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KISSING FROGS: THE GREATEST RISK (John Joss, August 20, 2007)
"Ability is of no account without opportunity"
Career choices remain, for most of us, the highest life risk. Bad decisions, early, may spell doom. The rot may set in while we are still in our teens, picking poor study specialties that become dead ends. Though we will each have ten or more separate jobs during our working life, it’s better to work into areas with genuine career potential. Buggy whips are no longer made in quantity. Repairing typewriters is not a growth trade.
The most significant risk I ever took was trying to become a writer. To be accepted as a writer is to offer one’s most intimate self——the mind and heart——for public appraisal. If this leads to authentication, so much the better. If not . . .
After years spent slaving in the corporate world and creating soulless promotional and business writing, I decided to take the plunge and write a novel——well, three. Because the mortgage payment fell due every month, I wrote them between three and eight AM while working full time (for a freelance, around 60-80 hours a week). Each novel took nine months, a pregnant period to consider. When my first, SIERRA SIERRA, was taken by William Morrow in New York, I was elated. I was launched as a novelist. No longer would I need to slave over commercial ‘writing,’ with its intrinsic limitations and its lack of creativity. Now I could let my brain, heart and imagination soar in a series of novels already planned in my mind. I could not have been more wrong. How naïve! What delusions! One accepted book, especially a first novel, does not begin to approximate a writing career.
People who have chosen wisely not to take up writing for a living often ask me ‘What’s it like to be a writer?’
I sometimes detect a hint of envy, for reasons that escape me. These are, as far as I can tell, people——seemingly sane——already receiving a regular paycheck. My counsel to them is invariably to keep working at that salaried job they now hold and study to remain current, or become a home hobbyist with a working spouse.
Many people apparently imagine that writers enjoy a glamorous life: lots of partying, approached by agents, directors and producers eager to produce articles, books, films or TV series based on their work, traveling to exotic locations, being wined and dined by publishers who sit at their feet and press huge advances and lucrative contracts on them, rubbing shoulders with celebrities, receiving adoration from Beautiful People, being interviewed and lionized by the media, earning pots of money.
For a few of the world’s scribblers, this is reality. You read about them everywhere: their latest work or three (already accepted, based on a working title, huge advances paid), their brushes with the law, their drugs, sexual proclivities and conquests, their current partner(s), what they are wearing and eating, their travels——to Venice for Carnevale, to Tibet to meet the Dalai Lama, to the Vatican (private audience with the Pope).
For the vast majority of writers, this existence is fantasy. The real writing life is solitary, often lonely, with (for me, anyway) endless hours spent trying to assemble words correctly, failing frequently. And badly paid. Perhaps one of the riskiest and most precarious activities on earth, especially if you enjoy eating and drinking, clothing and shelter. I have had years in which I have earned six figures (once, years ago——commerce pays, art doesn’t). But I have had years, an embarrassingly large number, in which my writing earnings were in four figures.
It is not easy to live on a four-figure salary in the U.S., well below the poverty line, especially not in the high-cost-of-living Bay Area of Northern California. Once, in a burst of masochism, I calculated that I had earned less than $1 an hour in one particularly bad year; that calculation did not include work done but not sold. For the sake of your mental health, try not to indulge in such math. And stay out of the cooking sherry: alcohol is a depressant and most writers are already depressed enough.
The great, Oscar-winning screenwriter William (‘Butch Cassidy’) Goldman wrote famously: "No one knows anything." He was referring to Hollywood green-lighters’ inability to predict movie popularity, the confusion and rapid head-lopping surrounding costly failures deemed certain winners before production and the surprising success of films despised and predicted to fail, often rejected by dozens of the industry’s supposedly finest arbiters of quality and box-office potential.
The same phenomenon applies to every artistic field. The history of art in every form is littered with examples of artists now accepted as great who were spurned when they first emerged. Mozart, Van Gogh . . . the list is endless and I am not comparing myself to them. Since writing is applied thought and thought precedes any physical manifestation of worthwhile art, I confine my comments here to writing, specifically to the writing of books, though I’ve written in many other forms during my so-called writing life (for some unaccountable reason, non-writers always equate writing with books). So, risk takers, go for it and try to be a writer. You have nothing to lose but the roof over your head and the ability to eat regularly. ‘Trust me.’ Ooof.
To sell a book of any worth to a major publisher a writer needs a capable, professional agent. On behalf of thousands of writers without an agent or access to one via insider introduction, I will describe what it is like for an outsider to try to gain representation. My over-all professional background: a writer of 20 books, published in New York (Morrow, fiction; Ballantine, nonfiction), and a freelance with a long record of achievement in print, broadcast and Internet media worldwide for some of the best corporations, magazines, media and similar interests. Those credentials, plus $1, will buy you a really rotten cup of coffee.
