Thursday, October 12, 2006

In Defense of Agents and "Bad" Literature

I don't know, rejecter, the problem with so many agents and publishers is that you're interested in selling self-consuming artifacts (you went to Brown, you'll recognize that _expression) with a brief shelf-life. You equate sales with success. Stephen King had good commercial success with his early novels -- does anyone read them now? Buy them now? How about John Grisham? How about Wallerstein and Bridges Over Madison County (god what an awful book).

I read an interview that Andrew Wylie gave with La Monde where he described his method as trying to bring literature to the fore. He said that he pretty much despised Dan Brown and didn't care that 70% of the publishing world wanted more Dan Browns. There's an agent I'd give my left nut to have represent me, someone actually interested in literature and the contribution it can make to the culture, not only now but years from now.

First of all, Stephen King has had a lot of commercial success recently with both his fantasy Dark Tower series and his new horror/sci-fi novel Cell. He also writes regular columns for Entertainment Weekly. John Grisham's book The Innocent Man is currently #2 on the Amazon.com website in bestselling books. I can't remember off the top of my head if Wallerstein has written anything recently, but every writer has dry years and bad books. Some writers only have a certain number of books in them and either start producing crap or just stop writing pretty much altogether (J. D. Salinger, America's favorite non-writing writer)

In terms of equating sales with success, that's true and not true. The publishing industry is so tough that if you want to be a multiple-book writer, you have to have a significant early success, because you will be judged on the sale of your earlier material. If your first book is a flop, or doesn't do well enough to recoup publishing costs, your career with that publishing company is probably dead and the agent will have to take your future books to other companies, who will know that. For people who just wanted to write one great novel and get it published, that's not really an issue, but an agency can't have a giant list of one-book authors. It needs a stable of authors who regularly produce publishable material.

Most agencies have a varied book list. While the agent loves every book on that list, the public might not, and the agent is aware on this. A good agency (financially) will have a stable (and we do use this term) of authors who, like I said, regularly produce books (about every 1-3 years) that sell for significant advances (over $20,000). The stable will probably be relatively small, depending on how successful those authors are. One author can carry an entire agency for years. Then there's the others on the list, who aren't commercially successful, or are first-book authors who got a first-book advance (around $5000-7000), of which the agency got 15%. They get to stay on the list because the agency is floated by the stable authors, and the agent can afford to take on a new author who might have terrific material that just won't reach a huge audience.

For all of the criticism of agents representing what some people consider bad literature, nobody has bothered to inquire what other books Dan Brown's agent (if he has one) is representing.

18 comments:

Maria said...

I'm glad that agencies and publishers are interested in selling artifacts...and/or commercial successes. Frankly I'm not interested in buying much literature that strives to advance the culture. I have nothing against anyone that reads it or writes it or even sells it, but when I shop, I'm not after culture. I want entertainment pure and simple. If it Happens to impact the culture, if it happens to be long-lasting, that's great, but I want to laugh, I want to be intrigued, I want to wonder, I want to escape. I'm not real eager to be "taught" or "advanced."

Advance the culture sounds...Boring. Self-righteous. Pretentious.

Anonymous said...

As I've already seen from the first commenter, my interest in literature versus dreadful commercial fiction won't be looked on too kindly. In fact, Maria already underscores a kind of anti-intellectual bias. But I'm interested in language, so I prefer writers with style -- nothing boring nor pretentious about it.

But let's talk about a business aspect of publishing. You wrote: If your first book is a flop, or doesn't do well enough to recoup publishing costs, your career with that publishing company is probably dead and the agent will have to take your future books to other companies, who will know that.

Here you raise another interesting point about the business which seems to be the tendency for publishers to simply dump books on the market. They put their juice behind a couple of lead titles every list and the rest are left to flounder / founder. If miraculously one of these orphans manages to catch on, the author has a career. If not, the author is screwed.

There's a welter of social noise, it's not even a screen, it's a huge wall. Trying to be heard above that is brutal. Without some kind of marketing push, the vast majority of books are doomed to sell in the numbers you describe. It has nothing to do with quality or literature.

The Rejecter said...

Anonymous - I'm not sure what your question is (if there is one), so I won't turn this into a whole post, but I will say that a good agent is always interested in quality literature. Sometimes it's because it's literary genius, and sometimes it's because it's a really exciting read. Either way, the agent will try to promote it.

