Tag Archives: publishers

Greedy Businesses Target Self-Published Authors

Sleazy salesman pointing

It is not difficult or expensive to publish on your own, but a lot of would-be self-publishers dont know that. As a result, whole nests of snake-oil salesmen have hatched to separate unwitting writers from their money. Most of these writers will never make back the money that is being bilked from them, and even those who do are often wasting their hard-earned cash.

As I prepared my presentation on self-publishing for The Writers’ Union of Canada’s cross-Canada professional development workshop, Publishing 2.0: Tips and Traps, I became aware that taking advantage of the naïveté of first-time self-publishing authors (or “indie publishers,” as we are also known) has become a growth industry.

Quite a few of the businesses involved in this field of endeavour used to be legitimate, contributing members of the traditional publishing establishment: printers, literary agents, book publicists and the like. With their incomes from traditional sources now eroded by the same technology that permits anyone and everyone to publish anything and everything, quite a few of these formerly upstanding companies have turned their attention to “helping” unsuspecting authors to get their books published… for a fee.

Many writers who set out to publish their manuscripts independently or to get their out-of-print books back on the market have no idea that it costs almost nothing to make their novels or non-fiction works available for sale as e-books, and that for about $500, they can get a respectable-looking paperback up for sale online. It is upon these unsuspecting souls that the newest incarnations of the film-flam artist have set their sights, offering self-publishing packages that can cost thousands of dollars. and promising little in return that isn’t available for free or at very little cost elsewhere.

These authors are being convinced by ads and on-line pitches that self-publishing is a technically challenging undertaking, requiring expertise. Paying for technological expertise is not, in fact, necessary because self-publishing sites such as Smashwords are extremely user-friendly. Nonetheless, from the beginning to the end of the publishing process, these highway robbers lie in wait — urging offset-printing services, for example, upon writers who ought to be printing on demand instead. (Offset- printed books are ones that are printed in large numbers on huge printing machines machines that are now increasingly sitting idle all over the country in the wake of the move online of so many magazines, books, catalogues and brochures. Print-on-demand (POD) books are printed on much smaller machines, one at a time, when the book is ordered. Single copies of books can be printed immediately, so no extra trees are wasted, and authors have no obligation to buy a certain number of books as part of the self-publishing option — or to warehouse those books in their basements. Today, the difference in quality between offset-printed and POD books is negligible.)

Other self-publishing authors are hoodwinked into paying companies to “promote” their books on social media ­ a strategy that is nearly ineffective unless it is part of an overall marketing plan. And the costs for overall marketing plans themselves  (also available from a host of sources) can be outrageous and unnecessary. (I have just been looking at one company that lists one of its services as “Amazon Optimization” through the creation of “keywords.” If you’ve written the book, you can pick seven words to help readers discover it, as you will be prompted to do by Amazon itself when you post your book there. That is all that “keywords” are. Snake-oil salesmen love to throw technical terms around, but most of them are easy to translate into plain language.)

Still other companies offer book distribution packages that are actually available to everyone at very little cost when they publish books online with Smashwords, Kindle, or other self-publishing outlets. (You can get expanded distribution from Amazon, for example, that includes bookstores, libraries, etc. Your royalties per book are smaller than with direct sales to purchasers, but there’s no need to pay up front.)

We are also seeing increasing numbers of expensive, needless gimmicks such as seals of approval to indicate production quality in published e-books (this one charges $125 per title. How many readers do YOU know who are choosing to buy books because they have a formatting seal of approval?), and costly competitions for awards that very few can win (and who knows whether the winners gain any sales traction from their prizes?).

Who Is Doing This?

Entrepreneurs

While there are some great resources out there — people with editing and publishing backgrounds who are charging reasonable hourly fees for their services — too many book-publishing coaches and self-publishing managers and others who go by similar titles are no more than fly-by-night operators with no significant credentials. They offer to help you get your book edited and up on Amazon for several hundreds or thousand dollars when you can do it very easily for free or at very little cost.