Before evaluating the agent perplex, consider the basic dynamics of book writing in this age of bottom-line, ‘pull’ publishing in which publishers rarely support new authors:
If you get a great, original idea for a book——fiction or nonfiction; And if you have the skill, energy and dedication to write it; And if, preferably, you’re young and of ‘desirable’ gender and ethnicity (translation: not old, not male, not Caucasian); And if you manage to hit a cultural ‘fad’ window successfully; And if you know a friendly editor to straighten you out before you attempt to submit your oeuvre; And if you have the courage, skill and will to edit your own work meticulously to punctilious standards of quality; And if you can find the ‘right’ professional agent (see below) to represent your book; And if that agent reads your work, likes it and agrees to represent you; And if that agent knows, by first name, publishers’ editors who might like it; And if one of those editors likes it enough to put in on his or her work list and supports it enthusiastically; And if it survives vs. the house’s numerous other projects; And if the book acquires production values and a publicity budget to promote the work (i.e. publisher investment based on estimated potential revenues); And if the critics, reviewing maybe one in 100 books, like it and the review is published in a publicly visible place; And if the distribution system, down to major chains such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders and their equivalents outside the U.S., selling 95% by volume and taking ~5% by title of all books offered (mostly from ‘name’ writers and the major publishers), accepts and distributes the book; And if enough public word-of-mouth buzz creates decent sales numbers and long-term attention for you and your work; Then maybe you might have published a successful book. Maybe. I say again: maybe. Might. I repeat: might.
Don’t try to spend the money until the check has cleared. The odds of the above happening—— all must, for success——are hundreds of thousands to one against and may take years or decades. The odds are higher that lightning will strike you or that you will win the lottery, or more likely shrivel and die meantime of old age. Welcome to writing reality. Never forget the difference between amateurs and professionals, especially when it comes to writing: amateurs can perform brilliantly on occasion; professionals must deliver well, fast, consistently, no matter how they feel, or starve. Professional writing is merciless and deadlines or writers’ blocks are relentless meat-grinders.
Publishers are under immense pressure to be profitable: many or perhaps most are now owned by conglomerates run by accountants focused on bottom-line profits, based on evaluations suitable in, say, the manufacturing or service industries. They cannot afford to staff with enough competent editors to read submissions from authors and consign all unsolicited material to ‘slush piles.’ Supply far outstrips demand. They are receiving enough from writers they are already publishing and rely on agents as gatekeepers. Much great writing dies on slush piles (an agent reportedly picked Billionaire J.K. Rowling’s first Potter randomly from his slush pile). By contrast, dead authors such as Ludlum have ‘new’ books ghost written and earn millions from the grave. Brands sell regardless of quality. All Ludlum’s book were reviewed at once, in TIME: "The Ludlum Formula."
Publishers know that only one in ten offerings will succeed, even from known sources, but don’t know which one that might be. That’s why agents can rarely get new writers accepted regardless of quality. A typical agency receives 500+ submissions per month (25+/day, but sometimes four or five times as many) and rejects >99.5%. An aspiring writer could query 250 agents (about the right number of the 2,500 listed in specific genres) and get perhaps one positive response——but don’t bet on it. My favorite, probably apocryphal tale in this area is about the chairman of a huge conglomerate who bought a New York publishing house.
"How many books did you publish last year?" he asked the CEO of the acquired publishing house.
"About 650," said the CEO.
"How many made money?"
"Oh, maybe 65."
"Well, next year you should publish 65——the ones that make money." Brilliant.
The paradox: as Goldman explained, "no one knows anything." Many best-sellers were rejected dozens of times (Richard Bach’s Seagull went to 30 publishers before Eleanor Friede at McMillan took it). Jerzy Kozinsky’s Painted Bird was submitted as a test under another title soon after publication; Doris Lessing, probing the realities for unknowns, sent two of her best-sellers under other titles. Result: all were rejected, by form letter. This experiment has been repeated many times, with identical results, and reported widely in the Press. There were no follow-up accounts of writers’ suicides in which the suicide note cited these awful realities.
Writing correctly is basic and essential, but for any of us but geniuses it takes a long time to learn. Experienced readers, starting with agents looking at queries, reject incompetents outright. Flawless spelling, grammar, syntax, vocabulary and style are vital to anyone trying to write professionally. It’s akin to the need for job applicants to dress and behave properly for interviews——inappropriate speech, manner and dress close interviews almost before they start. Cap on backwards? Bad idea.
Writing competence is obvious to a capable agent in the first few pages, or in the first paragraph. Note: this does not apply to best-seller junk from established ‘authors’ who are accepted regardless of literary skills——one well-known and financially successful ‘writer’ of flash trash for a big house sends in her ‘work’ hand written in pencil on un-numbered legal-pad pages, leaving an editor to assemble the mess and turn it into a book. The ‘writing’ is barely readable, I might say. I do say.
