Originally published at The Huffington Post
One of the more challenging aspects of being a literary agent is dealing with the incredible deluge of submissions that pour in every single day, twenty four hours a day, from all corners of the globe and for every type of project imaginable. I don’t keep precise stats on the number I receive (it’s hard enough just to answer them all), but in any given year I receive somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 query letters from aspiring authors. Out of those tens of thousands I reject all but a tiny handful of them and take on perhaps three to five clients a year.
Contrary to the myth that an agent is sitting at a desk cackling as they read the submissions from the supposedly untalented masses, I loathe sending rejection letters. Loathe loathe loathe. Not because it’s tedious, but because honestly: who am I to be telling someone they’re not worthy of publication?
Well… who am I? I’m a literary agent, and my job hinges on having a good batting average at the sorting process and pulling gems from the virtual pile. I have to use my knowledge of the industry and hopefully some skill to find what will ultimately sell to a publisher.
But as I search for the diamonds, every day I have to pass on the life’s work of cancer survivors and abuse victims and war heroes and many more people who spent hours upon hours of their life writing a novel in the faint hope that it would someday find publication. I don’t enjoy sending these rejection letters, and I never forget that on the other end of the letter there’s a person out there whose day I’m probably ruining and whose dreams I’m chipping away at. What makes these books unworthy, other than the fact that it simply wouldn’t be profitable to publish them in print?
The lack of commercial viability of 99% of the books written every year necessitates all this rejection. I can only take on the books I think I can sell to publishers, and aspiring authors receive this judgment in the form of a rejection letter. But the very nature of commercial viability in the publishing world is changing quickly with the transition to e-books, and I think it’s ultimately a change for the better.
The Print Funnel
In the print era, there was a good reason to create a funneling process rife with rejection: making a book and getting it to readers is a costly process. It requires extensive and expensive infrastructure (production, printing, warehousing, shipping, retail) and realistically there were only a finite number of books a publisher could publish and still have a chance at making a profit.
All the other books that, rightly or wrongly, were viewed unworthy: they disappeared into drawers, never to see the light of day. While many of the vanished manuscripts were likely passed on for good reasons, who knows what masterpieces and gems were lost to bad guesses?
Luckily, the e-book era is changing all of that. Anyone can upload their work to the Kindle or iBooks or insert e-book store here and make their work available, and thousands of authors are currently doing just that.
Contrary to another publishing myth, I’m not an agent that’s opposed to self-publishing, nor do I see it as anything close to a mortal threat to the world of literature and publishing. People fret as a swarm of books hit the market, many of poor quality, but I don’t see any reason to fear the deluge at all.
Let’s face it, folks: the deluge is already here.
The Digital Deluge
Walk into any large suburban bookstore and you’ll find tens of thousands of books to choose from, more than you could possibly read in an entire lifetime. Head on over to your friendly neighborhood online superstore and you’ll find hundreds of thousands more. We’re already faced with (literally) millions of options when it comes to choosing a book. And guess what: faced with all that choice we are still able to find the ones we want to read.
No one sits around thinking, “You know what the problem with the Internet is? Too many web pages.” Would you even notice if suddenly there were a million more sites on the Internet? How would you even know? We all benefit from the seemingly infinite scope of the Internet and we’ve devised a means of navigating the greatest concentration of information and knowledge the world has ever seen.
So what’s the big deal if a few hundred thousand more books hit the digital stores every year? We will find a way to find the books we want to read, just as surely as we’re able to find the restaurants we eat at and the movies we want to see and the shoes we want to buy out of the many, many available options.
Infinite Choice Instantaneously
I grew up in a tiny farming town, and for me a fun afternoon consisted of standing in a rice field and shooting things with a BB gun. I didn’t have a friendly neighborhood bookstore to peruse, and as this was pre-Internet I certainly didn’t have a lot of choice in what I was able to read. My choices were basically limited to what was stocked at our small-but-awesome library and whatever I was able to wrangle from the small-and-not-awesome mall bookstore over 30 miles away.
Not only did my experience growing up give me the skill to shoot dirt clods with the best of them, it also gave me a tremendous appreciation for the importance of choice (because let’s face it, nothing gives you an appreciation for choice like not having any). I probably would have bankrupted my parents if I had regular access to a Barnes & Noble growing up, but I would have loved it!!
And now we have even more choice than a big bookstore. Instantaneous access to every book you could ever want to read: how could this possibly be construed as a bad thing?
The Sound of Silence
Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, notes that we’re moving from an era where we filtered and then published to one where we’ll publish and then filter. And no one would be happier than me to hand the filtering reins over to the reading public, who will surely be better at judging which books should rise to the top than the best guesses of a handful of publishing professionals.
