Saturday, May 15, 2010

An Unnecessary Evil: Part Two


But there are other reasons for constant rejection.

Selfish, sociopathic greed and career ambition is one and I don't pretend to understand why agents shoot themselves in the foot every day and try to put a positive spin knowing they let the big fish get away. Privately, you know they kick themselves in their fat asses with their soft leather Guccis.

Take my former agent: One of the things I admired most about Kimberley was when she called my house one night to beg me to let her represent me (back when agents made house calls) and admitted she let John Gilstrap get away. Kim's agency was one of the ones to which Gilstrap had submitted his eventuallly bestselling Nathan's Run. And Kim lost him because she took too long getting back to him. John, in the meantime, had settled on Molly Friedrich of the Aaron Priest Agency. Molly went on to put Gilstrap's property up for an exciting phone auction and got him a six figure deal with a hard cover edition through Warner Books (Warner Brothers Studios bought but didn't exercise the film rights). Kim's ship had sailed and was a dot on the horizon.

I thought, Either this is the dumbest agent on record or the most honest and self-effacing. I agreed to let her rep me even before we signed a representation agreement.

Unfortunately, my first appraisal was truer than the second. Kimberley thought my first novel, a sci fi piece of tripe about time travel and Jack the Ripper, was the greatest thing she'd ever read. Well, obviously, that book went nowhere and after a couple of months she was telling me to submit it to Warner Books' Young Author's contest.

Yes. She was actually telling me to do her footwork for her.

But that brings home my point: With a horrible first novel written before I'd learned most of even the basic rules for story-telling, I was able to get the services of an honest, nonfee-charging agent in virtually no time. Subsequent projects not long after received similar interest.

Fast forward 15 years later: Agents are so jaded (and literarily stupid) that my later novels, which blow out of the water anything and everything I'd written in the 90's, barely merits form rejection letters. Just the other day, I got rejected by an agent who said he couldn't take on any new clients but back in 1999 I kept him from getting fired when his client, Alex Kava, was expressing impatience with him on an internet BBS for writers. By this time, Philip Spitzer (no relation to Eliot) was already in semi-retirement.

However, when it's my turn, I'm told there's no room at the inn.

Media consolidation is responsible for much of this tighter, more competitive market. It's not unusual to see a media giant such as Germany's Bertelsmann AG, for instance, owning over 100 formerly independent US publishers. With more publishers and imprints under one huge umbrella, it spells only one thing: Fewer titles in the publishers' catalogs, hence fewer sales opportunities for agents and authors. And when brain transplant candidates like Sarah Palin get signed by agents who get for them $7,000,000 deals knowing damned good and well they're not actually writing anything, it further shrinks an already fast-evaporating watering hole for the rest of us. The agent and publisher alike are both well aware that the book likely won't earn out its advance, but that's OK. It's all about fast sales and fast commissions regardless of Going Rogue ending up by this summer, as it ought, at BJ's, CostCo's or K-Mart's book bargain bin going for $1.98.

As it is, it's tougher for firsttime authors, real writers, to get repped much less break into print. And those few agents who specialize in first fiction and multiply-rejected properties actually get my admiration because they've chosen to hoe the toughest row. The resub rate is miserable and firsttime novelists are expected to be accredited experts in certain fields.

But you'd think that talent and conscientiousness, obeyance of the rules would eventually pay off. After all, all it takes is one person in a position to help to make all the difference, right? Tell that to a talented, conscientious author who's been following the rules for close to two decades and has been kissing ass only to get farted in his or her face.

Tell that to someone who actually has an original, compelling, well-written concept and told time after time that their book still isn't as good as even the worst book currently on the shelves. After a while, with feedback cruelly held from you, you begin to wonder if you've been black-balled or kept out of the loop and denied the secret password or handshake or if Jeff Herman's Guide or the obscenely-priced Literary Market Place is a colossal hoax that give you the wrong contact names and that the real deal-makers' contact info is on a secret list.