This applies in all the arts, and in professional sports. Dancers and singers, painters and sculptors, actors and musicians, all are judged, often by their lessers who dared not, or failed. Some of the biggest names in sports were walk-ons discarded by the ‘expert’ scouts. Only the best or luckiest pass the filters. Evaluations are always subjective, further conditioned by the laws of supply and demand. Many are called, few chosen. And in athletic endeavors, careers and lives may be shattered in seconds.
Authors are the agents’ and publishers’ workshops. Writers must deliver good, salable product or the agent starves. But agents who could help beginning (or the legion of capable, experienced but un-represented) writers do not want or need more clients unless those writers have DNA proof of being the Second Coming; agents who will take on newcomers can rarely help. A cruel paradox. Yet without an agent a writer today is on the outside, looking in, and has no access to a career.
Many paradoxes about writing skill deserve consideration by aspiring writers. Consider, for example, Dan (Da Vinci Code) Brown. He apparently writes with a baseball bat, striking his keyboard at random to produce a poor facsimile of English. Factual errors? His research is pathetic: e.g. his descriptions of navigating Paris, which are absurdly wrong, are akin to telling New York visitors who want to get to Wall Street from Midtown to go via Harlem, Long Island or New Jersey. Your dog, cat or parrot could do better research. The public can’t get enough of him. In 2006 he earned ~$88 million. Recall satirist H.L. Mencken: “You’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” Or, today, almost any public, anywhere.
Three categories of agents work today: the elite——you’ve probably heard many of the names——with big clients and access to the major publishers; the capable middle, with some stars but mostly competent, mid-list writers; and the rest, the beginners, the over-the-hills, the wannabes and the scam artists who have infiltrated the trade. The first group accept new writers via rare introduction (see below)——they could help but neither want nor need more clients; the second group screens and tosses 99% of submissions they receive; the third group may accept new clients but cannot help them until they rise in the industry (except for the scam artists, who rip off many writers with undeliverable promises, unethical reading fees and other machinations).
Except for the privileged few introduced to a publisher or big-time agent by a published author or professor from a major college, and/or members of ‘fad’ writing groups (young, female, ethnically ‘different’), representation is a huge struggle. Academic introduction is a brilliant route to success, resulting in young writers who may be technically skilled in a literary sense (MFA degrees——oh, wow!) but have little to say: they have not lived or risked. Some are ‘exotic.’ You know these writers. They are creating exquisitely written . . . emptiness, based on simple personal experience, usually of domestic life, that they present as ‘fiction,’ accepted because it is seen as ‘charmingly different’ but is mere fictionalized memoir in many cases.
Genre packagers, e.g. ‘chick lit,’ are another matter: they are strip-mining fads, cults and opportunism, where quality, originality and literary skill are irrelevant and plagiarism thrives. I consider fiction to be the creation of an original story, plot and characters that never happened and existed only in the writer’s mind, though technical detail and the laws of physics must be rendered correctly for credibility. The reverse: ‘new journalism’ presented as reportage, which relies on the author’s powers of observation and presents colorful ‘composite characters’ who do what the journalist thinks might be outré and salable. ‘Names’ rehashing history, for money, are despicable yet thrive.
There is one easy way to get an agent: do something vile, be excoriated publicly, perhaps go on prominent trial. Agents and editors of a certain kind (the ever-tasteful Judith Regan as a particular example, especially since her 2006 ‘O.J.——how-I-would-have-killed-my-wife’ debacle) pursue these people, who become ‘instant famous writers’ with six-figure contracts. You can find these ‘writers’ on tabloid front pages, featured on TV shows of profound triviality beamed to audiences no sane person would touch with tongs who will love the ‘writer’ because he or she is——choke, gasp!——famous. You can read about these ‘writers’ daily: ‘O.J.’, Kato Kaelin (from the trial), ‘Divine’ (sic) Brown, who ‘serviced’ Hugh Grant, Amber (‘Scott Peterson’) Frye. An endless list. The audience is immeasurably huge. Welcome to 21st-century celebrity authorship, a bottomless pit. Can writing be taught——an endless debate? With these ‘writers’ it’s irrelevant. Ghost writers do it for them, ‘instantly.’
Go ahead. You may have to endure a spell in jail or spend time hiding your face from insolent TV news cameras and paparazzi, but you may get that book, movie or TV contract, plus a lively bunch of second-string leeches in tow behind the first (the agent), ready to get their hands on your money. The fall is as rapid as the ascent (Kato who?) and your name will be forever smirched and smirked about in the places where sensible writers want and deserve respect earned by great work over time.
