Thursday, September 23, 2010

Couldn't have said it better myself

A post from US agent Rachelle Gardner about why agents don't give personalised feedback with each rejection letter:

Once you've read it, what I'm about to say can be taken in context ... Agents (and publishers/editors) make decisions about submissions very quickly. Probably more quickly than you would like. Just as Rachelle suggested, it's analogous to deciding whether or not you like a piece of clothing in a shop. I've seen enough queries in my life to know very quickly if something's going to be right for me. I'm not going to read every last word before coming to this conclusion, so I couldn't give a personalised rejection even if I want to. I give them to some people, but not everyone. In truth, I'd love to be able to give constructive feedback but I simply can't. The day is but twenty-four hours long. And there's another reason why we can't spend the time to give personalised rejections: our existing clients are subsidising the time we spend reviewing submissions. So they have to come first.

Thus, we've established that agents simply can't give detailed feedback on everything we read, yet you'd be surprised how many submissions I receive which are actually demands - not requests - for feedback. (Unsurprisingly, these receive a 'no thanks' fairly quickly.) Sometimes I suspect that the individuals involved simply don't understand what agents do, but there's so much information available these days that there's no excuse to not know. There are, as Rachelle says, editors and manuscripts assessors and writers groups and writers centres out there to help you assess your manuscript. The agent is who you come to after that point. Unless you'd like to think up a way for us to get a nifty amount of funding in order to employ ten more people each to read all the submissions and give feedback on every single one of them.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why would anyone have an agent?

When I launched myself onto the writing world 50 yeas ago in England I had no problem finding an agent. Now with nearly 30 books published, 14 novels and about the same number non-fiction under two different names I find it difficult o get an agent to show sufficient interest (or courtesy) to even answer an email. I am left wondering what exactly agents require and who has perpetrated the myth that without an agent a writer cannot hope to sell their work? Un-agented I am selling more than I ever have and other writers I know are also doing well on their own. Our only regret the precious writing time wasted Emailing agents who don't want to know about us.

Well, I'm not sure that I care for your tone ...

But I'll answer anyway. I've said before - more than once - that not all authors need agents, so it's certainly not me who's perpetrating that myth. One could presume that it's likely agents who say that all authors need agents, the same way lawyers say that everyone needs to sue (and before you protest, law is my background so I know whatof I speak). It's better for business if everyone thinks you're indispensable. Some authors need agents because they want to have someone manage their career/give creative support/generally chat to them about 'stuff'. And, in truth, it's often publishers who prefer that authors have agents - or, rather, that authors submit to them via agents - as they'd rather agents read the slushpile and find the Next Big Thing.

I find it curious that you have been trying to interest an agent in your work considering the success you've had without one. What would an agent offer you at this point? I'm not saying an agent couldn't offer you anything, but as you haven't mentioned why you're now looking for an agent, I'm curious. If I were an agent receiving a query from you (and for all you know, I have), that's what I'd be wondering too. But the main reason why I may not think I'm the right agent for you is that you may not be writing books that are right for me. Agents have their individual tastes the same as any other readers, and if your books aren't to my taste I'm not going to take you on, no matter how many books you've had published, because I wouldn't be able to represent you properly. In the past I've cynically taken on the odd project thinking it would be a winner, even if the material didn't appeal to me - I'd think that I could identify a large readership for that story and thus I should just put aside my own tastes. It's never worked. I've never once been able to get those projects over the line because my heart wasn't in it. And most agents who've been agents for a while have worked that out too.

Somewhere out there, there's an agent who'll love your writing - if, indeed, you still want an agent. The trick is - just as it is for unpublished writers - finding that agent. Being published is not necessarily a guarantee of finding an agent. I've turned down published authors several times, for various reasons. Sometimes one of the reasons is that I don't think they need an agent.

Finally, though: if you really, really don't need an agent ... why are you writing to me?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I have no witty title for this question about a short story

The writers' centre in my city last year shortlisted and highly commended a short story I submitted. Delighted, I sent it to a magazine hoping for publication.

They sent back a polite rejection explaining why they didn't want it. I was flattered they sent back such a lengthy rejection, but, still, I wasn't so happy at the time.

Now, the writers' centre has emailed asking for permission to print the story in their monthly publication that is in essence a newsletter.

Should I do it? Would this even be considered a publishing credit? Would it make it impossible to sell the story anywhere else?

