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.


The substantial and nearly unassailable wall that separates you from us has been under construction for decades. You can find the names of its architects and gatekeepers on your telephone-callers list, and in your email in-box. They are the literary agents—that league of intellectual-property purveyors who bring you every new manuscript you ever see, those men and women who are so anxious to gain access to the caverns of treasure they believe you sit upon like some great golden goose that they would likely hack one another’s heads off were they not united by one self-serving mission: to ensure that quality fiction never hits your desk.


I am sure that this news comes as a surprise to you, Dear Editor. I am certain that you were drawn to your career—and by “career” I mean “vocation,” including the spectrum of responsibilities that ranges from new-book acquisition to the kind of excellent substantive editing that makes great novels outstanding—because of your love of literature. You probably started with an education in the literary classics which you have since enriched by reading the very best writing being published in the world today. In your few spare moments, you may wonder why it is that aside from an occasional new voice that may become great in another twenty years, the only authors of literary value have been around for decades.

I can answer that question for you. I can tell you why your desk is piling up with flimsy bits of vampire literature, fantasy, romance, detective stories and the kind of first-draft bubble gum that used to be called chick-lit but is now shuffled in with other women’s writing in order to give it heft—although as far as you can see, neither the quality nor the subject matter has improved—which you are required to somehow turn into publishable books. It is because the vast majority of literary agents do not, in fact, have any interest in literature. They are only interested in jackpots.


As you know—better than anyone, perhaps, since you are the one who needs to negotiate with them—agents’ incomes come off the top of royalties that publishers pay their writers. The agent’s cut is generally 10 percent of the writer’s portion, which is in turn about 10 percent of the book’s cover price. Ten percent of 10 percent is not a lot. (Correction: I have been advised that the industry standard is 15%.) In order to create a decent cash flow, literary agents can only afford to represent writers who are going to sell truckloads of books (or millions of megabytes in the case of e-books) and therefore merit significant advances. The bigger the better: a substantial advance is money in the bank.

As you also know, publishing is a business, which means that publishing houses can only afford to offer advances they are likely to recoup—which means that advances only go to established writers with massive followings, and to particularly brilliant (or particularly sleazy) first-time novelists. They are generally reserved for what’s known as “commercial” fiction. (Of course, an advance is no guarantee that a book will sell. But that doesn’t matter to the agents. By the time the book’s not selling, they already have their cuts. They simply abandon writers whose books did not hit their projected sales numbers and move on to the newest shiny thing—indifferent to the fact that they’ve turned those abandoned authors into the pariahs of the slush pile.)

Clearly it is not in the best interests of literary agents to represent writers whose book sales are likely to build only gradually—perhaps after a well-thought, positive review appears in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail or on a high-quality books blog, inspiring a few people to buy the book, read it, and then recommend it to other readers who will also recommend it. It can be years before a literary agent can start sucking a living out of a writer with a book like that. Frankly, who has time?


There is no room for gourmet tastes or discerning palates in this system. Agents’ websites may trumpet their dedication to literary fiction, but what they really want is books that sell. These purveyors of literary costume jewelry seek out the kind of quirky but unsubstantial mental junk food that is as similar as possible to last season’s bestsellers—fiction that will sell quickly and widely by association with the almost-identical books that have preceded it. See last week’s best-seller list for an eloquent guide to this fad-based publishing system.

Since they know what they are looking for, literary agents are able to post tips and pointers on their websites and blog posts for the benefit of would-be clients: they want books that are going to get their immediate attention, impress them within the first five pages—books that are going to sell. (If you click through the links I have provided here, Dear Editor, you will become aware of a certain tone of disdain toward the target audience. This tone is very common among literary agents, who are doing their best to undermine the confidence of writers as a group. Please also note the fawning tone of the comments by the authors responding to these blogs. We have lost our self respect, I am afraid. We have learned to see ourselves as unworthy, stupid, and probably unclean. We’ve forgotten we’re the talent.)

Having set out what they do and do not want from writers, the agents then demand that we, their would-be clients, condense our novels into 300-word “pitches” that will convince them of the marketability of our books. (One might think that this would be the agent’s job—to develop pitches for the manuscripts by the writers they represent which they will then present to publishers. But no. That is not the way this system works.)

Next the agents engage “interns”—usually selected from among the wannabe writers enrolled in one of the creative-writing courses that proliferate at our universities and colleges—to read the queries that we, the writers, have written about our books. The interns measure our pitches against the criteria the agents have devised, find the disconnects, then write us our rejection letters. These interns don’t get paid, of course: they get credit for “work experience.”

The upshot is that fine fiction writers who are crappy copy-writers attempt to write fast-paced pitches about their own serious novels that will make those novels sound as much as possible like commercial drivel. Most of us aren’t very good at that (how do you describe The Road in 300 words and make it sound like a piquant coming-of-age story? Or A Confederacy of Dunces a sweet novel of redemption?) but we have no choice but to try. We submit our pitches in good faith by email or snail mail (depending on the dictates of the individual agent-god. They tell us how they want us to submit right on their websites!) where they are read by interns with little experience of literature or life, and are rejected.

Some of us have had our query letters rejected more than 50 times.

No one has asked to see our manuscripts.

Read any good Kafka lately?


What, you may well wonder, do these agents do with all of the spare time they have carved out of their lives by creating query-letter formulae and “hiring” unpaid minions to reject the pitches that don’t meet their gutter-level standards? Well I can answer that question for you, too. They sit on their high horses and concoct blog posts, listing all the things that would-be clients have done to offend them in the past (such as describing their books as belonging to a genre that the agent does not believe exists, or writing a bigger paragraph than the agent is able to read: see #84 and #97 respectively).

Occasionally, especially in groups, these snakes slither off their horses and coil up together in the grass, pour themselves a scotch, and forget to even attempt to conceal their contempt for writers. Several of them had a fine old time on Twitter one morning recently, mocking the efforts of inexperienced would-be-published authors to attempt to get their attention in a query letter. (Writer: “Keep in mind that this novel is a bit of my imagination …” Agent: “I’m just glad its [sic] not ALL of your imagination. #queryfail”; Writer: “Imagine a world where Camelot had never existed.” Agent: “Wow. You’re blowing my mind. #queryfail”; Agent: “Seriously? Your last name is ‘[insert unusual but real name]’? Oh, that will look awesome on a book jacket. #queryfail”; Writer: “I have designed a unique cover for my book.” Agent: “Unrealistic expectations #queryfail”; Writer: “How do I submit queries to you?” Agent: “Um, meta #queryfail.”)

Quite aside from the public ridicule, we have been belittled by agents personally, by phone (“Tell me about that other book you mentioned in your query. Keep in mind that I don’t want to hear your life story”) and by e-mail (Agent, March: “Love your book. Cut out 20,000 words and change this to that, and I’ll have another look at it.” Same agent, December: “I’m sorry. We did receive your revised manuscript in August, and we appreciate how much work you must have done. Unfortunately I’ve been sick and had to go to Frankfurt for the Book Fair, and I just haven’t had time to look at it again. In fact, I’m so busy at the moment, I think I’m just going to have to say No. I can’t take on any more clients at the moment.”) When we asked how to improve our pitches, they have told us not to mention the two or three books we have previously published because that makes us sound like “has-beens.” (For further reading on this subject, check out this  interview with “four young literary agents”, where you can learn among other things that submitting letters on pink paper is a clear indication of lack of literary talent.)

Amanda Urban is one of North America’s leading literary agents and one of those who does command respect for the quality of her clientele. (The few that are of her caliber, unfortunately, have “stables” already full of well respected, established writers, and they respond to query letters with an automated reply that says: “We are unable to take on any new clients at this time.”) Urban told an audience in Israel last year that in future, “Fewer books will be published, and those whom we call mid-list writers will no longer get published. The major writers will keep publishing, debut books will always be published, and the ones in the middle will have a problem.”

We’re losing at least one generation of writers here, Dear Editor.


While it is true that there are a lot of very poor and/or inexperienced writers out there who can turn into real pests, the agents’ automated system is specifically set up to protect you from not only them, but us. The “mid-list” writers of which I am a part may be very poor at summing up manuscripts to make them sound like fluff, but we can sure as hell write fiction. We’ve been doing it for years. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this phenomenon just a few months ago in The New Yorker, in an article that explored the relationship between genius and precocity. He pointed out that many of the world’s most significant artists (among writers he mentions Elizabeth Bishop and MarkTwain) did not create their most important works until they had been practicing their art for many years.

It is not that the agents don’t know that we can write: they do. It’s just that they also know we won’t make any real money for them up front. They suspect we are more interested in finding audiences and writing books than we are in helping them pay their bills—that we might accept ridiculously reasonable advances rather than participating in extortion. They want us to go away.


You, Dear Editor, are unknowingly complicit in this debacle. By refusing to accept direct submissions (just check your website! It says you will never accept a manuscript that is not submitted through an agent. It warns us that you will return our manuscripts unread if we try to foist them off on you! It even offers us helpful suggestions on how to find an agent—as though Google weren’t able to throw a hundred of them at us at a time!) you have become an unwitting accomplice to the devastation of the literary arts.

The agents have convinced you that the gated wall they built around you, to which they gave themselves the only key, allows them to protect you from hordes of grasping, pesky writers, a loathesome group they are willing to handle on your behalf in exchange for the opportunity to find the occasional wonderful new writing talent among them, which they promise to bring to you.

In fact the wall has made you a prisoner to their commercial tastes.


There is a simple way around this. All you and your colleagues at the world’s leading publishing houses need to do is to acknowledge that there are nearly as many literary agents squirming around out there these days as there are writers, and that the agents add no value to the book-production process. They have the writers doing their sale pitches for them, and the interns doing the rest of their work. Their role consists entirely of driving up the cost to you of acquiring the few manuscripts that fit their formulae, and therefore padding the cost of each and every book. When it comes to pestering you, they have become as irritating as an unfiltered mass of writers. In this economic climate particularly, they are a luxury that neither you, the readers, nor the writers want—or can afford.

Publishing companies can “hire” unpaid interns too. You can tell those interns what you are looking for—real writers who are passionate about what they do, who have been working at their art for years and know the business, who understand that audiences  take time to grow and that books are expensive to produce, who appreciate the value of discerning editors, are looking to attract positive reviews from intelligent reviewers, and maybe snag some more awards, and to gradually build the appreciative critical mass of readers who will complete and affirm the value of their art.

By eliminating the agents, you will be able to reduce advances (including those you will still need to pay to the commercial writers) to sane and reasonable amounts, and you will get to publish some exciting new books while you are at it. The accounting department will thank you. Your own literature-loving heart will thank you.

The writers, of course, will also thank you. But the real winners will be the thousands of intelligent and discerning readers who will be permitted to discover a whole range of literary voices that, under the current system, they are never going to hear.


451 responses

  1. Well said! There are agents everywhere, in literature, design, art, fashion, you name it, anything creative and some agent is raking in their 10% and deepening the gap between artist and client.

    • Mary, you clearly have enormous belief in your ability but so does everyone else who has written a book. Why wouldn’t they?

      If you believe in yourself to this extent, self publish. It’s never been easier to do.

  2. Mary,
    Well done. Thank you for calling out the agents on the snark. But the ever hopeful writers who become “followers” of their ever tweet and thought add to their inflated sense of self-importance. They’ll be gone soon enough.
    However, publishing is also a business with a bottom line and they’ll always be too many writers (even good ones) for all of us to make a living at it. The best we can hope for is that through less expensive PODs, more small presses, and kindles for all, our work will get out to more people. But most of us will still need to teach, wait tables, work in offices, etc. in order to support our writing habits.

  3. Mary, this is an interesting post, but I have a quibble with your premise. I believe that it is the publishers themselves – who are now gigantic media enterprises which insist that EVERY book published must show a profit, or heads will roll – who have handed over our futures to the hands of literary agents. And they have done this at a time when the affordable PC combined with the internet have made every other literate person in the world (okay, maybe only every third person) into an aspiring writer. Agents are simultaneously swamped and under pressure to provide books which carry little risk. And that means less challenging literature, because the deep stuff has a limited audience.


    • Exactly. This isn’t news to acquisitions editors. This is the world they live and breathe every day. They’re well aware that literary agents are gatekeepers, and some of them may even have secret doubts about the skills of their favorite gatekeepers. But they don’t want to sift through slush, so they will keep using gatekeepers.

  4. I’m not a writer of ‘literary fiction’ but I will link to this, to help spread the word.

    I don’t agree 100% with you, however I see your point – the mergers that created 6 giant publishing companies have left no outlet for literary fiction’s mid-list writers.

    There needs to be a market that is accessable, without having to resort to vanity publishing, even the high end like and aren’t going to let the cream rise to the top.

    E-publishing appears to be the refuge for the mid-list writer. I wish e-readers were cheaper.

  5. Your world view puzzles me. As I understand the way the world works, agents make their living by presenting work to editors which–based on their ongoing relationships–they believe the editors will want to buy.

    But it seems you believe that these innocent, high-minded (and apparently clueless) professional editors working for corporate entities are being bamboozled by a class of unscrupulous agents. That’s pretty darn funny.

    The fact is publishers are in the biz to make money, and lit fic does not sell very well. Books about golden retrievers sell well.

    A more productive argument might run along the lines of how can people who love non-commercial literature create a forum to promote the cause. It’s better to act than complain.

    Genre writers writing material too edgy for New York found homes in the e-publishing world. Has anyone considered creating lit-fic e-publishing house?

    Looking to corporate media giants to support the arts is a futile cause. You have to make your own reality.

  6. Mary, How extraordinary that I happened upon this today. BRAVO!!!! It hit me just last night that one of my novels that sold 100,000 copies was rejected by every single agent I tried (and I tried many), so — through a connection — I got the books into the hands of Carolyn Marino, now retired, at HarperCollins. And so, dear reader, it was published. I am, therefore, sending my most recent, hugely rejected — by agents — novel to my last editor. Directly. Let’s see what happens, huh?

    Listen, WE ARE GOING TO HAVE TO CHANGE THINGS, not the editors. Let’s figure out HOW.

    Love, Jody

  7. Wow. The premise of this post – that the agents are the sole money-grubbing arbiters of taste, while the publisher editors (pure of heart and free from the constraints of profitability) would, if only they KNEW, snap up the work these evil Agent gatekeepers deny – it’s laughable.

    Traditional publishing is about profit. It starts from the top and saturates every level of the industry. Every level. The only cog within that machine whose mantra includes a need to love the books they represent are the agents you denigrate.

    Perhaps they reject you, but the sad fact is this – once you’re working the industry, your agent is the only friend you have – no one else gives a crap about the story itself.

  8. It’s the truth and you may not like it, but that’s the corporate world in a nutshell. I’ve been through it with the music industry and I’m watching the same thing hit writing. These guys need to earn a decent wage. They’re not on a mission to just bring some “intelligence” to the masses. And you’re definitely not gonna change any agents with your anger spewing out all over the place.

    So why not just do what the rest of us who don’t fit in the NY box do and that is start your own e-press. It’s better than nothing. You could become the Ani DiFranco of writing.

  9. I found this rather offensive both to myself, as a writer of non-literary fiction, and to the agents you malign. Publishing is a business, and while there are publishing houses that would be interested in literary fiction, even if it doesn’t sell huge immediately, they are ultimately interested in the bottom line. The fact of the matter is larg publishers cater to the masses and most people don’t read a lot of literary fiction. Even if they read it on occasion, they don’t read enough of it for publishers of that size to devote enormous resources to it. So, they bank on what sells and fit in more literary books where they can.

    As a non-literary writer, touting my work as “less than” yours is at best rude. Beyond that, how many authors whose work is now considered “literature” wrote for the masses? How many of them, at the time, were considered fluff writers? Not every piece of literature was written as literary fiction.

    With regard to agents, yes some have assistants, yes they blog, yes they tweet. And other than not knowing if you have an assistant, the same can be said of you, Mary. That isn’t a slam, it is a statement of fact. What do agents do while their assistants read slush and their authors write pitches? They are figuring out which editors want to see which of their clients’ work. They are getting the right piece in the hands of the right people. They are dealing with things like contracts that most authors don’t have the time or knowledge to wade through. They are looking for the next client, the next flash of brilliance. They are selling books, and not making a dime until someone buys.

    But you are probably right about one thing, like publishers, agents do know that literary fiction is a tough sell. So, if you want to grab an agent’s attention, your work better sing. Of course, that isn’t much different than it is for a person who writes fluff, like me.

  10. “Agents’ websites may trumpet their dedication to literary fiction, but what they really want is books that sell.”

    Well gosh. Who would have thought that agents would like to pay the bills and, you know, eat?

    What really amuses me is the intimation that all literary fiction is “good”. It’s not. Like popular fiction, a small percentage is excellent, some of it is readable, but the majority is boring, self-indulgent drivel.

  11. That was a very passionate posting, Mary. Your frustration is palpable. A very reputable Toronto agent told me that, despite what the big publishing house web sites say, a writer can submit an ms directly to them and they will be read (eventually). I then asked this agent: “Then what do I need you for?” To which she answered (in all seriousness): “You don’t.” Then she went on to tell me that publishers have one contract that they offer to unrepresented writers and another for represented ones. Guess which has the bigger advance? But, nevertheless, she maintains that a big house will look at an unsolicited ms. I think where agents probably are very useful is in getting those elusive foreign deals and film deals. Although, the small publisher putting out my first book tells me they have people working on those things.

  12. This may or may not be helpful, Mary. That agent did say more specifically that if you know of an editor you’d like to work with — such as Ellen Seligman at MS or Lynn Henry at Anansi — you could send your ms to them directly (I assume along with a letter saying how much you love their work, books they’ve edited that have inspired you, what an honor it would be to work with them, etc, etc) and they will supposedly read it. But considering your own irrefutable experience you may as well take this advice with as much salt as your system will allow before your blood pressure shoots through the roof.

  13. Hello Mary,

    I hate to sound like I am hacking on a fellow writer, but (notice the but!) when you mentioned Atwood you lost me. You might feel that vampire stories and click-lite are junk, but they have a following for a reason – people read them. Why? Well, maybe, unlike Atwood, their charactors are ones that readers can relate, even if they are pathic, readers get the feel that the author who created them cares about them. Even great novels like “The Road” leaves the reader with some hope. Atwood’s work? Well, let’s just say in her case she is lucky there are such things as government grants and Fem. Lite classes – I mean her writting would kill a sunny day. As well, I don’t understand why, if you’re a published writer, you are entering contests like ABNA? Isn’t that suppose to be for unknowns? You are listed in Canada’s Who’s Who. Feel free to write and explain why I am clueless – cheers Shane – PS if you want, I will email you my novella “Flowers for the Girl” – it will brighten your day, unlike Atwood.

  14. Speaking from an economics viewpoint, agents are intermediaries in a supply chain. The traditional supply chain is supplier-manufacturer-wholesaler-retailer-buyer.

    As I see it, the writer is the supplier, the publisher and the writer working together are the manufacturer. The publisher is the wholesaler, bookstores are the retailers, and readers are the buyers. Intermediaries (agents) are not really necessary in the supply chain. History is full of examples of intermediaries (middlemen) that have been eliminated. You might say that is the natural evolution of the supply chain – to eliminate middlemen.

    Recent history is also full of examples of other steps in the supply chain being eliminated or consolidated. Direct marketing via the internet is one example, with Amazon attempting to bypass bookstores.

    No one should be surprised if the publishing industry undergoes some radical change as well. What that change will be I cannot guess – I wish I could. There are plenty of ongoing experiments – most of which are designed to eliminate intermediaries such as agents, or even publishers and bookstores. Only time will tell which experiments will succeed and which will fail.

  15. So let me get this straight… you are asking publishers to remove the gatekeepers – the ones that negotiate on behalf of writers to stop them getting screwed – so that they can spend more money and time on a fruitless slog through the slush pile so that writers who have already published two or three books that have failed to sell can have another chance?

    Who is served by that? (Apart from the writer who gets to see themselves in print.)

    • “Sorry, but what I see is a writer in denial about the fact that the publishing industry is a business.”

      What I see is a lot of agents who are in denial about the fact that the publishing industry, like the music industry, is going to change.

  16. Mary–as a writer who worked at a publishing house for 13 years and grew familiar with the publishing industry, I disagree with many of your points. Most of the agents I’ve met over the years are lovers of literature and desire for the holy grail: a well-written book that sells.

    We can blame agents or point fingers at the publishers. I’ve done that myself over the years. But ultimately it is the consumer that drives bestsellers and trends. Yes, if an agent and a publisher don’t pick that “gem” out of the market and publish it, then the masses won’t find it. Right? I don’t agree with that premise either since there are examples of self-published books that have become hits.

    I’ve said this and continue to say this: publishing isn’t a science. It’s subjective and it’s unpredictable. Agents and publishers and authors want (and need) to make money. As a full-time writer, I’m trying to balance writing what I long to write with also trying to have a career and give publishers (and consumers) what they want.

    I’ve written close to 40 books and have had 12 published. I don’t think my unpublished work is brilliant–I think it’s rather average. Persistence continues to be my friend and it’s the one thing I know works when other things don’t.

    It’s easy to bash agents, but they’re trying to make a living helping authors find a home with a publishers. Yes, there are some snakes out there, but speaking from experience, there are many agents trying to do their best.

  17. Wow. I couldn’t even read to the end of this because it was so full of poison and half-truths. (And some very outright untruths.)

    I would love to say much more, but I’ll restrain myself and wish you better than you would wish others.

  18. “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.”

    Sure hope you’re right about this part. I just got an agent. Guaranteed bestsellerdom?

  19. Well, I’m quite happy to see that people are responding to this, and I am not surprised at the flames it has attracted. It was intended to do that. This discussion really needs to happen, and it is happening all over the internet right now. Not just here.

    I am particularly pleased to notice that my piece has been read by the agent who instigated the infamous #queryfail twitter roast of writers in general and newbies in particular.

    I know there are great agents who love literature out there. They are very busy with their excellent clients, as I have mentioned in my blog. I’m sure the most valuable agents would agree with every word I’ve written here, as will the best editors. Those people are also likely to see the ironic subtext of my “letter” which others may not have noticed. :)

    And to those writers and readers who know what I am saying and have said so — thank you for your support.

  20. Wow, aside from the fact that this was seriously TLDR, (that’s Too Long Didn’t Read for some of you folks) I can see why you are getting rejected. Are all your queries this long-winded and unashamedly abusive towards every kindred writer on the planet? We’re all in the same boat, and let me explain it this way: Different readers want different books. That means ‘Classic Literature’ might bore some people who have a taste for action, suspense, even vampire romance. [gag]
    Take a look at yourself and stop blaming others that your genre can’t be accepted and sold.

  21. Note to Kate: I could write another whole blog post to answer that question, but I have just now discovered that if you just Google “literary fiction” you get some comprehensive answers. Try Wikipedia. Looks promising.

    Sam: Thank you. The words “value added” spring to mind–in the form of a question.

    Steven, thanks.

    Shane, I’m sorry you haven’t acquired a taste for Atwood, but if everyone liked the same authors we’d only need one.

    Travis, good points, well made.

    Hmm… Did I notice you just making a gagging noise about vampire romance writers? Pot calling the kettle black? I have no argument with those who want to read bestselling genre fiction. That’s not what my blog’s about. And I have taken a good long look at myself–through the eyes of agents–for so many years that I had come to hate everything about what I wrote despite how much people told me it was good stuff and despite how incapable I am of writing anything else. I’m just taking back my turf.

    Walrus — congrats! That is fabulous news. And I hope for both of you that bestsellerdom is ahead!

  22. If you had bothered to read some of the blogs you linked to and then disparaged, you might have noted that both Bransford and Reid have written about midlists.

    Bransford, in particular, said that he fears the big publishing houses will drop their midlists in the coming years, and that, he felt, would be a mistake.

    Your extremely verbose blog shows a real ignorance of the writer – agent – publisher relationship, and of the industry as a whole.

    But I’m most disturbed by your attitude toward writers and readers who aren’t interested in literary fiction. Your writing here comes off as very elitist, condescending, and pretentious. And it’s sad, really. Because with credentials like yours, you could be a real asset to the writing community.

    I’m sure you believe every word that you wrote here, but you’re wrong.

    You’re wrong to assume that people who frequent agent blogs have lost confidence in themselves and are pandering to the gatekeepers. Again, if you had done your homework and frequented the blogs, you would know that writers often disagree with the agents. The fact that they do it in a respectful and professional manner (most of the time) does not equate to pandering. Writers have also helped to change the way agents approach the querying process because of the dialogue present in agent blogs.

    This has happened specifically at BOTH Janet Reid’s and Nathan Bransford’s blogs.

    You’re wrong to judge commercial writers as somehow less than the writers of lit fic. In fact, the beauty of commercial fiction is that it makes art accessible–which the greatest art always is. And make no mistake, writing is art, no matter the genre.

    I looked at your chapters and noted that the majority of readers were able to connect to your heroine. That connection is what makes fiction so amazing. Why would you push aside the connections made to genre fiction as somehow inferior?

    And finally, you’re wrong to paint all members of any one group in this industry in one light. Because the truth is that there are money-hungry agents in the world. But there are just as many, if not more, agents who are out to find truth, beauty, and artistry in the works that they represent.

    There are best-selling authors who lack the integrity to put their heart into their work, as well as readers who just want to be entertained and don’t want to think.

    But there are best-selling, commercial, genre authors who are offering truth and beauty, pain and darkness to their discerning readers.

    Folklore and futuristic imaginings do not detract from the literary value of genre fiction. (Nor do romantic entanglements and sexuality.)

    But, unfortunately, your ill-informed judgmental attitudes take a lot away from what you’ve written here.

  23. Well… Please first accept my apologies if this comes across as harsh. I mean nothing but to advance a different perspective.

    While I can completely understand your frustration, I am at any rate not convinced that trashing literary agents is the best way to promote yourself as a professional. With every public posting you make, you present your attitude, your personality, and a glimpse of what you would be like to work with. That’s why I watch very closely the things I say in a public venue. Verbally socking these people in the eye when they WANT us to succeed? Quite silly.

    I have great respect for Colleen Lindsay and Janet Reid; they work hard, they are dedicated, and they understand what many trying to break into the profession do not: NOT EVERYONE IS GOING TO BE ACCEPTED! With the economic downturn, money is scarcer, competition is fiercer, judgment harsher, publishers pickier.

    Therefore striving to be the best, striving to always improve, seems a sounder plan than spewing angst and venom.

    I wish you the best in your endeavors.

  24. Mary says: “I’m sure the most valuable agents would agree with every word I’ve written here, as will the best editors.”

    Right, and if they don’t they must not be worth anything. Yeesh.

    Here’s a tip – do the same thing that genre writers do when they get rejected 50 times (and believe me, it happens) .

    Write a new book and try again.

  25. 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.

    To misquote the Bard:

    “The fault, dear blogger, lies not in our agents, but in ourselves if we are rejection magnets.”

    I’ve also read the opening of your book, per your invitation. Don’t blame agents; work harder.

  26. You said —

    I know there are great agents who love literature out there. They are very busy with their excellent clients, as I have mentioned in my blog. I’m sure the most valuable agents would agree with every word I’ve written here, as will the best editors. Those people are also likely to see the ironic subtext of my “letter” which others may not have noticed. :)

    And to those writers and readers who know what I am saying and have said so — thank you for your support.

    Do you know how pretentious and irrational this sounds?

    So, if people don’t agree with you, they don’t understand the ironic subtext? Or maybe they just don’t understand the point you’re trying to make?

    Any agent or editor who doesn’t understand isn’t valuable in your opinion?

    You can know for sure that I fully understand the point you’re trying to make.

    It’s harder to publish Literary Fiction, because it doesn’t make as much money in the mass market. And you feel like we’re losing part of our Literary Legacy in the process. You also blame Literary Agents and the closed submissions policies of the major publishing houses for the many fantastic literary novels that never get published.

    But the truth is you are assigning blame where it doesn’t belong.

    Like every art industry on the planet, there is a business side to publishing. To be published at all takes tenacity, hard work, and a tremendous amount of luck. To make a living at it takes more and more of the same.

    But the agents take their cues from the publishers, who look to booksellers and public trends in the market… blame falls everywhere, and some of it at the feet of Literary Authors who care so little for their audience that they don’t bother to consider them at all as they write.

    It isn’t one-to-one. You don’t create a masterful work and then expect that, barring sabotage by money grubbing agents, you’ll obviously get published.

    Do I think that many amazing works of art never make it onto the bookshelves?


    Do I think agents are to blame?


    No one aspect of the system is to blame. And assigning blame is a waste of your time and energy, in my opinion.

  27. Eliminating agents will not make people buy more “literary fiction.” There were far fewer agents 80 years ago and “popular” fiction topped bestseller lists then too. I’ll bet more people read Fannie Hurst’s novels in the 1920s than Kafka’s, though his have lasted better.

    Publishers Weekly summed up CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES in about 200 words, and as I recall did not describe it as “a sweet novel of redemption.” If you can’t give a concise, compelling pitch for your novel in a query letter, the problem is with your writing, not the publishing business.

  28. “However, until yesterday the only people I was listening to about anything I wrote were agents, and after about five years of air-headed, rude and ill-informed responses to my serious queries, my spirits were in the gutter.”

    It’s comments like this that make it hard for me to take you seriously.

    What exactly makes it okay for you to lower yourself to name calling and insults about a certain profession? And then to turn around and castigate the agents for supposedly doing the same thing to writers.

    Fact – the majority of people that got targeted during queryfail? Were the people who didn’t treat writing like the business that it is. If they had, they would have avoided easily ninety percent of the beginner mistakes that get caught.

    If your writer or your query isn’t catching an agent’s attention, you keep your nose to the grindstone and start again if you have to. Slander really doesn’t get anyone anywhere. Except twenty minutes of my life I won’t get back now.

    • You have no right to submit a response in this post, since as a ‘literary agent’ you can very well count yourself among the ‘talent killers’ which are the subject of this post.
      Hey everyone, my brother and I both submitted novels to this ‘agent’ and were both rejected. Doesn’t his supportive post here constitute a conflict of interest?

  29. Mr. Bransford, if you are representing a beautiful literary novel, I am impressed and very happy to hear it. That is all I am asking — I don’t care if it’s my novel. As a reader and as a writer who learns from excellence in other writers (no matter what their genre), I don’t want “literary” to go completely down the drain just because it doesn’t sell like hotcakes. As I think I may have explained already.

  30. I wasn’t going to comment on this travesty, especially after your own comment, Mary, that this was “designed to” attract flames and start a “discussion that needed to happen”, but a particular phrase in your very, very long post got my attention.

    That phrase?

    “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….”

    You see, I happen to be one of the authors that write the “flimsy bits”. I write *gasp* vampire romance, urban fantasy and young adult novels, and I could not let the insult to my work and my genres go unanswered.

    Yes, I’m published. Yes, I have representation – one of the evil gatekeepers you so adamantly insist are “destroying literature”. What prompted my reply to your post is what so many people above have already said: you’re wrong to claim that literary agents are the ones responsible for the death of literature.
    As stated before, like it or not, publishing is a business, and it’s about what sells. What people want to read. You’re pointing your frustration at the wrong group – it’s the readers you should be angry with. They’re the ones that ultimately “control” what gets published and what doesn’t.

    It sounds to me as though you believe that if you could just get your book published and made available for purchase – if you were just given a chance – people would read it. I agree with the commenter above who stated that your work could use more than a bit of polishing, if your shameless plug (yes, I noticed that, and it was a shameless plug, pure and simple) is any indication of your writing ability. On your “About Me” page, it states that you haven’t published in almost a decade. Markets change with the tastes of the readers, and writers need to change with it. This post seems to indicate that you’re not willing to change and grow as a writer.

    Your obvious frustration with the choices people make in regards to what they choose to read these days does not give you license to assign blame to those keeping abreast of those choices and working to fulfill them. Whatever you think about the choices people make and what choices you think they should be given doesn’t give you the right to belittle the work other writers put into those “flimsy bits”.

    It seems as though you feel that people would make better choices in what they read if only there were more to choose from. I could cite several examples as to how that is not and would not be the case, but I believe the point would be lost on you. After all, you’re already blaming the wrong people for a situation you’re dissatisfied with.

    Others who feel as you seem to – that if only their work was available for purchase, people would read it – have taken a route which you appear to wholeheartedly endorse, though you never come right out and say it: self-publication.

    Writers who sound more-or-less exactly like you do in this clearly misinformed post take matters into their own hands and OUT of those you are claiming “destroy literature”. They call what they do “independent”, because they feel they are the ones in control of everything – from what appears on the cover to the formatting of their title. It’s still “self-publishing”. Perhaps, since you apparently don’t wish to pursue “traditional” publishing as you’ve been rejected so many times by the evil gatekeepers, you should consider that option.

    All this post succeeded in doing was expressing your impotent rage with the publishing industry. I found it to be petty, scornful, contemptuous and insulting to both the literary agents you disparage and the writers whose work you slight.

    Further, your admission that this post was “designed to” attract flames indicates to me that you’re seeking attention any way you can get it. It’s extremely juvenile, though effective – I noticed more than a few of the gatekeepers have commented above me. At least you have their attention for more than a moment. I found you through a link on Twitter, and it gives me a modicum of perverse pleasure to inform you (in case you don’t already realize this) that the “real” writing community is either shaking their heads at how utterly sad your vitriol is, or they’re laughing at your completely misplaced blame.

    Thought I realize that I’ve fallen victim to your not-so-clever little attention-seeking trap, I consider it worth it.

    If you keep getting rejected, perhaps you should examine your own ego as well as your query letters. Clearly there’s something amiss. It’s not the gatekeepers being evil. The problem exists between the chair and the keyboard.

  31. If you consider yourself part of the generation of writers we readers are losing, I’m afraid I won’t mourn your absence. The first few chapters of the novel you linked to read as chick-lit, not literary fiction, and tired chick-lit at that. Does the world really need another novel about a fat female protagonist with self-esteem issues who is ultimately redeemed by losing weight? The writing is clunky and bogs down frequently in overblown description. I suspect the reason you haven’t been able to sell this lies with you, rather than with the business model of the publishing world.

    In short: more practice-writing, less windmill-tilting.

  32. Le Sigh. This subject seems to be really taking flight right now.

    To me there seems to be this rather strange idea that publishing should never, ever be about money. Now, it’s been 10 years since I did Economics at school but from what I recall, making money is the whole point of business.

    Publishing = business. Which means that the people involved need to make money to stay afloat. Which, of course, means that they need to look for projects that are going to sell and make money. If this didn’t happen, the entire industry would collapse.

