Monday, November 14, 2005

Is it unpublishable?

Anne Merril asks in a comment have you ever considered that maybe the book just isn't publishable? That it is too flawed, too out there, or maybe just not what editors are buying? How is your second novel going? Are you having trouble with that one, too?

No, I'm one of the psychotic who is convinced there's a conspiracy against me.

There isn't a writer who's ever received a rejection who doesn't question initially "is it me?" F. X. Toole, the author of the series of short stories that were made into "Million Dollar Baby" (and whose collection has been renamed to fit the movie title) described on NPR's "Fresh Air" once that rejections were like the broken noses he received boxing. The only time they don't hurt is when the previous letter your opened up was an acceptance. But even then, you ask yourself "why doesn't the whole world like me?"

It's because writing fiction is one of the most-personal things we do. The only human creative activities that seem to come close are writing poetry or acting (where you can be Sir Laurence Olivier and Dame Edith Evans rolled into one, except that the director is looking for a young blond with huge knockers and a silky voice).

Unfortunately Ms. Merril's questions are too broad to be answered succinctly in one sentence. And what writer doesn't welcome the chance to wax prolix? So here goes.

1.) Is Beyond You & Me unpublishable? The simple answer is "no." I'm currently in discussion with a start-up POD erotica company. My reluctance stems from the relative newness of POD (print on demand), and the small track record of the company. But the owner has been very patient with me while I have sown my wild oats in the commercial publishing arena. One way or another, the book will find its way into print.

2.) Is it too flawed? Hard to say. Interestingly, the criticism from agents rarely falls into a coherent form. In other words, it's not like everyone hates the characters, or finds the plot weak, or the ending unbelievable. But we always assume if the agents don't want it, the reason must be a fatal flaw in the book itself.

3.) Too out there? Hmmmm. Yes, novels about serial killers aren't out there, but a woman finding herself by losing her lovers is. Forgive my sarcasm, I'm just trying to get a hold on that one. It's a fair question. Read around in the samples under "if you're new, start here," and tell me if it's out there.

4.) Just not what editors are buying? Apparently not. I don't fault the agents for wanting to rep a book that will sell. What does trouble me is the fact that editors are buying books that don't sell. At least not well enough that writers can earn enough money to establish a career. I'm not bitter about it, I'm an agent of sorts in another field. I understand that agents want to get paid. But the system sure isn't turning out quality fiction, at least not from what many folks say. But I could be wrong, and this is a real Golden Age of literature.

The good/bad news is that another agent has asked to see a few chapters. She'd be a good fit, since she represents women's fiction. If this book isn't about women's issues, I'm not sure what is. Stay tuned. If history is any indication, she'll just be another statistic.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Tell me a story, sell me some soap

I love free advice.

One thing you can count on is sincere free advice from agents. They like to tell you things, mostly in the hopes you'll go away and read the books they tell you to and not fill up their mailboxes (virtual or snail) with useless bullshit they don't want to read anyway. Not that any of them read what you send them. In case you didn't know, it's the interns and flunkies who are the first line of defense. Writers also like to tell you things. I guess we wouldn't be writers if we didn't.

Now "how to" advice is very interesting, because it's an industry. Fashion and beauty magazines would go out of business if women didn't keep reading over and over how to get the perfect body, the perfect tan, the perfect man, or guys didn't want to find out the secret to getting that corner office or making a killing in real estate (buy low and sell high?). It should come as no surprise, then, that some of the same writers who dish out this brew are ready to offer it to aspiring novelists.

Take Jennifer Weiner. Jen's on a roll, with "In Her Shoes" having just opened in theaters near you. To listen to her tell it, publishing your novel is a snap, since agents are dying to find you. She insists she never used her connections from working at The Philadelphia Inquirer to help her career along, and I'm willing to believe her.
Actually one agent does offer some new self-help books on her site: Joanna Pulcinni. And by happy coincidence, Jennifer Weiner is a client.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

More Thoughts on Ms. Snark

I have been thinking about the logical conclusion of Ms. Snark's defense of the literary mainstream, and her comment:

The people who are in dire straits right now are the folks with two or three or more books under their belt who haven't sold in big enough numbers to keep a publisher offering contracts.

This is a really scary notion if looked at logically: it says that agents and publishers are signing up authors whose works don't sell well. This, of course, calls into question their business acumen; but the publishing business isn't really a business, because agents and editors resort to aesthetics to justify their decisions. The result is a constant turnover of writers as new books are sent out, like soldiers over the top into a hail of combat, with no support, only the hope that they will find an audience. Like the emperor's new clothes, it ignores the logical conclusion that editors are doing a poor job of picking books, since they don't stay with the authors they publish. Can't blame the agents, since their job is to bring authors to editors and get advances.

Or perhaps I'm mis-reading all this. It's the writer's fault for turning out drivel after that first remarkable tome, right?

Or it's the reading public's fault. After all, was it Mencken who said "nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public"? I guess we deserve lousy books that don't sell. Or are they good books that don't sell? Good books with lousy distribution channels? Good agents with stupid editors?