Of course, this is largely untrue but it all goes back to what I say about lack of input and writing and submitting in a vacuum playing tricks with your mind.

The double standard is also the most galling thing about being a writer trying to break into print. Time and again, you'll see agent listings that stipulate that you must address a particular agent by name then a line or two below that says in essence, "If you haven't heard back from us in 6-8 weeks, take that as our way of not saying, Eat shit and die." And we're supposed to be OK with that and not second-guess their judgment.

And, while agents and editors alike readily admit they're in it for the money and look not at how good a property is but how salable it is (agents and editors begin the process by doing what's called an IPL, or Industry Profit Loss statement, a paper crystal ball that's supposed to tell them how big or bad a seller the book will be), they also tell us from the other side of their mouths that we're not supposed to be in it for the money but for the love of the game.

Uh huh. Making tons of money is merely incidental, in the minds of agents and publishing executives. Right. Gotcha.

Adding to the angst of a beginning writer is another movement, this one hostile to the writer, as are all trends in the business: The author is expected to do more.

It's a given, especially, if you're a nonfiction author, to have a marketing platform and to include that in with your pitch. You're supposed to be an accredited expert in one field or another so your book will have credibility. You're supposed to already have an internet presence, a following. In other words, a built-in readership and marketing platform. In the profiles and submission guidelines, agents even have the chutzpah to expect you to tell them what your qualifications are for writing your novel, why you're uniquely qualified to write it. Try saying merely, "Talent" and see how far it gets you.

If you're not an accredited expert or have been hiding from the internet these past 20 years and if you don't have a marketing or even a distribution strategy in place, you might as well just save your time, envelopes and postage. This business is rapidly becoming more and more of a self-serve industry and agents and publishers alike have gotten so lazy they expect you to hawk and whore your books almost as if you've published them through a vanity press. Publicity is up to you, marketing is up to you and whatever boutique agencies that take care of these things reserve such rarified treatment for proven money-makers.

That's not to say publishers don't have publicity and advertising departments. But the big book signing tours and full page ads in the NY Times Book Review, the writeups and reviews by big name authors in Kirkus and elsewhere are, once again, reserved for the Sarah Palins, Dan Browns and J.K. Rowlings. The rest of us are lucky if we get a blurb in our old high school newspaper and perhaps a book signing in our local bookshops.

Borders, for instance, got rid of a job title: The CCR. The CCR used to be the buffer between the public and publisher and helped set up book signings and readings. But, whereas a book store used to hold a community together and establish a community presence, today's book malls with the coffee bars are mere cash cows with no more real ties or obligations to the community than a casino or oil refinery. Like literary agencies and publishers, they are hollow entities that serve only one purpose and one purpose only: To make money. They are money factories, cash temples that now answer to boards of directors and shareholders and the books are actually incidental and ancillary at this point.

Publishing's always been a business but the days of Max Perkins at Scribner's guiding his authors through the publishing process are long gone and there are no more Swifty Lazars. There are only bean counters and whereas you may have literally invested blood, sweat and tears into your book, the odds of getting even a nibble of interest is entirely, completely and totally dependent upon their appraisal of your chances of putting money in their pockets.

Literary agents, while some of them are genuinely nice human beings, nonetheless are helping to ruin the publishing business that is plainly dying or undergoing tectonic changes around them. They are well-scrubbed parasites with an increasingly narrow focus (I got a rejection just two days from an agent that said, "I represent only cozies" and freely admitted not having read a word of my book. The turnaround time was 5 minutes flat, a record even for me, if not all time) and haughtier and haughtier attitudes toward the unwashed, "pre-pubbed" hordes.

