Wednesday, May 14, 2014

NINJA STUFF: Swimming with Sharks (Part Two)

Last Time on Ninja Stuff: I talked about how writers need to exercise caution and make an informed decision when signing with a literary agent, even if that agent has appeared here. I gave an example of a lousy contract and cautioned writers to be wary of publishing professionals.

And now the thrilling conclusion...

In some ways, this and yesterday's post is biting the hand that feeds. This blog was built on interviews with publishing professionals and I'm cautioning Esteemed Reader that some of those same publishing professionals are sharks. Should some agent or editor take issue and decide not to appear at this blog, that would make me sad. If I've misspoken, I don't mind admitting I'm wrong, but only if I'm wrong.

The truth is I like editors and agents and booksellers of all kinds. You know I do. I like book people and I love readers--they're my favorite kinds of people. I just don't like to see writers harmed. If you're a publishing professional who isn't harming a writer, know I'm not talking about you. Of course, we may disagree as to what constitutes harming a writer.

In many cases, I don't know a good agent from a bad one because we haven't met and I'm not soliciting their services, so I'm not doing the full-on research of speaking with their current clients, reading any interview of theirs I can get my hands on, or checking their recent sales, all of which I would do if I were soliciting their services--which I wouldn't be doing, because I'm perfectly happy with my agent (even if I don't have any work for him just now), who is 100% not a shark.

Amy Tipton is one of my best Facebook homies, and she's very un-shark-like. Joanna Volpe's making movie deals happen for her clients right and left and she's always been very nice to me. I could go on, but I won't. Most of the agents who've appeared here are probably great agents for the right client. And even great agents sometimes make mistakes.

The one thing I've tried to illustrate through this blog and forced myself to learn is that agents and editors are just people. Really. Like all people they're sometimes good and sometimes bad. They aren't all knowing wizards of publishing (wouldn't it be nice), nor are they members of an evil empire conspiring to keep your book from being read. Like the people of any other profession, some of them are better at their jobs than others, some of them are luckier, and some of them are simply better positioned.

But the field of publishing is changing dramatically and has changed. You don't need me to tell you this. Attend any writer's conference and hear the tales of woe resulting from a major paradigm shift in publishing. Indie publishing now comprises 20% of genre fiction sales and that number is likely to grow. Major authors are walking away from traditional publishing in favor of going indie and that's a trend that's likely to continue. You may think that's a terrible thing, you may think it's an exciting thing for writers and readers, but regardless, it's happening at the same time publishers and bookstores are vanishing. This isn't the end of all traditional publishing forever, but the empire is crumbling, and that environment is bound to have an impact on publishing professionals.

I'm no expert and I don't know where all these changes are going to lead us. I don't know where publishing will be in 10 years time, but I wouldn't invest any savings in Barnes and Noble stock and I wouldn't let a publisher tie up my copyright for life plus 70 years. Obviously, I've decided indie is the way to go until the dust settles and I can see who's still standing. You may disagree, Esteemed Reader, but either way we're witnessing some fascinating changes and seeing some truly interesting behavior among said publishing professionals.

I'll have criticisms for some of them momentarily, but first a brief aside to put my observations in context: I wish everyone would read Outliers by Malcom Gladwell as it goes a long way toward unpacking the great American myth of the self-made man. There are other factors that go into determining human behavior we don't completely understand or have time to cover in a post about publishing professionals behaving badly, but I also wish everyone would read Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (or at least watch the movie) and Beyond Freedom and Dignity by B.F. Skinner.

I tend to be more forgiving of bad behavior than most because I accept that people are not always completely 100% responsible for their own actions. External factors play a determining role. I may want to wear a tank top, but if it's snowing, I'm probably wearing a sweater. If you've never read about the infamous Stanford Prison experiment in which students divided into prisoners and guards and took their roles far too seriously, you absolutely need to go read up on it now. Creepier yet is the classic Milgram experiment which explains a lot about how evil spreads in the world--one regular person submitting to authority at a time.

There's no shortage of creepy psych experiments I could link to, but let's end this aside with one I think most directly illuminates what's happened with some publishing professionals. Sociologists at Berkeley University ran experiments with a rigged game of monopoly (you've probably heard this one, but I'll leave the Ted discussion of the topic posted below because if you haven't, you need to know about this). Even though players knew the game was rigged in their favor, they became more aggressive and more insistent that their wins were due to their own actions despite their obvious advantage.

