anghara (anghara) wrote,

This business of ours

Okay, inspired by several recent posts and links, I've decided to weigh in on the Matter Of Agents And Other Publishing Secrets.

First, a recap -

First, a blog that addresses the "business of writing", and does so by asking pertinent questions from professional writers - this particular entry flings the gauntlet at the feet of Linda Fairstein, NYT Bsetselling Author, London Times Bestselling Author, and Bestselling Author In Many Other Venues.

Linda says:
Writing is a creative art. Publishing is a business. As I often say to writers, if you're just doing it for 'the craft' and the pleasure of writing, then carry on. Keep the pages in a drawer or under your pillow, and read them to yourself or to the wind. But if you choose to be published, remember that you have entered the marketplace. Don't whine about it. Learn it.

Words of Wisdom, indeed.

Author Louise Marley weighs in on her LJ:

In the end, no one can do the work for the writer; she has to do it herself, and do the best work she can. But it's impractical for 99% of writers to think they're going to go it alone in today's publishing world; it's just not set up that way. Raging against the system, and in particular being pissed off at editors and agents, is no help. We're all dealing with the same challenges, on one level or another. Better to spend that energy creating new and exciting stories and novels!

And then this, via erdnase2000 - the threat is that it will be taken down permanently within a very few days, and so in the interests of preserving the quote that I want against a 404 Not Found result within a week, I'm quoting the relevant sections in full here:

Over the last number of years, a certain "mind-set" has developed in some, but not all, New York agents about how they have to vet your book before sending it to an editor. Some of them even have the gall, the stupidity to tell you how to rewrite it.

Excuse me????? I'm the writer. If the agent could write, they would be making the 85%, not 15%.

So, I have come up with a basic rule for my writing, a rule that was in place for years for me, yet somehow I let slip.

Rule: NOTHING gets between my story and the editor who can write a check.

Not a workshop, not a spouse, not an agent. Certainly not some stupid rule in a writer's guideline book. NOTHING.

I sell my own books in all ways. If I don't write a sellable book, then it doesn't sell. But it needs to get read by editors who make that decision. No one else.

I am sick and tired of having agents stop me, my friends, and many other professional writers. So, for me, I have just tossed a huge stick of explosives into this part of my career, and will, from this point forward, trust my skill, and get my books to editors in every fashion that I can. Will I have an agent? Yes, most likely. But the moment the agent doesn't keep a book sitting on at least four editors desks, the agent is gone. The moment the agent gives me feedback on a book, after I have told them I don't want comments, then the agent is gone.

An agent's job is to sell books. Vet contracts. Get the book to overseas agents. Chase the money, and get 15% for doing that. They are not critics, they are not editors. They work for me.

When Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and mark Twain were writing books, it was possible to do a great many things that it is no longer possible to do today. You could write a novel in serial form and have it published chapter-by-chapter in a magazine (thus ensuring that you got, you know, PAID for the thing in terms of a small but steady income). You could go the self-publishing route and not feel the lack of distribution, the risk of complete oblivion, and the backlash of the disdain and dismissal of readers, reviewers, and the industry as a whole.

That was then. This is now.

There are many, many things wrong with the system as it is currently set up. It isn't QUITE the "superstar" system that reigns in Hollywood, but it's probably heading that way fast - the BNA's (Big Name Authors) are getting the huge advances, the lion's share of the promotion and publicity budgets, and something of an automatic entry into the corral by virtue of name recognition alone. Mid-list writers have almost disappeared; new authors are finding it harder and harder to break in. Non-BNA advances, depending on your genre or your track record (if any) are averaging somewhere in the $teens - a few authors luck out and get $20K, or multiples of that, perhaps, if they're lucky enough to land a series. But Tobias Buckell did a survey of novel advances in the SF&F genre (don't have the URL handy, but google it - the reference should be on his blog) and one thing leaps out - agented vs. non-agented advances are significantly different. SIGNIFICANTLY. In other words, get a good agent, INSTANTLY get a hike in the money - and it more than pays the agent's percentage.

Now, several things are true. One is that a bad agent is worse than no agent at all - and it's sometimes damned difficult to tell them apart, especially in the beginning. Another is that it is certainly true that landing an agent these days is harder than getting in with a publisher - and THAT's hard enough, especially with the big houses (who pay significant money) not even accepting unagented manuscripts any more. Another is that foreign sales just don't happen without a good agent in your corner - you might be lucky enough to land a contract which buys "world rights" and then your publisher deals with this issue but once again it's the big houses who do this and you won't get that contract without an agent in the first place. Another is the very real attitude adjustment, when you DO get an agent, to realise that you are both in this together - and that you might be lucky to have an agent working for you in dealing with the business and marketing side of this adventure (and trust me, they earn their money doing this alone) but that you have also gained, technically, an employee because the agent is working FOR you.

In other words, what you have now done is gained an experienced employee and partner whose job it is to chase contacts, present your work in the best possible light in the most appropriate places, and to get ornery with defaulting publishers if the case arises. YOU don't have to jeopartize your hard-won spot in a publisher's list by having a squabble with your editor, or by digging in your heels over a contract clause you don't like, or even be aware that there is a contract clause that's bad for you before you sign your life away. Witness the recent rights grab by Simon and Schuster, the one that had the entire community up in arms - it takes an agent to deal with that kind of stuff.

YOU CANNOT GO IT ALONE AND MAKE A REAL GO OF IT. Not in today's marketplace. Not unless you have an independent income that allows you to spend every second of every day on market research, on publicity, on keeping up contacts with publishers and editors, on correspondence, on all that business-end gumpf which the agent takes over and runs for you... while *you write your next book*.

