Sorry to be so late posting today, but it’s been another of those “being nibbled by ducks” day, and the post I have in mind requires some thought so as not to appear to be maligning people I’m not in fact maligning. (And in case it isn’t obvious, this post will be about the business model that’s now crumbling, not any of my agents past or present, living … wait, they’re all living as far as I know, so that’s enough.)
In the way these things do, an unrelated comment and a post over the last week have worked themselves into a post in my head. The comment was by Jeff Dwyer, who I understand has for some years been an agent, working mostly in children’s picture books, and who is now to some extent mothballing that part of his business, according to a separate comment.
He said, in part:
One of the benefits of aging is hindsight and one would hope an acquired perspective. As I read this post, I remembered when the slush pile went away and the submissions began to flood into our agency mail box. We’d had dinner one night with a publisher who had just announced that she wasn’t accepting unagented submissions. I complained that she was forcing us to become her non-compensated first readers, and she smiled and said, “Yep. We’re no longer paying first year Radcliffe grads $25K plus benefits to read thousands of submissions that we won’t acquire.” Soon, it was apparent that we’d become gatekeepers for the editors whom aspiring authors wanted to reach. It placed the agent in a position of need in the publishing food chain, and agency world grew. Outsourced legacy publishing editors had a second act when they received the pink slip. They could take their Rolodex with them and sell work to their old friends. With the evolution of indie publishing, the role of the agent will continue to diminish in importance as will the role of legacy publishers.….
I think I came into the business – in the sense that I started to submit and trying to break in – shortly after this. To me, this was “business as it’s done” but may I say that from the very beginning it seemed to me that there was something wrong with this idea. Of course I can perfectly see how, from a publisher’s point of view this made perfect sense. Outsource costs.
Perhaps part of the reason it made me nervous is that while I was a raw beginner in publishing, I had vast experience from the fast-moving, crumbling/building work of computer programming, if at a remove and second hand. It seemed that every time a computer company got in trouble, it fired its entire R & D department and decided it would just be fine and dandy to buy new startups with fresh ideas. The results of this were always the same for all the companies my husband worked for. In fact, this was such a reliable precursor of collapse that my husband would start looking for work the minute they made this move.
When publishing as a business made this move it was different, of course. It was different in the sense that they were the only providers of a form of entertainment that most of us were – let’s face it – hopelessly addicted to. On the other hand, the whole idea put my hackles up.
For a long time, I thought that this was only in the personal sense. When I started trying to be serious about writing and submitting, I was a newly wed. More, I was a newly wed whose qualifications for earning money were completely useless in my adopted homeland. I could not teach – my teaching certificate wasn’t valid. And as for translation, I didn’t even know where to look for work. (Lest we forget this was year 10 bi (before internet) or so.
How broke were we? Well… let me see, printing paper was a major expense, and I routinely typed/printed both sides of a page, numbering them differently, for the drafts to go over. Stamps even for sending out short stories, were a major expense. And yet, it soon became obvious my novels were coming back unread.
The more up to date books on how to break into the business, informed me with a heartbreaking breeziness that of course no one ever got anywhere by just sending stuff over the transom these days, and that the way to break in was to go to a few conventions or workshops, make personal contact with editors/agents, and then from there springboard into publication.
Look, we didn’t even know WHAT conventions were. My husband didn’t grow up in fandom of any sort – he’s a mathematician! – and his parents weren’t involved in writing. Oh, the information was out there, and I gathered it over a few years (before internet, remember?) but then I came up against the hard fact that I either didn’t have the money or I didn’t have the time. Because in those few years I found a job as a multilingual scientific translator BUT then I had (I think) a week of vacation time a year. I had trouble getting time off to attend a friend’s wedding in another state, and the cons attended by editors/agents (usually the bigger ones) took about five days. The workshops took longer, particularly Clarion.
The thing is if you’re going “these obstacles aren’t insurmountable” – of course they weren’t. And eventually a very kind editor who shall remain nameless as I do not wish to embarrass him, to whom I’d been submitting my short stories for a few years wrote to me half in exasperation to say if I wanted to attend Clarion he’d (I don’t remember what he said exactly) help me get in and give me a “scholarship” to pay for it, because how close I was and yet how far away was driving him insane. At the time I was in the beginning of a very complicated pregnancy that eventually resulted in Robert Anson Hoyt, but that was not (I know. The kid looks like my husband) the editor’s fault. So the obstacles were not insurmountable. Not if you were gonzo enough to keep trying to get in despite everything in your way. (How many people are that crazy-persistent is a matter for another blog. How many promising writers lacked the insane persistence and had only normal levels is something I can’t even hazard to guess.)