Interestingly agents live in suburban houses and dress well, while many writers I've known do their writing part-time, while holding down "day jobs." A curious disparity between the producer of the work and those who profit from it. I'm beginning to sound like a damned Marxist, and the only Marx I've ever studied in any detail was Groucho and his brothers.

I'm sure I'm wrong, after all, I'm just a "junior officer" as Mr. Winkler says, and don't know what I'm saying. The publishing world is doing just fine; ask the editors who all have jobs. Just don't ask some of the writers.

Friday, September 30, 2005

The Blame Game

Peter Winkler took the time to leave a very long and detailed comment about the post below this one, and I'm going to quote some of it at length, because he raises some good issues. He takes up the question of whether the current system of agented writing is broken or not:

In terms of the acquisition of books, there are three groups of people affected:

1. Agents and editors.

2. Authors who have had at least one book published by a reputable, trade publisher.

3. Writers who have been rejected by #1.

The system works fine for #1. Even if everything submitted to them was pure gold, it couldn’t all be published. Publishers, big and small, can only publish a finite number of books each year. Therefore, there will always be books that may be of publishable (whatever that means) quality that remain unpublished. Therefore, there will always be writers convinced of the merit of their writing who will become embittered by the randomness of the process

He's right: while some individual agents fall by the wayside, agencies seem to do well. In fact, many editors who were "down-sized" during the big conglomeratization of publishing in the 80s and 90s became agents, selling to their former colleagues and competitors.

The system works well for #2, as least as far as having a first book published. Because BookScan exists, there may never be a second book if book one doesn’t sell well.

This seems to me to be the point where things get sticky. If agents are good at figuring out what editors want, then who is to blame for the writers whose books sell, but not well enough? The agents? The editors? The writers?

The system is always broken for #3. For obvious reasons. Very few artists are willing to accept repeated rejection as proof of their lack of talent.

American culture loves to find blame ("The Blame Game"). If you're an unpublished writer, then it's the fault of the greedy/stupid/arrogant/insensitive agents/editors/capitalists. If a writer can't find an agent for his or her book, it must be because they're a no-talent/nitwit/moron/misfit.

Winkler then includes an account of a scene from "The Caine Mutiny" to point out that in any hierarchy,

Junior officers must ... obey orders, otherwise the system cannot function. I think [this] is applicable to the world beyond the military. The publishing industry is the captain and the writer is the junior officer.... [The] dilemma is what conclusion you draw about your writing and yourself when you have been repeatedly rejected and what you do about it.... If a writer can’t sell their writing, is it the writer or everyone else who is wrong?

I would find Mr. Winkler's reasoning more persuasive if it were only unpublished writers who were clamoring for change in the system. I would be more persuaded if alternative technologies, delivery systems and marketing options were not spreading with the rise of the Internet. In other words, it ain't just pissed-off writers who are mad as hell and won't take it anymore, it's also the buying public, who are looking for alternatives to the closed system of agented publishing.

Keep in mind, kiddies, you didn't always have to be represented. Agents arose because writers needed someone to negotiate book deals, handle their finances, bail them out of jail or pay their bar tab. I can remember when large NY publishers still had slush piles. Now all large publishing house, and even some small presses refuse to read any manuscript or query that comes over-the-transom.

I tend to continue to believe that most unsuccessful writers simply can’t write. This is certainly not what you want to hear, but I had to say it.

Oh, I don't mind. First of all, I have been writing for money for quite some time. Magazine articles mostly, no books yet. I'm not fraught with doubt whether I can write, because I know I can. I may not be able to write what will sell in today's large publishing marketplace, but that's not the same thing. Again, I ask: if it's just the pissed-off writers who are mad, then why are so many writers being dropped when their books don't sell?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Piling on (

Elektra, a writer-in-waiting, left a here comment about, a site that hopes to offer agents the chance to skim manuscripts vetted by other writers. In it, she lambastes Bookner's founder, Jason Gonzales, for numerous sins, including "shady business practices" and deleting her negative comments about his operation from his blog. Elektra is so incensed that she's started an anti-Bookner blog, called appropriately, antibookner.

Now, with a blog entitled "756 Agents & Counting..." I'm very sympathetic to Quixotic tilting at windmills. But I'm not sure how you can accuse Bookner of "shady business practices" if the site's not charging money for anything.

Ms. Elektra is just another wannabee writer, but Ms. Snark has devoted THREE postings highly critical of Elektra might find it interesting that her heroine, Ms. Snark, has deleted things I've posted on her site. It's her site, and maybe she felt I was trying to drive traffic to my blog because I included hot-linked references to it in my post. It's her right (though I make no real effort to promote this site, and referenced it in case her readers might like to find alternate opinions).

I found it most interesting that Ms. Snark devoted THREE separate posts to someone she considers a nitwit. I have NO IDEA whether has a chance, I have not joined the site, and have little opinion about it, other than I hope it may help. She's right when she points out that having other unpublished writers read and evaluate the work submitted isn't a promising way to separate the wheat from the chaff. Though I think she's wrong when she says that writers who submit work that's not publishable do it always out of ignorance of what agents want. There are plenty of books that one can copy, but not all of us choose that path.