The implications of this experiment are vast and perhaps explain why Mitt Romney famously told students to borrow tuition money from their parents. He's lost perspective that he's long been playing a rigged game. The richest 1% are genuinely confused as to why you're not rich and they think they deserve their wealth because they've worked harder than us. This also explains how many congressman and senators sleep at night--on fine pillows given to them by wealthy donors who've purchased their votes, naturally.

Brief aside finished:) But keep in mind that as circumstances change, so do people, often in unpredictable, unexpected ways. Starve an honest person long enough, they'll likely steal food, no matter the reputation preceding them.

Writers need to be better than average at empathizing, so let us put ourselves in the position of a literary agent or editor attending a writer's conference. I've done this once before for comedy.

We touchdown in a flyover state, like say, Indiana, and are greeted at the airport by enthusiastic volunteers who give us a ride through vast stretches of cornfields and flat lands so different from New York it's like being on a different planet. Have you ever seen so many churches? The friendly volunteers casually pitch us their book ideas on the drive and then we meet other volunteers at the convention center of the town's fanciest Holiday Inn who also casually pitch us their story idea or grumble that their book got an unfair shake. This probably doesn't happen at every conference, but I'll wager it happens often enough, and the crowd of strange, under-educated writers who sometimes populate conferences must seem somewhat like flocking rubes when the carnival's in town.

Throughout the three days or week of the conference, we will have a target on our chests at which will be launched the hopes and vitriol of the unwashed masses of writers and wherever we go, the bathroom, our suite, outside to get some air, there will be some writer who either wants us to represent them or blames us for prior rejection letters we may or may not have written. Desperate writers with big dreams and stars in their eyes will pay us what little money they have for a critique, not even of a full manuscript, but say, 50 bucks for the first five pages. And there are a lot of writers with a lot of fifties.

Remember, we're a publishing professional and we know the numbers. We know that even if we could pick the few writers out of the horde who have polished their craft to the point their work is publishable, there simply aren't enough slots for every writer or even half of them. The writers are passionate and they don't want to hear what the numbers prove: no matter what they do, most writers will not land publishing contracts.

You may be a saint, Esteemed Reader, but I'm not. I'd want those fifties. And I bet some of them would pay $75, maybe $100, and after all I am helping these writers and I can help maybe ten or even twenty a day, making conferences lucrative indeed. Suppose I'm a young editor who had to fight out a whole lot of candidates for an editing position with a major publisher. That coveted position has a lot of prestige, but I'm making intern wages and paying New York rent and I keep hearing rumors of mergers and bankruptcies and everyone in my industry is terrified of losing their job because they all know a lot of folks who used to work in publishing. Or maybe I'm an agent getting royalty checks and then passing them onto writers who don't know when the check is due and I can pass it onto them, or at least most of it, next month after my rent is paid (after all, the writer wouldn't be getting anything if it weren't for me).

One of the best things you can do for your writing career, Esteemed Reader, is experience different parts of the publishing industry. I've been an editor on magazines and been inundated by queries and manuscripts. After a few days of reading slush, I was looking for ways to reject writers faster and it was easy--newbies tend to make a lot of the same mistakes. I found I began to anticipate that every manuscript was likely to be bad and I plowed into them with a cynical mindset, looking for the excuse for me to reject it and move on because I had a huge pile of slush to get through

Some of you Esteemed Readers may be bristling as I'm not painting the most flattering picture of publishing professionals. Critiques are valuable and plenty of professionals are kind enough to lend their expert eye to teach newbies. I've gotten a lot out of some critiques and the knowledge I gained was well worth the money spent. And some of the people who gave those critiques were honest, upright citizens who weren't making a quick buck, but requesting a fair exchange for their time and expertise. However, just as in any other field, there's a wide spectrum of people in publishing.

I'm hard-pressed to think of a time in my writing career when I was more outraged (my heart is beating fast, my teeth are gritted, and veins are standing out on my neck at the mere memory) than when an editor for a major, oh-my-God-I-hope-they-pick-me publisher gave me a business card not for their professional role, but for their independent consulting service. For a regular and hefty fee, this person would edit my work and advise my writing career and I thought "Gee, it's too bad you can't find a way to parlay those skills into your professional role as a @#%ing editor!!!" 

