Managing Writers in the Workplace: A Guide for Employers

by Mary W. Walters

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

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

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

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

Identification pre-employment

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

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

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

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

If you think you have hired a writer

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

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

Managing the species

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

The Poet

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

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

The Fiction Writer

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

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

The Playwright

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

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

The Non-Fiction Writer

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

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

Writers Can Spell “Corporate Success” For You

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

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

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

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

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

__________________

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

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

by Mary W. Walters

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

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

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

Women’s lit vs chick lit

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

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

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

Why not just call it all “literature”?

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

Why it matters

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

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

What do I write? I may have no idea.

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

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

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

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

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

The Questions

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

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

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

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

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

Do any women write plain old literature?

Do men ever write “women’s literature”?

And how can you tell?

“The Talent Killers”: The Litopia Dialogues

by Mary W. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the four podcasts.

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

Hobby or vocation?

by Mary W. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______

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

Agents out, editors in?

Predicting the rise of the literary editor

by Mary W. Walters

In addition to the potential to reach a wider audience, my major reasons for wanting to get to the desks of the major publishers are two-fold.

First, the major publishers employ many of the world’s finest books editors (yes. They do so. Granted those editors are usually busy with a million other unrelated tasks, but they can also edit! I am not talking about the publishers or the business managers. I’m talking about the editors).

The other reason is looking after all the hassle of the business end of things–warehousing, distribution and some of the promotion (a job that is increasingly shared by the writers, which is a relief to me. And I am not talking about writing jacket copy, but about dreaming up and executing unique and interesting sales and marketing approaches.)

Most literary writers know that trying to edit one’s own work is as potentially fatal as is trying to remove what appear to be superfluous organs from one’s own body. If these writers are unable to find publication by the world’s major publishers, they are going to self-publish. They are going to hire editors first, and they are going to hire business managers next, and they are going to take on the marketing of their own books with a passion no agent can equal. They are going to do it all themselves.

And this means that the best editors will leave the publishing houses and become self-employed, finally earning what they are worth (I charge $80 to $100 an hour for writing and substantive edits, and I never made anywhere near that when I was employed) and they’ll be able to focus on editing–which most of them love–and forget all the crap like sorting out contracts with agents.

Editors will set up boutique shops of their own. The best will become well known and highly sought. It will be a brave new world indeed.

Note: Amazon is hastening this process by promoting its own self-publishing arm, CreateSpace. Have you noticed how impossible it is to find out who published a book on an Amazon posting lately? Self-published or Random House? It’s not easy to figure that out. Coincidence? I think not.

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

by Mary W. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

I am unmoved

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

Some solutions?

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

Here are my ideas:

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

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

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

_______________________________

Note: Future installments of The Militant Writer will

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

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

by Mary W. Walters

Dear Senior Editor, Any Major Publishing House, Anywhere:

I am a member of a growing company of writers of literary fiction whose works you have never seen and probably never will.

It’s not that we are lacking in the talent and credentials that might attract your interest: indeed, we have already published one or two or three books with respectable literary presses, attracting not only critical acclaim but even awards for writing excellence. Our work has been hailed as distinctive, thoughtful, darkly comic. As fresh. Even as important! Reviewers have compared us to Atwood, Boyle and Seth. To Tyler, Winton, Le Carre.

That you have never heard of us nor read a single paragraph we’ve written is not—as you might think—a side effect of the cutbacks, mergers and downsizings that have devastated the book-publishing industry in recent months. Nor is it yet more evidence of the impact of electronic media on the printed word.

No.

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one has asked to see our manuscripts.

Read any good Kafka lately?

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

______________________________