The easy way is not easy. The hard way is much harder. Agents are listed by name, address and phone number in many places——in reference books and on the Web (none want phone calls and few accept email queries, though the process is catching on slowly). They cite their specialties and interests——fiction, non-fiction, romance, children’s books, etc.——but rarely their track record. Quality? Decency? Professionalism? Experience? Honesty? Sanity? Uncalibrated, yet crucial. Frog princes or princesses? No way to know. Kiss them, again and again, anyway. You have no choice. As Clint Eastwood’s ‘Dirty Harry’ said: "Are you feeling lucky?"
You can waste days, weeks, months or years listing groups of 20-50 agents who look as though they might help, then writing a query describing your best work, maybe with samples. I have done this not once but many times. Do not be deceived by ‘agents seeking new writers’ Internet listings. Few respond. If they do, it is usually by form rejection. Agents are busy with their own writers as their primary and entirely rational priority. They rarely accept new clients and ‘cull’ their list routinely to excise losers whose work is not selling. Many agents——some big names——appear on ‘seeking’ lists but this is irrelevant. Why do they solicit? In the incoming-mail glut, you’d have to shine miraculously, if they would even read your submission. If a great new talent tried to enter their hallowed portals, would that talent be recognized? Pucker up. Go on kissing those frogs.
The Internet shows organizations and individuals who offer to research the ideal agent(s) to whom you should propose, based on those agents’ interests and your specific work area(s). Their services cost, typically, $500 and up——prepaid. Their ‘canned,’ so-called research and reports could be done better by you, the writer, if you have rudimentary intelligence and analytical skills, using available Internet and print sources. Querying those agents will not improve the odds of your acceptance, and the researchers recommend (a hint, here, perhaps?) not citing them as references. I wonder why not? Oh, okay, okay, I get it. I used one, once. Of the 10 agents recommended, half sent form rejections. The others did not deign to respond. Another website, ‘agent query,’ lists active agents and includes those who allegedly want new authors. Do not be deceived. The agents listed as ‘actively seeking’ are the same ones who reject incessantly. Why claim to be ‘actively seeking?’ They want that mythical Second Coming. Note: aspiring authors should put in second priority agents who will not accept email queries. Why? Email and the Internet are powerful efficiency tools in terms of time and money, on both sides. But the majority of agents cling to paper, though writing/ presentation skills are as obvious electronically as in snail mail. Writing is writing, whatever the medium.
Many agents dislike writers submitting to more than one agent at a time, but since agents typically take weeks or months to respond, if ever, writers who do not submit simultaneously face years of series-sequential rejection and waiting or will die of old age while kissing the agent-frog population in constant flux. These agents routinely send out multiple queries to editors; they understand the ‘fling-the-spaghetti-against-the-wall-to-see-if-it-sticks’ mystery of editor acceptance: is it done and do you like it? Consider your query costs: one can easily spend hundreds of hours and dollars printing and mailing submissions. I have.
An agent——name irrelevant——precipitated one of my life’s deepest rages. Seeking representation, I had reached a responsive agent in Los Angeles. It started well. I was an ‘established’ author——published in New York, both fiction and nonfiction. I had to go to him——cat looks at king——so I invited him to breakfast at the LAX Marriott, near the airport. Time, location, appearance, all exchanged and confirmed. I flew in from San Francisco and jumped onto a hotel shuttle bus at LAX, having left my home around 4 AM to get on the flight. My man was a charmer and I at first felt great about having taken the trip, and confident. We ate, chatted, then got down to business: I had sent a list of my work ahead, plus recent and new work samples. Then he said it.
"Lots of people have hobbies." He smiled a superior smile. "For some it’s gardening or stamp collecting. Others like to write. It’s quite okay for you or for anyone to write as a hobby." I stood without answering and walked to the hostess.
"How may I help you, sir?" she asked.
"See the man——fifty-ish, beard, blazer, power tie . . .?"
She glanced across the room: "Yes, sir." "I must leave. Here is $60, to cover his fruit plate, Western omelet, mimosa, croissant and filtered coffee, and my cup of tea, plus a $10 tip each for you and the waiter."
"Is, um, is something wrong, sir?" She was starting to read me. I managed somehow not to scream, something I wanted to do about then, urgently. Padded cells are so . . . demeaning.
"If I stay I’ll have to take up a knife or fork and commit grave bodily injury on the, uh, gentleman. That would make a mess and upset the other guests. You’d call the cops and they’d arrest me. It would all end badly. I must leave now for my own good, and yours. Maybe even his, for what it’s worth. Good day." I had just blown $250 and a whole day out of my life for absolutely no return whatsoever. Frog hell.
Another agent I reached in New York was a model of intelligence and empathy. I dug up a reasonably inexpensive Red Eye——a mere $385 round trip——and reached Manhattan at dawn. We got along well over breakfast in a Midtown hotel that I paid for, costing about $80 (thank God these people don’t expect to be taken to dinner). All went well until a month later, in mid process, he . . . vanished. No remaining, functional phone or email, no response to certified, receipt-prepaid mail. He just disappeared from the face of the earth. I have no further explanation of any kind. I wish I did. Some frog! Maybe he received a huge bequest from a rich aunt and decided sensibly to leave the business, or perhaps won the lottery. Gone: $500 and another day out of my life.
