Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Why We Have Gatekeepers

In fiction and in life there are often gatekeepers who guard the entrance to the castle or the enchanted kingdom. Consider St Peter, standing guard at the pearly gates, or those big blokes in dark glasses and wash ’n’ wear suits who stand outside the nightclubs and only let the pretty girls in. In both cases there are good reasons for them to be there: the big blokes are fulfilling a health and safety function by ensuring their nightclubs don't get overcrowded, and a public relations function by only allowing the prettiest admission (thereby establishing their club’s reputation for being a hot totty spot); while St Peter makes sure that heaven doesn't get filled up with non-believers and troublemakers, and therefore remains heavenly.

These gatekeepers do an unpopular but necessary job. So when people complain that literary agents are no more than self-appointed gatekeepers who are preventing writers from reaching editors they fail to consider what would be the result—to writers, publishers and readers—if agents stopped carrying out their literary gatekeeping role.

Editors are very overworked. A lot of their time is taken up by reading, and close reading at that. In order to do their job well they cannot skimp on this: editors were already horribly overstretched year ago; in the last year many have lost their jobs, and the books that they were responsible for have been handed over to the editors who remain employed, adding to their already too-heavy workload. This lack of time is nothing new: but it has been compounded recently, to a horrible degree.

No wonder, then, that editors prefer to work with agents. Doing so frees editors from the tyranny of the slush-pile; and they know that anything an agent submits is likely to be both publishable, and appropriate for their lists. It gives those editors time to work more closely with their writers, and to do their best to ensure that their books are the best that they can be. This means that we, as readers, have better books to read; and also that we, as writers, are displayed to our very best advantage.

There is a cost to the publisher: the contracts that agents negotiate are usually far more beneficial to the writers who sign them than a standard publisher’s contract, and so the publishers’ shares of income is cut: but the advantages of not having to deal with the mountain of slush outweigh this by a significant degree.

55 comments:

Glynis said...

That makes a lot of sense. Interesting article.

Lesley Cookman said...

Good stuff. Have you been talking to Carole? (!)

Steven Gaskin said...

I'm not sure the doorman/St Peter analogies apply to publishing. In both those cases, the goal is to maintain quality, whereas the criteria for passing the gates in publishing is "will it sell?" rather than "how good is it?" There are a lot of good books in print that sell well due to their quality, but there are also celebrity biographies and Twilight/Harry Potter cash-ins and parodies. Write a quality book that's a hard-sell, and those gates are pretty much closed. Fair enough - it's the right of the "management" to refuse entry, but it's also the right of the "customers" to stop trying to get in, and go elsewhere. POD and cheap, digital printing aren't the only reasons that the number of self-published authors is rising so quickly...

Lorraine Mace said...

Excellent stuff. Have already retweeted this. (lomace)

Carole Blake said...

A very sensible and balanced piece. People who rail against editors, agents, are often those who have been rejected and thoughtlessly hit out at the rejectors, rather than examining their own work - and a ttitudes - more carefully. Knowledge is power and this piece could help.
Carole Blake

Nicola Morgan said...

Steven - the publishing industry is about catering for readers of all sorts and in sufficient quantities, and filtering work for them with the benefit of experience and expertise and a degree of objectivity (albeit not perfect because personal response is inevitable). Self-publishing removes the filter. That's fine if you're a customer who fancies wading through even more than the many many thousands of books who make it past the gate-keepers. If a reader is going to read a very small number of dozens of books a year, a reader needs as much filtering as possible - it's all about which filter you choose to trust. If i was a publisher I'd tend towards the agent-filtered but not make myself closed to the possibility of genuine un-agented talent. Thing is, how many hours would I have in the day? I have seen the direness of what agents and editors face. I have also seen beautiful unagented writing. But how to find it in a limited 24-hour day?

Bubblecow said...

Great post! I wrote a similar post a few days ago about the role of agents and publishers, which may be of interest:

http://www.bubblecow.co.uk/2010/01/why-is-it-so-hard-to-get-published/

For me I feel it is the duty of the writer to approach the system with work that will allow an easy passage past the gatekeepers.

Hodmandod said...

It is so clear to me that if I had had you lot when first trying to get published in the 90s, I would not have felt so adrift and helpless. This feeling led to me misinterpreting the rejection letters and being unable to extract the good stuff from them that would have made me persist then instead of almost giving up for years after just a few months. Sensible, firm advice is what we all need.

Steven Gaskin said...

Nicola - I agree with the need for gatekeepers, but I feel that both editors and agents are under so much pressure to achieve financial results in a struggling industry, that they don't have the option to champion books they love or have faith in. The criteria for what they accept are no longer their own. I also agree with the need to cater for all tastes, but - with fear of sounding elitist - the current business model appears to be aimed at dumbing-down content to sell more books, and it doesn't seem to be working. The pressure on editors and agents is, in my opinion, a side-effect of trying to squeeze every last penny out of a failing model.

Precision Grace said...

Oh Oh I think I'm going to be controversial!

This Gatekeeper post makes sense and I agree with it's basic sentiment but I cannot help but think that Steven has a tiny point too (not in terms of POD but in terms of what actually gets published these days).

Don't get me wrong, I don't have a manuscript I would like to sell and if I ever did, I'd hope it gets into Harper Collins through representation from a really kick ass agent. (I'm old school, me).
However I cannot help but look around in utter dismay every time I, foolishly, step into the bookstore or have a browse through Amazon.
Maybe it's just that there is too much choice and it is difficult, in terms of business strategy, to publish everything one likes. I don't know. But I pick up those books, and dip into them (as is my want) and read a paragraph or two and want to hurl the said book at the head of people responsible for it dirtying my mind. (too harsh?)

What I (and Steven) question is this: if Agents and Editors and Publishing Houses are the Gatekeepers of quality reading who are charged with keeping our reading minds unsullied (filtering - thank you Nicola) - how do we end up with so much sub par literature every year?

