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 Therefore, there will always be books that may be of publishable (whatever that means) quality that remain unpublished.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 If you're an unpublished writer, then it's the fault of the greedy/stupid/arrogant/insensitive agents/editors/capitalists.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!

Monday, September 12, 2005

Devil's Advocate

When a new candidate for sainthood is advanced within the Catholic Church, a prelate is appointed to look for reasons why not. The term is "the devil's advocate," because he is required to attack the goodness of the saintly person. Peter Winkler is volunteering for that role in a comment, and I thought what he says worth repeating for those who don't read all the comments:

He begins by quoting me: "I have attracted almost 50,000 visitors to a blog devoted to a novel and its heroine. Yet few in the industry show any interest in a tool for pre-selling the book, or the pre-sold audience that might be lurking behind those numbers."

Would that really help sell a book in a bookstore to an audience who hadn't read part of it on the internet? I suppose the cover could say, "Read the book that 50,000 people have discovered online." If I saw that on a book, I might be skeptical of the claim. So much hype is fakery. How would I know if it was true? If I was internet savvy, I would probably wonder what that number means. Lots of readers will try something if you give them a free sample. There's no sales resistance. It's quite another thing to ask them to commit to buying a book. I hate to be the devil's advocate.

I don't think that blurbs mean very much. They certainly don't seem to induce anyone I know to read a book. After all, in most cases, blurbs are written either by friends of the author, or writers who have been hogtied into blurbing by their publishers. Same with reviews: I have seen books reviewed in both the Sunday and daily editions of The New York Times, especially when the authors are Times staffers or ex-staffers.

No, the way to employ the website would be to send viewers to or the publisher to pre-order the book, or purchase it after publication. It's also a way to let readers know of book tours, reviews, etc.

And many of the fans of the excerpts published so far tell me they feel a real link to the heroine. What better way than to bring fans closer to her than through a "living" site?

It's very hard to overcome people's prejudices, even with cold, hard numbers. Could I recount two of my experiences? I wrote a book proposal in early 1997 for an annotated directory of web sites devoted to TV shows. At that time, there were lots of web directories in print, including ones devoted to various special interests, like "The Book Lovers Guide to the Internet." I had two agents and they could never sell my book. At the height of the internet boom! One sentiment I heard from two other agents was that publishers assumed that people could look things up online through search engines for free, that web directories in print were superfluous and didn't stay in print long.

Clearly you are right. Agents either already agree with your idea, or you're sunk. There's no salesmanship involved, because they're not biting.

My last proposal was for a James Dean encyclopedia. I flogged it relentlessly for years. I tried agents to no avail. I didn't give up there. I approached editors directly. A few even requested my proposal. I assumed that with Dean's status as one of the most visible pop culture icons and the 50th anniversary of his death this year, someone would agree with me that it was a no brainer. No one agreed with me. Some told me there were too many other book about Dean in print. I argued with one editor that that showed how much interest there was in Dean. Then she looked up the numbers for those books in BookScan and said they were too low to warrant an offer. I didn't bother to go back to her and point out that those were backlist titles that couldn't even be found shelved at most bookstores, that my book would be new, would get the benefit of all the anniversary hoopla. That was all in the proposal anyway. It didn't sway anyone.

You're correct: nothing an author says is going to sway an agent. That's because they believe they know the market. I guess that's to be expected. And since it's a business, I can't blame them for not taking on projects they don't think they can sell. After all, I'm sure that all an agent has to do is make a few phone calls--

Agent: Hello, J. Bigass Editor? This is Sheila Hotagent. What do you think about a novel of personal discovery written in the voice of a 24 year-old woman?
Editor: Hate it.
Agent: Thanks, I do, too.

Winkler goes on:

I grant you that being able to demonstrate some level of interest in your book should be a plus. But it may not be able to surmount the prejudices of agents or editors, a lot of whom are hidebound and conservative.

I hate to be relentlessly negative. You've already experienced enough frustration as it is.

756 agents-worth!

Have you tried approaching editors directly? I would, and not just at small presses. If that doesn't work, some serious soul searching is in order. Maybe serializing it online on a pay as you go basis?

Like you need my advice. Reminds me of a joke I read in Mad magazine as a kid in the 60s. There was a man who read so much about the bad effects of smoking, he gave up reading. This whole publishing game can kill one's desire not just to write, but in books and reading.

Well, I have approached a few editors who are Yalies, thinking they would be interested in a book that takes place at Yale. The only ones who have answered back are those in non-fiction or kids books. Seems that without an agent, I'm S.O.L.

Now to your question about whether 50,000 "hits" on an Internet site will translate into a fraction of book sales. There's simply no answer to that question. I can't say what percentage of those who stop by would click through to and purchase a copy of the novel. But I do know that I now have nearly 100 links to other bloggers, many of whom are regular readers (and some are commenters) on the site. Again, how many would purchase the book for anywhere between $12-$18? Dunno the answer.

