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

by Mary W. Walters

I have been amazed and perplexed by the traffic that has visited my “Talent Killers” article. In the first ten days, the post received more than 13,500 “hits,” and more than 300 comments.

Here’s what I have observed in the feedback I’ve received:

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

In addition to the above agent-specific points, many people (including a number of self-appointed critics and those who wanted to be seen merely as “interested readers”) came by to argue that:

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

I am unmoved

NO ONE who has responded to my article has said a word to dispute my underlying assertion (or accusation, if you will), which was—and continues to be—that literary agents are excluding from consideration by major publishing houses those writers who, after one or more books with smaller presses, have reached a stage where they are ready to reach a much wider audience–and whose books have the potential to make substantial sales in that wider market. Most agents do not want to work with these writers because they do not command the kind of advance that makes them worth the bother from an immediate economic point of view for the agents (and the agents alone: everyone else stands to benefit economically). Major publishing houses therefore never become aware of the existence of these writers.

Some solutions?

Nearly two weeks after this article’s originally posting, during which time I have carefully read all of the responses (some of which agreed in whole or in part with my thesis, and even enhanced my position), two possible solutions to this problem have suggested themselves to me–aside from the one I proposed in the original essay (which was to eliminate agents as a group).

Here are my ideas:

1) Those agents who believe that mid-list writers are essentially over-the-hill has-beens who are never going to make it in the world of commercial publishing–whom they would love to help, if they could only afford to do so–should say so publicly. They should announce on their websites that they discourage contact with them from all writers who have published books with established literary presses in the past. (This would be a huge relief to those of us who fall into this category, for several reasons. We would at least know what we are dealing with. It would save us significant amounts of time–it takes me about an hour to develop each and every query letter–that we could be using to write our next novels. It would allow us to realize that it is not our writing but our status that is being rejected); and

2.) Little side doors should open in the walls of established publishers that permit writers with one or more books previously published with established literary presses (NOT self-published writers) to bypass the agents and go directly to the editors–and to negotiate their terms with them directly if they wish to do that. This option simply acknowledges the excellence of an entirely different kind of jury/gatekeeper (the literary press) that is, like literary agents, pre-sorting the slush piles and picking out the very best writers. It also contributes to the idea that writers — like filmmakers, visual artists, actors, and flautists — may actually get better with time.

I encourage readers to submit other solutions and/or to comment on the ones I have suggested.


Note: Future installments of The Militant Writer will

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

35 responses

  1. “literary agents are excluding from consideration by major publishing houses those writers who, after one or more books with smaller presses, have reached a stage where they are ready to reach a much wider audience–and whose books have the potential to make substantial sales in that wider market.”

    One argument against the above: Joseph Boyden, winner of this year’s Giller Prize for “Through Black Spruce.” Boyden’s first book (Born With a Tooth) was a literary short-story collection published by a small press.

    On the strength of his first novel, “Three Day Road,” a literary novel, Boyden landed a top-flight agent that secured him a two-book deal with a major publisher, after taking the book to auction. “Three Day Road” has since become a best-seller and award winner that has been published in eleven languages. Boyden’s original publisher, Penguin Canada (Viking), went after him specifically because they WANTED literary writers.

  2. A couple of other things I wanted to throw out there, since I have the honor of kicking off the discussion:

    A note of hope to literary authors:

    In the group of writers I know, six of us are currently agented/under contract/published. Three are literary, two are YA, and one is “commercial.” Two of the literary are female, as are both YA authors. The men are one literary and one commercial. Of the above, it took the commercial author the longest to get an agent.

    One of the women writing literary signed a two-book deal with Harper Collins on the strength of her SHORT-STORY collection, with a novel, unwritten at the time, to follow.

    From what I can see, Mary, your conflict should be with editors, because agents deliver what editors demand. Editors are not sitting around waiting for books, their desks bereft of quality literary fiction to publish because agents are choking off the supply. Pleasing editors is the only way an agent can stay in business. Every major publishing house has at least one large imprint dedicated to literary fiction.

    I’m not sure what qualifies as an “established literary press.” Are “small” and “literary” synonymous? Couldn’t Riverhead (Penguin), or Knopf (Random House) qualify as literary presses? This is something I’d like to see defined/discussed. And I would be curious to know if agents and or editors pay any attention to the smaller presses, where some untapped talent most definitely lies.

  3. It takes you an hour to write every query letter? Uh, you basically knock out one great one and send the same thing to every agent & editor.

  4. Jennifer, if I am trying to address the concerns and interests of the specific agent, that means I need to read who else they are working with to make sure they are representing at least some ‘literary’ writers, and then direct my letter at them in light of what I have read about them on their websites and any on-line interviews I’ve read about them. In addition, some want a letter and a summary. Some just want a query. They’re all different.

    This is why I complain about having 60 rejections. When I sent a boilerplate one time, I got almost no response at all. When I take the time, I get personal responses. Most of which still just say “no,” but a few have requested partials and at least I’ve given it my best shot.

    Thanks for that encouraging feedback, Bill! And for raising more questions. I think the current (and potential future) role of the literary presses is central to this discussion.

