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.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Questions and Answers

When we do classes at writer conferences, we always save some time at the end for questions, and every time it seems we run out of time before all the questions are answered. Many times we don’t post because it seems that we are saying the same things over and over again, so Sharene, Ann, and I have decided seeing that is your blog, too, that instead of us telling you what we think you want to hear, maybe we should asking the writer community what information you would like from us. We’ve always been open to answering questions and have noted that on this blog; however, perhaps it needs to be said again. If you have any questions, please feel free to send them along. We will try to respond as soon as possible.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Sad Truth: Why is it?

There seems to be something in the water lately—or maybe it’s airborne. It seems to be seeping into the minds of those who query us and it’s making them do strange things, which, in turn, makes our rejection finger want to hit the delete key rather than respond.

We live in an age unprecedented in the entire history of mankind, a time when anyone can connect to unlimited informational sources through the Internet. But it seems that with this wonderful resource, there are still literally thousands of writers, people who should know better by the way, who never utilize this wonder. With all this information literally at our fingertips, my question this morning would then be: Why is it that Wylie-Merrick still receives query letters from writers who get it all wrong?

WHY IS IT that we are still receiving queries addressed to “Dear Agent,” or “To Whom It May Concern” or “Hello There,” or to no one at all? Pure business etiquette should tell anyone who is trying to solicit anything from anyone that first impressions mean everything. Since it’s been expressed here on this blog that this is going to get you rejected, one would think that would be enough. There are posts on this blog that talk about why addressing a business letter (yes, a query is a business letter) in this fashion is not going to make much of an impression on most agents, or anyone in the human resources department of any company, for that matter.

WHY IS IT that we are still getting loads of snail mail queries when on our Web site and here we ask writers to only send us digital queries via an e-mail message?

WHY IS IT that writers are still sending chapters or samples of chapters when we have expressly asked that they not send them? When we receive chapters, we know immediately that the person querying us has never read anything about us—not a good thing when asking us, or any other agent, to represent your work. The reasons for this should be obvious to anyone who researches agents.

WHY IS IT that writers still send attachments when everyone knows that viruses are passed from computer to computer by attachments? Common sense would dictate to anyone who sits down to a computer on a regular basis (most writers live on computer these days) that you do not send unsolicited attachments to anyone. If someone requests an attachment, fine. Send it. However, if no one has requested chapters or a full via e-mail, then you shouldn’t send any attachments at all. We STILL get people sending us attachments with their queries in them. Needless to say, these are automatically deleted without response. HINT: Attachments can contain viruses, or worse, large attachments can really damage an e-mail programs ability to function.

WHY IS IT that writers believe that if they say they are a best-selling author, they suddenly are? There’s a new trend that when I send a rejection, I receive back an e-mail chiding me about the huge mistake I’ve made in rejecting a best-selling author and that I’m going to be really, really sorry that I did. Not really. We even have a post on this and why we can’t regret rejections. People who think we should don’t understand how the business works. Besides, let me put it this way: Best-selling authors who have queried us in the past have always given their name and their credits right up front so we know they aren’t yanking our chain. When querying an agent, put that information—the part about being a best-selling author—in the FIRST query letter, not in the rebuttal one. Also, if you wrote a best-selling novel in the 1980s but have written nothing since, there’s not much I can do for you. The audience created by the 1980s success won’t remember you unless you were really BIG.

WHY IS IT that agents are expected to have the knowledge of the publishing universe at their fingertips, and we do, but writers, those who readers depend on for a great read (fiction) and information (nonfiction) believe they shouldn’t have to do anything but put words on a page? This is called a double standard. Professional writers, of which one of us is one, have to have a certain knowledge base, and we find, oddly, that most new writers don’t believe this, at least those we have contact with.

WHY IS IT that when we do research, we cross-reference, double cross-reference, and then double check our cross-references for accuracy, so that even if we do miss something we know, deep in our agent hearts, we’ve at least tried to do our best to get the most updated information available on a topic, yet many writers look at one Web page from six years ago, query us based on inaccurate information, and then blame us? It is standard operating procedure here to research as much as possible before pursuing anything that has to do with publishing, and we’ve made it widely known that the most updated source of information is our own site. However, most people query us based on information on agent directories that we have little or no control over (and are outdated before they are published or never updated). We don’t expect writers to do anything we wouldn’t do ourselves, which is what most agents would expect. It is not an unreasonable request for us to ask you to give it your best effort.

To summarize all of this, before sending anything to us, please get to know us. Consider some of this information might actually be accurate and maybe make a note of it. We have gone to a great deal of effort to provide a blog filled with tons of information that every writer can use to help smooth the path to publication. It may seem harsh sometimes, but sugar-coated sweetness is like breakfast food that adds unhealthy pounds. We don’t sugar-coat anything because we know that what’s good for you doesn’t necessarily always taste good, but we think it will help your career, and therefore ours, which is the reason why we blog.