Yet another, recommended by a writer friend, took me on. In two years she achieved nothing but wasted 800 hours of my time asking for proposals and drafts on books she thought she might be able to sell (the ‘popular pull’ phenomenon beloved of fad-followers). To make up for it she cited, in her website ‘achievements,’ the sale of my first novel by my first agent to Wm. Morrow, a book in which she had no participation whatever. She was later found to have embezzled her authors’ royalty checks to the tune of thousands of dollars. Each time I visited her (a six-hour round trip——she never came to me) I bought lunch. Hmmm. No frog princess, she.
In one two-year period I sent 350 proposals to agents, requesting representation. Of the 50 answers (the rest did not bother, despite SASE) I received 48 ‘form’ rejections, one actual, signed rejection letter and one ‘interested.’ One rejection was just a business card with ‘NO!’ scribbled on it. The favorable response asked for the complete mss. of one of my novels and the proposal plus 50 pages of one non-fiction book, from my summary of my current and recent work. I printed it all and sent the package that day for next-day early delivery, via costly FedEx overnight.
Six weeks passed without a response, so I called. The ‘interested’ person at the agency had left to go to a major New York publishing house. I called her there, to ask what might have happened to her file. She said she’d call her erstwhile employer and email me the name of her successor. Amazingly, she did! I called the successor and mailed a complete new set of material, with (of course) a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
A month later I learned that her agency’s principal was visiting a local city near (Oakland) to address a writers’ group. I went, had no chance to talk with him, but learned from a client at the meeting that the man was going through an agonizing personal crisis and "would be unlikely, at a probability below 1%, to take on or follow up with a prospective client." The SASE? Ignored. No other follow-up from his agency, ever. You expected good manners? Hope on. Do the non-responders steam off stamps for re-use, to save money? Or (paraphrasing Leona Helmsley) might "only the little people answer mail" be their attitude?
Oh yes, and about those ‘AUTHORS WANTED’ ads that appear routinely in major media. You know the names of the outfits. They sound appealing (excellent ad writers!). Utter cynicism, ‘vanity’ publishing, like the agent scam artists, designed solely to separate would-be authors from their money——funds spent producing whatever the ‘author’ wants to write, regardless of artistic value or commercial potential, without the slightest hope of review or distribution. Avoid them. Any competent writer these days can produce better and far less costly books via ‘instant printing.’
The best way to get an agent is by referral from a published writer you know who may be well represented. This occurs in college writing classes, sometimes following a writer/lecturer’s justifiable lust for a nubile student. Outside that arena, your three choices: (1) ask the friend to recommend you in writing, by e-mail or phone call, (2) write to the agent (do not call) and explain that your friend recommended you or (3) send your material to your friend to forward. I’ve tried all three. The odds of acceptance do not improve markedly whatever you do.
Expect rejection. Agents are busy and prefer to bet on certainties. Writer/clients they know are a better bet than new ones of whom they know nothing. Even then, expect to be treated, um, briskly. Never forget that all readers’ judgments are subjective. Try not to take rejection personally, however hard that is. Think back to the title of Laura Alchera Huxley’s fine book on psychology and why not to picture oneself as a victim: "You are not the target." Your sad alternative: paranoia.
About established writers you know who won’t respond to your request for recommendation: discard them. Some, after becoming successful, spend their lives looking up to the next opportunity, never down to their origins. They forget that we are all here for each other, linked at the mind and heart, needing breaks. Well, they do look down——on the rest of us.
I choose not to denigrate agents (all generalizations are false, yet another paradox). An agent’s life is hard. Agents don’t get enough respect, much as writers do not. In a bizarre act of labor redistribution, they have become the people who must tackle the slush piles (translation: queries from supplicant writers). They must use their literary and educational skills to discover and support capable clients, find and nurture effective and successful editors, handle a huge amount of administrative and legal detail, and balance all this work to achieve a satisfactory, sane working life. Much like writers, they must invest tremendous effort up front, to build a body of high-quality (client) work and strong industry contacts that might generate returns. Maybe. Eventually. No guarantees. They face endless rejections, too.
Taking a writer on must be a carefully calibrated decision by a sensible agent: will this person enable me to survive because he or she writes salable material and will justify my efforts? That 10% or 15% fee won’t go far unless good work is being sold for decent money. For every best seller, for every profitable book, dozens or scores of excellent books do not sell enough to support the writer or agent: perhaps 85% or more of all the books published in any given year. Those are not happy odds.