I don’t see this transition as the demise of traditional publishing or agenting. Roles will change, but there are still some fundamental elements that will remain. There’s more that goes into a book than just writing it, and publishers will still be the best-equipped to maintain the editorial quality, production value, and marketing heft that will still be necessary for the biggest books. Authors will still need experienced advocates to navigate this landscape, place subsidiary rights (i.e. translation, film, audio, etc.), and negotiate on their behalf.
What’s changing is that the funnel is in the process of inverting – from a top down publishing process to one that’s bottom up.
Yes, many (if not most) of the books that will see publication in the new era will only be read by a handful of people. Rather than a rejection letter from an agent, authors will be met with the silence of a handful of sales. And that’s okay!! Even if a book is only purchased by a few friends and family members — what’s the harm?
Meanwhile, the public will have the ultimate ability to find the books they want to read, will be unconstrained by the tastes of the publishing industry, and whether you want to read experimental literary fiction or a potboiler mystery: you’ll be able to find it. Out of the vastness of books published the best books will emerge, driven to popularity by passionate readers.
Sure beats shooting dirt clods.
Photo by Isabelle + Stephane Gallay via Creative Commons
Bernard S. Jansen says
"…on the other end of the letter there's a person out there whose day I'm probably ruining…"
I don't want to make this any harder for you Nathan, but I'm certain it's more than just the writer's day that's ruined by a rejection letter. Short story rejections ruin my day. I imagine a novel rejection would ruin my week, or even month.
Hmmm, surfing the wave of internet free-for-all economics. I hate to be the wet blanket at this beach party, but will our reading lists soon be filled with the literary equivalent of viral YouTube videos?
Say goodbye to Moby Dick, Fahrenheit 451, and Beloved. Say hello to Mr. Hands and The Dramatic Prairie Dog.
To me, it looks like publishing is suffering the same fate as New Orleans: inadequate levees in the face of a huge storm surge. The problem with the "surf the storm surge" laissez-faire approach is that eventually you still end up with a giant, stinking, polluted, unliveable disaster zone that will have to be either cleaned up or abandoned.
(And, in this analogy, online booksellers who are enabling unfiltered self-publishing play the role of BP's fountain of toxic muck… enjoy your beach reading!)
Great post, Nathan. I totally agree with you. As an Indie author who just put my book up on the Kindle near the end of April, I can say I'm super pleased with the results. I've sold over 300 ebooks so far, which means instead of my book sitting gathering edust on my hard drive, it's getting read and enjoyed. That's why I wrote it. And for those who wonder how to know if your book is good enough? Join critiquecircle.com, the other writers there will tell you what you need to change. My book is totally different now from my first draft because of the great advice from the writers there.
… yes, but does it beat shooting books?
After I finished what I believe could be a novel, I began doing research on how to get it published and found self publishing as an option. However, I also found that agents frown on this, which is why I'm so surprised to find this article in your blog.
I've found, from my research, that they do provide training and equipment for you to market your books. They also provide editing assistance and much more if all their package information is true. It all depends on what you pay for. And like everything else you do have to shop around and make sure you get the best deal available.
Just so that I understand, are you suggesting that if we can't get an agent that why consider self publishing? Please confirm if this is what you're saying.
That many thousands of authors are currently uploading their books onto Kindle or iBooks, or self-publishing, means that many thousands have faith in the new system, and are happy with it. Seeing their work ‘out there,’ regardless of the quality, is sufficient for them, and rewards the vanity, if not the bank balance, and there's nothing wrong with that
Agents must be rubbing their hands in glee as we siphon ourselves off into this digital ocean, and praying that many thousands more of us will, like lemmings disappear over the edge of the cliff into oblivion. This way, at least only those of us unknowns who are true believers in the value of the review process will continue to submit our work to them. I say ‘unknowns,’ because I do think that going the digital/self-publishing route when you are an established author would seem an excellent way to go—anonymity not being a problem, and trading on previous acclaim, a definite plus.
For myself, an unknown, I was forever(?) put off everything but the traditional route, when approached at a craft fair by some poor schmuck sticking his self-published book under my nose, expecting me to buy it. I’m a writer, not a rep—not even for myself, and the idea of going out and cold selling, or expecting my relatives and friends to read, let alone buy my work, is abhorrent to me. Those who ask can, and have read my own printed-out copies (one copy of each) of my novels—all five of them thus far (I’m a compulsive novelist)—but that’s as far as I’ll go on my own behalf. I work very hard to produce what I hope is an exciting, polished page turner that I hope someone will like to read, but as someone else said here, we are incapable of critiquing our own books objectively, and at the moment, despite papering my walls with rejection slips, I am unwilling to take that leap of faith without a professional setting his or her stamp of approval on it.