    The good news is, if writers don’t like the fact that the mainstream publishing industry is a business that cares about the financial bottom line, then they don’t need to be a part of it. They can self publish, try digital publishing, or they can just write for the love of it.

    There are options, people. No one is twisting anyone’s arm here…

  33. Oh, also, why you would link to Nathan Bransford and Janet Reid as examples is completely beyond me. They would have been my examples of the good agents… There are plenty of less-scrupulous agents out there that you could have linked to!

  34. The publishing business — and it is, thank God, a business — does not exist for literary fiction. I am one of the biggest readers and fans of literary fiction, but without vampire novels, thrillers, self-help, and celebrity bios, none of that litfic would make any money at all. All authors would result to James Joyce’s publishing tactics. It’s tough to get fine literary fiction published, yes. That any of it gets published and shepherded and nurtured? Due in great part to fantastic agents.

  35. In modern online geeky terms, you are filled with FAIL.

    The editors and publishers are not interested in literature. No, really, they’re not. They are, if anything, far MORE concerned with the moneymakers than the agents are. They are BUSINESSES. Publishers are in the business to make money. The reason there’s 5,000 Vampire Shagger books, 50,000 Extruded Fantasy Products, and 5,000 Military SF Series and only 100 of anything else is BECAUSE THEY SELL, and the other things DON’T, for the most part.

    The editors and publishers who read your screed are laughing their heads off. The agents save them time and money by finding competent writers who know how to fill their market needs.

    Note, they don’t MIND finding Quality Writers, but either those are a personal and usually money-losing sideline, or the Quality Writer happens to ALSO be good at writing stuff that sells (in SF/F one good example is Lois McMaster Bujold).

    Agent-based submissions are looked at by Editors and, in turn, the publishers first because in effect they bypass the “slush pile”. If you’ve never READ slush, imagine the worst RANDOM SAMPLING of fanfic you can imagine. That’s 99% of a slush pile.

    And the agents eliminate that, find people who have competence in writing, ability to produce, and so on, and then hand this to the publisher.

    You want to blame someone for lack of “literature”? Blame the BUYING PUBLIC. They’re the ones that determine what gets published. If they didn’t want all those fantasy novels, vampire novels, ship-blowing-up novels, superspy novels, THEY WOULDN’T BUY THEM and then the publishers WOULDN’T SELL THEM. But that is, in fact, what the public wants. Despite what some might like to believe, no, the publishers and advertisers DON’T control what the public wants. If they DID, there would never be a HUGE FAILURE of some major product or service. New Coke would’ve been a rousing success. Ishtar would’ve made box-office records.

    But no, people LIKE escapist fiction. It’s what they want. They don’t, for the most part, want “literature”, or deep books, or any of that crap. They want something that makes them feel good to read and that they can RELY on to give them whatever thrill is their preference.

    So, in the vernacular, “suck it up”.

  36. Why would an agent want to represent someone who hates him/her simply for existing?

    You want to be represented, have your novels in bookstores, etc, but you don’t want to go through the necessary process? I hate it too, but playing the game is part of any career.

    I do, however, agree that the tweeting about queries thing is/was exceptionally inappropriate. (The again, I hate Twitter.) In any case, by name-calling and nay-saying, you’re doing more to ensure that you won’t get published than t0 change the industry.

    Does seem like you have a lot of passion, however, and the world needs more books, so keep writing!

  37. Actually, the John Grishams and Stephen Kings of the publishing world are often the reason why publishing houses can afford to keep around mid-list writers. When they’re making a lot of money on those commercial books, they can afford to take a little loss on some others in order to have a varied catalog. What amazes me is that you seem to think that publishers would love to buy these works of art if only they saw them; they need to make a profit just as much as agents do. If your books are truly that good, then self-publication and some good marketing work on your part should do well, yes? After all, plenty of authors complain that publishers don’t do enough these days to promote their books. I highly recommend a copy of Bowerman’s “The Well-Fed Self-Publisher.” Then, if your work doesn’t do well, you’ll know for sure it isn’t the agents and publishers who are at issue.

  38. Awesome letter! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been rejected by agents. Since I’ve begun the querying process over a year ago, not one agent has taken the time to send me a personalized rejection letter. Sometimes I get the rejection 2 hours later without–I suspect–the agent ever having read anything I have to say.

    Which is sad because I deserve the same consideration that the big-name authors out there get time and again. An agent had to give them a chance in their past.

    Why not take a chance on me?

  39. Irony? You’re doing it wrong.

    Also, the word is “insubstantial”.

    It’s a bad reader that only considers “literary fiction” as worth defending. Good writing is good writing, whether genre writing or some high-minded literary effort. I’d read decent genre writing (Tricia Sullivan, Kenneth Cameron, Gillian Flynn et al) over pretentious “literary” tosh (Zadie Smith’s THE AUTOGRAPH MAN and Rick Moody’s THE DIVINERS leap to mind here).

    Do not equate the purpleness of prose with quality.

    If you get 50 plus rejections from different agents, simply put, the work isn’t up to snuff. That’s the work, not the writer – you seem to be taking this all too personally, and that way lies nothing but further angst and anger.

    I’m sure there will be many voices agreeing with you, all of the Anonymous posters from #agentfail will no doubt make you their poster girl, but that doesn’t make you right.

  40. I’m very baffled by all of this. I suppose because at the moment I’m simply lurking about blogs in order to get a feel for the industry that I might actually attempt to enter in the near future, I’m finding myself surprised by the anger and the upset that happens on both sides (writer and agent).

    While I can sympathize with the frustration of being rejected, I’m sure no one enjoys that; I’m afraid I can’t quite understand the true purpose behind your post. Obviously you want to be published, as does every writer. But after fifty rejections are you really giving up and blaming agents for not being smart enough to accept your story?

    Perhaps I’m just not seeing the bigger picture here, but I’ve read of authors who have had hundreds of rejections before they either stopped trying or finally found someone willing to represent and/or publish them.

    I’m a nobody when it comes to this industry, but I’m dipping my feet in, following a few blogs and hoping to learn enough so that when I finally dive in with my manuscript clutch to my breast, I won’t get eaten by the sharks. (No offense to the Query Shark. :)

    I wish you luck in your endeavors, Mary. I hope that you can open up a dialogue with agents and editors alike and work with them instead of having to resort to measures like these.

  41. I hear what you’re saying, Mary, and while I don’t agree with your post, I can empathize with it. Writing is a very personal process, and having it rejected can sting like a bitch.

    However, let’s put this in perspective for a moment. I like to think of agents as human spam boxes, whose job it is to make sure all the unnecessary, unsolicited mail doesn’t show up in the editor’s proverbial inbox.

    But like spam boxes, agents aren’t perfect, and sometimes worthwhile projects, like important emails, are rejected by them. It happens.

    Another thing to consider is that not everyone is like you. Not everyone shopping for a publisher has writing credits. Or knows how to tell a story. Or use a comma. Or, hell, let’s face it, even reads books. To open the door to people like you would mean to open the door to those people, too. And if you don’t think you’d be lost in the shuffle of crap, guess again. As a former slush reader, believe you me, you can only read so much crap in a day before it messes with your head. On a particularly bad day, I forgot how to spell “the”. Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees.

    The obstacle you’re facing is a very real one, and right now, it may seem insurmountable. But the resolution lies within you, not the industry as a whole. In order to find it, you need to first understand what is standing in the way, and determine a course of action from there. Protocol, process, and industry standards aren’t things you can change. Your query, your story, your attitude, those are things you can control. Focus on those things, and forget about the rest. “The rest” will just drive you nuts.

    So if you’ve submitted to agents and been rejected, take a moment to look at what you submitted with a discerning eye. Realize that while you know this story by heart, the agent(s) to whom you submitted know it only by a handful of pages, if that. Is there anything in your query that could be stronger? Is there any part of the story that could be tighter? If you’ve decided an agent isn’t for you, have you researched publishers that do accept unsolicited projects? Are you in the position to actively network with editors, one on one, through conferences and the like? Just some suggestions.

    As for the point of agents, to have one or not to have one is an individual choice that has no right or wrong. If you don’t want one, don’t bother. If you do, keep plugging away. I have one for the same reason I have an attorney, an accountant, and a young boy to mow my lawn. If they didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done, because just as I don’t have the time or the knowledge to do my own taxes, I don’t have what it takes to negotiate my own business transactions. In theory, I could learn how to do those things, but I’ve never been a very outgoing person, never had a knack for sales or negotiation, and any time I spent researching contract law would be time taken away from writing. 15% sounds like a lot, but for me, it’s a small price to pay to know it got done right the first time around.

    In closing, don’t let all this get you down. Take a moment, cool off, and then get back to it. You’ll do fine. Good luck!

  42. Editors are bogged down enough as it is, I don’t think increasing their slush piles will do anything to help your cause. Quite the opposite is true–more good books will get buried and ignored. At least with agents there is a higher probability that the next great literary masterpiece will have a fighting chance at getting published.

    Writers have to approach publishing as a business, especially in today’s climate. It’s important to partner with agents and editors, not view them as roadblocks on your journey to literary glory. Agents who post snarky comments about queries may appear to be having a good time at the author’s expense, but as it has been stated before, those authors either don’t read the guidelines or ignore them outright because they believe their work to be so incredible, life-changing, brilliant (insert adjective here) that those guidelines don’t apply to them.

    For the record, I’m not an agent. I’m a published author and I write genre fiction. I’ve been rejected. I have books and story ideas that will never see the light of day for one reason or another. Still, because I’m a writer and I work hard at my career, I don’t lament the stories that won’t be on a bookstore shelf near you. Instead I press onward with new ideas, new stories, and work hard at my craft. I view publishing as a business, not an entitlement.

  43. Hey Mary. Thanks for this post.

    I wrote my first novel five years ago. When I was done with the first draft, I quit my job and left California to focus on rewriting it. What started at 110,000 words is now, over the course of four years, 52,000 words. When I had it finished, I struggled to write a good query letter. I looked through all the websites and information available to me for suggestions. I went through three periods of querying agents, each time trying something different. I received a few requests for partials, but nothing took.

    Then I thought I got lucky. I wrote a letter to the man in charge of one of my favorite presses that published my heroes. The letter worked and he had an assistant editor request my manuscript. They read it. They liked it. I went through a lot of encouragement, some editing suggestions, but then suddenly the editor I was working with left the company for another job. Her replacement picked up the project and told me that he wouldn’t publish it without me having an agent. The novel was in the hands of the publisher I wanted more than any other to print my book, and it seemed like a formality was preventing it. (I know the line on agents knowing the legal aspect of the business and protecting authors from getting ripped off, and I appreciate that, but it wasn’t that the publisher was worried that I wouldn’t get a fair deal.)

    So I gave up on it. I told myself that it wasn’t good enough, that if I had written a better book there would have been a different outcome. Then I slowly transferred all my feelings of rejection and frustration onto the literary agents. I saw them as people trying to extort writers and to make writing something that was assessed value based on dollar figures, not on quality.

    But I don’t believe that’s fair to them. I believe that a lot of these agents are in the business because they love writing, they love books, and they love reading. It’s in their best interests to help literature succeed, to keep people reading, and one of the most effective ways of doing that is to provide a quality product. People will stop reading if all they can choose from are vampire novels and books about shopping. We need better books. And I believe they know that. But they still have to eat.

    So then how do serious writers — writers that are trying to write something that has permanence and challenges people — how do they publish their books? Agents don’t want novels that aren’t going to sell well, or that they don’t care about. (And I don’t think that I’d want someone representing my book that didn’t care about it or think it would be successful.) Self-publishing, in my mind, is a waste of money. Especially when you know the book you’re trying to publish isn’t gimmicky enough to catch on in the way self-published success stories usually catch on.

    I’m at a loss. I don’t know what to do. What bothers me the most is that my lack of faith in the publishing system, the world of today’s book marketplace, discourages me from writing. I still write everyday and I’m getting better all the time, but the faith I have in good books being written by authors who live their writing fades a little every year.

    • Dracula–pulp fiction at its pulpiest–was first published in 1897. In the 112 years since, it has never been out of print. I’d call that permanence. Your insinuation that writers of commercial fiction (vampire novels and books about shopping) are not serious writers is offensive.

  44. “I’m sure the most valuable agents would agree with every word I’ve written here, as will the best editors. Those people are also likely to see the ironic subtext of my ‘letter’ which others may not have noticed.”

    There’s so much I could say, Mary, but I’ll just stick with this: If I were an editor at ANY publishing house, large or small, I would blacklist you after reading this letter. “Ironic subtext” notwithstanding, your arrogance and condescension toward editors (not to mention agents and other writers) is unpardonable.

  45. Thanks for your feedback. If it takes a few hours for me to approve your comments, I apologize. The replies are coming in fast and furious and I am anxious to read each of them carefully before posting. I am sorry that so many of you feel I am misinformed about the business. I’m not. I’m basing my comments on my experience as a major participant in writers’ groups, former editor in chief of a publishing company, and a widely published author with small presses who were unable to sell many copies due to their own financial limitations, not the quality of their publications. I recommend that you all check ut Authonomy, which is bypassing the agents and getting authors to go through their slushpiles for them. It’s causing the authors to try to kill one another, but it’s certainly another option for those of us who have no other access to editors. And this is a HarperCollins initiative, folks. Another route is through Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition (for which, Shane, yup I was eligible. Check the entry guidelines. It’s a “breakthrough” novel competition. Not a “new writer” competition.) It’s supported by Penguin.

    I don’t want my fiction to be published until it’s ready. It needs a good editor (my MAJOR concern about self-publishing is that the great editing is missing) and maybe it’s not the right book. I’m working on others, and always will be. I just want my books–and those of others like me who are also reading here–to get the same chance as everyone else to be considered for publication. No one here has yet disputed anything I’ve said. Most have just not read it very carefully.

    To the writer who accused me of writing chick-lit. If only. I did try. The Whole Clove Diet was the result.

    Have a good day on Twitter, folks. It’s Query Day!

  46. I’ve never read your blog, but you come across as bitter.

    I’ve never read your work, but if you could safely chop 20k why on Earth were you querying it to begin with?

    And since you took a dig at my genre I ought to reply with something equally nasty and low brow… but I’ll leave you where you stand. Whining isn’t going to get you anywhere. If you want to get published and skip an agent, go for it. Go send your manuscript off to the publishing houses.

    But wasting your time on a blog post whining isn’t going to change anything. Only hard work changes things. Good luck.

  47. “No one here has yet disputed anything I’ve said. Most have just not read it very carefully.”

    With comments like this, you certainly aren’t going to win anyone over. Ignoring others’ counter-arguments doesn’t magically make them invalid.

  48. Hi Mary,

    I’m all for tackling a system you see as oppressive or misguided- I’m an American after all- but I think you’re missing a key factor in the agent-author relationship (and maybe also demonstrating it as well).

    Lit agents provide advice about the mechanics of a constantly changing industry, in much the same way that real estate agents provide advice on a changing sales market. For that they are paid a fee. I believe that fee to be reasonable (In my real estate days I used to dance around if I got 5%. It’s a rough world). Agents can provide access to information and contacts that you will never have access to on your own. After all, those luncheons, conferences and mixers might look like the high life, but they’re also relationship-builders that come in quite handy at deal time.

    Moreover, agents of all types create a very necessary buffer between “seller” (in this case author) and “buyer” (in this case editors). We are passionate about our work, we’ll defend it to the last, and we’re prone to the very human reaction of getting defensive about our creations. Agents take all that creative juice, mediate the creative temperament, and in some ways save us from ourselves by providing an “executive face” to the editors. I’m completely comfortable admitting I need that buffer. Going back to my real estate example, you NEED a few people between the seller and the buyer, or what results is a yelling match over a broken washing machine. With a buffer, you have two agents talking it out rationally and facilitating a sale that works for everyone. If you remove the agent buffer, you’ll get two results: Editors will be swamped with pitches for stuff that won’t sell, and writers everywhere will be shooting themselves in the foot by getting testy over “art” without an agent to play game-face for them. It won’t be pretty, and it won’t be productive.

    At the end of the day, if a manuscript isn’t going to sell, or there are deficiencies that need to be addressed for it to work in the current market, that’s not the *agent’s* fault, and they’re right to pass on it. Even Kerouac and Burrows couldn’t get anyone to touch “Hippos” when they wrote it three decades ago, and for good reason: it wouldn’t sell! Guess what. It came out recently? It still didn’t sell (except to the Kerouac and Burroughs scholars). It just wasn’t their best work, and it wasn’t saleable. It happens.

    I must say, I’ve read some pretty wonderful books lately that had to come through the agent “process” just like everything else. True, I’ve seen some stuff that makes me die a little inside as well, but that’s just because it’s not my cup of tea. Someone out there likes it, because it’s on a shelf and selling! The public buys what they like to read.. if that’s light “chick-lit”, teen vamp-romance, space drama, bodice-ripping romance, or anything else that might not meet the strict definition of “literature”, that’s not the agent’s fault either. The majority of the public watches “The Bachelor” and not “Masterpiece Theatre”… book sales probably follow a similar pattern if you take a look at it.

    All the best, and definite kudos for calling it how you see it, but I can’t chime in and agree that the whole system is sinister and cut-throat. It’s not that bad.


  49. Publishing houses have to make money. And that means they have to sell to market. If they do not make money, and sell to market, then there will be no publishing houses, and you would have no source to get rejected from.

    And, if you want to show your art to the world, the publishing houses are not stopping you, just go self publish. You can sell your books on the street for a dime each, just like back in the old days (and if people love your art, then I am guessing they will part with their change). No one is stopping you from showing your art to the world. Your problem is, you want to do it commercially, and you want the entire publishing world to put their houses in hock to do it. Jesus, get a brain scan for crying out load.

    As far as your cheap shot at ‘Queryshark’ goes, that was really cheap, and also ignorant and egocentric. What you are forgetting, is the majority of writers want to make a living being a writer. It is our dream. And places like Queryshark help us all greatly — How you might ask? Because she tells us the truth, the way the real world of publishing is.

  50. Hmmm… well. Yes.

    I publish and edit a “literary journal”. I read a great deal of literary fiction every day. I understand your feelings, but must (heartily) disagree with your perception that the problem is the agents.

    The truth is, only a small percentage of the reading population is capable of enjoying and purchasing literary fiction to the degree that will support a large publishing company. It’s not the agents, it’s not even the publishers. It’s the readers. I personally am incapable of enjoying opera. Yes, it’s beautiful and complicated and requires great range. That’s all well and good – but it doesn’t make me feel the way I’m willing to pay to feel.

    There is a reason that small presses and literary journals exist. There is nothing wrong with them. And no, you won’t make a fortune that way, but if you’re writing literary fiction to make a fortune, may I kindly suggest you are in the wrong business.

    I believe in literature. Passionately. I believe in the magic of story-telling and it’s ability to transform civilizations and to push society to evolve to higher interests.

    And I believe that everyone should read and explore stories at whatever level they are capable of absorbing and learning from them. All great stories touch the universals; whether they are fine literary fiction or cheezy sci-fi pulp.

    The difference between big house and small press is advances, distribution and marketing and even that gap is closing in this economy. With POD publishing (which I understand even the big houses will pick up to keep books in print longer without further investment), dedicated small presses can make a pretty big impression.

    Start marketing your small press book. The internet is the great leveller. Look at all the indie bands that have grown famous (and been picked up by big labels) through interaction with fans and marketing via the web.

    The best revenge is living well. And if you can’t pull that off, well dying in abject poverty is a fine literary tradition.


  51. In what crazy, bizarro universe do you live in? It’s definitely not mine: “Love your novel” isn’t ever a belittling statement where I come from, neither is a gracious, personalized rejection. Have you applied for jobs lately? If you get all huffy about this, how would you handle, “You’re qualified, but we can’t hire you right now?” It’s the same thing. Don’t take it personally; you just have to make yourself better than everyone else who comes along. Remember: authorship is as much a business as publishing is. You DO have to be better than most everyone else.

  52. Just to clarify — to save some commenters some time — please note that my essay is about MID LIST LITERARY WRITERS. That is all I am discussing. And when I diss genre writers, it is those who are writing talentless, unpolished crap — I have as much respect for serious writers of genre fiction as I do for serious and hard-working and talented literary writers.

    • One person’s “talentless, unpolished crap” is another person’s favourite book. As you yourself noted elsewhere re. Atwood, “if we all had the same tastes, we’d only need one author”.

      You just keep trying to change the rules of this discussion so that you are right and everyone who disagrees in any way is by definition wrong. I think there’s a clinical definition for having a world-view like that.

  53. Mary, you are our hero!

    So well put! Oh, so true and so tragic for most of us, victims of the system.

    BTW, I’ve had two top agents representing my novels, one didn’t do a thing for 18 months, one made some attempts but got discouraged after merely 6 rejections.

  54. I’m baffled by this elitist jeremiad!

    “Literary fiction” is a made-up genre, with no defining characteristics except the pretensions of its readers. Most of the “great literary classics” of the nineteenth century were considered popular garbage in their day and were published one chapter at a time in popular magazines. I’m looking at you, Charles Dickens.

    People are people, not ethereal creatures starving for high-art to give their lives meaning. Books are commodities for entertainment and/or education. Nothing more.

    There are currently hundreds of thousands of books published every year, more than at any other time in the relatively short history of publishing. It’s madness to complain about the mass of one genre over another.

    Readers buy what they like, publishers print what sells, and agents represent whatever they want. It’s a free country, complete with free presses.

    If you are unhappy with Western society, I invite you to live and write in one of the many fascist, communist, dictatorial, or theocratic regimes elsewhere on the planet.

  55. “No one here has yet disputed anything I’ve said. Most have just not read it very carefully.”

    I guess I’m just curious how we agents maintain this vast global conspiracy to prevent books like yours from being published. Do we meet in dank basements and threaten any agent who dares represent a book that is too literary? Do we confront literary fiction agents in dimly lit alleys and tell them to back off?

    I suppose we hate literary fiction so much that we’re also the ones forcing editors to drop our literary writers because they don’t sell in sufficient quantities. And we then prevent every other house from picking up said writer because they too are “looking at the numbers” and don’t see how they can make it work. We must feed them these numbers ahead of time.

    We must also be the ones who hold guns to readers heads and force them to buy the latest celebrity and/or dog book.

    But really, I’d like to know when and where the literary agent illuminati meets. I think I might be missing some meetings.

  56. Personally Nate, I rather like your dark alley scenario… I mean, it’s so much more entertaining the reality of the thing. But you have to rock it like West Side Story (the Jets and the QuerySharks perhaps? Yeah- that pun was bad even for me.)

    I just want to know who gets to yell “Cool it, Ace!”

  57. The middle is dropping out of many industries and has done over the last decade. It’s to be lamented, but there are many reasons for this – and the agent isn’t one of them.

    In publishing, maybe the people you should be attacking are the book buyers rather than agents, because they will not take mid list writers and stock them in book stores or supermarkets. Somebody who hasn’t broken through after three books is, frankly, a bad bet as far as they’re concerned. They can’t be sold into book clubs, either, because book clubs buy on a firm basis and don’t want to be stuck with unsold stock. So right there, the publisher has a market where the door is slammed shut.

    If I were someone who had published three books that were under the radar – they didn’t get much in the way of sales and distribution – I would keep very quiet about that when querying an agent or editor.

    Present yourself as a new writer. Bingo! Problem solved, if being a mid list writer is indeed the problem.

  58. This piece is interesting, as it gives us a glance into the mind of a literary artist toiling in obscurity. It is the natural human desire to lash out and place blame onto one single individual or group, but it is never so cut and dry.

    You can’t place the blame on literary agents. They’re just doing a job, like everyone else in the publishing industry. If you want to blame anyone, blame popular culture for failing to “get” your literary work. You might also notice that each year there are fewer readers out there, as more and more young people are too lazy to read.

    It isn’t 1950 anymore, where mom and dad would stop at the bookstore on friday afternoon to by the latest dime novel for the weekend. Most people go home and flip on the television instead, and books are not used so much for entertainment.

    The general public is trending away from literature, and that leaves publishers (and agents) struggling to find whatever will make them money (except in a few rare cases where somebody wants to make a political statement, like giving Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick a million dollar advance for a book that won’t sell a dozen copies). Publishing houses need to make money, and they can only do that by publishing what sells.

    Personally, I write Science Fiction and Fantasy, because that’s what I enjoy. There are still a lot of readers of this genre, but there are also a lot of bad writers trying to get noticed, which is why most editors have abandoned the “cold submissions” process, and pawned it off onto the agents, who do what they can to cope with the onslaught of ineptitude.

  59. “I guess I’m just curious how we agents maintain this vast global conspiracy to prevent books like yours from being published. Do we meet in dank basements and threaten any agent who dares represent a book that is too literary? Do we confront literary fiction agents in dimly lit alleys and tell them to back off?”

    Actually, it’s because you’re all really the same person, many bodies, one mind, with precisely identical tastes. ;)

  60. Hi Mary,
    Interesting post. Oddly, on April 12 I posted a brief diatribe pertaining to the same subject matter. I also referenced John Kennedy Toole and A Confederacy Of Dunces.
    Hopefully the creatively bankrupt publishing business will cleanse itself of the parasites.

  61. Mary,

    If you were having trouble getting published before, I think you’ve pretty much demolished your chances 100% and then some.

  62. Even though I disagree with your Mary, I would just like to point out — that there probably are alot of people who agree with you, but since Nathan and Janet, and a whole load of other agents are going to post links to this blog, you are going to really get flamed. Because if anything has changed in the last few years in publishing, its Agents now have huge fan bases. I mean, they are like superstars or something. Anyway, just don’t let it get you down — I do disagree with you — but the comments you are going to get, or are getting are going to be from the agent fans.

    Its a good debate anyway.

  63. Ron S, your comment made me laugh out loud. I think you may be right, but I also think you may be quite wrong. However, I posted this in the full knowledge that it meant I would probably never get an agent.

    Jake, I do understand that. Many of my correspondents seem keen to impress the agents. As I would have also done 10 years ago, before I realized it was pointless.

  64. Jake-

    This isn’t a debate. We all love books and we’re all doing the best we can to promote the books we love, and that goes for writers, publishers and editors. This adversarial post and others like it miss the point that we’re all on the same team.

  65. Nathan, allow me to take the three books previously published, which sold next to nothing because the publishers had no promotion or distribution money or much sense in that department, and gratefully walk off into the sunset. Ain’t gonna happen. And to the person who suggested I just LIE and pretend I haven’t published three books previously, well, there is the problem I am complaining about exactly. Agents aren’t as stupid as you think and what would be the point anyway? I am who I am and I am very proud of two of those three books (one of them needed a really good editor to help me improve it. Most literary presses can’t afford good editors, either.) I am even more proud of the ones that are coming down the chute, and if I must, I will pay for the quality editing myself, self-publish, and promote the book myself. I have absolutely NO doubt it is going to sell. As is the one I am writing now, which is about a woman who discovers a way to get younger. Another comment on society disguised as chick-lit. But I AM NOT alone here. There are many others in my situation. I am writing for them too.

  66. Agents and editors build relationships. They go out to lunch, see each other at conferences, book fairs, etc. The editors tell the agents what they are looking for to fill their lists, based on what the public buys…so I’m not sure where this idea that agents are bamboozling editors into publishing genre fiction comes from.

    And on that note, I read plenty of “beautiful” (as you call literary fiction) commercial fiction. Amazing, heart-wrenching, unique stories. These writers put a lot of time, effort and love into their work, and I find the dismissive “flimsy bits” comment rather rude.

  67. Nathan –

    Your right of course. We are all on the same team. I was just feeling abit sorry for Mary, because I know what is going to happen in the coming days. I read your blog btw Nathan, it is awesome.

  68. Mary,
    This is an impressive amount of response to one blog. My mind is boggled; two ‘Rock Star’ agents and a host of others.

    You know you have my support – the death of the mid-list literary writer would be a tremendous loss.

    I cringe to think what blood is going to be spilt today on the second Query Fail. I can hear the nail files rasping as the slush pile bees sharpen their stingers.

    I still think these ‘zingers’ should be collected and posted to ‘Writer Beware’ so wannabes know just how they are viewed collectively.

    So much contempt and snark in the name of – What? Education?

    I’m not going to follow it. I’ve never cared for blood sports.

  69. I just want my books–and those of others like me who are also reading here–to get the same chance as everyone else to be considered for publication.

    But your books DO get the same chance as everyone else’s.

    You can query as many agents as you want, as many times as you want until an agent agrees to rep you.

    I’m not following this convoluted logic behind how you are being excluded from publication and literary fame.

  70. Jake, please don’t feel sorry for me! I knew what I was getting into when I wrote that essay. I felt very passionate about it. I had to say it. And I am quite happy to live with whatever the consequences. I stand behind every word I wrote, although I do admit the title was a bit sensationalistic on purpose.

    Nathan, have you or any other agents with whom you meet in those dark alleys, do you think, ever turned down a work of great literary merit JUST BECAUSE you knew it would not attract an advance?

    And where are the editors in this discussion?

    And to the person who suggests I meet editors and agents by schmoozing — I live in midwestern Canada where there are none and cannot afford to travel to the conferences.

  71. I forgot to add something to my previous comment. People seem to forget that our entire society is based on commerce. Someone creates/makes/grows/mines a product and other people buy it. I’m all about artistic integrity, but if you tickle the till to bring dollars into the equation, you must compromise some of that integrity. Even though I went to Nathan’s blog and dropped some good humoured vitriol, I understand the position of agents. I’ve sold so many products in my working life and it’s not an easy go for anyone no matter the commodity involved. Agents are sales people who work on a writer’s behalf and I can’t see a day when they don’t exist, because like it or lump it many writers like having this system in place.
    As for me, if I get an agent I’ll love the snot out of them. If I don’t get an agent, I’ll hate the snot out of them. :O Oh, my currently tepid attitude today is not evidence of me joining the Bransford Cult. I don’t like the Koolaid. They put too much sugar in the mix and it loses all it’s tang. Ya know? ;) I like my bitter twitter.

  72. Hi, Mary. As a reader of your story collection Cool (which I enjoyed, including 4 stories which I loved), I’m curious to see how this particular blogging experience changes your perceptions, and especially your writing, if it does. So far, from your responses, it doesn’t seem to have. Yet. The reverberations of this may taker a while to jell.

    Somebody said, Follow your passion, and this appears to have tapped into your passion. It’s not so much whether youre right or wrong to me, but what youre open to learn from it, how it might affect your actual writing, your stories, your subject matter. Your collection tells me you have the talent to write effectively what you want, and maybe the current adventure will prove to be a door opening on the subject that will bring your passion & talent together?

  73. The attempt to write as well as you possibly can every day also gives you wrinkles. (As does saying nothing about anything at all, ever.) I’m fine with wrinkles.

  74. “Nathan, have you or any other agents with whom you meet in those dark alleys, do you think, ever turned down a work of great literary merit JUST BECAUSE you knew it would not attract an advance?”

    Of course I have. I have to do this all the time.

    But a question for you: what good would it do me or the author to take on books I can’t sell?

  75. I think anything one will agree all the arts categories have been transformed into big business. Whether you’re a writer, actor, artist, agent, casting director, art dealer, gallery owner–we all want to eat, pay our bills and feel secure–plain and simple.

    If we were all idealistic and do what we consider the “right” thing, we’d all be really, really hungry and drive to work in a smoking jalopies. I don’t want to drive a heap on wheels. I had one in college–no fun.

    Mary, I wish you the best. Maybe you could write a novel about this topic! Look at all the hubbub you’ve caused already!!

  76. Agents are part of a system that has evolved around the business of publishing.

    Having been rejected by more of them than you have, I know them better, BTW. And none of my best friends are agents.

    Agents are frequently, and increasingly, used as a first line of defence against wannabe writers. This is at the behest of publishers such as HC that will not countenance unagented MSs.

    Agents provide a useful, even critically important, service to new writers who are taken up by the machine.

    I’d be hesitant to place the blame for my lack of success purely at agents’ doors. For what it’s worth, my own experience on authonomy and working with authors I’ve met on authonomy to edit each others’ work offline has shown me that the work 106 agents rejected wasn’t ready.

    In short, the agents were right. I’d consider this possibility with regard your own work.

  77. Thank you, Richard.

    Nathan, I am suggesting, as I did in my blog post, that these books are likely to sell — very likely to sell — just not to attract an advance because they are more likely to sell slowly and steadily, providing the kind of support for overhead long-time that can help keep publishers in business. And agents too. I’m not talking books that are quick onto the shelves and off again, or ones that grab up-front cash that may never earn itself back, but long-term steady sellers.

    Did you read Malcolm Gladwell’s essay in the New Yorker about genius vs. precocity? It is very related to this discussion although probably not at all to my writing. :)

    Update: I don’t think I explained that properly. What I mean is that I think these books are being turned down by agents not because they won’t sell, but because they won’t attract a significant advance. Entirely different things, as you know although I think many writers don’t. They will earn the money for the writers and the publishers (and any agents who are involved) after they have been out there for a year or two.

  78. Pingback: Around the net in eighty clicks « Publishing Renaissance

  79. “I cringe to think what blood is going to be spilt today on the second Query Fail. I can hear the nail files rasping as the slush pile bees sharpen their stingers.”

    Is there some sort of equivalent of Godwin’s Law for #queryfail? ( If not, can we get one? If every argument over the the publishing industry’s ills is going to eventually circle the drain toward Fail-gate, I am going to reserve the right to automatically discount the credibility of the author/blogger making the argument. I might also stick my fingers in my ears and go “Lalalala” but I promise I will keep this to a minimum.

    On a more serious note, #queryfail is only scary for those who think they might end up on the receiving end. Write a good query and you really have nothing to worry about. You CAN however, use it in its intended vein, and learn from it. Let he among us who has not had a typo or an anachronism in their work cast the first stone.

  80. “Nathan, I am suggesting, as I did in my blog post, that these books are likely to sell — very likely to sell — just not to attract an advance because they are more likely to sell slowly and steadily, providing the kind of support for overhead long-time that can help keep publishers in business.”

    But the major publishers aren’t offering “no advance” deals for books that have a trickle of sales over the course of many years. There are many small presses that do, and they don’t require that an agent submit to them. As you know well.

    What you seem to want is to be taken on by a major publisher for a book that has a steady trickle of sales. And you know what? I wish they took on more books like that too. But those types of books are not particularly profitable, if at all, and publishers are strained. They’re consolidating around the books that they think are better bets.

    But what I don’t understand is why you blame agents for this. Agents aren’t the ones telling publishers to consolidate their lists and drop many of our midlist and literary clients.

  81. Well, how can I blame the editors? They never see our stuff because you don’t show it to them, and they won’t look at ms not submitted by agents, so how can they make an informed decision about our manuscripts? Excuse me if I’ve come full circle here. :)

    • Agents decide what to push to editors based on what they think editors want to buy, and their decisions are based on what editors have bought (and refused to buy) in the past.

