Tag Archives: writers

Dealing with Rejection

Today I am applying some words of wisdom that were written for the legal profession to my writing, and to my efforts to market my books. They are a good reminder that book writing and book selling are two different things:

[Despite all your well developed and respected skills in your area of expertise...] in the business-development area, you are about to go out and be rejected. You are about to go out and be wrong. You are about to go out and make mistake after mistake. Unless you see unhappy moments of rejection as opportunities to learn, and to improve in such a way that you achieve a level of skill that will allow you to be effective and get fewer and fewer rejections, you will not be successful at business development.

– Gerald A. Riskin, The Successful Lawyer: Powerful Strategies for Transforming Your Practice

An Update on WattPad

More than 200 people have “read” the first segment of my new novel, Seeds and Secrets, and a number have also visited  my short humorous essay, “Managing Writers in the Workplace: A Guide for Employers.” I find this attention is beginning to alter the structure of my days, so that I am putting my own work at the forefront both mentally and in practice. To be read, or even just to believe that you are being read, is a powerful motivator.

E-books and self-publishing are NOT THE SAME THING!

I am currently working on a blog post tentatively entitled, “Why do We Even Need Publishers?” which I hope to have posted by Sunday night, but in the meantime I want to clear up a rampant misconception that I’ve noticed among writers AND readers.

Yesterday I was discussing the issue of self-publishing (or “independent publishing”) with another widely published writer, explaining how I felt that the writers’ organizations to which we both belong were not doing justice to the dramatic way in which the new opportunities for publishing were affecting our industry and improving opportunities for writers in the future. The friend said, “Well, [one organization] did have a few really good sessions on e-books last year.”

And that reminded me of a problem I have noticed over and over again in writers’ and readers’ forums and even in articles from some established media outlets. For some unknown reason, there seems to be a confusion among many people between electronic publishing and self-publishing. They are not the same thing at all, and aside from being co-incidental in that they are both arising in the past few years, and that they are part of the same transformation, they are entirely unrelated.

Electronic publishing refers to the production of an electronic version of your book. That is all it refers to. It doesn’t matter if you are self-publishing or if you are being published by Simon & Schuster (are they still in business?), there can be a print version of your book and there can be an electronic version of your book. There can also be softcover and hardcover versions of the print edition, and there can be an audio-book version. These are merely different formats: they do not indicate different publishing paradigms.

The confusion has arisen because many of those who self-publish choose to publish ONLY in an e-book version, which is short-sighted on their parts as I will explain later. But that doesn’t mean that e-book publishing and self-publishing are synonymous in any way.

If you are publishing with ANY established press, you must make sure that they are going to make an e-book version available at almost at the same time as the print version appears, that the e-book will be available to the different reader platforms that are now available: Kindle, Kobe, iBooks, Sony Reader, Nook, etc.

There is a big argument going on about how much writers should get in royalties on e-books, which is an issue I intend to explore as soon as I finish this series on the death of the traditional books industry. But in the meantime, don’t get locked into any particular royalty for e-books in your contracts with established presses for the time being. The Writers’ Union of Canada recommends that you allow for renegotiation of the clause in your contract that relates your e-book rights/income in two years or so when this issue has settled down a bit, and I agree.

More soon .  . . .

Curb Dreams

by Mary W. Walters

originally published in Open Book Toronto

Waiting for the lights to change at Bay and King, I looked happily up at the office buildings and through a gap in the high-rises to the southwest at the CN Tower lit up in blue and red. Even after two months, I still could not believe that I was actually living in Toronto — a city that I found endlessly appealing for its size and sprawliness, its geographical and cultural variety, its human diversity, its sounds, its smells, its industry and (most particularly, to my mind) its status as one of the world’s great writing and publishing centres.

A friend and I had decided to walk, despite the dampness of the afternoon, from College Street down to Front, where we would survey the rich literary wares on offer at Nicholas Hoare Books. Just ahead of us now was Harbourfront, where internationally renowned writers read to captivated audiences. A few miles back were the publishing houses whose logos had marked the spines of books I’d been reading since I was a child — McClelland & Stewart, HarperCollins Canada, Penguin. From the very spot where I now stood on the street corner, I was sure — if I only knew which way to look — I would see a few of the windows to the mysterious aeries where the literary agents dwelled.