  5. Ms. Walters, I would like to address your second suggestion, about major publishing houses allowing open a “door” for previously published authors of literary fiction.

    Let’s say, for instance, that such a door existed. Let’s also say that you found the perfect editor, and that editor managed to get your book past Editorial, Marketing, and Sales, to the point where they came to you with a book offer.

    Would you negotiate your own publishing contract, with a major publisher?

    Because I can tell you, from four years of reading contracts (which was some of my first training as a literary agent), that boilerplate major publishing house contracts are terrible. They are worse than terrible. And without an agent who knows what they’re doing to help you navigate it, you won’t be able to get a fair deal.

    In the long run, you will likely give more money away to the publisher than to any agent you worked with. We are “gatekeepers” in a sense, but we are also business people who must understand and work with complicated legal language for a living–as a result, we develop specialized knowledge that can be applied to publishing contracts, in order to get our clients the best deals possible.

  6. Ms. Rappaport,

    Let us say that the scenario you describe occurs, a little door opens, I find a publishing house that is interested in my book, and they offer me a contract. I am better off with a crappy boilerplate contract than with no contract at all. Which is where I am now if an agent doesn’t take that book forward.

    I have signed four boilerplate contracts myself so far — three with literary presses and one, this year, with a major university press. I am sure there are clauses in them that are not what an agent would have encouraged me to sign, but I read them very carefully, asked for a few changes which the presses were happy to make, and I am very happy to live with them.

    My particular case is unique because I actually created a boilerplate contract for the publisher I worked for. I know what an option clause is. I follow the news on things like copyright and the Google settlement. So I am unusual among my group. But that is immaterial. Your point is correct — agents get better contracts for writers than writers can get for themselves.

    Would I have more advantageous contracts for me if I had been represented by an agent? Probably. But even for the book the university press has taken, which is nonfiction, and which I believe is going to do very very well particularly in this economy (it is a book for academics about writing effective funding applications), I had no success finding an agent. So I marketed it myself. I had three publishers interested immediately, and I believe I got one of the best publishers for that manuscript in the entire U.S.A. I am working on a follow-up book now, which is a book for writers and artists about writing effective funding applications. When I have mentioned to agents that I am a package, and am writing a series of potentially popular non-fiction books as well as the novel I want them to consider, and have a couple of previously published novels with small print runs that are now out of print and to which I own the rights, they tell me not to tell them about other books. They tell me they are only interested in one book. (Go figure THAT!)

    Short answer: I’d rather have a boilerplate than none.

  7. Back to Bill’s points, which I didn’t have time to respond to yesterday: the situation in Canada is unusual. I believe there is a greater emphasis here than in the U.S. on “literary.” There are a very few really good agents in Canada, and most of them have full stables. Of those, the ones who have turned me down have said it was because they were not taking on any new writers. This may be an excuse, but that’s what they said. It was because of this that I turned my attention to U.S. and U.K. agents.

    I don’t know about the relationships between editors and literary imprints at major publishers, but agents are still going to be interested in advances, and so my original principle applies. I have also excluded debut authors throughout this discussion. I have acknowledged all along that exciting DEBUT literary fiction writers are going to get attention. Because they can attract advances. As they should. And I believe it is for that reason that in the original comments, and in my own email from agents, I have been advised not to mention my previous books.

    I would love to know if there are any agents who are reading the literary presses and if they are interested in seeing and actually taking on new books by writers who have published with these smaller presses, and if they are willing to represent them even though they are literary, because if there are we can just post a list of them and my arguments will all have been addressed. My group of writers who are unwelcomed by the majority of agents can query the ones who are interested. However, at this point in time, there is no way of knowing if these agents exist at all–and there is every indication that they do not.

  8. “Many, many of the comments (and, I am sure, the hits) came from wannabe-agented and wannabe-published writers who would have risen up to defend agents in general and their chosen agents in particular no matter what the accusations against them–mainly in the hope of currying their favour. This is fair enough, but hardly the kind of response that is likely to change my thinking”

    Well, no, it seems that since you are happy to pigeon-hole anyone who posted on your site – making utterly unwarranted assumptions based purely on their opinions – your min is clearly well beyond changing on this issue, and probably on any other. Dismissal of any contrary view by sweeping assertions that they don’t count is, equally, hardly likely to convert anyone else to YOUR way of thinking.

    • You are correct, Brian. I agree with you. I have no evidence that those people are wannabe-agented or wannabe-published. I based that assumption on the fact that a significant amount of my traffic in the first few days came here from agents’ blogs where similar comments were being posted at the time. I drew a conclusion that contravened the principles of logic. I apologize. I misspoke.

  9. Goodness gracious, a sense of reality might be in order. Books on finding grants being “potentially world-wide best-selling non-fiction books”? Certainly saleable in North America, but world-wide? I think not.

    And agents (and people here) advise you not to talk about your other work, but simply concentrate on the book in hand, and you take that as a slight on your career?

    Your posts continually point out that you are talking about mid-list writers as a group. In fact, you are apparently talking about writers who have published with small presses who would like to move on to the big multinationals, which is not the same thing as a mid-list writer at all.

