Archive for August, 2014
Imagine you’re a literary agent – all those submissions coming in, all those dreary rejection letters going out. How much better it would all be – from a bottom line perspective – to make some dosh from the rejections. Enter the editorial service – someone who will “polish” your novel for you, and “make it ready for submission”. All those rejected, disheartened writers out there ripe for exploitation.
There are a couple of ways this can work:
You submit your novel, it gets rejected, agent recommends an editorial service as part of the rejection letter. You approach the editorial service, pay money (hundreds of pounds usually), and the agent gets a referral fee.
Some agents have an editorial service they “work with” right there on their website, giving the impression that if you use the editorial services you’ll have more chance with the agency. You approach the editorial service, say where you found them, pay the money, and it’s kerching all round – oh, except for you.
Some agents simply offer editorial services as well as agenting ones.
However it’s done, it’s done simply to monetize rejections by exploiting your dreams and aspirations. Don’t fall for this. The money’s supposed to flow in your direction, not theirs.
The trouble is I have (or had) a fixed idea about the right way to go about this. So first the method, then the (probably flawed) justification.
You have your novel (I’m not going to drone on about it being “polished”, etc; I’ll leave that to the dreary advice sites), and now – being a denizen of that height of civilization, the free market economy – you must “market” it, or, put simply, hawk and whore it to a bunch of agencies and/or small publishers that you hope against hope will be interested in the fruits of your labour. This usually requires producing a synopsis and cover letter and sending it off with the first fifty pages of the novel to an agent of your choosing as per the instructions on their website – so usually by email these days, though some still insist on postal submissions (for fiction anyway).
There are loads of sites offering advice on writing synopses and cover letters. Most of them – the sites – have a jaunty commonsensical tone, really as though they’re preparing children for the REAL world. “So you’ve written your novel, polished it, and made it the best it can be – good! Now the hard work starts.” Oh, ha ha… You’re tuned to Radio Free Smug.
Having once submitted your novel, you’re advised to forget it, or at least not brood overly much upon it. Rejection is routine; it will hurt routinely, and diminish you in small ways. You, sadly, believe in something intensely that the world is happy to ignore. Lots of people are in this situation, and the price of rejection is not always so gentle (sometimes you starve, sometimes you die; here, usually, unread writers just go on doing their living-making thing).
So why is the agency approach a good one? Or why was I convinced it was so? I suppose because I imagined you were submitting (in some sense) to an arbiter of quality, someone who could tell the shit from the sugar. To get an agent is an achievement because it says some other someone believes in your book enough to want the privilege of representing it to the world (a younger me naively imagined this had to do with art rather than money). You’re validated; you can write. Or, at least, someone else – someone in the biz – thinks you can.
Nowadays, of course, there are many routes to get your book out there, most of them bypassing the nod or approval of another person, never mind one that knows anything about writing. Bands do this, of course: they get gigs and build an audience around their music and act. Why shouldn’t writers appeal directly to an audience and build a readership without recourse to the percenters in the middle? Of course, they can and should. And some have done this successfully, though most of them turn out to be dreadful writers. Whenever there’s a story about a writer who’s got a big advance as a result of being successful on the web, I look them up and invariably have the same reaction: Oh, yes, more shite. The vast majority of the big, bad world out there doesn’t know what good writing is (sorry, but it isn’t just what people want to read). I suppose my fear is that it’s all like that now. Despite saying that they’re looking for “unique” and “unusual”, what agents really want is stuff that will sell by the truckload – sod the quality.
Self-publishing has never appealed to me; indeed, it has, for me, something of a whiff of failure about it. This might be a limitation in my way of thinking. After all, I’m blogging here, not submitting this to a magazine or paper for someone’s approval. But, of course (and this has to be recognized and acknowledged), I’m also mostly being ignored.
Thistle Publishing, a small publisher who rejected my novel, has this proudly displayed on the front page of its website. If you click through, you will see this.
David, though, didn’t think my novel was “quite right” for his list.
It hurts. Of course it does.
It’s a dispiriting thought, but one that must be grasped: literary agents are looking for something to flog, and bandwagon jumping is, they imagine, one of the safest ways to go about doing it – hence all those 50 Shades of Shite clones taking up shelf-space in your local WH Smith.
It works like this: they’re looking for something that fits easily onto their list (so you can forget challenging, difficult books – in terms of subject matter and certainly in terms of writing style), and what fits easily onto their list is stuff they’ve successfully placed onto someone else’s list: a publishing editor’s usually. Publishing editors are also interested in shit they can sell, which is why they all have their version/clone of whatever’s water-cooler hot in flogalot terms at any given moment. It’s a dumb business with pretensions. Most of them like to think in terms of working in the arts, which is, of course, bollocks. They’re middle-folk trying to turn a profit.
Which brings me to the question – the point of this post – do they know if something’s good, or just if it will sell? It’s perfectly possible to look around you, note what’s selling, project what might sell (indeed, why not have a self-important meeting about it?), and then try to turn a profit by getting your hands on more of the same. Spiv & Trotters Literary Agency: “S&M novels and religious thrillers are big at the moment, so we’re interested in those – though we’re also looking for Teen Naval Gothic love stories because we think they’re likely to be big in the run-up to Christmas.”
Novels like Animal Farm or Pale Fire or The Trial would be incomprehensible to them; they simply wouldn’t know what to make of them. We live in an age of focus groups, of audience reaction and participation. Modern agents don’t have the temperament or discernment to take a work away, and think, Actually this is good, artistically good. It deserves an audience. What they’re after is a sense of immediate recognition, a sense that they like this, that their friends will too. Being good doesn’t come into it; potentially popular, of course, does.
Undiscerning people need discerning people to draw the distinction between the two. That statement has a whiff of elitism about it, but that’s not the point. Girls Aloud are not as good as Beethoven, and not just because someone’s critiqued the issue for you. In your quiet space, you should be able to listen to both, and know that one is better than the other. That’s discernment. And if you can’t do that, you’re ignorant (at least in this area of life and art), and I rather fear this is something that’s true of most literary agents.
Money, of course, pollutes everything. Livings have to be made. I understand that. I would, however, modestly request that you don’t imagine you’re doing art when all you’re doing is shifting goods to make money.