Chief among my reasons for publishing independently has been that card, which I still have. I'd read the many articles about the collapse of the publishing industry, but it never seemed to hit home until I held that card. It filled me with despair.

There are many wonderful professionals blogging and publishing books about how to please agents and editors and giving seminars and I do not wish to imply that a professional person can't successfully both do that and serve the writers they represent. I have no doubt some can. I found Cheryl Klein's book Second Sight enormously helpful and her writers seem very happy with her work.

I never sent my manuscript to that editor (okay, fine, I did--newbie writers get desperate, which is a big part of the problem), but I've always wondered why would that person prioritize my book for the publisher when their consulting business was booming? Super-star agents can get a lot done, but isn't an agent's role to support and build a super-star writer? If I were considering signing with a professional who had a side business, I'd want to make darn sure their writers were demonstrably on their way to being at least as successful as the professional. Cheryl Klein's writers include J.K Rowling:)

Back in my querying days I somehow got signed up on the newsletters for various agents and I absolutely howled with laughter when I received notice that one of these former agents (for a major agency I would've killed to sign with once upon a time) had a debut novel that she self published, because, you know, publishing contracts are difficult to get without good representation:) I'm tempted to link to the former agent's book, but that would be cruel and I'm not in the habit of author shaming, even when the author in question should know better. The cover is a simply awful homemade job and the text is essentially unreadable, partly because the formatting is all over the place, partly because it's unedited stream-of-conscious prose (but oh so pompous and pretentious). Last time I checked Amazon, the book had less than 5 reviews, most of them one and two-stars (you'd think her old writers at least might lie and give her five).

When I stopped laughing, I wondered, how many writers pinned all of their hope to this publishing professional who demonstrably had no idea what she was doing? I assure you it took all of the sting out of her previous rejection of my work:)

Writing and publishing are not a science and if anyone knew how to publish an award-winning bestseller each and every time, they'd be doing it. I don't know of any publishing professional who has such a track record. That's not to say there aren't wonderful publishing professionals out there who are ideal partners for writers. There are and I hope this blog introduces you to such a person. But the water is choppy, there's dorsal fins poking above the waves, and I'd hate to see you drug under, Esteemed Reader.



  1. I know the agent you're referring to (I got the same email) and I think it's important to point out that she is no longer working as an agent. It would be a breach if she were working as an agent and charging potential clients, but at this point she is a freelance editor and advisor.

    1. That's a relief. I wondered. I know she's still representing some rights, but if she's truly no longer representing individual authors, there's no cause for alarm. That makes me feel much better. I'll remove the update about the charges for manuscript revisions so long as that representation conflict is resolved. Now it's simply a subjective call as to whether or not the revision services are worth the charge, and they very well may be.

  2. Swim at your own risk, indeed. I've been tempted by this (wondering if an email I've gotten is the same person you gentlemen are talking about above), but ultimately decided that my critique partners were very well-read, lovely people, and they were free. Because, also, my hubby would have not been happy if I spent our money on that :) That said, I've paid a little extra at conferences to get agent/editor critiques and have been very happy with those. Always cool to get feedback in person with specific examples.

    1. Hi Jessica! Always a pleasure to have such a fine writer stop by the blog:) I sort of regret the tone of this post, though not enough to change it. I hold people who prey on young writers in the lowest possible regard. Finding the courage to dream and act on that dream is an achievement, regardless of the fiction's quality and I hate to see people who dare to hope taken advantage of. But my experience with most publishing professionals remains positive. I truly believe most agents and editors have taken their position out of a love for writers and fiction. There are few other compelling reasons to do it as 15% of nothing isn't worth the aggravation. But there are some nasty, broken human beings out there willing to take advantage and I do hate that someone who found an agent through this blog had that experience. And I like having the conversation with other writers. You can't protect yourself if you don't know there's danger.

    2. MGN, Your reply to Jessica mirrors how I feel about politicians. I'm sure a great many start out with high ideals, but a great many succumb to the system once elected and no longer serve the people they swore to defend.

    3. Hi Serena. I think fewer politicians start out with high ideals:) And until we do something about the river of concentrated wealth paying for campaigns, we could elect Mr. Smith (the one who went to Washington) and within an election cycle or two we'd likely end up with someone just as corrupt as what we've got. I think it's easier for an agent or editor to remain reputable than a politician.

  3. This post is full of integrity. Thank you for this.


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.