12 January 2005

An Inside Job

The publishing industry operates in a culture of secrecy. And I'm not just talking about its internals (try deciphering a royalty statement sometime); I'm talking about the way it presents itself to the public. Or, as the case may be, allows itself to be presented to the public.

If you don't believe me, ask Neil Gaiman, an award-winning author who knows of what he speaks. His journal includes an article today on Everything You Wanted To Know About Literary Agents… (but didn't know you needed to ask). I suppose I need to enter a couple of caveats on his information sources: Jim Fisher, the author of Ten Percent of Nothing, is a client of mine whom I've defended from SLAPP-type actions initiated by various scam publishers and agents; Teresa Nielsen-Hayden and I have enjoyed a healthy correspondence on the industry over the years, and have independently reached many of the same conclusions (although mine are, admittedly, somewhat more cynical); I work closely with Victoria Strauss and Ann Crispin; I work with Jim Macdonald; I work closely with Kent Brewster; and two of the other references on the list will eventually lead back here. So, perhaps, there's a flavor of multiple people saying the same thing, who all talk to each other. Critics will claim we're a cabal of unsuccessful and marginally successful writers venting our spleen on the industry. How anyone could call Jim Fisher, for example, "unsuccessful" in the publishing industry is beyond me; but there it is. What is interesting is that so many of us with such a variety of backgrounds and methods could come to the same basic conclusions, and even some of the same detailed conclusions; in the best of all possible worlds, this would give some pause to the apologists for vanity presses and literary fraud out there. This is not the best of all possible worlds.

And now, an unsolicited editorial on a self-defeating industry practice. More and more publishers are going to an "agented submissions only" policy. Admittedly, there's a lot of unpublishable crap coming over the transom, and it is a real burden to deal with it. However, those policies practically beg for agents like Dorothy Deering to set up shop, because it would be a massive antitrust violation to say "AAR-member-sponsored submissions only." (Then, too, the AAR is itself no panacaea; it has a few bad apples as members.) Leaving aside the public interest aspect of this, keep in mind that groundbreaking works often have difficulty reaching agents in the first place; and becoming known as a publisher friendly to groundbreaking works can't hurt in attracting them. Then, too, there's the question of how much of one's acquisition policy one wants determined by people outside not just the Editorial Department, but outside of the company entirely. In the end, that's what an agented-submissions-only policy does: It delegates to the agents the proper acquisition function of editors, resulting in a fast-acting feedback loop. Examples: Look at all of the "wizards at school" books now flooding submissions in response to the success of Harry Potter (most of which don't acknowledge Jane Yolen, among others, who preceded J.K. Rowling); look at the spate of "secret histories" now straining mailbags in the wake of Dan Brown's unimpressive-but-bestselling screed; and so on. Then stop to think about what has been excluded from the literary marketplace by this kind of inaccurate prejudgment—or, rather, about what publishers never even see that has been so excluded.

I've run some numbers; it would require hitting a within-category bestseller out of the slush pile only once every thirty months or so to pay for a full-time flunky at typical publishing industry wages and benefits who sat with a checklist and winnowed a 2,000-manuscript-a-month slush pile down to those manuscripts worth further review. That is what is being "saved" by agented-submissions-only policies. And then maybe more-experienced editors could be released from marketing meetings (at which they won't be heard anyway) to evaluate the ten or twenty manuscripts that make it through that process—in other words, to be editors.

Naaaaah. Ain't gonna happen.