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I assume that everyone has read this very unhappy rant. I know that a lot of people have commented on it, and I wasn't going to, but I started a response to someone on my flist and realized that it was long. Very long.

There are agents who blog regularly who have, at one point or another in their blogs, said "I loved this book but I don't think I could sell it". Sometimes they take longer to say it. Sometimes it's that blunt. One, I can't remember who, thought a book could be published, but it would not be worth the money to her to take this person on as a client (because it would go to a small press, and there's very little money for just as much, or in fact more, effort).

I think people like the aggrieved literary writer who thinks agents are basically strangling the field in their grasping search for money fastened onto those comments; I don't think she understood that editors also make the exact same decision: Loved this book. Don't think it will sell. Must pass.

Money is part of the business, because if it weren't, we'd call it something else, like, say, hobby. Money is therefore a large part of the decision to publish. But it is a very subjective business. What's changed so much is that the market has become much narrower because where there used to be 50 large publishers there are now really half a dozen, owned by larger corporations, who are focused on more immediate results.

Back in the age of dinosaurs, when I was still talking to two of my sales reps and managing the bookstore, I was told that an author needs time to build -- they felt the optimum was 5 titles on the shelves, because that gave the author a visible presence. This had been their experience, and they were in their 50s; it was what they knew, and what they had seen work. They watched for momentum, for some gain between books, but they didn't expect instant results.

Things have changed a lot since then. You might still have to write 5 books -- but there's a very good chance that they will, serially, be out of print or at least off all shelves before the next one comes out if the first one doesn't sell well enough. You frequently won't get five books worth of traction or build. You are now trying to hit hard enough the first time out that you can keep going; you might have to change your name and start out "new" again.

What people like this author don't clearly understand is that this is a business. I know published authors who I think are brilliant, and their lack of sales kills their ability to get further books published. It makes me weep because I would buy them. It makes me grind my teeth and feel like there's an enormous sucking vacuum that turns a blind eye to beauty and perfection ...

But I, and maybe two thousand people would devotedly buy their work. And that, in this market, is not enough for major publishers. It is enough for small presses, and I do think the small presses in many cases are flourishing. But in theory the overhead for a small press, along with the expectations, are more modest--as are the advances they can afford to pay.

I think it's a viable model; I am not trying to dis small presses. But it is unlikely that a small press editor (who is usually the publisher) is going to be "let go" because the sales of his acquisitions did not live up to the expectations of owners who are not actually people with a lot of experience about books.

So: I think it's absolutely true that editors and agents do pass on things they like, or like a lot, for purely financial reasons.

What the author doesn't really understand is that they don't have a choice.

We can write for the love of it. There are things I've written that I will never sell, or never try to sell (mostly poetry). We can do whatever we want in the playground of our own minds. We can share these or not as we see fit, and we can give in to the raw compulsion to write things that resonate with personal meaning to no one but ourselves. That's the art. We can even love those words.

But we do this on our own time. Most of us have other jobs which sustain us while we create.

Editors are paid to make their decisions with someone else's money. And they all have some experience with the bitter disappointment of a much loved novel that failed to sell; they grow a sense of what will--or what won't--work in the market, or work with the tools they have (marketing, sales force, etc.). They are expected to use someone else's money wisely; they are not expected to lose it.

Agents -- to get back to her main point -- are trying to sell books to these editors. Therefore the agents are trying to sell books to people who are already focused on commercial viability, because that's their job.

I do not know anyone who is trying to make a living writing poetry. Prose of a certain type seems, to me, to be increasingly hard to sell, given its attrition on shelves these days. Yes, we can write it. Yes, we can perfect it. Yes, we can make it shiny and balanced and resonant, and we can work into it a deep and startling set of metaphors that can be slowly teased out by readers who have the patience and the desire; we can play with structure, fracturing it, putting it together in spirals or fractals so that the themes are an echo of the structure. But if we can't somehow figure out how to also make it accessible and compelling and immediate to a broader spectrum of people, it doesn't matter how good it is. It really doesn't. Because "good/bad" is subjective.

In my experience behind a bookseller's desk, I will say flat out that most people who don't write don't really care all that much about the word-for-word writing. They care about the story. They care about being able to follow the story. If they say something is garbage or crap, they're talking about faults in construction: the characters switch personalities between chapters and do things that nominally sane people would never do. But they're not talking about the felicity of word, of the power and flow of language, of the subtlety of structure -- they're talking about story.

When writers start out, we start out writing because (for most of us) reading was so incredibly important, and we loved books as if they were mute gods. We write what we love. We put everything we have into the first book.

