; unfortunately the posts weren’t well-enough written to have made my voyeurism the least bit titilating. Also unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, after about noon the next day I was no longer able to send a link to the thread so that a few of my non-authonomite friends could have a laugh, because it had been taken down. There are also a surprising number of wiccans on the site; be forewarned: you do not want to mess with wiccans. :) )
While you are on authonomy, you may indeed be discovered by an agent or a film company. There is always the possibility that the authonomy system will actually work in your favour–that you will reach the Editor’s Desk and, despite the odds against you even at that point, be offered a contract by HarperCollins. All of those things are possible, if unlikely.
In the meantime, if you are in it for an evaluation as one of the top five, eat your Wheaties, give up either your day job or your family and social life, and prepare for a long, disorienting haul from which it may take you several months to recover.
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.