Precious Cargo

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

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Location: Valley Village, California, United States

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mary Walters' "Agents are destroying literature" Logic Fail

Mary Walters is yet another rejected writer who has extrapolated an illogical critique of agents and publishers from her personal experiences. Walters believes that agents won't represent literary fiction because it doesn't sell as well in the short term as junky genre fiction and therefore won't generate big advances that in turn generate big commissions for agents. Therefore, publishers never even get to consider literary fiction they might otherwise love and publish. So publishers should hire interns to read slush and ignore agents and everything will be sunshine and roses in book land.

If only.

1. Literary fiction gets published all the time, otherwise we wouldn't be using the term in a discussion of publishing today.

2. Most writers are represented by agents, including those who write literary fiction.

3. Decades ago, publishers had in-house readers to read unsolicited manuscripts. They rarely discovered good manuscripts and their salaries cost the publishers real money. When publishers discovered that agents would read unsolicited submissions for free, they phased out their readers.

4. Agents supply what they know from experience publishers demand. If publishers wanted more lit fic, agents would give it to them.

The rest is pretty well covered in these comments to Walters' essay. Note how she ignores or cannot understand Nathan Bransford's point.

Nathan Bransford // April 17, 2009 at 9:46 am | Reply
“Nathan, I am suggesting, as I did in my blog post, that these books are likely to sell — very likely to sell — just not to attract an advance because they are more likely to sell slowly and steadily, providing the kind of support for overhead long-time that can help keep publishers in business.”

But the major publishers aren’t offering “no advance” deals for books that have a trickle of sales over the course of many years. There are many small presses that do, and they don’t require that an agent submit to them. As you know well.

What you seem to want is to be taken on by a major publisher for a book that has a steady trickle of sales. And you know what? I wish they took on more books like that too. But those types of books are not particularly profitable, if at all, and publishers are strained. They’re consolidating around the books that they think are better bets.

But what I don’t understand is why you blame agents for this. Agents aren’t the ones telling publishers to consolidate their lists and drop many of our midlist and literary clients.

Mary W. Walters // April 17, 2009 at 9:55 am | Reply
Well, how can I blame the editors? They never see our stuff because you don’t show it to them, and they won’t look at ms not submitted by agents, so how can they make an informed decision about our manuscripts? Excuse me if I’ve come full circle here.

Brian Dolton // April 20, 2009 at 1:36 pm | Reply
Agents decide what to push to editors based on what they think editors want to buy, and their decisions are based on what editors have bought (and refused to buy) in the past.

If the editors have been interested in product X, then agents will send them things that are like product X. If editors have not been interested in product Y, then agents will not be willing to send them more product Y.
There is no conspiracy among agents.

Nathan Bransford // April 17, 2009 at 10:08 am | Reply

They may not be seeing your work per se, but they are seeing work like yours. They’re seeing books that are longer, books that are shorter, books that are more literary, books that are more commercial, books that are louder, books that are quieter. They’re seeing the entire spectrum. And what you see on the bookshelf are the ones that editors have chosen.

But more importantly, you yourself have characterized your book as one that will sell a steady trickle and may not even attract an advance. Publishers are quickly dropping anyone who even vaguely meets this description. I get lots of queries from authors whose books have been published by mainstream publishers to glowing reviews and okay sales. I can’t even do much for these people.

Everyone wants to believe that THEIR work is the one that will change things and if it could just get to editors, literary acclaim can’t be far behind. I hear from 15,000 people who believe this every year. This is why there’s a funnel in the first place. I understand that it’s not fun to be winnowed out, but it seems to me that you want major publisher attention and sales for a book that has a potential audience that even you characterize as small. Particularly in this climate, that’s just not realistic.

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