And frankly what we often have is a lack of competence, a lack of craft, and a lack of understanding.

But we think that because we loved a certain book that was hugely respected and successful, and because we love the one we're writing... other people will love it, too. And it's painful and heartbreaking when we come face to face with reality: It's not so. It just isn't.

Some of us will then pick up our words and try to figure out how we failed our story because, you know, we're stubborn and we still love it. We assume that we have failed to communicate that story well enough, have failed to bring the right parts of it to light, have failed to make explicit what we implicitly know: this story is good, damn it. I just need to tell it the right way. Which, clearly, I didn't do this time.

But some people have funny reactions to failure, possibly in the same way people have funny reactions to any rejection in matters of the heart. They can't or won't accept that they've failed this time because their own love for their work blinds them; the failure, the explanation for the inexplicable, must lie elsewhere. In this case, it's money, obviously; that must be it.

Which is sort of sad, slightly embarrassing, and in the end more worthy -- for me -- of pity than mockery or anger.


ETF lack of quotes in cut tag

Comments

( 33 comments — Leave a comment )
arouraleona
Apr. 21st, 2009 03:12 am (UTC)
Not working in the industry in any way (and never have), all I have to say to this is that e-publishing will start to fill this void, I think. I wasn't alive when there were hundreds of magazines and newspaper stands in every city and tons of book presses. The internet is providing a place for people to write, and for others to read, such as people do with blogs all the time! There are tons of small e-book presses, and they might eventually grow into something. ::shrugs:: who knows. The big players don't have to own everything. Neither do the agents.

Goodness knows I don't get all MY stories from the big three in the publishing world. I read lots of little web stories and blog stories and webcomics.

There's lots of opportunities out there, if you just look for them. The only reason to worry about the agents is if you're worried about getting into the big presses, and then well - you play that game, you play by those rules. ::shrugs::
zingerella
Apr. 21st, 2009 11:12 am (UTC)
The thing about e-publishing and the web is that, yes, it's slowly providing a place for those less-commercially-viable works to find their audience, but I don't think it's yet consistently providing a way for the authors of those works to get paid enough to do this full time, or even necessarily consistently part time, especially for novel-length works.

And yes, the people who have a story to tell that's just shouting and dancing and wanting to be told will keep telling it, regardless, and may come to tell it very well, over time (as the vast troves of fanfic, among other things, shows us). But they're unlikely to have the benefit of an advance sizeable enough to let them sit down and focus on the writing for any period of time.

The demise of diversity in publishing isn't that old. Even 20 years ago, there were more mid-sized publishers in Canada, at least, than there are now, by a significant number.
arouraleona
Apr. 21st, 2009 03:25 pm (UTC)
I don't know about this, but I wouldn't think that percentage-wise most people published make their their complete living from fiction writing... I realize it's more than those than make it from e-publishing now, but my point was that the internet allows for a much cheaper expanding market than print.

Yes, e-publishing is young, but it has potential. That's all I'm saying.
twiegand
Apr. 21st, 2009 03:39 am (UTC)
You know my reading habits. I will follow an author into the very depths of, well you know. However due to certain circumstances my buying habits have had to change. I must be more selective in buying and I trust that publishers are also more selective for similar reasons. Given that, yes I tend to buy from authors I know and trust for a quality product much as I would rather buy other goods from a quality source. It now takes a recommendation from another for me to try something new. But I have an alternate source of reading material from an underused location called my public library. I think that more published stories would be great. I realize that not all stories can be published. I recall a novel that was first passed around at cons before a basement comics publisher took it on. I have bought four copies of that novel because people kept passing it on to others and there they went. I hope good stories will find their audience. I just wish I had more time and money to be that audience for so many more books.
(Deleted comment)
sdn
Apr. 21st, 2009 04:26 am (UTC)
you're a smart cookie. (maybe a mallomar.)
trektone
Apr. 21st, 2009 04:41 am (UTC)
Mallomar Michelle - I love it!
msagara
Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:25 am (UTC)
you're a smart cookie. (maybe a mallomar.)

Is this because the centre is made of mush? Err, marshmallow?
schulman
Apr. 21st, 2009 05:03 am (UTC)
I know published authors who I think are brilliant, and their lack of sales kills their ability to get further books published. It makes me weep because I would buy them.