Btw, I understand that the last year's The Man Booker Prize winner was one Hilary Mantel with her novel Wolf Hall (seems to be something about Cromwell as far as I can gather) has anyone here read it? What did you think of it? Should I bother?

Vanessa Robertson said...

WRT to Nicola's question about which filter the reader should trust (and I agree whole-heartedly with her sentiments) I think one of the last filters, the Gatekeeper of Last Resort as it were, is the independent bookseller.

So many books are published that we can't stock them all however much we'd like to so we apply filters asking whether a particular title is something that our customers will want to read, whether we personally think it looks interesting and also whether it's any good. Because despite all those gatekeepers who've been before us there's some real dross out there that's come via major publishing houses. And that's before we even start looking at the self-published stuff...

Jane Travers said...

Very nicely and clearly put, thanks for that piece!

I think people (for which read "unagented writers") spend way too much time railing against the intricacies and inadequacies of the publishing industry as it stands. The fact is, it's an industry, like any other. It has to have a market or it will cease to be. If you want to be published you need to stop fighting it and learn how to work within it.

Nicola Morgan said...

Steven - I'd argue that "financial results" = "book sales".

Yes, sales and marketing now often have too much power in decision-making and editors too little - I agree. But it's not the case that editors can't champion books they love and believe in. The sweet spot happens when an author writes a book that readers want, and writes it well enough - then, editors and sales and marketing AND authors can jump up and down. And then you have the ideal situation: the author now has time to go away and write another great book, rather than self-publish, with all the huge issues of distribution, marketing, selling etc etc etc. Give me an agent to get me through all that any day - I'm a writer first, not a bookseller.

Pen Drifter said...

how do we end up with so much sub par literature every year?

Precision Grace, I ask myself another question: if we end up with so much sub par literature every year despite the presence of gatekeepers, how much worse would it be if there were no gatekeepers at all?

Sometimes I wander into fanfiction sites or read excerpts of novels from unpublished writers. I've also read a few self-pubbed novels. The truly awful stuff far outnumbers the passable (I'm not even talking "good"), and I for one dread the thought of having to separate the gold from the dross all by myself.

And for all the sub par lit that makes it through, there's also some really good stuff from new writers; I'd never have found those on my own.

Jane Smith said...

Steven Gaskin wrote, "I'm not sure the doorman/St Peter analogies apply to publishing. In both those cases, the goal is to maintain quality, whereas the criteria for passing the gates in publishing is "will it sell?" rather than "how good is it?""

Steven, publishers are businesses. If they don't sell the books they publish in sufficient quantity then they go out of business and stop publishing anything. So you're right: for them, the judgement has to be "will it sell?" But that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

It doesn't mean that readers are prevented from finding the books they want because, as Nicola has already pointed out, sales equals readership. Readers only buy the books they want to read.

It's all very well publishing brilliant, glittering prose, but if no one wants to read it then why should publishers bother? If a book is judged a "hard sell" and consequently rejected, that's usually because the publisher has already published other similar books and watched them fail. Why publish books which few people want to read? Who does that help? And how?

You also wrote, ”Fair enough - it's the right of the "management" to refuse entry, but it's also the right of the "customers" to stop trying to get in, and go elsewhere.”

You’re right, of course, that customers can shop wherever they like, but that analogy actually reinforces my point, and weakens yours. The readers are the customers in publishing, not the writers. Readers buy books. Readers fund publishing. Which is why publishing is focussed on giving the readers what they want and NOT on pandering to the whims of writers, and publishing their substandard work.

Bubblecow said...

I think that the mistake people are making is the assumption that publishers are looking to publish 'quality' literature. This is just not true. Publishers are looking to publish books that sell, and sell well.

There is indeed a place for high brow literature and 'great' books, but the reality of publsihing is that these types of books don't sell in great numbers. Therefore publishers are looking for books that they feel fit market trends and buying profiles. Though this has an element of black magic, there is alot of data to show which books will sell and which will not.

This means the argument against publshers printing 'sub-par' books is more an argument against readers buying 'sub-par' books.

Jane Smith said...

Lesley, I was going to respond to your comment with, "I taught her all she knows!" but then Carole came over here and commented, and now I'm too scared to do that. So I won't.

And Carole: thank you.

Precision Grace said...

All very good points except that I would argue that it isn't the readers that drive the sales most of the time, it's the marketing.

Jo Treggiari said...

Advance for first book without an agent was OK. Advance for 2nd book with agent was outrageously better.
I have an open mind regarding self-published books. When I worked at an indie bookstore we carried a variety of them. I have never read one which was not in need of some editing, usually a lot of editing.
As a reader I expect a certain standard for my dollar and I think the traditional structure of agent and editor helps to uphold that.

Bubblecow said...

"it isn't the readers that drive the sales most of the time, it's the marketing."

Chicken and egg?

Precision Grace said...

Bubblecow said...

"it isn't the readers that drive the sales most of the time, it's the marketing."

Chicken and egg?


I don't think so. Else I wouldn't have found myself in possession of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and The Road, both of which I found myself unable to get into. ;)

Jane Smith said...

Steven, sorry to keep singling you out like this but I wonder: what’s your stance here, and what’s your experience of publishing?

“editors and agents are under so much pressure to achieve financial results in a struggling industry, that they don't have the option to champion books they love or have faith in. The criteria for what they accept are no longer their own.”

I disagree with you here: agents and editors who work incredibly hard to make the books they believe in a big success.

“the current business model appears to be aimed at dumbing-down content to sell more books, and it doesn't seem to be working.”

But if those books sell, then that means there’s a readership for them. Would you prefer publishing to produce books no one wanted to buy, but which were agreed to be of good literary quality? How would that work?

“The pressure on editors and agents is, in my opinion, a side-effect of trying to squeeze every last penny out of a failing model.”

