Wednesday, 10 March 2010

How Writers Could Effect Real Change

Last spring, a writer called Mary Walters suggested that literary agents are killing literature by rejecting work which they consider unmarketable (she provided a nice piece of meta-analysis by simultaneously discussing the discussion which followed over at Authonomy*). Mary proposed that as the work that agents reject doesn't get seen by editors, it doesn't get published; from this, she concluded that literary agents are preventing all sorts of talented writers from reaching their potential readers. Her blog post notched up hundreds of replies and, according to Mary, several thousand views. Several agents and editors linked to her post and she was interviewed by UK literary agent and head honcho at Litopia, Peter Cox.

Good for Mary, I say: she got herself noticed, albeit not entirely in a positive way.

The problem is that her argument about literary agencies is based on a misunderstanding of how the publishing business works: and so when you begin to strip it down and look for solutions you get tangled in a maze of assumption and confusion: there is no clear resolution to her problem because (with all due respect to Mary) her argument was flawed.

Mary is not alone in her reliance on fallacy to prove her point. If you care to indulge in a little light Googling, I’m sure you’ll be able to find plenty more similar articles which insist that mainstream publishing is failing and suggest ways in which it could be made to succeed.

It seems to me that those suggestions focus primarily on the commentators’ own agendas. Often, the publishing failures they report aren't failures at all—just a misunderstanding on their part, or a feeling that publishing has somehow failed them, often by simply rejecting their work.

Almost all of these articles are eloquently written, passionately argued and contain a good few useful ideas, and some of them make suggestions of staggering brilliance; but they also demonstrate a huge misunderstanding of how publishing really works. Consequently, the few people who read these pieces and who work in publishing and who therefore have the access and contacts required to change things are likely to dismiss the articles as ill-informed nonsense; the good points are lost with the bad. The doubly-rejected writers will have their cynicism reinforced and nothing will change.

I urge anyone who considers that publishing is broken to do their best to first understand the business properly before announcing how it should be fixed. If you're convinced you know how it could be changed for the better then make sure you understand the full implications of that change; because that way you might get listened to by the people with the power to make those changes, and you could make a truly significant difference.

*I can't find a link to that Authonomy discussion now but if anyone knows where it is, do please add a link to it to the comments and I'll edit it in--thank you.


Mike Emeritz said...

What were the flaws in this blogger's article? As a wannabe author, who is also struggling to make my way into the publishing world, I'd be interested to know what's right from what's wrong. Could you maybe give us some examples of where the article failed?

Thank you for posting this. I've always felt that agents, editors, and publishers are a necessary part of the process, and I couldn't imagine what a mess the industry would be without them. It's interesting to think that so many people would jump on this as a chance to do away with such a vital component to the publishing world. Surely somebody has to step in for quality control.

Elizabeth Bramwell said...

I read this post, but didn't have the stomach to read the whole 378 comments it has (so far) inspired.

Beyond her misunderstanding of the industry, beyond even her slating of literary agents - and in fact editors, if you think about it - I was far more offended by her view of published fiction.

I do not write literary. I don't actually read literary fiction either, though I pick up the occasional book. I have a huge problem with the way these frustrated writers condemn chick lit, fantasy, crime, etc, as ephemeral fluff.

It sells. That means one amazing thing: people are reading it.

The novel as an art form was created for entertainment. God forbid, but the vast majority of people who buy books - you know, and therefore keep the publishing industry going - read the very books that this writer is slagging off.

This snobbery, quite frankly, disgusts me, and always has. I used to have this argument when I worked as a librarian, and I will defend "trash" fiction, "pulp" writing and "ephemeral fluff" to my dying breath. Because you know what? Books on the Richard & Judy list outsold the manbooker finalists, and people enjoyed them.

The reason that literary agents and publishers don't want these low-circulation, literary works of genius (and please note I'm not saying that they are "good") is because people don't read them. If you want the publishing practice to change, then target the readers. Hell, thanks to social networking, it has never been easier to get a word-of-mouth viral campaign going. Try that instead of complaining.

Please please please can all these struggling artistic writers stop for a moment before they publish posts like Mary Waters and think: "I'm not just criticising agents and publishers here, I'm showing contempt for my potential audience, too."

Jane Smith said...

Michael, I really don't want to start that discussion all over again: if you want to see how the original piece was flawed then you might want to read the comments that were left on it and pay particular attention to the editors and agents who contributed to the discussion--I think that Nathan Brandsford and Janet Reid both took part. They know their stuff.

And yes, quality control: it's important, but it's easy to see how it can look like meddling if you're on the wrong side of it.