But when people go whole hog at someone else with daggers, it often makes me wonder "who's bull is being gored?" Ms. Snark ably defends the publishing industry and her (and other agents) place in it. She is adamant the system's not broken:

The literary agent system of gate keeping to publishing isn't broken. Good writers get published all the time. NEW writers get published all the time. The people who are in dire straits right now are the folks with two or three or more books under their belt who haven't sold in big enough numbers to keep a publisher offering contracts.

Agents and editors are actively looking for good work. If you write well, you'll get attention. The problem is people don't know if they're writing publishable stuff. Sending material in for other, unpublished, writers to judge is akin to the blind leading the blind.

I'm not persuaded that because good writers get published that the system works; if that were true, then why are there so many who are unsatisfied (not all of them unpublished writers)? I don't pretend to offer any solutions for the system, which seems to work reasonably well for agents and editors, though writers continue for the most part to struggle as a group. At this point, I'm really looking at other alternatives, including small presses and one or two start-up operations that will allow me to sell my book through my web site. Yet I think Ms. Snark misses the point partly when she implies it's only unpublished writers who are angry about the status quo. This is a fact that the NY-centric publishing world has largely ignored: the world is reading less of what they publish, and more of other things. E-books continue to be published, despite continuing reports of their imperfection. POD is perhaps imperfect, but still in its infancy (yeah, and Beta-Max was a better system than VHS, but look who won out).

I don't have answers. But that doesn't mean my observation isn't valid. This is what is most troublesome about Ms. Snark's critique of It very well may be naive and ultimately unhelpful. But that doesn't mean the current system couldn't be improved. In that respect, I think she overplays her hand.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Agents Don't Get It (the Internet, that is)

If you needed any proof that agents do not understand the Internet, I give you Lydia Wills, an agent for the snooty Paradigm Talent Agency in (where else?) Beverly Hills. These people are so exclusive they apparently don't even have a web site. After receiving an electronic press release from me about passing the 50,000th hit mark at Beyond You & Me, she sent me a huffy reply stating "remove my email address from your mailing list immediately."

Lydia, Darling, if you act that way, I'll have to sell your email addy to a REAL Spammer. You'll be getting offers for penis enhancement pills and Rolex replicas by the bushel-load. Same with Alexandra Robbins. She didn't ask me if I wanted to receive her newsletter promoting her new book recently, but asks me to "unsubscribe" her when I send her communications about what I'm doing. So much for "old Blue" spirit.

Ladies, hasn't anyone ever told you about the "twit filter" that allows you to block email addys you don't like?

Employing double standards with restive writers risks having them post your email addresses everywhere, allowing the web crawlers Spammers use chew you up and spit you out to the porn industry. But my mother always told me to be polite, so I won't do that.

But it definitely crossed my mind....

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A Word from the Metawhore (actually quite a few)

The utterly bewitching Magdalena had enough to say in a comment that I thought I would post it for more readership:

I'd like to open this comment by saying that I am one of the bloggers/readers who feels that affinity with Cassie. I appreciate very much the organic feel the 'Beyond You and Me' site has. So many sites are cold and faceless, yet yours is warm and inviting, more so for the enigma that you are. The novel is paramount, in an excellent trade with your persona. Your words speak.

I can't comment on agents in the literary industry. I have friends who grew tired of them in music and art, and I imagine their tales would extrapolate well.

I do have years of experience with bookselling, during which time I saw the evolution of net publishing and the concerns that created. By and large it made little impact and was quickly forgotten. Of more concern were the changes wreaked by the shareholders. If I start to discuss this I may never stop, suffice to say they changed the market for the worse. Range suffered at the mercy of bulk bought face front core stock. Smaller publishers were spurned, reps could no longer court bookbuyers and wile away glorious lunch times over wine selecting titles and numbers. In sum, the decisions of what would be on the shelf was made high up and a long time before we had any say.

Deeply saddened and sickened by the direction the industry was rapidly moving in, I resigned. And when I left, both the UK's biggest book chain and music outlet were owned by the same company. Selected artists and authors are plugged relentlessly and damn the rest.

So 'A' core stock dominates sales. Walk into ANY bookshop in the country and you will see EXACTLY the same titles on every shelf, in every subject area. Thank God we have a healthy second hand and antiquarian book scene.

Here in the UK, a customer no longer has the luxury of ordering a book on approval. You have to commit to the purchase based upon the scant information provided by Whitiker. The extraction of profit over value means that very few cross the line in a race that has no clear rules. Once an individual bookseller could champion your cause, I doubt that is the case any more.

Sorry to be such an Eeyore.

On a much brighter note, I would certainly buy the book and have no hesitation in recommending it to others.

You're too lovely, My Dear, to be compared to Eeyore, though readers of Beyond You & Me will recognize (as I do) your reference to a line in the first chapter when Cassie feels she's a little black raincloud.

It's clear that alternative ways to market books exist and are evolving all the time. Thank you, dear Magdalena. And should any agents be watching, I hope they understand that Beyond You & Me has attracted scores of people like her who aren't my personal friends or relatives. They're prospective customers, if you can get off your cans and publish the damn book!