In recent years it’s become popular to suggest that publishing is failing because it’s changing, and because new technologies are available now which some publishers take time to adapt to. I’ve worked in publishing, on and off, for a quarter of a century now and according to some, it’s been perpetually on the brink of failing in all that time.

The “publishing is failing” thing is one of those concepts which was first bandied about by vanity publishers, in order to promote their ugly practices; it’s now been adopted by the more evangelical side of the self-publishing community in order to justify their frequent rejections and lack of success. It’s a shame, as ideas like this cause a rift between mainstream writers and self-published writers which need not exist; and they mislead the na├»ve into believing that self-publishing is going to deliver them more benefits than it possibly can.

Bubblecow said...

"Chicken and egg?

I don't think so. Else I wouldn't have found myself in possession of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and The Road, both of which I found myself unable to get into. ;)"


ha ha - I rate The Road as one of the best books to come out of the US in the last ten years!

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell I have not read!

Jane Smith said...

Jane Travers wrote, "I think people (for which read "unagented writers") spend way too much time railing against the intricacies and inadequacies of the publishing industry as it stands. The fact is, it's an industry, like any other. It has to have a market or it will cease to be. If you want to be published you need to stop fighting it and learn how to work within it."


Jane, I think that anyone who wants to get published should first write a great book. After that, they just need a good agent who knows about publishing. Many of the successful writers that I know actually know very little about publishing, apart from the bits they are directly involved with. Just write a great book. That's the most important step.

Jane Smith said...

Pen Drifter: "I ask myself another question: if we end up with so much sub par literature every year despite the presence of gatekeepers, how much worse would it be if there were no gatekeepers at all? "

You can find out by dropping in on my other blog, the Self-Publishing Review. Despite all the hype and energy which surrounds self-publishing, I have only been sent a couple of books to review which could really keep my attention: most of the rest were not even not-quite-there, they were truly awful. Really, badly, awful.

Sally Zigmond said...

I'm a firm believer in experienced and knowledgeable gatekeepers. But in answer to the question of 'why are so many books chosen by the gatekeepers on the shelves today total dross?' I can only suggest that we try to think in percentages of the the general population. (Most of which, incidentally, don't read books at all.)

The sad fact is that the so-called 'quality literature' which most of us here, being literate, educated people, want is only wanted by a small minority of this larger population.

So it stands to reason that most of the books published would fall into what we call 'dross.'

Was it the Emperor Augustus who said that as long as the average Roman had bread and circuses, he was happy. That hasn't changed.

But that doesn't mean that quality writing isn't out there or that agents and editors don't love it when they read it but, as Jane says, they have to be able to feed and clothe themselves. Therefore, more 'dross' is published to cater for the majority.

Look at the circulation figures for British newspapers. Why does The Sun sell far more copies than The Times or The Guardian? It's no coincidence.

And even amongst writers (mainly unpublished) on dedicated forums, one only has to say that one prefers 'literary' fiction, for the rocks to start being hurled at one for being 'pretentious' and 'elitist'.

I don't think there are any fewer 'good' books published than there were in the past. In fact, I believe there are more. The ratio remains the same because there are far more books in general being published than ever before. And the so-called 'dross' is still going to outweigh the 'good' so that means one heck of a lot. Not to mention that it will be promoted on TV shows etc that the 'masses' watch. It's more visible.

But as Pen Drifter points out, without gatekeeper the dross would be even more drossy. You should try reading some of the unpublished or vanity/self-pubbed stuff.

Emma Darwin said...

Good post, Jane.

Gatekeepers always annoy people. It seems to me that writers are better off in some ways than other kinds of creative artist. You can PoD your 3-volume novel, whereas if you want to get your 4-movement symphony heard as anything other than a machine-generated MP3 file, you have to persuade vast numbers of gatekeepers to spend vast amounts of money..

Book trade gatekeepers have more than one criterion: 'Will it sell?' is one of them, because a publisher's first duty to literature is to stay in business - contrary to popular belief, the big-selling books which are dross in literary terms are, actually, what keep publishers able to publish books they love which will never make much money. And 'Is it good?' is important too, but it's not a simple criterion. What kind of 'good', do you mean?

Good as in literary sells (ask Cape, Fig Tree, Bloodaxe) but it has never sold as well as good as in good story, because literary (if you can define it) means writing which asks the reader to work harder and in sophisticated ways, and some readers can't, and some won't.

Good as in page-turner is different. You can write prose as badly as you like, if you can tell a story so that people want to keep reading it. And why not? We are storied creatures, we understand our world and our selves through narrative: story is in the end what matters.

A bit of historical perspective helps here. The majority of cultural products (books, paintings, poems, films, music) in any one year, won't stand the test of time. Professor Chris Baldick has pointed out that of the 2000 or so novelists published in the Victorian period (when the reading public was far smaller than it is now) about 6-10 are still read and studied. If you listen to one of those radio programmes of what was in the charts in a particular week in 1974, the majority of singles are is totally forgettable, and totally forgotten, with only one or two which make us think, 'Ah, music was so much better then'. Fundamentally, when you go into a bookshop and see lots of stuff which you know will be forgotten, that's NOT because the barbarians are at the gates, it's because 'twas ever thus, ever since your average chapman had 157 copies of ghastly, gruesome and clunkily written ballads about highwaymen in his backpack, and only one (pirated) copy of a collection of tales about King Arthur by an obscure Warwickshire knight.

It IS hugely frustrating to have the gatekeepers saying, 'I absolutely love this, I think it's fantastic, but I can't sell it.' And yes (and increasingly) it's partly because there's little room for marginal books. The landscape has changed hugely, but it will always need writers, even if we do have to start calling ourselves content providers, and it will always need intermediaries - agents, (e-)publishers, (e-)booksellers - as matchmakers. Matchmaking goes both ways, after all: if editors can't spend their lives sorting through the dross in the slushpile, we writers can't spend our lives sorting through the dross of the trade to find the real publishing outlets.