      If the editors have been interested in product X, then agents will send them things that are like product X. If editors have not been interested in product Y, then agents will not be willing to send them more product Y.

      There is no conspiracy among agents.

  82. Richard, I am not sure what effect this event will have on my writing long term as it’s only 10 a.m. here on day 2 of its being posted. I am astounded that I have had 2000 hits on this site in the past 24 hours.

    It isn’t changing the way I think yet, because I’ve been thinking this way for ages. I just finally found the guts to put it down on paper and then up on the Internet, but it isn’t a new thought to me.

  83. They may not be seeing your work per se, but they are seeing work like yours. They’re seeing books that are longer, books that are shorter, books that are more literary, books that are more commercial, books that are louder, books that are quieter. They’re seeing the entire spectrum. And what you see on the bookshelf are the ones that editors have chosen.

    But more importantly, you yourself have characterized your book as one that will sell a steady trickle and may not even attract an advance. Publishers are quickly dropping anyone who even vaguely meets this description. I get lots of queries from authors whose books have been published by mainstream publishers to glowing reviews and okay sales. I can’t even do much for these people.

    Everyone wants to believe that THEIR work is the one that will change things and if it could just get to editors, literary acclaim can’t be far behind. I hear from 15,000 people who believe this every year. This is why there’s a funnel in the first place. I understand that it’s not fun to be winnowed out, but it seems to me that you want major publisher attention and sales for a book that has a potential audience that even you characterize as small. Particularly in this climate, that’s just not realistic.

  84. Well Mary, imagine being a multicultural author who writes literary works. There seems to be even less of a market for that. I guess what I’m saying is, you’re not alone and I understand your rant, but sixty rejections? A drop in the bucket imho, but I’m glad to see this blog getting attention for a worthy subject.

    What I’ve decided to do is branch out and then come back to the genre I love. I have no problem writing about vampires, boy wizards or even street lit. An agent is one way to get your work published, but they’re not the only way.
    Believe in your work and keep plugging, and maybe the right agent or publisher will find you. I truly hope from this blog posting it happens for you. Keep Susan Boyle’s story as a reminder that it can happen.

  85. “I just want my books–and those of others like me who are also reading here–to get the same chance as everyone else to be considered for publication.”

    Voila! Your books have exactly the same chance as anyone else to be considered for publication.

  86. “They never see our stuff because you don’t show it to them, and they won’t look at ms not submitted by agents, so how can they make an informed decision about our manuscripts?”

    I think what you’re missing is that it’s not that agents have never sent “our” manuscripts on. It’s that they haven’t sent YOUR manuscripts on. There’s a big difference.

    Every good agent out there has taken a chance on a ms they love, that they think will sell modestly, but will build the author’s career. In fact, the majority of the new writers they take on fall in that category. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they get shot down. Sometimes they succeed w/one book and are unable to sell the next.

    Why on earth would you think agents would be *happy* and *pleased* to NOT sell books?

  87. Okay. Let’s put my book aside here. I intended to write as a representative of a group that I know exists and I want to do it that way. I actually believe that the books I write also have commercial potential, but that’s beside the point. What I am saying–or trying to say–is that the next generation of previously published writers who could become future writers like A.S. Byatt, Will Self, Haruki Murakami, Amitav Ghosh, Marilynne Robinson, Jose Saramago are never going to get beyond the obscurity of small presses. These writers have HUGE followings (excuse me. “significant followings” or “substantial followings” might be a better way to say it) because at some point a major house took them on.

  88. The writer/agent wars are becoming silly. I understand the resentment on both sides. However, slinging mud will not solve anything.

    I surf agent blogs looking for useful tips as I am a new (clueless) writer. And I hate that I keep coming cross this same mud throwing junk.

    There is work to be done and obstacles to overcome. I say use this powerful negative energy to write the best damn book you could possibly write and knock the socks off the agents that rejected you. ;-)

    Can’t we all just get along? Group hug?

    • That’s how I landed an agent. Sometimes you may only get a one line response, but sometimes its a priceless one line response. I made change after change, which made the book better and better. I now have my dream agent, as of this Tuesday, after querying for over a year and 150+ rejections. It finally paid off…

  89. Got to agree with Mary on this last point, especially with making reference to Haruki Murakami, on my favourite living authors.

    I think any writer trying to agent a manuscript that’s as mind-bendingly different as one like ‘Wild Sheep Chase’ or ‘Kafka on the Shore’, probably won’t get much traction.

    You comment has a ‘check-mate’ quality to it, Mary. If you know how the publishing world works, it’s a bit hard to refute it.

  90. You’ve had three chances, with three published books. If you no longer have a relationship with these publishers, it is because of one thing: your books didn’t sell. And blaming the publisher for lack of promotion is always the most convenient excuse.

    Publishing is a business. Bookstores return books that don’t sell. Books that customers did not want to read. That READERS did not want to read. And the publisher knows that these same booksellers won’t take yet another chance on a writer whose first three books did not sell.

    So without booksellers willing to stock your books, what are you left with?

    If you want to blame the entire structure of the book and publishing industry, that is certainly your prerogative. In the meantime, your fellow writers are outpacing you by continuing to work hard, to master their craft, to query widely, all with grace and aplomb and tenacity.

    And in this way, your writing peers will all outshine you.



  91. Colleen, you really are something else. The reason my book is not with those publishers or others of their ilk is that i have chosen not to submit to them. Ever again. Please. You are jumping to conclusions.

    My first book sold out and won awards. My second book was published just after the publisher had laid off half its staff and had no one to do promotion or marketing and the one person who was still working there had been promoted from a clerical position. They also had an acclaimed literary writer who was a crappy editor work with me on the manuscript and the editing was the shits.

    The third book, a collection of short stories, was published right before the small press owners decided to give up on publishing and go back to writing. I bought back the copies when they went out of business, and have been selling them myself quite nicely. You will see a nice review above of that collection, (which was entitled Cool), by Richard Martin, whose first novel will be coming out from McAdam Cage this fall, and who I met through ABNA.

    But thanks for guessing how it went down.

    Steffan, thank you. I kind of liked the check mate feel of it as well.

  92. Nathan, please go back to the original text. The publishers ARE publishing ESTABLISHED literary writers and some DEBUT LITERARY writers. I said that. We know that.

  93. The problem most publishers have with books that start slowly and eventually build is not with having to pay an advance. (If you’re projected to earn out the advance through royalties in two years, they’re happy.)

    However, most publishers need to publish books that will sell significant copies right off the bat because the costs of the printing & binding are dramatically increased as the print run quantity is reduced, and the warehousing costs for larger print runs that aren’t selling fast is prohibitive. (Hence, remainders.)

    So, many times it’s not that the publisher/agent can’t see the potential value of a book, it’s that they know from looking at the profit & loss statement that even if it sells over time, it will lose the company money.

  94. Awesome letter! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been rejected by agents. Since I’ve begun the querying process over a year ago, not one agent has taken the time to send me a personalized rejection letter. Sometimes I get the rejection 2 hours later without–I suspect–the agent ever having read anything I have to say.

    Do Nathan Bransford’s “Agent For A Day” contest and you’ll understand both a) why the rejection came so quickly, and b) why you don’t get personalize rejections. Now imagine doing that contest every single day of the week. It’s not the agent’s job to tell you what you’re doing wrong in your query letter. That’s what us fellow writers are for. Their job is to find publishable work and sell it.

    Which is sad because I deserve the same consideration that the big-name authors out there get time and again. An agent had to give them a chance in their past.

    Why not take a chance on me?

    You got the same chance every unpublished writer gets: the chance to prove in your query letter you can write a publishable novel. If they’re rejecting based on the letter, maybe there’s something wrong with that. If they’re rejecting based on requested sample pages, take a long, hard look at your book.

    And if this is your first book, the cold hard truth is, it’s probably not publishable. Most aren’t (including mine). Just as a cellist wouldn’t expect to play in the Philharmonic Orchestra two days after picking up the instrument for the first time, a writer shouldn’t be surprised that books require practice to get right, too.

    Use the querying process for your current book as a way to get used to sending out queries and handling rejection letters while you work on the next one.

  95. Mary, I hope I’m reading this right.
    You’re have three books published (which, for some authors, would be nirvana) though they were with small presses (like I said, for another author, would be a dream come true)
    But the sales or attention weren’t what you expected.

    Perhaps it’s not the agents or publisher you seek, but the audience, which you believe could come once you land the right agent or publisher?

    I’m asking to find out what you really want from this, the end game as it were. I think it’s the audience you seek, but with three books published, I’d be out there drumming up the masses in libraries, small book stores, facebook etc. You might have to go to the audience to get readers into your work, instead of the other way around. That’s my plan B by the way.

  96. Wow, Mary, what an interesting discussion you’ve invited!

    I must say (and I am agented, so this is NOT a ploy for brownie points…) I am incredibly impressed with Nathan’s desire to engage and thoughtfully wrap his head around and respond to the debate. I truly am. And I knew nothing of his “superstar” status before ABNA2 references…

    Having said that, I, too, believe the fault lies with the readers (and how societal norms have shaped them) and the publishers more than the agents, but hope what this debate will do, is reengergize the agents to really push works they believe in, and convince the publishers that they will sell. Rah rah! ;)

  97. Well…I have to say, I see a LOT of misinformation and bitterness on the part of the writer.

    I went and read part of her novel. And while I do write commercial fiction, I read a variety of genres. I found her work to need major editing and revision. This seemed very first draftish to me. If her query reads anything like the novel, I understand the rejections.

    Yes, this is a business. Yes, agents and publishers are in this to make money but that’s not a crime.

    If all you want is your book on the shelf and available, find a good editor and self-publish. You’ll be much happier than having to play the agent game.

  98. Pingback: Queryday on twitter… « creamandwrittenbyawoman

  99. The point was, Nathan … was that Haruki Murakami isn’t the only writer on the block crafting that style of writing, not by a long shot. The point is clear that if an unknown has written something, their own, and tries to put it forward, they’re not going to see much movement. And it’s definitely not for a lack of readers, either.

    I believe the underlying theme of this thread is the difficulty of penetrating the publishing world — Haruki Marakami is a good example because agents and publishers alike always state the level of difficulty with something that is ‘experimental’, and Haruki’s books without doubt fall into that category. I’ve read several unpublished novels in the last six months, that are all worthy but have received rejection letters — not because of craft but for this reason alone.

    So, yeah, I think it kind of moots the point. It is what it is. but it doesn’t mean that if I wrote something like ‘Hardboiled Wonderland’ that I wouldn’t try shopping it around. And if Walter Tevis were still around he’d be the first to tell you that ‘just because they’re publishing Philip K. Dick’ doesn’t mean they’re comfortable publishing the next in line … like Walter Tevis. LOL.

    That’s all. No biggie.

  100. “The publishers ARE publishing ESTABLISHED literary writers and some DEBUT LITERARY writers.”

    Yup. PUBLISHERS are mostly publishing established literary writers and some debut literary writers. That’s the trend.

    But I don’t represent exclusively established literary writers and debut writers. In fact I rep a range. I’m trying to build some people up.

    But it’s still my fault.

  101. Xica — the books are not in print any more (except for Cool, which are almost all gone) and so I can’t sell them myself or believe me, I would be doing that. I am an excellent promoter (used to do promotion among other jobs for a publishing company which doesn’t publish fiction) as you may notice here. And yes, I want a wider potential audience for me and others of my ilk. And yes, I may have to self-publish to get it, but get it I think I can. Lost of people seem to like the way I write a lot.

    * ** * * * *
    Now I am going to take the “monitor comments” function off because I can no longer keep up and I need to eat some breakfast. If your comment gets lost in the transition, I apologize! For the most part, I am loving this discussion!!!!! I love talking about writing more than almost anything in the world.

  102. I’ve followed this thread and Queryfail with interest, being on the fringes of the industry myself. The question I want to ask you is one I’ve seen several people pose in the comments: can we truly blame the publishing industry when they ultimately answer to an audience that is just not buying midlist literary fiction?

    You say your books are the type that will sell well over a long period. Very well–but can you guarantee those sales? Can you state confidently that your audience size/sales will not fluctuate negatively in the future? What happens if all the major publishing houses read this blog post and decide to accept more literary fiction? Will more people begin buying that genre just because there are simply more books available, and now the local bookstore doesn’t have as much room for, say, romances and hard science fiction?

    It comes down to audience. You’ve clearly worked incredibly hard on your books and believe in them, and fought a long battle to get published. But publishing is an industry and a business. One that has many faults, yes, but one that must above all meet the needs of its clients–and its clients are ultimately readers, not writers. Until/if more of America ever wants to read literary fiction, it’s likely your situation will remain the same.

    P.S. I suspect that if you choose to self-publish in the future, you could do respectably well. Certainly this blog post will generate a larger audience for you, whether or not that was your intention.

    Jenn S.

  103. You are railing at the wrong folks. If you think literary fiction isn’t being published (and I disagree with that premise), berate the readers of the world. Not the agents. Not the editors.

    Bizness iz bizness. If readers are buying, editors sure as hell are too, and agents will bust through buildings to get their paws on a good manuscript or twelve.

    Besides… Jeffrey Eugenides. Khaled Hosseini. Michael Chabon. Dorothy Allison. Wally Lamb. Ian McEwan. Alice Sebold. Ann Pachett. Thomas Pynchon. Michael Ondaatje. So on and such.

  104. I’m with you, Steffan. Plus, I just LIKE you…would some darn agent please check him out?

    And, yeah, would someone PLEASE read Mary’s book? She’s got a non-fiction book coming out with Johns Hopkins Press this fall….I mean, PUH-LEESE. She’s GOOD.

  105. Your frustration is spectacular. I seriously hope this isn’t the kind of attention you hoped to achieve.

    Actions have consequences, you know, and while it might seem less immediately rewarding, channeling your negative emotions into a positive outlet (say… polishing an existing work of fiction or writing something new) would’ve been a wiser tactic in the long run.

    I suspect that your personality type is not conducive to recognizing this. So, bravo and hats off to the histrionic/narcissistic/anti-social success you achieved today.

  106. I can see where the hits are coming from and they aren’t all from Twitter by a long shot.

    Thank you for saying my “frustration is spectacular.”

    P.S. Jody: thank you. Big hugs for that! And a few others who have come to help a friend by adding your two cents — you know who you are.

  107. Well, if you wanted to incite some commentary, you definitely succeeded there. Initially, I wasn’t quite sure if this was serious or meant with a dollup of sarcasm, but apparently, you meant it with all serious, which is unfortunate. I’ve been following this issue around the blogosphere for a while now, and it still amazes me to see, especially from ‘serious writers,’ how much blame and finger pointing they are involved in.

    The fact is, publishers are in the BUSINESS of selling books. They have to make money, no two ways about it. They operate on really thin margin lines. When it all averages out, they don’t make a lot per book. Some books make good money, some tank, regardless of marketing and publicity or how good the writing is.

    Another fact. The vast majority of people employed in the publishing industry are there for one reason. They love books. They certainly aren’t in it for the money or the hours. They aren’t raking in the dough by schlepping out the fluff to the masses. They want to see good literature in print. It’s what brings them into work every day and keeps them from swimming in buckets of bourbon. Of course there are hacks, scammers, unprofessionals, and some who wouldn’t know a good story if the book grew a mouth and told them so. These are the exceptions to the rule, and sadly are the ones who get used as example for why the industry sucks and has no interest in selling decent literature.

    Another fact. The reading public as a whole is not terribly ‘literate’ as it were. They don’t read to be enlightened about the deeper meanings of the universe, or have the human condition revealed to them in all its angsty, horrible glory. I’m not saying people are stupid here, it’s just that the bulk of the reading public wants to be entertained. They want excitment, escapism, love, romance, heroism, thrills and chills, and don’t want to have to think too much about what they read. In general. Some readers do. If you wanted to have the greatest impact on being able to sell you ‘literary’ work, change what the readership wants to read. Publishers didn’t make people want to read non-literary works, though they certainly haven’t gone out of there way to change that, but that’s a whole other post. Honestly, I think the vast majority of those working in publishing would love it if the reading public demanded more literary fiction.

    Yet another fact. The economy has brought out new writers in droves. People wanting to make a fast buck (ha! If they only realized.) or those unemployed who now have the time to write that novel they’ve always wanted to write. Agents are currently swamped in a deluge of queries. Sadly, from what I can tell, the percentage of good writing has not gone up in proportion. Most agents currently get in excess of 300 queries a week. Many don’t have interns or assitants to help them with this, for a variety of legitimate reasons. Many aren’t willing to have someone else make judgments on what they would be willing to read. Subjectivity rules this world. It’s far to easy to let something slip by that would be good because of some small difference in perception. Not to say that assistants and interns can’t be good, because they get overworked and underpaid for a reason. They love books. They live to find that great novel. They also have to find things that will bring in money. As much as agents/editors would love to be able to nurture someone with promise along to the point of success (and this does actually happen on occasion), it’s a huge risk financially. Publishing can’t afford to do this very often. Even if they cut down huge celebrity advances, it still doesn’t cut down the risk, and they can’t afford to lose money to cultivate art. Be nice if they could, but that will never happen. But back to the numbers. The sheer volume of writing coming through the pipeline makes the percentage of material read even less. Only so much material can be looked at, and agents/editors have the unenviable task to trying to cull something good out of it. You’re fooling yourself if you think it’s easy to spot the good stuff, and it’s impossible to read the writing of everything that comes through the door. You have to write a decent query to get noticed. It doesn’t matter how good your novel is. Those folks who whine about not getting pages read are just not getting how things work.

    Final fact (cause this post is getting absurdly long), and the thing I’ve found most disturbing about this whole flameout against agents, is the sense I get that writers feel entitled. Where does this come from? Why do so many writers feel that because they write something (good or bad) that it deserves to be published? I have seen this far too much in comments, this sense that writers somehow have a right to be read. If they (agent/editor) would just read my work, they would see just how publishable it is and want to put my work out there on the shelves. WTF? This baffles me. Writers get pissed when agents reject their query or even when pages are read. I understand the hope and desire that others will love and want to read their writing. It’s an affirmation of all the work poured into creating their book. However, rejection is not a rejection of the person or of the writing for that matter. It’s a subjective opinion of what the agent believes would be a marketable work. Writers can’t ever forget that this is a business. It’s about the art and the money, because a homeless, starving agent isn’t going to do you a whole lot of good. Agents want to find good stuff that will sell, and something that won’t sell now may sell next year. It’s a weird industry that way. Also, agents are generally looking to take on maybe 3 or 4 new clients in a year? 30,000 queries and they’re trying to find those 3 or 4. You do the math.

    So, getting pissed off here isn’t going to do you any good, Mary. Really. Every writer out there is generally frustrated by the industry most of the time. It’s a very fickle machine. If you are a good writer, your chances of success are greater, but 60 rejections is nothing. There are folks out there who have written for ten years or more before getting published. You are just shooting yourself in the foot here with the whining about the industry, and you could have expressed yourself here far more eloquently and still inspired discussion. I wish you luck, since you’ll need more of it now. Just keep writing and trying.

  108. I think this sums up a lot of the problems in publishing / agenting right here:

    “The reading public as a whole is not terribly ‘literate’ as it were.”

    Sigh … yeah, we’re all just a bunch of mouth-breathers.

  109. Frankly, agents are only trying to give the editors (the true gatekeepers) what they want. Therefore, all your beefs refer to them. There hasn’t been a book written by a writer in a couple of decades-the editors just hide behind an authors name-so stop sucking up to them, girl and make your work stand up for itself and get a good agent who can protect you!

  110. Jim, you make excellent points that are well taken and well said.

    There was/is more than a dollop of sarcasm. I had thought that a few editors might squirm if they ever found time to read this, but I haven’t heard anything from them that I know of.

    I don’t feel entitled to be published — at all. And if I want to be, I can do it myself these days. But I DO feel entitled to be considered by the best editors in the land when I have proven myself by having three books accepted by smaller presses, and by winning awards, and garnering acclaim. At this point in my career, I want to be rejected by a major editor, not by agents who have a different agenda than I do all together.

  111. i will not make any snarky comments to lambdagirl. I will not. I will not. Deep breaths and finish your porridge, Mary.

  112. >>>Xica — the books are not in print any more (except for Cool, which are almost all gone) and so I can’t sell them myself or believe me, I would be doing that.

    Uh, what? So the print runs are gone and therefore the books are dead?

    If you are good at flogging things and want to show everyone how things “should” be done, then they should all be in eBook format.

  113. Here’s what I think you’re missing: Your premise is that there are books that would, if they were on the shelves long enough, build an audience that would make them profitable to publishers, and that publishers are willing to take a chance on these books, but agents won’t let them.

    The reality you’re missing is that books don’t stay on shelves today–and twenty years ago, they would have.

    With most books, we’re talking weeks before the bookstore sends it back to the publisher, and the publisher eats shipping and printing costs. You’re not going to get major publishers taking on books that take years to build an audience if there is no venue except Amazon that sells books for years. There’s almost no way to slow-build an audience through bookstores these days. Publishers don’t buy it, because they can’t make bookstores keep it on the shelves, and agents won’t rep it, because they know publishers won’t buy it.

    That’s why the industry is like this. It’s not a conspiracy of agents. It’s not because clueless editors are being done for by a mysterious group of genre-fiction wielding salespeople. It’s all about the relentless shelf-life of a book.

    And yes, I think that’s troubling–but of all the causes that underlie that reality, let’s be realistic–agents hate it when books get returned.

  114. Mike Cane — yes! It’s on my agenda. Trying to figure out how the Google settlement will affect that among other things. And I need to input the books because i don’t have them on my computer. But definitely on the game plan. I’m also putting short stories on iTunes and PodioBooks (paid to get them properly taped: just another couple of weeks and they should be up) and republishing some of my stories (one’s up so far) on one of my other blogs.

    I also stay visible (but not as visible as I am today!) by writing reviews of really good writing on my books blog and I review movies as well and I have a ton of ideas for book promotion that i am very keen to get going on once I decide what to do with my most recent novel. I’m active on Authonomy and ABNA forums. So I’m not hiding out. Although, again, today is rather an exception.

  115. I’m betting this post is a few thousand words that could have gone into a novel instead. Seems like a waste of energy.

    I’m a struggling writer as well. I feel the pain.

    But, I don’t think there are many rich agents out there with truckloads of money scoffing at our books. I think literary agents are literary agents because they love literature, not because they wanted to get rich. There are much easier ways to do that.

    Many agents even spend hours a day helping unpublished writers that aren’t making them a dime (blogging, twittering, etc…reading these has helped me polish both my novel and my query.) I hope that negative feedback about it doesn’t discourage them from sharing aspects of their work from which we can salvage nuggets of very useful information.

    Publishing is a business. Because of that, many writers are left out in the cold clutching their wonderful novels to their chests. The writers that pick themselves up, dust themselves off, do yet another edit on their book, and type up yet another query are far less likely to fail. I want to be one of those writers.

  116. From an NPR article:

    Carol Schneider, the head of public relations for the Random House Publishing Group: “We’re acquiring fewer books now, but I think there is an intense focus on the next big book, books that will drive readers into the stores, books that will support the rest of your list,” says Schneider. “I think finding the next big hit can make your year.”

    Literary Joseph Regal: “It’s great if you happen to reach a big audience as Audrey Niffenegger has, but there are a lot people left out,” he says. “And it’s very frustrating if you sell literary fiction, as I do, and you have a novel that you really love that you think is special, and you’re met with ‘This is really great, but we don’t think we will sell any copies.’ “

  117. Mary, you firecracker you. Not that I’m surprised. You tend to stir the pot and make people think ;)

    Gae said:
    “Having said that, I, too, believe the fault lies with the readers (and how societal norms have shaped them) and the publishers more than the agents, but hope what this debate will do, is reengergize the agents to really push works they believe in, and convince the publishers that they will sell. ”

    I’d like to blame the readers too. As a writer it feels like I’m in a conspiracy with agents and publishers to wrap vegetables inside of candy just to get the good-for-you stuff ingested.

    Maybe I’ve worked WAY too long with children, but that’s the way it feels.

    I even heard on the news the other day that when children are presented with vegetable juice they won’t drink it…but when told it’s a Rainforest Smoothie, they gobble it down.

    It does boil down to the words chosen by the author in the query, the imaginative selling prowess an agent demonstrates when approaching publishers, and the publishers shock and awe tactics when putting the candy wrapped vegie out to market.

    Of course, there is a LOT of pure Twinkie writing going on with no substantive value, but I suppose that feels easier to push through.

    Have you seen Snickers new ad campaign?

    Need a hungerectomy?

    They should sell health food like that too…and books.

  118. Fenestra, you’re the one who suggested I not mention my previous books when querying right? Maybe I should get a facelift too? Pass myself off as something I am totally not? You are not the editor I seek.

    • There is no law that says you must disclose previous books in a query letter.

      But you are right. It will eventually come out.

  119. I think most of the readers and commenters here could identify things they would like to change about the publishing industry.

    As writers, we’re often acutely aware of what we perceive to be publishing industry shortcomings, especially when we’re on the business end of rejections. I’ve been there–in fact, I should go check my inbox, because I might be due for some acute awareness right now.

    I just don’t think it’s helpful or correct to paint with as broad a brush as you’ve done here. For one thing, it’s hard to avoid the sour grapes label—“The industry is obviously terrible because no one recognizes what a masterpiece I’ve written!” Surely you can see the credibility issues there.

    But if you’re really interested in change, why cast entire groups as villains when many of them are or could become your allies? There are good and bad agents, just as there are good and bad teachers. It’s just grandstanding to blame teachers and/or administrators for what’s wrong with education; many of those doing so should first look in the mirror, and then seek alliances with persons at every level of the industry in order to bring about change. Same thing with publishing.

    And not only do you make enemies of genre writers with comments like those above, but you turn off readers like me who often enjoy reading genre as much as “literature” (whatever that word really means—is Sanctuary literature? A Scanner Darkly genre?).

    It’s definitely worth having a discussion about what we could change about writing and publishing. I know from experience that sensational statements often get more attention than thoughtful ones, but what I also know is that attention is all you’re likely to get.

  120. I recognize there is a very thin line between sour grapes and what I have tried to do here, and that for many the line does not exist at all. For them, this is sour grapes pure and simple. But due to the wonders of the Internet and its discussion forums, I have learned I am not the only one in this position. I discerned a trend. I thought about why it was happening. Then I wrote an essay about it–being as accurate as I possibly could on the basis of my perceptions, but also using the same kind of generalizations and putdowns of agents as they have been using about writers on too many Internet forums lately. All in all, and despite the flak from people who think I’m just bitching about my own situation, I am very pleased with what I wrote. It has added to my own respect for my own writing ability. As has Authonomy, of late.

    • I recognize there is a very thin line between sour grapes and what I have tried to do here…

      Troll for readers?

      … I am very pleased with what I wrote. It has added to my own respect for my own writing ability.

      That’s too bad. Pride can be a huge obstacle to improving your writing.

  121. Also, I am a huge fan of James Lee Burke and Elmore Leonard. I just finished reading Watchmen. I love dystopian/sci fi novels–although I must admit particularly in the hands of such writers as Atwood, Russell Hoban, Cormac McCarthy. I am an avid consumer of popular culture including music and movies. I am a well rounded snob.

  122. Mary, with all due respect, it doesn’t seem like you’ve lacked for self-esteem about your writing ability prior to this episode.

    Sure, it’s just the Internet and we’re all just anonymous people behind computer screens to you, but it’s a little unnerving to be the scapegoat of a lot of seriously angry people who use us as a punching bag for the fact that their reality has not kept pace with their dreams.

  123. I’m going to try to offer some helpful advice here.

    Editors look to agents to send them the kind of material they are specifically looking to buy. Have you considered the possibility that the particular work you’ve been querying isn’t what editors are looking for right now? Maybe it would be best to focus your energy on writing new material and trying again.

    Yes, you’ve been published. Yes, you’ve received awards. But even genre authors published by major houses don’t always sell every single book they write. They get rejections, too.

  124. I do not envy your position when people get angry with you, Nathan. I did not intend to make a specific attack on you and I hope I haven’t. I understand you deliberately avoided the first query fail and I respect that. You do, in fact, seem to be respected by a lot of people in the industry. The same is not true of many of your colleagues, for good reason. However, you do have a rep for responding to queries within three minutes, which makes many of us question how closely our submissions have been examined. Perhaps you are a superhero and can read and absorb much more quickly than the average reader, but it does mean to me that if I want to get your attention I need to write a pitch to you that does not represent the kind of writing I am doing.

    I do believe that agents set up hoops that they don’t really care about when they are actually assessing manuscripts. They’re going to find the good ones in the heap whether their authors have followed proper “query format” or not. I also know that these hoops have been created because so many wannabe writers are demanding some magic formula from agents. It seems like you are between a rock and a hard place on setting guidelines, but I think that there is some dishonesty in it. Everyone feels that if you don’t accept a manuscript, it’s because the query letter isn’t strong enough. In fact that likely has nothing to do with it.

    And other agents (not you) have taken pleasure in mocking people for their last names (using at least one poor writer’s REAL last name on Twitter and saying “How’s THAT going to look on the spine of a book? Query fail” I copied and pasted this and many similar exchanges from the first #queryfail onto my computer. I haven’t had time to even look at what’s going on there today) and for naive oversights which, as I say, if they were brilliantly genuinely talented would not matter to the agents in the least (like writing on pink paper). Another agents uses (or has used) a shark as her twitter avatar. What is THAT supposed to mean about us as a “community” working together on behalf of getting good writing to readers?

    I was careful not to deliberately name anyone for their specific unkindnesses or even cruelties to me or other writers, but I do think that there are a lot of agents who are creating a very bad name for agents in general through their behaviour. There are also highly respected agents, and I know that, and I said that in my article. Most of them do not enter any frays, and most of them have full stables already and don’t accept any queries.

  125. I appreciate the kind part of your comment back, but come on. People complain about not hearing back from agents. And then you’re complain about hearing back from me too quickly?

    How long does it take you to read a page or two in a book? A minute or two? How long does it take you to click reply, paste, send? 15-30 seconds?

    There’s your three minutes.

    I mean, sheesh.

  126. Mary – I worked in the publishing industry for a long time, and I have learned a few unwelcome truths. One is, you can’t rely on publishing to feed you and clothe you, unless you are very lucky. Being good doesn’t have anything to do with it.
    Currently I am unemployed, and this means no new books, no cinema, no dining out, no new clothes, and choosing the cheapest things to cook. Art is nice, but if you want to create Art, you must be able to feed yourself first. And I understood long ago that publishing was never going to do that.
    So if you do have a good job that keeps you afloat, and the time energy and leisure to create Art, I’d say that is its own reward, because it’s certainly more than I have.
    There are no barriers today between you and the public. Publish your novel on the web – if it’s readers you want, you’ll probably get more hits than copies sold that way.
    If it’s the glory, the fame and the NYT reviews you want, I understand you already published a couple of books, which is also more than I got, and this means you got your chance. Maybe you are just not the new Salinger, Melville, or Conrad. It’s ok – plenty of people aren’t. The world does not owe us talent, or recognition, or validation. We try, we fail, we learn to cope with failure, I certainly did learn a lot from mine.
    None of this has anything do to with agents. Greatness and popularity are two largely independent qualities. People got off during one of Terentius’ plays to go watch a dancing bear, and yet two millennia later or so we are still reading Terentius. On the other hand, illitterate peasants would commit The Divine Comedy to memory, and it wasn’t because it was side-splittingly funny. And agents were not involved there.
    I’m sorry for all the sadness and rage and frustration I see in your post, and for the harsh responses you got. It must be very hard to be there right now. I am not going to preach humility to you, but just wish that you can come to achieve a sense of peace and fulfillment in what you do that does not depend on external validation.

  127. Wait Mary, as much as I don’t want to get sucked into this I do have to defend Nathan; he responded to my query within the hour.

    From what I have observed Nathan is the real deal.

  128. Nathan, you can’t win. I know that. :)

    Anna, thanks. But don’t worry about me. I am fine. Just a bit tired from writing comments all morning. Worth it, though. It’s been very interesting. I am not about to accept failure. Among the cultural figures of whom I am a fan is Anthony Robbins. Adjust, move on. I do.

  129. >>>The reality you’re missing is that books don’t stay on shelves today–and twenty years ago, they would have.

    Heh. Twenty-five years ago my then-editor told me the shelf-life of a mass-market paperback was four weeks.

    >>>I think most of the readers and commenters here could identify things they would like to change about the publishing industry.

    I have raging posts and comments about all of that on my blogs and others. Basically I laugh at the dinosaurs and encourage writers to free themselves. Not all the pieces are there yet:

    — but it’s inevitable that they will.

  130. My God! Who is this person, and who are the great many readers of this screed who felt moved to comment? Her writing trudges, her ideas are half-baked, she goes on and on–and, really, nobody ought to care. I was directed here by a colleague and spent 20 minutes skimming that I will never have back again. Feh! You should all go out and get some fresh air.

  131. After reading your blog I went to read the chapters of your book.
    Imagine my surprise when your chapters read like warmed over Chicklit. The same genre you profess to despise.
    Writer heal thyself.

  132. I loathe to make this comparison, but it’s an indisputable truth that the publishing world is akin to Hollywood these days. There are a ton of people who want to be big stars and rake in the dollars, but there are very few stars out there, and most writers are lucky to get bit-parts or walk-ons in the movie that is a publisher’s life.

    The glitz and glamor is what entices so many people, talented and otherwise, into this field. There are only so many starring roles to be cast, and only so much money to be made, therefore most writers fail to even get one book published.

    Talent is not being “killed,” unless you mean these agents are going out in the middle of the night with shotguns and hunting writers (hey, maybe that would be a good book). Freedom of speech is not freedom to be heard. Your talent is your own, and the only person who can truly kill it is you. Write for yourself, and your talent will be alive.

  133. As an agent I’ve read the essay and comments with interest. We gnash our teeth at some of the very inequities you and those commenting have raised.

    One thing to keep in mind– reading queries and interacting with non-clients is only a miniscule portion of what we do. The truth? Most of us have precious little room on our list for new writers. And our responsibility is to our clients. My day is taken up with helping plan careers, putting out fires, negotiating contracts, reading manuscripts, preparing submissions, following up with editors and on and on.

    Exercises like #Queryday make it seem like we spend an inordinate amount of time considering new writers. Unfortunately, it’s simply not true. There’s little time left in the day to look for that writer I just can’t pass up. We all wish it were different since we love writers and finding new talent, but we live in the real world.