But what guarantee is there that anyone will purchase books that the publishers turn out? After all, a goodly number of them get NO publicity. This is one of the big areas of anger from authors. A friend of mine published a very fine book about fathering, and was at the time an editor at a parenting magazine. The net result: his publisher declined to option his follow-up project, citing weak sales.

There is no guarantee of book sales. The new book on "Deep Throat" (the Nixon source, not the porn film) has sold poorly. You'd think it would be a winner. I don't follow the ups and downs of the book trade, but there have been other notable failures this year.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Who Is Your Target Audience

On page 30 of September 8th's The New York Times Book Review section is a blurb discussing trends on their best seller lists, including the survival of two Chick-Lit novels "about overworked women that appeal to overworked women." It got me to thinking.

What is the target audience for Beyond You & Me?

Who is going to be interested in a novel about a 24 year-old woman chafing within the boundaries of her job and her marriage? Add to that, the story takes place in 1975, so it's ancient history for most of today's 24 year-olds. And if you surf the world of blogs, you'll find scores of them by 20-somethings with adventures far more extreme and explicit than mine. The web site for Beyond You & Me has allowed me to get to know some of the fans who have apparently fallen in love with the book. They're usually older (mid- to late-30s), and a surprising number of them are men. So this has prompted a second question:

Why does Beyond You & Me have to have a "target audience"?

That's because it's naive to think otherwise. And I should know better after years of writing newspaper and magazine articles, mostly on assignment. After all, a writer shouldn't expect to suggest an article for Travel & Leisure about dental hygiene problems in large cities, or a piece on the small hotels of Paris to Accounting Monthly. Why should it be any different in book publishing?

The truth is, we look for categories in the things we read. You wouldn't suggest a novel about a 24 year-old woman's coming-of-age ordeal to a reader of thrillers, nor expect to find an audience for it among the fans of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. In the world or erotica, it's even more stratified: The online erotica site Tit-Elation has asked me to submit some short stories and erotic excerpts from Beyond You & Me. They use a very sophisticated online submission process that includes a checklist of "specialties" that apply to the material submitted. The list is long and expansive, covering "lesbian," "couples," "fetishes," "anal," etc.

The reason is that many readers of erotica are looking for sexual stimulation, not a good read. If you get off reading about threesomes, you don't want to find yourself in the middle of a story about two males. Sorta kills the arousal.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

There's a new kid on the publishing block: The idea is very interesting and quite simple: writers upload their manuscripts for "peer review" by other writers, and agents can then pick from the ones that score well. It presupposes that the mainstream publishing world is still the only game in town (or certainly the 400 pound canary).

Bookner has even received some notice in the books blogosphere: David Rothman at TeleRead has reviewed it. He is somewhat skeptical, since he is touting e-books on his blog. His point is that blogs and other web tools have made the traditional, mainstream publishing world increasingly obsolete, and that authors would rather use POD to sell fiction than return to the hell of commercial houses. While blogs and other tools are empowering writers to look at alternatives, there is still the problem of marketing and delivering physical books. POD is growing slowly, but there is tremendous resistance from bookstores, for example, because the books are expensive and can't be returned. Asking a store owner to stock your book means you either have a following or are a local hero.

There's no question the system is broken, and the more that becomes apparent, the harder the agents and editors seem to fight at looking for alternatives. They act, by their own admission, as "gatekeepers," keeping the sludge from penetrating the inner sanctum, yet often base their decisions entirely on taste. It's one reason they all seem so puzzled when the miss the next trend. "Oh, did you see that coming? I didn't."

Many of them talk about the Internet as the source for the next generation of writers (the publisher of Soft Skull waxed poetic at a recent NY writers conference about the 'Net), but few of them hang out here. Heck, many agents still don't have websites yet, or belong to services that list them and their co-agents, but tell you little else about their business. Many insist they have enough writers already, and are only looking for a few select clients. Yet in the meantime, books are published to no or few readers. The News from Paraguay is a good example. A National Book Award winner, no less.

In my own case, I have attracted almost 50,000 visitors to a blog devoted to a novel and its heroine. Yet few in the industry show any interest in a tool for pre-selling the book, or the pre-sold audience that might be lurking behind those numbers. I remain not so much bitter as puzzled. But definitely surprised. I had expected that by doing some of the heavy lifting, I would have moved this process further along. Clearly the publishing biz has others agendas.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Is It Time to Kiss the Agent Search Good-Bye?

I stumbled across Agent 007 on Publishing and I'm glad I did. She writes about sheparding quirky books along the path to publishing stardom vs. taking the safe route with "can't miss" titles.

You may be forced, as I was, to sit in a conference room and revisit every failed book of the year in order to determine “what went wrong.” But most of the time, there is no one answer, just as there is no one secret to the surprise hits. And I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.