Printing Companies

Dozens of printing companies that were established to print books for real publishers have huge off-set machines now sitting idle. They need you to help them pay the overhead, so they have re-branded themselves as publishers.  In truth, the only traditional publishers they resemble were formerly known as vanity presses. These companies are selling packages of print-only copies of your book (usually no e-books are offered) for $800 or $900 or several thousands of dollars. They do not know much about promotion and the fine print on their websites state that after you’ve paid the big bucks to buy several boxes of offset-printed copies of your book, they will help you build a website (wow!) and put you in touch with a marketing company to help you promote your book (where you will pay additional fees, of course).  One printing company whose site I visited said they would even put you in their catalogue. Now tell me, when was the last time you bought a book because it was listed in a printers catalogue?

If you are selling to a specific, known market (such as the residents of a small town whose history youre writing) you may decide to go with offset printing because the per-item production cost will be lower. But if you are not certain that you are going to sell the books you are required to purchase when you work with a printing company, using offset is a false economy. These printers who are now calling themselves publishers also say they offer editing: I would advise you to ask who the editors are, and to request their references and credentials.

Respectable Book Reviewers

Reviewing outlets such as Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews have established branch services that are charging unwitting self-published authors upwards of $500 for a single review (Im surprised that The New York Times and The Globe and Mail havent jumped onto this bandwagon yet). The idea is that if you get a good review of your self-published book, you can use it to convince booksellers to stock your book. (If you get a poor one, you eat the money you have spent.) The trick is that most booksellers won’t stock your book anyway, because self-published books are nonreturnable.

You can also pay to have your book review included in a variety of in-house publications where publishers, agents etc. can contact you if they are interested. Humpff.

Keep in mind that your average reader doesn’t know the difference between a Publishers Weekly or Kirkus Review and one your aunt Elsie wrote and posted on Amazon. A $500 review is largely a waste of money.

Book publicists

I believe that book publicity will, along with editing, become an area of specialization that self-publishers need in future. But for now, there are a lot of people out there who say they are book publicists who have no actual experience in the field, or access to the media outlets that might promote your book, and they are overcharging for the services they do provide. Keep in mind that it is almost impossible to get noticed if you have written a novel anyway, even if you’re traditionally published; non-fiction writers usually have a better hook for interviews. And even if the book promoter is well known to the media, there is no guarantee that he or she will make any special effort to get your book noticed, no matter what you pay. Remember that if a book publicist has not read your book and fallen in love with it, that person cannot help you.

A few book-promotion companies will tell you that, for a price, they can help you become an Amazon bestseller or even get you onto the New York Times bestseller list. To do this, they use a complex system that involves a whole lot of purchasers, funded by you, all buying your book all across the country all on the same day or in the same week, which drives your numbers up in the right places. But this kind of access to best-seller lists is not sustainable and authors often end up paying more to get on the lists than they earn back in royalties.

You do need a great promotion plan – one size does not fit all — and here a creative and honest book publicist can help a lot. Remember that at this point in time, getting self-published books into bookstores, or onto radio or television, or reviewed in major newspapers or magazines, is nearly impossible… because of the attitudes of the gatekeepers of those organizations. At the same time, social media is an almost useless promotional device. Any book promotion company that wants your money for these kinds of initiatives had better offer you some proof that they can do the impossible.

Literary agents

Well, you know how I feel about most literary agents. The ones I dissed five years ago are largely out of business now or have found new ways to earn their keep from unsuspecting authors. Check their websites for further info.

Publishers

Even some publishers have turned to mining self-publishing authors for a few quick dollars. Some will take your money and publish your book with a slightly different imprint than their other publications (so those on the “inside” of the industry still know you are self-published, and will still lock you out, unread).

Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, had harsh words for enterprises of this nature. Writing in the Huffington Post in January, 2014, he said:

The vanity approach to self-publishing, as witnessed by Pearson/Penguin’s acquisition of Author Solutions (operates AuthorHouse, iUniverse, BookTango, Trafford, Xlibris, Palibrio, others…), has shown itself to harm the brands of all traditional publishers. I predicted this last year. The Author Solutions business model is wholly dependent upon making money by selling overpriced services to unwitting authors. Their business model is expensive at best, and unethical at worst. It’s about selling $10,000+ publishing packages to authors who will never earn the money back. The model represents the antithesis of what the best and proudest publishers have always represented. Great publishers invest in their authors. The money flows from reader to retailer to publisher to author, not from author to publisher.

Dont Be a Cash Cow (for anyone but yourself)

The best books are not published for nothing, of course, but most of the work can be done at very little cost. The best places to invest your money are directly with a book editor, a book designer, and a book publicist, each of whom loves your book.

