Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Book "Blind Submission"

All of my life, people have constantly been recommending books to me. I don't if there's something in my genetic code that sets off a pheromone that causes people to instantly think of a book I must read or what, but let me tell you that it is extremely annoying. I read books for fun, for school, for research, and for a living. One can safely assume that I am fully capable of creating my own reading list and do not need any assistance.

Since I became an assistant literary agent, people have not been able to shut up about Blind Submission, a thriller about an assistant literary agent being stalked by one of her prospective clients. Not only that, but they would check back in a few weeks (or days) to ask if I'd read it, even though I'd given no indication that I had any interest in the thing. Eventually I gave in and bought it - and at full price, too - and today I actually gave in and read it.

Debra Ginsberg is an author of several books and a professional editor, and according to her website has worked "in publishing" to some extent. I don't doubt this is true, though she gives no indication that she was ever an assistant agent herself, which you think would be kind of crucial to her sales pitch for the book. It's obvious from the text that she does have a thorough knowledge of what a literary agency is like, and there were several minor details that I snickered at because they rang true, but for the most part, this was a work of fiction. I don't think Miss Ginsberg would deny that; she has every right to change whatever details she wants for the sake of the story, but do not assume this is a 100% accurate representation of every agency. If it was, no one would work at a literary agency.

In the novel, Angel (the protagonist) goes to work for the legendary Lucy Fiamma Agency, which is based in California, not New York. All right, that's rare and mainly involves agents who have close ties to Hollywood, but there are plenty of agents in California. I'll bite.

Lucy is a bitch, which drives the plot and makes us all think of the The Devil Wears Prada, to which this book has been mercilessly compared. The humor is mainly in-jokes about publishing. She knows every editor in New York, of course, even though she rarely goes there and is afraid to fly. (Suspension of disbelief kicks in here) Even though she only seems to have one client who published one book, she is fantastically busy. Doing what, I have no idea, because the client stays in Alaska the whole time, so she's not even booking press tours or anything.

Lucy also has four assistants, which is an insanely high number for any agency, and pays them 25K a year as starting pay. That means she shells out 100k a year just to pay her staff, assuming none of them ever get raises (and Angel does - her pay is doubled). In the real world, a busy agent has maybe one full-time assistant working the phones for meager pay and one part-time reader (like me) working for basically nothing per week. If she really needs more help, she'll set up some elaborate internship program to get a bunch of young people to sort her files for free.

You don't want to have a lot of paid assistants working full-time unless you absolutely need them, and I don't know who absolutely needs them. A literary agency is a very nebulous business, with years where the advances are huge and dry years where even their stable authors are churning out nothing that will sell. If you hit a dry year (or a number of them) and you have a bunch of people part-time, you cut back their hours until they get the message. If you have them full-time, you have to fire them, which is awkward (and how I lost my first job. She did give me a stunning recommendation that immediately placed me elsewhere, though). Profits are not steady and agents get really uncomfortable if the money's not rolling in. In other words, Lucy would not have this staff and if she did, she would be in debt.

These extremely overpaid assistants also do multiple reads (and full reviews) on unrequested material, which we never do. We just reject. If it's bad, it goes. My boss doesn't look over my rejections, only the maybes. If I actually wrote why I was rejecting them before doing so, my hours would be tripled, which would be nice for me but a bad business decision.

The really starts when the agency starts getting messages from a person who says they are the next big thing several times through fax before actually submitting their unrequested material. They do not provide any personal information but an email address. Good for a thriller, but at this point we would have rejected this author just for being annoying. We don't want to work with an egomaniac unless they're already bringing the cash in (i.e. at least one client on our current list). A lot of people try to use gimmicks - submitting business cards with only their website address and nothing else, trying to be hilarious by obviously faking a recommendation from a super-famous author, etc etc. We reject all these people. Their prose would have to be Pulitzer quality for us to even consider them, and most of the time, we don't get that far.

As to the book I'm reviewing here, the plot was a little confusing because I was annoyed that I had to read it and therefore was reading it fairly quickly. I was also bothered by the things I just mentioned above to the point of not really caring about the book, but a lot of people seem to like it as a novel, so you might want to go with their opinion.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Bestseller List, and How I Haven't Read It

One of the pitfalls of telling people you "work in publishing" in social situations is that they almost immediately and without fail ask if you have read the new ____ book and what you think of it. At this point I've perfected the art of either faking it or saying "well, it's on my list, but I've heard that ..." and then I proceed to quote what I read in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and very occasionally, Entertainment Weekly. I read book reviews not only because I have a general interest in what's happening in the market but also because I don't want to sound like an idiot in social situations.

I am a poor student. I make $10 an hour without benefits and I don't work full time. If I bought and read every bestseller, I would be broke. And no, we don't get books for free in publishing, unless you either work for the house that happened to publish that book or work for the agent who happened to represent that offer. Also, I have tastes and interests that might be different from things that sell really well.

Here is what I read last week:

Beowulf (the Burton Raffel translation)
Beowulf: Cliffnotes (hehehe)
The Illustrated Library of Our Colorful World: Asia
Don't Stand Where the Comet is Assumed to Strike Oil: A Dilbert Book
The Confession of Saint Patrick (Howlett's translation)
The Rule of Saint Benedict (Abbot Parry's translation)
About a bajillion short stories for class

Some of those were for research (I write historical fiction), some were for fun, and some were for class. None of them are currently on any bestseller list that I know of. Sorry.