Thursday, March 19, 2009

Warning: Rant Ahead

It happened again.

A writer went off on a rant on one of the loops I belong to.

You know the kind of tirade I'm talking about. It's usually the same one or two people who periodically go off on the subject: Writers complaining about the short shrift agents give to query letters. I'm paraphrasing here, but I've heard the same complaint often enough that I've got it down pat.

"I'll bet there are great works of fiction being tossed aside because the agents refuse to spend enough time on them. It's just not fair."

News flash: Life isn't fair. I'm sure if we could speak to Natasha Richardson or her family right now, they'd agree.

Why, therefore, do we expect publishing to be different from the rest of life?

And while you're throwing rocks at agents, let's look at life from their side of the street. Kristin Nelson estimated she got 30,000 queries last year. That means she had to read 600 queries every week to get the eight clients she signed last year.

Yeah, I'm gonna bet agents run through those query letters pretty darn fast. Otherwise, they'll drown in those suckers.

You want to get an agent's attention? You have to give him something that grabs his attention. Don't blame him. It's the price of admission. If you don't like the rules, find another game.

You want to know who I have sympathy for? I mean . . . besides Natasha Richardson's twelve and thirteen-year-old sons and her husband?

A writer I know is waiting for a response from a well-known publisher. They told her they LOVED her protagonist, LOVED her writing style, LOVED the quirky plot line and LOVED her fabulous sense of humor. They want to publish the book, but they're worried that the plot line (corporate greed) is "too 2006."

Think about getting a rejection for THAT reason. You're being told you did everything right, but the timing is off.

Damn straight, life is unfair.

And, yes, I'm fully aware there's luck involved in getting published. There's luck involved everywhere and every place in life. It's luck that keeps one person alive and kills another when some idiot throws rocks at cars on the freeway.

Every one of us has been disappointed at some time in our lives. But sometimes life balances out. We get lucky in some other area. That's why we have sayings like "Unlucky at cards, lucky at love.

But it's how you handle what luck throws at you that matters.

You can take a look at what you're doing and try to do something different in case the problem is with you and not with the evil empire that seeks to toss you aside for whatever reason YOU attribute to them (their impatience, their greed, an inability to recognize your genius . . . whatever).

Or you can decide that the game is rigged and move on to a different game. Self-publishing, anyone?

Or, you can accept it and continue to plug away. Thomas Jefferson said: "I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it."

Or you can continue to whine.

Do I whine sometimes? Of course, I do. I whine to the people who love me until I hear myself and realize I'm doing it . . . or until they point it out to me.

Because, after a while, whining gets reaallly old.


lynneconnolly said...

Atta girl!
Sometimes it's hard not to whine, but choose the people you whine to very carefully. BFF's, husband, family, maybe, but not places where you're supposed to behave like a grownup.

Valintine Pawson said...

>>"I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it."

That's so true! I've found that being persistent and hard working opens up all kinds of opportunities.

Charlene Teglia said...

Uh, here's the thing; readers are going to do this too. Pick up books, glance at the blurb or inside, and buy or not buy. If your work isn't engaging enough to grab somebody on page one, you're in trouble. Reading for pleasure is an optional activity, nobody has to do it, and nobody has to choose my book. It's up to me to make them want to read on.

Kimber Chin said...

Great post!

Yeah, life's not fair and that's what makes it fun. If it was fair then it would be boring and predictable. Who wants THAT?

Liane Spicer said...

About time someone said this. Stop whining! Anyone who has dipped into the slush pile will tell you that ninety-something percent of what comes in is unpublishable simply on account of the writers' ignorance of the basics. And that's just the first page.

I pity agents. I taught language for 22 years and I've gotten to the point where it's horribly painful to have to read incompetent, incoherent writing. And I've never had to read 600 of anything in a week, week after week, year after year.

For the submissions that actually merit consideration, it's a crapshoot. That's the way it is, and it's not the fault of the agents. The sooner a writer can come to terms with the realities of the publishing business, the sooner he can quit wasting energy in bellyaching over the things he cannot control and get on with those he can.

Maya Reynolds said...

The thing is...I've critiqued people like this and pointed out the things that would improve their manuscripts.

Instead of listening, they waste my time explaining why my suggestions are wrong, AND then compound the offense by telling me "how lucky" I am to be published.

I know how lucky I am. I thank God (and my agent and my editor) every day.

But sometimes you've gotta help Lady Luck along.

Anonymous said...

You know the industry is pretty tiny. All it takes is one person who knows another and what you're bitching about is in the ear of the one you're bitching about.

That's always good. Know of an author who shot her career in the foot 10-ish years ago for harassing an editor. Always good to do.

If you can't handle the rejection, step away from the keyboard. This isn't an industry for the sissies.

We get rejected. You dust yourself up and get back to writing. It's what we do.

And if this was easy my brother would be a writer instead of a chef and we really really don't want that. ;) Great post Maya, glad I twittered on by.

Anonymous said...

Amen! Do those people get a job just because they show up for the interview? Why do so many people think throwing words on paper will make publishers throw money at them?

You know, the whiners used to upset me. Now I just smile and think "One less person I have to compete against."

Marian Perera said...

With apologies to Stephen Crane :

A man said to the universe,
"Sir, I have written a book!"
"However," replied the universe,
"that fact has not created in me
an obligation to publish it."

Maya Reynolds said...

Marian: Great poem!!! Thanks.

Audrey: Wonderful attitude.

Jenna: Good to see you again. Hope all is well with you.

Dave said...

I've submitted stories and novels to various agents and publishers. None of them has sold.

I've never been rejected.

No one has ever said "Not going to buy this one, it's by that Dave guy."