In each of these areas, make sure you are getting your money’s worth. You need someone who knows the business and can provide solid references. You need to check those references. You do not want to be one of a hundred books and authors in a money-making assembly line.

The writing and self-publishing community is unbelievably generous with its knowledge and its skills. Almost everything you need to know about self-publishing is available online for nothing. All you have to do is ask the right questions in the Google box. At the very minimum, check out the publication costs on Smashwords, Amazon, Kindle and Kobo before you hire a consultant. In other words, before you pay good money to anyone to get your book up for sale, find out what the work they are going to do for you is going to cost them. Don’t let yourself be bamboozled.

It has already cost you a lot to write your book  – particularly if you consider the time you spent when you could have been doing other things, like climbing the corporate ladder. Invest what you must to get the best possible book to readers. But don’t waste money until after you attain bestseller status. Then, you will be able to afford it.

Publishing 2.0: Tips and Traps – 2014 PD Workshop from The Writers’ Union of Canada

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 2.54.34 PMI am truly delighted

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:

  • Monday, Feb 3 Moncton, NB
  • Wednesday, Feb 5 Halifax NS
  • Monday, Feb 17 Montreal QC
  • Tuesday, Feb 18 Ottawa ON
  • Friday, Feb 21 Toronto ON

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

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 2.54.45 PMThe 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.

In the meantime, I hope to meet you in person at one of TWUC’s PD gigs this year!

Review of THE AGENT, a film about a writer and his literary agent

The Agent

  • 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.

authonomy: One writer’s experience

by Mary W. Walters

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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.

____________________

In theory, authonomy is a perfect way for writers to get their book manuscripts read by editors at a major publishing house without the intercession of an agent.

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.

Nasty, nasty

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

  1. Set your sights for the top 25 or 50, not the top five. A few writers who have made the top five have said that they were approached by agents once they reached that stage, but if I were a canny agent visiting the site, I’d be scanning the top 50, trawling for the best books on a regular basis—not leaving it until the writers of the best books were on the Editors’ Desk and likely to be scooped up by someone else. Once you reach your initial goal, you can always decide to continue if you want to, but my best guess is that you reach maximum benefit from the site when you reach the top 45. (If you can hang in there that long.)
  2. Read enough of others’ manuscripts before you make a call on them that you’ll still respect yourself in the morning, even if others aren’t playing by those rules. I felt it was only fair to other writers to try to read at least three chapters of their books, or the equivalent. Despite my initial determination to back only books I felt were publishable, ultimately I did find that in order to survive, I had to play the game and back almost everything that was not truly awful. My standard for myself became that I had to be able to find at least one thing in the excerpt on which I could genuinely comment positively; if the writing was so bad that I could not do that, I would not back the book or comment on it. Instead I’d pretend I’d never seen it. (Please note that I admit to having high standards: I have been referred to often as a literary snob.) Sometimes in addition to the positives, my comments included suggestions for a change the author might want to make to improve the first three chapters, always keeping in mind that I was reading only the first few chapters, and that the book could get much worse or much better after the section I had read.
  3. When you really do like an excerpt, say so clearly — or the author won’t be able to tell your kudos from the garden variety he or she receives every day from everyone. When I loved a piece of writing, I really raved about it in my comments—being very specific about the strong points and saying, for example, that the book was sure to find its way into print (I never said that if I didn’t mean it). I also created a thread of my own where I listed my favourite books, which was fun.
  4. Say “thank you” when someone backs you or leaves a comment.
  5. Forget the “friends” option and ignore invitations to become friends with others unless you have a very good reason to accept. This has nothing to do with politics or human kindness, but only practicalities. On authonomy, you get emails from the site administrators if you get a comment on your book, but not if someone backs you. You have to watch your “news feed” for that information. You also see your friends’ activities in your news feed (“Writer X backed Book Y,” “Writer A commented on Book B,” “Writer F revised his book”). If you add too many friends, you will get so many notices in your news feed that you may miss a notice that someone has backed you. You don’t want to miss your backers, because they deserve a thank you message and you may in fact want to consider backing them. So adding friends can cause problems. There is no real advantage to “friending” someone anyway, as you can send everyone messages whether they are friends or not.
  6. Remember that all messages on authonomy are public.
  7. Make a list in a notebook somewhere of who has backed you, and who you have backed or decided not to back. By the time you get to 50 or 100 reads, it gets really really difficult to try to remember whose excerpts you’ve read and whose you haven’t. A lot of people on the forums say, “How I wish I had started keeping track at the beginning!”  By the time you start forgetting who you’ve read and who you haven’t, it is almost impossible to go back and make a list. I recommend keeping track from the outset. (And if someone changes a title of a book you’ve already read, which happens surprisingly often, make a note of that as well.)
  8. When people I didn’t know from the forums sent me a message suggesting we trade reads, I usually ignored them. Some people send out such notices in spam-like quantities. I therefore don’t recommend sending such messages to others. Like the shameless plugs on the forums, requests for reads can rapidly grow tedious and irritating and turn people away from you rather than attracting them.
  9. Don’t post the whole book. I posted my entire manuscript when I first went on. Then a few people on the site warned me that some agents and publishers avoid books that are posted in their entirety on-line, believing (erroneously) that this contravenes copyright or (even more erroneously) that everyone in the universe will read it on authonomy and no one will need to buy it. So I took down most of my novel. However, I made a big mistake when I did this. First I took down all but the first three chapters, and then I added back a few chapters. While I was doing that, my word count fell below 10,000 and when it did, I lost my position on all the shelves and watchlists I’d been on. That set me back a couple of weeks at least. So after you’ve posted your manuscript don’t ever let it drop below 10,000 words again unless you are sure you want to lose your ratings.