ORION said...

The point is NOT that "badly" written books are published or that no one values language and style or even that publishers "dump" books on the market hoping to find that elusive commercial success.
The point is different books appeal to different people.
Some want a compelling story set in the future and others a romance. Some want to immerse themselves in the language and others want a less complicated read.
When you say "dreadful commercial fiction" that is your opinion. But realize that these books are read and enjoyed by millions. I love reading Kafka. I enjoy Proust in small doses but give me John Grisham on an airplane any day.
Maria nails it when she says, "I want to escape."
Ditto for me.
Each time i read a post like anonymous I am reminded each year how impossible and contentious picking the winner for the Booker prize is - If "good literature" is so obvious as it seem to be for you maybe you could give the committee a hand next year...

Seth Christenfeld said...

Robert James Waller (not Wallerstein) last published a book in June of 2005, and he has another one coming out next month.

Maria said...

Non-intellectual--I love it! Dear anonymous, that is the whole point. I do read intellectual books (non-fiction) and I do intellectual work. But when I read for pleasure, I'm not necessarily out for intellect. I KNOW I am not out to be "lectured to" or "culturaly advanced" by an author that thinks I need advancing.

You're obviously a writer--you might want to consider that your words are coming across as Quite the elitist. You may believe that you are better than many dear writer, and that is fine, but oh, that attitude will do you no favors. Hide it better behind beautiful words that lure agents, readers and editors, not distance them. You will find a more welcoming reception, I assure you.

There is room for both kinds of books--I assure you, I see many of the kinds of books you describe. I even see publishers that say "beautiful prose is the most important thing, writing with a message, etc."

Don't think it any easier to get "commercial" books published. Read just about any author interview and they will tell you about rejections--this includes Janet Evanovich, Stephen King and Dan Brown, I am quite certain.

James Aach said...

I would like to think there is a happy medium of some sort, where a book can be both entertaining and provide some new knowledge or perspective for the reader. While there may occaisionaly be a deep thinking novel that influences the power elite and promotes change, I think on average there's more cultural impact from a novel on a key topic that's widely read by "the masses". Dan Brown, whatever one thinks of his art and accuracy, got a lot of people talking publicly about religion and it's impact on society.

Another good example is Michael Crichton's recent "State of Fear". Its attack on global warming theorists is having a sizeable impact on the public debate in this area, which will affect us for the next millenium no matter how it's decided. Of course, Mr. Crichton's name on a book at this point practically guarantees success, but there clearly is a market for entertaining "fun" novels that take on big issues with some degree of detail and accuracy. I'm not sure how much the publishing folks are embracing this as a general trend, however. See my coments below in "Science-based."

(In my own case, I used my expertise to write a novel on a widely debated topic, but couldn't get in the front door of the mainstream industry- perhaps due to bad query techniques - so I've gone the free online route for the time being - with a lot of positive reader feedback.) RadDecision.blogspot.com

writtenwyrdd said...

I'm with maria, there's room for literary and also the lighter reads. Although I love language, I read genre fiction and I read it for entertainment.

I like your blog so far, Rejecter. I wish I had your job, actually.

Miss Java said...

Most people just want a fun read, and can care less about being inspired. The trick is to do both, write something that entertains and also, inspires them without them realizing it.

http://blackcoffee-redpen.blogspot.com/

The Rejecter said...

My job is a lot of fun. Especially letters from crazy, crazy people. Granted, that's not most of them, but you get at least one crazy person a day.

writtenwyrdd said...

I've worked in law enforcement. I could deal with crazy people in a not-in-person mode quite happily.

Anonymous said...

Maria, of course I'm an elist. That's not a bad thing. You've listened to too many Republicans. Who wouldn't want to be the best?

Rejecter, I've had friends get promised the world when a NY house wanted their book only to see the publicity push never materialize. That's hardly a sign of a bad book or a bad writer. No one hardly knew the book was out there. I'd be interested in your take on this.

David de Beer said...

I agree with Maria and Orion here.

Elitist does not equate being the best. Consider:

Hesse, Kafka and Salinger are elite authors.
Hesse, Kafka and Salinger are elitist authors.

see the difference?

Personally, I believe the first, though it's MY opinion only.
I never met any of those men so I cannot answer the second.

