Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Piling on (Bookner.com)

Elektra, a writer-in-waiting, left a here comment about Bookner.com, 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 Bookner.com. 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 Bookner.com 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 She's right when she points out that having other unpublished writers read and evaluate the work submitted isn't a promising way to separate the wheat from the chaff.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 Bookner.com. 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.

5 Comments:

Blogger Peter L. Winkler said...

I am probably going to write an extravagantly time wasting essay about this on my own blog, but here are some thoughts on this as they occur to me non-sequitur.

“The system is broken”

One’s evaluation of this is dependent on who you are. And what your goal is.

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 (the role of taste in choosing what gets published). More on that below…

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.

Go ask Norman Spinrad. See his web site for his attempt to sell his novel He Walked Among Us. Though a German language edition was published, he is now giving away the English e-book version. BTW, Spinrad has been writing science fiction professionally since the late 1960s. He’s not some hapless no talent.

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.

http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/normanspinrad/

Which brings me to…

“Either he’s the captain, or you’re no good.”

Toward the end of the film The Caine Mutiny, a drunken Barney Greenwald (Jose Ferrer) intrudes on the celebration of the victorious defendants whose acquittal he produced by revealing the mental instability of Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) during their court martial. At one point, Greenwald lambastes the officers for failing to support Queeg, suggesting that if they did, they wouldn’t have had to remove him from command during the typhoon. When Ensign Keith (Robert Francis) acknowledges this, Greenwald says, “Ah Willie. You’re learning. You’re learning that either he’s the captain or you’re no good.”

It took me a number of viewings of this film over the years to figure this line out, but I finally did. In a command hierarchy, senior officers are presumed to be more knowledgeable and experienced than junior officers. Junior officers must accept this and obey orders, otherwise the system cannot function.

I think “Either he’s the captain or you’re no good” is applicable to the world beyond the military. The publishing industry is the captain and the writer is the junior officer.
I think it happens to have some application to the eternal dilemma of group #3 here.
And that dilemma is what conclusion you draw about your writing and yourself when you have been repeatedly rejected and what you do about it.

I confess to an inner tension on what conclusions I’ve reached about myself. If it weren’t for the fact that I have had some of my writing professionally published, sold one book proposal, and have had quite a few requests for proposals based on my queries, I might have been left with the last resort of the loser: to blame my failure on the fickleness of the market. But, because I’ve had a few successes, I tend to believe that the general proposition found in myriad books for writers sometimes proves true. A marketable idea, invitingly expressed and submitted with the correct protocol will find a buyer.

If I had never been able to sell so much as a film review, I would have concluded that my writing was at fault and would have thrown in the towel. There’s a dichotomy about personal psychology I was exposed to in an introductory psychology course nearly thirty years ago. People are either inner or outer directed. I am outer directed. I accept it. This means that I have accepted the decisions of agents and editors even when it has led me to a great deal of self-doubt, self-recrimination, and unhappiness.

I have considered self-publishing, but have rejected it as a workable strategy for MYSELF. “Learn what you are, then be that.” Precisely because I am outer directed and know that I don’t have the resources and skills to successfully promote myself. There’s a guy out there that currently has a web site where he’s selling a million pixels, $1 per pixel. He’s sold a lot of his screen’s real estate. I would love to know how he managed to get so many people to mention him out of the blue. If he gave a course in it, I would take it. I have no conception of how to even try to do this, and given my entrepreneurial incompetence, I feel that any similar effort on my part would fail. Because I also know that I am not a lucky person.

If a writer can’t sell their writing, is it the writer or everyone else who is wrong? I can’t answer the question for you or anyone else. I have answered the question for myself, and based on my sampling of self-published work, 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.

12:29 AM, September 30, 2005  
Blogger Miss Snark said...

I haven't ever deleted anything you've posted to my blog. If you think that is not so, it maybe that you just can't find it after so much other stuff has gone up.

2:37 PM, October 05, 2005  
Blogger Miss Snark said...

Let me know what you're "missing" and I'll send you the linkage.

2:38 PM, October 05, 2005  
Blogger W. S. Cross said...

My mistake. I'm often mistaken. Perhaps because your site is so active with posts and comments. I was not able to follow discussions I'd posted on, and presumed that you'd deleted my comments. It's common enough here in the Blogosphere.

What do you say to my point? That agents and editors seem to have problems finding "good" books that actually sell? I'm sure I'm wrong, certainly 756 agents agree I am.

4:02 PM, October 05, 2005  
Blogger Bonnie Calhoun said...

I think the whole thing boils down to the old adage, "If you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen." If you go all the way back to when Bookner first commented on Miss Snark's blog, you'll see he got cocky real fast, and then he disabled the comments on his own site after recieving some he didn't like. You've heard of unrequited love...well this has unfortunately turned into unrequited hate! Come visit my blog...I gave everyone a spot in the debate. P.S....Bookner has not come there, or maybe he did and deleted it (two people did). He can't much argue with my assessment, and I gave them all links!

4:40 PM, October 09, 2005  

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