Friday, April 17, 2009

Oh No She Didn't

Yesterday a blog post by a writer of literary fiction gained the notice of writers and lit agents both. Links were posted on Twitter--as an example of a writer who didn't understand that publishing is a business.

I read the post, and while I didn't leave a comment there (partially because jumping into online arguments isn't my style and partially because it was clear in the comment trail that the post's author wasn't open to any argument but her own), it made me think.

Here, in her own words, is the gist of the complaint:

The substantial and nearly unassailable wall that separates you from us has been under construction for decades. You can find the names of its architects and gatekeepers on your telephone-callers list, and in your email in-box. They are the literary agents—that league of intellectual-property purveyors who bring you every new manuscript you ever see, those men and women who are so anxious to gain access to the caverns of treasure they believe you sit upon like some great golden goose that they would likely hack one another’s heads off were they not united by one self-serving mission: to ensure that quality fiction never hits your desk.

I can answer that question for you. I can tell you why your desk is piling up with flimsy bits of vampire literature, fantasy, romance, detective stories and the kind of first-draft bubble gum that used to be called chick-lit but is now shuffled in with other women’s writing in order to give it heft—although as far as you can see, neither the quality nor the subject matter has improved—which you are required to somehow turn into publishable books. It is because the vast majority of literary agents do not, in fact, have any interest in literature. They are only interested in jackpots.

These purveyors of literary costume jewelry seek out the kind of quirky but unsubstantial mental junk food that is as similar as possible to last season’s bestsellers

We submit our pitches in good faith by email or snail mail (depending on the dictates of the individual agent-god. They tell us how they want us to submit right on their websites!) where they are read by interns with little experience of literature or life, and are rejected.

Some of us have had our query letters rejected more than 50 times.

She goes on to rail against literary agents as killers of talent (indeed, that is the title of her post) and bemoans the fate of mid list literary authors who can't gain traction in a publishing industry focused on (shockingly enough) making money.

So, here's the thing. You can write anything you want. You can't, however, demand that it be published. Walking into the process of querying with an attitude that your genre is so much more significant and worthy than any other genre and publishers would recognize your goldmine of talent if only those interfering agents would move out of the way, shows at best a real lack of understanding of publishing as a business and at worst a hubris that, quite frankly, staggers me.

Writing is art. Publishing is the process of selling art. Who buys art? The consumer. Therefore, to stay in business, publishers must stock the shelves with books the consumers want to read. You are certainly free to write books other than what consumers are buying, but you have no grounds to stomp your feet and throw a tantrum when publishers refuse to buy your work. They have a business to run. They buy what sells.

Blaming your lack of sales on agents is just ridiculous. Agents find what they know their editorial contacts are looking for. Also, if you're firmly anti-agent, you're free to submit directly to any major publishing house you want. I know. I did that with my first novel and received a request right away from Grand Central. And complaining because your query has been rejected 50 times makes you look like a rank amateur. 50 times is nothing. Don't believe me? Ask John Grisham. Nora Roberts. Linda Howard. J.K. Rowling. Or any number of authors currently stocking the best-seller shelf at your local Barnes & Noble. 50 is a drop in the hat. It simply means you haven't found the right agent (the one who loves your voice or has room for another client or doesn't have anything similar on her client list right now) or your work isn't ready or--better hang on tight for this one--your work isn't what will sell right now.

Calling paranormal (vampires), romance, fantasy, chick lit, and detective stories flimsy bits the publishers are somehow required to turn into publishable books is insulting and demeaning to the cadre of writers out there who pour themselves into their stories and (gasp) get them published. Again, you're free to write whatever you want. But spewing scorn at other writers who choose to write what they want is inexcusable. Who knows which of these contemporary popular authors will one day be studied as part of our cannon of classic literature? Don't think it could happen to one of these pieces of "literary costume jewelry"? I guess you aren't familiar with Edgar Allen Poe (inventor of the modern detective story you so despise), Jane Austen (romance anyone?), Mary Shelley (paranormal's mama), J.R.R. Tolkien (the godfather of fantasy), Mark Twain (YA, here's looking at you), Charles Dickens (first published as serial chapters in a local newspaper) and others.