For the agent, identifying capable writers is time-consuming and discouraging. Established writers are almost always well represented. New writers are a question mark. Does he or she have the skills, style and subject matter of current interest to publishers? Can that writer create a salable proposal with powerful sample material? Does that writer have the energy and persistence to push through the pain to complete the work? Can the ‘right’ editor at the ‘right’ publisher be found? Can this work survive the intense internal competition it faces vs. other agents’ many excellent books? Will a realistic offer be made? If the work survives to publication, will it receive the publisher support that could make it a winner? Will trade publications—— Publishers’ Weekly, Kirkus, et al——review it kindly, or review it at all? Can it, will it, catch the public eye and succeed?
Other nagging questions lurk in the agent’s mind: is this writer a one-work flash in the pan or a committed author with the courage, skill and luck to endure (no agent wants one-shot deals ——many highly-praised writers never get beyond that first book). Then: if that writer succeeds, will he or she fall to the blandishments of a big-time agent who will make extravagant and often fraudulent promises about contacts and contracts? Any personal and professional relationship is challenging.
This is a two-way street: my first agent, having sold my first novel to Morrow in New York, abandoned me when Morrow rejected the contracted follow-up novel (further complicated by the death of my editor at the publishing house, the great Howard Cady). Nothing I wrote thereafter appealed to that person in the slightest way——his inalienable right, which I must respect. Meantime, the new editor at Morrow dumped all his predecessor’s work (if it succeeded, it was his predecessor’s choice; if it failed, he as new incumbent would be held responsible, an almost inflexible rule in every business). Those frogs . . . croaked.
Good agents have immediate access to editors they know personally (face to face, not just by correspondence). Such agents link their writers with editors known to have specific needs and interests, via relentless follow-up and regular visits. New writers are anathema to editors because they are unknown quantities. How often do you pick novelty over known and established name brand? Whether it’s cars or computers, films or plays, magazines or books, food or wine, clothes or cosmetics, you and I tend to stick to names we know and this real-world human behavior has been measured carefully by market researchers thousands of times.
Relentless follow-up? Indeed. Editors are almost always harassed, buried in work piled on and around their desks at their offices and at home, fearful for their jobs and careers, trying to find good stuff and meet their sales quotas. Agents must push to get their attention. Regular visits? Agents know the only big-time book business is in New York (or London, if you are working in the U.K.) and that routine forays into Manhattan are part of the price of success. The only true contact: face to face, mind to mind, heart to heart. All else is by comparison almost irrelevant.
Agents come in all types and sizes, and in performance that, as with most professions, ranges from excellent to abysmal, though no writer can deduce this in advance. For beginning writers the core agent values are discernment, energy and contacts. Discernment (“Is this writer any good?”) won’t work without energy and contacts. Energy is irrelevant without knowing if the writer’s work is competent and how to reach the right editors. Contacts are useless unless they are able editors, courted effectively, who will appraise the work intelligently and can support it. If the agent is knowledgeable, experienced, wise, hungry and well connected, a writer has a chance of getting his or her material in front of appropriate editors. Then it gets even tougher.
Salaried editors must deliver salable books or be fired, in an industry where editor turnover may be 20-30% per year and higher (remember: “Nobody knows anything”). Failures haunt them. They need agents as field scouts. Today’s money-driven publishers assign quotas to editors——revenue targets their chosen books must hit. So editors, much like agents, must necessarily prioritize work to publish based primarily on ‘name,’ commercial appeal and raw sales potential, not on artistic quotient or even personal choice. It’s a matter of survival, as editor turnover increases and mistakes or failures invite instant banishment into the exterior darkness (weeping, gnashing of teeth). Those editors face brutal financial measurement and intense competition from peers within their own houses and outside. Dog eats dog, daily.
To oversimplify. Editors earning, perhaps, $75,000 a year in salary cost a publisher double that, ~$150,000, considering full employment costs with benefits and office expenses. To cover those costs, that editor must bring in at least $150,000 in revenues, so that ‘their’ books must generate ~$1m retail revenue. Around 10-15 books retailing at $10-25, depending on whether they are paperback or hard cover, that sell in five figures (a high number for most books except for the anointed few——typical good books sell 18,000 copies, on average, according to trade sources).
Rough numbers: of, say, 1,000 books submitted by editors for consideration by a publisher’s acceptance committee, perhaps 100 are published. Of those 100, all but 10 break even or fail. Of the 10, one, just one, might make a decent profit. The 1,000 came from perhaps 25,000 submitted to those same editors at that same publishing house by excellent agents, of 100,000 or more written. Those 100,000 were just the agent-represented books of the million or more flowing annually from writers hoping to be published. Long odds (actually, they are much longer), rough sledding. Are we there yet? Is the check in the mail? Is that frog you kissed turning into a prince or princess?