I laughed aloud from my pleasure just to be there, and my friend pulled me closer in a hug to share my joy. I wished that I could have beamed my feelings of excitement and anticipation back across the miles to the friends and family I’d left in western Canada — most of whom had received the news that I was packing up everything I owned and moving all alone to Toronto with a mixture of indulgent good wishes and mystification. There had probably also been prayers for both my safety and my sanity (Toronto being, after all, the city most Canadians love to hate).

But I had done it. And here I was: poised on that very curb that very afternoon — ready, I firmly believed, to fulfill my destiny as a fiction writer.

* * *

Mine is not an uncommon story. Every year, hundreds or possibly thousands of aspiring writers, actors, designers, visual artists and musicians make the trek east from the frozen prairie by bus or plane or car (or west, from the Atlantic stormlands), their backpacks set, suitcases rolling along behind them, their gazes lifting with their hearts as the office towers emerge from the mists like physical representations of their dreams. Nor is my story uniquely Canadian: it repeats itself in big cities all over the world — from Mumbai to London and New York — and has for generations. Whenever and wherever there are dreamers in the hinterlands, there will be those who will make their ways toward the cities.

So I was just one of many — but in my case, there was a twist. Most of my fellow-travelers were kids: 18 years old or less, 25 at most — young people who’d been motivated to take action by the need and determination to fulfill their destinies before real adult life intervened. I, on the other hand, was 59, with much of my adult life behind me, and my dream had been 30 years in the percolation.

I hadn’t even figured out the nature of my destiny until after I’d had children. Although I’d once imagined myself as a translator at the UN, I’d set my sights on more proximate goals — obtaining a degree, falling in love, getting married and starting a family. Still, something was always missing — some part of me felt underdeveloped. I took piano lessons, a course in clothing design, aerobics. And then, one day, age 29, I signed up for a correspondence course in fiction writing… and my fate was sealed.

In the years that followed, as I raised my children and gradually acquired the editing skills that allowed me to earn a living, I also wrote and published dozens of short stories, works of creative non-fiction and two novels. I wrote radio dramas and documentaries. I won writing awards, critical accolades and even an entry in Who’s Who in Canada. But I was unable to extend my fiction-writing reputation beyond the West. I came to believe (to the scorn of many of my fellow prairie writers) that if I wanted to fulfill my dreams for my fiction and myself, I would need to move closer to Canada’s largest centre for the literary arts.

By the time my first book of non-fiction was released, my kids were well launched and my daily life was my own again. As an editor and writing consultant, my physical location no longer mattered: I could earn a living in cyberspace. I decided that moving to Toronto would provide me with the kind of big-city environment I had always found inspiring, and I decided that it was now or never. The fiction writer in me smiled at these decisions, and stretched, and opened up her arms to opportunity.

So here I am, with all the younger dreamers, and I’m holding some cards they’re not. A few them will find success in their chosen fields, but before long most of them will need to relinquish their artistic hopes in favour of the joys and realities of adult life: marriages, careers and children.

I, on the other hand, have all the time in the world… not to mention thirty years of credentials and experience. In my more mature and serious moments, I imagine that I am here not only for myself, but also for them: the wide-eyed talents who are standing beside me on the street corners (not to mention the ones back home who, in their late twenties or mid-thirties are just now discovering their passions). I’m here to remind them to be patient and to practise: there will be time for them to stretch and fly after the kids grow up. I’m here to tell them, too, that if they nurture and groom their talents, they will have as many dreams at 60 as they did at 17.

But most of the time I’m not mature and serious. Most of the time I’m just a kid standing on a Toronto street corner, imagining a red-carpet of a future rolling out before me as I step down off the curb.

Managing Writers in the Workplace: A Guide for Employers

by Mary W. Walters

(This essay was first published in a slightly different form in The Rumpus in Oct. ’09.)

Wise employers have learned that in order to maximize results in today’s fast-paced work environments they must tailor their managerial skills to the dispositions of their various employees. A proliferation of books, articles, workshops and on-line seminars exist to help human-resources personnel understand the nature of those who work for them, and develop appropriate individual strategies to stimulate productivity.

Until now, one entire class of worker has been overlooked in these analyses: the undercover writers—to be specific, those poets, dramatists and creators of literary fiction and non-fiction who have for one reason or another eschewed careers in academe, and whose parents and/or spouses and/or children are no longer willing to support them. Unable to make a living from creative enterprise, they have been forced to conceal their true vocations in order to seek employment among the rank and file.