I understand the frustration of creating art and having nowhere to go with it. But levying your anger and bitterness at literary agents and authors of books that climb the New York Time's bestseller charts is foolish, unproductive, and flat-out offensive. If you want to be published, keep working on your craft. Query until you find an agent. Write the next manuscript. And the next. And the next after that.

Write. Revise. Query. Repeat as necessary. And back off the unbelievable hubris that assures you your writing is so much more valuable than that of those writers who do manage to snag an agent and a huge publishing contract with their flimsy bit of literary costume jewelry.

Writing is an art. Publishing is a business. If you're determined to combine the two, put your head down, attack your craft with tenacity, and treat your colleagues with respect.


  1. "What CJ said" Heh. Well put. I DID comment on it, but I was frankly honest. You can't write typewriter-maintenance manuals and expect to sell when not many people use typewriters anymore, right?

  2. Yup. *nods*

    Frankly, I read the link to her book that she was so annoyed had been rejected 50+ times.

    There's a reason for it - and it isn't the agents' fault.


  3. W00T!!! Right on. And that goes for so many others too.

  4. Vacationing from the InternetApril 17, 2009 at 2:06 PM

    I hear tell her great literary masterpiece is... chick lit. With a whiny, unlikable protagonist who's life magically improves with... weight loss.


    As I remarked elsewhere, "You're not being conspired against, dear. You're just not good enough."

    Unfortunately, that message, as per usual in these cases, was intercepted by an impenetrable wall of ego.

  5. You go, girl! I won't even bother writing a blog about it now. You said it. :)

  6. I hear tell her great literary masterpiece is... chick lit. With a whiny, unlikable protagonist who's life magically improves with... weight loss.You have to be kidding me. *facepalm* Methinks Author Lady needs to STFU. =D

  7. Vacationing from the InternetApril 17, 2009 at 4:22 PM

    That should, of course, be "whose."

    I can blame my typos on Twitter no matter where they occur, right?

  8. So, here are my thoughts. (Remember, I am sick and nursing a glass of wine at this point, so - grain of salt.)

    I agree with your obvious point that publishing is a business. I work for a bank. When I worked in the credit card side, many people would call complaining about the fees.

    My response, "We are a business. We have to make money in order to be able to lend you money."


    Okay, that was usually after they had become unreasonable, because I was known for being the nice supervisor who removed most fees to keep clients happy. No clients=no job: simple math.

    I can't believe that someone would put this much time and effort into complaining about not being published. Maybe, if she would put this much effort into honing her craft, she would be a successful author.

    Then again, some have talent, some don't. Just watch American Idol if you don't believe me. Paula Abdual has zero talent.

    I firmly believe that I have talent, however, if I am continually rejected I will start to look at the common denominator: me. What is it that I am NOT bringing to this equation?

    Alright, so now that I have almost outdid CJ in word count, I am going to go back to posting short blurbs on Twitter. Good job finding this and cutting to the heart of the matter, sis.

  9. I will never understand the snobbery around literary fiction. There's this idea that because the general populace (gasp) doesn't like it, it's because we're uneducated idiots who don't know any better because our heads are filled with tripe from all the "popular" and mass market fiction out there. The whole point of writing (for most of us) is to share your story with others--which ultimately makes readers the most important part of the equation. If literary fiction was really that great and superior, it would be THAT that held approximately 50 percent of publishing's market share. Not romance. So she can just put that in her pipe and smoke it.

  10. I saw that! A bitter post by a bitter person. I bet any agent who reads that and remembers her query is thinking, Thank God I didn't take her on. They won't be clamoring for her next book, either.

  11. "Bitter? Party of One? Your table is ready!"


    You know, if I cared to cruise over to this frustrated writer's blog, I would ask what she wants to get out of her writing. If her answer is "fame and fortune," then she'd better delete that post fast (and, I guess, ask you to delete yours!), listen to the feedback, get a great CP and be patient. If she wants not fame and fortune, but to have her work read- maybe she should just go to self-publishing or e-publishing and give it away. And if she just wants her writing to be what it is, then I guess just... do that.

    I feel sorry for her though. Finding out that you might not have the talent to match your dream has to be one of the most difficult reality checks to cash.


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