Friday, May 16, 2008

The Truth Behind the Power

Lately I’ve been hearing lots of comments about how agents and editors have so much control of who gets published, including quips about how we are gate-keepers. There’s also a philosophy that if you have an agent, publication is guaranteed. I’m really having an ego moment because so many people believe that agents and editors have a huge say in what gets published and when. That’s flattering, and I love the thought being that powerful, but, unfortunately, it’s just not true. Big Sigh.

Our industry, like most others, is controlled by the consumer, which in this case means readers. The idea that agents control anything is like looking through the big end of a set of binoculars. If you do this consistently, you get a very narrow view of what’s happening around you. Thus is this perception of agent/editor control over an industry that, many times, is beyond control of anyone except the consumer. I say this because most publishers are usually terribly surprised by those huge best-sellers. Readers control publishing and always will.

How it really works is like this: Readers read certain types of books and major bookstores (usually multi-national corporations like Borders and Barnes & Noble), make note of what type of book is being consistently purchased. These reading trends are noted and passed up the chain to marketing people at major publishing houses, discussed at editorial meetings, in which publishers and editors spend huge amounts of time, and taken into account when lists are made up for the next publishing season. These lists, usually for purchases a year or more in advance, are placed in the hands of the acquisitions departments and parsed out to editors.

This, of course, is a generalization of what actually happens, as the actual process varies from house to house and imprint to imprint. From this point on, agents become involved in the process, and, after that, the authors become involved. Most of the list is quickly filled by known authors for each particular genre. This means about 80% of the list is immediately filled and agents begin their search to fill the rest of the slots. Agents normally have lesser known clients who can fill some of this need, but in some cases, especially when a certain niche in the market appears, the type of book needed may be rare due to the sudden demand for it, and lots of open slots appear for debut authors of that type of book. There are also those growth areas where current authors cannot fill all the open slots available. Fiction, unfortunately, doesn’t have many of these areas left. Also, in this particular year, fear of recession is rearing its ugly head, so there’s a battle being waged for the entertainment dollar, and this affects acquisitions as well.

I hope this gives the new writer a broader perception of what our industry looks like. As you can see, consumption drives the market, and agents and editors have little control over the process. The next time you blame your agent because he or she couldn’t sell your book, please don’t. We sometimes take on clients because their books are so compelling that we can’t help ourselves. However, if readers no longer read certain types of books, these books languish no matter how well they are written or how much pull an agent has with a certain editor. It would be wonderful if publishers took huge chances and attempted to drive the market from their end of the process. There are publishers who do attempt this, but their idealism is usually short-lived, and when readers are either not aware of or are turned off by the product offered, these brave souls wither and die. The majors, on the other hand, have to answer to their stockholders, so the bottom line dictates that they don’t take too many chances with stockholders’ money.

Being a small agency, we’ve encountered many people who give us the impression that they believe if we don’t sell a book, that it must be because we are too small to know many editors or don’t work with major houses because of our size, or some such nonsense. That’s not true at all. We have friends in the business, in NYC and elsewhere, who are highly visible agents who have had difficulty selling books, too. Also, we can always tell when the industry is tightening its belt, because agents who normally don’t sell to mid-size or small presses start selling to them, which actually kind of infringes on our territory. We’ve had potential clients go with larger agencies thinking that their work warranted a large NYC agent who would get them published with a major house, and the agent then sold their book to the same mid-sized house we would have if the majors hadn’t bought the work. In this business, size or location mean nothing because in the end…


So if you want to have a job as a writer, find some way to encourage reading. Volunteer at your local school to read to young children (and not just your books, either). Donate used books to shelters. Do whatever you can to make reading viable entertainment, and the need for your work will be there. When just one reader leaves the market, everyone suffers, including the writer, publisher, editor, agent, other readers, and, of course, society in general.


Scott Jensen said...

So you don't sell to the major publishers? If so, why not?

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Scott--Just to clarify...
We didn't say that we don't sell to the majors. A book we sold to Bantam is listed on our site, under Representative Titles, as a matter of fact. However, we also sell to mid-size and small publishers, publishers in the library market, literary presses, independents, etc. Many of the larger agencies used to sell only to the majors. If a book didn't sell there, they dropped it. However, now they are selling to other presses as well. Being a boutique agency gives us the luxury of working with a book to find it the best home, which may or may not be with a major publisher, so we've always been open to working with a variety of different presses. We used to get criticized for it quite a bit, that is until people discovered other agents doing it as well.

Sonia said...

Thanks for this informative article. I read in the "Guide to Literary Agents" that your Agency handles 10% non-fiction and 85% novels. Since readers drive the market, what are the trends for 2008 and 2009?

Anonymous said...

I was very impressed with your blog. I am in education by trade and decided that I wanted to write my story of the turbulent divorce I endured which was fueled by a townshattering affair. This is as wild as it gets.

Being an unknown I have had a difficult time getting an agent to represent me.

Without question I need an agent who has no fear. This is an extremely hot and controversial story where my ex-wife goes so far off the deep end we need to get a restraining order against her.

My question is how does an unknown find an agent brazen enough to take a chance on this sensational but risky story.


Charles said...

This just seems to prove the point about gatekeepers. Sure, the readers make choices, but it's like going to a restaurant and being given a menu - and agents and editors determine what's on the menu. Of course, they try to guess what will sell, but the point is unless readers have already declared something "edible," low chance for an author to get it through the gatekeepers. When even many agents have stopped taking unsolicited QUERIES, of all things, the writer has been fenced out several times. Face it, you have tremendous power from the writer's point of view.

Dorie LaRue said...

I found "The Truth Behind the Power" in a macabre way, reassuring. Facts are friendly. This consumer driven market is the theme of my academic satire, though the chancellor comes off as greedy and vulgar in many ways, he is perhaps the only one turned into reality. Of course, he goes too far. My published novel, written before the heyday of Six Feet Under, etc. had a 750 print run, and was sold at the local Barnes and Noble. Every day I went in and took a few copies of it from the out-of-the way Louisiana Writers section and put them on the New In Paperback table by the front door from which they disappeared over night. It had been rejected by about twenty agents, so I went to a small press, but have always felt if it could have had the publicity--- yada, yada, yada. Isn't consumer driven a bit dangerous, maybe never embracing cutting edge, and maybe a year or two behind the consumer's real interests? Once it is noted what is selling isn't it probably already on its way out? Perhaps like this phenomenon, I've heard, once you see something on tv, it is already passe. Thank you for your website checklist. It was invaluable.