The men and women who make up this segment of the workplace population are intelligent and crafty, and they have very little to lose. Indeed they could be dangerous if they worked together—but fortunately it is not their disposition to operate in groups. It is not due to any danger to the employing organization that managers will find it of value to identify such people on their staffs; in fact, most writers will contribute knowledge, creativity, experience and a range of other skills and talents to their jobs, almost in spite of themselves. However, these people can best be encouraged to maximize their workplace contributions when managers know who they are, and are able to tailor administrative strategies to suit their particular strengths and weaknesses. This guide is intended to assist them.

Identification pre-employment

Creative writers can be difficult to detect during job interviews. Over time, many of them have built entire careers as fallback positions for their art, some even having acquired degrees in interesting areas of specialization like astrophysics or early-Victorian stage design. As result, they can be found not only in writing-related occupations, but in fields that range from railway maintenance to health care. However, they have learned that it does not suit their short-term goals to explain to job-selection committees that they intend to support a highly time-consuming writing vocation, quite aside from themselves and any dependents they may have, on the proceeds of the position for which they are applying.

If you suspect, perhaps through a particularly insightful or well phrased passage in the cover letter, or a rhymed couplet tucked into the resume itself, that you have a writer on your short-list, there is, admittedly, a fairly easy way to find out: you can Google the candidate. Many writers in the workplace have published at least one book, or maybe two or even three—or four, or ten or twelve—while continuing to be unable to earn a living from their writing. They probably have a web-page, and if any of their books are still in print, they are likely available through on-line bookstores.

Here is the dilemma: if you do discover that you have a writer on your short-list, what do you do with that information? Do you share it with your fellow selection-committee members and run the risk of predisposing the outcome of the job-search process in favor of the writer? For despite the overwhelming evidence that no one is reading literature any more, there is still a cachet to having a literary writer on one’s staff; consequently the imaginations of many of your employees, including perhaps those on your selection committee (perhaps—admit it—even yours?) will be caught by the thought of hiring a “real writer.” The potential to rub shoulders or discuss one’s own secret literary aspirations with a published author has swayed more than one hiring committee away from other more qualified, and possibly more stable, candidates.

At the pre-employment stage, most employers agree, it is just better not to know.

If you think you have hired a writer

Human-relations managers are generally relieved to hear that although poets are very different from fiction writers, and playwrights from nonfiction writers, literary artists of all genres do share certain basic characteristics that can be used to identify them in employment settings. Here are the most essential:

  1. Writers are grateful: Particularly in the first few weeks and months after you have hired them, you will find them almost inordinately appreciative that you have given them a job, This is partly because after what has typically been an extended but futile period of full-time writing, they really do believe that they want to hang out with other people rather than doing battle every day with their solitary nightmares. Primarily, however, they are grateful for your company’s dental plan and optical coverage, and for the opportunity to buy orthotics;
  2. Writers appear to have no fashion sense: After the first enthusiasm of being in the world wears off, most writers forget about their appearance. This is not intentional; it is endemic. For the most part writers are not dirty. Generally they do not smell. They simply tend to be inattentive to externals, and therefore to appear perennially disheveled;
  3. Writers suffer from attacks of inspiration. The first suspicion that a writer may be present in a workplace frequently occurs when such individuals leap to their feet in the middle of meetings and rush off to a washroom with expressions that suggest they have been possessed. Supervisors unused to working with writers frequently assume that such employees are displaying symptoms of alcohol abuse or drug dependency (which may also be the case, but that is not the subject of this article). However, follow-up often reveals these individuals to be crouched in toilet stalls not for the purpose of tipping back or shooting up, but in order to scribble messages to themselves. These are not mere “notes” – not grocery lists: they may in fact be outlines of award-winning short stories or scenes from future Broadway hits—or, indeed, entire sonnets;
  4. Writers are subject to mood swings: Varying from mild to intense, these episodes are similar to the clinical descriptions of bipolar disorder or other pathological conditions (which may also be a problem, but are not covered in this article). Normally writer-related mood swings can be distinguished from treatable syndromes by the brevity of the highs (usually occasioned by having mailed off a story to a magazine, producer or publisher) followed by the protraction of the lows;
  5. Writers will always prefer the less responsible position to the corporate climb, and the part-time position to the full-time job: Writers’ inability to be persuaded or influenced by—or punished through the withholding of—the kinds of economic rewards that are highly effective with most people, not only helps to identify them, but also presents employers with additional administrative challenges.