    The time has come for you to prove that mid-list writers or obscure writers who want to leap into the big time are being actively discriminated against as a class. The example you give – of your own situation – seems to be about one particular author who has not offered an agent either a compelling pitch or a sample of a work which is clearly going to sell.

  10. Fenestra, I guess I was indulging in a bit of wishful thinking and should have said “potentially popular” rather than a “potential best seller.” The word “best seller” is defined differently by different people anyway. However, I don’t believe North America is the only geographical area where people apply for funding to support their research, scholarly and creative endeavours.

    And it sounds as though according to you I’ve misused the word “mid-list.” I define it as the writers who are published by larger presses but are not the authors of best-sellers. People who move from the relative obscurity of literary-press publication would be likely to end up on the mid-list of more commercial publishers if their books were published, gradually/ideally moving higher and higher as their reputation improved and their audience increased. No?

    Perhaps you would be good enough to provide us with your definition. While you are at it, perhaps you could tell us who you are and why you are in a position to make these authoritative-sounding comments. Provide yourself with some credibility.

    I have consulted with enough other writers in similar positions to mine to draw the conclusions I have drawn. If they do not wish to make themselves known here, that is their choice. If you chose to disregard my comments on the basis of their only being relevant to my situation, please go ahead and disregard them.

  11. I’ve been thinking about something (glory, glory!). When I look back on my own not-so-illustrious, but at least PUBLISHED career, I think it might be correct to deduce that my major successes happened because a particular “type” of novel had become good sellers. When I wrote my suspense thriller, I clearly set out to reactivate my career, and it worked because thrillers were THE most popular genre at that time. I received another “boost” when I rode the wave of chick lit (though mine was slightly different, lady lit, ’cause it had an older main character). My novel about a middle-aged writer/woman has clunked with agents. I suspect that’s because it’s simply not what’s selling. So, now I’m writing a spiritual memoir, in the EAT, PRAY, LOVE vein….I think it has a shot because: THAT’S WHAT’S SELLING.

    I understand that literary fiction isn’t supposed to be tied to such questions of “what’s selling,” but I would say that, in fact, it IS. What could be stranger than THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE? Yet, it’s about dogs. Dogs sell.

    I’m not even convinced that it’s bad to think about the market. Often, you can find yourself writing a story unexpected to yourself, and that makes it rather interesting and fun……

    Well, I’m just thinking out loud here. (I’d love some feedback on the memoir…..a couple of sample chapters can be found for download on my website under “About Me.”

  12. Do I dare say another word about this topic given the response to my last comments? (It was brutal. No where near the comments on the last thread, but still ouch.)


    Here goes: I feel as though what’s happening to the publishing industry is similar to what the music industry went through. (*And is still currently going through…*) Basically they encouraged one hit wonders and the monopoly of the radio. Now with the advent of MP3 players, the music industry is pissed, because they can’t drain people of $20 for a CD which has one good song on it. (*Because it had the highest production value, polish etc.*) Publishing houses have massive marketing campaigns for books which they believe will have broad appeal.
    However, soon I believe that the publishing industry is going to have to bend to what the public wants as opposed to to dictating that for them. (*You know you want to read Stephanie Meyer you’re getting sleepy VERY sleepy! Sorry couldn’t resist…)
    In addition, I believe that queries should never replace the work. (*Whether to a publisher or agent.*)

    Sidebar: I was actually scanning through Writer’s Digest literary market place and found a publisher that said and I quote: “Send us your MS (*picture book*) queries are a waste of time.” (*Which for a graphic work containing 15 pages this is the truth…*)
    Now obviously I’m not saying a three hundred page novel should be shoved in the mail to every publisher/agent, but what I am saying is that there should be at least a writing sample outside the query. Queries are a slang term for “Cover letter and market viability plan.”

    (*For this opinion I’ve been truly reviled. Words like ‘lazy’ or ‘stupid’ get thrown my direction. Note that the validity isn’t in question. When did decrying the speaker give any less credence to their words? Hint: Never.*)

    I feel as though the publishing industry has a problem which is the following: Is the public’s love of low-brow, unintelligent writing due to the fact that they desire it or is it because the market has been saturated with that material and thus it is only natural that the audience will enjoy it?

    Know what I mean?

    BTW you mentioned self publishing at one point- I did use a print service (POD) for my graphic work. (*I admit it.*)

    It was the best way to present the work to smaller presses in a cohesive and condensed way. I know it’s not a publishing credential. It’s a digital ‘Kinkos’ for God’s sake. (*Although- this ‘unpublished’ work has been featured in ‘publications’ including one sponsored by City University of New York. A few local art magazines etc. But I digress. *)

    For this also I have been the subject of ridicule. (*Despite the fact that I CLEARLY explained the circumstances…*)

    Breaking into the industry is by no means easier than being in ‘the mid-list.’ Especially when work does not necessarily fit into a particular genre. I think that university presses are better places for literary fiction given the current marketplace. Would any of the literary giants of ‘yesteryear’ be published in today’s market?

    Probably not…


    Good topic, with a lot of passion on both sides.

    • Hi, Christian,

      Glad you came back. I did check out your blog post on the subject of getting torched, and I see that you got torched again. And again.