Names, titles? I'd like the opportunity to weep, too.

lyssabits
Apr. 21st, 2009 05:39 am (UTC)
I wish they still let authors build up a few titles. I can attest from my own experience, that when I get the hankering to try someone new, and I start scrolling through my Amazon recommendations for someone random.. I almost always settle on someone with multiple books. I tend to veer away from the hot new author, but I want someone with a few novels under their belt. Coz if I like the first one I read, I have to have the rest!
amothea
Apr. 21st, 2009 05:57 am (UTC)
this gave me a lot of food for thought.
baka_kit
Apr. 21st, 2009 07:27 am (UTC)
We assume that we have failed to communicate that story well enough, have failed to bring the right parts of it to light, have failed to make explicit what we implicitly know: this story is good, damn it. I just need to tell it the right way. Which, clearly, I didn't do this time.

Yes, this.

I was fourteen when I wrote my first novel, and I thought it was the best thing ever. And of course my family and friends loved it; my stepmom went so far as to get two copies typed up and bound, one for me, one for my dad.

I don't have to dig out that old copy to tell you it was horrible. But love for storytelling has kept me writing for the past twenty years. (Lack of love for editing has kept me from getting more than a couple books out there collecting rejections, but that's my own damn fault.)

But at some point (I couldn't say when or why, but I suspect that having a computer may have been a factor) I started to look at my books with a more critical eye. I deliberately went looking for flaws in the story and boy, did I find them.

It was a painful realization, but a necessary one. I learned I had to edit.
msagara
Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:24 am (UTC)
I don't have to dig out that old copy to tell you it was horrible. But love for storytelling has kept me writing for the past twenty years

Yes, this.
dancinghorse
Apr. 21st, 2009 07:42 am (UTC)
In horses we call it "barn-blindness." In humans, it's mother love. Your work is special and beautiful and perfect and more wonderful than any other work that ever was, and the world must make you a star. Unfortunately, that only works if your reality coincides with the consensual version.

I guess blaming agents makes sense since they're at the door and you're trying to get in and they keep saying no, you're not on the invitation list. The author hasn't thought through to what that means about who is really controlling the list. (Which makes me wonder how well they've thought their fiction through, too.)



Edited at 2009-04-21 07:42 am (UTC)
la_marquise_de_
Apr. 21st, 2009 10:59 am (UTC)
What you said, really. I have a lot of sympathy for the OP but her bitterness shines through everywhere and it is bolstered by a streak of arrogance that is a little off-putting (is literary fiction automatically more deserving than genre? *Really*?).
zingerella
Apr. 21st, 2009 11:15 am (UTC)
One of my editing instructors, who had never made a book that wasn't supported by a grant, had this same bias. She looked right down her nose at genre, and it was inconceivable to her that anyone in her class would be contemplating a career in anything other than literary fiction or "serious" non-fiction. Where there are no jobs.

I don't know how she was as an editor, but she was not an especially good editing instructor, as she couldn't think through a process, or explain structure or method to save her soul.
zingerella
Apr. 21st, 2009 11:24 am (UTC)
I think a lot of people don't get that books are a business. They get caught up in the mythos of literature and of the artist. And art (as we all know) is never a business. (Go tell that to Handel, who sold the rights to his works to at least two different publishers).

So, in their heads, the entire publishing world exists to connect their great work of art to its awaiting public. And for some reason they've never quite thought about the mechanism for this. They've not considered that unless an organization get a big fat grant or endowment or something, it has to sell things to people who want them. The more copies of the same thing it can sell, the more profit it will have. Therefore, bestsellers are a good thing.

I think too, that because a lot of people who write literary fic also read literary fic as their first choice, and mostly associate with people who share their tastes, they perhaps suffer from bubble-thinking—in my bubble, everyone does X, so I see only people doing X, therefore everyone (or at least everyone of good sense) must do X or would do X if only they knew about it.
msagara
Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:23 am (UTC)
So, in their heads, the entire publishing world exists to connect their great work of art to its awaiting public. And for some reason they've never quite thought about the mechanism for this. They've not considered that unless an organization get a big fat grant or endowment or something, it has to sell things to people who want them.

Yes, this is absolutely true. I think in the case of this particular writer, she feels certain - as we have all done - that if our books are presented to the waiting public, they will be loved.

You don't even need to see your books as great works of art to feel this way, fwiw.

It's not true. It's what is felt. But arguing with someone's emotional reactions in a logical way when they are not in the frame of mind to parse logic... doesn't really work that well =/
zingerella
Apr. 22nd, 2009 01:02 pm (UTC)
think in the case of this particular writer, she feels certain - as we have all done - that if our books are presented to the waiting public, they will be loved.

And what she doesn't get is that agents and editors, in addition to being literary gatekeepers, are members of the reading public, and spend a lot of time learning about what the reading public loves (and will pay for). If an agent doesn't love a book, she's going to infer that perhaps those members of the reading public with whom she is connected are not going to love it, either.