  134. Nathan B. is a good example of what an agent should be, even if he rejects you! :) About a year ago, he was one of the 1st agents I queried. My book was VERY different back then. He requested a partial, later rejecting it, explaining how he couldn’t get into the narration. That being said, form or not form, I rewrote the entire book based on that one sentence, realizing it WAS hard to get into the narration. After a year of querying and enough rejections letters to cover the Empire State Building I landed my agent, this week in fact, and he’s a great one–the one I wanted THE MOST. Listening to agents who reject you says a lot, even if its form rejection. Rejection stinks. It hurts. It even makes you cry sometimes, but I learned a lot from it and listened to what agents were telling me.

    BTW: Thanks, Nathan!!

  135. “All in all, and despite the flak from people who think I’m just bitching about my own situation, I am very pleased with what I wrote. It has added to my own respect for my own writing ability. As has Authonomy, of late.”

    This kind of attitude is absolutely the right one, and frankly I’m troubled you would waste time with the other mid-list authors who haven’t been able to sell three books to publishers who usually celebrated the acquisition by going out of business. I’d focus your attention in the following way:

    1. Start with a reflecting pool and a mirror-tiled ceiling. It’s a bit pricey, but Home Depot (or the Canadian equivalent) has sales all the time. Enjoy the experience of observing yourself, which is breathtaking.

    2. Head over here for some well-deserved support:

    3. Go track down copies of GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, MUMBO JUMBO and CANDIDE. All are (sadly) literary fiction, but you might still be able to dig one up in a musty used bookstore, one of those ones where first-draft bubble gum is strictly forbidden. (Gets the first editions of CLARISSA sticky, don’t you know.) I’m sure you’ll think I’m nuts, but I sometimes think these authors might be putting their readers on a bit, and I’d love to hear your take. More importantly, YOU’D love to hear your take.

    4. Breathe deeply. In the meantime, let the Nathan Bransfords and Colleen Lindsays of the world bitch and moan about “business” and “quality” and use their crazy voodoo logic about “not being the ones who actually decide what gets published.” Lies. These people don’t have reflecting pools OR mirror-tiled ceilings, do they?

    5. Most of all, remember that bitterness is a state of mind. Relish it, like a long slow bubble bath after a good screaming session while stuck in traffic on the way home from work.

    Dream of the possibilities.

    We’ll be waiting.

  136. *raises eyebrows* Have you read anything? Have you read agents slush piles? If you don’t like it, self-publish or find a small publisher that takes unagented submissions. You do realize that debut projects are sold all the time. Every writer was, at one point in time, unpublished.

    “they really want is books that sell.”

    Exactly. And what kinds of books sell? Good ones. Well-written books with interesting plots and well-rounded characters. Whether their the writer’s first book or five-hundredth it’s the same.

    “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.”

    Hmmm why might that be… Oh right, agents receive thousands of submissions every week. I’d like to see you read a thousand fulls in a single week. Maybe if you didn’t sleep, eat, or leave the chair you’re sitting in, it would be possible. But not if you plan to do other things like sell books, meet editors, call clients, etc.

    “Some of us have had our query letters rejected more than 50 times.

    No one has asked to see our manuscripts.”

    Then clearly your query and first five pages need another look. Did you know Dr. Seuss was rejected 73 times?

    The queryfail may not have been very nice, but it case you haven’t noticed, that wasn’t all the agents in the business. And all those examples are mistakes of query letters and part of the reason why the queries were rejected.

    “the agents add no value to the book-production process.”

    I disagree. Agents weed out hundreds of books that, frankly, aren’t good enough. Imagine the amount of work publishers would have to go through to get through the submissions if agents didn’t exist? And if you did manage to get through the submission process how do you know if the contract isn’t ripping you off? Unless you’re fluent in publishing contract terminology, the answer is you wouldn’t.

    In short: if you don’t like it, self-publish. No one is forcing you to get an agent. Get over it and KEEP TRYING. It only takes one agent to say yes. They might not say yes to that query or even that novel.

  137. Let me wade into the hot water here a bit –

    Mary, while you raise some relevant and complex points, I think you paint with too broad a brush:

    The idea that every agent is out for the big advance is a fallacy. It’s simply not a sustainable business model. An advance is paid out in segments with the payments stretched out sometimes longer than a year. Living solely on large advances is nearly impossible, for authors and agents alike. No agent can secure enough of them for that to be even the primary, never mind the sole income. It’s much more profitable, long term, for an agent (and a publisher) to find an author that will sell a relatively modest but consistent number of books over an enduring career than to jump from one big advance to another.

    Also, there aren’t as many “big deals” made as we think, those are just the ones we hear about and so our perspective is off. And yet, many thousands of books are published each year. Each of those books came with a deal. As for publishers and agents being unwilling to take chances, 7 out of every 10 books published fail to recover their advance in their first printing and only 2% of books published each year sell more than 5000 copies. Yet new authors are still published all the time, so someone is taking chances.

    Thirdly, an agent’s work really begins, it doesn’t end, after that contract is negotiated. There are innumerable details in an author-publisher relationship that need constant attention and administration. Any author that goes agentless into the world of commercial publishing is committing financial suicide. Believe me, you DON’T WANT an editor-author relationship. No editor has to the time to devote to your career that an agent does. Plus, your editor works WITH you but works FOR their publisher. That’s who signs their paychecks.

    All that said, Mary is correct that there are plenty of bad agents out there, just as there are plenty of lousy lawyers, contractors, landscapers, etc. out there looking to take your money and run. Anyone looking to hire a professional to perform a service for them needs to be diligent about the person and the business they are looking to hire. As for queries, synopses, outlines and the like, any author looking to enter the publishing business owes it to themselves to develop at least a modicum of business skills. You are starting a business relationship and need to do your part.

    As for the death of literary fiction, half of this week’s NYT fiction trade paperback extended best-seller list is literary fiction.

    I give Mary much credit for launching a spirited debate in a very public forum, and for not shying away from some of the harsh criticism posted on her blog.


  138. Mary, here is some data you may find enlightening:

    According to Bowker, a conservative estimate of the total number of all-new fiction titles (not reprints) from established publishers (not self-pubs) published in the USA in 2007 was 25,000.

    (“Fiction” here encompasses all genres and age groups.)

    Twenty-five thousand. That is what the bookstores had to select from. I suspect you probably have a large personal library (as most writers do). Imagine how many wings you would have to build on your house to keep two-to-twenty copies of each new book, plus copies of the different formats, plus copies of all backlist books that continue to sell, plus all the nonfiction that was published (approx. 100,000 titles)?

    Another datum: The large NY publishing houses put out between 1000 and 3000 never-before-published new books (not just fiction) each year apiece. Not collectively. Imagine the size of the staff they would need in order to promote each of those books individually! Three to eight books a day are dropping, and someone has to convince bookbuyers to stock them, arrange author publicity, write sales copy, buy advertising space, and then follow up on all of that stuff every few weeks for a span of six to eight months. That’s not counting all the approvals of the cover design, coming up with creative marketing plans unique to each book, and making sure the Production department has the damn things ready on time.

    Even if the publisher could somehow have infinite publicity and promotion for all books, the effect would rapidly decline: When every book is treated as special, no book is special. So they keep a reasonable sized publicity machine (between 10 and 30 people), and concentrate on particular books that they feel will benefit most from the effort.

    Next point:

    You were published by small presses that fell on difficulties. That is the major risk of a small press: they don’t have the cushion to carry them through troubles. But they do take the literary risks.

    The large publishers follow the opposite strategy: generally risk-averse in what they publish, but much safer in weathering tough times. The NY establishment went through a major upheaval in the past six months, but no one is talking about declaring bankruptcy yet. They consolidate and buy each other out, but rarely does a large trade publisher simply go under.

    I want to address something you said in a comment upthread:

    “At this point in my career, I want to be rejected by a major editor, not by agents who have a different agenda than I do all together.”

    I want to first point out that a writer’s career (or any artist’s) is not the same as other sorts of careers. There is no logical progression up the ranks based on experience. There is no “At this point in my career.” There is “Big bestseller” and “Everyone else.”

    The trade publishing world only promotes writers based on earnings. Your three books didn’t earn (the cause is irrelevant), so you are no higher on the ladder than a promising newbie.

    The one advantage you might have over a newbie is that you have demonstrated you can finish a novel, which is more than can be said for about 50% of the people querying agents today. Alas, this is mostly only an advantage for genre fiction midlists, where dependable, solid work ethics can be more valuable than literary merit. Since that doesn’t seem to be the group you aspire to write in, your experience of three published novels is no help to your status.

    The other point I want to make is that agents may have a different agenda than you do, but they have the identical agenda as the editors: find a book that readers will clamor for. (Editors who value literary merit over commercial viability tend to be sacked from large trade publishers and end up with small presses.) An editor says, “I want a book like this and this, but not that and that.” So the agents look for books fitting that description.

    Simple logic would make obvious that if agents’ agendas and your agenda are different, likewise your agenda and editors’ agendas would not mesh. I don’t understand what magic you believe would happen if you went directly to an editor (at a large trade house).

    Now, I personally don’t like that editors have surrendered their responsibility to outsiders, but the sheer number of submissions has forced this. Blame the computer. At least when people had to use a typewriter, only a small percentage ever finished a book and submitted it to a publisher.

    I will close with one last thought. People have been wailing over the impending death of the midlist (both literary and commercial) for the past fifty years. It ain’t dead yet.

  139. Thanks, Bill (Bill is William C. Loehfelm whose novel, Fresh Kills — Penguin, 2008– won last year’s first ever Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award). As I said to you on the ABNA forum, I think your comments are excellent, and I respect what you say about those agents who are doing a good job for their writers. Having had to run my own mini-career has made me aware of all the intricacies that need to be attended to, and a few agents (including Nathan Bransford) have spoken well in their own defense today.

    I have been sorry that no editors have come aboard, even anonymously, to defend the agents against my charges. That makes me suspicious — the subtext of my diatribe was that maaaaaybe the editors weren’t so innocent after all. But very few people seem to have picked up on that. And even the reputable agents have acknowledged that mid-list writers are in a very bad spot right now. Especially those of us whose first books are no longer in print.

    –E makes some truly excellent points as well. I will hope for some attention from a larger small press or publish on my own. As I mentioned above somewhere, I feel the editing is the crucial part of making a good novel great, and that’s what gets lots in self-publishing, collectives, and many literary presses.

    Older (YES, EVEN OLDER than I was this a.m.) and a bit wiser, maybe, but that probably won’t last, I am now off to see some nice commercial drivel at the Cineplex. Thank you all. I’ve had nearly 5000 hits on this site today, which makes me think that interest in the literary arts is alive and very healthy. YEAH for that!

    • “I have been sorry that no editors have come aboard, even anonymously, to defend the agents against my charges. That makes me suspicious”


      Fenestra // April 17, 2009 at 11:37 am | Reply

      I am an editor.

      Thank God for good agents.

      • Yes, but Nathan, I am an editor too. I earn my living as a writer and editor. In addition to writing articles and many other kinds of non-fiction materials, I edit books on a freelance basis. I don’t see any necessary association with a publishing company in “I am an editor” — none even professed.

  140. It never ceases to amaze me that people such as you, who write literature, seem to think they are the only “real” writers out there.

    The snobs of the writing world look down their noses at the rest of us who are whoring out our talent, if we have any, to write some commercial drivel. All the while the true artists are looked over because they are too proud to lower their standards. It’s not possible that what you wrote isn’t quite the masterpiece you think it is. NO! It’s the agents. They conspire against you to keep you powerless, penniless and printless.

    Rather than rail at the system look at the true cause of your failure. There she is, right there in the mirror.

    If you are so convinced the editors would snap up your classic, submit to them. Self-publish and show the world how mistaken they were.

    Whatever you do, don’t take responsibility for what is in your hands only to change.

  141. Mary-

    You’re very brave to post your honest feelings about this subject. I’m not here to bash you but to offer some thoughts on your novel.

    Have you tried categorizing it as women’s fiction when you query? That’s what it reads like to me, rather than literary fiction. Perhaps that one change will open up a new pool of agents to whom you can submit.

    Also, do you have any other titles? The current one does sound like a your novel is a diet/nonfiction book and does not reflect your material, at least what I’ve read. As a book buyer, if I were to see that title on the shelf, I would get the wrong idea and end up passing it over.

    Good luck to you.


  142. Several people have told me it sounds like a diet book, which is funny. On Authonomy a few people said they hadn’t read it because of that until they inadvertently found out it was a novel. That fits right in with the irony of the book, but never mind. If I say that, people will just think I’m being a blinking snob.

    Actually, I envision masses of people buying it for all the wrong reasons. I will not complain about that if it happens–because that’s the whole theme of the novel itself. But in the meantime, perhaps I will change its official name to “The Whole Clove Diet: A Novel” or something. Thanks.

    And yes. I’ve tried telling agents everything — from chick lit through women’s fiction to literary fiction to black comedy — all of which are true — but I don’t know if that’s it. My current pitch is over on Authonomy if you are interested.

    If I don’t get moving here I’m going to miss all the previews. Back later.

    • I don’t think it matters whether you tell prospective agents that “The Whole Clove Diet” is chick lit, black comedy, or a cautionary tale about gangster vampires. It’s still a sow’s ear, and no amount of recategorizing is going to make it a silk purse.

  143. Nathan, I’m glad you were amused by the basic premise, but that link just takes me back to the start of the discussion again. How CAN anyone submit without an agent?

    Also re the comment about the proliferation of writer queries since computers/Internet etc. I read a comment from a Canadian agent last week pointing out that email saves hours and hours of agents’ time packaging and mailing manuscripts back the old way and writing letters etc etc etc. So I think it may be a saw off there.

    • Mary, you’re missing an important point: they DON’T WANT people to submit without an agent.

      They designed the system. With few exceptions, they don’t want to hear directly from writers.

      They’ve not been conned. They’ve not been hypnotized.

      They know what’s out there. Unless it’s made it through an agent’s submission system, they really don’t want to see it.

  144. The first thing that needs to be understood is that there is no formula for making a book successful. Anybody who tells you that “if my publisher just did a little more X and supported the efforts with some Y my book would be a bestseller” is full of shit.

    If such a formula existed, it would be done over and over and publishing would be a cash rich industry and we’d all hang around the pool and be very fashionable.

    Get nominated for prestigious awards? Doesn’t have any guaranteed effect on sales. Get a starred review in one of the major trade publications with a huge subscriber list? Don’t go shopping for the second home quite yet. So what’s the formula?

    Tell me where the marketing efforts (personnel and cash) should go to make a book sell what you think it should sell. I’m not being confrontational, I’m genuinely curious.

    Now, keep in mind that books are low ticket items so you’ll need to sell a lot of them to pay off an ad in any large publication (and if you aren’t in a large publication, how many people are you going to reach?). Oh, and conventional wisdom says that advertising doesn’t really work for books anyway. Also, if you want the author to go around the country, there’s significant cost with that and you’ll need to sell a lot of books to pay for the room service bill.

    I’m in this business because I love words and writers and I believe 100% in the power of books to change lives. I’ve put my money where my mouth is for ten years building a publishing company from the ground up. In the early years that was credit cards, no health insurance, and no paycheck.

    Are there books that come across my desk that I love but I’m uncertain if they can sell? Hell yes. Are there books that come across my desk that I like but don’t change my world view and that sell? Yup. Could I make a hell of a lot more money doing something else? You betcha. But I don’t because, like I said, I love words and books and I wouldn’t be as happy trading stocks or conducting open heart surgery.

    And I know the same thing about Nathan and Janet–two people I’ve had the good fortune of meeting and who I would call friends. Agents provide a valuable service to me (even though we still accept unagented queries, too) and I would never look at them as an enemy of the writer or a failed cog in a big business machine.


    Benjamin LeRoy, Publisher
    Bleak House Books

  145. I am sending around my “bubble gum that used to be called chick-lit but is now shuffled in with other women’s writing” novel right now. I think agents are more prone to go for literary fiction because of the prestige attached to these projects than to the type of novel I’m writing. Go look on Agent Query and you’ll see what I mean. Most of the agents LOVE literary fiction. Of course, it helps if your novel is dark, edgy, and all that. Many of the agents are young and this is what appeals to them…..

  146. Dear Mary W. Wilson,

    I am a publisher and acting Editor-in-Chief of Flying Pen Press. Thank you for your posted letter with your comments regarding agents. I recently discovered this discussion and your letter, and as it was addressed to senior editors, I am happy to reply.

    First however, let me state that your feeling that editors aren’t responding because they are somehow feeling complicit in the frustration literature writers feel about the commercial book market is perhaps a little harsh. Most editors I know do not have the time to read blogs and discussions, including myself, as our reading time is best spent looking at the manuscripts that have been submitted to us. Should they read your letter, it is unlikely that they have time to do so.

    Now to your point. As an editor, I can only value an agent by the quality of material they bring me and how they facilitate the editor-author relationship. In most cases, my experiences with agents has been less than enjoyable, as many agents bring me bad manuscripts, and actually make the editor-author relationship harder not easier. In some cases, the publisher-author relationship has suffered as well. That you believe that agents are out to chase the bucks is apropos, in my experience. But then again, most authors seek out an agent for just that reason to make a bigger buck. Literary agents are no different from talent agents, sports agents, or real estate agents. They are all charged with navigating complex contracts, finding buyers and negotiating a hard deal for their clients. No more, no less. All of their income is derived from this mandate.

    Most agents who have contacted me usually submit a sheaf of manuscripts at one time. If all of those manuscripts are stellar and interest me, then that agent stays on the top of my list and anything from that agent gets priority. If I read a bad manuscript from that agent, or even a good manuscript that I can’t use in any of our imprints, that agent gets a black mark. If the agent becomes belligerent or argues with me about my decisions, that agent is blacklisted. If the first manuscript I read from an agent I have never dealt with before is not great, I never bother to look at that agent’s offerings again.

    Many of the good agents are aware of this, and they can only maintain solid relations with so many editors and publishers. Thus, very few good agents can find a home for just anything. If an agent has no place to peddle “fine literature,” then the agent has absolutely no reason to look at such manuscripts, since he cannot do his job with it.

    In addition to that, the literary presses that survive on endowments and grants, and the odd individual with time and money who just wants to publish literary prose and poetry, rarely deal with agents. Agents add extra time and expense to the acquisition process, and the literary presses have no extra money or time to give. People who publish art for art’s sake rarely have money to burn in the way that commercial publishers do, commercial publishers who must need the needs of bookstores, who in turn must meet the whims of the marketplace.

    Therefore, it is important to approach only agents who have the opportunity to sell what you have written, and to provide them with such a high quality product that it won’t tarnish the entire sheaf of manuscripts the agent submits.

    In your letter, you stated that most editors and publishers probably have an education in fine literature. This is not the case. Most publishers and editors come up through publishing, which usually demands both a journalism background and a business background. Literary background is the purview of the writer, not the publisher. The publisher, and thus the editor, must deal with printing technology, distribution issues, market research, accounting practices, and all the things that go into running even the smallest of presses. A publisher that does not tend to these basic tenets of business fails to be in business. And to that, it is important that the suppliers of the basic materials the publisher uses to create his products comes form business-savvy vendors, that is, writers who treat their writing like a business.

    Therefore, it goes with writers as well. A writer who does not treat his or her writing as a business will not be able to stay in business as a writer. Like any business, the writer must find out what the readers want and then supply it.

    As to advances, I agree that advances have spoiled much of the business. Flying Pen Press does not pay advances. Rather, we try to pay a higher than normal royalty, by paying a share of the profits of each sale. Many agents tend to avoid us for that reason, but in the end, I have found that it attracts more authors who write so much better because what they earn will be solely based on the dictates of the readers.

    Flying Pen Press does not publish literary fiction, generally. We do not take any grants or endowments to publish books that are not commercially viable. I directly own Flying Pen Press, and it must pay my rent and support my family. Struggling to peddle art to a market that will not shell out money for it is not going to bring me the income I need to keep my daughter in diapers. Thus, I am forced to consider a very real question: how much will I have to pay to market this book, and how many people will buy it.

    The difficulty you have here is that you want to approach a system of “major publishers” that will give your literary fiction a commercial marketplace. That is a paradox that no agent or editor can rectify. The large, corporate publishers base their decisions on how it affects their stockholders, who have bought shares in the company expressly for the purpose of making money. These are also busy busy editors who have a stable of reliable agents.

    A stable of reliable agents is critical to the success of any senior editor. Consider how long it takes to read an entire book, especially one that may not be of publishable quality. Many work hours go into reviewing an unsolicited manuscript, and even with “unpaid interns,” the costs of reviewing a manuscript can reach into the thousands of dollars, only to most likely reject the manuscript for any of a thousand different reasons, only a few may be that the manuscript is of poor quality. That is a lot of money to spend on searching through a large pile of manuscripts.

    However, an agent who can reliably bring the editor exactly what they need increases the rate of return on the money spent reading manuscripts. Major publishers that have to crank out 1,000 or more titles a year cannot possibly afford to hunt through their “slush piles,” and so they tend to policies of “agented authors only.” They have, in fact, passed the review costs back to the authors, as it should be with any vendor trying to sell their wares.

    Smaller, newer publishers like Flying Pen Press do not attract the attention of the high-quality agents, although we are beginning to interest a few agents who are coming to understand that our philosophy of giving authors the greatest respect possible and working towards a maximum royalty for authors is superior to the ways of Midtown Manhattan. Therefore, we do accept (and in fact, encourage) unsolicited manuscripts. Having an agent, because of my experience with agents, is more likely to make us wary of the manuscript.

    In the marketplace, Flying Pen Press has an equal chance of attracting the interest of readers, however. Readers do not look at the imprint, and so even the smallest of presses, including the many literary presses that are interested in fine literature, have a chance to make it to the bestseller lists. What is not possible is success with publishing any fine literature through a house that must produce commercial fiction entirely. The fine literature market is different from any other genre’s market, and it takes years of networking and developing unique distribution channels to properly make it work.

    I did enjoy your letter, and I thank you for the opportunity to respond in a public forum. I wish you luck with your writing, and I hope that my thoughts have helped you and the many others on both sides of this discussion. Now, if you excuse me, I have a book premier to go to for one of our new publications.

    Keep ’em Flying,
    David A. Rozansky
    Flying Pen Press
    “Giving Flight to Great Books”

  147. Mary, just try being a poet and interesting an agent … :)

    I think we’re caught up in a world as described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Black Swan” theory — that any system (from book publishing to stock markets) coughs up a ‘winner-take-all’ kind of effect. As he writes: There is a similarity between the exaggerated attention given to a particular oeuvre and the financial bubble dynamics that constitute the core pathology of the capitalistic system”

    (I’m not anti-capitalist, by the way. I’m just interested in the math.)

    It’s got a lot to do with the fact we’re stuck in one big system with room for only so many winners. Small separate artistic ecologies would be better at creating room for more voices.

  148. I read the first few pages of your novel at Authonomy so I could learn what really great literary fiction was all about. I read genre fiction, mainly thrillers, suspense, fantasy and science fiction and some historical fiction. What did I get? A whinging complaining small minded and petty protagonist not the least bit compelling at the doctors over a non-emergency who looks in the mirror so the author can describe her appearance.

    Sorry, not hooked.

  149. *I* want to be impressed within the first five pages. You yammer on about literary fiction, but good literary fiction is engaging.

    Kafka impresses in the first five pages. If you can’t, the problem lies with you. Step up your game or find a new pursuit.

  150. Re: the people coming in to criticize Mary’s writing:

    Look. I have my disagreements with Mary’s publishing worldview, but she’s done very well for herself. She can definitely write, and I don’t think coming in to slam her is particularly fair or productive

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  152. Wow. Never been published, huh?

    Personally, I like the fluff and appreciate the “gatekeepers” who cull the crap that some think is publishable.

    BTW, Shakespeare was once considered “fluff” like chick lit and the now-popular vampire genre. So was Mary Shelly and her monster.

  153. I read some of your novel online Mary, it was good and well written. Your a natural writer alright. You never know, this thread might boast your career. Like the old saying, any publicly is good publicly. Anyway, I’m signing out. Good luck with your career.

  154. Nathan – you are too nice, sir.

    She invited us to comment on her writing and put a link up to it, I imagine thinking that it would prove how wrong the evil agent are and how right she is about her own stunningly brilliant work is. She pointed us to her work as an example. I read her example and could hardly tolerate her protagonist. Not a good thing, I think. I mean, spare me another story about fat women struggling with mean old society…

    She also insulted genre writing of the type I like and write, as well as the bulk of readers and agents and writers who like, represent and write it. Pretty impressive.

    She just doesn’t get it. She may be able to write, but not material that is commercial, which translates into what people, ordinary people, book buying people, seem to want to buy.

    That’s fine and I agree that there is a place for “art” fiction, if that is what literary fiction is. But commercial fiction is what makes publishing art fiction possible. Genre fiction, like romances and thriller and yes, vampire and wizard fiction, buys lit fic’s lunch. I would think that instead of bashing it and everyone associated with it, she’d understand that.

    Instead, she complains about genre fiction as if it and agents are keeping readers from buying her work and if only the mean old money grubbing agents got lost, the art appreciating non-money grubbing editors and publishers (HA!) would flock to her work and the univere would unfold as it should and she would be the next margaret atwood or cormac mccarthy (which both write genre fiction — faugh!).

    Her problem is that she can’t accept that fact and is trying to blame everyone else except her own writing.

    It’s a market. It’s commerce. It’s a business. You either write material that can sell or you remain unpublished. Unless we go back to the patron system, that is the way it will remain.

    Why complain? Isn’t that like complaining about oxygen?

  155. I do not know that there is an answer. The whole thing has evolved into such an us against them that pounding your head against that brick wall they maintain only leaves you with a bloodied head. The agents do NOT want to hear it. When I saw the word “snakes” I was astounded anyone had the nerve to say it. Going back to the patron system IS an idea. WHY COMPLAIN! Get real! The question is WHY SIT BACK AND DO NOTHING SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY WANT YOU TO KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT.

    I do MORE than complain. “Her problem is that she can’t accept the fact and is trying to blame everyone else except her own writing.”

    And what biddy war rock did you emerge from.

    How pithy.

    Every time I become totally convinced that the agents are seriously scumbags (which they are) some writer who is beneath contempt comes along to remind me that things are the way they are NOT BECAUSE OF THE MARKETPLACE but because writers TOLERATE it.

    The system sucks.

    I WILL complain about the oxygen, especially when it stinks. And it stinks.

    “Write material people want to buy.”

    I deal with whores here at Cinematheque all the time. They’re a dime a dozen.

    People don’t know what they want. They pretend.

    I batter away at your sacred system every day and often with dynamite. I want to see every single American publishing house either burned to the ground or REPLACED by a system that ISN”T THIS ONE.

    And if you can’t absorb that in your pretty little head, then get out of my way.

  156. Thank you all — most recently thank you Nathan, and Jake and Tim, and wordpress for making mine a top post of the day even though I know that’s all about numbers for you and has nothing to do with the literary quality of my post ;) and Alice and David. This is beginning to remind me of Romper Room. I’m sorry to those who don’t like my novel excerpt, but c’est la vie. And I’m still very very happy that 6,000 people cared enough about the state of the biz to stop by. Tomorrow or the next day I’ll post something else, that will offend no one, and will maybe make some people laugh. I hope.

    Good night, world. I’m off to read more of Sea of Poppies which combines literary excellence with commercial page-turning intrigue. Check it out.

    • Um, yeah. Those “6,000 people who cared enough about the state of the biz to stop by”?

      More than a few of them are repeat hits so we can see how the “discussion” is progressing in the comments. This post has been blogged, flogged, linked, Twittered, laughed at, snarked, held up as gospel, cheered, jeered, ranted and raved about. Of course you’re getting epic hits. Wasn’t that the point? Of course they’re not all from Twitter. As I said, this post has come up countless places, as you can see for yourself in the various comments above.

      Through all of the above, you’ve managed to smile and shine it on, accepting praise and criticism alike as though it’s just what you expected. (Just so you realize, that’s not a compliment.) And STILL you think you’re fooling us. That you “know better”. That you know best, know differently, know how it really is, and GOD if all of us stupid people would just WAKE UP and see what you were REALLY trying to say, since we all seem to have missed the point you keep trying and failing to make, the publishing world would be put in its’ proper place, by golly!

      You’ve been there, done that, seen it all, speak from experience, etc. Good for you.

      Now please turn that discerning eye of yours back on yourself and your writing and see the point we’re all trying to make.

      Nathan was kind enough to defend you against the detractors of your work, however I’m of the opinion that those above who consider your work “good” probably know you more as a person than a writer. It truly makes me wonder about their taste in what they read, but that’s just my opinion.

      After all, I write the “flimsy bits”. What would I know about good writing?

  157. The writing has been on the wall for a long time now: niche authors, and I include literary fiction in here along with genre writers like me, are not going to get a gig with an agent/publisher. It’s just not going to happen.

    I could rail about this, or I could get moving. I chose to get moving. I’m an “indie.” Jump up and down, call me deluded, call me a vanity writer, call me a dupe, whatever. It doesn’t really matter, because I believe in what I’m doing.

    I’m taking self-publishing very seriously. I have hired an artist for the cover, I have hired an editor who’s helping me with the rewrites, and I may hire someone to help me design the book block. I am trying to produce the best possible book I can.

    “But,” I hear you say, “you’ll never get back the money you’ve invested.” Well, actually, I haven’t invested much apart from my time. My readers–I’ve got somewhere around a thousand of them already, following the drafts of the books online–paid for my editor.


    I told them I needed $X thousand, and in less than a week of pre-sales on the book, I had $X thousand for my editor.

    These are not people I know in real life. They are not my friends or my family. These are people who found my work and like it enough to support me.

    A publisher can’t take a chance on a niche work like mine. I totally understand that. But I have faith that there are enough people out there who like what I do to support me–because they already are. I just have to keep reaching out and finding more of them. Considering that all my gal pals with book deals have to do that on their own dime anyway, I have little to lose but time.

    There has never been a better time to find your audience. Get out there and find them, however you can. For some people with more commercial books, that means NYC. For others, like me, it means going indie.

  158. Wow,

    First off, WAY TO GO COLLEEN!

    I just received my second rejection letter from KT Literary. Here’s the thing kids, SUCK IT UP!

    Sure, it sucks getting a rejection letter, but you have two options, bitch or get better! If you don’t like the system, don’t use it, keep complaining, see if that makes anyone sympathetic to your cause.

    You realize how many agents have torn you apart here? This isn’t a good-press-bad-press-its-all-press sorta thing. You are destroying the career you claim to want so desperately.

    TIM! Wow! For someone that doesn’t want to bang his head against the wall your surely dripping blood my friend.

    Remember one thing friends, when you meet someone who has what you want, pick their brains, don’t bash them in. Always,



    • “You realize how many agents have torn you apart here?”

      Ummm…. 4? And I think they had a vested self-interest. I am more impressed and convinced by what the editors had to say than the agents and their acolytes who are the ones who’ve been giving me most of the hassle here. And at least two of the agents were quite calm and polite about it all.

  159. Hi Mary.

    I think you have an interesting premise but I beg to differ that this is a recent phenomenon. I’m reading a book at the moment called New Grub Street which is a satire on the late 19th Century publishing industry in England. Its characters suffered all the same problems as today’s literary authors even without the interference of agents.

    My second quibble is that there are plenty of agents who, like plenty of publishers, actually care about the production of quality work. Not everyone is in it for a quick buck.


  160. I tell you this is a catch 22/ I am a publicist and I can’t imagine the amount of contacts that would be made to the publishing companies. Seems everybody has a great story they want published or written. There have been books that I read and I think wow, why isn’t this a best seller, and total opposite the ones I’ve read a few chapters or outlines, and I just wanted to say what were you thinking. That is a difficult topic.

  161. Mary – this is going to be long, I think, and this comment window sure is narrow. (Hmm. I think I need to enlarge my comment windows in my templates…)

    You said that you are not willing to accept failure, but that is not what I said. I said “cope” with failure. That is a lot different.

    Failure is not a personal indictment. It is just a mismatch between our expectations and reality. And coping means evaluating that mismatch correctly, and being able to work with it.

    I will try to say this without condescension. Nathan says that you are a good writer and I will take his word for it. But from this blog, I have the impression that you are not good enough. Yet. Your blog post is long and rambling, wanders all over the place. It’s not bad writing, but it is neither pithy nor flowing. Please, please – don’t take this as a put down.

    I am – and have been for a long time now – in the same place. I’m a good writer, and I say this with great conviction. I’m better than a lot of people. I’m better than a lot of people who publish and sell millions. I’m also worse than a lot of people, some of whom sell millions, and some of whom live in abject poverty but are worshiped by people in the know.

    During this weekend I was at a SF convention (the lit type, in case you wonder). And I went to a lot of “learning to write, learning to keep writing, are workshops any good” kind of panels (and was on one myself). And I kept hearing: “Everyone who’s been at a workshop, Clarion, Viable Paradise, your local writing group, you name it, has met somebody whose brilliance is staggering – and who is never heard from after the workshop.”

    And I thought, yeah, you don’t tell me. I was that person.

    You talk about agents? I had two big name editors take me out to lunch in NY and tell me “You are going home and writing a novel, yes? yes? Can we have it when it’s done?”

    But I never did. Partly it was because I knew in my bones that if I had it wouldn’t sell, that if it sold it wouldn’t fly off the shelves, if it did fly off the shelves the second novel would tank, and so on. Hey, I go to SF conventions. I’ve seen enough legends of the past, who revolutionized the field, who wrote works of stunning, bitter, obscure genius, John Brunner I’m looking at you now, sink into unpublishability simply because that’s the midlist and there’s f***-all anybody can do about it.

    But mostly I didn’t write the novel because I am just good enough to be past the easy stage. The easy stage is when you get to be a good writer. The hard part comes when you get from being a good writer to a good enough writer. And if you are naturally gifted, as you seem to be, that is actually a lot harder.

    When I was at Clarion West, I had people falling over themselves telling me how brilliant I was. Incandescent was what one said. I came back in a glow and started sending out stories.

    And none sold. (Ok, two of them actually did sell, but not to the big name magazines! and I didn’t win any awards!)

    And you know, it wasn’t because they were bad stories. It was because when everybody up to and including the editors rejecting your stories tell you you’re good, you know that there is something missing but it’s damn hard to know why.

    A couple of days ago I was at my writing group. I submitted a story that everybody loved apart from one woman. I listened to a long litany of complaints from her and I silently judged them very misguided, and I understood very early on that she hadn’t liked the story and was rationalizing why, and rationalizations are almost never a good guide to what’s really wrong with the story.

