Agents out, editors in?

Predicting the rise of the literary editor

by Mary W. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Google Book Settlement: Are you in or out?

by Mary W. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Mary W. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

I am unmoved

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

Some solutions?

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

Here are my ideas:

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

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

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

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Note: Future installments of The Militant Writer will

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

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.

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