Managing the species

Once a writer in the workplace has been identified, the attributes that differentiate their writing genres form the most effective basis for their management.

The Poet

Poets can generally be identified in the workplace, as they can at social gatherings and in the coffee shops where they are most at home, by their supercilious and standoffish appearances. Their hauteur is not, however, what it seems: it is actually mainly shyness, combined with a dollop of fear that they have forgotten your name and/or are about to do something stupid which everyone will notice. Perhaps for this reason, poets in the workplace are known for their tendencies to sympathize with underdogs. They are strong in union-related activities, and will suddenly rise to the defense of the most incompetent employees.

Poets have no hope of ever making a living from their art. Alternately plunged into states of despair and resignation, these individuals can normally be cajoled into getting on with a responsible workaday career because, unlike writers in other genres, they know for absolute certain that they have no alternatives. The greatest challenge to office administrators when it comes to managing poets is how to keep the other staff from the contagion of their depressive and hopeless mindsets. Banning all alcohol from the workplace may help.

The Fiction Writer

Writers of fiction who are in the grip of a creative project can seem absent-minded and even at times downright demented. They will come into the office after a weekend of writing or at the end of a creatively productive lunch-hour with no idea of the names of the people with whom they work (nor, indeed, at times, those to whom they are married or have given birth), and also uncertain of the month, the year, and especially the time of day. They may be unclear as to what city they are in, or even which country—and, in the case of speculative-fiction writers, what planet they are on. It is important for their co-workers and managers to realize that this phenomenon results from the fact that the world inside the writer’s head has temporarily become more real to him or her than you are. Please be assured that fiction writers do know the difference between the fictional world and the real one. Given a little nudge or a long, mystified look, they will return in an instant from an icy December day in 18th-century Croatia, take off their several sweaters, and be ready to add their two cents’ worth to the afternoon’s budget meeting.

Also due to the nature of their work, fiction writers tend to suffer from lack of sleep and occasionally come to work with hangovers. The best approach is to forgive them when they arrive in such conditions—the lack of sleep means they are getting some creative writing done, which will help to keep them sane, while the hangovers mean they have been fantasizing about their futures on best-seller lists, which tends to improve their spirits (at least once they recover from the hangovers).

The Playwright

Playwrights, or dramatists, are generally far more flamboyant and sociable than are fiction writers, and certainly far more so than are poets and non-fiction writers; as a result, they are generally the best types of writers you can have around for the company.

However, torn between their need for writerly solitude and the excitement of the world of theater, playwrights tend to leap to their feet in the middle of meetings and suggest resolving corporate issues with a rousing chorus, a stake through the heart of the evil villain, or the introduction to the scene (upstage) of a pair of bactrian camels. While playwrights are far easier to manage in the workplace than are most other writers, they do need to be settled down from time to time and reminded that not everyone believes that all the world’s a stage.

The Non-Fiction Writer

The non-fiction writer is the closest to “normal human being” that it is possible to get while still being a writer. This makes these individuals very hard to detect, which can lead to distinctive problems for employers. Many non-fiction writers were activists when younger, and have inadvertently become writers only as a result of honing their skills while attempting to build support for social causes and political issues. Although they may now have turned their attentions to a newly evolved and far less lucrative area of the genre known as “creative” or “literary” non-fiction, where style is as important as content, they likely still have their noses tuned finely toward the detection of the kind of corporate rot that can bring down dynasties and presidents. To make things worse, such individuals have also typically refined their writing abilities to the point where they are not only skilled at identifying and describing unfortunate corporate practices (and supporting their findings with statistics, dates and locations), they now also have the connections to place these pieces with major publications. It is therefore wise, if you suspect a non-fiction writer in your midst, to avoid indulging in insider trading, the mismanagement of biohazardous materials, or the harassment of employees—at least while such writers are in the room.

