Thursday, February 05, 2009

Literary vs. Commercial Fiction Round 247

So at this point in the life of the blog I am seriously tempted to just write "go away" to people who send in the usual "why is there so much trash in the marketplace while my literary opus isn't published?" email. I decided to make an exception for this one.

Hello Ms. Rejecter,

The dynamic for agents is to find that compelling work that is salable, not an easy task I'm sure. For me some books that are considered page turners are often so empty and the characters so thin I don't care what they do and the plot so mundanely crime-ridden or romance-ridden or horror-ridden that I don't care what happens. I could give many examples of such profitable books with their suspense page turners in different genres that the only reasonable thing is for the characters to self-destruct. Good luck to those writers. I do not envy or begrudge them anything, for life is too short for that. Maybe these books are a kind of therapy in their escapism for readers and agents are part of the therapy business. However, maybe there is kind of writing that tries to sustain us by illuminating the real world.

Now, the dilemma is, do the vagaries of the the marketplace where escapism literature is easily identified and dominate reduce the marketplace need for compelling stories that deal more authentically with the real world?

First, a confession. I had to look "vagaries" up. I don't know everything. It turns out it means "an extravagant or erratic notion or action" or something like that, which I feel really further obscures the meaning of the sentence than if I hadn't looked it up, but fine. Learn something new every day.

Now, there's the standard argument as to why the market is what it is:
(1) People buy books they want to read.
(2) Publishing companies watch sales and take stock of what was bought.
(3) Editors are encouraged to buy new and exciting things in genres that people are actually buying and reading, plus a little "more of the same" to be on the safe side. The company doesn't want to go under or anything.

In other words, if the public for some reason completely stopped buying books about vampires (in a wildly unlikely alternate universe), editors would be less interested in publishing books about vampires, knowing they wouldn't sell. Eventually there would be no new books about vampires aside from a couple companies hoping to buck the trend, because people don't like to publish books that they know won't sell. Publishing is a business, people. A slightly more altruistic business than, say, investment banking, but nonetheless a business.

From browsing the shelves by yourself, using whatever definition of "literary fiction" you want to use, you will probably come to the conclusion that most people don't buy literary fiction, as most things on the shelves aren't literary fiction. And, by the way, it has always been this way. There has been no time in history where people have only read "great literature."

Now, the dilemma is, do the vagaries of the the marketplace where escapism literature is easily identified and dominate reduce the marketplace need for compelling stories that deal more authentically with the real world?

I want to spend a moment for the good of mankind taking apart this sentence.

I'm going to assume that "escapism literature" means "genre fiction" so we don't spend all day discussing. Normally I would just assume that the latter half of the sentence refers to "literary fiction" and just direct you to the explanation above, which is that the buyers dictate the market, not the other way around, but hold on a second. What are "compelling stories that deal more authentically with the real world?" Because generally in publishing, stories that take place in the "real world" are stories that could possibly happen somewhere at sometime, even if they didn't, and if they actually did it's called "non-fiction." So, that eliminates alternate histories, stories that contain ghosts, stories that contain whimsical creatures who are just metaphors for things, and actually most things that are on the shelves, except maybe romance fiction, because people do occasionally have sex with improbably hot guys. Also thrillers happen in real life, but they usually end up with the protagonist dying in a ditch somewhere or never finding out who was chasing him because that's what happens to most spies.

Your given definition of the literature you want to see more of, if interpreted strictly, would knock out most "great literature." You know, like:

All of Greek literature
All of Arthurian literature
Most Shakespeare
Beloved (though I don't know how "great" it is, in my opinion)
The Old Man and the Sea
And a ton of others I'm thinking of right now because I have to get to work

So, you might want to rethink that.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Non-Fiction Proposals and Unfinished Manuscripts

Hi Rejecter,

I've been querying my memoir to agents - and one has asked to see it. Now, everything I've read, and published memoirists, have told me that NF doesn't have to be complete to sell. I have 130 pages written. Based on my query, an agent emailed me yesterday and said, "I'd like to see [name of book]. Please send it to me in XXX format."

So, now what do I do? As I write to you, I am cleaning up the chapters (spelling, grammar, transitions) + planning to email to her with the note that this is my "working manuscript." Or should I just hold off, polish it completely + make sure I have a full book before sending it? Or can I send what I have and say this is a partial? My initial instinct was to email her back yesterday and say, "this is a work in progress, I'll send what I have," but I also don't want to waste her time with explanatory emails.

It's true; sometimes non-fiction is sold to a publisher based only on a thorough proposal and sometimes non-fiction is sold when it's a finish piece. The traditional reason that a proposal is submitted is so that the author has the money to go do the research required to write the book, which may involve things like taking time off work or travel or acquiring rights to photos or just, you know, income to justify their time. That's the only reason an editor would put cash up front to a writer, and they would only do it with a VERY thorough proposal unless you're a celebrity, and even then you should have your ghostwriter already chosen.

In your case, you have a right to say "I have the proposal ready but not the book" but obviously you have to be upfront about that. If the book's not done because you just haven't gotten around to writing it all, you have less of an argument for not having written it all and you should finish before you submit. If you need the advance money first (or just want it first), you have to make it clear to the agent that the book isn't done. This should be in the query letter, and if it's not, immediately after the first positive response.

For anyone considering writing a proposal and then going ahead with only a couple chapters, let me give you some advice: getting published is a hugely stressful ordeal. Some people (most people) find it even more stressful if they've been paid up-front for an unseen product. However detailed the proposal was, the fact of the matter is that the editor still has not seen the entire product. The editor probably won't back out of the deal after paying the advance based on the remaining chapters being not what he/she expected, but if the editor isn't happy with the final product, he/she will either spend a lot of time editing it or the company will kind of shove it aside and not put huge publicity money into it. So, if you can possibly avoid that stress by writing the book ahead, do so.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Multiple Agents and Submissions

Dear Rejecter,

I have a manuscript (full) out with an agent who is due to get back to me soon. Last week my dream agent, to my immense surprise, requested a partial. I’m ecstatic to say the least, but also realistic. Naturally, I sent the partial right away.

According to the letter, it will take a month for my dream agent to get back to me. It wasn’t an exclusive, so I didn’t feel the need to reveal that another agent (a junior agent) has the full. Should I have? Or should I just wait and see what happens with the junior agent, because she might end up passing on it anyway?

While some people do mention in their letters that other people are looking at their work, it's no longer obligatory unless you granted an exclusive, which you didn't. In the old days it was the appropriate thing to do, but today we're just assuming that everyone is mass querying and that we are competing with someone for a manuscript if it's really good. Telling the agent (the second one) that someone else is looking at it is polite, but not necessary. In other words, you don't have to email her and go out of your way to say it (the fewer emails you bother an agent with, the better), but you can mention it in passing in some other correspondence if you have a chance. It may spur them on, or it may do nothing. Either way, not a big deal, no reason to split hairs.

Other agents might not feel this way, but certainly it doesn't really make a difference at my office when we get a letter with something like "other agents have expressed interest."

Don't wait on one agent over another unless you're in the very final stage of deciding between agents and you just need more time to think. Publishing is slow enough as it is. There's no reason here to make it any slower.