But what's unfortunate is that so much of this debate assumes that the only cure for a terrific book which you can't sell is to abandon it, or dumb it down. It isn't. The really creative act is to find a way to integrate what you want to do to what will sell. As a writer you work with constraints all the time, and they're often as liberating - because you then have to think laterally - as the freedoms of our beloved baggy monster of a form are. What people want to read (which is all that 'what sells' really means) is just one more constraint. It's always harder to succeed in straddling two pigeonholes, to borrow Nicola Morgan's analogy, and you have to do it much better - more irresistibly - than if you fit neatly and obviously into one pigeonhole. But if you liked an easy life you wouldn't be a writer, after all...

Steven Gaskin said...

Jane Smith - Don't worry about singling me out - I was the one who jumped into the comments with the contentious opinion ;)

My background and experience? A writer, pure and simple, but I did what all of the writing books/websites recommend and studied my market, and continue to do so daily.

Skipping over the comments on traditional vs self-publishing (I know that's an argument I can never win while I'm lumped in with the vanity-press crowd) I do want to address your point regarding the "failing" business model.

There was nothing wrong with the publishing model that some streamlining couldn't fix, but this rush to eBook distribution is a reactionary mistake that, I believe, is going to punish publishers in ways they can't even imagine yet. Young-adult fiction is a major revenue stream for all of the big houses, and they're obviously banking on migrating that content to the eBook platform, where they can continue to reap the benefits. The problem is, that demographic is typed by consumers who want their content now, and for free. I'm not saying that all young adults pirate content, but the percentages are certainly skewed in that direction. The other demographic that pirates content is the early adopters - tech-savvy 20-30-somethings with disposable income. My day job is in IT, and piracy isn't rife here: it's the default option. The fact that I pay for music and movies is considered a joke here. As a content producer, it's frightening.

And the publishing industry is pushing their content, wholesale, towards these people.

The only people who are going to make any money from this shift are the tech companies producing the hardware. The same ones pushing content providers to move based on sales to early adopters. Who will steal that content.

We need gatekeepers - of course we do - but we also have to preserve what they aim to protect.

atsiko said...

@Precision Grace: JS&MR is one of my favorite books of all time, and I heard about it from others who had read it, not from a marketing campaign. Anecdotal evidence, of course, but remember that your taste is not everyone’s taste, so you should be careful about relying on your own anecdotes to judge the situation. Haven’t read The Road, so no comments there.
I think the overall article was well-written, and even if the information isn’t new and exciting, it’s always worth waving in the face of rejected railers once in awhile, to remind them that they might, possibly, have some responsibility for why their work is not yet published. Ie, unless you get one of those “loved it, but can’t sell it” personal rejections, it’s probably not being a hard sell that ‘sthe problem, it’s the book being hard on the eyes.

Jake said...

"how do we end up with so much sub par literature every year?"

Think of it this way... That terrible book you read was THE BEST book the editor could find at the time.

Says a lot about self publishing, doesn't it.

Matt Curran said...

Great post, Jane.

Without wishing to hi-jack it, I've put a link on the Mac New Writers blog to stir some debate on the whole "gatekeeper" issue. As Mac New Writers we've all done quite well without agents. It'll be interesting to see what their views are...

http://macmillannewwriters.blogspot.com/2010/02/writer-ready-gatekeeper-ready.html

David Sheppard said...

I'm an unpublished author, except for a little poetry in The Paris Review and in England. I wrote a novel fifteen years ago that was well-received in the Advanced Novel Workshop in the Rocky Mountain Writers Guild (the English lit PhD who ran it loved it), and it was picked up by a New York agent who then dumped it and me after Jason Epstein at Random House rejected it. It had been among the five finalists in the Pirate's Alley Faulkner competition in New Orleans, but my agent had "polluted" the marketplace and no agent would touch it after she dumped it.

I also wrote a Greek travel journal, combining travel, archaeology, and mythology along with a personal "mythology" but was told it was a "foreign sell," and I couldn't find an agent for it either. So I put it up on the Internet where it yielded three gigabytes of traffic per month. University professors loved it and sent their students there. I'm still friends with some of the professors I met because of it. I was contacted by a South Korean publisher who wanted to translate it into Korean and publish it in four volumes. I worked with their translator for a year, but the Korean economy went south just as we finished, and they dropped the project. I believe they have now gone out of business.

I wrote a historical novel set in ancient Greece during the Persian invasion, and it generated a lot of interest with agents until Susan Protter requested the ms exclusively, and I let her have it. Every couple of months I'd send her a letter requesting an update on the status of my manuscript, and she'd respond that she'd get to it in a few days, to be patient that her readers were enthusiastic about. After nine months of having it on an exclusive basis, she sent me a one sentence rejection saying that it never rose to the status of a full novel. I've never sent it out since.

I have a BS from ASU and an MS from Stanford University. I taught novel writing, Greek mythology, and astronomy for a few of semesters at NMSU. I put my novel writing class notes on the internet, and it also attracted a lot of attention. I received a lot of emails thanking me for putting it up for free. Some instructors were using the material in their classes. They said that my unique approach to plotting and putting a full novel together was better than anything they'd seen. So I self-published it and now send a few copies every year to one of the instructors for her high school students. It sells a few copies each month on Amazon, which I figure is pretty good considering that it has no marketing to back it up.