Aside from their tendencies toward socio-political eruption, creative non-fiction writers are fairly easy to deal with as employees. They often have books that they are working on at home and possibly also during their lunch hours, but unlike their fiction-, drama- and poetry-writing counterparts, their work normally has a structure and even an outline. This means that they are likely to have schedules to follow—and may even be able to adhere to them—thus eliminating some of the systemic angst that tends to plague their colleagues in other writing genres.

Writers Can Spell “Corporate Success” For You

In general, writers are keenly intelligent people who come from highly dysfunctional backgrounds. Employers are making a contribution to society by keeping them employed (safe in the office from the kinds of family breakdowns and personal damage that can occur when such individuals are given too much idle time in which to write, which only leads to writers’ blocks and thence to crises both personal and interpersonal) but also by keeping them writing, if only minimally (and therefore sublimating all kinds of passions and impulses and emotions which most of us are all too happy to read about but do not ever want to actually see).

In the meantime, writers tend to make good workers. They are so busy imagining the great success of their current writing projects that they take conflicts and even uproars in the workplace in their stride. The odds of their actually quitting because they have had a literary breakthrough are roughly equivalent to those of any of your other employees leaving because they have won the lottery.

The managers who are most successful with writers on their staffs are those who recognize that 1) the writers do not want to be there and think they will be leaving at any moment, and 2) the writers are not going anywhere. The careful containment of managerial aspirations in regard to writer-employee advancement, combined with tactful accommodation of employee-writers’ dreams regarding their imminent fame and fortune, can lead to symbiotic relationships that will benefit everyone.

Rewards for the sensitive management of writers by employers can be substantial. Despite their long periods of moroseness and bursts of disproportionate good cheer, writers can prove in the long-term among the most dedicated, hard-working and grateful employees a company will ever be fortunate enough to hire. Continually drawn forward by their conviction that they are about to make the breakthrough that will allow them to quit their jobs, they are likely to just keep right on working until it’s time to collect their watches and retire.

In the meantime, such employees will invite you to their book launches, perhaps even dedicate a story or poem to you, maybe even thank you publicly (if they remember) when they win awards, since by then you are likely to be the only members of their inner circle who has not abandoned them. They might even put you into a story, a poem, a play or a book, and unexpectedly (to them as well as you) confer on you the side-benefit of eternal life.

__________________

Link to The Rumpus version of “Managing Writers in The Workplace”

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.

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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.

“Chick lit”? “Women’s lit”? Plain old “lit”? Someone! Please tell me the difference.

by Mary W. Walters

A few years ago, I was less confused than I am now about the distinction between “chick lit” and other fiction. Chick lit usually had a brightly coloured cover that featured a stylized young woman, handbag, stilettos, and a martini glass. The title was written in a light-hearted often cursive font. The word “shopping” figured largely in the jacket copy, and the main characters had much in common with the main characters of  Sex in the City in regard to their sizes, shapes, occupations and consuming (!) interests. They generally had (minor) weight issues, men issues and life issues which were written about in a light-hearted, gently self-mocking way. Bridget Jones’s Diary was an early contribution to the genre.

I must admit to not having read much chick lit (aka “chic lit”). I didn’t have too much trouble avoiding it: I was able to distinguish it from other books by the aforementioned covers, plot summaries, and tone. I avoided these novels partly because I am happiest reading really well written  prose and poetry (I am a literary snob, as many readers of my blog and fellow contributors to literary fora have disparagingly pointed out before) but that is not the entire reason: I am sure there is some wonderfully well written chick-lit out there. (In fact, I did read Bridget Jones’s Diary, and found it thoroughly engaging.) But the main reason I haven’t read much in the genre (or sub-genre) is because it concerns subjects I’m not much interested in – such as shopping, hanging out with girlfriends all day long, dating, and seeking true happiness with the right man.  Or woman, for that matter.

I’m just not much of a “girly girl.” Never have been. My female role models are people like Helen Mirren, Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep, A.S. Byatt, k.d. lang, Renee Fleming. Brainy, independent women who happen to be beautiful. “Chicks” in a whole different sense. No bubble-gummers there. (Although Fonda had her moments.)

Women’s lit vs chick lit

“Women’s literature,” on the other hand, I have always read. Women’s fiction is quite different from chick lit, at least in my understanding of it. Women’s literature is generally  more serious than chick lit. It concerns bigger issues that are of concern to women – self-realization, domestic violence, philosophical inquiry, life and death.