    But then I got home and, encouraged by the fact that everybody liked it, I went over the annotations from my group. And when I got to the copy this woman had given me I found out that her actually edits were dead on. I accepted all of her suggestions, and the story is a lot stronger for it. Because she hadn’t liked the story, she had been able to see all the little places where the language was weakening much better than the others who were too carried away with it.

    And the moral is – you can learn from everybody, including people you think just DON’T GET IT.

    You’ve published three books with a small press. That might have been, in hindsight, an obstacle. Because it gave you the idea that you are already THERE, and in my humble opinion, you’re not. So you are imputing to agents (and you would to editors if the agents weren’t there) the fact that you are not selling, when quite apart from the fact that plenty of people much better than you and me are not selling (some of them because their great work of art is sealed inside a brain that is shackled to an assembly line twelve hours a day), you are probably just not good enough yet.

    It’s very easy to mock you and point at you and accuse of you whining. I simply think that your anger and frustration and hurt are obstacles, not character flaws. And when I spoke about coping with failure, I wasn’t inviting you to give up. I was inviting you to overcome those obstacles.

    You might very well write the next masterpiece of English literature and not find a publisher for it, or even an agent. In fact, you are correct that it being a masterpiece is probably more hindrance than help in getting a contract and huge sales, otherwise what’shisname of the Da Vince Code would not exist. Publishing, as every published writer I know tells me, is a lottery. Yeah, verily, but first you have to buy the ticket.

    And the ticket is working with the system as it is, I’m afraid. And, look – you’re a freelance editor. That means you don’t get to read the slush. I did. One of the publishers I worked for did accept unsolicited manuscripts, which I got to read, and slag to my colleagues, and write reports on. And what I say is: thank God for agents. Because too much of the hard work that should be done promoting the authors that my publisher did print went instead into dealing with crazy old teachers sending us necrophilia, and I am not making this up.

    And the fact is – all the complaints that you voice about agents are, where agents are not there, directed at editors and publishers. Who do not read manuscripts. Or not read them quickly enough. Who bitch about manuscripts written in Monaco 9 on green paper (try reading that in a dark basement). Who mock people who send them poetry about unicorns when the publishing house specializes in gory thrillers. Who do not appreciate the brilliance of the manuscripts they get. Who send back form letters. Who have the gall, the GALL, to send back detailed encouraging letters praising the current manuscript and pointing out what stopped it from being saleable. (I learned the hard way that when you send back a scathing letter the author will thank you, when you send an encouraging one the author will write back a hateful response and take to review all of your books negatively on their site.)

    But reading slush was also an enormously enriching experience, and not only because it showed me how vastly better I was than the 90% of what came through the post.

    Come to think of it, translating, which was my day job for twenty years (English is not my mother language) was a teaching experience. Because I not only got to translate a few brilliant writers (Iain Banks) and learn from them, but because I translated my share of crap and it taught me… I would say humility, but that’s not it. It’s too much of a loaded concept. It taught me respect.

    After slogging through the slush, and despite laughing about some of the examples to my coworkers (NEVER to the author), I learned to respect people who finish a book and send it out. Even if it’s a bad book. Sometimes especially if it’s a bad book. They put in the work. They put as much effort and love into their books as Doris Lessing does with hers.

    And when I translated some of the crappiest, and most successful, authors on the planet, I began sneering but ended up respecting them too. Because they may have no clue about characterization and their plots may be laughable and their writing clunky – but I could see that they did something RIGHT. I could see why people would keep turning the pages in their books.

    Writers have two great enemies, and they aren’t agents or editors or the reading public. It’s their inner critic and their inner fan. The inner critic will tell you that all you write is crap and what is the point of it all anyway. The inner fan will tell you that you’re brilliant! brilliant! and any critic just doesn’t understand you!

    Some people have too much of the first one and sink into obscurity, sometimes dying with great masterpieces that they begged their friends to burn and that will become literary classics.

    Some people have too much of the second one and write the one bad book and spend the rest of their lives in a crusade to defeat the evil world that keeps them from the glory they deserve.

    You need both of them but you have to keep them balanced, and preferably sic them one onto the other so that they leave you the hell alone to get on with your writing. In this blog post, you have a smidgen too much of the second one. And that is a greater obstacle to becoming a great writer first, and a published writer second, than any agent in the world.

    • “Writers have two great enemies, and they aren’t agents or editors or the reading public. It’s their inner critic and their inner fan. The inner critic will tell you that all you write is crap and what is the point of it all anyway. The inner fan will tell you that you’re brilliant! brilliant! and any critic just doesn’t understand you!”

      Anna that’s the best thing I’ve read on this page. Well said.

    • Hi, Anna,

      I have read this through now. Some points you make are excellent. I have also been editor in chief at a publishing company, and read many many submissions. My experience there and in the hundreds of other manuscripts and excerpts by other writers that I have read over the years is that in almost every case there is something interesting in it, something of merit, something of value–and something I can learn.

  162. Wow, this is such an important issue. I had no idea as to the extent of it, but thank you for sharing this piece and giving people an opportunity to discuss the implications of profit-driven literature (as opposed to art-driven literature created by decent writers!). I certainly hope that aspiring writers are given a bit more respect. It takes a lot of work to write a story and it seems unfair that non-writers just sit back and ridicule those who have given it a go.

  163. I read the article and did find it… interesting. I realise that a lot of the letter was hyperbole. And reading on your comments I can see a point emerging that I thoroughly agree with.

    I am not a fan of most chick-lit, some of it is really really good, but not most of it but I accept it has a market. Today it has a bigger market than the material I read or write. Is it therefore entitled to more space on book-shelves in stores? Obviously. Is it entitled to more manuscripts on a publishers desk? Yes to that as well.

    I think a few people have commented that in the end of the day publishing is about selling books. And if the market wants “trashy vampire” books then thats what is published. The democracy of the market.

    This would not have been a problem one hundred years ago, but since then literacy has increased and the “unwashed masses” have decided that they want to read something they enjoy. It is a counter-weight to opening a cultural experience up to the world away from the elite. But that’s democracy. I for one agree with it. (Note unwashed masses is an ironic statement, I don’t want criticism for its use. )

    One question I do have. Maybe its just me but 60 agents. Thats not a lot is it? Have the days I have been out of the loop changed the system. Where are the stories of the best selling, and literary greats, such as Clive Barker, going through hundreds of agents?

    I am not fond of the publishing system for many reasons but I don’t to be fair blame the agents. The big bookshops are more harmful to writers then agents or publishers could be. Many big publishers as well don’t forget have done their stint as an agent.

    One problem with the system is the catch up nature. A certain book sells great so more of those books are produced to cash in on this vogue genre. The thing is where does the next new genre come from, because the shops stock what sells, the publishers sells what stocks and the agent finds what sells. Without new genres and book forms being produced the market and public don’t have the choice to be able to explore new things. In this way the market is decreasing all the time. As an economic system its not working.

    I think as well you are right literary material should continue and there is not a real place for it in the market. Joyce’s Ulysses would struggle if it was released today, it is not a page-turner. But it added to artistic growth and enriched authors and artists who in turn went on to produce fantastic works that the public did enjoy.

    So maybe the way forward is rather than flaming finding a new solution. Rather than damning the system finding an alternative for niche literature!


  164. Pingback: Literatura, negocio y agentes literarios: toda una discusión « Darabuc · literatura infantil e ilustración

  165. This post made me forget about my troubles as a struggling graphic designer and think about writers for a second. I am lucky in the sense that I pitch myself directly to advertising agencies, print shops, etc.
    I think it is HORRIBLE that writers have to submit a “query” for something they are so passionate about and limit themselves to so many words. I remember in high school I wrote a story that was entered into a Creative Writing contest. I had to reduce the current number of words (around 2000) to 600 words or less. I absolutely hated it, and it was actually this horrible point in my life when I realized that I did NOT want to be a writer. Reading this post made me glad that I made this choice.
    I was especially upset when I read number #84 on the “Query Shark”‘s blog. I felt that the story was very compelling, and the fact that the agent told the writer that vampires are no longer in style is complete BS! Vampires are timeless. Not to mention they are a huge hit with gamers!
    It’s no wonder why Hollywood is producing such crap movies nowadays. This post makes me wish I had the funds to start my own production house! I could use my graphic design skills to create book covers for authors too!

  166. The original text is too long and one-sided, in my (humble or not) opinion, but there’s great life in between the commentaries.

    I guess I do not write to be published, but out of curiosity, love, anguish. I mean, I’d surely like to make a living of it, that would be great. But what I most like is writing and therefore Lulu, Bubok, etc., are enough for me in thoses cases I think agents/editors are wrong in refusing my book.

    Best regards (from Spain, my apologies if my English is not as neat as it should be).

  167. I will be happy to read the rest of Anna’s comment when I get some time later today, but I have read the first ten or so paragraphs.

    I just want to point out that I did not write the accompanying essay (which I think is wonderfully written–it took me days. I worked very hard to make sure that every sentence reflected my thinking, did not slander anyone in particular, and made my points. I worked very hard on it, and I loved writing it, and I am proud of it, and it is exactly as long as it is supposed to be–so we’re off on the wrong foot there) to talk about my writing. I am listening to all of the feedback I am getting on my novel over on Authonomy, I am constantly learning, and my career is doing just fine given all the restrictions outlined in my essay. Please do not worry about that.

    The Talent Killers is what is known AN ESSAY (not a query letter. Not a news story. Not even the kind of blog post I traditionally write on my other sites. The “essay” is an old fashioned way of getting your opinion across using examples, citations from the literature, metaphor, exaggeration for effect, irony and several other literary forms that Dina has never heard of. It is a literary work all on its own) to get across a theory about a GROUP OF WRITERS who may or may NOT include me, at this stage of my career.

    That’s all I’m doing.

    I attached a link to my own writing for the benefit of those who cared to have a look — as an example: fully prepared to take the flak about it that I’ve taken. I don’t share the opinion of many on here who hate it, obviously. Clearly it still needs work — if I was not open to feedback, I would not be on Authonomy or talking about how much I need an editor. But THAT is irrelevant to THIS.

    I have had quite a bit of off the record feedback about this essay from other widely published writers of literary fiction (I do not apologize for using this term. It is the genre I am proud to write in) and I know I am not alone in my attitudes toward the agents and our PARTICULAR situation. Which does not (as several people here have cited as examples, include DEBUT fiction writers. Please refer back to my original essay.)

    Please notice that I am getting quite a bit of conflicting advice here (as one always does): Several people tell me people in my situation should “go to a literary publisher. Work your way up” which is what I thought I was doing 25 years ago. Others, including one agent here, have said, “You’ve already published. Didn’t make a go of it? You’ve had your chance. Good bye.”

    And therein lies the problem, dear reader.

    I thank you for your advice about my own writing and my motives, both of which I subject to minute and heartless examination on a regular basis using resources I respect, and from which I incorporate the feedback.

    I know I am not among the world’s greatest writers — yet. But have no mistake, it is my intention to become exactly that. And I will continue to encounter detractors even when that happens. And I will continue to “smile and shine it on, accepting praise and criticism alike as though it’s just what [I] expected.” And btw, that sounded like a compliment to me.

  168. Anna – great post.

    The fact is that the publishing business is a business. That fact governs what gets published and it is likely going to be what sells, for the most part, with room for great works of literature where possible. Yes, perhaps if the reading public were better educated, were exposed to more great literature in their youth, they would be choosing literary fiction to a greater degree when they buy a book instead of those dratted page turning crime thrillers or spicy romances of whimsical fantasy series that go on and on… But that isn’t our reality, it it? But yanno, I’ve read great literature (studied a bit of it in uni) and for some reason, I prefer a great mystery or thriller or work of suspense, or an epic fantasy work to great and deep lit fic. I wish I wasn’t so easily amused by the shiny but I am and so I recently bought yet another Le Carre espionage novel and the latest installment in GRRM’s work. I think both those writers are top drawer, BTW, and they sell big. But they write genre, not lit fic.

    I have a sad tale that is relevant to this discussion — my brother in law is one of those rare mortals who is born with a genius-level skill and ability in music. So much so that when he was 12, he went through 11 years of classical guitar theory and method in the space of one year. His teacher shook his head and said he couldn’t teach him anything else and that he should go to Julliard.

    But my dear brother in law just thought the whole Julliard thing and the world of professional music was just too rigid and wrong-headed and he wanted to do it his way, composing music without jumping all the hoops like music school or university, etc. So he never went any further, never went to school, etc. and maintained a disdain for the whole thing for the rest of his life. He never did get a recording contract, he never did make it big, and spent his time teaching music by the hour to make ends meet instead of composing and getting contracts to perform or make records. What a great loss! So much talent but squandered. No one wanted to buy his compositions or his CDs. What he wrote and performed was just not commercial and because he never jumped the hoops he never had a community behind him as he might have had if he studied at Julliard or some other music school.

    The moral of the story is that you can be a great writer in a technical sense or in the sense of being able to string words together to create sentences and paragraphs and pages and chapters and even whole novels, but if the novels you write are not seen to be commercial enough by those who buy them and have to sell them to the reading public, your talent will just be like my brother in law’s — invisible to everyone except his family.

    Even if you are massively talented as a writer, and you work your butt off writing novels, you may never sell a piece of work. And yes, someone with lesser talent but with a great idea or concept or hook might sell millions.

    I mean why do no talents sell millions of records when my brilliant brother in law, virtuoso, can’t? Talent is not enough.

    That’s the reality all of us face, talented and just good enough alike.

    You and Tim may rail against this reality, and go ahead — it makes for great theatre and is educational as well. But this whole thing reminds me of a line from the Bard about strutting and fretting, sound and fury and all that.

  169. Mary —

    All readers have their own ideas about what qualifies as literature.

    By implying that most literary agents and their clients are producing something less than literature you represent yourself as being more narrow-minded and judgmental than you’ve made us out to be.

    • Please see note about that below, where I attempt to clarify my thinking re: literary and genre writing.

  170. Amazing, this. Of course, in the arts perseverance will carry you further than talent (an old maxim, known to us all) but, increasingly, it is CONTACTS that present the only viable method of bypassing the entrenched “gate-keepers” and getting your work into the hands of someone in a position of authority. I’ve been a professional writer for nearly 25 years and in that time I’ve come across one decent, responsible, sympathetic agent and about four editors who meet that criteria. The internet and POD publishing, the world of indie writing have given me what I want (readers all over the world) and as a result I no longer submit work to publishers, agents and editors. It’s a dehumanizing and humiliating process and I can’t describe the peace of mind I’ve attained since leaving all that CRAP behind me. For further info on indie writing, check out the blog “Publishing Renaissance” and Pat Bertram’s site. There’s also this piece I wrote on the subject:

    • CLIFF! Yes! Thank you! I cannot tell you (I don’t HAVE to tell you!!!) what a burden has been lifted from my soul since I posted this essay! Now that I am no longer capable of getting an agent (because I have blacklisted myself) I am FREE of the humiliation and sense of lack of control over my own destiny that I have been experiencing for several years now, due to their rejections and rudenesses, which I will actually LIST at some point because I haven’t even really got into that yet.

      Deep sigh. Yes. Freedom from the tyranny of having to try to suck up to people who have done nothing much to earn their status. It’s great.

      I respect editors. I have learned in the past two days to respect a few more agents than I did last week. But I am free of having to play games with them and that is huge for me as a writer. Thank you for making this point.

      • “Freedom from the tyranny of having to try to suck up to people who have done nothing much to earn their status.”

        I don’t know why you have to demean people in order to build yourself up. I have worked for almost seven years in this business, and have been an agent for just three of that. The rest of the time I was slowly slaving away as an assistant for virtually zero salary and hoping for my shot. Then I spent untold hours networking, researching, learning the business, and most importantly, trying to find a few projects I could pick out and place in today’s market. Those seven years were “nothing”?

        I seriously don’t understand your need to demonize people, and especially agents. Go your separate way, self-publish your work, and I’ll be the first to congratulate you. You don’t have to work within the industry to reach readers.

        But why demonize an entire profession just because you don’t like the reality of today’s publishing world? I’m not even seeing any realistic, constructive suggestions on how to improve the business. All you’re doing is taking false, needless swipes.

  171. Mary,

    It’s true – and sad – that mid list writers are being axed. What many people are pointing out, however, is that it’s not the agents who vodoo-ed the mid list away. It’s economics.

    There is the world as you would like it to be, which is one where there was full access to open-armed editors, whose only goal in life is to connect those who take writing seriously with the public. Where three books are treated like a badge of honor.

    Believe it or not, we would all like that. Just as we would like all those manuscripts being written out there to be works of genius that the public will love.

    The reality is that publishing is a ruthless business with low margins, too many books and fewer readers every year. And yet writers persist in dealing with this world on the terms they would like, rather than on the terms of the business itself.

    If you were applying for a job, do you not think that applying on pretty pink paper would be a turn off to the recruiter? Maybe even cause for derision?

    If an agent (and me, too, though we’ve established that is meaningless…) has already warned you that putting those three books down on your query letter makes you look like a has-been, do you not think that perhaps there is some advice there worth considering? Rather than a sleazy call to besmirch your integrity?

    You have had some very harsh comments on this blog of yours and you have replied to them with admirable calm. The real pity of it is that you are obviously someone who cares about writing and literature, but you are attacking the wrong people and burning some potential bridges as you go.

    Now if you could write a post that attracts half as much attention on how we can get people to turn off their computers and read a book instead, that would be welcome.


    • Nicely said. I apologize for questioning your credentials earlier. I still don’t know what they are, but it doesn’t matter. You make good sense about almost everything, and obviously care about good literature too.

  172. I had noticed several people reference this blog post and curiosity got the better of me.

    Your world view is disturbing and highly indicative of meandrathalism. I am very sorry your manuscript got rejected. Having looked at your work. Meh, it is not my cup of tea.

    I am historian who reads by trade. I read, I translate I regurgitate. I have waded through rejections for abstracts (sort of like a query but usually smaller), grad schools (statements of intents) and the like. I even started out as an opera singer (talk about rejection letters).

    I read all day. I read on the weekend. Sometimes I read stuff in different languages. After I am done gorging myself upon secondary and primary sources, I grab a book from my beloved pile of fluff (why do I call it fluff, cause it gives my brain a rest and entertains it). I like my bubble gum chick lit, supernatural urban fantasy sort of stuff. Sorry. And I read a lot of it.

    This whole post just comes off as sour grapes. Many of us know rejection only too well. Recently there was a teaching post open at the local university. One post, three hundred applicants.

    Grad students like myself, for very little money, end up really educating the kids at university. Unless a student is blessed enough to go to a small university that does not have grad students. To pay my bills I have worked in an admissions office (I like to call it the land of NO) and retail (ever wonder how many donation requests a retail business gets in a week…I do not want to hear your fifteen minute long spiel, tell me what you want and give it to me quick).
    I can only imagine how many manuscripts and queries are being offered to agents and publishers. The business is about making money. Art is rarely about money. If you feel so passionately about your work then check out self publishers like Author Solutions.

    There are hoops and there are gatekeepers everywhere. Publishing is not the only business that has them.

    As a reader– cause let us be honest when I write it is nonfiction– I can appreciate the trials and tribulations that an author encounters when attempting to get their work published.

    Issuing a manifesto of sorts, however, simply because publishing trends do not favour your work just smacks of childishness and egocentrism.

    I take all of my rejections with pride and embrace them all as learning experiences.

  173. Mary,
    This has been an education for me.

    All the bitterness these people have poured out, for an essay, just amazes me.

    What ever happened to freedom of speech?

    I admire you for being so calm about it.

    Only one person has offered a solution. I’m going to look into his publishing company. I don’t want to have anything to do with this crew.

    See you on Authonomy!

  174. “What ever happened to freedom of speech?”

    The commenters are exercising theirs, just as the poster exercised hers. Or do you think that the concept of free speech only covers some people and not others, and doesn’t include the right to speak your mind about what others say?

  175. It’s a good thing you didn’t propose that agents would make a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, boiled, or served in a fricassee or a ragout!

  176. Pingback: Link dump - because I can! « Natasha Hoar - adventures in paranormal romance writing

  177. Hmmm very valid points regarding interns reading work (Making the work two times removed from the publisher.) Also query letters do appear to be demeaning due to the fact that it isn’t even the written word being offered, but a cover letter ABOUT the written word.
    That would be like going to a talent agent in order to GET an audition for a play, then you’re shuffled over to an assistant only to be told you must ‘describe’ your singing to the assistant rather than merely sing a few notes. See the issue here?
    Also the line about how writers must give a marketability letter is ridiculous given the fact that as mentioned above, that is supposedly the agent’s job.
    However, I do have one critique which is this, that not all literary agents are necessarily evil in and of themselves, rather it’s their industry which needs an overhaul to produce better products, while giving the reading audience what they’re demanding. It’s a tall order, but agents have to hustle to make that money just like the rest of us.
    In addition it is important to note that agents should be just a ‘teensy’ bit nicer to the writers submitting. We are not junkyard dogs. I know you all get a bunch of garbage for being the liver of this dysfunctional set of publishing industry organs, but responding with equal venom isn’t going to solve the failings within the agent community. Only constructive communication rather than this childish sniping.

    I know I’m going to be blasted for saying anything at all. I usually am on blogger, esp. on a certain agent’s site, but I needed to speak up.


    • Thank you. I agree that I exaggerated for effect — but I am happy to see your embellishments of several of my points because you have improved on them.

  178. That’s the job of the agent Ms. Logan. That’s what that lovely ‘percentage’ is for. “Marketable” is a loaded buzz word used to intimidate would be writers. It is the agent’s job (or small publisher) to analyze the work by actually READING part of it. Otherwise it’s just an ‘estimation’ of a book’s marketability based on a 200 word cover letter. Some writers happen to be fiction writers, but not techinical writers. (*Note there is quite a difference, it is akin to driving a tank versus a FORTWO…. but I digress.) Agents will use your cover letter to send to publishers otherwise. They’ll become a glorified FED EX delivery person, manuscript in tow, going from one publisher to the next using the writer’s marketing plan.
    They are the gatekeepers to push your book on publishers, so they NEED to be able to be a technical writer, while the novelist does not. Why would the novelist be doing the combined job of the agent and the publicist? (*who in an ideal world ought to work in tandem with the agent) The agent needs to be able to interpret the writing they are given and MAKE the marketing plan. What kind of book is this? Who does it appeal to? What publisher would like to take a gander at this?

    Sometimes the writer doesn’t even know the book’s marketability, they know the plot, the theme, the characters, but maybe not the genre. Perhaps it might even fit more than one genre for example. This is why that agent comes along and makes the work the best it can be to submit to publishers. (*In an ideal world…*) Because they’re supposedly the ‘experts.’ If they ‘can’t’ market books then they’re in the wrong profession. Plain and simple.


    PS- It’s ridiculous when a children’s writer submits a cover letter that is longer than the picture book being marketed, because the formula is so archaic. Simply moronic.

    There needs to be a change in format for agents submissions. They will see fewer complaints and perhaps have better relationships with their clients AND those pesky writers in the slush pile who keep them gainfully employed.

  179. Anyone who thinks “genre writing” is automatically “less than art” hasn’t read Raymond Chandler or, of recent vintage, Ken Bruen.

    And being engaging in the first five pages is not a sin. Thing is, different people are engaged by different things.

    If the first page of a book doesn’t do it for me, I’m apt not to take it out from the library. When I’ve tried things raved about as “literary,” my rantings are worse than anything anyone could accuse Mary of:

    And I’m not exactly alone in that view, either:

  180. Richard — LOL — I did think of that when I saw all the people who’d come to look. We need to revive the essay. I’m about to post another one. I doubt it will get the readership, but I hope it will make my fellow writers laugh.

    NOTE TO GENRE WRITERS: I am not putting down GOOD writing in any genre!!! All fiction is genre fiction. I am only despairing about BAD writing (unimaginative, poorly written, no revision, no editing, inconsistencies, flat, uninteresting, boring, repetitive, derivative) that is being published. As I just said over on Authonomy to a romance writer I’d insulted, every good book in the world is a romance of some sort. Sea of Poppies is a historical romance. The Road is speculative fiction. Jane Austen is a romance writer. I write romance, comedy, ghost stories, science fiction, non fiction. I am objecting only to crap. People who take writing seriously in WHATEVER genre (including graphic novels in some cases) are doing all I expect from myself or anyone.

    Bram Stoker and Anne Rice write the kind of vampire fiction I WANT to read. Stephanie Mayer and her imitators do not. That’s all.

    My apologies for not being clear about that.

  181. P.S. Forgot I had the “approve comments from new users” thingy on. Apologies to those whose comments were inadvertently held back. They’re out there now!

  182. The question here revolves around the question of ,”What is reality?” The solution is to find out what the reality of the situation is and then to do whatever reality demands.

    Agents are much closer to understanding the reality of the market than are most writers. Call me crazy but I actually like to do research on agents and give them submissions tailored as much as possible on their needs, as I am able to figure out those needs. Yes, agents do like to be courted, but they deserve a little T.L.C. Dealing with the public is hard, especially when writer’s egos are involved.

    If a agent wanted a query on pizza box, I’d write and ask, do you want anchovies with that? How about double cheese? AND, I’d deliver.

    Yes, agents want a writer who delivers!

    What is also happening is we are letting the angst that we are all feeling because of the questionable monetary position we are all in to get under our skin. Personally, I was raised by wolves and am a former feral Catholic school kid, so I am used to pain, terror, jackbooted people in black, and damnation. Agents don’t upset me in the least. To agents I offer, devotion, obedience and unrestrained approval, and pizza.

    Relax, guys.

    • Now there’s a plan.

      On a related point, my new concern is that there are obviously some agents that editors respect and look forward to seeing, and some who are pariahs themselves. How the hell do writers know which ones are which?

      Also do you need any training or credentials to become a literary agent? Why don’t I just SAY I am a literary agent and go present my own book to Knopf??

      Maybe someone will come by and answer these questions. I should have asked them yesterday.

      • Of course there would never be such a public #agentfail because a group of editors would never (seriously) consider conducting such an exercise.

        Also of course I could not be happier with my own wonderful agent, which almost goes without saying.

  183. Would like to give a particular shout-out to David A. Rozansky at Flying Pen Press. I have just had time to read his response closely, and what he says makes sense and has changed my thinking. Thank you.

    Thanks also to Benjamin LeRoy for coming out in defense of the agents.

  184. Also do you need any training or credentials to become a literary agent? Why don’t I just SAY I am a literary agent and go present my own book to Knopf??

    That’s worked sometimes. However:

    a. agents are in the relationship business. Do you know which agents at Knopf may be looking for your sort of book? (Clearly not, as you know nothing about publishing either as a business or a cultural phenomenon.)

    b. Agents also do things like negotiate contracts and subrights and work with agents overseas for translation rights. (See above parenthetical comment for how little you know about any of that stuff.)

    I realize that like many academics, you are a credentialist, but in fact the real world is full of people who have skills that do not require specific “training or credentials” other than experience and charisma. You lack both of these.

    • I’m not an academic.

      I am a former editor in chief at a publishing company (among many other writing- and publishing-related jobs I’ve had over the years). I know writing contracts inside out. I know book production budgets. I know how to promote books, how to market and distribute them, and how to write the jacket copy. I know how to pick them, too — a couple I found in the slushpile went on to win awards. I have edited books freelance for years and made the authors AND the publishers very happy.

      I have written a book about grant-writing for academics because that is also a part of my background. I work with academics all the time — which is huge fun because I learn so much about a kazillion different areas of scholarship and research. But I am not an academic myself. I only help them write things. Just thought I should clarify that.

  185. Nathan, I don’t know how many times you want me to say that you are obviously highly regarded, kind and generous. What I don’t understand is why you go on defending the colleagues in your business who have demoralized writers. Can’t you accept that there are more of them than there are of you — that you are an exception? Why are you defending people who have been rude, dismissive and ignorant to many of us. I have a letter that I sent to an agent who did not accept emails. My carefully drafted query letter came back with nothing on it except a scrawled note right over the text of the letter that said, “Not our kind of stuff.” No signature. No nothing.

    I have studied agents carefully to determine their interests, drafted individual letters to them (having learned from agents blogs how much they HATE feeling like one of many) — it usually takes me an hour to prepare an individual query submission. Sometimes I get a response back so fast I am sure that the letter wasn’t even read, and sometimes I get nothing. Nothing nothing. Zero. Most often I get a form response.

    I have had agents request a partial and ask me not to send to anyone else while they were considering it. I have politely followed up after several weeks had passed. I have had to ask repeatedly for a response. In one case, when I had waited for an unreasonably long time (trust me) I got a reply back from the agent that had inadvertently been added to the person who had forwarded it to her. That other person had written “Sheesh” or something to that effect as a comment following my polite request for information after at least a month of waiting and not sending elsewhere. All I had asked was whether perhaps I should consider no answer meant that I could submit to someone else.

    I have had agents berate me for not enclosing an SASE when I did enclose one.

    I could go on and probably will. But the upshot is that for reasons that had nothing to do with m writing, the attempts to find an agent have made me feel mostly like a piece of shit.

    • I appreciate that you think I’m an exception and would love to agree with you, but the truth is that I’m not. It’s the unprofessional, rude agents who are the outliers. This business is like any other: most people are great, there are a few rotten apples, and everyone, for the most part, is just trying to do the best they can.

      Now, if you are going to judge agents solely on the basis of how they respond to unsolicited queries….. as I’ve said repeatedly, yes, I respond to everyone because I’m actively trying to build my list. But agents only are responsible to their clients. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect, but it’s simply not realistic to expect that all agents are going to treat every single person who approaches them with deference. Writing a manuscript does not entitle anyone to an agent’s time. And of course, if you did have an agent you would hope they were thinking of ways to sell your work rather than spending hours a day carefully responding to every single person who approaches them.

      What I suspect you know is the truth is that you have grown frustrated with the search for finding an agent, and rather than accept that it’s a frustrating system on all sides, you’re lashing out and finding an easy target to blame. That’s fine, and I hope it’s making you feel better. But the reason I’m even still here is that I’m concerned about the rising level of anger about agents in a period when people are feeling desperate in general, and I don’t feel like countenancing it anymore. Not only is it not productive, frankly it kind of freaks me out. I’m just not going to validate these falsehoods.

  186. “Also query letters do appear to be demeaning due to the fact that it isn’t even the written word being offered, but a cover letter ABOUT the written word.

    That would be like going to a talent agent in order to GET an audition for a play, then you’re shuffled over to an assistant only to be told you must ‘describe’ your singing to the assistant rather than merely sing a few notes. See the issue here?”

    Err, except query letters are WRITTEN using… the written word. So in fact, it would be like asking a singer to describe their singing using their singing voice. Which would be kinda cool…

  187. I am a former editor in chief at a publishing company (among many other writing- and publishing-related jobs I’ve had over the years). I know writing contracts inside out. I know book production budgets. I know how to promote books, how to market and distribute them, and how to write the jacket copy. I know how to pick them, too — a couple I found in the slushpile went on to win awards. I have edited books freelance for years and made the authors AND the publishers very happy.

    Is there any particular reason to believe a word you say? You already backpedaled on some very specific claims.

    At WHICH publishing company were you editor-in-chief? IF you know how to distribute, promote, and market books, why complain about “pitches” (which isn’t all that different than writing jacket copy), and why didn’t you use your own skills on your own books? As you CLAIM to know about contracts, why are you spreading absolute LIES about advances and who gets them?

  188. Nathan, yes, I am discouraged and bitter. But it’s the experience I have had that has led me to my conclusions. I honestly believe what I have written in my essay, and I tried to put my personal bitterness aside when I wrote it.

    You obviously feel threatened. I am sorry about that.

    If agents can’t take the time to respond individually to each of us, they should not dismiss us solely on the basis of our having sent them a form query letter about our books.

    I am really surprised at the general nastiness here this evening, and I’m just going to close the comments down. I’m sorry. I thought we were having an intelligent discussion about the industry, but it’s gone seriously downhill. I’ll leave this essay up for people who are not the kindly types like Nathan Bransford (and a few others who posted here and are well regarded in the industry) to think about over time–and for the information of my fellow writers.

    The agent who has sent me a good deal of traffic from her website by posting this link, and who has, by the way, been complimented twice at least on this thread, is the one who first clued me in to the fact that maybe agents aren’t all nice people and maybe my book is not inherently lousy. I ran into her on Twitter soon after I joined it last fall. I wanted to become part of any community of writers who were over there, and I thought I’d check out which agents were on as well. She was one. I followed her. Her nastiness toward writers who were querying her in general and publishers as well was quite clear. Her tweets were full of complaints and bitter invective to the point where I stopped following her because she was just plain nasty. She had a shark as her avatar. This was long before queryfail. I started looking at agents blogs and websites and found more of the same thing — plus they all wanted different things which meant there was no way to save time by multiple submitting as I had recently started doing. Yet again, each query became a huge build-up of hope followed by a rejection. When I realized these rejections were coming from that kind of shark mind I had seen on Twitter, I started developing theories which i have set out here.

    And which, unfortunately, nothing much I have seen here with a few exceptions have changed my thinking on. I was particularly interested in the comments from the publishers that appear above.

    However, good bye to commenters on this thread. I’m getting back to my life. I wish you all the very best.

    • Well, it could be that you know you painted with too broad a brush and the ground has shifted beneath you as people have pointed out the error in your arguments, and you’ve yet to admit that.

      Or it could be indigestion.

  189. Good night, Nathan. You are losing my respect as well, which is too bad because I had started believing you for a while there.

    It’s not you, though, who made me feel sick. It was that other guy.

  190. I’m being pummeled from the fallout from stating a positive opinion on this blog discussion on another blog, which had a negative opinion (*and ZERO counter balance. At least here there’s a range of ideas…not there.*)

    Found here:

    When did genuine, spirited debate turn into hate filled garbage? Given that comments are monitored I can’t comment back so I’m doing the second best thing I can: started a blog topic on my own:

    Am I being treated unfairly or is it as these detractors say or am I ‘just complaining’ that people are taking shots at my personal integrity, work ethic and work product?

    You decide.

    • Check out Christian’s blog post on this topic. Excellent points — the one about the agents’ percentages was one I’d missed, and it’s IMPORTANT. Thanks again.

      • I had comments turned off here for a while. That may be what Christian meant. Not sure. But they’re back on now.

  191. Jeeze, talk about sour grapes. Not a singe word of your long and tedious post is remotely true. Not out in the real world. I suspect you’ve been rejected quite a bit, and that’s sad, but agents do not reject good writing or talented writers. They just do not.

    Nor do they want cookie cutter fiction. I’ve read many a slush pile, both for agents and editors, and nothing stands out like talent. Nothing is jumped on like talent. Nothing is as precious or as in demand as talent and good writing. Unfortunately, there’s darned little talent, darned little good writing, out there.

