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 Therefore, there will always be books that may be of publishable (whatever that means) quality that remain unpublished.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 If you're an unpublished writer, then it's the fault of the greedy/stupid/arrogant/insensitive agents/editors/capitalists.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

4 Comments:

Blogger Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear W. S.:

“American culture loves to find blame (‘The Blame Game’).”

For me it is not about assigning blame, it is about swallowing one’s disappointment and finally accepting that there are certain things in this world I am powerless to change and that I may be on the receiving end of personal injustices that are delivered by human institutions like the current system of publishing.

“I would find Mr. Winkler's reasoning more persuasive if it were only unpublished writers who were clamoring for change in the system. 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.”

I keep hearing that 175,000 books are published a year. If prospective readers can’t find something there to satisfy them, I submit that they aren’t really that interested in reading for entertainment. Please don’t tell me those 175,000 are all celebrity spin-offs or bodice rippers or sci-fi media tie-ins. You can subtract all those and the heavily hyped would be bestsellers and hoity toity literary fiction and the short story collection from the latest winner of The New Yorker’s fiction contest and that still leaves a huge number of fiction and nonfiction titles to choose from. It’s easy to see why most books don’t sell out their first printings. And it’s false to conclude that it’s primarily reader dissatisfaction. Only a small percentage of the many books published are promoted or reviewed. People won’t buy what they aren’t exposed to, unless they are very diligent in seeking out new books. There are also many esoteric books that simply won’t appeal to too many people, even when those books are given wide exposure.

“I would be more persuaded if alternative technologies, delivery systems and marketing options were not spreading with the rise of the Internet.”

I’ve been hearing this since I first logged on to the internet in late 1995. I used to get a daily Wired news digest e-mailed to me and I wish I had a buck for every story I read about how e-books and POD technology combined with online sales were going to displace traditional publishing. Ten years have gone by. It hasn’t happened. You can pour your Word or Acrobat file into the form of an e-book or put it between covers or podcast it, but how do you connect with readers? How do you get readers’ attention? How does the internet really help?

“Now all large publishing house, and even some small presses refuse to read any manuscript or query that comes over-the-transom.”

That is JUST NOT TRUE. Based on paper queries, e-mail and one cold call, I got editors at a number of trade publishers to request my proposal. Without consulting my submission log, here’s an incomplete list, but it’ll suffice: Knopf, Wiley, Kensington, Source Books, Robson (UK), Pearson (publishers of the Complete Idiots Guide series), Simon & Schuster, and Rowman & Littlefield.

“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?”

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?”

“An executive is a man who makes decisions and is sometimes right.”
Mark Twain

Agents and editors extrapolate from past success (and failure). They do it because that’s all they can do. No one knows what the public wants before they demonstrate they want it. They can only guess.

This is something I was going to cover in my last comment but forgot. People keep discussing how the publishing industry is a malfunctioning mechanism as if it were the only one. But it isn’t.

Every year, thousands of new products are developed and introduced to the marketplace and many fail. Everything from soft drinks to electronic gadgets to automobiles. And there is much more money spent pre-market testing and promoting them than publishers spend. And still many new products fail. The Edsel was one of the first cars which was designed after extensive market research and use of demographics. New Coke. Betamax. Laserdiscs failed. CD-I. CD-V. Quadraphonic sound. Dockable laptops. The war in Iraq (heh heh).

Systems administered by human beings are as fallible as the people who design them. No one can quantify taste or the artistic value of a book and no one is clairvoyant. So we are stuck with a system that will always produce numerous discontents.

Either you accept this, as I have, or you find an answer, if one exists. I don’t know of one.

Where does one find a better alternative? Self-publishing as it’s been tried before and after the internet is a miserable failure for all but a very lucky few-far fewer than those writers published by traditional publishers. Rather than getting locked in a hopeless argument about whether all traditional books are good or all self-published books are bad except that there are exceptions in either category and that then proves whatever you want it to prove, I would like to see someone come forward with some clear ideas-if they have any-on how to develop an alternative that works.