Perhaps you can understand how I might be a little bitter about the system. I published the Greek travel journal myself along with the novel writing, and I am about to self-publish my historical novel. I also plan to publish my long-suffering first novel that was rejected by Epstein. I can find no way into the system. I may not be John Steinbeck, but I'm a better writer than many of those getting published today. I've been at it for forty years, and I thought it was time to see something I wrote up on Amazon. So that puts me in with the vanity publishers in a lot of people's minds. The system is a mess. It's a hit-and-miss operation, and even years of persistence doesn't necessarily pay off. I've had a lot of writers as friends through the years, some of them good, some not so good. Very few of the good ones get published, and those who do are not necessarily the best writers. If I knew I could get published within the system, I'd start again today. But I just don't have the heart to try anymore.

Sally Zigmond said...

David Sheppard wrote "I may not be John Steinbeck, but I'm a better writer than many of those getting published today."

What is a 'better writer'?

I do understand your frustrations, David, but you have let bitterness and disappointment skew your perception. I'm sure many people love your writing and that you get many internet hits but that doesn't mean that the a publisher or agent will make any money either for you and for themselves. Believe me, if they loved your book, they would work their socks off to see it through.

Once again, Emma Darwin has expressed what I was trying to say in clear and trenchant terms.

The 'bottom line' is, if your book is somehow failing to capture someone's attention, then it's up to you as a writer to make sure it does. This is NOT dumbing down; it's writing what you want but making it so that as many book-buyers as possible want to read it.

An Olympic hurdler doesn't bleat about the height of the hurdles because he can't jump over them. He trains harder. He tries and fails until he succeeds and if he still fails, then he might have accept that maybe he hasn't quite got what it takes. The hurdles aren't the problem; it's the hurdler.

BucksWriter said...

Love this post (and love this blog actually).

I'm working on my first book right now and will definitely be trying to go the 'gatekeeper' route to publication. I can't imagine navigating this business (and it is a business) without the expertise and support of a good agent.

Plenty of 'challenging' books get published each year alongside the pap, so the cream is clearly rising to the top somehow!

By the way Precision Grace, Wolf Hall is definitely worth a read and I'm just about to review it on my blog if you want more info.

catdownunder said...

Further to Vanessa's remarks about independent booksellers, they also tend to be much more amenable to specific requests and will often add something as a result of customer recommendations. In other words, talk politely to the gatekeeper and explain why you want something and it might happen. They are (mostly) human.

David Sheppard said...

For Sally Zigmond:

I didn't think of my post as a "bleat." I don't usually see myself as a goat, but maybe I need to take a closer look in the mirror. What hurt most was that, without ever seeing a word of my work, you've told me that I haven't "quite got what it takes."

Sally Zigmond said...

David. My comment to you was in response to your saying you're a 'better' writer than many of those getting published today. (No 'I think' or 'I would like to think' but 'I am'.)

What followed was a general comment aimed at no-one in particular based on my observations over many years.

And, by the way, I don't have an agent either but I understand what they do and why they do it and although I'm not a great fan of rejection letters and I do have a publishing deal, I would love to have an agent.

And you may not have been bleating before, but you are now.

Jane Smith said...

David, Sally didn't accuse you of bleating: she was talking about Olympic athletes at the time. And I have to say that I spotted several inconsistencies in your comment.

You wrote, "my agent had "polluted" the marketplace and no agent would touch it after she dumped it."

I've heard of agents being unable to take a book on after it's really done the rounds: but after just one submission? I've never heard of such a thing. I wonder if you're exaggerating a little here for dramatic effect, or if you misinterpreted the rejection letters you received.

After nine months of having it on an exclusive basis, she sent me a one sentence rejection saying that it never rose to the status of a full novel. I've never sent it out since.

Exclusives are generally a bad idea: but if you're going to grant one then you have to limit its term. A month is plenty: a week is better. If you didn't get a response after the first month you should have nudged her; and let her know that you were now going to start submitting it elsewhere. And to be unable to submit ever again because one agent rejected you sounds awfully thin-skinned to me. Most writers get rejected tens of times before they find their agent or get their book deal. You really didn't try hard enough, I'm afraid.

What hurt most was that, without ever seeing a word of my work, you've told me that I haven't "quite got what it takes."

That last comment was unfair and unfounded: you have no reason to feel hurt. Read Sally's comment again. She didn't once say that about you: she said it in relation to that Olympic hurdler she was describing. You've misread her comment and taken it all personally, when she was talking in general terms.

Having said all of that, I do wonder if you don't quite have what it takes. If you give up after just one rejection, and find perfectly innoccuous blog posts hurtful, then perhaps you don't have what's required to be a professional writer. And that has nothing to do with your talent.

David Sheppard said...

For Jane Smith:

As for Sally's post. She speaks directly to me throughout. I believe her post stands well on its own without any intervention.

But as for your comment: I never said that I only submitted my novel to one agent. Here's my statement: "it generated a lot of interest with agents until Susan Protter requested the ms exclusively, and I let her have it." So I had sent it out to several agents, and had to get a couple of queries returned. Plus Susan wouldn't agree to see it under any conditions other than it being an exclusive. I'm not naive about the process. She was such a powerful agent at the time, and probably still is, that I agreed. Also I did nudge her. Here again is what I said in my post (which evidently you did read): "Every couple of months I'd send her a letter requesting an update on the status of my manuscript, and she'd respond that she'd get to it in a few days, to be patient that her readers were enthusiastic about it." She kept string me along.

With the Rocky Mountain Writers Guild I was in charge of helping other writers get published, some we got published, others we didn't have much luck with. I have been through all of it many times over many years. And I'm not as thin skinned as you might think. I was in the US Air Force for eight years and an astronautical engineer for thirty. I've had my share of being yelled and screamed at, and being rejected.

The idea that my first agent had corrupted the marketplace didn't come from me. It came from other agents after mine dropped me. I was upfront with them about it having been with another agent for a while, and that was the typical response I got back.

Next time, please read my post before you respond. Your last paragraph was just uncalled for.

Precision Grace said...

... and this is how publishing really works.

Whirlochre said...

Gatekeepers, I have no problem with, as long as it's moderation by consent rather than ascent.