      I was interviewed today by Peter Cox, the agent who runs Litopia Daily and Litopia After Dark ( We had a long chat and the conversation will be aired in segments on Litopia Daily next week. I won’t go into detail about it here — but suffice it to say that in general Peter totally “got” what I was saying (with a few objections of course!), and I think you will find his ideas compatible with yours as well.

      The agent on whose site you were first attacked, on the other hand, is going to hate the litopia podcasts. Peter REALLY tore a strip off her, and he was none too kind to another agent we’ve seen here, whom Peter named as well.

      I think you will really enjoy the podcasts. I can’t wait to hear them myself!

      I’ll put info here when I have the exact dates but I think they’ll be aired May 4 through 8. They’ll be available as downloadable podcasts from iTunes after they are first broadcast.

  13. I sympathize with your argument but I believe it misses the point, because it takes on the wrong enemy. The enemy, in fact, is publishers themselves. Publishers who are too short-sighted and lazy to seek out new authors and willingly depend on agents. Publishers who demand the type of work that agents then seek to represent. If publishers wanted to see quality writing then agents would only represent quality writers. Since publishers demand books with marketing potential and authors with platforms, that is what agents seek. Who an agent will represent is entirely determined by what publishers demand to see.

    • I am prepared to acknowledge that this could be the case. In addition, I understand that the people who buy the books for the book chains tell the publishers what to publish. The whole house that Jack built (and this is not an inside Canadian reference to Jack McClelland, although I wish it were) is looking seriously unstable at the moment. But that doesn’t change where the gate is for the writer: nor does it change the relative contributions that certain people are making to the end product down the line. We need to be able to show our wares to the publishers, and we can’t.

  14. I also think that authors are to blame, for allowing agents to assume exagerrated importance. An agent is an author’s employee. The author hires the agent to represent her/him. Agents “rejecting” authors are simply turning down the job that is offered to them. Now, obviously things are different than the picture I paint here and agents have assumed a role that they were never intended to have. But it is not just publishers, but authors who are to blame, for approaching agents with the wrong attitudes, for having unrealistic expectations about the book publishing industry and its (failing) business models, for grovelling and being generally unprofessional. I worked as an editor at a literary journal until recently and did not publish any of the work sent to me by agented authors. It was horrible by and large. But one thing I did appreciate was that the agents contacting me didn’t act crazy, unlike most of the unagented authors. I am often embarrassed, as a writer, about the conduct of other writers and their lack of professionalism. Even basic communication skills seem to be lost on most writers, which I don’t feel it is unreasonable to take as an indication of the quality of their writing (although of course it is NOT necessarily a true indication). It is no wonder that publishers have closed the gates to the unagented writer. It is a failing, and a great sin, for which publishers are paying the price (and may result in the collapse of the industry). But it is understandable given the conduct of the average writer. (Of course, in no way do I mean to imply that Mary has acted unprofessionally in any way, or otherwise deserves her bad brushes with agents, and I must reiterate that I enjoyed the article.)

    • YES! This is the first place where change can happen. We are the “talent.” Thank you. You, too, are really going to enjoy the Litopia podcasts mentioned above, Johnathan, and as a former editor-in-chief I agree about the lack of professionalism among many writers. We need to smarten up and have some dignity.

  15. One thing writers have to realize is that the publishing business is not solely about art but also about business, as the name dictates. Publishers don’t just buy books, they buy their authors as well. Authors must conduct themselves as professionals at all times, whether dealing with agents or editors.

    Also, striking a lucrative balance between commerce and art is very difficult, and surely on occasion, even often, it is the art side of the equation that suffers. That is unfortunate, but it is the nature of a business. Publishing is not an exception.

    Mark Twain said, “Some people writer water, some people write wine. I write water, but everybody needs water.” What qualifies as “quality fiction” is almost entirely subjective. Some people go to the bookstore looking for the equivalent of “quality” television, a different animal than “quality” ballet. Neither the producers nor the consumers of these products deserve to slammed for spending their time and money how they see fit.

    Finally, I have yet to meet a “lazy” editor. It’s a 24-7, 365 job and the editors I know are constantly swamped. And there’s not an agent or editor I know that doesn’t love and actively pursue new writers.


    • Bill, I agree that there are few if no “lazy” editors. Many many agents, though, are vastly underemployed, and LOTS of them don’t love good literature or writing at all much. Just money.


      This affirmation is quite aside from several emails I’ve had from writer friends in response to my article–writers who have been agented since before you started reading books, much less writing them (and who continue to be published and agented). :) I’m glad your experience has been so positive, though.

  16. “Most agents do not want to work with these writers because they do not command the kind of advance that makes them worth the bother from an immediate economic point of view for the agents (and the agents alone: everyone else stands to benefit economically).”

    You’re making up conspiracies.

    The entire querying process is based as closely as possible on the process of buying a book in a bookstore. You read the flap copy (query) the first chapter (partial) and if you like it you buy the book (land the agent).

    It’s that simple. There is no vast conspiracy. You are getting the exact same chance anyone would, in a slushpile or a bookstore. It’s much simpler than you’re making it out to be.