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.

“The Talent Killers”: The Litopia Dialogues

by Mary W. Walters

In four podcasts originally aired May 4 to 7, 2009, I was interviewed by U.K. literary agent and host of Litopia Daily, Peter Cox, about my essay “The Talent Killers: How literary agents are destroying literature and what publishers can do to stop them.”

These four podcasts are available free from iTunes as downloadable episodes that you can play on your MP3 player at your convenience. They are Litopia Daily episodes number 202 through 205 inclusive. Just go to the iTunes store and search “Litopia,” then click on the “album cover” of Peter Cox and you will go to the Litopia menu.

While you’re there, sample other episodes as well. Both Litopia Daily and Litopia After Dark provide interesting news, trivia, gossip, interviews and discussions that are relevant to writers everywhere. Each segment of  Litopia Daily (which airs Monday to Friday) is approximately 15 minutes long. Litopia After Dark (Fridays) is closer to an hour.

You can also access the four discussions between Peter Cox and me directly from the Litopia site. Under the text description of the program, find the icon that looks like this:

Picture 1Press the arrow part of it on the right, and voila!

Here are the four podcasts.

Episode 202: Agents are destroying publishing It is proposed that the “The Talent Killers” may be a seminal essay, as well as a symptom of the massive upheaval currently underway throughout the books publishing industry–an upheaval to which it would be wise for everyone involved in the books business at any level, from writers to readers, through agents, publishers, book buyers and booksellers, to pay attention. (Peter Cox points out that he does not completely agree with the the conclusions I draw in my essay. He does not feel we can lay all of the blame for all of the problems on the shoulders of literary agents. I am heard to concede that this might be true.)

Episode 203: Writers keep out! Peter talks about his recent blog post in The Bookseller“Dead Men Walking”– which predicts a dire future for agents, particularly newer agents, who aren’t paying attention to the changes in the industry, and I get so wound up about the importance of remembering that the writers ARE the TALENT that I knock my microphone around a bit.

Episode 204: Agents with attitude,  in which Peter describes me as “the scourge of literary agents everywhere,” but then goes on to drive his own skewers into a couple of agents in particular, whose approaches to writers are supercilious, condescending, arrogant and even rude. We  denounce ‘agents with attitudes’ in general, and the fan clubs that encourage them, while agreeing that not all agents  can be painted with this brush.

Episode 205: It’s Future-Agent! From the Litopia site: “What future is there for the agent in tomorrow’s brave new publishing world?  We stand on the cusp – it could be a new Golden Age, or it could just as easily be the eve of extinction. Those agents who truly study the needs of authors are most likely to prosper.” Our dialogues conclude.

* * * *

I am grateful to Peter Cox and Litopia Daily for giving me an opportunity to speak to the issues I raised in my original essay, for actually hearing what I was saying, and for restoring some of my faith in the system — not faith in it as it currently exists, but faith that change is coming, and that as writers we have a crucial role to play in determining our own futures.