    Your comments about The Road and Confederacy of Dunces confirm that the problem isn’t with agents, it’s with you. If you can’t write three hundred words about either of these novels that will make an agent ask to see the manuscript, you can’t write a manuscript that’s worthy of being seen.

    And there’s so much more to the query process that a simple little synopsis, but you seem completely unaware of anything except your onw vitriol.

    Stop whining, stop spouting such silliness, and learn how to write.

  192. One part of this that I believe only a novelist can really understand is the query. I’d go so far as to say that if writing a query is not painful & enraging for a novelist, there’s something wrong with him/her. An agent can sympathize with this reductio ad excruciatium, but can never fully understand.

    • I love serendipity! Richard, your comment ended up in exactly the right place, even though the previous comment wasn’t posted when you responded. Thx. You said it perfectly.

    • Actually, Richard, we spend a whole lot of time writing pitch letters and trying to make our client’s work sound great in a few words.

      If there’s anything about the writing process agents CAN understand it’s the challenges of writing a query. Or in our case, pitch letters. They’re extremely similar.

      • Sorry, Nathan, but I find it impossible to believe that an agent, however much in love with a ms, is going to have to squeeze through the same psychic/emotional eye of the needle in crafting a pitch to an editor that the writer goes through in crafting the query/synopsis to the agent. The agent has been attached to the ms for a few weeks or months; the writer has given birth over (in my case anyway) years. It’s the difference between being a parent and being a boy friend or girl friend. I understand that the query process is necessary, and I went through it with eyes wide open, and found a wonderful agent I am grateful to have. Still, for me, the boiling down of the mysterious and monstrous baby that is a novel to a crisp page or so is an insult to the heart of the creative adventure. It simply is. Having said that, I understand that you believe that you understand.

      • I was just thinking that agents do understand the process because they have to do it all the time to try to sell a novel. The novel itself may not be as close to their heart as it is to a writer, but come on — it’s a skill that is necessary to be part of the publishing world. I would think it would be far more productive to acquire that skill through hard work and research rather than complaining about it. You aren’t going to get around it, so the logical thing to do is learn, practice, master. I mean, we all have to learn how to submit manuscrips, how to format them, how to write the novel, write a chapter, paragraph, sentence. Querying is just one more skill in the tool box.

        I am so thankful to agents who help writers out by posting examples on their websites and blogs and who take the time to help us learn. Nathan is one such agent and so thanks so much Nathan.

  193. I’ve been a writer all my life, a full-time writer for over a decade now. In the last six years I have sold seven books, in thirteen languages. How? Because I had an agent who believed in me.

    Did I get rejected before? For sure. Do I still get rejections now? Absolutely. Do I blame the industry of which I so much want to be a part of for this? To some extent, perhaps – because there IS a sense of chasing the almighty dollar to the exclusion of all else, especially since the plethora of publishers who once plied their trade has shrunk, through consolidations and corporate realignment, to only a handful of the Big Boys. But what I want – what I have ALWAYS WANTED – is a writing career. And for that I need to have other people agree with me that my work is worth publishing and reading. Publishing my own novels has never even been considered – I am not qualified to be the only judge of what I write.

    If agents are such damned bad news, how come they are still inundated by droves of writers begging for representation? If everyone who ever sets pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – is an unsung damned genius, how come the slush piles on editors’ desks are so filled with absolute and total garbage which their authors believe to be the best thing since sliced bread? The point here is that EVERYONE is a gatekeeper when they are standing between you and the prize. The point is that you have to get past the gatekeepers because you – by some criterion – deserve to be inside the gate, not because you yourself believe that you ought to be there and that anyone who is standing in your way is doing so with malicious intent to prevent you from achieving your greatness.

    I’ve said it before and I will say it again. Publication is not a right. It is a privilege. You may have to work for it. Writing your novel is only the first step.

    You may think, believe, and do what you wish – that is your prerogative. But for six years my agent has been my best friend, and I have had a level of success which I could not have dreamed of if she had not been on my side. Take that in whatever manner you will – but that is ALSO the truth, from someone who got rejected mroe than once by publishers and by agents and who persevered in order to achieve a dream. Skipping a step doesn’t make you achieve that dream faster. It only makes you achieve a different dream. Being published and merely having your work printed in a manner that resembles a book-shaped object (because you, and you alone, seem to think that it deserves to be) are two very different things. I know what I want for myself.

    For our fifth anniversary, I sent my agent flowers to say thank you for believing in me and for changing my life. I know that there are people out there who have helped me on the way, and they deserve my appreciation and gratitude. Did I also send packages of last week’s garbage to all those other agents who have rejected me, just to show them what I think of them? No, and nor will I.

    I do wish you well. But lashing out at others when they don’t do exactly what you want them to do and facilitate your ascent to the top of the writerly equivalent of Everest just because you show up at base camp with a climbing rope and a set of pitons – that helps nobody at all. You need faith to climb that mountain – but you DO need to do it yourself, without being handed up by sherpa porters all the way, and trust me, there is no golden pavillion at the top awaiting your arrival with a spread of ambrosia and a heavenly banquet.

    What you climb up there for is the view.

    And the realisation that you have only climbed ONE mountain. And that all around you… lie a whole lot of other peaks to be scaled.

    If I fail, *I* fail. It isn’t an agent’s fault. It isn’t an editor’s fault. It isn’t the fault of an entire industry. And it helps absolutely nobody for you to imply that.

  194. Your either/or mentality is flawed. Agents want good writing; genre or literary. And any writer who attacks a genre or sub-genre is wasting precious energy that could have been spent doing something much more important-writing what they want to read.

    Life is too short.

  195. Interesting premise for an article.
    Accurate? No, not necessarily. Not completely wrong, either.

    Here’s the thing. It’s different for every writer.

    I’ve sold 17 novels that have already seen or will soon see print to both small presses and large. I’ve also sold three additional young adult novels.
    To date, only two of those have been agented.
    Those two would not have sold without an agent that knows the YA market. How do I know? I tried. He opened doors that I could not manage to open on my own.
    Perhaps I could have, given the time, but for me it’s worth paying the agent to save me that time. Time I need for writing. Time I can put to use far more efficiently if I have someone who is willing to do a great deal of the “leg work” for me.
    Agents are not evil. Well, okay, not all of them. Not even most of them. There are a few bad eggs, of course, but the same can be said of writers and editors, too.

    Agents serve a purpose. They expedite matters for writers and editors alike.

    For writers, they save that leg work I mentioned earlier.

    For editors, well, the simple fact of the matter is, they often work as a way of seperating the wheat from the chaff. That may sound harsh, but that’s what it comes down to.

    One agent I know (We parted company, but amicalbly enough after she managed no sales for me that I had not actually made on my own) told me she receives 30,000 manuscripts a year. She does. Not the publishers, just her. The vast majority or them are unsolicited.

    I suspect you can increase that a great deal for the average editor.

    The editors know that, while they may not buy it, the manuscripts that agents they know and respect send them are going to at least be in the right ball park for submissions. That means they don’t necessarily get buried in the slush pile.

    My agent sold my YA series proposal in two weeks where I had failed for over six months. Believe me, he earned the money he’s making off of the novels in this case.

    Just food for thought.

    Thanks for the article.

    James A. Moore

  196. It’s probably a little uncouth to talk about, but Toole didn’t successfully write a 300 word description of Confederacy of Dunces. He didn’t successfully sell the book in his life. Maybe he could have used an agent?

  197. Mary,

    I know you want to change the system, but I am not sure if there is one that will really work the way we writers want it to.

    I feel your frustration. I just want to link you to this awesome blog for encouragement.

    If we never stop working hard to perfect our craft, if we believe in ourselves and the stories we write, I believe that we will find our audiences.

    Best luck to you,


  198. This is ridiculous and insulting. You’ve managed to trash hard-working agents, hard-working genre writers, and creative writing students all in one go.

    When I was an I actually encouraged my clients to call me up when they got discouraged. I believed in their books and told everyone about them. And I had to stop for financial reasons, because there just wasn’t enough money in it to feed my family. And I represented both genre fiction and literary fiction.

    Let me give you a quote from my old boss Lori Perkins about making it as an agent, one of the most respected agents in the business, and one of the most giving and generous people I’ve ever met.

    “You’ll work 16-hour days for two years and the third year you’ll start to see a profit.”

    You think agents do this for the money?

    You are living in a fantasy world that would put more science fiction writers to shame.

  199. Ya know, seeing as how I know pretty much nuffink about book contracts, or contract law, or the different sorts of rights I can sell, I’d really like somebody other than me to be my advocate. The publisher and editor are trying to make money–they aren’t my advocate. They (publisher/editor) might be the book’s advocate, just possibly, but certainly not mine. And frankly, the more money an agent can get them to sink into the book from the start, the more likely they are to promote it.

    Having an agent just makes sense from the practical side of things. Since a lot of folks still maintain day jobs, they need all the time for writing they can get. Having an agent take care of the grunt work of getting publishers to look at things, pursuing royalty cheques, and shopping rights gives a writer more time to, you know, write.

  200. I tend to find that if one novel is attracting no attention from agents (provided you have queried widely), that it is time to write a new novel.

  201. Pingback: Eileen Cook » Blog Archive » A word on publishing…

  202. Some of the gripes in this thread are amusing and ironic, considering the subject. Some who accuse Walters of broad-brushing need to put their glasses on and read again.

    She specifically presents a positive example in Amanda Urban, demonstrating to anyone who reads carefully that she’s not stereotyping or “trashing” whole categories of people … except perhaps in the title. (Anyone who thinks it possible to present a well-balanced argument in a single headline should try working in journalism for a while.)

    I may not agree with all of Walters’ points, but some things are clear. I don’t care if this is offensive to hack writers: cookie-cutter genre gunk is as destructive to literature as junk food and candy are destructive to health. I believe writing can be both literary and genre, but there is still a difference between masterful writing and gimicky crap, and most of what is on the genre shelves falls into the latter category.

    The fact that this junk sells proves nothing. Meth sells, too, but it still rots your body and mind. Oddly enough, drug dealers also justify their business by appealing to the demand. Call me an “elitist” but I’ll take the literary equivalent of a well-balanced meal with a full range of nutrients over the formulaic thrill of crank any day.

    Moreover, arguments that rely on the premise that profit motive is the only possible form of self-interest that can drive the free market are either psychologically simplistic or dishonest. Funktionslust, hobby-zeal, and moral satisfaction are all forms of self-interest adequate to drive competition, and they are more likely to result in optimal quality and prices than mere money-grubbing. Market success only requires attention to the bottom line, not single-minded devotion to it.

    And, the notion that the alternative to profiteering for middle-class professionals is familial starvation and homelessness is mere status prejudice. When one’s yearly income drops below the median ($25K for individuals in 2005) one can cry about paying the rent. Agents and editors who love their neighborhood more than they love literature should find another line of work.

    Or wake up, take your calling seriously, and reprioritize.

  203. NOTE: I AM OUT OF TOWN for over a week and I will be checking and approving comments less frequently — it may take up to 12 hours, but probably much less, and I WILL post them as promptly as I can (unless they are nothing but promotions for your own book and/or sound more than borderline insane). Thank you all for your ongoing interest. (FYI — this post has had 8560 hits since last Thursday.)

  204. Oh, yeah, if it weren’t for agents you’d have been published in a shot! I mean, agents have to sell books that make money, unlike editors who… oh, wait a minute, don’t editors work for publishing houses which are supposed to be profit-making enterprises?

    I’m sorry you’ve had so much difficulty finding an agent.

    I’m sorry you sneer at fiction and genres that people actually like to read (ironic, given that despite your literary pretensions up front, your main argument seems to be that “lots of people have read and love my book!”).

    I’m sorry, most of all, that you don’t understand that writing a novel does not give you an automatic right to having that novel published in a blaze of publicity.

    If you really have faith in your work, then, as already suggested: self-publish.

  205. I don’t care if this is offensive to hack writers: cookie-cutter genre gunk is as destructive to literature as junk food and candy are destructive to health. I believe writing can be both literary and genre, but there is still a difference between masterful writing and gimicky crap, and most of what is on the genre shelves falls into the latter category.

    I don’t care if this is offensive to hack writers: cookie-cutter psychological “realism” wanking is as destructive to literature as junk food and candy are destructive to health. I believe writing can be both literary and genre, but there is still a difference between the ability to go beyond one’s own personal experiences using language and dramatic technique and self-obssessed petit bourgeois crap, and most of what is on the literary shelves falls into the latter category.

    Hey, this sort of stupid generalization is easy! No wonder people are so fond of it.

  206. To Mary, and to whatever writers there may be who read this post and feel that she’s speaking on their behalf: You must know that there are an endless procession of writers out there–literally millions of us–and that nearly all of us want someone to publish our books. We’ve all slaved for uncounted hours on our manuscripts and have written our hearts out because we believe in our stories.

    But there aren’t readers–or publishers–for the vast majority of those books. It’s an extremely competitive process, which is painful because the competition is between artistic works that are built on imagination and honest feeling and hard work. Someone has to choose which books to publish, and the people making the final decisions can’t be the same ones to read through all those uncountable manuscripts because there are just too freakin’ many of them. If I want my book to sell, I need to write something that any fool can see is a terrific book–and even then I may have to go through a variety of agents before I find the one who knows how to sell my book to a publisher, and that agent may have to go through a variety of publishers to find the one who knows how to get it to the right readers.

    It’s painful and sometimes feels unfair to have these kinds of gatekeepers between us and publication, but honestly, what would you have? The senior editors at the various publishing houses reading slush? They’re already spending massive amounts of their free time reading just the works that are passed on to them by other gatekeepers. Not only are they entitled to lives, but it would be humanly impossible for them to read so many books.

    Writing novels is about as reliable a way to become successful as becoming an actor or an artist. There are many, many people who want to do it and only a limited need for material. The only way to rise out of that is to take all responsibility on yourself, keep writing successively better books, and be willing to jump through the hoops. There has to be some kind of filter, and although we might not like being filtered, if we persist and apply ourselves, we can become exceptional at what we do and make it through. If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell, you probably know that becoming world-class, in rough numbers, takes about 10,000 hours of work. The only way forward, apart from understanding basic querying skills, is to sit down and get better by writing some more.

  207. If it’s not “Literary” fiction as defined by the Ivory Tower(TM) then it’s drivel. I guess that makes Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Ellison, and Sturgeon hacks.

  208. Mary,
    I know not of what I write about but that hasn’t stopped me yet. To use the definitions of Mickey Spillane, I am an author, but not a writer. Meaning that I have written some, edited more, and have sold nothing. But it seems to me, that a literary agent’s job is to help the publishing houses sell books. It is not to find the mythical “next Great American Novel”. If what they are pitching, and what the publishers are printing is selling, then it is mission accomplished.

  209. Mary,

    I think you’re off the mark by quite a bit here. I sent my first novel out to about 60 agents and only had three requests to see it. I was frustrated too, until I realized they couldn’t be rejecting my book; they had never seen it. They were rejecting my query letter. So I rewrote my query to make it leaner and tighter and what do you know, I got a dozen requests to see the MS out of about 30 agents I sent it to (some of them the same people who rejected me sight-unseen the first time). If your novel is getting rejected, that’s one thing, but if they’re not even asking for the novel the problem is your query letter.

    In the mean time, ease up on this agents-are-evil conspiracy-theory stuff. It’s is only spreading mis-information to people who don’t know better, and making you sound rather petty to people who do.

  210. “I may not agree with all of Walters’ points, but some things are clear. I don’t care if this is offensive to hack writers: cookie-cutter genre gunk is as destructive to literature as junk food and candy are destructive to health. I believe writing can be both literary and genre, but there is still a difference between masterful writing and gimicky crap, and most of what is on the genre shelves falls into the latter category.”

    I’ve heard a lot of people make these comments (I am one of those creative writing students, pursuing a Master’s) and as much as you might qualify it by saying, “There is good genre out there” you are really not representing any realistic opinion about genre fiction. Probably because you don’t read it.

    Genre fiction does something different than lit-fic. Not better, not worse, just different. Science fiction presents new and stimulating ideas that affect the lives of interesting characters. Fantasy revives epic mythology to create a romantic lost world, as does historical fiction with the myths of history. Mysteries create mind games that stimulate the reader and keep them guessing.

    And the genre of “literary fiction”–make no mistake, it is just a genre like anything else, with just as many hacks, and is not any better or worse. It exists to plumb the depths of modern life, experiments with language, and explores the heart and soul of multifaceted characters.

    And just as much literary fiction gets it wrong.

    Have you read Everything is Illuminated? Can you seriously tell me that, despite brilliant passages, half of the book wasn’t literary masturbation? If you can, then you’re as blind as someone who would defend Robert Jordan’s later work. In the same vein, Chuck Palahniuk is a literary writer who gets it right most of the time by holding onto his quirky style and practicing a minimalism Jonathon Safran Foer didn’t master in his first book.

    Go read the Pushcart Prize anthology. There is brilliant work in there, but there is work that falls back on the same old tropes of the literary genre: the anti-epiphany at the end and the onslaught of metaphors to the point of making them useless.

    Those who would keep this archaic idea that lit-fic is not a genre are dinosaurs, and this discussion is a futile cry by elitists..

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  212. “I think it is HORRIBLE that writers have to submit a “query” for something they are so passionate about and limit themselves to so many words.”

    It’s not horrible at all. The query process is the same thing that happens in a bookstore. Someone in a bookstore picks up a book, reads the blurb on the back, and if it is interesting, they read the first few pages, and if it is still interesting, they buy it.

    Agents read the query blurb, read the first few chapters, and then read the whole thing if they like it. Then they decide whether to represent it, or “buy” it.

    Nathan, the secret agent meetings are on a leaky deserted pirate ship in an undisclosed muggy port. We were going to invite you but Jenny Rappaport said not to.

    (Just kidding, Jenny. It was actually me.)

  213. Hi Mary,

    I don’t really know you and I haven’t read your work, so despite the tone of your essay rubbing me the wrong way I really can’t and won’t make a judgment on either.

    I do want to say this, though: as a reader, I am immensely grateful for the double wall of gatekeepers that stand between me and a less than good book.

    The way the publishing industry works today, I KNOW that every single book I see in a bookstore – every single one – will have something going for it, something that made both agent and editor believe in it, in that it would do something for me as a reader.

    Sure. Sometimes, this “something” may be sheer marketability. But don’t you ever have those days when all you really want is a breezy, enjoyable thriller?

    And do you really believe marketable books are never good literature, and good literature is never marketable?

    In my experience, there is no lack of good literary fiction on the shelves today. A lot of it snuggles into bestseller lists all the time. Because a really good read, at the end of the day, is a good read period.

    It’s awesome that you’ve already accomplished something with your previous books. Very, very few people ever get that far. But this doesn’t mean every single project you produce, however true and solid it rings for you personally, will appeal to a wider audience.

    Agents are your first representative shot at that wider audience – more tolerant, actually, since they themselves DO appreciate even the more complex literature, the kind that doesn’t necessarily have mass appeal. Ultimately you are the worst judge of your own work, and a whole bunch of agents the best one, in lieu of a magic book-review fairy.

    An individual rejection says nothing, but when not one agent believes in this particular idea, it’s telling you something about it is not working. It won’t impress, it won’t sell. It doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

    Take those rejections for what they are: a sign that maybe this particular project doesn’t have an ooompf.

    As for the nastiness of agents, well, if I had to read horrid and self-absorbed pitches all day, I’d start developing a disparaging humor to deal with it myself. I can imagine how difficult and emotional writing a book can be, but it doesn’t mean the end result will be good. And it doesn’t entitle you to more than professional courtesy and respect, which all of the examples you have pointed out, DO fulfill.

    This is not me sucking up to anyone, as you say – I don’t even write, and my e-mail or name isn’t attached here – so please try and take this as a useful perspective from a reader. It boils down to this:

    I want good literature. If you can’t deliver, I won’t read. I am no different from agents in this regard, I don’t think.

    So please don’t take my gatekeepers away from me.

  214. Oh, I myself don’t have an axe to grind in this particular fight. I haven’t read all 292 posts, but it seems to be about half agree, half disagree, according to the SRS (simple random sample) I’ve taken. But I’m a sucker for a catchy headline and as I was heading to my blog I saw “The Talent Killers” and was hooked. Maybe not as hooked as by photos of Jessica Alba’s new ‘do, but hooked all the same. I would just like to offer the following editorial comments. The spelling looks exemplary, but there are a couple grammatical things you might want to look at:

    1. “In your few spare moments, you may wonder why it is that aside from an occasional…”

    I think you meant to include a comma after ‘that’ as a complement to the other comma a little further down the sentence, like this:

    “In your few spare moments, you may wonder why it is that, aside from an occasional…”

    2. “We have lost our self respect, I am afraid.”

    This is a borderline judgment call, but go big! Go for the glory of “I’m”, like this:

    “We have lost our self respect, I’m afraid.”

    I think it achieves the same effect you seek, and it’s the way it’s usually written, anyway. After all, one doesn’t want to be TOO different.

    3. “…mocking the efforts of inexperienced would-be-published authors to …”

    If I remember my Strunk & White correctly, and I probably don’t, there’s one extra hyphen there. Try it like this:

    “mocking the efforts of inexperienced would-be published authors to …”

    That’s about it for grammar and punctuation. As for the content, well…

    “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—

    Yeah, colleges! Those tenured a-holes. How they grow and expand is beyond me. We should burn ’em all down and tell the Fire Department to stay home for good measure.

    “… but we can sure as hell write fiction. ”
    Now, now. There’s no need to get cocky. But it your work is as good as this post, you’ll break through that glass ceiling like Sarah Palin in no time. Keep fightin’ the good fight, baby guhl!

  215. If you belong to any kind of larger online writing group, and have read through the hundreds of submissions, you will understand just a tad of what agents have to face when they sit down to do slush. The sad fact is that most of the novels out there, even in our own genres, are just not up to it.

    The supply of manuscripts is far greater than demand and someone has to sort through it, separate the dreck from the good stuff. Even with gate keepers, each individual reader will find that most of what does make it onto the shelves is just not for them. I love great SF and Fantasy, suckled as I was at the old greats and being sustained by the new . But even I find a great portion of what is placed on those shelves to be unreadable. For me.

    Not every novel is going to be published. Not every writer who completes a novel will find a home for it, even if it is written in wonderful prose and is technically spotless. Sometimes, the story is just not compelling enough to sell.

    In the end, not every novel deserves to find a home. Heck, maybe not even my novels — I love them, I think they’re great, but yanno, I may be biased. :D I have to accept that perhaps, once I start sending queries, my ideas and execution will just not be what the market wants. Every artist faces that. Maybe no one else except you and your supporters share your vision and appreciate your work. C’est la vie.

    After spending hours reading over the submissions at Nathan’s blog, I don’t envy agents their jobs. From what agents tell me, the writers who submit queries and work to agent’s blogs and contests are of a higher caliber than those who submit to agents in the normal course of things. Like I say, there is no envy. Only appreciation.

    Sure, there are bad agents. There are rude agents. It’s that way in all walks of life. Yes, the marketplace can be small and petty, catering to the least common denominator. A mass market is that way by its very nature. The only way around it is to change the masses. ‘Nuff said.

    In the end, you have to just try to write the best damn novel you can, get it critiqued by an honest group of people who don’t know you from a hole in the ground and thus won’t let their personal bias affect their crit, polish your query, polish your partials, polish the manuscript and hold on for dear life.

    Do what Heinlein advised years ago: Write. Finish what you write. Send it out and keep sending it out until it sells. And keep on writing something new while you wait.

    Complaining about the very people who are the gatekeepers between you and the publisher may make you a big name, and bring lots of hits to your website, but it also may burn your bridges. To me, and many others, you seem not to get it, and your post sounds like a lot of sour grapes.

    You may be able to write well, but perhaps you, like many many many others, just haven’t written something that the current market wants.

    Write something else.

  216. Pingback: The Third Gatekeeper In The Publishing Chain « The Book Bark!

  217. I was so hoping that after your moment here, there would be a movement. I suspect that was what you were after, and you heart was in the right place (speaking up for a group of writers frustrated with the system). Unfortunately, people may be “Failed” out (Racefail, queryfail, agentfail) or perhaps the connection wasn’t made with your essay. See, this could have been so big. It could have been inclusive, so that all those who feel disenfranchised by “The System”
    would heed your call and join in. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. But it still can. Something powerful can come out of this, just like it did for Racefail (some minority writers felt there was no diversity in scifi and fantasy) out of that came Verb Noire, a new publisher (Publisher’s Weekly had a piece on them last week. Verb Noire came together out of frustration, and now writers of color, gay, lesbian, disabled and transgendered can submit works to be published. They’ve even collected donations close to $8,000 for their cause.

    Forming your own e-pub with your circle of friends and having it open to submission for others may be a way for you to go from here. It would be one way to start your very own movement.

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  219. “Forming your own e-pub with your circle of friends and having it open to submission for others may be a way for you to go from here.”

    Indeed, it might.

    I suspect that the action, if undertaken honestly, would very quickly cure those involved of the illusions of all those wonderful, wonderful books which would be published if only the “gatekeepers” weren’t standing in the way. When you’re the gatekeeper, it suddenly seems like quite a different beast that’s lumbering towards Jerusalem to be born…

  220. Maxwell Perkins is dead.

    The age of the great editors plucking diamonds from the rough and patiently polishing them has passed. Lamenting this fact will not change it.


    You said — somewhere in your screed — that the only feedback you’d been getting were rejections from agents you’d queried. I think what you need is another pair of eyes — not a quick, complimentary note from a casual reader, but a brutally honest assessment of your story’s strengths and weaknesses from a group of your fellow writers.

    Though I’ve heard good things about Critters, its focus is on SpecFic. Perhaps you could find a similar group for LitFic authors? You might also want to check out Forward Motion ( which is a general writing community. There are many critique groups started by various members, and boards where you could ask questions.

    Good luck.

  221. Good lord, I really know where to start with this.

    You don’t know me from a bar of soap, but I’m probably not the first person on this thread (and I’m not going to read 300 plus comments) who has said that shooting your mouth off like this, and thereby shooting yourself in the foot is tantamount to literary suicide.

    It’s all very well to say what you want when you are T Pratchett or JK Rowling, but to denigrate all agents in this way just because what? You’ve had a few rejections? It’s utter madness.

    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

    This is errant nonsense. Many publishing houses offer advances, even smaller publishers, even EBOOK publishers, so please get your facts right . Granted, a new novelist in genre fiction (unless they are lucky like Dan Brown or the Rev. Taylor’s Shadowmancer) isn’t going to get record breaking advances, but the average advance for a new author is around the $4-$6K mark. My first novel got $200 advance, my second, $4000. This isn’t because I was selling “truckloads” of books, but becasuet that’s what the publisher gives. Hopefully that figure will rise, but frankly, I’m not particularly fussed – unless it’s a life-changing amont of money, an advance only means that I won’t get any more money until my book has sold out its advance.

    They simply abandon writers whose books did not hit their projected sales numbers and move on to the newest shiny thing

    What? Do you want them to sit around and hold your hand and tell them how sorry they are your literary novel isn’t understood? Dear – your publisher will “abandon” you as well, if your book doesn’t sell.

    I’m so sorry that you find the query process so demeaning. Perhaps there should be a separate entry system just for literary fiction? It hardly seems fair that you have to rub shoulders with all the authors of such flimsy bits of vampire literature, fantasy, romance, detective stories and the kind of first-draft bubble gum that used to be called chick-lit Heavens forfend that you might actually have to do the same amount of graft as me, a writer of gay historical fiction! You are a literary writer! You should be recognisable by OSMOSIS!

    Fifty rejections? Suck it up, dear.

    Do you know how lucky you are to have had such helpful and personal critique? I too have been seeking an agent for several years and I’m sure my rejections are heading towards 30 at least. I have had one request for a partial and two for a full. TWO. But you know what? I at least recognise that my book isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste. Perhaps you should. And while you do, I suggest you read this

    Then reconsider whining, and wonder if you’ve done yourself any good at all. I know if I were an agent I’d be making a big black tick against your name for future reference.


    We have now reached the 300 mark in the comments, and the post has received more than 9500 hits. This is remarkable.

    I thank people who are adding intelligent, thoughtful and perceptive comments, whether they agree with me or not, and I thank the other people who have been here too. Some of you are utterly wrongheaded about everything to do with writing and the publishing business, but I am so unconcerned about this group that I am not interested in bothering to correct you individually. However, I will use as one example the writing student who said that literary writing and genre fiction were two different things. They’re not, as I have said over and over again.

    In this regard, and particularly for those of you who are not familiar with complex sentence structure, a note: when I wrote the words “flimsy bits of vampire literature, fantasy, romance, detective stories and the kind of first-draft bubble gum that used to be called chick-lit,” I chose my words very carefully (as I ALWAYS do. I choose every SINGLE word I write with enormous care. I have tremendous respect for words. I love the way they twist, turn, echo, collide and dance with one another, always carrying meaning and story along with them if they are properly selected and arranged. Many people don’t read with any awareness that good writers might be doing this. I want readers who do). The word “flimsy” described the TYPE of vampire literature, fantasy, romance, etc that is being published far too often. It did not describe “vampire literature, fantasy, romance…” etc per se. My point had to do with quality of writing, not genre.

    * * * *

    In the past few days, I have seen people argue that agents are for the most part great people and wonderful supporters of literature and good writing. Fine. I am happy to accept that point. (I suspected it might be true anyway.) The number of bad apples in the agent barrel who seem to be visible and vocal these days and give their profession a bad name does nothing to disprove my original point, because even those agents who LOVE great literature are not choosing to represent strong new voices from the mid-list due to the fact that they (the agents) cannot afford to do it. These writers are not going to attract substantial advances. THAT was my point.

    I am prepared to accept that busy writers who have published books need agents to do their negotiation work for them, and that even before they are published, those who will command advances will get bigger ones if they have agents. I already knew that and it does not speak to my central concern.

    I accept that newer and younger writers than I am need to keep writing new books and getting better at what they do. This is also true of highly established writers who are already selling strongly. It is true of all writers, always.

    I am even prepared to accept (as I always was–although I still don’t know if I’ve heard it from the horses’ mouths) that agents are doing exactly what editors at major publishing houses want them to do. That truth, if it is one, ALSO does not disprove my point that mid-list writers such as myself cannot get a read from the agents, and can therefore not get a read from the publishers.

    Interestingly, the ONLY respondents who have actually argued against my core concern directly are those writers, agents and readers who have said that fine literary books do not deserve to be published by large presses because they are NEVER, not ever, going to turn a profit, and publishing is a business. (I know publishing is a business. So is writing.) I heartily disagree that these books will never turn a profit. I believe the members of the group I have had the presumption to speak for have reached a stage in their writing lives where they are ready to break through — where their works finally blend high-quality writing with strong plots, great characterization and universal themes and will turn a sound profit very rapidly, as will their subsequent books. So I disagree with this argument, but those who have proposed it are at least arguing on the same page I am.

    By the way, I am not about to start or join a publishing coalition. There are as many of those out there as there are established small literary presses. In fact, that’s how many, many small literary presses got their starts–in writers’ taking their futures into their own hands. Some small presses are great, but many many of them publish the kind of dense literary shit that gives literary writing a bad name. Most of them suck away the talents of the writer-publishers, who really should be writing and not trying to run a business. Collective publishing has destroyed many literary friendships, not to mention writing careers. It is a labour of love that is often misguided, and crashes and burns taking money and spirit down with it.

    The lack of communication in this industry is heartbreaking, considering what the industry is. And I don’t just mean our inability as agents, publishers, writers and readers to address what I believe is a serious problem, but the inability of so many people related to that industry in one way or another to read and understand an essay that is 2700 words long (which is NOT LONG, by the way) and respond to its central points.

  223. You know, I read a LOT of the responses to your post, Mary, before a penny dropped for me: she’s CANADIAN. And THIS is how she views the publishing scene?

    Seriously? Have you LOOKED at a Canadian publisher’s frontlist catalogues recently (or, ever)? Have you looked at a Canadian agent’s website for their client list recently?

    Are you familiar with (off the top of my head), Joseph Boyden, Michael Winter, Colin McAdam, Michael Crummey, Lisa Moore, Miriam Toews, Ami McKay, Kevin Patterson, Vincent Lam, Anosh Irani, Stephen Galloway, Timothy Taylor, Nancy Lee, Ravi Hage… (I’ve limited myself, here, to “literary” writers still on the newcomer side of things…)

    I’m sorry — your point was something about literary writers being denied access to major publishers?

    • Thanks, Robert. I know our market thoroughly and have explored it ad nauseum. One major literary press sat on my manuscript for an entire year while they “seriously considered” it and then decided their program was full — which may be an excuse or the truth. It doesn’t matter. They do have a limited number of slots each year, there are a limited number of really outstanding “big” literary presses, and there are a lot of superlative writers of literary fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry in Canada (a large number of whom, I am very proud to say, are among my friends). The really big publishers here aren’t taking unagented mss either. The really good agents here have full stables, and I have been dismissed by several of the others in ways I would love to describe in detail here, but I will not: suffice it to say they do not do their profession any favours, either. I stopped thinking Canada several years ago because of this. Besides which, I don’t think of myself as Canadian first when I write. I think of myself as a writer, in the world context. I read widely from Australia, the U.S., India, the U.K., South Africa, and in translation from Spain, Egypt, Portugal, Japan, Holland (for example) as well as Canada. I think of my writing community as being world-wide, not Canadian. We’ll get into that another day….

  224. Whew. Pissed off much?

    I haven’t tried to find an agent; I have a lawyer and I don’t mind negotiating. I’ve had 5 books published with an Ebook/POD publisher and one in the works with Running Press… no huge advances; I’m building my backlist and paying my dues.

    All I can do, reading this j’accuse, is think what you could have produced if you’d spent this time writing. But I suppose that since I write gay historical romance I’m one of those “genre” hacks that you turn up your nose at. I wouldn’t trade places, though.. I don’ t have Massive Literary Pretensions. If readers like my stories and buy my books… that’s okay by me.

    Please don’t waste your time responding. You may be the greatest writer in the world, but if all you can do is scream at the people you expect to help you, it’s LOLcat time: Soliciting an Agent–UR doin it Wrong,

  225. Still don’t get the difference between “literary” fiction and not.

    Take Margaret Atwood – generally considered a literary author, no? And an amazing one at that. But she’s written MULTIPLE post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories (Oryx and Crake, The Handmaid’s Tale). And they were good. Damn good. What makes them “literary” and not “sci-fi”??

    And Kazuo Ishiguro, too. A frigging CLONE story (Never Let Me Go). Brilliant, amazing, wonderful. But he’s “literary” and not “sci-fi”

    Or Walter Tevis (Man who Fell To Earth).