Not yet. Agents cannot impel writers’ ideas nor perform their verbal magic, though a good agent who genuinely believes in a writer may provide guidance. The agent cannot, beyond typical business pressures applied as part of the sales process, make a skeptical editor choose a particular writer. Only talent, the need by an individual editor for specific kind of work at that exact time, in a high-risk market, plus a lightning strike, can do that. Have the busy gods of destiny noticed, and smiled? Are the planets aligned? What do you think? Oh, I see, you’re a cynic, too.
Even then, if published competently and promoted, books face the toughest test: public acceptance, first by critics (if you are lucky——few books are reviewed unless from a ‘name’) then by the public. Well-known writers are usually reviewed, often with deserved or undeserved (c.f.: Dan Brown and his ‘research and writing skills’) reverence. Fine books, like fascinating movies, may get great word-of-mouth but even then may fail for scores of reasons. The rest—— book tours, media appearances, interviews on television or radio, store readings——is frosting but helpful.
How does it go in what we laughingly call ‘real life?’ After selling my first novel SIERRA SIERRA with a $2,500 advance to a great New York house, William Morrow, I acquired a two-book contract. But——see above——my editor there, Howard Cady, died and his successor abandoned all the work he inherited (recall: if it succeeded, it was his predecessor’s brilliance, if it failed, it was his fault). My then agent abandoned me instantly.
A little later, through a new agent in New York, now retired, I sold a non-fiction book on neural-network computing (THE NEW MIND MACHINE) to a major New York publisher, Arbor House, this time with a $25,000 advance. After two years’ hard labor on a subject incorporating excruciating scientific and technological detail, equal to 360 pages in a book, I delivered the manuscript. That meant my earnings had been ~$6 an hour, around minimum wage at the time, but I was not nearly finished with the work. Three or four months later——fast for someone in New York with a busy desk——my editor called: "Love the book. But I think it starts around page 120. We need the specific technology development, not the semiconductor-industry and neurological-science background."
In three or four months I reconstructed the book, using the earlier material as back story, and sent it to my editor. Three or four months later a new editor called (the first editor? Gone——I had never even met him). “Love the book,” he said. “But I think it starts on [new] page 120, with real-world applications——all the circuit-development, industry background and neurology material is interesting but it should be back story.”
After another three or four months’ work, I sent in the result of intensive editing and verbal microsurgery; four months later a third editor called (the second? Long gone——never met her, either). “Love the book. But starting with applications for neural-network computers makes no sense without the industry background, neurological insights and circuit development.” Four years after I had started the original ms, eternity in technology, I was back to square one and had to reconstruct the original from the latest ‘acceptable, but’ material. I estimated another four or five months of work to capture a Mach 1 technological target buried in excruciating scientific detail. By the time all the editing and rewriting was done, not to mention office expenses, travel and the rest of a normal professional life, I estimated that I had earned less than $2 an hour. And you wanted to be a writer? You’re certifiable, my friend! I know I am.
I went to work, the advance long gone, but things got worse. In the next few months Arbor House was acquired by Morrow, who tossed all work in progress except books from established ‘name’ writers and celebrities, though I had been published by them earlier. With rejections, delays, acquiring an agent, research, writing and re-writing, I was now about five years behind in any so-called ‘career path.’ But it’s all experience, and character-forming, right? Most writers have enough character already.
I was not done with career-destroying. Earlier I reviewed for the San Francisco CHRONICLE, in glowing terms, Viktor Belenko’s book MiG PILOT about his defection from the USSR. He flew a MiG-25 from Vladivostok to Hakodate, on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. He called to thank me. We became friends. He proposed that we write a techno-thriller based on Vietnam POW-MIAs and Russia; he had a sponsor, a former USAF and airline pilot, who paid me a $15,000 advance. The book title: A FULL ACCOUNTING, based on the lie Nixon told the American people about all the POW-MIAs being returned (614 aircrew were never accounted for, lost mostly over Cambodia and Laos——precisely zero were sent home after the war). It described a Navy pilot, shot down and incarcerated in the Hanoi Hilton, extracted cleverly by the Russians to train their pilots in ACM (air combat maneuvering, or ‘dog fighting’), who ends up in the Magadan gulag. His younger sister, who herself became a Navy pilot to honor her ‘dead’ brother, and a former Russian fighter pilot our hero trained, go to Russia to rescue him. He ends up addressing a joint session of Congress, revealing Russian perfidy going back to WWII, a modern POW-MIA hero.
Between 1994 and 2002 I invested ~9,000 hours writing this book——~1,000 hours of research, ~1,500 hours writing and ~6,500 hours editing, plus $5,000 out of pocket expenses. So for my $10,000 net cash I earned just over $1 an hour. Our sponsor believed that he could sell the book but could not. Scratch another five years’ worth of hard labor, done over an eight-year time span.
