Precious Cargo

Refreshingly Bitter And Twisted Observations On Life's Passing Parade.

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Location: Valley Village, California, United States

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Cream Also Rises

The first rant published at BookAngst 101 (see my previous post) came from an unpublished writer whose complaint was that he can't get any reaction to his submissions to editors beyond form rejection letters. The reponse from Mad Max was, I'm sad to say, typical of the mindset of most editors and agents. I had two comments to Max's response to this writer.

I think you're being way too hard on this writer, and you fell back on spouting the same old boilerplate I've heard a gabillion times till I want to puke. The cream rises to the top, blah blah. If you're not getting published you're not trying hard enough, or the right way or you're just no damn good. He complains that form letters don't offer any meaningful feedback and your response is get an agent, they read submissions. From my experience, agents pretty much think alike and agents and editors share the same mindset. After all, they're all swimming in the same water.

Agents respond in two ways. If they like what you've sent, they'll call you. If not, you get a form rejection. I don't think this writer wants what you call "feel good correspondence." He wants some information so he can engage in course correction.

Yes, the world is lousy with literary agents, and most of them are lousy. I once spoke with James Parish, a writer who's been writing books about movies for over twenty years, and he opined that most of the agents he's encountered shouldn't have been in the business.

POD-DY MOUTH just ran an interview with a editor of fifteen years' experience currently at an imprint of Random House. Here's a clip from the interview.

Girl: Bonus question: True or false-"If you have a brilliant manuscript, your book will find a home/get published."

Editor One: Tremendously false, and though many of my peers feel it is a rather recent phenomenon, I believe it was never true. I would estimate that there are thousands of excellent books that have been lost in the ether for a whole host of reasons. What scares me more is the opposite is true: that if you have a bad book, it does not mean you will not get published. This industry is very arbitrary. My own imprint is guilty of this.

A Writer's Dilemma

Over at BookAngst 101, Max, the anonymous editor, has published two rants from writers in response to his recent solicitation for readers to submit their rants on what's wrong with publishing.

Rant #2 was by an experienced, professional writer of four books and many articles who's a relationship expert who now can't sell his latest book proposal. I've written far less than he, but what he wrote resonated with me. I was also taken aback at the reaction to his rant in the comments section. Go read his rant and the comments. Though I responded to the comments there, I'm going to reproduce what I wrote here, since I think it has merit as a stand alone thought. I realized while writing it that it is really about the way I feel about my efforts trying to sell a book.

With the exception of one anonymous comment here that said to give this guy a break, I've been flabbergasted at the reaction to this writer's rant. It seems that the people commenting have succumbed to the Stockholm Syndrome of publishing: blame the victim, love your captors, and internalize their values. According to the comments, the only person who's at fault here is-surprise-the poor writer. He's changed agents, so without knowing anything else about him, you brand him a pain in the ass. You know what? If he had remained with one agent and failed, you'd accuse him of not being "proactive" enough. Damned if you do, ...

It seems to me that this guy has pretty much done things right in his career. He's industrious, professional, prolific, can get media exposure, has been well-published and received.

What he isn't is a comedy writer. Not everyone can come up with a book like "He's Just Not That Into You," which is a gimmicky nonbook. Every year or so there's a book like that one or "The Rules." The problem with the entertainment business, of which publishing is a subset, is that everyone wants to be the first one to be second. The success of one title like Not That Into You distorts everyone's expectations. Everybody wants a book just like it, forgetting that it's a unique phenomenon. Meanwhile, they ignore anything else.

Another problem for this guy that he puts his finger on is that our culture is obsessed with youth and has a hysterical fear of death. Even though there's a huge segment of the population that's middle aged and older, advertisers keep chasing the youth demographic. When I watch Book TV on CSPAN-2 and look at the audiences for various writers, I see a sea of faces mostly 35 and up. With authors like David McCullough and other writers of popular history, the audiences look like they've been imported from a rest home.

I suspect that this writer could write another proposal, but it probably won't sell, because one's writing is an expression of one's sensibility and one's central preoccupations in life. This writer isn't going to be able to turn himself into a 22-year-old stand up comedian or sitcom writer. He is who he is. As the late Avram Davidson said, "I'm the best goddamn Avram Davidson there is."

It's very easy to pick on this guy and offer facile advice when you don't have to try and roll a boulder uphill. It's awfully hard to try to get it up and try to write something to the market when your heart isn't in it and when it just isn't you. This writer is caught in a genuine existential dilemma. I've been there. Damned if I have an answer for him.

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