Even potentially salable commodities (which is solely how they view our productions) are passed on if it doesn't personally tickle their subjective fancy. They'll tell you, "If I'm not crazy over this book, I will not be able to sell it." In other words, we're supposed to believe that the tens of millions of titles that have been sold over the last generation or so were done by agents who were absolutely head over heels in love with every one of them. As if it's not possible to fake enthusiasm even in a face-to-face business like publishing.

Literary agents will lie to you, disrespect you, sometimes cheat you, they will ignore you, they will pass more and more of the work on to you, they will hand down the law to you regardless of them being the hired help who works for the author and not vice versa and they will make you live under double standards. They are the nouveau riche, the new merchant class of the publishing racket and, like the newly-rich merchant class of the Middle Ages, have the hubris and attitude to go with their newfound wealth and political power.

Issac Asimov never had an agent in his life and you'd be surprised to find out who else doesn't. If you have to go the way of subsidy publishing and selling your book on Amazon or through Kindle or eBooks, do whatever you can to avoid agents. They are simply an unnecessary evil that, along with publishers, is killing the business for those who sustain the industry: We the writers and we the readers who create the trends.

8 Comments:

At May 16, 2010 at 8:34 AM, Blogger Jill said...

When I worked for Simon & Schuster in the early 1980's, I can't tell you how many manuscripts I read from the "slush pile" that were better than any of the swill that the company was publishing. I read one manuscript about the Gnostics that was mind-blowingly good -- and no one would look at it.

My former boss has just had his second book published. The first one was a memoir about gardening, the new one is about baking bread. It's nonfiction, it's niche stuff, and it's the kind of thing that can make a nice little backlist item. He has a full-time job and didn't make much of an advance from either one of them, from what I understand.

The thing about book publishing is that it's NEVER about art, it's ALWAYS about commerce. Palin gets a 7 million dollar deal because Newsmax and other wingnut organizations will buy up enough copies to put it at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and it'll earn back that money pretty quickly. Jodi Picoult, whose work was at its best during the time right before she hit it really big, is a sure bet.

You'd think that blockbuster authors would allow publishing companies the freedom to dip a toe into the risk-taking waters; but with huge corporate ownership, it's all about profit, profit, profit. They rarely if ever take a chance anymore on a first-time authors. And the "literary agents" give the publishers what they want. Because ultiimately, the agents don't work for you, they work for the publishers.

 
At May 16, 2010 at 10:22 AM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

I never knew you worked for S&S, Jill. It's good to have some validation from someone who's been there.

The early 80's, of course, was just before the rise of the lit agencies and I think there were less than 200 in the country back then. Now there are between 400-500.

And you're absolutely right: The agencies do the bidding for the publishers, not their clients, the authors. Of course, they'd scream their heads off if they ever heard that but their very indispensability proves our point.

 
At May 16, 2010 at 11:29 AM, Blogger Jill said...

Don't kid yourself. Even then you had to have an agent. The slush pile was the "fun" part of my $12,500 job (which wasn't much money even in 1981). Most of what I did involved doing expense reports, typing letters, sending out bound galleys, writing catalog and jacket copy, and fielding calls from the likes of Norman Podhoretz, George Will, Sidney Hook, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, and other neocons. Yes, the guy I worked for published neocons. Everyone who worked for this guy was a liberal. Go figure.

 
At May 16, 2010 at 4:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like the music industry and like everything else it all about the money. Sad.
jo6pac
Thanks Jill

 
At May 16, 2010 at 5:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you ever considered the fact that your writting sucks as the reason you cant cant get published?

 
At May 16, 2010 at 6:04 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

Have you ever considered the fact that you're a peckerhead who doesn't know what he's talking about?

 
At May 17, 2010 at 6:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe if you do leave the country you'll get something published....hey,its worth a shot.

 
At May 17, 2010 at 10:00 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

True, as there's always the example of Robert Frost, Hemingway and others to consider. This is partly why I've been expanding my search to UK and Canadian agents. Unfortunately, their vision seems to be aa limited and crippled as that of their American counterparts.

 

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