Why, you may be asking about now, are so many demonstrably rotten, incompetent, plagiarized books published when the books of un-represented writers may be superior, more timely, better written, innately more appealing——the list of advantages (yours?) may be endless and genuine. The same question could be asked about broadcasting or acting, music or film, and the success of second-rate or obviously declining ‘talent’ (like you, I have a ‘little list’ of them, including overrated big names we don’t need). In one book review I did for Amazon, I speculated (after giving the book one star, since ‘no stars’ is not a website option) that by printing such a dreadful book, the publisher (HarperCollins) was also preventing other, worthier offerings from being published.
In another instance, HarperCollins published a ‘techno-thriller’ by a British writer that featured significant scenes aboard an American aircraft carrier. It became obvious within a few pages that everything the author knew about flying, naval aviation and aircraft carriers could be stuck in one’s eye without the risk of being detected. It was a publishing success. The follow-on book was even worse.
Publication of the blatantly unworthy often happens because the work comes from a ‘name’ created via previous success, contractual requirement or contact, or a quid pro quo between publisher, editor, agent and name writer and/or film/theater/music equivalent. Established names sell regardless of merit. It’s a ‘brand’ thing. Pick your favorite worthless ‘popular’ star or celebrity. Now go to your room and watch those cloned ‘American Idol’ shriekers without, um, losing your last meal. Good luck.
An agent must handle the technical and legal stuff without which writers end up like cartoon characters: naked, wearing a barrel. He or she will negotiate terms and conditions, rights in all media and all countries in the reading world. Agents should know. Writers don’t.
Writers who gain traction with agents must pursue substantive issues and maintain punctilious personal and professional performance, after submitting a manuscript to the agent. E.g. Writer: “Who, by name/house, has seen my work, when, with what result?” This performance must continue without end, reliably. Agent: “Did you do the requested rewrite, on time?” In passing, I must point out without any modesty whatsoever that when Howard Cady, Morrow’s editor in chief, sent me the galleys of SIERRA SIERRA and wanted seven specific questions answered, with accompanying text changes, I returned the marked-up galleys to him in one working week. Why is high-quality personal behavior vital? It’s not just good manners——seemingly obvious but increasingly rare. It’s because publishing is time-freighted. Only punctilious performance on all sides will see a project through so that all may win. Near misses don’t work.
Time-freighted? Indeed. Though publishers such as Judith Regan (hasn’t anyone driven a stake through her heart yet?) can get a flashy and perhaps trivial book to market in 60-90 days on a subject of explosive public interest——O.J., Princess Diana, Monica, Amber Frye, 9/11 or Terrorism, say——because it is ‘timely,’ a book’s more usual publishing time constant is not less than a year, frequently two years and often much longer. The Clinton books each took five (5) years, Tenet’s about three years.
This affects editors, agents and writers profoundly for a basic and simple reason: time is indeed money. If the publisher delays the process or the editor permits a desktop logjam or there is a major housecleaning of purchased, backlogged books (HarperCollins had just such a bloodletting a few years ago, dumping scores of ‘advanced’ books) the agent and writer cannot be paid beyond the advance. Big money, even for successful books, does not flow until large-scale public sales occur.
The problem is daunting and career-crushing, as many writers can attest. A book delayed or cancelled for any reason may be difficult or impossible even for the most capable and respected agent to get back into editorial consideration, anywhere. It may have been beaten by competition, gone from the initial publishing company’s radar or suddenly obsolete in that publisher’s roster of future books and/or in the fickle public interest. And a publisher’s editor(s) can torture a writer easily and indefinitely by demanding endless rewrites until the writer gives up. Even then, with much of the production expense hanging in the balance, a ‘finally accepted’ manuscript may never be printed and distributed, because hot new projects can elbow ‘accepted’ work out of the way, up to the last minute.
A stream of fresh work is flowing from writers already being published by that house, every house, and from budding writers. Since the publishing industry——like most of the media and all of the public——is consistently faddish, and the volume of new work from incumbent and aspiring writers an endless avalanche, getting back into the game may be difficult or impossible.
Recall that there are few ways to succeed as a writer and many ways to fail. Most of them, once the writing has been done, are beyond the writer’s control. Agents, however skilled, can guarantee nothing. Their judgments are invariably subjective, as are editors’. Many are indeed called, increasingly few chosen. And you wanted to be a writer?
Kissing frogs? In writing, agenting, editing and publishing, as indeed in almost all the arts, the process is performed in all directions, constantly, often described differently, even obscenely. You know those terms, typically involving contact between intimate body parts, desired or undesired on either side, so I need not repeat them. You have to do what? Or, as my late mother used to say: "You need not finish all your sentences. We are not complete fools." Chancy? Yes, it is. But no one seems to have devised a better way. A bit like your or my life, eh?
© Copyright 2007 John Joss. All rights reserved.
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