    It seems to me that “literary” is used as a ‘better-than-thou’ sort of genre by many writers who like to think well of themselves. Charles Dickens was a popular author, a cardinal sin amongst the “literary” types. Tell me Bleak House is not “literary” and I’ll laugh in your face.

    Ditch the idea that agents and editors are out to get literary fiction. They aren’t. They’re just looking for GOOD fiction of any stripe. The above authors will sell, regardless of what they write. Atwood could write a story about a dude with a chicken head protruding from his arse, and it would probably be good because she’s a GOOD WRITER.

    I care less about writerly opinions that want us to believe that agents are bad guys. I care more about those writers spending the time to write a book I would pay for and read. The other words typed are words wasted.

  226. I think the quality of writing is evident in writing that gets selected for publication via the usual tired and true route: Query, agent, publisher.

    It’s a long road but doable.

    Not so with contests and the usual POD vanity drek they attract. The real crap is definitely outside of the so-called traditional commercial system.

  227. when I wrote the words “flimsy bits of vampire literature, fantasy, romance, detective stories and the kind of first-draft bubble gum that used to be called chick-lit,” I chose my words very carefully

    This is a transparent revision of history. A more complete quote:

    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

    You are not taking exception, clearly, to that subset of genre material that is flimsy, but instead describe the flimsy material as piling high—that is, MOST of what is going on to desks is flimsy. You then follow this up by contrasting women’s fiction (which has “heft”) with chicklit. To you, the latter must be disguised as the former to be taken seriously by readers of women’s fiction.

    You obviously and transparently castigated genre fiction, and only after receiving dozens of comments did you backpedal. However, a backpedal it remains. You DID mean to castigate genre fiction and valorize literary fiction, and you DID express this explicitly, and only AFTER you were roundly and correctly criticized did you being to try to WEASEL out of it.

    People objected to your comments on genre fiction not because they are fools who cannot read, but because the only sustainable reading offered by your text is that genre fiction is by and large trash and crowding literary fiction out of the marketplace thanks to the machinations of agents.

    Were you half the writer or half the adult you pose as being, you’d simply acknowledge what you actually said and either a) defend it or b) recant. But to pretend that we’re all dopes who cannot read for comprehension is ridiculous.

  228. Oh and this reminds me of a recent conversation where some folks touted vanity credits in queries to agents. Right.

    Courtesy of Mr. LeRoy of Bleak House.

    (2) Do not send us books printed by PublishAmerica, iUniverse, Xlibris, or anybody else as a sample of your work. It will, in 99.9% of the cases, work against you. Obviously, that also means don’t include those books in your query letter or list of credits, either.

  229. Mary,

    sure, the situation is dire, but I am puzzled. Why not continue publishing with the literary presses that have supported you up to now? Is it a sense of justice that propels you to solicit agents who are not interested in your work? Is there any justice in the world? Hey, I’ll answer that. Very little. I think the new gate keepers might just be editors, not agents. Get a good editor, with a good name, and some of those closed doors might open. Oh, dear. There’s a snag. It costs. Maybe a lot. Back to point one about justice. There is very little of that. I think an important point is not that agents are gatekeepers, or that publishers want to make money, or even that the bookselling model is whacked (all true to varying degrees) but that the discussion that can separate these issues, one from another, is lacking, and without those distinctions it’s more difficult to find an answer. I personally think the answer is to write differently, or to solicit differently, or to publish differently, because the current situation only works within the boundaries it has set. Writing differently seems the most intriguing. Surprisingly, we have all, it seems, become beginners again.

  230. What you say is true of many, but not all agents. I landed one that is a diamond in the rough. She works very hard for me and has a very positive attitude toward my work. There are a lot of agents who have a superior attitude and are out to make a fast buck. Luckily, mine does not fit that category.

  231. I have no problem with her calling out genre fiction. When I read that, I saw it as certain types of straight genre – not Lethem, Atwood, or the more serious-minded purveyors of the medium. But plain old genre writing that does nothing unique or new with the medium. It’s strange to see the genre writers get so offended by this. Someone on Janet Reid’s blog called Mary a snob like the people in the art community who thumb their noses at Thomas Kincade. THOMAS KINCADE. All writing/art/music isn’t equal.

    What it might come down to is not the agenting system, or editors not taking a leap, but the interest of the reading public. They’re the ones setting the tone, shelling out the money. It’s not as though if Borders put Dostoevsky and Kafka out front, that’s what people would buy. They’d ask, “Where’s the Koontz?” The “Fast and Furious” is the #1 movie for a reason, because people have horrible taste. That’s not entirely the fault of the publishing industry. It’s what people like to read and there’s a dwindling number of people who even read mainstream fiction.

    The system is flawed. It’s not dead, but it has problems. Good books get published. Weirder books have less of a chance, but worse – writers are gauged on a book by book level, rather than factoring in their entire career. An agent who guages a writer only on one book has a limited idea of what it is to write. Writing is a life-long vocation – and rejecting a writer based on one book is myopic, short-sighted, basically everything wrong with our current system. Not just publishing, but everything: looking five minutes ahead, not towards the future. It’s why the economy fell apart – and publishing’s short-sightedness is not unrelated.

    A writer’s best work may be three novels away, but if his next book doesn’t sell, he’s done. People keep saying, “Maybe you need to write a better book.” There’s so much blame for the writer in a broken system. In this climate, please define “better.” It doesn’t always equate with “good.” Meanwhile, publishers complain that no one reads books anymore. If you oversaturate the market with less-than-inspiring work, people are going to stop paying attention.

    That’s a long way of saying: yes.

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  233. But plain old genre writing that does nothing unique or new with the medium.

    And plain old literary fiction? Your unearned assumption is that of course literary fiction is better than genre fiction.

    It’s not as though if Borders put Dostoevsky and Kafka out front, that’s what people would buy.

    Actually, it isn’t at all unusual to find those authors in the front of big box chain stores. Both Borders and B&N have their own lines of public domain titles—they don’t need to pay a publisher or an author, so the margins on those books are much higher. Classics are often near the front of the store.

    I’d recommend walking into a bookstore occasionally.

    • Mamatas, I don’t want to get into a pissing match with you, but I write genre fiction with a literary bent. I was published by Soft Skull. You know who I am. I’m in favor of using genre fiction to good effect. My assumption is that supermarket genre fiction is not good most of the time. That’s a pretty easy assumption to make.

      And the whole Dostoevsky thing – I think you’re being overly literal. I meant “serious fiction,” and I think you know that, but you’re finding new ways to be critical. Perhaps I also don’t have charisma, as you leveled against Mary.

      • Oh, so now we’re going to go ahead and criticize supermarket genre fiction, are we? Well, well, well. How literarily low do we have to go to find new things to criticize? Supermarket genre fiction, Sir?! Isn’t there nothing these days that’s not sacrosanct no more?

        • Maybe we need to organize bookshelves in grocery stores so that there is one in the “organic foods” section, and one in the “imported foods” section, and one in the “a complete meal in 10 minutes” section…..

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  235. “In this regard, and particularly for those of you who are not familiar with complex sentence structure, a note: when I wrote the words “flimsy bits of vampire literature, fantasy, romance, detective stories and the kind of first-draft bubble gum that used to be called chick-lit,” I chose my words very carefully …”

    You know, when the majority of your audience reads what you’ve written a particular way, it is often an indication that you did not write clearly enough, and not that your audience is obviously mentally deficient.

    • You speak the truth, Egg. I am not always my own best editor, that is certain. I apologize.

      Not being my own best editor is the Number One Primary Most Important Reason why I do not want to self-publish. Not just copy-editing, but more critically substantive editing, demands a really excellent and experienced external eye. Great editors are born, not made. I want one of them, and I need one of them. Great editors are absolutely essential to the process.

  236. Mary said “…that he places much of the blame at the feet of the buyers–not the readers, but those who buy books for the big chains”

    That’s interesting to note. Buyers are hardly ever mentioned.

    There are SOOO many gate keepers from author to reading consumer, it’s like the ‘miracle of birth’ when you think about…all the odds are stacked against that one tiny little guy getting through (out of millions) to the recipient that will welcome it.


    • For the writer, of course, the ms is still not getting past the agent. Where down the chain after that the problem is occurring doesn’t alter that reality. But when it comes to understanding what is happening, it will help to explore that issue.

  237. But Mary, for us readers, the fact 99% of unpublished books don’t get past an agent is a great boon.

    I know it’s a painful thing to hear when you’ve vested so much time and emotion into a book, but after reading just the description of your work at the link provided, there was nothing there to keep me interested. I didn’t find the voice of the blurb engaging, I didn’t get a feel of the overall story, the writing was convoluted. If there is a great story inside, why not spend a little more time on honing the pitch for it? If both your idea and skill of writing is strong, this shouldn’t be such an obstacle.

    I do believe it is difficult getting published, that agents are very critical, and that there is the taste of the mass market to consider. But as a reader I just don’t want to spend money on a book that isn’t good. And that is where I as an end user WANT agents, and editors, and publishing houses to not take the chance on something nobody but the author believes in.

    Maybe self-pub presses will change things for the better for all the hopeful writers out there, but I’m dreading that day. And maybe a militant horde of writers will, someday in the future, eradicate the entire agent species. I am dreading that day even more.

  238. You know who I am. I’m in favor of using genre fiction to good effect. My assumption is that supermarket genre fiction is not good most of the time. That’s a pretty easy assumption to make.

    Yes Henry, I remember you and even admire your work (even if you don’t believe that). My point isn’t to defend “supermarket genre fiction” but rather to point out something else:

    Literary fiction ain’t any better. If you pluck a bog standard book of genre fiction from the shelves and a bog standard book of “quality literature” from the shelves, they’ll generally be equally awful. It’s a mug’s game to point to Joyce or Faulkner and then to point to some random book in a supermarket and say, “See! Genre fiction sucks!” The overwhelming majority of literary fiction also sucks when compared to Faulkner or Joyce.

    And the whole Dostoevsky thing – I think you’re being overly literal. I meant “serious fiction,” and I think you know that, but you’re finding new ways to be critical.

    I see plenty of literary fiction (of various amounts of seriousness) in the front-of-store dumps, and plenty of genre fiction. No matter though — both are drowned by non-fiction books about Jesus, carbohydrates, memoirs from various celebs and/or nutjobs, and marginal journalism about “taking America back”, “big business,” or those pesky Muslims. Whoopdie-doo.

    Perhaps I also don’t have charisma, as you leveled against Mary.

    Indeed, I suspect that may be a problem. I’m sure you can find a book on the subject at the local bookstore though.

    • “Indeed, I suspect that may be a problem. I’m sure you can find a book on the subject at the local bookstore though.”

      I walked right into that one. I agree with everything you say. Especially about literary fiction, which is its own kind of narrow genre, most of which I find sentimental and unreadable. My problem with publishing is specifically that it doesn’t take chances on books that are not easily categorized. I’ve had the same book called both “too commercial” and “too literary.” Literary fiction types don’t know what to do with it, nor do genre agents/editors. My new novel is science fiction, and I’m nowhere near a science fiction writer, and because there’s trouble fitting it somewhere on the bookshelf, publishers and agents are going to balk. So I’m not even bothering to query and putting it out myself. It’s a shame that writers are driven to do that. I’ve had 4 agents, all representing a different book, I’m not a novice. But I’ve run out of patience waiting to get the inevitable rejection that has little to do with the quality of the book, but more to do with how it can be sold.

      • Yup. I too have had the same ms. turned down as “wonderful, but too literary for us,” and “wonderful, but too commercial for us.” The same chapters of The Whole Clove Diet have also been described on authonomy as “hilarious,” “blackly comic,” “made me laugh out loud,” etc and “totally bereft of humour.” Makes it hard to know which weakness to address first.

        Someone on someone else’s blog where they are talking about this post said maybe that was my problem — I was too commercial to be literary and too literary to be commercial. That person, like many others, sees this as a flaw or a stumbling block. I see it as a strength. The very best literary fiction comes to us with the most gripping, riveting stories of love, hate, jealousy, passion, etc etc — often in books that are impossible to put down. As I have said before I am currently reading a book just like that: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh.

  239. I often find myself in that same boat, Henry. (It’s one reason why I prefer short stories–less of an investment for the publisher as it is only one part of a greater product being sold, so a bit more risk can be taken.)

    That said, the people who can manage to crossover between audiences can do well both commercially and critically. I’m sure your bookshelves, like mine, are full of books just like that.

    I agree that it is a shame writers are driven to self-publish. However, there are still plenty of indie presses out there (Two Dollar Radio, Bleak House, Serpents Tail, Akashic) that are doing stuff that is both Very Important and Lotsa Fun.

  240. Sure it’s confusing when different voices judge something as “too commercial” AND “too literary”, but had the book had genuine impact, it would have transcended genres. Isn’t this what happened with Harry Potter, for example? Young Adult or no, the prose had such a vitality that special adult-looking covers were designed.

    Granted, few books ever attain this. But fact still remains, a subjective idea of what commercial versus literary fiction looks like is not going to hold a truly good work back. I really don’t see that. Agents WANT to pick up good books!

    I do agree that there is a need for the publishing industry to loosen up about genre classification, though. I even blogged about it here (shameless plug):

  241. Get off your cross. We need the wood. The fic you link at the bottom is mediocre at best and is deserving of each of the sixty rejections it received. If that’s what you consider “mid-list fiction”, then the reason mid-list fiction never gets anywhere is because it’s not good. Poor characterization, adjective abuse, telling instead of showing…it needs work. Lots of it.

    So sorry you have butthurt because you and/or your friends have been rejected by agents. Welcome to life. I’ve tried–and failed–to make it in the screamingly competitive zookeeping field and I’ve had being a veterinary technician end up totally FUBAR. I’ve put literal blood, sweat, and tears into trying to make it on two occasions and, both times, had to accept that as bad as I wanted it and despite the fact I had the right letters after my name and multiple college degrees what I’d worked to achieve wasn’t going to become a reality for me. I’ve had dreams and aspirations I put literal blood, sweat, and tears into for years crushed and fall apart and come to naught, so I know what it’s like to keep trying to get ahead and only hitting a wall and I have a few pieces of advice for you:

    1) Stop pissing and moaning.
    2) Put on your big girl pants and stop acting like a preschooler who didn’t get her way.
    3) Stop your paranoid rantings about agents purposely blowing off you and others like you.
    4) Accept that there’s something you’re doing and/or something you’re weak in that’s holding you back, and start working on correcting the problem(s).
    5) The only thing your very public pissing and moaning has done is to make sure agents talk to one another, to editors, and other publishing house employees about your immature snit fit. Congratulations on burning bridges en masse.

    It’s not the agents’ fault if query letters suck, it’s the person who wrote it. If you’re not good at writing query letters, either get help and work on it until you can write good query letters or have someone who is good write them for you. I totally fail to see what your problem is with agents having submission guidelines and making them public. So what if they want things in a certain format or submitted via a certain medium? Employers have the same kinds of guidelines for those applying for jobs.

  242. I have been following the comment trail on this blog for a few days now. I have avoided commenting myself until now, because I believe others were doing a fine job stating my point of view. After reading some of your rebuttal comments, however, I feel the need to make one of my own now.

    I ignored your rants and raves about how “flimsy bits” of genre fiction are filling up the shelves and taking all the editors’ time and attention. You were never specific about anything, and I too have seen mediocre writing getting published. (I do realize though that publishing is a business, and if it will sell then it will be picked up, mediocre or not).

    Then you got very specific and pulled out Stephenie Meyer’s name. Now, I am not some kind of “Twi-hard” who is going to lambaste you for saying her writing is sub-par. She is not the best writer on the shelves (in fact, when asked in interviews, she says if she could go back and do it all again, she would tell the same story but with better writing). What she DOES have is a story people want to read-she would not have sold so many books if that was not the case.

    I digress; that was not my point. My point is: by bringing up Stephenie Meyer’s name, you pushed your self past the line of disgruntled with the system to jealous because others are getting the money and fame you hoped to get. You were much better off not mentioning any name.

    You said the line between your essay and sour grapes is a very fine line. That one comment pushed you right past the fine line.

    Also, I find it funny that a woman who claims to take care with EVERY SINGLE word she writes wouldn’t take the thirty-five seconds necessary to open a new tab in the browser and learn how to spell Stephenie Meyer’s name. That right there went against one of your arguments and therefore weakened the rest of your arguments in my mind. Such a small thing; I would have overlooked it in any other essay, article, or comment, but you claim precision in all your writing, so I am looking for precision.

    I don’t know what you were hoping to achieve with this little diatribe of yours. You claim you want to be able to bypass agents and go straight to the editors. That is great for you. Unfortunately the thing you failed to recognize is the close relationship between agents and editors. The talk. A lot. You better believe your essay has been shown to editors. It has.

    Now, have fun approaching those editors. You can come to them with wonderful works of prose, but what the editors are going to see is: this woman is a pain in the ass to work with. Do we want to put the effort into a person who is going to blame any future failures that may happen on anyone but herself? Probably not.

    (Hopefully the wonderful works you are submitting are not The Whole Clove Diet-I read it on Authonomy, and while it was not bad, it could use a lot of work. If I have to read a sentence three times to get what it is trying to say, the writing simply is not as sharp as it could be (I know I just left myself wide open to you claiming my intelligence is just not up to snuff for what you are writing. I assure you that is not the case.))

    Finally (though I could go on-I just would rather work on editing my own writing), it disturbs me somewhat to read a person who is a professional freelance editor bitch and moan about not being able to edit her own work. Editing is part of writing. Yes, a great editor will help you make your book the best it can possible be, but it is not their job to take whatever a person writes and make it a beautiful novel. That is just not how it works.

    I know this comment will not mean much to you. I see a pattern in your writing–nothing is every your fault. Your first books sold poorly because they publishers didn’t have enough money. Now you aren’t getting published because the evil agents are out to get you and anyone who writes the (from what I can tell chick-lit being described as lit-fic) same kind of stuff as you do. If you were to sign with a huge publisher and put your next book out there only to see it flop, don’t worry, we all know it has nothing at all to do with you. You will find someone else to point the finger at in that case.

    Take control of your own life and stop putting the blame for your failure on everyone else.

  243. Agree/disagree with the subject of this blog, I have read some of Mary’s work: her award-winning flash fiction piece Machisma (forgive me if I got the title wrong… doing this on the fly) which is brilliant, several of her short stories from Cool (from which collection, lines, scenes and entire captured themes have, because of their crisp, adept and often evocative writing, stayed etched in my mind) and most recently her novel Bitters. Say what you will — and I see that you will — her style may not be your cup of tea, and her new work may require further edits, but she is a skilled and wonderful writer.

    • her new work may require further edits

      If it’s not ready, why did she put it on the internet where everybody would see it and use it to judge her work?

      It’s one thing to post a snippet in your blog with the disclaimer that it’s a first draft. It’s another to make the entire novel available in what is apparently its finished form and then link to it.

      When the thesis of the linked-from article is that the system that persists in rejecting her is wrong, linking to a piece that still needs polishing as an example of her work seems counterproductive.

  244. I can’t help but want to hit my head against my desk to rid myself of vitriol that seeps from many of these posts. But beyond this feeling, I have to wonder why no one has questioned the equation someone brought forth and which underlies the argument: publishing = business. I think it’s folly to continue seeing literature as a commercial venture. Really. Culture should be separated from economics and valued not for its commercial potential but for its reflection of our existence. That’s what needs to be examined–looking at other models other than business ones.

    • But if you want to separate literature from business, then who do you suggest will be publishing literature? In other words, if it’s not a commercial proposition for a publishing house, who should step up to the plate? The government? The arts councils? Charities? And within those organisations, who will be deciding on the merit of what is literature and what isn’t? You will automatically have set up another fence of gatekeepers, the difference being that people who work for arts councils and the like are more likely to give the imprimatur to the ‘right people’.

  245. Sophie, thanks for commenting on the vitriol. It’s not just here — I keep getting links to sites that have quoted me, and people are taking off their gloves on lots of other blogs and in articles as well as here. It is discouraging primarily because most of those who sound as though they are dumping on my argument are actually dumping on ME (e.g. –“60 rejections is nothing”), which is really beside the point. I’m quite happy to be rejected (and BTW, I don’t care if I’m dumped on. I respect those who have understood what I am saying, even if they don’t agree with it, and I know they respect what I am saying too — even if they see me as misguided. The rest can be ignored. As W.P. Kinsella once said to me, “It doesn’t matter what they say about you as long as they get your name right.”) As far as my writing, I just want informed and intelligent readers to be rejecting me — people who’ve actually read my stuff and are not looking to make 15% of a huge advance from everything they accept.

    Also, I am not the only one in this situation. There aren’t a lot of us, but there are many more than one.

    Anyway, the economic model is the one that helps us eat all the way down the food chain, and I am sick of being broke in support of my art (I’ve enjoyed more than 25 years of the bohemian lifestyle to date) so I am addressing my concerns in the economic context.

    I imagine the dissemination of literature at no cost to anyone will begin to become a reality the moment Google goes live with its new electronic library. :)

  246. I just got my agent after 150 rejections. My own agent even rejected me. He called me a month later, saying he really wanted to rep the book, despite the market for it. If it can happen for me…

  247. I am also a writer who doesn’t believe in the use of literary agents. While there are probably some good, ethical ones out there, the simple fact is they make their living off of other people’s talents and work, and I see no use for anyone that would lower themselves to that level….I’m also a freelance copy editor, and I actually help authors polish their work instead of just trying to profit off of it for the rest of its royalties-career.

    • Can you also negotiate a better contract for the authors you work with? Do you know how to chase up royalty payments? Can you put them in front of the editor who is most likely to appreciate their work and convince that editor to take a look? Can you negotiate favorable terms on overseas sales? Do you know how to protect the author in the case that the publishing house is sold or taken over or goes into insolvency?

      • Fenestra, I thought you said you were an editor. As I have mentioned before, I don’t think we can give much credence to your comments and questions until you declare your credentials.

        Autumn, really good editors are going to become increasingly valuable as self-publishing asserts itself as an alternative for literary writers. I am a highly trained editor myself, so I know how much work it takes to become one. I also know that to try to edit one’s own work is as potentially fatal as is trying to remove superfluous organs from one’s body.

        Unfortunately for me (financially), I don’t want to get into editing other people’s books for self-publication because I want to write, but it’s a growth industry for sure. So keep at it, and good luck.

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  252. I have read the entire list of comments and I have to say I am surprised at how few in opposition have tried to address the points Mary raised. In fact many comments have simply dismissed the post as being irrelevant because her book isn’t very good ~ when in fact it’s irrelevant whether her book is good or not because she might be right in her views.

    And yes, you guessed correctly, I am an unpublished author without an agent whose opinion is solely formed by facts and conjecture strewn across the internet.

    It makes sense to me that bestselling books tend to be formulaic (I am now speaking in generalisations – exceptions are accepted). Writing to a formula and producing a successful book is generally easier than writing an experimental book (e.g. literary fiction) that is successful. Being original and making money is the hardest task of all – hence the repetition found in all entertainment.

    Writing experimental books for a niche market and making a profit is clearly something that an author will get better at (as time goes by) in a way that grows their market (mass-market bestsellers are harder to grow the market purely through quality of writing – it’s more the momentum of sales/marketing that brings success and often such books tend to worsen in quality not get better) Many significant books in the history of literature came late in an author’s career.

    It therefore makes sense that when publishers only accept subs from agents whose bottom line looks better from bestsellers, the flow of new books will switch over to books that fulfill that criteria. Its a boom/bust strategy based on short-termism encouraged by ONLY accepting subs from agents.

    Whether this is in fact the case is up for debate, but it seems that such a scenario is at the core of Mary’s post.

    Once every book subbed to publisher is a possible bestseller for the mass market (rather than a book likely to grow an audience over time in a niche market) then every publisher will be competing with the same product – all books released would be formulaic books based on current bestselling trends.

    And of course with such competition, many books will fail – that’s the ‘bust’ and given too many busts in a row mean publishers will fail too. Then choice for consumer is significantly reduced both by focusing on mass market books and by publishers busting out of business.

    Reduction of consumer choice could result in a collapse in consumer interest in the product – competing products like videogames will then win.

    For me its a win-win because I work in the games industry – but it looks clear to me that anything that reduces competition and choice devalues the brand (i.e. books) and should be avoided. If agents as a group are sucked into the trap of only looking for books for the mass market then BECAUSE they’re the gatekeepers it will become their ‘fault’ that this happens.

    Or agents could encourage authors with a backlist and a small but loyal and mildly profitable fanbase to become the long-term reliable income that all business need to survive. Someone commented that many agents already do this ~ I wonder what proportion?

    As the market shrinks and consumers buy fewer books I would expect the literary fiction market to become a greater market share because literature lovers are likely to be the last people to stop reading. So shouldn’t literary fiction become MORE significant to publisher and shouldn’t those authors already with a fan base become more fundamental to the publishing business?

    From the more sane responses on this blog, it seems that it is too simplistic to blame agents ~ the problems lie with the market, shelf-life/shelf-space, economics of scale and overheads for reading the slush-pile etc.

    But what agents choose to submit to editors is clearly a very important decision in the long-term. And the way agents behave in public and with potential clients is also extremely important as the future of publishing changes. Quite frankly, #queryfail is a devastating indictment of a proportion of agents. And the arrogance of many agents towards potential talent is astonishing.

    I’m surprised that more agents aren’t aware of the difference between the writing skills in a query letter and that of a fiction novel. Anyone claiming to be knowledgeable about the publishing industry should understand the different skillsets required for copywriting and novel writing. Being able to distill a novel into a short paragraph is an extremely specialized skill that can earn a significant salary within marketing ~ but has little bearing on the use of scene goals or character motivation/response.

    Agents should be communicating as professionally as possible what they are looking for and how best to include that information in a query letter. Not behaving like school-children.

    The fact that writers are required to create a query letter is part of the publishing business and therefore something every new writer needs to learn. But the quality of that query letter (as opposed to the CONTENT of the query) should not be held up as a system of measurement for the quality of the book. Unless the writer clearly can’t even string a sentence together.

    Quite frankly I could write a pitch for a book in about twenty different ways, highlighting twenty different aspects of the book and presenting the same plot in a way that would appeal to twenty different audiences. So I think it’s a shame that agents aren’t more specific about exactly what they’re looking for ~ thank goodness for those gems of agents who HAVE posted up detailed criteria for queries on their websites!

    If a query letter is ideally around 250 words then perhaps having two paragraphs from the book as standard might make sense ~ I’m only saying this in the context of making suggestions for change, rather than belief that such a suggestion is fundamentally right! And only because it should be the writing that speaks for itself (rather than a pithy summary of a plot).

    Otherwise those writers who can shell out a few quid on a copywriter are more likely to get their submissions seen (which wouldn’t reflect on their writing ability at all).

    Mary ~ I think you’ve been slightly militant ;-) but it’s been a fascinating kick of the ant-hill and I just hope intelligent discussion continues to follow your post.


    • Sound and intelligent feedback, Sye. The economic argument seems so obvious for me. Long-term health for publishers will be built on solid structures, not flimsy, shiny things. A book that is going to have a readership 10 years down the road (like White Noise, for example — it doesn’t date) has got to be a better investment of publishing company overhead than a one-off wonder that’s gone next week.

      I loved your observation about literature lovers being the last to stop reading. I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s true.

  253. I don’t know what ‘literature’ is supposed to be. I write comical stories, so I supposed I would fall into the category of writing you frown upon. Even so, I do agree with a few of your gripes.

    I may never win a Newbery Award for my writing, but I know I’m not talentless. I’ve had a published author and professional editor tell me that I have talent. I’ve had an agent tell me that my writing is publishable. I’ve had thousands of readers in my target demographic say they enjoy my writing.

    Yet, time after time again, I receive rejections at the query stage, before any of my writing has been seen by an agent. I do get the feeling the publishing world has been taken over by females in their twenties and thirties who are primarily interested in stories with female protagonists engaged in unbelievable love triangles. Irregardless of what genre the story falls in, I’m seeing fiction shelves flooded with these types of stories.

    I don’t believe consumers are going for it, and that’s why the publishing industry is having financial difficulties. They are publishing stories that are structurally too similar to one another, and readers just aren’t stupid and can recognize this pattern. Middle grade and YA have been almost completely taken over by Harry Potter and Anne Rice novel clones (I say Anne Rice because, really, Twilight is very similar to Anne Rice’s vampire stories).

    The argument can be made that readers buy these books, but if there is little else for them to purchase on store shelves, what choice do they have? If I go into a Borders and see the YA section is predominantly carrying vampire/ werewolf /fairy urban fantasy love stories, what are the chances I’ll pick out a book from the shelves that doesn’t fall into these categories? After all, books are usually shelved so I have only the titles to catch my eye. A lot of jacket copy doesn’t even get read.

    Perhaps the publishing industry wouldn’t be having so many financial problems if there was more diversity on store shelves? I know that I roll my eyes at the YA section now because I can see just by the titles, cover art and jacket copy that the stories are imitations of best sellers. If I read the original best seller, I’m really not interested in reading another author’s fan fiction with different character names and slightly different scenarios, time periods, or whatever.

    The funny thing is that I suspect one of the problems publishers have is that young readers do have some diversity on a different set of shelves– the manga section. I have good reason to believe that is where a good portion of their lost sales have went, and it isn’t because people that read comics do not read novels, but because the stories are more diverse than what they are finding in the middle grade and YA section.

    I think the worst thing agents can do is reject book submissions without reading pages. I have never purchased a book because the jacket copy interested me, but because the first several pages did. What caught my eye to be the book on a shelf has always been the title and the cover art.

    I also agree that publishers need to adapt to the times and not rely so heavily on agents. I have read that publishers do not do market research beyond looking at bestseller’s sales figures, but without trying to understand why those books were bestsellers. For me as a consumer, the proof that publishers do little market research can be found in the atrocious cover artwork that adorns many books– especially when it comes to children’s books. If they had any clue as to what is visually appealing to the current generation of tweens and teenagers, the artwork would be more manga / anime style, and not a couple flash photos edited in Photoshop. I’m sorry, but the current demographic is watching more Japanese animation and reading more Japanese comics than traditional Western animation and comics. Even the smallest of regional anime conventions draw thousands of young people, and they purchase this media in large quantities. This is a world-wide trend and publishers ought to pay attention to it, but they clearly are oblivious. If I ever get a publisher for my work, I will insist they do not use their in-house artists and adorn my work with manga influenced illustrations. It’s just common sense, because if the cover art doesn’t appeal to them, they probably won’t even pick up the book to begin with.

  254. PS: The movie industry eventually realized that releasing two films at the same time that are very similar to one another always resulted in one of these films bombing because most audiences only had enough pocket change to see one of them. The videogame industry, after years of not getting it, eventually realized this too.

    So when is the publishing industry going to realize flooding the market with extremely similar stories is not a good idea? These stories may indeed be good and well written stories, but their chance to succeed in the market will not come when they are competing against not only each other, but the bestseller the publisher hopes they can ride the coat tails of.

  255. That depends on the role of literary agent. Sometimes, literary agents help in syndicating the book content across the globe ( as we do for indian writers ). But you cannot underestimate the value of a traditional literary agency. Now there are a lot of opportunities, such as publishing a book in several languages and in several countries.. we cannot ignore the role of agencies can play.

  256. I have often found that what has been successful in the past is generally our best guide to what may be successful in the market today. Perhaps you should give suicide a go: it has proven quite advantageous to a number of authors careers in the past.

  257. This is so relevant! See yesterday’s NEW YORK TIMES’ article about “The Help.” Fifty agents rejected it.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but agents are as limited, and as brilliant, as the rest of the population. We need a better system.

  258. I stopped at the point where you lumped fantasy and romance fiction in with things like “Twilight.”

    Shakespeare and Marlowe were fucking fantasists.

    Every classic you love? Elements of fantasy, not literary fiction.

  259. Um, as if editors and publishing houses weren’t interested in block-busters either. Come on. They’re ALL in it for money. Why single out agents?
    Sour grapes, I guess.

  260. You’ve probably had about a thousand comments like this already, but I can’t be bothered to read them all.

    I feel for you–it is hard to get attention from agents; sometimes they do feel like a huge glass wall, letting you see the other side without letting you through to get to it. I have a lot of disagreements with what you say about them, but that’s not really my problem with this article.

    You seem to think that everyone who writes commercial fiction is just full of crap and has no writing talent whatsoever. Just because commercial fiction isn’t full of metaphors and literary techniques they beat you over the head with in high school doesn’t mean it’s not a valid form of writing. It takes just as much talent to put together a well-written piece of commercial fiction as it does to write modern literature.

    Here’s the thing: commercial fiction sells. So you can hate it all you want, but there is a reason that people buy it, and it’s not just because it’s an “easier” read.

    By the way, a lot of agents google you before requesting or offering representation. They’ll find this article, and they’ll think you’ll be a tough client to take on because of your attitude.

  261. Pingback: Self-Publishing Review — Blog — Guest Post: LJN Dawson on the Great Agent Debate

  262. I love this. Thank you, thank you. I have added this to my Favorites and will read it whenever I become discouraged, which will probably be daily.

  263. Oh, I think I will quit toying with the idea of a novel about a character getting impregnated by an alien told from a cocker spaniel’s point of view who is the pet of a vampire.

  264. Thankfully, we have the option to self-publish at

    One day, literary agents will be a thing of the past, and everybody with a Kindle and a desire to write will have a chance to be read.

    • When that day comes, the agent and publisher will be more important than ever. That is, if you hope to make a living as a writer.

      You don’t give the public enough credit. Even though the masses may not be able to articulate it, they do care about the filtering service provided by agents and publishers. Of course there are exceptions, but it is absolutely reasonable to believe that a book that meets the approval of an agent and a publisher is more likely to be of merit than one that simply gets pushed out into the world because the author is happy with it. No parent is capable of seeing the relative deficiencies of his or her child. That’s why colleges and employers don’t accept recommendation letters from our mothers. It’s not because mothers don’t understand their children. It’s because you cannot expect a mother to be objective about how her child compares to other children. Granted, you can argue that agents and publishers aren’t 100% objective either; but as a group they will still be the best filters available.

      And so these filters will be indispensable in a world where anyone can push 70,000 words to kindle, slap a $9.95 price tag on it, and see if anyone bites.

      • Although maybe I’m the one not giving the public enough credit.

        Ultimately the public will figure out a way to filter out the crap themselves (better aggregation of reviews, ratings etc.), and over time we’ll see that the crap doesn’t sell and the good stuff does.

        Should be interesting.