DanielB said...

Congratulations for working the phase "hot totty spot" into your blog for what I imagine must be the first time. I almost think that must have been a dare. In fact, I almost think it's the kind of thing I'd dare you to do, but it wasn't me.

As a younger man I was with a group at the infamous "boat" nightclub in Newcastle, as featured in "Our Friends in the North". We all thought we looked smart enough to get in, but one of our party was turned away for wearing a jumper.

Maybe sometimes people have to look at whether their smart writing is wearing a jumper, or is matched with the wrong shoes, and ask if that's why they are not being let in to the great publishing version of HeavenPulseOrchid.

I shall go away now, having stretched your excellent metaphor to breaking point.

DanielB said...

Damn my poor proofreading. PHRASE!

Jane Smith said...

Steven: "Skipping over the comments on traditional vs self-publishing (I know that's an argument I can never win while I'm lumped in with the vanity-press crowd)"

I don't lump you in with vanity publishing: it's quite distinct from true self-publising (although there are plenty of vanity publishers which masquerade as self-publishing service providers, hence the frequent confusion). But I have to warn you that the phrase "traditional publishing" was created by PublishAmerica, one of the most notorious vanity publishers. It's become one of those vanity-published-author-alerts for many in the publishing business as a result. Just so you know.

"Young-adult fiction is a major revenue stream for all of the big houses, and they're obviously banking on migrating that content to the eBook platform, where they can continue to reap the benefits."

While lots more books are being brought out in e-book formats, print is still the main route into the market for most writers. I don't think we're going to see a move towards e-books being the premier format soon; but I share your concerns about piracy in digital formats. My first career was in computer games publishing and I saw the results of piracy there, and in territories where we Brits just didn't expect it: Spain was a particularly troublesome market. But with technology so much futher advanced now (this was in the 1980s) and the internet doing all these clever things, piracy is a much greater threat with much bigger implications.

I'm very concerned. As you can probably tell. But with Google pretty much getting away with its own huge venture into copyright infringement, it seems to be becoming a more and more acceptable thing to do. Gah.

Jane Smith said...

David: "Also I did nudge her. Here again is what I said in my post (which evidently you did read): "Every couple of months I'd send her a letter requesting an update on the status of my manuscript, and she'd respond that she'd get to it in a few days, to be patient that her readers were enthusiastic about it." She kept string me along.
"

And here's what I wrote again, as it seems you didn't read it properly: "Exclusives are generally a bad idea: but if you're going to grant one then you have to limit its term. A month is plenty: a week is better. If you didn't get a response after the first month you should have nudged her; and let her know that you were now going to start submitting it elsewhere."

You nudged her: but you allowed the exclusive to continue. That goes against all the advice that I've ever seen given.

And if your first book "corrupted the market" after having only been sent to Random House then either it only had a teeny-tiny market, or someone's misinformed you, or someone was exaggerating horribly.

I'm sorry you feel so aggrieved by publishing, and by Sally and me; but that kind of proves my point about you perhaps not "having what it takes". I don't mean that in a hurtful way: but if you find this all so terribly upsetting (you clearly do, and honestly, I'm not trying to upset you further here or make you seem foolish--rejection is hard, and we all get upset by it to some degree) then perhaps, with all due respect, you aren't suited to the writing life. Because rejection is a big part of it, as is people saying difficult things about your work and your attitude to it.

You seem to have found a niche for yourself teaching; and you seem to have done well there, and be proud of what you've done. That's more than most aspiring writers manage, so you've already gone far.

Jane Smith said...

Daniel, when I wrote "hot totty spot" I was thinking exclusively of you, and places where you go. Because we all know you are a totty-magnet, which is why Nicola Morgan and I both hang on your every word.

I bet you were the one in the jumper, by the way.

Felicity said...

I used to be a book buyer for a major book club, backed by one of the biggest book companies in the world. This was about ten years ago. I had international contacts, a big budget and could offer my readers - self selected for their dedication to particular genres - anything that was published in the English speaking world. It was an extremely frustrating task, because I had to fill my catalogues month after month and the truth is that the number of 'wow' books that come out are extremely small, in any category. Mostly I ended up buying so-so books, because that's what was available. My point here is not that publishers are churning out crap, but that talent is a very rare thing. As someone pointed out, the many Victorian authors have passed into oblivion, because they just weren't that great - likewise the many science fiction writers that were wildly popular in the 1950s. In any category, over any time period, only a few people stand out. If people walk into today's packed bookstores and only find a few things that suit their particular taste, they're either not looking very hard, or they're only content to read the bright shining talent - the thing that is most rare and hard to find.

behlerblog said...

Steven wrote:“editors and agents are under so much pressure to achieve financial results in a struggling industry, that they don't have the option to champion books they love or have faith in. The criteria for what they accept are no longer their own.”

Jane is her usual eloquent self in answering this myth, but I'd like to offer my own perspective since I'm one of those evil editor who love agents.

Yes, we are under a lot of pressure to sell enough books to afford the light bill and designer dog chewies. But it's pure folly to suggest that we don't champion books we love. How on earth do quantify a good work if you don't love it?

Yes, of course we look at whether we believe the book will sell. That's our job. Publishing will never be confused with the Great Benefactor. It is your belief that loving a book and publishing a book we believe will be successful are mutually exclusive. They aren't.

No one reads a book and says, "Ach, this sucks stale doughnut cream, but HEY! let's publish it anyway." You wouldn't believe how one has to fight for a book in this industry, and you can only do that if you love it.

Steven says: “the current business model appears to be aimed at dumbing-down content to sell more books, and it doesn't seem to be working.”

This is an opinion, and just like belly buttons, everybody has one. How do you determine that the industry is seeking dumbed-down books and that, provided this were true, that it isn't working?

No editor sets out their day saying, "Hmm...let's look for the lowest common denominator where the author's lights are barely flickering and publish it."