Because scoring with a sure thing is fun.. but only for about 15 minutes.

I left a comment there that I'd like to repeat here, because it will likely be lost amid the 21 previous comments, and because I'm not in a strong position to question any agents about their deeply-held convictions. Still, I've made a point in saying what's on my mind here, and I won't stop now. In any case, here's what I said:

"I'm in a different arena of IP rights, and it surprises me the way the literary biz works: basically it's about 'loving' a book and then trying to get it published. That's very noble, and I respect those people as artists, but it seems crazy as a business model. If I represented properties based on this success rate, I'd be looking for another line of work.

"Of course, it's a good thing for our culture that agents and editors are willing to take these kinds of risks, otherwise we'd have nothing but 'safe' choices. But what puzzles me is when the agents and editors will ignore trends and ideas for what they believe is 'well-written,' usually based on previous experience. It's probably one reason that there are so many who doubt the current publishing system will endure, especially as more young people turn to other media. I know this warning has been sounded before, but I see so many books being stubbornly clung to in spite of their weak sales. The whole National Book Award brouhaha last year is a good example. Is that a noble stand for culture, or an elitist shot across everyone else's bow? How many editors and writers even read The News from Paraguay? Perhaps history will show that stubbornly sticking to that book was the right choice, as your 'failure' still seems to you.

"I'm glad to know that books without best-seller audiences are getting published. What surprises me is that the business seems to be bifurcated into these two extremes: 'can't miss' books to pay the rent so that companies can take chances on dark horses. So what's in between? Not much from what I can see. Certainly the small presses are swamped with writers; several prominent ones are no longer accepting unsolicited queries, much less manuscripts.

"Because of the negatives that seem inherent in the business, I decided when I finished Beyond You & Me to help the process along. That's because several agents said they liked the book, but not enough to take it on in what they all called 'a tough fiction market for new authors.' Being an experienced marketer, I decided to jump-start the process by putting parts of the novel on a web site/blog. This made sense at the time, because the novel is told in a diary form, much like a modern blog. I read about agents & editors who are enamored of the Internet, and think it will be the source of tomorrow's authors. My experience is that few of them seem to have the time or much understanding of how it works, but that's another topic.

"I digress. It seemed at the time that building an audience for the story couldn't hurt. Publishers, strapped for cash to promote their wares and driven into sticking with safe, conservative choices in 'can't miss' authors, should welcome a chance to let me do some of the heavy lifting, right? 50,000 visitors to the site later, I'm still waiting for them to take any notice.

"In fact, 756 Agents & Counting later, I have pretty much given up on the commercial route, which requires an agent. Instead I am busy looking for a small press that would like to combine my marketing abilitie with a book that has resonated with readers, many of whom return regularly to find out more about the story and its plucky heroine.

"I have no particular issue with agents or publishers, though I remain surprised at their almost willful disregard for what the public may want. I suppose this is a noble stance, as when Jack Scovil turned down my query by saying 'BEYOND YOU AND ME is just not the kind of book I represent. I loathe Anais Nin, which will give something of a clue as to why'(the novel has been compared by some fans to Nin's journals). He's earned the right to represent whatever he wants, though I marvel at they way taste becomes the arbiter of culture. I presume that's a good thing, though I'm not sure how or why."

Thursday, September 01, 2005

So What Does Almost 50,000 Hits Get Ya?

Peter Winkler, who comes to us from Valley Village, CA, asks in a comment:

I'm curious about what tools you are using to determine the number of hits your site is getting. How do you know? And do you know how much time someone who views your site is spending reading it? Also, which site are you counting the hits for: the blog or the novel? It would seem that the hit count on the novel would be the most important data.

Glad you asked.

Both this site and Beyond You & Me have hit counters. In fact, the novel site has 2. One measures raw hits. You could, if you had the time, reload your browser page 10 times in a row and it would record 10 hits. But the second one is from eXTReMe Tracking, and it monitors a blizzard of facts about visitors, including who referred them, whether they are unique visitors or not, etc. So I'm carefully tracking the number of people who come to the site. That answers your question about tools, Mr. Winkler.

As to how much time someone spends on the site, I don't know the answer to that. There are tracker programs that do, like Opentracker, but those devilishly clever folks want $16.95 per month. Trackers don't answer the obvious question, though: whether someone coming to my site is staying to read, or simply looking for some dirty pictures, x-rated prose or some other pleasure. And there's a deeper question: whether nearly 50,000 hits will translate into book sales. At anywhere from $10-$16 apiece, books aren't as easy to peddle as free reads.

That, Mr. Winkler, is the frontier from which no one has yet returned. If things continue this way, we may soon find out; one solution to the problems of publishing alternative fiction is to publish it myself and take advance orders from a website. It wasn't what I signed on to do, but what the hell?