I, for one, welcome the challenge. And I’ll be writing about it often on The Militaant Writer. My next topic is already beginning to percolate in that place inside my head where the writing always starts–working its way around even when I’m paying no attention to it. It’s going to be about writers, and our relationships with one another. (No. Not that kind of relationship. Don’t worry. Not spilling any beans.)

Hobby or vocation?

by Mary W. Walters

Are you over-reacting to rejection letters because you’ve got a disproportionate sense of your own importance?

Are you letting your writing consume your life when you could be allocating your energies in better ways–maintaining a proper perspective on the universe as a whole, and your place in it?

Were you aware that you ought to take yourself seriously as a writer only after you have published at least one book?

Did you know that until you’ve established yourself, your writing is just a hobby?

Nathan Bransford tells it like it is (or how people might THINK it is, if they’ve never actually talked to a real writer.)

[Note on the a.m. of Wednesday, May 6: Mr. Bransford has subsequently edited his post to withdraw the word “hobby.” I am pleased to see that. However, underlying assumptions don’t change as easily as words are edited. Many many people think writing is (or should be) a hobby — or at least an avocation–but for many of us, from the first moment we picked up a pen or pencil, or set fingers to keyboards, it has never been peripheral to our lives.]

I think Nathan is trying to tell some of his correspondents to just “chill” — to remind them that it’s not that big a deal when he sends them a rejection letter. He’s probably trying also to tell people like me, who have had it up to here with being rejected for the wrong reasons, that we should chill, too: not take our obvious bitterness out on his profession in literate blog explosions.

The bitterness that is is specifically directed at his profession, as we’ve discussed here and on Litopia, has erupted for a host of reasons, and if Nathan doesn’t get why we feel the way we do and what is wrong with the entire system that is causing us to feel the way we do, and what it is about our own basic compulsions to write that cause us to feel the way we do, he’s in the wrong biz entirely. We are who we are. Some of us respond inappropriately at a rejection letter, but almost all of us hit by an axe over and over again for reasons that have nothing to do with our writing, are bound to blow a gasket eventually. Or drink ourselves to death. Or try to give up writing and get all withered and dried out, and eventually just blow away.

_______

P.S. The award for perfect timing goes to Litopia! Don’t miss the third episode in my talk with Peter Cox of Litopia Daily, in which agents are denounced — in no uncertain terms — for their cavalier attitudes toward writers. The episode’s title? “Agents with attitude!” Enjoy! :)

Agents out, editors in?

Predicting the rise of the literary editor

by Mary W. Walters

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.

The Google Book Settlement: Are you in or out?

by Mary W. Walters

Whether you live in the U.S.A. or not, if you published any book before January 5, 2009, you may be affected by the Google Settlement, which is a directive by the courts to Google to pay a very modest fee to writers/publishers for books that Google scanned from major U.S. libraries and intends to make available on-line. (This is a vast over-simplification. I hope that people who come to participate in this discussion will have apprised themselves of the relevant issues before making comments. I’ll probably need to revise this post several times before I get the wording right, but I want to get it posted. Here is the actual Google Book Settlement site.)

Writers and publishers owning copyright to these books have the option to ‘opt out’ of the settlement by September 4, 2009 — which means that they won’t receive the pittance of money that Google is paying to acknowledge its indebtedness to the people who created the original books that they have scanned. If you opt in, however, you give up your right to argue about the issue in the courts in future (in relation to the books in question).

I am not going to put down an explanation of the Google Settlement here. It is available in lots of places (you can Google it!!!) but as the writer of a few books that may be affected, I am waffling about whether to opt in or out. The opting in (which requires no action on our part. I know. I know!) has the advantage of making us and our book(s) part of a huge system of electronic data that is going to be available whether we’re part of it or not (being part of that, as opposed to not being part of that, appeals to me a lot) and leaving the door open for future payments by other users who get permission from Google (I know, I know!) to use our stuff. Opting out means retaining rights to intellectual property. Retaining intellectual property rights is a huge issue, and has always been very important to me, but while it’s a great principle, so far it is not producing much actual income in my case. I have reached a point where I see my earlier books as resources that will make people want to read my future books — over which I am not giving up control — and for that reason, I’m inclined to make my earlier books accessible.