I must admit I have often wondered why we feel the need to label women’s fiction. Is it to warn off certain men who might not like it? (Wouldn’t the jacket copy do an adequate job of that?) Or are we trying to get these books noticed by people who choose titles for study in university courses or reading groups?

It is true that men and women often have different interests and foci when they write, but the idea of pointing out that Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Tyler, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison or Alice Munro write women’s fiction makes as much sense to me as saying that John Updike, E.L Doctorow, Salman Rushdie and Joseph O’Neill write “men’s fiction.” We do not label the men that way. Why not? Does Cormac McCarthy write men’s fiction? Yes. Because he is a man.  So what?

Why not just call it all “literature”?

My efforts to figure out the difference between women’s literature and literature in general are further confused when I consider books like the wonderful Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Is that book women’s fiction because it was written by a woman? The main character is a man who is talking to his son about his life and his god. What is “women’s lit” about that? How about Amy Tan? She writes domestic dramas. So does Anne Tyler. What about Joyce Carol Oates? Does she write literature, or women’s lit?

Why it matters

The labels bother me because I think that labeling certain books as “women’s fiction” discourages certain other people from reading them—or gives them an excuse not to read them.  And for no good reason I can think of. (I have a friend whose husband was happily reading a P.D. James novel, and was talking about reading more by the same author. But he thought P.D. James was a man. His wife was going to hold back the truth for as long as she could because if he’d known the author was a woman, he’d have stopped reading immediately. He didn’t like books by women.)

The fact that there is also a “chick lit” category adds another dimension when it comes to discouraging readers. While some men may happily venture into books by “literary” writers who happen to be female—e.g.,  Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett, Jeanette Winterson and so on—they are not likely to pick up a Candace Bushnell or a Sophie Kinsella. In fact, they are likely to turn their noses up at those books. For that matter, so are some female readers. (How come I get flak from female readers when I turn my nose up at chick lit, but guys just get an indulgent little shake of the head?)

What do I write? I may have no idea.

Do I write chick lit? Well, I didn’t think so. I am not interested in reading it, and have not read much of it, so how can I possibly write it? And yet within the past few months I have been told several times—and not only by readers and fellow writers, but also by two agents—that the reason I am having trouble placing my newest novel is because it is chick lit, and I am not marketing it properly. It is not “literature,” they tell me. It is not even “women’s literature” per se. It is “chick lit.”

An agent who read the first few chapters of my new novel responded to my statement, “This is not chick lit” by saying, firmly, “This IS chick lit.” As a result of this feedback from a person I respect, I have now started marketing my novel as chick lit. I have changed the title from The Whole Clove Diet to Finding Rita. I have revised the pitch to put the focus on Rita’s weight problems and her peculiarly dark lightheartedness about it and her sexual attraction to a mysterious doctor whom she meets by accident.

The book itself has not changed—it is still about a young woman who has buried her misery about some wrong choices she’s made so far in food, gaining 80 lbs in the process, and who must deal with some serious family crises and even the death of her father-in-law on her way to finding her way through it all–which she ultimately does. Her biggest problem is her isolation—she’s cut herself off from her friends. She can’t shop because she’s too fat. She doesn’t drink martinis, or work in publishing or advertising. Although her husband is the books editor of a newspaper.

Does that sound like chick lit to you? It does not to me.

So what has led these readers of the first few chapters of my new novel to insist that it is chick lit? Is it because the main character has a weight issue? If so, does that also make Wally Lamb’s fine novel She’s Come Undone chick lit?

The Questions

I need your help here, people—both male and female people. Not just for the sake of my novel and my writing, but because now I can’t stop thinking about this. I have heard in recent months that “chick lit” is going out of style. Is it gobbling up other kinds of women’s fiction in an effort to stay alive? Or is it going to take women’s fiction down the drain with it?

What does chick lit mean to you? Is every book that deals with women under the age of 40, who are looking for themselves, that includes some  humour, chick lit?

Does Tama Janowitz write chick lit? Fay Weldon? Laura Esquival?  Sue Grafton? Ruth Rendall?

Do these people all write women’s literature–as well? Instead?

Is everything written by a woman “women’s literature” or “women’s fiction”? Even if it’s detective fiction?

Do any women write plain old literature?

Do men ever write “women’s literature”?

And how can you tell?

“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.)

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.

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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.