We look at trends, ahhh...YA vampire romance - cha ching! Urban SF - cha ching! These are new sub-genres that are setting a bar of acceptance, so editors who publish this genre are going to look very carefully at what's selling.

Who's to say what is "dumbed-down"? For instance, I defy anyone who reads our books to imply we're guilty of forsaking excellence and quality.

I know too many editors who would invite you to a duel over your assumptions. We all want the very best quality hitting the marketplace. We have to because our very professional lives depend on it. And plus the fact, aren't you, by association, insinuating readers are idiots? I would never presume to make that assumption. Ever.

I don't believe you've made your argument, Steven, because your opinions aren't backed up with any facts or proof that this is, indeed, a new business model.

Katherine said...

I'm not going to argue against gatekeepers -- I think gatekeepers are a good thing -- but the second metaphor about the nightclubs is frightening.

Anyone remember the second nightclub scene in "Knocked Up" when the two women try to get into the exact same club they attended a few months ago, but now they're not? The doorman's speech about the criteria he's been given to allow people in or keep them away is frightening: only so many black people in proportion to white people, only people of a certain age group no matter how good they look, no pregnant women, and on and on. It went way beyond being pretty or knowing how to dress. It was ugly, and that was the point of the scene.

I would hope that the gatekeeping in the publishing industry was done on the basis of merit and marketability, but the choice of metaphors makes me wonder.

Divertir Publishing said...

I'm currently in the process of starting a small publishing company (which might mean I'm crazy). Recently I've been watching the debate between those who feel "traditional publishing" (complete with “gate keepers”) is the only way to be legitimately published and those who feel "self-publishing" is the future of publishing. I wanted to share an experience and make a few comments which I hope will be useful.

Recently I received a novel for review from a friend. While I loved the plot twists and even saw the potential for the author to include commentary on a current social issue, there were several flaws with the manuscript. Also, while the manuscript would have made the most impact as a romantic tragedy it was written as horror (which as a genre currently accounts for about 1% of fiction sales). I told this friend that her work was not publishable in its current form. I am currently working with her to rewrite the manuscript so that it will have more market appeal and discuss current social issues while not significantly changing the plot.

I feel an author needs to know why a manuscript has been rejected in order to improve on it. Form rejection letters, in my opinion, are the reason the acquisition process is considered to be so arbitrary and capricious. I understand that providing feedback is a lot of work. I provide feedback for every manuscript I receive, and feel it’s worth the effort.

However, authors need to understand that publishing is a business, and businesses develop products they feel they can sell at a profit. If you have written a manuscript on “Incest in Elizabethan Literature”, it might not have the mass-market appeal that a publisher seeks when selecting manuscripts (ok, this topic might actually have mass appeal, but I digress). I recently had an author tell me “I don’t do romance,” even though by some accounts the romance genre is 60% of the current fiction market. This shows a lack of understanding of the publishing business. Also, authors need to understand that a publisher will always pass on a manuscript with obvious flaws for one which is well written. It is in an author’s best interest to get their writing “peer-reviewed” to suggest corrections and improvements prior to submission.

I am actually a supporter of authors self-publishing if they have written books in niche genres. However, authors who wish to self-publish need to understand one basic truth. Writing well is an art; publishing, as stated earlier, is a business. People who question the wisdom of self-publishing often use the low average sales numbers for self-published books to justify their position. In my opinion, there is a simple reason for these poor sales: the fact that Shakespeare was an incredible writer does not mean he could run a bookstore. If you are going to self-publish you need to understand all of the various aspects of publishing, from production and distribution to marketing. Failure to understand these sometimes mundane aspects of the business will most likely result in poor book sales.

Finally, I feel the need to comment on one topic I find amusing. There are blogs written all the time that discuss why self-publishing is a poor business venture and why gate keepers in publishing are necessary. What these bloggers fail to mention, however, is that blogs are in fact one of the many examples of self-publishing; people who publish their thoughts without having them screened prior to publication. It is the consumer, and not publishing company “gate keepers”, who determines whether the content in blogs is worth reading or not. This ideal of consumers as gate keepers is the one most often touted by those who think self-publishing is the answer to a system which is perceived as not accessible to most authors. I follow this particular blog because I find it informative. But please make no mistake; this blog is an example of self-publishing.

Jane Smith said...

I'm currently in the process of starting a small publishing company (which might mean I'm crazy).

Hundreds of new publishers open for business every year; most of them fail because the people behind them didn’t have any publishing experience before they started, and don’t understand fully what’s involved. Do you have a background in publishing? If your answer isn’t “yes” then you really should rethink: you won’t be aware of what you don’t know, and the odds are heavily stacked against you succeeding. And if you fail it won’t just be your money you lose: the authors who have signed up to you might well lose the rights to their work, which is heartbreaking. Please think carefully.

I feel an author needs to know why a manuscript has been rejected in order to improve on it. Form rejection letters, in my opinion, are the reason the acquisition process is considered to be so arbitrary and capricious. I understand that providing feedback is a lot of work.

Agents and editors don’t provide feedback because on most submissions they wouldn’t know where to start—the quality of the slush-pile is horribly poor. I agree that it can be useful for writers to have this information but publishers and agents have to earn money, and if they provide feedback to everyone who submits they won’t have time for anything else. Also, many rejected writers feel that such comments are an invitation to begin a continuing dialogue with the agent or publisher, and some become abusive or rude in response to a rejection. No wonder that so many publishing professionals prefer not to do this.

I recently had an author tell me “I don’t do romance,” even though by some accounts the romance genre is 60% of the current fiction market. This shows a lack of understanding of the publishing business.

No, this shows an author who knows the genre in which he or she prefers to write. You can’t insist that because someone prefers to write in a genre other than romance they don’t understand the market—that’s just wrong. Do you really think that Stephen King, James Patterson, J K Rowling, Patricia Cornwell Martin Amis et al don’t understand the market?

