The Death Knell

Buh-bye, Agents!

If there were such things as “death cats,” there’d be a bunch of ’em gathered at the Big Publishing door right now, mewling and yowling for blood.

If there were such things as banshees, you’d hear their chilling howls echoing through the canyons of the gatekeeper industry.

It’s dying. I’ve been saying so for months and months now, and I’m not alone. I’m not, despite anyone’s thoughts on it, sided with a bunch of nut-job rebels with mullets and tattered denim jackets with the sleeves torn off who hate the publishing industry and wish it out of existence. I’m part of a new movement — well, relatively new anyway — which recognizes and supports that ePublishing and e-SELF publishing in particular are the wave of the future for the print and publishing industry.

Continue reading

Trust Me

I used to know a guy who came out of construction. Said he was almost a million bucks in debt, and he took a job as a used car salesman to try and pay that debt off (!). When I shopped there, he was nice and honest, and told me he just couldn’t learn all the slick tricks they tried to teach him.

Couple of years later I went back to the dealership. You know what? Not only was the guy still there (which I assume means he didn’t make a millions dollars), he was now the used car sales manager.

And he was the biggest prick I’ve ever had the displeasure of dealing with. Continue reading

What are you writing for?

Are you writing to be published? Or are you writing to be read?

There’s a difference, you know. I think there is, anyway. You readers should know something about the people who write your books: We writers do a lot of research into our craft before we put ourselves out there. We read industry blogs in hope of gaining some insight into the inner workings of agents and editors at mainstream publishers, so we know what we should be striving for. We read the blogs of other authors, to glean the wisdom of those who have trod this path before us. We read the blogs of other writers, to share the burdens, triumphs, joys and pitfalls of another person walking this same treacherous path.

We barely take notice of how so much of the information contradicts the other information. We do our best to process the information and make overnight sensations of people like Nathan Bransford, no longer an agent by the way, and we take him up on his amazing corral-building tactic of “query me!”

Then there are industry magazines like Writer’s Digest and The Writer. They offer us interviews with authors, books to help us hone our craft, the one hundred most helpful sites for a writer, or the top ten best author web sites for us to look to for inspiration and ideas. We find writing prompts to work with, we search for Twitter groups to be part of, we play writing games and do anything we can to become the best writers we can be.

And we pay no heed to the sheer volume of other writers doing the same thing, working the same circles, doing the same exercises, because we dare not. It’s staggering. And we don’t talk about how some of the information isn’t information at all, it’s advertising, or it’s poppycock, or it’s out of date and not correct anymore, in those trade magazines. Never talk about the number of those great author web sites which aren’t up and running anymore. How many authors once published are now using CreateSpace to put out their next book? Better not to look under those rocks.

We follow all the contradictory advice from agents and editors, we try to master the techniques of gurus at writing conferences and online critique groups, we subject ourselves to insults and ridicule in critique groups, workshops, forums, and agent blogs, and we soldier on and on and on.

So when you hold that book in your hands, and you’re reading something written in the last ten years, be aware dear reader of the way of that warrior. It was the Way of Tears.

Writers, did you notice what I said up there? You’re not writing for the readers who should be holding your book in their sweaty, nicotine-stained fingers, biting their nails in excitement and anticipation over your next plot twist. Nope. You’re not writing for them. And if you’re seeking representation by a literary agent or are submitting your work to a publisher directly (fewer and fewer of those, eh?), you’re not writing for readers in that case either.

Sorry, I’m not trying to be a jerk, but you’re writing to be published. You have to. You’re trying to placate someone standing in your way. But you might have stopped seeing that person as an obstacle. I don’t blame you; it’s not your fault. You’ve been told your whole writing life this person is your friend, there to help you through the process. They’re not obstacles to readers, why no! They’re actually the means to the reader!

The message is subtle, pervasive and constant. You can’t get to the readers directly, you have to get there through the publisher. And you can’t get to the publisher directly anymore, either – sorry, Stephen King, the era of going into it as you did is past – so you have to have an agent. And the agent is the one with all the contacts. They can make it all happen because they hold the keys to the kingdom. And all you have to do is land one with you perfect query. See my last post for more on that.

Now, so many years have passed and we’re told, “Well, what would you do? Of course we look for reasons to reject you – have you seen number of incoming manuscripts I get every day?!”

I don’t’ feel sorry for you. You wanted to get into this business, now suck it up and do your job or get out. But that’s another story altogether.

This story, however, is about how that message, ground into your skull on the boot heels of the gatekeepers, caused you to change how you wrote. Your readers might love it just the way you had it when you put “The End” at the bottom of the last page, but you’ll never know that, because the gatekeepers can’t let you in without altering it. No, improving it. They’re better at this than you. They know what the industry wants. They know what editors are buying and what they want to see in publishing houses. So do it my way.

And you change it. But that’s only if the agent saw your manuscript and felt like reading it in the first place. To make that happen, you had to write to their specifications in both your manuscript and your query. Your style didn’t matter, your story didn’t matter, your interesting, intriguing character doesn’t matter. All that matters is that query letter, and by God, it better get at least one response for every twenty times you send it out or it’s not strong enough.

