The Trouble with Publishing: A Cautionary Tale

You emerge one day from your writing sanctuary.  You have just completed a new novel—a glittering and wondrous thing; a full length book that you imagined all by yourself and which is now a 255 page reality—the funny, clever, satirical story of a vulnerable young woman finding her way in the sexually-obsessed world of movies, confronting, at the end, an aging, paranoid movie star.

 Your manuscript (MS) has been polished and endlessly re-written; your friends tell you it’s funny and riveting; you know you are ready to set the book world ablaze.  You imagine the clichéd version of success—a champagne launch for your novel, your name plastered all over the Net; and possibly glowing reviews in the few remaining book pages of newspapers still being published—but what you desire more than anything, all you really want after two years of toil is hold the finished book—your book—in your hand.

Out you step, your manuscript (MS) under your arm, ready to find that lucky publisher who will take your novel to market.   As you reconnoitre the ground ahead, you are somewhat taken aback to discover that almost all of the old line publishing firms have now coagulated into one giant corporate behemoth.  This is baffling.  What can it mean?  How can such an impossibly large corporate entity effectively publish worthwhile literature; especially when they’re discarding editors like old cell phones.  You remain confident, however.  You have written a wonderful novel.  It might not be Moby Dick, but it has its own quietly amusing charm and, because you believe whole-heartedly in it, you start sending out inquiries.

The first shock—given that you have writing credits in other media—is that publishers are not interested in you or your work; and reply—if they do reply—to your enquiries by informing you that it is not “a good fit for our list.”  You are puzzled.  How can they know, based on the one line description of the novel in your inquiry, that it isn’t a good fit for their list?  And, secondly, how can a comic novel not be a good fit?  Surely, in these ‘interesting times’ every publisher’s list should have three or four comic novelists writing flat out.

Finally, you find a publisher—one of the coagulated ones—willing to read your MS.  When their response finally arrives after some weeks, they tell you that they found the story “engaging, wacky and at times laugh-out-loud funny… the plot grabbing their attention, and the tension keeping them riveted right to the conclusion.”  You are ecstatic; it’s everything you set out to accomplish, and you did.  But reading on, you note,  “In the end, though… there are several issues to work out, plot-wise,” – concern about the what is perceived to be the secondary plot resolution and, in addition, the publisher wonders if “you might re-examine the purpose and focus of the story, and the protagonist’s search for happiness, confidence, and meaningful work?”  This is baffling as you believe that those elements are plainly evident in the novel; but as you are not adverse to critical feedback, you retain your equanimity, especially as the publisher is so enthusiastic.  You are about to respond when you notice at the bottom of the e-mail: “…while we enjoyed your story, we cannot offer on it. I wish you all the best in finding successful publication elsewhere.”

To say you are dumbstruck would be understating it.  The first part indicates that they ‘got’ it; the second part indicates they didn’t ‘get it’.  Could this schizophrenic response be a result of stress induced by all these mergers?  Surely this publisher must know—as you do—that once a book is accepted for publication, any concern about a ‘secondary plot’ or the protagonist’s outlook’, is dealt with by the publisher’s editors who work with the writer during the re-writing process until both sides feel the story is complete.  If your MS is “engaging, wacky, laugh-out loud funny and riveting”, haven’t you already completed most of the journey?

You set out again on your search, finding five other publishers willing to read your MS, but the response is always it’s “…not a good fit for our list.”  The use of the same standard rejection line by all publishers, suggests that your MS is not getting a close read.  The publishers also recommend, because they no longer take unsolicited manuscripts, that you consider engaging a literary agent which; as one publisher put it, “is always a good idea”.

Even though you’ve read about successful authors and screenwriters being eternally grateful to their agents, most writers—with or without an agent—make very little money.  Agents generally enthuse rhapsodically over those commercial (genre) writers who can generate large international sales, but how many writers would that include?  The vast majority of writers (85-90%?) make less than $15,000 per year from their writing.  Does the average writer really need an agent to take 15% ($2,250) of that?

The concept of agenting writers is, I believe, a flawed one; begging the question: is an agent qualified to make creative judgements about a writer’s work?  (In writing the last sentence, I’ve just realized that literary agents remind me of real estate salesmen.)   Most are continually on the lookout for what they can sell.  And what they can sell is pedantically commercial; anything new or original is more difficult to promote and unlikely to attract their attention.  The majority of agents (and publishers’ marketing departments) seem to have little interest in flipping the paradigm—generally what any ‘compelled’ writer is trying to achieve—and so agents tend to line up behind each other.  In recent times, the frenzy in the book-buying world over novels featuring wizards, vampires, zombies and stories with copious amounts of sodomy has been fed by agents.  If you have a graphic sex novel lying around, get it out; chances are an agent can auction it off for big bucks.  And if you’re  determined to attract an agent, the would-be commercial writer might consider combining all those elements—especially to attract movie producers.  Imagine scenes with famous movie stars playing wizards, vampires and zombies, and sodomizing each other.  Wow!  Is this where cinema is heading?  Thank you, Terry Southern.

But no, you realize that you—the writer—were merely venting.  Eventually someone reads your MS and indicates that they were amused and engaged, which rekindles your hope.  You resume your inquiries, spending hours trying:  1) to think of a clever way to catch the agent’s attention in the email header—“The edgy chick lit comic novel”; 2) to put forward briefly your qualifications; and 3) to intrigue them with the subject of your novel.  This abbreviated approach is necessary because agents (and most publishers’ marketing departments) want to know how they’re going to sell the book before they read it.  Inevitably, however, the response from all agents is the same “…I don’t feel it’s right for me.”   Are there no writers intimately connected with publishers or agents who couldn’t craft them new rejection lines?  I was once turned down by Michael Korda (at Simon and Schuster) with “Alas, it’s not for me.”  Somehow, even though I knew that he’d probably used the line many times before; that “alas” made it seem as though he was doing it in spite of himself.

Now, after approximately two hundred inquiries to publishers and agents, I’ve had 8 publishers read the novel, and no—none, nada, zero—agents.  Does this mean they have no interest in writers?  I find the agent response the most curious (maybe they are real estate salesmen).  Why do publishers recommend approaching agents who clearly don’t want to read your work?

I have a theory.  As outlandish as it might appear, I believe there is only one possible explanation.  It’s a communist conspiracy (i.e. they do call themselves ‘agents’ and they do tend to be ‘secret’).  Obviously, agents must be trying to destroy book culture in the free world.  Check their websites.  All they’re selling is the same old horse pucky warmed over; and they refuse to look at any new—and original—work.  What other explanation could there be?  Unless we’ve entered a true-life version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers; and agents been turned into pods.

Did you know that if you examined an agent’s mind, you would find strong left brain development?  Selling and spouting the same old narratives require logic and are left brain endeavours.  Intuition and imagination—the writer’s strong suit—are to be found in the right brain.  So, by making agents the front line of exploring new work, publishers are, so to speak, putting carpenters in charge of the plumbing.

All this would be enormously depressing for a writer—certainly this writer—if it were not for the fact that the corporate clotting of large publishers is undoubtedly cyclical—Nature’s way of eliminating the old to make room for the new.  As the old line companies rapidly disappear up their collective corporate you-know-what, a new breed of publisher is coming into existence.  Many new small publishers in Canada, America and the British Isles have sprung up and have been quietly turning out a few books a year; and it is these entities—these brave fearless souls—who may yet save the (English) book from extinction; and who may finally find a place (on their list) for my still-glittering, funny novel.

Besides this thought, I have only one consolation.  In the movie business, a writer’s life is like the raw end of a Dickens novel.

 

 

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