    Only a few other small wrinkles are involved: if you muck up the end so much that the agent won’t even take it with rewrites, or if the agent thinks the market won’t support this book… but the chances are very good that if an agent reads to the end of your book, they will want to read more of your stuff, and you’ve essentially made it.

    If you really don’t want to write flap copy and hooky beginnings, then that’s your funeral–it will put a lot of readers as well as agents off your book, especially when they don’t know your name.

    Mary has shot her chances here, but I hope all the other writers will remember the “Beatles Stovepipe Suit” principle. The Beatles knew what they were doing when they wrote songs for teenage girls, dressed in stovepipe-pant suits, and all got the same haircut. They were playing by The Man’s rules in order to get famous enough to break those rules with Revolver.

    So write the hooky beginning, write the flashy flap copy, make the book around 90k and make it relevant to the market, and once you’ve sold it, proceed to change the rules.

  17. You are so right about many things in this post. Excellent work. One of your posters here mentioned that boilerplate contract. Yeah, I did that thing with a major house…yeah, no agent. They call it pants-down. That’s not very literary of me, I know, but every time I get a royalty statement from my house, if I get one, there is this curious animal living in my balance sheet which consumes any sales I might have made called “reserve against returns” or something of this nature. It consumes so much, at times, my statement reflects that after months and years, I actually owe them money, as in a negative balance. The way it works is, heh, they ship books out, and then whether on paper or not, books are then “shipped back” to the publisher. Curious enough this process is, that on occassion, more books get shipped back, than have actually been created. I know, it’s a gas isn’t it? Only Stephen Hawking could describe this, and only using the esoterica of quantum mechanics.
    I can’t tell you how much I have appreciated this system which has essentially incentivised the publisher toward keeping my sales at a low key level. Because, if it’s not taking off? Who knows how many books are being created or sold? And apparently, they never seem to have to tell me about the Amazon sales. And to date? I have no idea precisely how many copies I have sold. (Isn’t that great?)
    My book, non-fiction, military history, came out in 2005. The best part about this is the family gatherings after years of work. Oh joy. Johnny is a pilot, and Richard is an insurance sales adjustor, and David, what is it that you do again?
    Yes, when I went to the publishers sans pantalones, as it were, I was extremely miffed at an agent. All I wanted at that time was to get back at her for her attitude toward my work and getting me stuck with a dying publisher who let my project languish weeks and months beyond the deadline date with no second half of the advance. I had every justifiable reason to be angry. I look back on the entire experience and it makes me wish I had gone to law school with all the money and time I wasted. My liver took an immense beating as well, being totally honest here.
    The take-away? I have no idea what all this means other than, this is an industry unlike any other; where those producing the product have no power at any level, until such time as they are given the ‘don’ by grace, providence, God, or whomever and then apparently (and as Tony Montana would say) “then comes the power.”
    But I did thoroughly enjoy your well-considered, refreshingly generous and logical assault on the curious animal known as the literary agent. That they are talking about how they are presenting their own image (from your Ms Snarks to your kooky chick lit afficionados yapping about all their conferences et al), represents a major accomplishment on your part

    • Dave,

      Ah, yes. The returns.

      And ah, yes. The liver.

      Two subjects that merit their own blog posts one of these days.

      In the meantime I award you a gold medal for eloquence in comment-writing. Small comfort, I know, after what you have been through, but aside from deep nods of sympathy, it’s the best I can do.

  18. Yeah I actually thought litopia was a place to discuss ideas until banned for disagreeing with a small press publisher over what the term, “independent” meant. (*Apparently she didn’t know that some small presses are owned by larger presses, thus excluding them from the term and that something can be independent because of the genre.*)

    Oh well. Interesting article, you definitely perked some interest.


  19. Dear Mary,

    I find the quality of Literature so low that I don’t even read it any more. I used to read fifteen books a week and now: paralysis. I just go back and read Patricia Highsmith or Shakespeare or Jean Rhys, or The Road, occasionally, or maybe American Psycho; sometimes Carrie. I Am The Cheese. 1984. Metamorphosis. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Demesne. OK. Not only do I agree with you about everything, I am also far, far more worried about the general decline in humanity’s intellect and artistic ability than you seem to be. I think we are in The Dark Ages, culturally. I can barely find anyone to talk to, let alone a book to read. I see bookshops as horrible, evil places, full of tiny minds and self-help guides. I want only harrowing, passionate, high art literature, because it is the only thing that nourishes ME, and I am not getting any because all that is menial and venal within us is being fed – more than fed, it is stuffed; in fact humanity is rotting; it actually is obese and diseased, swollen, crusting, covered in boils and sores (suppurating), and downright repulsive: all because of literary pap and terrible art. We need High Art for our cultural salvation and we DO NOT HAVE IT, so we are DYING. I want it stopped. Your article is a drop of sanity in a world overwhelmed by the evil of banality. It is a dark sea rising to my eyes. I can’t look at it or think about it without feeling sick. I read Hamlet for LIGHT RELIEF. And to regain some kind of foothold in the quagmire. I read Hamlet, which is generally considered a tragedy, for its optimism and innocence, for its healthy disgust at mendacity, its genial wit, its buoyant largesse, its irreverent spirit. It is a phial of magical truth in a desert of lies.