Orion said:

different books appeal to different people

agree fully, and rightly so. You can go further and say that different books serve different purposes, and there are times when I will enjoy one and times when I require another.
Orion's statement is the opposite of elitist.

Elitist describes an attitude of:
I matter more than you do. My opinions are more important. My tastes and topics alone are relevant and interesting.
Elitist is being dismissive of any topic or opinion you do not share.
Often, it goes hand in hand with a miffy attitude when dismissiveness of one's opinion and tastes are encountered.

A while back, a writer in an online critique group said: "Surely, my novel matter more than any short story."
It turned into a public row between me and him (ok, yes, fine, there were previously unresolved issues between us and I was itching for a fight wth him).
The point is - he may be right, but how does he know that? To this day, he has not answered me on what grounds he made that statement, what gave him the right to decide his tastes count for more than another person's.

As is the prerogative of all intellectual giants, allow me to make an assumption (in other words, a statement without a single shred of corroborative evidence) - at this very moment, there are half a billon writers writing with the express intent of rocking the foundations of my world and changing my opinions.
That is a lot of rocking, and I am afraid of earthquakes...mostly, that is just too many opinions to change. I'm getting old now, my memory chips are running hot and half a billion world-rocking opinions will cause my system to shut down. Fast.

Elitist denotes arrogance and vanity.
Elite is a term used to describe those who attained the highest achievements in their respective fields.

That's hardly a sign of a bad book or a bad writer

that at least is a very true statement. It's got a lot to do with luck, as well. Sometimes you hit, sometimes you miss. Name of the game unfortunately. best is to just keep trying, maybe another publisher or agent.

I'm not entirely sure what the Republicans have to do with writing query letters, except they have money and can bully people. Which makes me want them on my side!

Mark said...

"Another good example is Michael Crichton's recent "State of Fear". Its attack on global warming theorists is having a sizeable impact on the public debate in this area, which will affect us for the next millenium no matter how it's decided."

It prompted me to write the answer novel which I'm sending around now. "Warm Front" to be exact only mine has the real science presented correctly instead of the lies Crichton chose to tell. It's not a theory is the context used here. In science a theory is well-substantiated before it's called one. The story is more chilling that way. Or boiling is more to the point. The issue has been decided by the scientific community, and only a handful of skeptics haven't signed on.

J.D. Salinger has been writing, only not publishing, yet.

Anonymous said...

Stephen King had good commercial success with his early novels -- does anyone read them now? Buy them now? How about John Grisham? How about Wallerstein and Bridges Over Madison County (god what an awful book).

It appears you have a different taste than some other people. That's okay, but it doesn't make a book bad. The fact is, both King and Grisham are still selling books both old and new ones.

Kanani said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kanani said...

(Sorry, I had to delete the other one, I meant to edit it and pressed, publish)

Bad literature?
It's all in the eyes of the beholder, I suppose. Or rather, sometimes, self-image.

Look, popular fiction is like popular movies. They're going to get wider distribution and sales because they have that broad appeal. Maybe they're just a quick satisifying story. Or maybe they deal with a current matter. Who knows?

But just because it's popular fiction, doesn't necessarily mean that the characters are weak, that it doesn't wade into deeper meanings, or the plot is dull. It doesn't mean that just because Kazuo Ishiguro or Paul Auster becomes available at COSTCO that they've crossed the line into bad literature or now are read only by those with an "anti-intellectual bias." (and by the way, I have been known to toss in a novel or two with my large tub of cottage cheese, and big case of yogurt. All hail to Costco where I can pick up a churro!).

But it does bring up another issue. Why is it that people get stuck with the thought of only writing novels? If you're a writer, you'll have enough material for lit journals, poetry journals, magazine articles, short stories, anthologies. You'll be asked to edit.

I don't care if it's the neighborhood newsletter, writing grants, press releases, or blasting letters off to the editor. It's all an opportunity to do what you love. The places to try to get your first publication are endless. You just have to unwrap your brain from around the fence post of ONLY writing 'the great literary novel.' It doesn't work that way.

JB said...

QUOTE "I don't care if it's the neighborhood newsletter, writing grants, press releases, or blasting letters off to the editor.
It's all an opportunity to do what you love. "

As a technical writer, I can promise you it is NOT all the same.