25 April 2006

Screening Devices

Today's Times includes an interesting—at least, interesting in a morbid sort of way—episode in the long-running soap opera of unpublished authors trying to break into commercial publishing. It appears that washing-machine instructions are sometimes good enough to draw the attention of some UK-based agents. On the one hand, we don't know to whom he sent the material; the article just says "to literary agents and publishers." Sadly, there is a fair proportion of scammers in UK publishing, too; for all we know, all of the publishers that responded positively were vanity presses (hidden or otherwise), and all of the agents were fee-charging or incompetent. On the other hand, this points out a serious problem with the way publishing's submission system has fossilized (implications that there are ponderous dinosaurs (many with tiny, tiny brains) involved intended).

The ultimate problem has two aspects. First, most manuscripts that aspiring authors would submit simply are not ready for publication—and one need not even read past the first page (or, depending upon the cover letter, to the first page) to know that. Basic writing standards are extremely low, and too many authors want to "be published" with works that have essentially no commercial viability. For example, one of the most popular categories for aspiring writers—and particularly older ones—is the personal memoir. These people all have a story to tell, and one about which they are passionate. A little bit of market research, though, will tell them that almost all commercially published memoirs are:

What this really means is this: Trying to sell a memoir to a publisher is like trying to sell a hamburger to a vegetarian. Leaving aside whether the hamburger is rancid, or overcooked, that sale will happen only in a moment of weakness… and then only for burgers substantially better than what one might find at McZorgle's. Thus, as far as many publishers are concerned, they never need see even the first page—all they need see is the cover letter proclaiming a memoir.

Second, and much more insidious, is the industry's refusal to be honest about its means of selecting its products. This involves both the process itself and the mixed (and often indecipherable) messages sent with rejections. One publisher's "not right for us" may be an encouragement to send other, different work, while another publisher's identical message may be an encouragement to continue with a career in repairing household appliances. The same goes for agents. And the essential delegation of the slush pile from publishers to agents in many publishing categories (indeed, most publishing categories popular among unpublished writers) while simultaneously complaining about the quality of the material seen in that slush pile is even more self-defeating.