This is very much related to what musicians and filmmakers are going through, but it is also totally different. We need to talk about it together. Please link to places where we can do that, or talk about it here.

If you are affected by this Settlement, tell us what you’ve decided. As writers, we have to think about this and make our own decisions — not be swayed by Google, the publishers, or our writers’ groups. We must be personally accountable to our own work.

The Talent Killers: Update #1 – comments and solutions from an unrepentant writer

by Mary W. Walters

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:

  • Many, many of the comments (and, I am sure, the hits) came from wannabe-agented and wannabe-published writers who would have risen up to defend agents in general and their chosen agents in particular no matter what the accusations against them–mainly in the hope of currying their favour (update: on April 28, a correspondent pointed out to me that this is entirely speculation on my part. He is correct. I do not know for sure that this is an accurate description of the people to whom I am referring). This is fair enough, but hardly the kind of response that is likely to change my thinking;
  • A number of comments came from agents who felt unjustly maligned, and even at times defensive. This was also understandable, but also didn’t alter my perspective in the least. (By the way, several agents pointed out that they take 15% of an author’s royalties, not 10%. I have noted that correction in the body of the article);
  • A number of writers, agents and publishers argued that although there are greedy, heartless junk-dealing agents out there, many others are intelligent, caring individuals who do their work because they love good writers and good writing. Fine. I am happy to accept that point (I suspected it might be true anyway);
  • Writers who already have agents pointed out how valuable the agents have been in securing good deals for them, managing their rights and helping to build their careers (I knew that. Why else would agents exist at all?);
  • An editor or two said that they appreciate the ‘gatekeeper’ role of agents—and their assistance in sorting through the slush pile. The agents who have commented on the subject have insisted that they are acting according to the guidelines set by the editors at the major houses, and not on their own initiative, when choosing which new books and/or authors to present. I stand corrected on that detail if it is the case, but it doesn’t change my basic point–the agents are still the gatekeepers–the ones who decide which books/writers the editors will want;
  • Several agents have pointed proudly to their record of bringing debut authors to the marketplace. I acknowledged in my original article that debut writers (well, in fact, individual books by debut writers) continue to be “discovered”;
  • In discussing my article on his podcast at Litopia last Tuesday (the relevant bit starts around 14:30), London agent Peter Cox implicated the buyers for the major bookstore chains in determining which books get published and what those books look like when they hit the stands (Peter has invited me to discuss/debate with him the possible role of literary agents and others in the destruction of the literary arts. Our conversations will be aired as part of the Litopia Daily podcasts during the week of May 4 to 8, 2009 inclusive);

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:

  • literary writing that can’t command an immediate advance should not be published at all;
  • anyone who has already published a book or two and has failed to turn herself into an international bestseller has already had her moment in the sun and should not expect even a glance from agents or publishers (this approach tends to ignore the fact that it is rather difficult to build an international reputation with only 1,500 to 3,000 copies of your book in hand and a publisher who cannot afford to reprint. It also indicates that, to the speaker of such codswallop, the concept of “artistic growth” does not apply to writers);
  • self-publishing is a viable alternative to publication by established presses (it may be for some books, but for those that require the stamp of approval of a selection committee and outstanding editorial support throughout the publication process, such as literary novels, it is not);
  • if a writer’s work is not accepted by an agent, it is not good enough for public consumption—by definition. Case closed. The writer should just try to write more interesting novels that more people will want to read, learn to write a decent query letter, and–most importantly–stop whining!

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.

Some solutions?

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

  • explore how writers can separate the “good” agents from the “bad” ones (the “bad” ones being those who publishers do not like or want to deal with due to previous experience, and those who are too new to be able to reach the publishing companies on behalf of their writers) quite aside from the obvious issue of finding out which agents exhibit a modicum of interest in the kind of writing you are doing;
  • discuss the concept of literary presses as the “nurseries” for future world-class writers (in addition to their other roles, which include promoting voices that may forever remain marginal to the mainstream);
  • present a primer for new agents (and for established agents who have never thought about it) that explains the economic differences between representing a book, and representing a writer with a vocation that includes past and future books as well as the current one;
  • explore genre in literature; and
  • provide a forum for any other topic you or I want to talk about that relates to literary writing.

The Talent Killers: How literary agents are destroying literature, and what publishers can do to stop them

by Mary W. Walters

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.

No.

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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