The editors and agents may have found other books that better fit their needs, but they didn't reject me.

They chose not to buy my story. There's a difference.

Sabina E. said...

aye, so true.

Rick Daley said...

Great post!

I stared a query critique blog, The Public Query Slushpile. It's for writers to get peer reviews on their queries so they are in top shape when they submit them to agents.

Anyone who thinks agents should spend more time providing feedback on individual queries should get a stopwatch, go to the site, read and review any 25 queries (there are around 40 to choose from right now), and see how long that takes. Then multiply it by 4, because a lot of agents say they get 100 queries per day / 500 per week.

Once those numbers are in hand, remember that the Agent's job is to sell books to publishers, so add in the time it takes to read two full manuscripts and two partials, and then add in several phone calls with editors and other assorted business calls (managing royalties, etc.) and see what time is left for stuff that really doesn't matter, like food, sleep, and personal hygiene.

Robin Lemke said...

Excellent post!

Margaret M. Fisk said...

I believe in a good whine every once in a while...even in public if it'll make everyone else laugh :)...but the trick is that a good whine is one where it's clear that you know darn well that this is what life's like, that you accept it, and that you DO plan to move on.

Great post, Maya. I've come up with my own version (yeah, I know, it's not unique) of moving on, which is to try another novel. The time and place for the corporate greed one may be tomorrow instead of today, and if you can get your foot in with the one about...bankers?...then the other will have a better chance when it's in season.

And I'm happy to see you've got another book coming out. Bad Girl was quite an experience :).


S.D. said...

Ah well, Life isn't fair, is it? I know I can Hope that my books will one day be noticed, but there's really no guarantees for anything (well, except that you will someday die)

Megaera said...

There's whining at unfairness, and then there's reacting to poison masquerading as advice like, which assumes that if the writer can't get an agent or a publisher, it's obviously just them being a talentless git and just go away, thank you. It's much more common on the blogs of the published and/or those who work for hte industry than it needs to be.

Then there's this -- -- sort of thing, which is a) much more honest and b) much more kind.

The first is beyond unnecessary. The second is actually useful.

And this is not whining.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you basically and this agent bashing is actually quite unfair. But a published author going on and on about fairness of the process - sounds a bit hypocritical if u ask me.

Maya Reynolds said...

WFH: You agree with me, but I'm hypocritical?

I'm sorry, but you've lost me.

My thesis was not that the process is fair--not sure where you got that idea. My thesis was that agent bashing was unfair and that we don't expect fairness in life so why expect it particularly from publishing.


Author Guy said...

So life is unfair. Big deal. The publishing industry isn't life, it's people making choices, in this case, they chose to reject her perfectly-fine manuscript for what they claim are valid reasons. It's not about luck at all, it's about using luck as an excuse for easing the guilt and pain of making what you know is probably a mistake. It's not very likely that only 8 out of 30000 manuscripts were worthy, but bad luck is a better excuse than the fact that the press of business forced her to read so fast that 1000 worthy books fell through the cracks.

Liane Spicer said...

Marc, you oversimplify - or over-complicate, maybe. An agent's job is not to look for 'worthy books' - it's to look for well-written books in her preferred genre(s) that she can sell. She has no further obligation to anyone. No one has any obligation to buy anyone's product, worthy or otherwise, or to take anyone on as a client, deserving or otherwise.

With millions of manuscripts in circulation all competing for the relatively few available publishing contracts, it's a buyer's market. It sucks, but that's what it is.

Maya Reynolds said...

Hey, Liane: Thanks!

And, Marc. Guilt and pain??? Are you imagining that agents sit around burdened by guilt and pain for overlooking worthy manuscripts? {G}

As Liane said, agents are looking for those manuscripts they can sell. They make no promises to writers beyond "If you aren't up to speed with this manuscript, better luck next time."

Helen DeWitt said...

A while back there was a kerfuffle in Britain about legalization of poker which was, it was argued, a game of chance not skill. Qua game of chance, it was subject to all sorts of punitive licensing laws. The decision was handed down, sadly, by judges who knew nothing about the game. Anyone who knows anything about the game, of course, knows that it is a game of skill, the skill lying precisely in how you play not just the odds but the people.

I hear a lot about going to an agent with a manuscript the agent can sell. What if I've already sold the fucker? I've got what Publishers Marketplace classifies as a major deal on the table; not only has the writing of the book been done by me, but the selling of the book has also been done by me. If I just sign on the dotted line I can get a check for megabucks - but I will NOT get time to write, because the publishers, bless 'em, will be pushing boundaries every step of the way. So I need someone to enforce the contract. But I can't get that unless I bring in an agent to close the deal and take a commission - which means putting the deal at risk. Without the agent I could walk away with half a million dollars and a lot of timewasting; with the agent I stand to walk away with zilch.

If I could just pay the agent to watch my back, all would be well. I could pay the agent $100K, not to sell (which I've already done), not to negotiate (which I can happily do), but just to enforce the contract, I could write new books like the one that made my publisher offer half a million for a new deal. But I can't do that. But the problem isn't really, as far as I can see, that life is unfair; the problem is that people are stupid. OK, let's rephrase. If agents love selling for its own sake, and this has nothing to do with money, they're not stupid. If they're interested in making money, they're stupid. On average. For all I know, there are agents out there who would be only too happy to accept $100K to enforce a contract for a book they didn't sell. And, um, they're just so overwhelmed by the volume of people begging them to ride shotgun for $100K that they just can't cope. Uh huh. Uh huh. Uh huh.

Author Guy said...

I would rather believe that agents felt bad about the gems that they miss out of necessity, but if you want me to think they're all heartless bastards...I'll have to disappoint you.