    OK. So never mind writing to an agent, or a publisher – I notice you need an agent first, which is annoying, because you have to look at who they represent and how they will sell your work, and then, go with what publisher they choose – hell, what if you get picked by the press that published ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’ – immediate loss of contract on moral grounds, moral and aesthetic – you can see why I can’t even take the first steps to get one. I can’t even THINK about these people. What I WANT is a world where beautiful minds get together and inspire each other, and just create for the sake of it, and someone brings their meals and pays for the electricity, and distributes their intoxicating produce with grace and sensitivity. Since that won’t happen, I more or less feel that one cannot contribute at all, since even addressing the idea of competition or commercial viability is egregious. Well, it is. My view is to say (to an agent or publisher, whichever): ‘not only will this book never sell, but you yourself will not be able to read it. If you CAN read it, if it moves you at all, you will give up your job. You can’t actually read Crime and Punishment and genuinely understand it without ending up flinging rolls of banknotes on the fire and falling in love with prostitutes and understanding penance and contrition and spending the rest of your life wandering the frozen steppes of southwest Russia, and you can’t read my work and respond to it properly without changing your mind about everything. That’s what happens when an intelligent person reads my book; that’s what they say: ‘I will have to surrender all I know, throw away my life, pick up my staff and follow you in nakedness; everything else has been but a dream; a dream thinking on a dream, a shadow of a dream; my only reality henceforth, is you.’ So, I actively discourage you to read it. I don’t think you should promote it. I can’t summarise it: I can’t give you a synopsis. It is a mystic web that will hold you in thrall, and you will never escape it. I FORBID you to read it. I forbid ANYONE to read it. It is so powerful I can hardly even WRITE it, because it’s not writing at all, it’s a supernatural act, a covenant between God and the Devil. This book is so dangerous that there’s no point even calling it ‘an experimental novel’ or ‘a dark romance’ – it’s uncategorisable and, to my mind, isn’t a book at all. It is a spell, or a black hole that will swallow you up, drown you, divorce you from your days and ways and doom you to a life of delirium. Put it in a sealed vault and let no one see it; submerge it in a steel box surrounded by liquid nitrogen. If people want to buy it, they will find they can’t. You have to pass an exam to be allowed to read it.’

    In fact that should be how I promote it, not as a writer begging for an audience but as a writer denying an audience; demanding that the reader, not the writer, makes the grade. Not that my novel is literature anyway, because it’s a work of art, with pictures and so on. Half the book is pictures. No one publishes things like that. They’re ‘too unusual,’ because people don’t realise that art and literature are interchangeable, ambidextrous – I realise they’re not in most cases, which is why artists are so thick usually – oddly enough Cormac McCarthy was an artist originally (just saying), so, if one works on the premise that words are pictures and pictures are words and you can’t have one without the other, well, that cuts out 99% of the literary and artistic world, and a good thing too. And, as I say, I don’t really want anyone to publish this book, not if I have to grub round writing flattering letters to agents, who’ll do the same thing with publishers, who’ll just edit the thing beyond all reason and turn it into the same banal tripe that exists everywhere else, or, even if uncensored, will just retire it unopened to a shelf or fail to understand it. I WON’T HAVE THAT. I insist on being understood. You can only read it if you have the facility, otherwise the cover will ELECTROCUTE you. I want every page ensnared with radars so if you’re not following it properly a demon will bite you. You get punished for failing to attend, to imaginatively partake, to involve yourself in the complicated sentence structures and the shifting levels of meaning, the layers, the figurations, the dreamlike yet forensic beauty of a mission of truth. Punished severely. And so it should be with all great works of art. This is just the first ‘creation’ that literalises a metaphor known to anyone blessed with profundity: that to take the easy way, to be trivial and smug, is to murder your soul, so, do that if you want to, but you’ll be tortured for it. I always feel that some of these evil fascist dictators had the concept right but never the correct guilty party. Why should people with no depth be allowed to breed, or breathe? They’re constantly persecuting ME for being brilliant, now it’s MY FUCKING TURN. And this book will do that for me, at long last. Of course it’s ‘too much’ for most people, but I see no reason why inadequacy should judge excellence. It should be the other way round. And this book will perform that (if marketed correctly): it will drive shame into its readers, and it will do that by administering pain whenever failure to appreciate occurs. A great lover deserves an orgasmic response, and weeps when his efforts fail because they fall on insensitive, parochial skin. And I weep, too. But this book will make others weep, weep for, at long last, their OWN sins, instead of my doing all that FOR them. And I’m sure you agree a book like this has to happen. Beethoven would be behind me all the way. So would Shakespeare. ‘At long last, a world where people are castigated for their lack of genius! Brilliant. I wish I’d thought of that.’ No longer will great artists have to suffer, stretching out their trembling hands over a chaos of incomprehension to secure some strange sense of the divine – desperately translating their marvel into sludge so boring people ‘get it’ – they’ll just rig their work up with trap doors and misery for anyone attempting it without the correct spiritual and intellectual tools – for a work of art is HURT by being misunderstood. It IS. Books have feelings too. More feelings than paintings do, in my opinion – though you should see what happens to my etchings when they’re being looked at by fools. They crumple up and try to hide – it’s awful watching them. But helas – I have the solution.