Jane Smith said...

Gemma, I'm with you. I'll come clean here, and admit that I write the literary fiction which you don't favour: but I'm still in favour of agents and editors screening out what won't sell and publishing what might. Because if they don't, publishing houses will either go broke (because they depend on their sales to pay their bills) or they'll start turning to their authors to fund them, and that way lies madness.

It seems to me that most people who insist that publishing is broken are the ones who aren't being picked up for publication: there's probably a reason for that.

However, the point of this blog post wasn't to discuss the role of gatekeepers (or, as Dragon just mistranscribed for me, gate kipppers, which would make for a whole new discussion): it was to suggest how writers could influence publishing if they were determined to do so. I think there's a real opportunity here: I'm surprised that so few people have taken advantage of it.

Michael said...

One of the best ways that writers could change the dynamics of publishing would be to frequent independent bookstores and encourage everyone they know to do the same. Publishers must focus on big sellers, because that's all the conglomerates will stock.

I am always staggered at how few would-be writers buy contemporary books. When asked, they often say things like 'I'm sick of celebrity biographies', which in fact only represent a fraction of the market.

Another myth is 'nothing good is published any more' - again, made by writers who are clearly not book buyers - when there could be a good argument to be made that standards have risen considerably over the last decade. There are many, many manuscripts on places like Authonomy that would have found a home at a publishing house ten or fifteen years ago, but just aren't good enough by today's standards.

Elizabeth Bramwell said...

HI Jane,

it's not that I don't like literary, but rather that I don't really choose to read it. However, if a writer regards me as lesser for that, then it will hardly inspire me to pick up their book and try it!

I did go off on a tangent a bit in my comment, so I apologise! I meant to say (slightly more calmly) that maybe these writers should try marketing themselves directly to the book buying audience. If consumers demanded more literary fiction, then more of it would be published. Look at the success of the RATM viral campaign at Christmas! both Harry Potter and Da Vinci code built up their success initially on word of mouth, too.

To be honest, I think authors need to take more responsibility for their own marketing if they want to change publishing as a whole. Hit at the grass roots, target the buyers, study viral campaigning. I'm surprised more mid list writers don't, to be honest.

Beth said...

I had some sympathy for the woman until she showed up in my friend's blog, asked for a critique of her query letter, then argued, huffed, and flounced.


Anonymous said...

I urge anyone who considers that publishing is broken to do their best to first understand the business properly before announcing how it should be fixed.

This can't be stressed enough. Too many authors engage in drive-by opinions that aren't based on any inside knowledge of the industry. They lack facts to back up some kind of industry-wide conspiracy. Instead, they draw from their own personal experiences and cast a wide net, insisting this is a pervasive problem. It isn't.

Authors are rejected for a whole host of reasons. A conspiracy within the industry isn't one of them. As an editor, I appreciate what agents bring to the party, and they more than earn their 15%.

Sion Smith said...

This is a great thread. The fact of the matter is that agents act as worthy gatekeepers. They are not always right, but they are not always wrong either. We have all paid good money for a book in a store from a top flight publisher at some time or other and wondered why we bothered.

To add something of worth to this conversation though, sometimes writers should be kept away for their own good. I know a fair few authors - exceptional authors - who have been dropped by a major publishing house after a couple of average selling books. Do you know what the chances of them being picked up by a major publisher again are? Virtually zero - and anybody with a brain can figure out why really.

Ultimately though, there's nothing but wisdom to be had from these conversations and we'll all make our own way, some way.

I must also agree with Gemma here. As writers, we do need to take more responsibility for our own marketing both before and after. Nobody else is going to do it for us. If you think you will be swept off your feet and that everything will be different once you sign a deal, you might find you're in the wrong business.

sarah mccarry said...


Emma Darwin said...

Oh, I do so agree about the layers of snobbery and historical ignorance which make up the 'it's all trash, why aren't any good books published any more?' brigade.

Something you rarely see discussed is something that a very distinguished agent said to me, which was agreed with by the publisher at their elbow: too many literary fiction titles are published for the size of the market. There are too many agents specialising in literary fiction, and they are too successful at selling books to publishers, said these two. The market for literary fiction has its limits, and that's not a value judgement (I have one and a half feet in that market as both writer and reader) but a statement of fact: all markets have their limits. And in selling too many different books into a limited market, publishers, agents and authors are all fighting for ever-smaller slices of the pie.

So, to put the cat among the pigeons, I'm tempted to propose that, actually, there should be less literary fiction published. With fewer literary fiction authors competing for the same number of readers the pie would be sliced into fewer, bigger slices.