Because that's what YOU are supposed to be doing. Writing.

That last blog entry rather disparagingly dismisses agents and their opinions by saying that if agents could write they'd be earning that 85% instead of the 15% that they do get for their efforts - but fails to take into account that agents are BUSINESS agents who do not necessarily WANT to write. They do, however, know the markets - or at least the good ones do - and what that 15% buys you is a professional opinion. Dismissing that opinion as irrelevant and annoying is shooting yourself in teh foot - you are paying an employee but refusing to accept the full range of their services. Does that make business sense to you...?

You have to be able to take commentary and criticism of your work. Any idea, however exalted, can be improved - and surely you would want the reading public to love your work rather than spend their time discussing your plotholes, your cardboard characters, your flops and your failures. The agent won't help you avoid every pothole on the road. You don't HAVE to take their advice if you don't want to, but just be aware that by ignoring it you may be making your work worse, and less able to compete with what's out there. And this business of "Nothing gets between my story and the person who pays me money for it" is very easily extended into an attitude of "No editor tells me what to do because my words are sacred", and then you have a situation where you are Anne Rice and the entire world uses you as a shining example of what NOT to do as a publishing professional.

I have an agent. I deeply value her opinions and suggestions, because so far she has been spot on and right on the money - and dammit, she has JUST as big a stake in my career as I myself do, because I am part of what supports her own income, the better a deal she gets for me, the more SHE gets out of it. I cannot understand an attitude that would dismiss this with a "if she could write, she would" comment and simply ride roughshod over her opinions. And I know *for a hard fact* that my eleven languagues and more than twenty countries would NEVER have happened without my agent's help and influence.

For newbies wanting to break into the business, here's a checklist:

1. First, read. A LOT. Know what's out there. Know what's good.

2. Then, write one million words of crap... and realise that this is what you are doing.

3. When you write Word 1 of your post-crap oeuvre, you may not realise it. But sometime during the first chapter or two of the REAL book, you should. That's what those previous million words are for - they were practice, they were a learning curve, now you know what to do, what not to do, and how not to do it. KNOW that you are writing your first REAL book.

4. DOn't get hung up on style, grammar, presentation. Not now. Not at this stage. You have - or SHOULD have - a hot story that will not leave you alone. Write it. Get it down on paper. You will have plenty of time later to fix anything that needs fixing.

5. FINISH the puppy. Then leave it in a drawer for a month. THen go back to it, and read it from beginning to end. Make notes. THen go back to the beginning again (which may not be the beginning - but you should realise this by now) and start rewriting.

6. Finish the second draft. Go back to the beginning. Polish it up.

7. If you have beta readers you trust, let them have a look. Take their comments seriously. If ONE person tells you something it's possible that you can dismiss it. If several people tell you the same thing, understand that you may have a problem and that you can't be the only one who's right and everyone else is wrong. You don't have to take their suggestions on how to fix the problem, but make a genuine effort to find your own solution. RUn it by your readers and see if it works.

8. ONLY NOW DO YOU START THINKING ABOUT PUBLICATION. DO your homework. Find out who publishes stuff like yours. Find out the names of editors; address submissions to PEOPLE, not to "the editor" - mail addressed to a specific person tends to go to that person, the rest ends up in an anonymous pile in an assistant's office.

9. Learn to wait. In the meantime, start on something else. These days, publishers are buying careers, not a single book. If someone shows an interest, you will have something else in the pipeline for them already.

10. THis Is Important. With all its warts and hard knocks and frustrations and humiliations and cold showers... being published is still a privilege, not a right. If your book gets rejected, please be prepared to understand that it might, just MIGHT, be YOU and not the industry. Sure, lots of great books get rejected. Lots of sucky books get published. THem's the odds - you enter the game, you play it. You might be the one to slip through the cracks, either way - but don't get bitter and angry about your shortcomings (if that's what they are) and project them onto the industry. Nobody is out to get YOU. Not personally. They are not rejecting YOU. THey may reject your baby, your book, your heart and your soul and the thing you think is the next great thing in literature - but you EITHER gird your loins and resubmit somewhere else and start again, or you do something new. You want to be published? You have to work for it. COntrary to what anyone may believe while they're still on the outside of the gates, there IS no secret password, no secret handshake, no secret passage. Be aware that there IS the self-publishing route, but that you will be not only financially responsible for it but also EVERYTHING else falls into your bailiwick - the publicity, the marketing, the sales, everything everything everything - and if you think you can go it on your own just by being an agentless writer you try wearing ALL those hats, and see if you ever have the time to write another word. If you want to write, you have to WRITE because one single book isn't going to get you anywhere. You have to produce the next one. You have to have the time and the energy and the inspiration to do it. And knowing that your grandma and your cousins and your high school class bought a copy of your book (because you peddled it to them) will just NOT give you that glow of satisfaction that you think it will, it isn't the same as seeing your book on the shelves at the local B&N, of seeing a total stranger reading it, commenting on it, responding to it. YOU CAN'T DO IT ALL. Live with that.

So - you make a choice - you write.

For the rest, if you want to be in the game, you have to play the game. Sometimes it's horrible. SOmetimes it leaves a nasty taste in your mouth. But if you do it long enough and do it right you wind up holding a copy of a book in your hands, and the world is a different place on that day - the sun is brighter, the sky is higher, the stars are all around you and falling into the palm of your hand. But you can't do it on your own. If you can get professional and dedicated help DO IT. A good agent is worth their weight in gold.

That's all. For now. Getting off the soapbox.

Now - go back to your novels. And write.

Tags: writing advice, writing craft, writing rules and the debunking thereof

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