Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Agents and Reading Fees, or Why Publishing Is Quite Cuddly Really

I set up this blog a long time ago, and posted sporadically for a few months. Then something happened that really caught my attention, and sparked a post that I just had to write - and that post was what turned me into a regular blogger.

The issue was the Harlequin Horizons (now DellArte Press) debacle of 2009. A sizeable chunk of that post is summary, or a declaration that I have no special knowledge of the industry. But I became a blogger because I wanted to make this point. Gentle readers, please bear in mind I hadn't really mastered brevity then ;) :

I read a lot of agent blogs, and I have read many posts from agents who believe that their posts aren't reaching as much of their intended audience as they should. Periodically, agents will post revised submission guidelines, or say 'People querying me keep doing [insert annoying or time-consuming habit here]. Kindly stop. And I realise if you are reading this, you probably aren't the ones doing it. Sigh.'

So, by their own admission, the advice given on agent blogs is reaching a self-selecting sample - the kind of people who do research (or the kind of people who get bored in work and google things a lot). The kind of people who do research aren't as likely to be suckered into an 'author solution' that isn't right for them (and again, let me stress that self-publishing is right for lots of people. I'm not sure Author Solutions is right for anyone, but it might be). And it seems to me that the main issue that the publishing community has with this development is misrepresentation - the idea that less-informed writers may be persuaded to part with money in exchange for what they believe to be a path to traditional publishing success. Once again, the people reading the advice are the people who need it the least.

This is a generalisation, and obviously there are tons of exceptions, but as a rule, the kind of aspiring writers who do poor research into publishing options are the ones who - fairly or unfairly - are most likely to be shoved to the very bottom of the slush pile because they didn't follow the guidelines, or they queried someone who doesn't represent their genre, or something similar. And we all know that potentially excellent writers sometimes don't succeed, not because they're poor at writing but because they're poor at hoop-jumping, or rule-following, depending on your perspective.

So the entire publishing community is currently up in arms about the interests of a group of people, most of whom they are relatively unlikely to ever make money from. Not one person has said 'A quick Google search will throw up all the blog posts and controversy about this. Anyone too naive or stupid to do that deserves to be conned.' I feel this point of view would be unfair, because we have all blindly followed paths because we thought they would lead to the things we've dreamed.

And I think it's rather nice that no one has presented that counter argument, and that an industry is responding with concern for people who aren't their cash cows. That is all.

And now, I see something similar happening again with the re-opening of the reading fees debate. Victoria Strauss's excellent post on reading fees is here. Those people within the industry who are against reading fees are against them because it damages the interests of a group of people they may never make money from. Victoria Strauss also makes the point that reading queries, partials and manuscripts that are not accepted is essentially unpaid time, as those submissions will never generate income for the agent.

Once again, all these months later, the same point that prompted me to become a blogger is asking to be made again. No industry is perfect - publishing certainly isn't. But it's one of very few industries willing to go so far to protect people that are inessential to their operations.


  1. We have a church saying for this: preaching to the choir. I know now that I am a member of the choir to be careful about any situation that might ask me to part with my money to become published or read, but 5 years ago, I wasn't in the "choir" and might have made a boneheaded decision based on what I didn't know.

    Great post!

  2. Great post Ellen! I think it's important to know that life isn't fair, just like jobs, the money you make and the cars you drive arent. In general we do the best in our efforts to research what's important and do the best we can when sending out queries.

    One day our efforts will pay off... paying attention is key!!!

  3. I saw Victoria's post about reading fees. I can kind of understand that people think it will weed out the bad'uns, but I agree with Victoria - all writers, good or bad, lack perspective on their own writing. And bad ones might have the money to promote it even more than the good ones! Paying to have your stuff read doing ensure anything other than some good writers may not submit.

  4. It's kind of nice putting the matter, and the industry, into that perspective.

  5. Christine, that's exactly the phrase I was looking for. You'd think I might have used it in the rambling original post. . . :) I still have to say I admire the commitment of the industry in protecting the people outside the choir, though. Including the ones with their fingers in their ears chanting 'I'm not listening!'

    Jen, you're right, we'll get there in the end :)

    Talli, I think the 'it'll weed out the bad writers' argument is the most flawed one on the list because we all know how critically-impaired we are about our own work. That said, I can see why people think it could work - they're wrong though! The argument that held the most water with me was that time spent on rejected submissions is unpaid time for agents, but then the only reason the agency system works at all is because the agent gets paid when the author gets paid. . . otherwise I feel it's just too open to corruption.

    Well, Paul, you know what a positive ray of sunshine I am :p


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