If we do want there to go on being terrific, innovative books which break boundaries, light up the literary future and inspire the next generation, then we need literary authors to be able to earn a decent living and establish a decent readership, which is extremely hard to do on selling 1000 copies or so. Especially when you only publish a novel every three years, because you have to spend so much time earning your living in other ways.

Sion Smith said...

Would be interesting to see some stats of well known shelf authors (John Connolly, Lee Child, Picoult etc) hardback and paperback sales along with percentage splits so that would be authors could see what authors/publishers/agents are really making per book at the top end of the market - and then follow it with a more likely equation for a first time author.

I could probably phrase this question a little better, but you get the picture. We're all looking for the holy grail but the fact of the matter is, as you say, yes - we will be writing lots of other things to fill in the holes in the mortgage payments!

Jon said...

Great post.

I just don't understand these people. You find them all over and everytime they go into their whole "publsihing is broken" rant, I automatically assume all their bile comes solely from the fact that they "coincidentally" have some terrible book currently oft-rejected and languishing on their hard drive.

Anonymous said...

I have yet to see a good suggestion on how to "fix" the publishing industry. But I think it's a mistake to say that everyone agitating for change is a rejected wannabe author.

Jon said...

How is it a mistake? As far as I have seen, every single one of these rants seem firmly rooted in the "blame the Gatekeeper" mindset, which, to me, is indicative of a different problem then the one the Ranter is discribing.

Sion Smith said...

I don't think the industry is broken. It can't be because I'm still reading books I enjoy and authors (new and old) that I will buy again from.

For my own part, I am staying well away from both agent and publisher until I'm as 100% sure as I can be that what I put in front them - product and where I am personally as a viable commodity - is the best shot I can give.

The doom-mongers need to start up their own small press or host a poetry competition. Then they could see first hand the 97% garbage paraded in front of them - and the bigger the stakes, the bigger the nonsense.

If there's a war to be fought at the moment, it's not with the publishers and agents, it's with the chain-stores... but maybe that's something for another day.

(Having said that, would I give my eye teeth to be heavily discounted and in TESCO? Probably!)

Emma Darwin said...

"follow it with a more likely equation for a first time author. "

A not-bad idea is to remember that, roughly speaking, an advance represents the publisher's best guess at what that book will earn for its author, if all goes more-or-less according to plan. A typical advance from a big house for a literary novel by an unknown was £8000, say, (Jane, correct me if I'm wrong with all this, which I may well be), and since the recession advances are down 30%-50%, so £4-5,500?. I've heard of considerably less, too. When you think that books are sold to booksellers at 40%-60% discount, that doesn't leave an awful lot of cash for production, distribution, sales, marketing, editing, publicity, overhead...

"(Having said that, would I give my eye teeth to be heavily discounted and in TESCO? Probably!)"

Though don't forget that you get a reduced royalty on those copies, to fund that heavy discount...

Sion Smith said...

Those are scary figures but I think worth knowing for all of us here with regards to the path ahead. If anything, it suggests that one should be writing because you love to write and not to make a truckload of cash - it's possible but not highly likely.

What those sorts of figures do illustrate is why these "nasty men" watching the gate are actually important to talented writers. It may be more pertinent to call them "pool of cash protectors".

I'm going to squirrel myself away tomorrow and try and figure out if it's better to have a publishing deal or to self-publish through a print on demand service (or at least how many copies you'd have to sell off your own back).

Shall report!

Allison Williams said...

I can't help but wonder - what job is it, what field, what career, where anyone who wants to/works hard gets paid to do it and can succeed?

Because there seems to be a strong sense of "I worked hard so I SHOULD succeed" in writing, that we would not dream of assigning to other careers.

"I got an MBA, worked really hard on my resume and interviewing and bought this very expensive suit. How come I'm not a successful bond-trader? Clearly, the system of becoming a bond-trader is broken."

Anonymous said...

How does one "simultaneously discussing the discussion which followed"

As I understand it, simultaneously means happening at the same time. A discussion that follows can't do that because it's "after."


Jane Smith said...

Anonymous, the combination of Sitemeter and the timing of your posts tells me that you're posting from Minneapolis, Minnesota; your IP address is 71.63.225.#; and your ISP is Comcast Cable. Which means that you're posting from the same computer as Brian is, who has been somewhat critical of me over at my other blog, The Self-Publishing Review. Which implies to me that you're probably looking for reasons to criticise me, rather than hoping to make an effort to further this discussion.

Nevertheless I shall answer your question in case anyone else is confused.