  265. Ack, Mary, you have been through the ringer.I realize I am coming to this post late, and hope that you’ve had some wonderful successes between it and now…? I guess I’ve been lucky–two of the three agents I’ve been repped by have focused primarily on literary fiction, and these hard-working, literature-loving women would occasionally reveal a tidbit that let me know just how much ardor, and unpaid time, they put into some of their so-called “quieter” projects. In my own work they sensed crossover potential–it’s (hopefully) commercial, but the writing and characterization is also emphasized (again, said with hope and reference to my intent). I have been lucky to find them, and I know the experience is not exactly common. That whole queryfail was hurtful to many, and there are so many writers who have queried for aeons without success. I’m sure some of that is due to the reasons you cite. The only perspective I have is to hang in there till you stumble upon the person who gets your work enough to champion it. There are still people who do this. But so much in this business is about click–and that, I find, is as rare as finding the next Stephanie Meyers.

    • Thanks, Jenny. I have had several wonderful successes since last April, but none of them relate to the novel I was writing about. I’m taking a final stab at a multiple submission to a few publishers, and then will self-publish just to get it off my desk. And I will at the same time, I hope, prove my point by attracting a wide readership. :)

  266. Good for you Mary. You go, girl! As I said, someday, the democracy of the internet just might make agents irrelevent.

    Kindle is great, but it’s not easy to format into Kindle.

    I wonder if there are specialists that will format a manuscript for Kindle for a fee.

    Keep moving on.

  267. Jesus Christ, Mary, frustrated much? I am going to be up-front, and I know you won’t like it, but I had to skim through this article, because parts of it made me feel like I was losing five minutes of my life I wanted back. “I am an ARTISTE,” never gets old to people who feel like they’re in the same boat, but aren’t you trying to publish to make money from what you love doing? It seems a little hypocritical to yell about money-grubbing agents when we all want to publish for the gazillions of dollars (and ass-kissing from publishers trying to woo our profit potential to their publishing house) we stand to make writing. This usually is the battlee cry of the wrriter who is skilled enough to create boring artsy crap, but not skilled enough to conform to the demands of the market. There isn’t a single movie or television show that gets made unless someone with money really thinks it can sell soap or iPods, so why should publishing, as an entertainmeent medium, be any different? I’m just being honest here. Conform to the market. A freelance writer can’t always write what he or she wants to write to make money; sometimes they have to write about car seats or pig farms. Conform to the market demands if you want to succeed — don’t try to tell the market to conform around you.

    • Please read the hundreds of comments just like yours already on this thread. I’ve heard it all before. Sometimes from people who sound as venomous and unread and uninformed as you do and sometimes from people who sound genuinely caring and thoughtful and concerned about good writing as I am. I have not changed my view one iota in the past year, and I am now going to put my own money where my mouth is. Just stand by, and watch. And while you’re waiting, read a few posts on this site: Scroll down the list of topics. You’ll find several about agents that you might learn from. And others about publishing.

      As a freelancer, I write what the client wants. As an artist, I create what I want. You should too. If you will actually take five minutes of your life to read my essay, instead of just saying that you have, you will discover that I am saying that the agents don’t KNOW what the market might want, and should not be the arbiters of taste. Please, read before you write.

  268. Of everything Mary wrote, one point alluded to something that rings true to me. As a fiction writer trying to get an agent, I feel like it’s odd when an agent requires a query or submission to be accompanied by a “marketing plan” or the like. If you’re an agent and welcome queries/submissions from new authors, isn’t it a lot to ask for more than a standard letter, synopsis, c.v., and the ms.? Isn’t it kind of unreasonable to expect a first-time novelist to know the proper, most accurate way to market the book to publishers and the world? If agents’ advice is to write, write, write–work on the craft–isn’t spending hours and days and weeks and months learning the industry and trends and marketing, as an outsider looking (read: guessing) in, to get to the point of producing a well-informed, accurate marketing plan, counterproductive for a writer?

  269. In the meantime, brick and mortar is going the way of the dinosaurs and the democracy of e-books is opening things up to true creativity, rather than cookie-cutter boredom.

  270. Your response fills the bill of words of a self-righteous — well, it starts with a C and rhymes with hunt. Good job being as narcissistic and as idiotic as humanly possible, shooting yourself in the foot. So when someone disagrees with you and calls your writing absolutely boring (which it is), they’re venomous and unread, but when they kiss your ass and coddle your ego, they “care about good writing.” You’re truly blind and you’ve wrapped your sensitive little ego in what is to be simply work. Just shut up, take the kids to soccer practice, and quit annoying your poor, long-suffering husband with tirades about an occupation you work in only in your overly-rich fantasy life. Comfort yourself with some self-fornication while you’re pissing and moaning about what an unappreciated artiste you are, and I know time will show I’m right, while you suffer your path of continued and deepening obscurity. Adieu.

  271. Mary,

    Isn’t it astounding how awful some people can be? Kind of like my boyfriend’s ex-wife who actually broke into his house last week, with me naked and sound asleep next to him. Started screaming and carrying on. Perhaps we can take comfort in using such people as models for our villains?

    Best, Jody

  272. And what a coward that “Ilya Krlinsky” is, no photo, bogus name, and bogus link!
    What do you think, some pathetic loser killing time when drunk? Needs psychiatric help or some other way to find meaning in life, anyway.

  273. great stuff, Mary. Did you read my “dear publisher” article back in January?

    I just want to add on the subject of conforming to the market, I, and more than a handful of others like me, already have grind-like day jobs that we have to do to pay the bills. Why would we want to turn the thing we love doing into another such grind? I self-publish because that’s how I can write the kind of literature I am happy writing, and at the same time I can offer readers the genuine choice of experimental fiction they won’t find in many publishing houses.

    Scientifically, the problem with talking about the market is that it lacks a control group. Publishers CAN point to what DOES work, but it is much harder for them to point to examples of things that DON’T work. In other words, “Do write like this, readers love it” is a valid observation. “Don’t write like this, readers hate it” much less so – the independent and self-publishing sectors are the only places that can offer any data – and of course, owing to the lack of marketing muscle they are not comparative data. But I guarantee you this musch – the moment the truly indie sector has a breakout success, every publishing house will try to pile up the looky likeys. So people need to be very careful using the “conform to the market and give readers what they want” argument. Sometimes it is only by NOT conforming to the market that we can give readers something they really want to read – something the market would never have put out there.

    It is true that bad logic is commonplace in these arguments, but that’s no excuse for it.

    • Dan and Mary,

      All these years the auto makers have been saying the same thing about gas guzzling SUVs…Rather than leading the way to fuel efficiency they’d simply say, it’s what the people want.

      While they kept building the “environmentally immoral” gas guzzlers, the Japenese were cornering the market with hybrid technology.

      Sometimes it’s the visionaries who end up making the bucks. The same thing applies to good books.

      There’s no room for a Cat’s Cradle in the cookie cutter boredom, but things are changing. There’s some new publishers that are setting the paradigm. They are no fee POD publishers who publish good stories written by new authors and take all the risks, and only ask for a share of the profits…I think that’s where things are going to go.

  274. Mary,

    If you like dystopian thrillers you’ll enjoy my book, God’s Vacation. It should be out in paperback and e-books by this summer.

  275. Ouch. Very discouraging unless many editors pay attention and take action on exactly your points. I’m waiting.
    Went into Barnes and Noble yesterday (for the free Wi-Fi) and bumped into what’s being sold this month. Wow. It’s always, “Wow” when I got there.

  276. A number of writers on this thread remind us that “publishing is a BUSINESS.”

    I would understand an agent’s declining my submission because it isn’t likely to sell.

    I don’t understand agents saying I’m an “excellent writer,” but they’re just not enthralled enough to do anything about it.

    Enthusiasm is always welcome — but what writers need most from agents is marketing skill and insight. I’d appreciate more of that, and less fluff about what they “relate to” or “feel connected to” or “passionate about.” With due respect, I really don’t care.

    I appreciate fiction that I don’t immediately “connect to,” that challenges and widens my range of understanding. And I don’t think I’m alone.

    Agents claim in their boilerplate declines, “this is such a subjective business.” But it actually isn’t. There are standards for what constitutes good writing. And if they’re worth their salt, these agents should know how to discover and sell good writing — even if they don’t “relate to” it on a given day, in a given mood.

  277. Not feeling “enthusiastic enough” about a certain property is bullshit. Tens of millions of titles have been sold both here and in the UK in the generation since literary agents became an official secondary gatekeeper.

    Are we to believe that every single book was wildly and unconditionally loved by every agent? Gee, and I thought true love happened only once in a lifetime, if that. Who’d a’thunk it?

    I can’t wait for the day when literary agents go the way of blacksmiths and slave traders. They are a cancer on the literary culture of America.

  278. Absolutely! I especially love the comment about their supposed interest in literary fiction. Horse manure. They wouldn’t know great writing if it smacked them upside the head. Fight the power!

    • LOL! I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but it sounds great to me! I’m loving how the responses are getting more intelligent and more supportive over time. Someone should create a graph. All of the fans of Nathan Bransford et al seem to have faded into the mists….. Mind you, I hear that even Nathan has seen the light and come over to the creative side.

  279. I don’t know what’s responsible for this flurry of comments on a two year-old post or what the “Agent’s Hitler mob” is but I’ve been following the links in this post and wrote some choice comments at both of Janet Reid’s sites as well as Nathan’s. There’s no telling if they’ve published my comments. But I let them have it with both barrels. Hey, why not get the most bang for my buck? I’ve completely given up on those parasites because it no longer matters to those pricks what I send them. I will always get a form rejection letter for all my talent, respect and consideration.

    I got a form rejection letter from Ben Greenberg, senior editor at Grand Central Publishing. I’d called up asking why my disk of my novel American Zen was sent back and they put me on the phone with him. He wound up soliciting my book. Five months later I heard back from him after I’d sent a tickler email asking what was going on. He told me that, while I sounded like Hunter D. Thompson (AZ is a very political book) and that it has life experience that you just cannot fake, he didn’t feel “emotionally connected” enough to the book so that he could sell it.

    #1, I’ve never read an HST book in my life so he can’t influence me. #2, aside from a few autobiographical nuggets, American Zen is a pure work of fiction. So, yeah, Mr. Greenberg, you CAN fake it if you’re good.

    So I fired off a letter giving him my thoughts including telling him how and where he went wrong and that his “emotional connection” isn’t germane. Since when is emotion a part o the corporate decision-making process and since when should the reader give a shit about his level of emotional connectivity? I ended the letter by telling him he was making the most colossal blunder of his fledgling career (he’s only 28) and demanded my disk back.

    I’ve concluded that editors can be just as stupid and close-minded as agents. “Emotionally connected”??? How much emotional connectivity can you establish with a slapdash hack like Ted DeKker (Hey, Teddy, it’s either upper or lower case. Pick one and stick with it), one of Grand Central’s stable of authors?

    Like I said at Janet Reid’s and Nathan’s sites: Kindle: Make friends with it. I have and my first royalty payment is coming in a any day now. My second book, The Toy Cop, is about to go live in Kindle and I’m looking to expand to Nook, as well. We don’t need agents. Fuck them all. Write them out of the equation and keep your 15%.

  280. I regret only discovering this post after nearly two years, but I feel it incumbent on me to add my two cents in the hopes that another aspect of why the ‘lit agents as gatekeepers’ system is a disaster. Consider the following:

    In 1998, the Modern Library put together a list of what they felt to be the 100 best novels (of the 20th century) in the English language. Notwithstanding the list’s many flaws (and there are plenty), one interesting thing struck me – the list really starts to thin out in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Only two books from the 80’s were included in the list – 1980 and 1983, respectively (and even then, the books from the 70’s and 80’s were towards the bottom of the list). It’s often said that any work of art takes some time to be regarded as a classic, but I find it unlikely that if the Modern Library came up with an updated list that they would include any books more modern.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, the late 70’s/early 80’s is also when the lit agents are said to have assumed the gatekeeper role more prominently. I see the list (again I must say, notwithstanding its flaws) as perfect evidence of a cause-effect sort of relationship – that is, as you have already asserted, that lit agents have effectively choked off all of the talent. This is also why I blame the lit agents for most of the publishing industry’s woes rather than the publishing industry itself; when publishers accepted manuscripts directly, they published good stuff.

    If people such as William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Vladimir Nabokov (amongst others, and not merely restricted to the 20th century) had to contend with lit agents, none of them would have been published.

    But then again, maybe I’m wrong. Either way, it’s all pretty interesting to think about. I look forward to hearing what some other people have to say about this.

    -Scott S

  281. I’d say that probably 95% of those books were published without the interference and obstructionism of literary agents.

    It’s a bit of a slippery slope to conclude that agents are to blame for the thinning out of books that one would preserve for posterity but evidence is out there supporting such an assertion. The more dominant that agents have become, the lower the quality of the finished product. And any agent or editor or publishing executive will even freely admit: It’s not about quality, it’s about sales, making the maximum amount of money in the briefest possible time and fuck cultivating the author.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Literary agents are brain dead scum and that includes the ones who are attorneys, former editors, working writers, those with sheepskins in English literature, what have you. The emphasis you see on opening weekends at the box office, where a movie is pronounced either a hit or a flop in the first 2-3 days of its premier, is creeping into the bookstores. Nowadays, if you don’t hit the ground running and start showing a profit within 3-4 weeks, your books get sent back to the shredder.

    Yet at the same time, the other movement has been to place more and more of the burdens of publicity and advertising on the author’s shoulders since publishing (if your name isn’t Sarah fucking Palin or George W. Bush) is increasingly become a boutique/vanity press hybrid. It’s a boutique if you’re brain-dead half-term governor and failed vice presidential candidate and a glorified vanity press if you’re not a “name.” If you’re a former “president” like Bush, a half witted, half term governor or a Defense Secretary who ought to be up on war crimes charges, or John Grisham or Stephen King, then you deserve millions in advertising revenue despite already having household name recognition and that the internet and word of mouth will suffice.

    So, if your book fails, it’s not the publisher’s fault or the agent’s but your own because it wasn’t good enough, didn’t catch on fire fast enough and/or because you didn’t sell it aggressively enough. And the author, not the agent or publisher, gets branded with the big red “L” on their forehead.

  282. The door to freedom is self-publishing. Most readers can’t tell which books have been self-published and which are published through traditional presses even now. The blog reviewers will soon start emerging who can help us separate the wheat from the chaff, so that major newspapers on whom we have relied to tell us about excellent writing in the past will not be so necessary. Literary agents will have no role in the process any more. As writers, we will merely take our books to the very best freelance editors available, pay them, then take our edited books to CreateSpace and publish them, and then promote them like hell. No more gatekeepers, and higher royalty returns. I’m already moving in that direction and I feel a zest to my writing career that’s been missing for years when “others” were in control of my destiny. No more. Must write a blog post about this soon……

  283. Well, Mary, I’m not quite as enthusiastic as you about the imminent demise of the literary agency as gatekeeper. Those well-coiffed parasites are as deeply entrenched in the publishing business as ever and there are few signs they’re relinquishing their grip. They’re still very wealthy, very arrogant, very snobbish and that was never more apparent than when I got into a flame war on Twitter last year with some of them. They actually think their shit doesn’t stink and, as you mentioned in your original post, they literally look their noses down on people like us. They’re allowed to ridicule us, not vice versa.

    The downside to your comment (and there’s always a downside) is that Freedom does not necessarily equate with anything admirable or enviable. With self publication comes freedom, yes, but freedom is a double-edged sword. With FREEDOM comes the lack of an advertising and distribution apparatus (although POD publishing eliminates the need for traditional distribution).

    But without the soapbox of a traditional publisher, you’re basically left to twist in the wind and if you’ve published on Kindle, God help you if you try to sell your book at a BOOK SELLING SITE. The trolls will scurry out of nowhere to kick down your little sand castle, write shitty little negative comments, vote down and collapse your contribution, put you in “ignore”, etc. If you’re not practically giving your book away (since you’re an indie author, you’re simply not as good as a “real” author, doncha know?), then they refuse to pay top dollar or even half price for a book that may just be even better than the standard fare offered up at Borders and Barnes & Noble.

    Plus, CreateSpace costs money and, after the introductory email, you’ll be amazed to see how fast their interest in you drops when you tell them you’re unemployed haven’t a dollar to spare to help fatten up their bottom line. Same with iUniverse, Cambridge House Books, etc. (And with the latter, their commitment toward underwriting the publication expenses dramatically plunges when it’s established that you don’t have the marketing platform of a Bill O’Reilly (Yes, they actually used him as an example). Then it’s no longer a 50/50 split.

    So freedom ain’t all what’s cracked up to be. Freedom could mean simply the freedom to starve and to be ignored.

  284. I’m happy to see some further discussion on this point, and feel incumbent yet again to add another two cents. In particular, there are two points I wish to say regarding the big publishers:

    1. My previous point of the Modern Library list stopping when lit agents became the gatekeepers is interesting when you consider that all of the big publishers like to publish the classics. This is a bit strange considering that they rely on lit agents for their material who do not wish to take chances on the next writer of a potential classic because they deem it is not in style.

    In other words, they like that the works of Dickens, Thoreau, Eliot, Shakespeare, etc. are used in schools because they provide an easy route for some money, but yet the publishers haven’t kept open their doors for their successors. They seem content to rest on the steady revenue they bring without thinking about the future. Some publisher had to take a chance on them in the past for them to continue to be recognized as classics today, but yet the big publishers don’t seem to realize this.

    2. Mary’s points of self-publishing have their merit, but it is futile (as Jurassicpork has asserted – though this is also from a purely financial standpoint – many would continue to write as I do due to its compulsive nature) without decent marketing. This problem has existed in the music industry for a considerable time as the big music labels have until recently dominated the radio airwaves because of an illegal practice known as payola. This problem still exists, but with the internet the radio has become less important.

    A good solution would be for some of us to take the initiative and forge relationships with the big online outlets to muscle in on the big publishers and their own ‘payola’ of sorts to gain some attention. But then again, with the vertical, horizontal, and whatever other direction integration of media companies today, this could be difficult. Let’s just hope that the small publishers will pick up the slack and take a chance on the literary folks such as us.

    -Scott S

  285. Question #1: Has anyone bought Jeff Herman’s Guide for 2011?

    Question #2: If so, does anyone else besides me feel ripped off?

    If you compare Herman’s 2010 and 2011 GUIDES, you’ll note they’re almost identical. Even the misspellings have gone uncorrected (e.g. On pgs 492 and 496 of the ’10 and ’11 editions respectively, Adam Chormy’s surname is spelled as “Chromy”.). Apparently, Jeffy is phoning it in these days. Not only are the covers identical, but the essays have not been revised or changed in the slightest. The agencies are even almost on the same pages and the profiles they’d submitted haven’t been changed.

    I feel as I’ve been ripped off. In fact, when it came in the mail, I had run back to my library to check and see that they didn’t send me a copy I already owned.

  286. Hi Mary,

    Dana (from the ABNA boards) here as promised. Boy, did you ever open up a can-o-worms with this one judging from the comments! I think you mentioned that was part of your goal, as was keeping the discussion about this problem going.

    I’ll preface my comments by writing that my fiction falls under at least two genre categories you mention – fantasy, romance – though I would argue that my novel is far from flimsy and bubble gummy. No vampires – I do ghosts. In addition to “grabbing the reader by the nuts” (quoting you from one ABNA thread, I think) with the more thrilling elements, you might be interested to know that I cleverly (I hope) incorporate more “literary” themes of faith (in addition to Judeo-Christian, I did a fair amount of *gulp* research on Tibetan Buddhism), feminism in faith, how our beliefs in higher beings reflect how we view ourselves as human, the struggles encountered by the disabled and their primary care givers, and grief. Don’t knock something just based on genre – you might be surprised what you’ll find if you dig a little deeper.

    You might also be interested to know that, in spite of writing within a very popular and marketable genre, I have yet to score an agent. Why is that? Well, I’ll just own the fact that, up until recently, my pitch and query letters were just God-awful bad! Getting feedback from various folks in the publishing industry, other authors, and a free-lance editor have improved it. That’s why it advanced in ABNA 2011. That’s why I’m convinced I can score an agent if I just keep on trying, networking (don’t think I’m above dropping that free-lance editor’s name!), and revising until I get it right.

    I don’t doubt you are a talented writer. Having looked on your website, I also don’t doubt that you can write a good pitch. Hell, I would like to buy both of your books based on the pitches. The trick is to learn to write a GREAT pitch, and that comes with practice, practice, practice! You coach scientists in grant writing, right? It took me about 3 years of practice, revision, re-revision, workshops, weeping and gnashing of teeth, etc. to learn how to condense the major point of my research into a 200 word abstract summary that would convince members of a review panel to (a) read the whole grant and (b) to recommend funding. I think this is comparable to pitch writing. It’s hard. It sucks. But you just have to do it. What are your other options? I’m all about complaining – it’s healthy and cathartic. But it won’t get you anywhere. The system isn’t going to change anytime soon. Work your pitch. I have every confidence that you can.

    The only other comment I would like to make (and this goes back to the ABNA boards and my little pal Sid of the “masterpiece” literary novel with the really crappy pitch) deals with attitude. Yes, I know, “Hello pot, kettle calling.” Bear with me, OK? Elitism, intentional or not, is a turn off. It will turn off readers, it appears to turn off other writers judging from comments on this essay, and it isn’t going to get you anywhere. Tastes vary. I enjoy Twain, Poe, Hemingway, Dickens, and even Dumas (when he gets to his point after 15 color adjective, that is). I also enjoy Stephen King, Charlaine Harris, Thomas Harris, and JK Rowling. There’s room for all. I don’t enjoy being told that I SHOULD be reading from list A and that list B is worthless. I get to decide what I want to read, not someone from the NY Times.

    I can also tell you that although Sid what’s-his-face may, in fact, be God’s gift to literature, I will never, ever, under any circumstance read his work. Why? Because his attitude really pissed me off. Coming across as elitist/snobby/hoity-toity/high-falutin’ will piss off a lot of potential readers. Don’t let that happen to you, Mary. Engage your readers/potential agents/editors and make them want to read your work. Please!

  287. I agree. When I submit my work, I usually check the agents “favorite” books.
    And what i find is crap. I frightens me that my novel has a story!
    White teen girls having sex is what’s hot right now. The more boys involved the better!

  288. Thanks for your post. I got tired of agents making decisions about my career solely based on my query letters, especially when every agent has a different idea of what makes a good query.

    I’ve decided to try the self publishing route, and I’ve been able to sell a few books so far, not many yet, but more than if I was still waiting for an agent. I am enjoying being in the game.

  289. Mary, you blow my mind! Its so refreshing to know I’m not alone on my feelings of literary agents. Query letters are such a make/ or break (mostly break) deal that even getting them to accept a first chapter is a struggle. Half the time its the interns emailing on behalf of the agent, giving me a sweet and short rejection- and no offense to the intern, but I find it insulting-as much as getting the old ‘Dear Author’- more like Dear John letter, letting me know they are either not interested at this time or have a full clientele, despite their website saying other wise. I feel they are saying, “It won’t make me enough money right away-besides I barely read the query”.
    I’m more angry at an article I read (can’t remember the agent) said that she sometimes would dismiss a query if there was a single grammar issue (though it should be polished, that is just petty), almost looking for an issue before reading what it was actually about.

  290. I admit that I have no experience in the world of writing fiction; I’m a researcher and writer of nonfiction books, a self-taught horticulturist with one university-published piece under my belt, and my current manuscript is about the history of pop culture from an advertiser’s point of view. However, my gripe is with the double standard requiring the writer to query to a specific agent, using their correct name (“Dear Agent” is an absolute no no). That first part is no problem. But when their rejection is sent, if at all, it’s usually addressed to…wait for it…”Dear Author.” I know that literary agents are busy, and this criticism isn’t directed towards every one, but would a quick “Thanks for thinking about me, {insert name of writer here}” be too much to ask in return? We’re supposed to be supportive of each other, we’re in the same boat. Let’s not forget that.

    In my opinion, a good agent is worth their weight in gold. And a good book is priceless. But so often it’s a matter of finding the right fit, at the right time.

    To all of the hopeful writers out there, please don’t forget that Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind manuscript was rejected dozens of times before finally being published. Your Erroneous Zones was rejected over fifty times before it was accepted, then ended up on the New York Times bestseller list.

    Best wishes to all.

  291. I dislike agents for one reason, and one alone: their unbridled arrogance. Look at all those websites in which agents publicly slag the manuscripts they receive. Think of it: those writers have slaved over those books and sent it trustingly to those agents, only to see their efforts being shred to pieces by people who wear their mean-spiritedness as a badge of honor.

    It gets even worse in cases where the work being lambasted is not even that bad, aside perhaps from a a grammatical flub. Why do agents do this? Are they perhaps jealous that there are people out there that dare to be creative, as they themselves sit on their pompous asses, being all high and mighty, but incapable to come with anything worthwhile themselves?

    Literary agents are a weird bunch and best avoided. The sooner they disappear, the better. Perhaps they can do something more worthwhile with their time, like selling second-hand cars.

  292. I understand your frustration too well. But I wouldn’t entirely blame the literary agents. It really is the fault of the publishers. How many times do you hear those three words “no unsolicated manuscripts”

    The publishing industry is one big ego driven business comprised of snob driven individuals who know nothing about talent but only on guessing at what makes them money. Can you believe the only reason why JK Rowling found success in Harry Potter was because the child of her publisher liked the book? Not the publisher, but the child realising what talent is.

    Literary agents are really the middle men of the publishing industry, but judging by how the ebook industry is working, it appears that the both the publishing industry and literary agents are losing their status. Embrace the new ebook format, because eventually, the publishing industry along with the literary agencies will collapse like the music industry. It is inevitable. Think about it. Retailers and shops are closing down because of online shopping at discounts, mp3 formats killing of the music industry, films and tv shows are losing viewers because of online streaming and now ebooks affecting the publishing industry. Writing books are now going to become part of the digital era. Anyone who challenges this notion otherwise, is in complete self denial. Remember Borders?

    For once, the ebook format allows the independent writer with no connections to self-publish his/her book without the wrath and suffering of the snob driven publishing industry and the arrogance of literary agents.

  293. You make some great points, but it’s tough times and I suspect that as others have said that s*** doesn’t roll uphill. With places like Borders closing (not to mention all the indie book stores) I can see the drive for ‘assured sellers’ being even greater. That said, there has to be a middle ground and the drive is on in the indie publishing community & I can’t but think it will change things. But then I always was an optimist. I appreciate your ‘take no prisoners’ approach. Thanks so much for the post.

    • Thanks for your feedback. Since I wrote this post, life has become much easier for “indie” authors — and the changing realities of the publishing business mean that there is less and less stigma attached to self-publishing.

      • When I read what you said first off, I didn’t really care about whether there was absolute accuracy in your lament to wonderful publishers versus evil agents standing in the way – it was more a general vituperation of all that is wrong, and, here or there the facts didn’t matter so much because I heard THE VOICE OF LITERARY TRUTH, and that’s enough for me. What I don’t understand is why everyone is nit-picking, and I can see you might have to spend quite a while saying things like, ‘uhm, no, it’s not the actual genre of vampire novels I am criticising, of course Bram Stoker is fine, it’s duff fallacious spin-offs from the inventions of an original mind, and the destruction of THAT potential…’ and hours later, have explained yourself to a moron who will just criticise you elsewhere for whatever whatever because they didn’t grab the merciless VOICE OF LITERARY TRUTH to begin with. So with these dull critiques of your snobbery re High and Low Art. No, no, no. I know about Dickens – actually I do find Dickens a little crass – but I doubt you’re binning The Shining, or that your interpretation of High Art doesn’t include – sorry, I am slowing down here, because I hate so much having to argue this – superb literary innovators who very well may have mercilessly propelled their work as pap, or even thought it WAS pap, once upon a time, partly because the quality of spoken language was practically ‘literary’ for starters, or.. oh, whatever whatever; it’s the total, complete and utter destruction of genius at this present time you’re concerned about. Isn’t that it? And the rest is little pieces of torn up paper floating in the wind. It’s a passionate article that can only do so much in so short a space and with such a premise. And you DID that. I’m satisfied, and I’m snotty. Who cares if it’s agents or publishers at fault when you’re creating a plaint this plangent and this true? How could so many miss the point? I had not thought Death had undone so many. This is heartfelt, and long-awaited. It reminds me of Simon dying in Lord of The Flies; but what DOESN’T. I must be off now, to beat some eight year old for misunderstanding Milton.

  294. What went wrong with publishing is that major publishers today want every author they sign up to be a bestseller.
    Agents are only sending manuscripts to publishers that they think the publisher wants.
    What the publishers want, in general, is stuff that reflects current commercial reading trends.
    The general reading public isn’t interested in good literature, they’re only interested in reading a good story. Not the same thing.
    Twilight probably isn’t good literatue, but it’s a good story…see the diff?
    Publishing is a business, just like banking and movie making.
    The profits lie in the big commercial productions…which is why The Avengers outsell tickets compared to Bridges of Madison County.
    But authors no longer have to worry about agents or publishers…just go ebook your stuff on Kindle.
    Then readers will be the sole judges of your work.
    I don’t like the majority of agents myself…mainly because of their arrogant attitude.
    A lady at Curtis Brown states on her subs blurb that if she isn’t interested in your manuscripit she won’t even bother to reply.
    That’s just rude.
    A quick ‘Thank you for taking the trouble to send us your story, but we don’t think its right for us’ would be all that is needed.
    But this bitch won’t even do the author the courtesy of a reply.
    That’s why I dislike a lot of literary agents.

    • Thanks for your comment!

      I wrote that blog post about four years ago. Things have changed dramatically since then. We don’t need agents any more.

      Best wishes to you.

  295. Wonderful blog! I found it while browsing on Yahoo News.
    Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo News?
    I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Many thanks


  296. I agree. But at the same time literary fiction doesn’t sell well unless it has a plot and it never does.

  297. Did you ever send out this letter? I believe it should be a mass mailing to every publishing house in the country. It’ll aggravate 99% of them who, like professional athletes, think they’re divine and immune to criticism, but at least it’ll get them thinking.

    • Alejandro, I had just a huge response from agents and their acolytes at the time this was published in 2009 (check out some of the 300+ comments). I got flogged. It was an interesting experience that didn’t change my thinking one bit. I knew that most of those angry people were either agents themselves (the most frequent commenter was – Nathan Bransford. He’s since become a children’s writer, I think) or were writers trying to get an agent. In the four+ years that have elapsed since, agents have taken a battering, for good reason. I didn’t bother to send to actual publishers, because I figured they could read it here. It still gets a couple of hits a day: the post has had thousands of hits over the years.

      Thanks for your comment!

  298. I see one major, unavoidable issue in agency interaction with authors: rewriting, editing, and approval. There are far too many agents who ask writers to re-write something so they can better understand the writer behind the writing. They want someone who follows rules, makes tonal adjustments perfectly, entertains every opinion, writes legible characters who make sense, and above all, an author who can sit in front of a crowd and REALLY sell their book… while looking pretty. Sadly, literary novelists aren’t usually of this ilk. They ARE, most often, routine driven readers and thinkers with a horrid dispersement of facial features. (Poets, on the other hand, may be the best for agents. They could make little bundles with the poets willing to write poems they can perform, read at conferences, ‘slams’, t.v. shows, and the rest–do we see that? No. We don’t see poetry anywhere, unless we’re listening to NPR. Not that poets are any better looking, or not. Poetry books by DoubleDay en masse could produce fortunes, and a new thriving culture of poetry majors to buy the little books.)

    Most media, culture, and wallets in the US regard reading and writing as chore, escape, or divergence; temporary, oblique, unstable, unfulfilling. The sooner this culture sees reading literature as its own unique experience, we’re destined to have agents do their very best to feed the world Self Help, YA, New Adult, and targeted writing. It’s fantastic that cycles are a part of all history, because we’ve been without a literate, conscious public since the fifties, and some time soon we will have a cultural change that includes silent sustained reading with an impetus on reader interaction with a text, texts meant for participation as a personal literary event, and long gone will be writing that attempts to do what T.V. and movies do well: simply entertain. (or they’ll be there, but just not in such overwhelming numbers…the majority)

    What Walters does here is bring to front and center a damning feeling that most thinking, worrying, obsessing writers feel: cultural rejection. It’s not so much their work rejected that hurts, but that they’ve always been swept to the outside perimeter and there’s little out there published since the late 60’s involving the real outsider, the reader most perfectly identified by Colin Wilson. Sure, the 80’s had wonderfully real literature, and Saunders and writers like him produce fine things today, but they’re in a vacuum made by 35 or 40 agents and publishers’ life experiences. Even independent presses are conservative and quick to publish a certain ‘type’ of outsider. Graywolf, New Directions, these presses close their doors more often than open them now, and good luck submitting to them; the midlist authors, writers, poets, and journalists have fallen into their ranks from FSG, S&S, Knopf, ACE (hah!), Random, and open submissions have closed, query at will. Young writers from New York overwhelm the big houses with their often hip and stylized poem/novels, and most obviously their readership and agency support keeps them published, having had their first push from the faculties in their MFA programs. But, the real outsider writing a novel will be rejected within the first few sentences, if not because they’re fat, because they’re black, Russian, male, mouse, squirrel or other. Because the market doesn’t understand, and doesn’t want to understand that voice, those characters, or that place. The market wants to constantly see itself do stupid tricks, and or kill lots of things with ancient weapons, or futuristic weapons, or as a supernatural beast, or that kind of story best kept for television: teen romance, YA, New Adult, ‘women’s lit’ (which shouldn’t exist and is a construct of a bunch of sexist bastards from the 70’s calling themselves feminist), blah. As you can see, this conversation will always entail a certain amount of cultural judgement. For that, I’m sorry. But it’s part of the thought.

    Literary Novelists, who can only write literary novels or die, should look away from publishing and ignore the culture that currently rejects them. And yes, to them, all the rest of the writers out there who can write ‘fluff’ should be decapitated; they wonder if those people have ever ‘had’ to write at all. When this time period, the 80’s to the 2020’s, is looked back upon, there will be a lot of hemming and hawing over how Wall Street and Lobbyists created marketplace devices so easily cut and pasted into other areas of commerce, with equal pitfalls and outcomes. But, at that point, there may be room for the outsider, the literary novelist, and they may feel accepted and allowed to stay outsider, appreciated in their world their way, and maybe, possibly, there will be more silent sustained reading where readers interact and participate with their texts and feel apart of something created within themselves, and not something merely shoveled down their perfect, chemlawn, pinesol, sugarless cupcake, pie holes.

    -From the alley of Nowan Hasm

    P.S. Can we please have more writing contests open to the public from the big publishers? Please? Cape is having one in June, so submit your literary (ONLY) novels to them.