There’s an old saying: “Beggars can’t be choosers”.
I guess for most of human history that’s been true—people asking for something without paying should be grateful for what they do get. In this age of mega-corporations masquerading as charities though, it’s a case of beggars get to demand what they want.
When a truck arrived at our house to accept a load of surplus furniture, electrical goods and soft toys we thought would be helpful for those in need, they went through it all and ended up taking only a couple of things. The rest they left behind. What they chose was based purely on what they could make money out of from re-selling, rather than taking everything to hand out to the needy. Yes, they’re a registered charity. WE could have sold everything on eBay or Gumtree, but we decided to donate to help the less fortunate. Turns out we were helping those way more fortunate than most others.
How times have changed.
The same could be said for publishers and literary agents. More than a few websites I visit to find an agent for my own work, and all I see is “we don’t want this, we don’t want that, and if you’re an unknown, we don’t want you unless you’ve been through hoops A, B and C; or you could pay our subsidiary assessment company wads of cash to go through your manuscript and tell you after months of nail-biting we never wanted you anyway”.
Self-publishing never looked so good.
I understand why some agencies do this. I imagine if I was bombarded by so much purple crayon get-rich-quick aspirants I’d become a bit guarded or jaded as well. The recent controversy on Amazon where the purple-crayon-brigade were artificially inflating their readership numbers to score “bestseller” status merely proves there’s always a few rotten apples prepared to game the system for their own benefit at the expense of everyone else. I don’t doubt agents are vulnerable to those seeking to game the system somehow as well.
So how, in amongst all this noise, is it possible to be recognised and appreciated as a genuine writer with a genuine manuscript (plus several more waiting in the queue)?
To me, an agent is an important component of a winning machine. Self-publishing aside, a writer can’t publish all by themselves. They need marketing experts, distribution networks, beta readers, editors, printers and e-book formatters, and a host of other things to make a success of their hard work. If I come across an agency website where there is snobbish dictatorial attitude oozing from every syllable, I move right along. I have no intention of calling such people my colleagues, confidants or team-mates. What comes across is not a collaborative attitude, it’s snide bullying that wins no friendship or allegiance from me. If an agency is so accomplished and filled to the brim with winning authors, hooray for them, but why are they still advertising for more? Is it like the charity, combing through what’s on offer and simply cashing in on what they can lay their hands on rather than recognising what’s in front of them is useful to someone somewhere? I don’t get it, but then I’m a simple fellow with simple needs.
My current problem is I’m too simple. I don’t have the aptitude to adequately self-publish. The technical side is—for me—a doddle. Cover design? Interior layout? Professional typesetting? Graphic design? No problem for me—decades of experience in desktop publishing has that covered, no dramas.
It’s everything else.
The marketing. The paid promotions on social media. The newsletter lists and email addresses harvested from free handouts. It’s the cross-promotions, reviews on well-patronised blogs and all the other places where people can find out about your writing. It’s effusive Goodreads coverage and Amazon star ratings. In this brave new world where expert literary critics have been put out of work by everyone’s-a-critic, the signal to noise ratio has skyrocketed, and meaningful cut-through is hard-earned and rare.
Imagine if JK Rowling had the first Harry Potter book ready to go today instead of twenty years ago. It’s a book aimed at middle-grade readers (9 to 12 year olds). It’s urban fantasy. Imagine she’s still a struggling mum, living on welfare in the boondocks of an English town. She hasn’t the finances to pay for Facebook promotions. She has a couple-hundred contacts across Twitter and Facebook, most of them friends and family with a few mildly interested onlookers. Agent website after agent website tells her they’re not interested in urban fantasy that doesn’t have vampires and werewolves, especially from a first-time author. She might come across a few who are, but they prefer a female, LGBTI or “diverse voice” perspective (i.e. not a white male protagonist). Some agents prefer women’s romance where the most money is made, and could Harry be a 20-something woman maybe. Some might be looking for Young Adult opportunities, but Harry’s too young, despite possible subsequent novels (which can’t be mentioned in the pitch) qualifying. After careful consideration and refinement of her query letter (which costs her the equivalent of two week’s rent to get looked at by specialists), she sends out pitches. Rejection after rejection, and that’s not to find a publisher—that’s to find an agent who will represent her to a publisher.
She can’t find anyone. There are lots of “not taking submissions at this time”. She still sends off query after query to those who have their door open, each pitch carefully customised to the agent’s preferences as laid out on their website. It’s a lot of work. This isn’t writing, but it’s an essential element in getting writing recognised. A lot of agents don’t even bother to respond, while others send form letters to let her know she’s not what they’re looking for. If she’s lucky, she might get one or two who ask her why they’re reading about the Dursleys and not Harry in the first chapter. If she’s really lucky, she might have an agent offer a critique and perhaps recommend she get the manuscript looked at by a professional editor.
She looks to self-publishing again (after writers groups on Facebook warn her of the dangers of vanity presses). She hasn’t the money to promote, nor does she have the resources. More importantly, she knows middle-grade literature requires specialised marketing to parents looking for a book for their youngster, and even more specialised to youngsters capable of the “nag” factor, neither of which is available on social media, but is available in bookshops (conducted by publishers, not the bookshops themselves). Where does she go from here? Does Harry Potter ever see the light of day?
Now, I’m not saying my own literary work would be the next Harry Potter, but that analogy is where I’m at, and I really don’t want to try and self-publish middle-grade. I’m at a bit of an impasse. Agent after agent either aren’t looking for submissions or what I have to offer. So what does one do? The first answer to come to mind is: be patient. It’s a shifting landscape out there. What’s good one year becomes passé the next, dictated by the whims of consumer-spend statistics combined with whichever way the wind is blowing, or chicken entrails or whatever horse wins the derby or how hot the agent’s cup of coffee was that morning.
I’ve kept a record of all the agents and agencies I’ve sent queries to, partly to make sure I don’t send the same thing to them a year or so later, but mostly so I can work out who’s worth dealing with and who’s not. Like being completely ignored, a form rejection letter three months after the promised eight weeks is a definite black-lister for me. A kind “I’m not looking for this kind of thing right now, but I encourage you to consider re-submitting in a year” rejection definitely goes in the ‘potentially awesome’ list. A punctual rejection is somewhere in between. It’s a growing list but there will come a time where I will have exhausted the possibilities. I’ve been through the query letter refinement process. I’m not fielding rubbish, and I’m certainly not a purple crayon writer. I’m a serious writer with a growing portfolio who will consider themselves an ‘author’ once I have a published work in my hand. I’m also perfectly capable of researching how to write query letters, and have refined and refined to the point where I don’t believe it’s possible to further refine. The cruel twist is many agents judge a writer’s work not by actually reading it, but by how the query letter is worded. It’s like judging a painting by how good its frame is. For some, they simply don’t have the luxury of time. For others, it’s because they can’t be bothered.
My self-publishing attempts have been expensive and futile. I know where I need to be. I might personally have not even two pennies to rub together, but I refuse to beg. I’m not begging for my manuscripts to be published, I’m offering a partnership, a collaborative relationship where everyone involved wins. For those who think something like that is too hard, good luck to you. For those with vision and heart enough to recognise it, I’m here, and will continue to be here for as long as it takes, or I die in the process.
Just please don’t be that charity and take what’s on offer for granted.