But eventually the system came to annoy me as a reader and not as a writer. Because after five or so years of this, it became obvious to me – I don’t know if to anyone else – as a reader that the perspective and breadth of books was narrowing. I’m not talking politically or even socially. I’m talking about a certain… pov, a feel. All the books – even the ones that purported to be about a quite different sort of person – had that breezy, easy feel of people who thought that “just go to a workshop or a convention” was perfectly reasonable advice. Or they dwelt lovingly upon poverty-porn — the idea that some great benefit attaches to being dirt poor. They all (save for a few highly publicized cases) betrayed the perspective of people to whom a couple thousand dollars and/or two weeks off meant nothing. People who by and large were in two narrow ten-year age bands either side of me (the older ones already had agents and access and the younger ones had time for all the conventions and workshops) had all attended the same colleges, gone to the same shows, spoke in the same slang.
Now it might have been more obvious to me because I didn’t grow up in the US, but these books could be incredibly opaque to someone who didn’t know the right labels, hadn’t watched the “right” tv shows and wasn’t listening to the same music. A lot of the characterization seemed to depend on these touchstones, and while I could infer them from the context – of course I could. I was used to reading stories about cultures I didn’t live in or know first hand – it detracted from my “reading for pleasure” feeling.
Was I alone? I don’t think so. I might have felt it earlier. However, I know at one time – say the seventies – a 70 thousand unit laydown was the kiss of death for a book. Nowadays it will put you on the bestseller list and cement your reputation forever. The number of people buying and reading new books has decreased that much. (Yes, I know there are many other factors.)
But the only problem of the system wasn’t access. Access is where it began. I can’t blame the agents for not wanting to sift through piles and piles of raw slush and therefore giving preferential treatment to people they saw face to face or people who had already sold and needed the agent only to close the deal. Agents are after all human.
The problem was deeper than that. And I realized it when reading my friend Dave Freer’s parable on this called The Elephant of Surprise. It is nakedly a parable on finding bestsellers, and it covers the same ground I covered here, but in far more disguised and insanely witty manner.
At the beginning (though not in as straightforward a manner as it sounds) he states of editors:
He knows what people want to read, and so he’s a key employee, in case any accountant is thinking of making anyone redundant.
This was, in fact, the claim of editors “we know what people want to read.” (We won’t touch on the ancillary “or should want to read.” That’s a perversion best left to the interpretation of psycho historians.) THAT is an editor’s job.
Presumably when slush was filtered through houses, the slush readers were imbued with the feel of the house, if for no other reason that their job was finding what a particular editor wanted to read. After a year or so, I suspect a slush reader would get very good at it or be fired. This means the editor had a good chance of what landed on his desk being relatively “highly tailored.” Or else it was just everything that was “readable and caught my attention.” From then on, the editor could apply his highly specialized filter. This meant “I have a hunch about this property” was as personal as it could be.
When the selection went to agents, agents of necessity filtered by the properties that would bring a “bidding war”. I.e. the ones that were more “universal” in nature. Gone would be the quirky selections that went something like this “I know this is fantasy and Mike likes science fiction, but this novel feels SF, so I’m going to pass it on to his desk. If he isn’t in the mood, he’ll see “fantasy” on the cover letter and put it aside.” It was a much bigger deal for agents to pass on a book an editor wouldn’t be interested in, particularly one that caused the editor to go “What was so and so thinking?” because that could mean less attention to their next submission and eventually could mean the agent’s career. This meant that of course the books passed on would be “safe bets.”
Look, I hate getting presents from people who don’t know me very well. And by very well I mean live with me. Why? Because inevitably they are the sort of generic gift that embarrasses me, like a jar of expensive sauce because they know I like to cook… But isn’t a sauce I’d ever use in anything and/or contains something I or my family are allergic to. (There are exceptions to this, of course. Some people have a gift for giving. However, the vast majority don’t.) Or someone will know I crochet (neurotically – why?) And will give me yarn, while I only do filet crochet. It’s been found I’m not alone. Studies have revealed that gifts are usually something like 80% inefficient in being something the receiver actually likes and can use, much less something they’d choose for themselves.
I suspect books to publish are even more difficult to get “right” than gifts, particularly when “gifting” a wide set of people. Going through the agents applied that sort of filter – twice.
Yes, I’ve heard all the excuses. “It’s the internet. It killed books.” “It’s TV, it killed boks.” “It’s games, it killed books.” To which I have to say, “It’s bwshwa. Humpty Dumpty didn’t fall – he jumped.” Harry Potter – which got through the filter by being immensely successful in England FIRST should have proven that. Instead, it seems to have given editors and agents the misguided idea “we shall buy YA only.”
As Dave put it, it’s mighty difficult to shoot an elephant through the keyhole of an apartment in NYC. And when the problem is always the elephant’s: “The mailman was impersonating an elephant, yer honor. I’m harmless.” then you never have to face this fact.
The publishing industry thought it could isolate itself from the market and survive. (There are other facets to this isolation, and I’ll take on Impersonating an Elephant tomorrow. But the two layers of semi-clueless semi-informed different-purpose filtering made for a pretty big problem.)
It is grim but true that the market always wins. It’s not a matter of how things should be, but how things are. Economics are no more a philosophy than mineralogy is a philosophy. Either there’s gold in them there hills or there ain’t. Nothing you can think/dream/say will change reality.
As the publishing industry is finding out. Hopefully fast enough to save itself.