Saturday, March 21, 2009

On Why I Really Need a Literary Agent

Rita Arens has been blogging about getting rejected by literary agents. I can totally relate.

I still operate on the antiquated notion that the only "legitimate" way to publish a book is through traditional publishing houses. Apparently the only way to publish fiction is to first find a literary agent to pitch the manuscript to publishers. Publishers evidently no longer accept queries from unpublished authors. NOBODY accepts unsolicited manuscripts, even electronic versions which could be quickly browsed and deleted if they don't suit the agent.

"Hiring" an agent is a total misnomer. What it actually amounts to is pleading with agents to consider permitting the writer to send him/her a writing sample. This is done by means of a query letter. A query is supposed to be only a few paragraphs that summarize the story, ascribe it to a given genre and tell about the author's qualifications in a way that might capture the attention of a busy person who's seen it all before. The skills required to write such a potent marketing blurb strike me as almost exactly the opposite of the skill set required to weave a complex story of up to 100,000 words.

In the past several years I have queried dozens of agents, pitching several different stories. Some of them do not respond at all. Some send automatic email responses, mostly stating they are inundated with queries at the moment and suggesting authors try back at a later date. Occasionally an agent will take the time to say something useful. Several have commented that I have a strong writer's voice. I take that as a good thing, especially since I've actively tried to develop my voice.  

Several have commented that the premise for my story is interesting or creative, although, it is never what they are looking for, of course. Nevertheless, I put those comments in the column of "positive feedback", and cherish them because it constitutes at least some encouragement. That has kept me from giving up.

Several things seem glaringly obvious about this process, besides the fact that it is indescribably time consuming and demoralizing for the writer (who has a job and prefers to spend every spare moment actually writing stories as opposed to querying agents). Quite simply, the current system is not working. Now that nearly everybody has access to a computer and I believe everybody has a story to tell, more people than ever are actually writing down the novels they have in their heads. It is probably true that agents and publishers are deluged with more stories than they could read in a lifetime. It seems to me some kind of winnowing process is necessary.  The querying process is not it.

For one thing, the current process does not necessarily weed out bad writing or reward good writing. There are a lot of terrible books on the shelves of bookstores. Plenty of them are published by the standard houses. I'm guessing there are a lot of really great stories that are not getting through the process. I'd like to think that one or two of mine are among them.

From reading articles on how to get published, I have learned that in addition to being a writer, any would-be-published author has to also be a marketing maven as well. There are some people who are comfortable in both of those roles. I will go out on a limb, however, and say that I think probably most novelists are by temperament not likely to be good marketers. The very part of us that makes us willing (and even eager) to sit alone for hours upon hours and weave stories out of the air is unlikely to make us want to go out and market our work, especially not in person ... to strangers. (Yikes!!) Nevertheless, that seems to be what is expected: recently I seem to encounter two articles on marketing for every one article on how to write well. That's depressing. I want to be a writer not a sales person!

The newest thing in literary marketing appears to be evaluating the author's "platform" for marketing purposes. To me that seems as though it could be important for certain non-fiction writers. For a non-fiction book about cancer research, the fact that the author is a prize-winning biologist with a degree from MIT might be pertinent information. That kind of thing doesn't seem nearly as important in the world of fiction. Fiction writers, by definition, use their imagination and build worlds out of thin air. Unless one is writing some kind of special "niche" story (i.e. John Grisham writing about lawyers or a Andrew Greeley writing about the Church, etc.), it seems to me that the "platform" of a general fiction writer is just not very relevant to the merit of the work. What is more, I mortally hate fiction that preaches at me, so, for me, a fiction author with too strong a "platform" might actually be a turn off. But that could just be me.

I used to think that people who self publish were bad writers who couldn't get published any other way. I'm beginning to rethink that prejudice. Perhaps some people who self publish are actually good writers who can't break through the barriers and/or who are unwilling to spend valuable time querying agents when they could be using their time writing stories.

The issue of time is important. Most unpublished authors have jobs and/or families and/or some semblance of a "life". We can steal only so many hours a week for writing. It could be just my own twisted priorities, but I'd rather spend those stolen hours working on my stories instead of trolling the internet looking for literary agents who might be interested in the genre I'm working in and then spending more hours (upon hours, upon hours) trying to craft zippy queries to try to get their attention.

Perhaps the new world of publishing could combine self-publishing with standard houses. Authors could write their stories, and self publish them. Agents and/or publishers could troll CreateSpace or the other self-publishers for likely looking prospects in the same way real people browse for books: by paging through the text and reading parts of the actual manuscript. Stories with literary merit could be selected for editing and print publication.


All that said, I'm still not quite willing to let go of the dream of having one of my stories published in the regular way by a standard publishing house.

But I'm getting close.

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