The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Friday, June 09, 2006

When Books Don't Sell - 1

Laura Miller is a journalist who frequently writes reviews for Salon. For my money, she's one of the best literary journalists around. She has a direct, unaffected yet highly intelligent style that usually gets to the heart of the matter.

Recently, she wrote a column entitled "Rank Insubordination" on the New York Times list of the best American novels of the last quarter century. Or rather, she wrote on the compilation of literary best-of lists generally, and the fact they raise as many questions as they answer. (Miller's conclusion was while a single best-of list may have made sense a few decades ago, the reading public has become so diverse that what is really required is a series of best-of lists; a recognition that standards are not absolute, and have become more varied as reading audiences have become more diverse.)

I wrote her an email in response to this piece. I agreed with the column and its conclusion, so what I focussed on instead was my own opinion that part of the problem with achieving diversity in literature was that the major publishing houses were now walling themselves off from emerging writers. That is, emerging writes who don't have an agent.

I can't remember exactly how I worded my argument, but it was along these lines. This question of how the major houses process (or refuse to process) work by lesser-knowns is connected, I think, to the question of canon formation ... which in turn is what lists like the NYT's effectively influence. Furthermore, the fact that major publishers are not looking at any work by emerging writers has received almost no critical attention. It seems to me the lit-world's equivalent of the Patriot Act: shave off a few traditions and liberties here and there ... what's the big deal?

Essentially, what has happened is this: the major publishers have killed the slush pile. You know the slush pile -- it was that means by which an emerging writer could submit his/her manuscript to a publishing house. There, it would be read by a junior editor with negligible influence over final publishing decisions. But at least it offered a small ray of hope. And it is this hope that generations of writers have clung to during the early phases of their career. Once upon the time, the slush-pile was "just how things are done". Well, those days are gone now, at least as far as the big houses are concerned.

And this change has gone unannounced: some houses simply pretend that no one is interested in submitting to them and evade the issue altogether, but a few major publishers will state clearly at their webites that they simply will not consider unsolicited work. This doesn't mean they will consider a cover letter and a sample chapter (this was the way it worked until just a few years ago). It doesn't mean they will consider even a cover letter and CV (this is how some agents work). It means they will consider ... nothing -- nothing that does not come through an agent. But here's the thing: many agents do not consider unsolicited work these days either. The Catch-22 is obvious.

In any case, all this is a lead-up to the email correspondence Miller and I had.

When I wrote to her, she was kind enough to reply. Here is the beginning of what she said:

About 175,000 new titles are published every year in the US. In fiction alone, a new work is published every 30 minutes. Even writers who do manage to get published by a major house often find that their work gets no press attention at all and vanishes as if it [never] existed. Even writers who are well reviewed find that their books go largely unsold. At every stage of the process, there is an supply that vastly exceeds demand. More books are reviewed than can be read by the average reader (assuming that reader choice is distributed over the field of possibilities); more books are published than can be effectively reviewed; more books are shopped by agents than can be published; more manuscripts are submitted to agents than can be represented by those agents.

I think it would be fair to say that what Miller wanted to do was offer me a reality check. She does not know me, and is being kinder than many arts journalists would be by simply acknowledging my email. From her point of view, it's possible that I'm a decent writer (I described my work in so little detail that she had to assume I write fiction). It's also possible I'm an untalented crank. In either case, my argument, that the big houses need to change their ways and at least offer that sliver of hope to emerging writers, was, she felt, beside the point. The main thing to think of was the reality of the book market today: it is saturated with new books, and starved of enough readers.

She continued:

Books, especially fiction, are unfortunately
something that many, many people want to write and relatively few people want to read, at least not in commensurate amounts. (See last year's NEA survey, "Reading at Risk.") People tend to point their finger at the part of the process where the book they've written has gotten stuck. If it doesn't make it to the agent, it's the agents' fault; if it doesn't make it to a publisher, it's the publishers' fault; if it doesn't get reviewed, it's the press. But, in reality, the whole system is overloaded. Everything that most people dislike about the system really derives from this fact. If people were as enthusiastic about reading (or rather, buying) books as they are about writing them, the industry overall would not be in the poor economic situation it's in now.

Again, fair enough. But already there is more than one way to consider the current crisis in falling sales of literary fiction. (I'm going to go into alternatives in a later post.) For the time being, though, I think it's worth pointing out that probably everyone -- from industry insiders to the the most obscure writers -- agree that the goal of literary publishing remains finding the best possible work. And so the question arises, is the current system of relying exclusively on agented work going to bring out the best?

Agents are an extremely varied group: some of them are wonderful and committed to good writing. Others are woefully incapable of recognizing anything except marketable pap.

Underlying the agenting business are two essential factors: the first is that the top agents are often already too busy to consider work by emerging writers -- that avenue of approaching a major publisher is closed, too. (And if at this point you're asking, well, why approach a big house? Why not publish with a small one? The answer is, writers who are serious want to make a decent living. Small houses are almost saintly in their devotion to the cause of literature, but are too often squeezed out by the muscle of the big houses.)

The second factor is agents are unregulated; even real estate agents have to meet more stringent professional standards before they can go into business. Some agents are outright charlatans, and, for writers, it is very much a case of caveat emptor. The agents that publishers will listen to are the ones worth doing business with. They are the ones the publishers refer to with the adjective "established". But they, unfortunately, usually fall into the the group described above: the very, very busy ones who themselves don't consider unsolicited work.

In the end, the result for writers who are outside the loop is extraordinarily frustrating. And if it turns out that some of these writers are worth giving at least a reading to, well, that may not be the way it works out in reality. Luck has become an increasingly important aspect of getting your foot in the door. (Speaking for myself, I've had several tantalizing close-calls. And I think my work is worth at least consideration: I have both a completed memoir and a working draft of a screenplay novel.)

The history of culture of rife with examples of writers, artists and musicians who were either under-recognized or unrecognized in their life times. The filtering system by which those we consider talented are distinguished from those who are, so to speak, clogging up the drains of civilization, has never been perfect. Why assume the the current system of almost entirely walling off major publishers will lead to continued publishing of the very best manuscripts available? If nothing else, the majors should return to giving emerging writers a small chance: if a return to the classic slush-pile is too much to ask for, they should at least allow emerging writers to submit cover letters and sample chapters.

It's not too much to ask.

[note: screenplay-novel FAQs can be found here.]


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