I take rejection hard and wasn't really rushing to try to place the story elsewhere anyway. Should I take this for the compliment it is and just say yes, or should I try harder to place it somewhere potentially more prominent?

If this is the only short story you're ever going to write, then by all means hold out for placement in the publication you're dreaming of. If not, let them publish it - yes, it's a writing credit, and it's also a good experience to have. And it will only make the story impossible to publish elsewhere if you give them exclusive world rights - which you wouldn't do.

But I have to break it to you: short stories don't have that many publication outlets, and they have not many more readers. (I'm talking about the 'vanilla' world here - what I say doesn't apply to SF/fantasy/romance.) Short stories are, in business terms, a means to an end. They give you writing practice, they may get you some attention, perhaps a little bit of money. But they shouldn't be your sole focus, unless you want to spend your life being disappointed that book publishers tend to not be interested in them any more (with some exceptions, like Scribe and Black Inc). So see this as a chance to have an experience and get yourself out there, and kvetch about it no more.

Imprints in a vacuum

I’m thinking of working on a mini-thesis on the role that imprints play in publishing and was just curious as to your opinion as an agent. I’ve queried some publishers as to how they use (or don’t use) imprints, and it seems all over the place – some have imprints that are run completely separately in house, some focus on one imprint for a genre or have many, or use them very rarely (personally, I’m coming from a fantasy/sf/horror reader perspective).

As a reviewer and wanting to one day work in the publishing industry, I pay a lot of attention to imprints, how they are marketed (again, very differently!) and the kinds of works each one publishes, but the general public seem to vary a lot on whether they care a little or not at all. What do imprints do for industry, for authors and do you think consumers actually care?

Before I answer, I'll quickly explicate 'imprints' - because, as you point out, many folks don't know or don't care about them. An imprint can be compared to a line of clothing or accessories. Let's say our publishing company is Tom Ford. Tom Ford Perfumes would be the literary 'imprint'; Tom Ford Lipsticks may be the more commercial imprint. And then there's Tom Ford Sunglasses, which is the non-fiction sports-focused imprint. And Tom Ford When-on-Earth-Will-He-Do-More-Women's-Clothes, which is the aspirational imprint.

Tom Ford diversifies and differentiates his brand by releasing assorted lines of product (PS: he's very good at it). Hypothetically, publishing companies do the same, with imprints - except they don't. Almost universally, publishing companies deny that they're building brands (and we could say that imprints are also brands), while at the same time envying Penguin for having one. 'No one cares about our brand' they say, casting green eyes at Harlequin. I have no idea why they do this, except possibly that they're nervous about booksellers criticising them for building their own brands at the expense of the booksellers'. But any publisher who is not currently thinking about building their brand - whether or not they use imprints to do it - is not going to survive in the digital space, when brand will possibly be the only way they can cut through to the reader/consumer. Certainly, the author's brand does this already - to the point where most readers probably think the author is their own imprint.

To date imprints have been useful mainly to booksellers, so they know where to shelve things and, hopefully, how to sell them - Picador means one thing, Pocket Books means another. Quite often this is not passed on to the consumer, so that usefulness stops with the bookseller, rendering the brand an intra-industry tool. Some imprints have made an impression on readers, but not many - and this is something the publishers have done either on purpose or accidentally on purpose. I don't really understand why you'd create a brand and then not do anything with it. So maybe it's just because they don't know what to do with them. Where's Don Draper when you need him?

In the years ahead we may see the disappearance of many imprints and concentration on the publisher's brand, hand in hand with the disappearance of bricks-and-mortar booksellers and concentration on online purchasing. Publishers are very well placed to deliver e-books, in particular, to consumers. Once they realise they can do good business that way, they'll no doubt spend more time building their brands. At that point imprints will either be properly developed brands or they won't exist at all.

I'm sure some of you think 'Oh, nasty marketing talk! Books - literature! THE ARTS! - are above this!' Sorry, they're not. If someone writes a magnificent book and someone else publishes it, and neither one of them tells anyone about it, that's just stupid. In a world where there are increasing amounts of information vying for everyone's brain cells - when there are more and more wonderful stories around to read - readers need help navigating their way to the stories that they're going to most like. That comes from trusting a brand, particularly when the authors are new. Once you trust an author's brand, fine, you'll keep reading their stories. But before the author has a brand, you need to trust either the publisher's or the bookseller's brand. The imprint should be a brand that you can trust, except they're not treated like brands - just silos. We'll see how long that lasts.