    So Mary, you will thinking: ‘I like the way this girl uses her peculiar brand of messianic vitriol crossed with masochistic psychosis to generate a catastrophic poetic, does she really exist?’

    We’ll leave a space here to answer that one.

    Right. Any ideas as to how I ‘publish’ this book, given that anyone who wants to read it has to go through the rinsing process of being tortured for not understanding it, or simply being forbidden to read it, including any agent or publisher. Of course I do want it to be read, but only by like-minded people. Literature saved me, so I want to save others like myself. Otherwise I’ll just sit here in my womb of Art and never be born, which is missing the point on what human life – not that I like it much – is all about. Surely, I – and those who understand me like the back of their hand – deserve my (and their) time in the sun, too? Or not. What say you.


    • I’m posting this, Jessica, but I don’t have time to read it and respond. I’ll get back to you a bit later — have to do some money-earning things at the moment. :)

    • Well, Jessica, I read your comments with great admiration for your passion! I don’t feel quite the same way as you do, I don’t think. Not nearly as bleak about the future of humanity, or even of the literary arts. I find such writing marvels as Salman Rushdie, Will Self, Hakuri Murakami, David Mitchell, the late Roberto Bolano, and many many others both alive and dead continue to challenge and amaze me, and will I know provide me with more decades of pleasure than I probably have left on this planet. Besides, I’m only half-way through Proust, and I can never be without a good book till that is done.

      And as for my own work, I have no such lofty illusions. I sense that there are more discerning readers out there than the publishers and agents would let us know about, and I just felt (and still feel) as though I had fallen between the cracks. Fortunately, there is self-publishing now, and it is becoming increasingly plausible for very good writers to self-publish — so that is the route I am taking (and the one you will want to take as well, in order to maintain control of what you have created.)

      In the few short years since I wrote the original Militant Writer blog post, the world of publishing has changed completely. I am very excited to be bringing out my own novel — and another one I co-authored will be coming soon — and not having to go through the publishing industry to get it in the hands of my readers.

      Thank you for writing, and good luck with your initiatives. If you build it and put it out there, and kick some butt in the marketing department, the readers will come to you… I really believe that.

      • Every time I try to post you my message, it says, ‘duplicate comment – I think you’ve already said that!’ and I have to say, ‘well if I’ve already said it, why isn’t it there?’ I have to talk to the computer like this, which is most annoying. Of course I could rewrite my short essay, which I suppose is what I am expected to do.

        Let’s see if I can paste it on here now and the machine will act as if this is an entirely new comment as it has a fresh prologue.

        I’ll have to check David Mitchell though I have read the other authors you mention and didn’t like them. I liked Proust, however, but he was self-published, as it happens. They would have shortened those paragraphs, some of which go on four three and half pages, which is the kind of thing I like. I did like John Updike a lot.

        Hmm. The trouble with self-publishing is twofold: firstly, how do you get an editor, because otherwise you might have rambled on for twenty pages and not realised – do you just hold seminars and get ordinary people to read it and note when they lose attention, not because they’re inadequate readers but because you’re being boring? This, I need to know. And second, how would anyone have the sheer chutzpah to continue on, when most of what they say goes against the cult of optimism and is unlikely to appeal? without a publishing house behind them who does all that for them. I doubt I could. While I do believe brilliance is under attack, and original thought is under attack, and also complicated forms of language and mental depth is under attack, I myself might not be the solution to all those things, and could just be ‘no good at it.’ I’ve yet to find a clear indication from anyone about whether it’s what I say that’s the problem or the way I say it, and while there’s doubt about my skill, I would be worried about contributing more insolent idiocy to the world. I might be as delusional as everyone else is. Who’s to say.

        You’d just have to have so much confidence, and given that nearly all I explore is about this difficulty between visionary access and self-laceration, you really think someone like me would actually be able to neutrally sustain the cold belief in ‘having something to offer’ with no support from the literary industry, and no sense, even, of stylistic or roughly speaking ‘moral’ similarities within the world of fiction itself? It’s laughable. I’d never have the balls. I’d have to wake up every morning and brainwash myself, precisely what I think everyone else does, just to get through the day without drowning, when drowning may be the right thing to do. I doubt that livid vulnerability would equip me remotely for ‘selling’ a book, or even printing one, let alone ‘marketing’ it. I don’t sell things, and if I did, I would have exploited my capacity to at least reasonably articulate to write something user-friendly years ago and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I suppose I could make one hand-etched copy, which would take me about twenty years, and that would be that.

        So, I’m still glum. I may be like one of those plants who becomes extinct through an inability to survive its context. Maybe the temperature’s just too low for me. But while it remains low, then I shiver.

        • This was my fault.I have to “approve” the comments before they appear on the site and I’ve just been buried in work today and haven’t had time to even look at the Militant Writer. My apologies. Response later. I hope you can delete the posts you don’t want up here! (Duplicates, I mean.) If not, let me know and I’ll take them down.