That is my challenge to you and anyone who wants to contribute to your blog or mine. Because I’m punched out on this subject. I can’t go another round.

Without blowing the cover of any secret marketing plan you’ve devised, perhaps you could express, in generalities, how you plan to use the internet to effectively sell your novel. Maybe you’re the great innovator. If so, unleash your dogs of war. Have at it. If your plan works, you and every other frustrated writer will be the beneficiary.

12:42 AM, October 01, 2005  
Blogger W. S. Cross said...

I don't feel I'm on the receiving end of anything, injustice or otherwise. For me, publishing is a business, one that seems to be run as though it were also a holy order.

I would be curious to know about your figure of 175,000 books. That seems absurdly high to me, but it would include large numbers of technical books. I'm really focusing more on fiction, which is what I write. I have no problems with bodice-rippers because readers like them. It's like complaining about network TV because it's not HBO: not everyone wants "Six Feet Under."

"And it’s false to conclude that it’s primarily reader dissatisfaction. Only a small percentage of the many books published are promoted or reviewed. People won’t buy what they aren’t exposed to, unless they are very diligent in seeking out new books."

I did not mean to imply that is the only reason, though you have raised a very interesting point as well: how publishing expects to sell something they don't promote or market. I'm in marketing, and you can't expect product to walk out the doors by itself.

As to the Internet, I never said it would replace traditional publishing; please don't put words in my mouth. "How do you get readers’ attention? How does the internet really help?" Clearly you're not reading my other site Beyond You & Me. How's 57,000 visitors so far, many asking "how can I buy your book?" Drop by and see how it's done.

Your experience querying trade publishers just does not jibe with mine; are you talking fiction or non-fiction? That might be the difference. But it is the POLICY of those publishers not to take un-agented fiction; undoubtedly you will find editors who think for themselves.

"People keep discussing how the publishing industry is a malfunctioning mechanism as if it were the only one. But it isn’t."

You're right, but this blog is called "756 Agents & Counting..." You could, of course, start one "756 American Industries in the Crapper." It might attract more than disgruntled writers and Ms. Snark.

"Maybe you’re the great innovator."

Mr. Winkler, I'm just a simple writer. But there's a disjunction between what the agents are telling me and what the readers of my site are telling me. I have also been approached by at least one start-up operation. And I see that e-books are making a living for several colleagues. So I don't pretend to reform the system. That's not my job, my intent or even my interest.

I wouldn't pretend to tell the agents their business, but I do understand marketing. There's no secret plan: you have to find a way to get your message to those who are likely to be receptive. I seem to have discovered folks who are interested in the story I have to tell. How many remains a mystery; I won't be able to know until I accept the start-up's offer, go the e-book route, or find a small publisher (among the few who are actually still bringing out new books).

You keep alluding to self-publishing as the only other alternative. While it has certain attractions (control of the look of the book), the notion of fulfilling orders in my basement after work doesn't cut it for me. There are other alternatives, and I figure I have little to risk and much to gain.

You may not have the appetite for self-promotion and marketing that I do. I don't fault you for that. But again, the agents have spoken, so I'm willing to think outside the box.

1:02 AM, October 01, 2005  
Blogger ~~Olivia said...

"I tend to continue to believe that most unsuccessful writers simply can’t write."

I absolutely agree. To prove this, go to any vanity press website and read the excerpts of the books. The writing is awful.

Now, before you get your toes twisted, read the quote. It says "most unsuccessful writers", not all, just most.

If you really wanted to get published, you could go to any vanity publisher. But, to win the "game", you need to published by the big boys in New York. And they make the rules that we play by.

Good luck. I'm still trying, too.

2:28 PM, October 11, 2005  
Blogger Cara said...

Love the debate! Kind of like a tennis match, scoring for each side. Ya'll could be the next Hannity & Colmes and take it on the road (Winkler & Cross has a snappy ring to it)

BRAVO to both sides of the argument!

1:37 PM, June 28, 2006  

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