And yeah, there's no sense in arguing with people when they are too wrapped up in their emotions to think logically. Which is unfortunate, because there's a lot to be learned from rejection if a person can get beyond the belief that the person doing the rejecting is just too dumb to appreciate obvious brilliance.
jimhines
Apr. 21st, 2009 12:23 pm (UTC)
I don't have data to back this up, but I've been told the small presses are actually having a better time of it right now than the large ones. The smaller publishers are better able to adapt, and the economic troubles aren't hitting them as hard. Have you seen anything to support or not support this?

And hey, assuming nothing changes, I should have five books in print by October of this year. Woo hoo! The first four won't be on most shelves anymore, but I'll take what I can get :-)
msagara
Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:16 am (UTC)
The smaller publishers are better able to adapt, and the economic troubles aren't hitting them as hard. Have you seen anything to support or not support this?

I haven't looked at hard numbers, but I do think a lot of the small presses are doing a better job with some of their books than many major presses could have done with the same books, for a variety of reasons. I think the warehouse overhead has got to be way, way, lower, and the cost of hiring and paying a sales force has to be lower as well (there are sales reps that handle IPG, but they handle a bunch of different publishers; I'm not entirely sure how they're paid for that). They also don't maintain large offices in very, very expensive manhattan, and they probably have production departments that are one or two people, etc. etc. etc.

I also think small presses probably make more money for direct mail orders, relative to total sales, than a major publisher that isn't Harlequin would. Other expenses would likely also be low.

But the only ones with which I'm even passingly familiar are in our genre.
barbarienne
Apr. 21st, 2009 02:48 pm (UTC)
A large publishing house is often at war within itself. Usually only one side knows the war is happening (it's kind of a guerrilla war).

Most of the large publishers are, as you say, owned by larger corporations. The folks at the very top, who count the beans, are almost certainly not people who started out as an assistant-something at a publishing house, and often never worked in publishing before. (And even when they do have a publishing background, it's often from journals and magazines, which, despite falling sales, can still regularly and accurately predict how many copies they will sell each month. They always seem to have the hardest time understanding that books don't work like that.)

So I have watched more than one editor try to come up with plans to sell their books, where the plans had to take into account not the marketplace of readers, but the demand for instant results from the bosses upstairs. This usually translates to a major marketing push and splashy attention for a promising first novel. Unfortunately, they cannot do this for every novel.

One of the better strategies I've seen is the mass-market-original, three-books-in-rapid-succession series. It grabs that chunk of shelf space the five-book backlist used to, and it prevents severe drop-off between books in a series.

The three-books-at-once strategy has the benefit of being relatively inexpensive. The books are mass market paperbacks (low profit margin, but low overhead, too), the marketing of one is the marketing of all three, and if they don't perform, they still have the excuse of being first novels.

This doesn't work, however, with guys who do non-series, which perhaps explains why they are more and more likely to be mainstreamed, even when the books are clearly SF. (And yes, it happens more with SF, it seems to me. Perhaps because F is more series-driven.)

The problem is that editors want to publish more than one or two books per month. This means that a lot of books are the figurative spaghetti at the wall.
msagara
Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:11 am (UTC)
One of the better strategies I've seen is the mass-market-original, three-books-in-rapid-succession series. It grabs that chunk of shelf space the five-book backlist used to, and it prevents severe drop-off between books in a series.

And you know what? It still does work. I think it was enormously effective for both Novik and recently Brent Weeks. But my tired little mind did not immediately look at the strategy and think "that is a clever way to create the same effect as the 4 book backlist in a market that simply doesn't often allow for it anymore".

Thank you :)
book_wench
Apr. 23rd, 2009 09:19 pm (UTC)
Brent Weeks was the first one I noticed in the SF genre, but this strategy has become really big in the romance market.

One oddity I've noticed--Brent Weeks' first book hit the bestseller lists only after the third was published. Haven't figured that out yet.
msagara
Apr. 23rd, 2009 11:23 pm (UTC)
My guess? People picked up the third book, and realizing it was the third book when the first was probably still on the shelves, picked up the first instead. I think a lot of readers are a little bit series-shy if they can't find the first book or two.

re: romance genre, do you think it has the same effect, with regards to shelf space? I feel as if I have been a bit dense about the use of the strategy.
burger_eater
Apr. 21st, 2009 06:24 pm (UTC)
The OP seems to have a weird kind of entitlement--she seems to think that the achievements she's made so far should give her special treatment. She wants to make an end-run around agents and go straight to editors (who surely wouldn't be rejecting her book this way!)