(continued in next comment)

Jane Smith said...

(carrying on from before)

People who question the wisdom of self-publishing often use the low average sales numbers for self-published books to justify their position. In my opinion, there is a simple reason for these poor sales: the fact that Shakespeare was an incredible writer does not mean he could run a bookstore. If you are going to self-publish you need to understand all of the various aspects of publishing, from production and distribution to marketing.

The poor sales of most self-published books don’t come about just because writers don’t understand all those various aspects of publishing: it’s because they don’t apply them to their books, and because they don’t have access to good distribution. And on that note I have to ask: what’s your distribution plan? Which distributor do you have an account with? And no, getting your books onto Amazon is not distribution.

Finally, I feel the need to comment on one topic I find amusing. There are blogs written all the time that discuss why self-publishing is a poor business venture and why gate keepers in publishing are necessary. What these bloggers fail to mention, however, is that blogs are in fact one of the many examples of self-publishing.

You might well consider my blog to be an example of self-publishing, but I don’t rely on this blog to earn me my living: I do it all out of the sweetness of my heart (I am too kind) and because I usually enjoy the interaction I share with my readers, many of whom I now consider friends. Lucky, that, as to date this blog has earned me less than £30 via my Amazon Affiliates account despite it being a good, niche product which is suited to the episodic nature of blogging and which has a ready and willing market. For novels, though, self-publishing or publishing through a well-meaning but ill-prepared publisher is often the kiss of death. Few sales, few readers, and an awful lot of work. If I’m going to write a book I want people with proper expertise behind it, and I want the support that a good publisher can bring.

I'm sorry if I seem harsh, I really am. But I've seen so very many people begin their own publishing house only for them to fail, and take their authors down with them. It's not good enough to be well-intentioned: you also have to know what you're doing and from what I've read on your blog you really don't have the expertise you need to succeed. I strongly urge you to reconsider your plans.

Divertir Publishing said...

Good Evening -

Thank you for your encouraging words. I would prefer not to debate most of your comments. Perhaps some of your comments are correct (like the one concerning providing feedback); if I find that to be the case I would be more than happy to post a message to your blog saying you were correct. I would like to suggest, however, that in the future you not assume facts that are not in evidence. A wise business person is not only cognizant of what he knows, but also what he does not know. For the things he does not know, he hires people with experience to advice him. For while talents such as writing must be developed and nurtured, at least in the United States, experience can be bought.

My reason for responding to your comments is that I wanted you to know that I completely agree with one of your concerns - specifically your concern for authors. It may actually surprise you to hear this, but I share those concerns. One only needs to read the "Writer's Beware" blog by Victoria Strauss to know that there are many people willing to make money off the hard work and hopes of authors. I have one friend who "published" two books with Publish America. As you could probably guess, her books did not do well. I am a regular reader of "Writer's Beware" and "Pub Rants" (as I am of your blog), and have thought long and hard about the best ways to protect authors from what you consider to be my likely failure.

It is my intention to create a company that works with authors throughout the publishing process to provide the best experience possible. But as you correctly pointed out good intentions are not enough. For this reason, if you visit my website you will see that I am not currently accepting submissions. The authors I am currently working with are all acquaintances who are actually assisting with the formation of the company. My own writing is non-fiction and in technical areas that larger firms probably would not consider for publication; this makes it ideal for a small publisher (In case you're curious about my experience as a writer, I have 8 published articles, a text book, and a published Ph.D. thesis). Thus, the books we will experiment with will be our own. In addition, I have put safeguards in place to guarantee that authors do not lose the rights to their hard work if I am not successful. Specifically, at least for the first few manuscripts published, we will be using a letter of understanding in lieu of a contract which makes our right to publish revocable by the author . You would be correct to point out that this is a very risky decision; an author with a successful book could easily decide to take it elsewhere. However, if an author is willing to risk publishing with a new company I am a firm believer that the risk should be shared.

It may interest you to know that I completely agree with the basic premise of your article. Although my website states that I am not accepting submissions, as you could probably guess some people still send manuscripts. One only needs to read an opening paragraph containing 147 words and no punctuation to understand why publishers use gate keepers. My amusement is that you chose to publish thoughts on the need for gate keepers in publishing in a forum which is neither peer-reviewed nor edited.

I do find your blog and comments informative. Thank you for sharing them.

Jane Smith said...

Ken, I understand that you're convinced I'm wrong: so why don't you come back here in a year or two and let us know how things are going?

Meanwhile you could have a look at Absolute Write's Bewares and Background Checks forum: there's a list there of all the publishers which have been discussed in the forum. The greyed-out ones are the publishers which have gone belly-up, mostly because they were started by people who thought they could run a publishing house without any experience in the business. You could read the threads on those publishers and see for yourself the wreckage they leave behind despite their proprietors' good intentions; all those writers, broken-hearted, their books lost to them. It's terribly sad.

I hope you don't become one of the bad guys, I really do. But nothing you've said gives me confidence that that won't be the case: in fact, a lot of your comments which were designed to reassure me actually do the opposite. Take this one, for example:

"I have put safeguards in place to guarantee that authors do not lose the rights to their hard work if I am not successful."

It's all very well putting something in the contract which allows rights to revert to the author in the case of the company failing: but the administrators don't like that very much and can (and have) refuse to honour the clause, which is sometimes considered asset-stripping. You obviously don't realise this; just as you obviously don't realise a lot of other things.

I wish you the best of luck. But I still wish you would rethink your plans. You just don't have the expertise you need to make it work, and the writers you sign--who I assume are friends of yours--are going to take the brunt of your failure if it happens. Which is very unpleasant indeed.

Jane Smith said...

Ken, here's a thread at Absolute Write which might interest you. It contains a lot of good, solid advice which you really should consider.