Mary put up her blog post, and a discussion followed in the comments on that blog post. And while that discussion was taking place, it was itself discussed over at Authonomy. So that discussion at Authonomy ran simultaneously with the original discussion, just a few paces behind it.

I hope that clarifies things for you.

While you're welcome to take part in the discussions here, even if you disagree with me, I do take a pretty dim view of people who only comment in order to disrupt proceedings. If I think that that's all you're trying to do I shall not hesitate to delete your future comments. I hope that's clear.

Jane Smith said...

Now, where were we?

Emma Darwin said...

I think Allison Williams is making one of the central points: that people see publication as a reward for their hard work. UK/US society is a peculiar mixture of 19th century Protestant work ethic ("if you work hard you will be rewarded") and late 20th century individualism ("self-expression is proper goal in and of itself").

So people write because they're driven to express themselves in that form, but then feel that their hard work should be rewarded, and their self-expression heard/seen. Unfortunately they must look to a commercial industry to provide them with the outlet, and that industry makes its decisions based on what it can sell, not whether you deserve reward and a place to express yourself. A publisher's first duty to literature is to stay in business, after all.

This is a bit different from visual artists and performers, who have perfectly respectable non-commercial outlets. As do to some degree the poets and short-story writers. Just us novelists, then, who really depend on commercial publishers.

So from the much-rejected writer's point of view, the system is broken because it won't supply what they want. From the industry's point of view it isn't broken because, as The Diabolical One says, it's perfectly capable of finding excellent books to publish, and persuading people to read them.

The real art of getting published lies in finding the best fit between what you write best, and what people want to read. It can be done, but it's not easy. And it's specially not easy if you have a deep scorn for readers, as the publishing's-broken people so often do, because if you're scorning someone, you're not listening to them. It doesn't mean dumbing down - last time I looked Wolf Hall was not a dumb book and nor was Small Island. And it doesn't mean abandoning what drives you as a writer, because books written from that drive will always be your best writing. But it does mean standing back from your own work quite some distance, and asking yourself what pleasures it offers the reader who is not you, who doesn't know you, and who doesn't care tuppence about you as a person. But I think anyone who doesn't listen to readers probably isn't well-equipped to think like them.

Mary W. Walters said...

You could at least spell my name correctly. Sigh.

Mary W. Walters said...

(I also encourage you to check out the perspectives of Dean Wesley Smith, whose site was recently brought to my attention. He has some excellent advice there as well about "how the publishing industry really works."

Glynis Peters said...

Well, Ms Walters had something to get off her chest, or is this a new marketing ploy? She definately got herself noticed.
There will always be for and against the publishing industry or agents, simply because people have different views. I am not sure being rude about the styles of other writer's work is fair play though. Chick lit, vampires and romance are all dreams of those who sit for hours writing them. Surely if they get published it is because they are good enough,and the demand for that particular genre is out there?
Thank you for an interesting post.

Michael said...

To be fair, Mary did make some good points in her post. One of those is the strange nature of the agent query system in the USA, where authors have to fit their query into a specific and rigid template before it will be considered. Most people find it very difficult to write self promotion copy and authors are no exception. To go on a query letter alone could well mean that agents are missing out on seeing good manuscripts - the problem is, of course, that the system evolved that way because of sheer volume.

Allison Williams said...

Emma Darwin, thanks, you elaborate my point far more lucidly than I originally wrote!

Michael - your thought that good work is being missed due to an overly rigid gatekeeper system is one I've seen mentioned before. I'll draw another parallel, though.

"Gee, by forcing people to write resumes, use proper formatting, and show up for job interviews appropriately dressed, the corporate world misses out on some wonderful job candidates! Why can't they be more flexible?"

Writing is not just a creative pursuit, it's also a business. It is completely appropriate to set up some hoops to jump through, tangentially related to the actual creative work, to get the work in the door.

This is no different than interviewing for a job, auditioning for a play, or for that matter, making a television commercial to sell one's product. Making a late-night infomercial is a different skill than manufacturing amazing cutlery...but that's what sells thousands and thousands of Ginsu knives.

So, given that as with job applicants, auditioning actors, and kitchen products, there are far more competitors for the consumer's dollars than there are dollars to spread around, and far more contenders for the gatekeepers' attention than the gatekeeper has time to review, how do you suggest the initial screening take place?

The system right now is:
1) Demonstrates ability to write a specific assignment well (Query letter)
2) Demonstrates ability to find and follow directions (GOOD query with specific target recipient)
3) Demonstrates professional courtesy and demeanor (going through suggested contact method)
4) Demonstrates good idea or good initial pages (pitch/sample pages)

What do you suggest that's better?

