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In Defense of the Industry

Thursday, December 18th, 2008 | Posted by ScottOden

A common refrain about the publishing industry – heard clearest of all in those places where writers gather online – is that editors and agents are more interested in making a fast buck than in finding a solid author, that they’d rather have cookie-cutter fiction instead of something that breaks new ground, that they just don’t get it.  While I naturally cannot speak for every writer, my own experiences have led me to believe that the opposite is true.

To be sure, publishing changed when the conglomerates took over.  What was once a gentleman’s enterprise became instead a ruthless business, one replete with attorneys and accountants for whom books are merely a curiosity, a commodity.  There is an apocryphal tale from the late 80’s about a financial analyst who crunched the numbers and came to the conclusion that, since only a small fraction of books were destined for bestsellerdom, the editor-in-chief would do well to focus the company’s resources just on those few books.  Wearily, the editor explained that no one could predict which books might outperform the others until after they were released.  It’s frightening to think that the people who are ultimately in charge of our creative destines might not have the first clue what they’re doing.

But, here’s the thing: they do.  They really do.  Every person I’ve met who is involved in the business-end of publishing – from my editor’s secretary to the head of my imprint – loves books.  All kinds of books.  They love reading books, talking about books, going to book parties, rooting through waist-high piles of slush in search of books . . . and they equally love authors.  Some editors love their authors so much that they become literary agents.  Yes, they are hunting for the next Big Thing, for the next Harry Potter or The DaVinci Code, but along the way they’re tickled pink when they find a Joe Abercrombie, a Patrick Rothfuss, or a Paul Kearney.

Editors and agents do the best possible job with what they’re given.  With what they’re given being the key.  When your groundbreaking tale is getting nothing but form rejections, then in all probability there’s something wrong with your tale and not with the agents and editors who are reading it.  A well-written manuscript, one where the author’s ability to turn a phrase and her ability to spin a yarn are both in evidence, is a rare thing – rarer than most writers realize.  Spend a day reading through an average slush pile if you doubt me.  Only then will you understand where Theodore Sturgeon was coming from when he revealed that “90% of everything is crap” (in 1958 it was 90% . . . now, with literary inflation, it’s more like 98%).

Still, things have changed.  And while the industry isn’t broken, it’s not the same as it was in the days of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor, Maxwell Perkins.  The demands of corporate profitability have stolen away time editors once spent on developing authors.  The newly-minted novelist must be polished and print-ready even before the ink is dry on the contract.  For that to happen, publishers rely on agents to hammer prospective manuscripts into shape; but agents, who are buried under impossible piles of slush, have become increasingly more selective.  Thus, not only do manuscripts need a diamond-hard shine, but before they will even be read they need a query letter that crackles and a synopsis that jumps off the page.

More writers are clamoring for attention, competing for agents’ time even as they vie for one of a handful of slots on a publisher’s schedule.  In response, writers must be more polished and ready to do business.  For good or ill, that’s the reality of the industry today.

1 Comment »

  1. It’s not editors and agents who are more interested in sales than quality books. It’s PUBLISHERS. They (for the most part) are in it for the money…editors are in it because they love literature and writing and working with writers. An editor can discover a terrific new talent and probably get his/her book published, but if it doesn’t sell, the publisher is unlikely to want anything else from that author. Agents…it’s probably a mixed bag. I’m sure most agents have a passion for the literature they are repping. But they are also in it to make a profit…even moreso than editors. Agents looks for books THAT PUBLISHERS CAN SELL. They won’t take a book to a publisher unless they believe strongly that that publisher will be able to sell the book…that it has potential to fulfill the publisher’s goal of selling lots of copies. For an agent to take that leap of faith he/she has to really BELIEVE in the talent of the writer. No wonder they are so picky.
    You forgot one thing in your blog post: LUCK. Even an extremely talented writer, with a great manuscript, an knock-em-dead cover letter has to strike at the RIGHT TIME, RIGHT PLACE. It’s like any other creative “industry”–there are certain times when publishers and agents just AREN’T LOOKING. They may have enough or too much on their plate already. They may be busy promoting their latest release or doing any of a hundred other things that their job requires. So even you’re the Cat’s Meow of fiction, the next Tolkien in J.K. Rowling’s clothing, you will only get picked up by an agent and a publisher if you are in the RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME.
    Luck is a HUGE factor in ANY writer’s success.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - December 18, 2008 10:03 pm


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