It's kind of sad.
msagara
Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:21 am (UTC)
The point is, it's not a rational response -- it's an attempt to rationalize a response. It's not going to come out well no matter how it's presented. Some of us are used to a high level of snark; some of us are not. I think the entire #queryfail thing was going to produce a reaction like this one, and there are probably a lot of people who don't blog and don't post who are sitting back and feeling... well, similar.

And the point is: everyone does say the midlist is dying. Of course, everyone's been saying that since 1990, but watching the change since the '80s, I would say that it is definitely harder, now.

She's grabbing at comments & facts that do exist; she's putting them together in a way that seems inaccurate to me -- but that's almost beside the point. She is deeply, bitterly unhappy, and many deeply, bitterly unhappy people do not come off well in public forums.
burger_eater
Apr. 22nd, 2009 04:43 am (UTC)
Well, when you look at it that way (you know... the nice person's way) it's even sadder. I kept trying to find the right thing to say to her, but her defenses were too high.

Ah, well.
book_wench
Apr. 23rd, 2009 10:13 pm (UTC)
And the point is: everyone does say the midlist is dying. Of course, everyone's been saying that since 1990, but watching the change since the '80s, I would say that it is definitely harder, now.

But there are many reasons for that beyond prejudices held by agents and editors. Mainly, I think, the rise of the big chains and the change in tax law that made books in warehouses taxable. I agree that small presses seem to be helping the problem, as is Amazon.

I don't write literary fiction, though I like to think I maintain a certain level of literacy in my books, and I'm not a big seller. Still less am I very good at writing a sales pitch. Yet I found it possible to get an agent and my agent found it possible to sell my books.
msagara
Apr. 23rd, 2009 11:31 pm (UTC)
I don't write literary fiction, though I like to think I maintain a certain level of literacy in my books, and I'm not a big seller. Still less am I very good at writing a sales pitch. Yet I found it possible to get an agent and my agent found it possible to sell my books.

Well, that part of her post is definitely the "I am bitter and angry" part, and in that bubble, examples to the contrary are probably invisible, to her. I don't think what she said made sense on a practical level; I can understand why she's grasping for conclusions.

And also, worth noting: midlist author is a definition that spans a large number. You can be midlist and sell 9k copies of a book; you can be midlist and sell 50k copies. (these are paperback numbers, off the top of my head, because 50k in hardcover would make most publishers happy). Obviously, there's going to be a difference there. And the numbers shift from genre to genre.
phillip2637
Apr. 22nd, 2009 12:58 pm (UTC)
First, thank you for these posts. The comments on both creativity and practicality in the world of writing are fascinating.

I don't have the background to comment about agents, editors, and the specifics of publishing, but some of the comments in the linked blog rang true as parallels to things I've seen elsewhere: Essentially, short-sightedness in the name of good business causing long-term business losses.

There was a time when the pop music industry aggressively hunted and promoted what was new, different, and exciting. They created whole new markets and catalyzed music purchasing for a generation. Then somebody decided that smart thing to do *from a quarterly perspective* was to re-sell the sound of the most popular 3% of songs from last quarter. The result has been a 25 year implosion, blamed mostly on technology rather than their own abandonment of R&D.

I'm also old enough to remember a time in the software sector (at least) when companies had training budgets. It was assumed that investing in skills that the company needed would eventually pay back in productivity. That turned around as, one after another, organizations signed up for a "tragedy of the commons" scenario where they would choose instead to hire those that others had trained. Soon there were no "others", leaving hiring managers to complain about a lack of qualifications among thousands of applicants (or the failure of outsourcing, or the high cost of contract staff, or...).

All talk of the publishing industry gives me the impression that it also feels no need to take any responsibility for its own future.
msagara
Apr. 23rd, 2009 11:26 pm (UTC)
All talk of the publishing industry gives me the impression that it also feels no need to take any responsibility for its own future.

I'm not as sure about that -- I think publishing has never been a high margin business, but that with larger and larger corporate owners, it's treated as if it should be, somehow. But you just don't know what will sell. No one had any clue when buying the first Harry Potter that it would do what it did -- and that first book was not pushed or promoted in company in any way that a non-notable new first book was.

So publishing R&D is... publishing the books.
rowyn
Apr. 24th, 2009 12:06 am (UTC)
I agree with you that editors and agents have interests that align pretty well. I'm curious about the utility of agents, though. Do you think they're providing a valuable service for publishers or writers, in the case of first-time authors? I can see the benefit of agents to established authors; I'm hazier on how they help unpublished ones, or what they do that the publishing house couldn't do cheaper with their own readers or interns.
( 33 comments — Leave a comment )