Jane Smith said...

Mary, I'm sorry I misspelled your name: I corrected my error yesterday, but haven't been able to comment since then (I have a satellite internet connection which objects to the fog we've had).

Dean Wesley Smith certainly has an interesting point of view. It's not one I'd suggest everyone follows.

And to go off on a tangent, I'm not sure that publishing is an industry: I always think of large-scale manufacturing, and big heavy engineering when I hear that word. "Business" seems more appropriate to me.

Jane Smith said...

Michael wrote, "To be fair, Mary did make some good points in her post."

I agree: she did. But she also made some very strange assertions which I think led to those good points getting overlooked. I did address this indirectly in my original piece when I wrote, "Consequently, the few people who read these pieces and who work in publishing and who therefore have the access and contacts required to change things are likely to dismiss the articles as ill-informed nonsense; the good points are lost with the bad."

I'll reiterate: this piece wasn't about Mary. I used her piece as an example of how not to attempt to change the things that don't work. As for the query system, I think Allison has made a good point there, but I'll add this: in the UK it's common to send in a covering letter with a few chapters and a synopsis. That covering letter is far less cruicial here than it is in the USA and I'm very glad about that.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I see such screeds, my reaction is always this: "If you think you know the Sekrit Truth about how publishing should work, then bankroll a publishing company and show us all how it's done."

About three years ago, I just gave up trying to educate unpublished writers who display no ability to learn. I tell them, "If you hate mainstream publishers so much, go self publish."

Hey, I'm not entirely evil. I do suggest that they publish through LuLu instead of a vanity press.

Emma Darwin said...

I do agree that the query-first system does writers no favours - and I don't say that because I think writers deserve favours.

Yes, writers ought to be good at writing to a set subject, but a query, without an example of the writing, is basically asking us to second-guess how a book should be marketed. If we were good at marketing, that's what we'd be doing - it's a darned sight better paid than writing, that's for sure. Yes, we can write to a set subject and length, but not to an uknown brief, which is basically what a query letter is.

The query-first system also favours the high concept book, which wouldn't matter if high concept so often didn't turn out to be low execution.

The late lamented Miss Snark, Nathan Bransford, Jane here and dozens of others who know what they're talking about all say GOOD WRITING TRUMPS ALL. In which case, it's surely daft to have a system which omits, from an initial submission, the writer's trump card: Chapter One.

I dread the day when it becomes standard practice in the UK.

Sion Smith said...

I dread the day when book jackets and sleeves become as dull as they are in the U.S. - has anybody else noticed this?

Whatever your thoughts on this thread, you have to admit that publishing is something the U.K. is damn good at.

Tim Roux said...

We may be able to help out here.

We are publishing 5 books a month regardless of commercial potential and do not deal with literary agents. We publish 4 books because we like them and one because it is voted on us.

We are delighted to hear from anybody who believes they have a good book to publish over at or

We think that the whole literary agency thing sucks is best just ignored. Night Reading was born out of that frustration - great books rejected because they were considered to have to commercial value.

Tim Roux

Jane Smith said...

Tim, forgive me for being cynical--but you kind-of expect me to be, right?

If you're publishing books "regardless of commercial potential" then you can't be concerned about them selling in any great number: which means that you have to be satisfied that your publishing business will draw its income from other sources: and the only other source available to you is, as far as I can see, the authors you publish (and I notice you're one of them). Which implies to me that you're a vanity publishing operation. Which isn't something I'd recommend to anyone.

I've had a quick look at your website and can't find any information which implies otherwise; and I can't find any information about your background, either. So I have a few questions. What experience do you have in publishing? If your books don't have commercial potential, how is your company funded? And if I ran a bookshop, how could I get hold of your books?

Mary W. Walters said...

Thanks for correcting the spelling, Jane. As a friend of mine once said, "It doesn't matter what they say about you as long as they spell your name right." I tend to subscribe to that philosophy.

As far as the comments here, you and a few others seem fair-minded but to those who suggest I am ignorant of how the system works: read my bio. My latest book is from one of the finest university presses in the world, and I've been editor-in-chief of a Canadian publishing company myself. Also, don't feel sorry for me. I'm full of hope for my future as a fictionista, and I love writing fiction which is all that matters in the long run.

BTW, there's also an article about Authonomy itself on my Militant Writer website:

Anonymous said...

I must say this is a much more civil discussion than the one Mary had to put up with, I appreciate that.

Dean Wesley Smith is hardly a 'rejected writer' however he does make some valid points about the issue.