          • Delete the one below, where I don’t mention the duplicate problem.

            I’m still stuck on hand-etching every single page of my novel, and it’s an arduous thought, never mind actually DOING it. And the fourteen previous novels. What have you to say to THAT? I think it’s infra dig, myself. I’ve sent nothing to a publisher because I know what they will SAY, and I can’t bear the rejection, not of them for it, but me for them.

            And, just by the way, how could you tolerate the phrase ‘hospital corners’ used as a description of the creases on someone’s eyes, three times, maybe more, in less than twenty pages, of a novella (Cock and Bull), by Will Self. He is clever, fine, but this kind of snotty, pretentious, repetitive irritation of a bad idea to begin with, is more than I can bear. I’d tell him myself if I could be bothered. Why didn’t you notice that? How could you miss it?


            Did they think I wouldn’t notice?

            People get beaten for that sort of thing in MY world.

            But you like him. And so do a lot of people.

            I’ve read one book by Murukami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, and regretted it. Dull, dull, dull. It’s vaguely prurient and it utilises fantasy because it can’t go all out on imagination. Men who moan about other men being abusive are always under suspicion, in my opinion; which is why I really like the very early works of Ian McEwan, ‘Butterflies’ for example, which is basically an entree into the mind of a pedophile and child murderer and quite brilliant – he himself doesn’t, and nor does anyone else, but things like ‘Atonement’, or worse yet, ‘Saturday’ are almost too vile to talk about. Salmon Rushie only wrote one good book: Shame, and even that I only read once. Bolano I just couldn’t get into. What are we doing (italics) here?

            The writers you talk about are conventionally successful. That doesn’t interest me. I know Shakespeare’s conventionally successful too, but ask anyone what Hamlet means and they haven’t a clue. I KNOW this. They think Shakespeare is about passing exams or being ‘middle class’. Shakespeare isn’t like that. But, quite honestly, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles irritated me: mindless, psuedo-victimy, sentimental mediocrity. It’s ‘good writing’ but nothing more. Zadie Smith is like that. A lot of people are like that.

            What I think is, it’s just possible that I like ‘existential writers’ and you don’t. You’re not alone. People like that have hell anyway, and I want to know how THEY get published. Which is a different question from your one, which is how anyone gets published who’s not a total sap. I sympathise, but only up to a point.

            So… stick with the hand-etched novel or get really hysterical on Youtube, or WHAT. Write to Irvine Welsh? I like him but he would loathe me. I could offer to illustrate his novels, of course. He might agree to that, though he’d probably prefer Damien Hirst. You never know. You never know. It could be an interesting collaboration.

            • Well, it sounds to me as though you are in an entirely different league than the one I am in. I wish you all the best with whatever course you decide to take with your work: it’s never an easy decision.

              I haven’t read Cock and Bull, and shall now avoid it. Thanks for the warning!

              • You’re certainly a lot more cheerful than I am. But apparently I’m not alone in thinking what I think about language deteriorating, as someone called Ben Marcus thinks just the same thing, and has just written a book called The Flame Alphabet which is about children’s language being toxic to their parents; they start dying under the sea of drivel. He’s also written some academic thesis on the same subject, and a scathing attack on mass-produced fiction at the cost of experimental fiction, which I’m reading at the moment with a good deal of pleasure. Unfortunately, to get in the same ‘league’ as him, I’d need about three degrees and several awards, and be a creative writing professor at Columbia, and to have been tutored by Robert Coover (who I highly recommend by the way), and be ‘the most intelligent writer in America’ so I’m stuffed. But I’m pleased he exists. He sounds rebellious and gifted, though according to some reviews on Amazon, his second book was ‘pretentious and unreadable’ but I have to admit, those were the misspelled ones. I corrected their spelling, because I’m like that.

                You know what? I think I just like Americans. American writers anyway, the weird ones, not John Irvine of course. I dumped someone for liking The Cider House Rules. Mind you two people dumped me when I lent them Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith, which I also highly recommend, though it will lose you boyfriend after boyfriend. I think it’s quite a good definition of character, that book. Anyway, even Zadie Smith seems to think that experimental fiction is on the decline and ‘a kind of fatalism has entered our literary culture,’ so there’s someone else who agrees with me. This was the crux of my problem, and I did refer to it earlier: if one finds oneself ousted, is that because one is rubbish, or simply subversive or avant-garde, and I’m beginning to think it’s the latter, though I still might be crap, and I need to find that out. Where you and I differ is on this basic point of mainstream fiction versus radical fiction, and since I’m even bringing Art into the novel, well, yes, we’re in different worlds, though I wouldn’t call it leagues, because that refers to quality, which no one’s established yet.

                I still refuse to write to an agent however. Well, not unless they actually describe themselves as only representing incredibly weird writers with highly antisocial views and revolutionary techniques, and insist that any letters they receive be written in the same style. This isn’t very likely, and that’s what so boring about the whole thing. I still wonder how any of these other writers did it. It’s just so UNCREATIVE. It makes me feel like just sending out a headless Victorian doll or something.

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