So you become a professional letter writer. And you’re not paid for it, by the way. You know, copy writers can make good money. Are you making good money? No? Because traditional publishers are making you an ad copy writer, a marketing copy writer. Don’t believe me? Check yourself. Did you hone your letter writing craft along with your fiction writing class? How many query courses do you see offered in school? Now compare that to the number of creative writing courses you can take even at your local vocational school (probably taught by some washed-up, bitter former author who couldn’t get past the gatekeepers).

The best thing you could do to forward yourself in the querying process is take an ad copy writing course, or a marketing communications course and see if you can leverage that. But it’s still not guaranteed because the agent might change the rules, or tell you your query is too polished and slick, or something.

Why? Why would they do that?

Because they’re not there to let you in. They’re not there to help you. They are there to keep you OUT, to keep you AWAY, to keep you from making it through all the hoops they’ve set up for you to jump through.

Who are you writing for, writers? Are you writing because you want people to read the story or stories you want to tell, or are you writing to get into the mainstream publishing industry’s good graces and maybe get published? The two are not mutually inclusive, either.

Ask yourself whether you still want to be read if traditional publishers won’t give you a chance. If you’re happy to let a handful of people see your work and aren’t interested in the world getting a shot at it, then you’re doing it just right. Because the odds are against you in traditional publishing. The numbers aren’t getting better; see the latest sales numbers from Publisher’s Weekly and see if you can argue with them. Only new media formats are UP in sales.

What does that mean? You know what that means, and you know you know it.

Why are you writing? To be read, or to be published. They’re not the same thing.

-JDT-

Copyright 2011 DarcKnyt, All rights reserved

For whom do you write?

If you’re a writer and you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you know I’ve become a strong proponent of self-epublishing with a cost-free and easy to use platform like Kindle’s Digital Publishing or PubIt! from Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords, which allows you to publish in a broad variety for formats but doesn’t seem to have the traffic the other two sites do.

My last post depicted a literary agent who got her undies in a knot because she wrote an article about how critical it is to write a successful query letter. Not how important it is to write a good book, tell a good story or have solid, likable characters. Nothing like that – no, the focus is on the query letter. When this commenter remarked how this is one of the reasons traditional publishers are going the way of the Great Awk, the blogger became defensive and rude, claiming she was NOT ABLE to avoid being rude and sarcastic in replying (When did “snarky” become a suitable substitute for sarcastic, anyway?)

My point in showing that is to demonstrate how the traditional, mainstream publishing establishment reacts to the idea of authors being able to go directly to readers. How the traditional publishing establishment ridicules the idea of suppliers filling demand without middlemen, basically. How the traditional publishing establishment justifies the use of its screening tool to keep writers out of the traditional publishing establishment while telling them they must support the traditional publishing establishment. They’re holding us out but telling us we have to side with them, because they are, after all, the gatekeepers of good fiction. If just any author can self-epublish without having to go through an agent (who probably won’t even see their work unless the query letter is written in just the right pitch, the right tone, the right hue and nuance.

This person maintains your query letter has to be like an ad copy, direct response letter, one that elicits a response from every set of twenty queries. That is, no fewer than one response should come from every twenty queries sent out and if that’s not happening, your query isn’t strong enough.

Oh! Is that all?

This is a heinous lie. No author I’ve ever heard of, read, or met got a minimum of one response for every twenty queries. NONE. This person, this “gatekeeper”, just found (created, frankly), another hoop for the writer to jump through. Write the magic query to draw a minimum of one response for every twenty queries! That’s your new goal! There is Nirvana of the Literati! Run for it, faint not, rise up on wings like eagles and soar to those lofty heights!

Balderdash. Bollocks. This isn’t truth. It’s a ploy to get authors trying to write direct response advertising,something they never wanted to do in the first place. They wanted to write stories, not direct response ads. There’s a magic and a mojo in doing that. There’s a special juju for that, and like it or not, not everyone is cut out to be a salesman.

I’ve worked in sales. I’ve worked in it several times over my career. I always fail at it because, no matter how many people tell me “Oh, you’re going to be GREAT at this!”, I’m not. I’m not, period. I don’t do it well. I don’t have the personality type. And I’m willing to bet most authors don’t either. This is why, in part, we write: we’re not extroverts, we’re introverts and our characters let us live and do things vicariously. But traditional publishing establishment members and those who are sycophants for them – or apologists for them – are trying to make us writers believe we not only have to be salesmen, we have to be direct response ad copy writers too. See, they don’t write the blurb on the back of your book anymore. Nope. You do. And that needs to go into your query letter. If it’s not good enough, you go down in flames and will not see the light of publishing day.

Who, then, are we writing for? A writer has become a two-headed monster. Or, is made to believe they have to be a two-headed monster. One head is the creative genius who writes incredible, riveting stories which are unique and well-told and yet not too quirky and hard to categorize. Brilliant bucolic stories, right?

The other head has to be a marketing genius, willing to chase wherever and whenever the publisher tells us to go, IF we’re lucky enough to be published at all. But we have to develop those skills now because we need them to write that catchy, winning, hook-sinking query letter to catch the agent. If we don’t have the agent, we can’t get any farther. And I have a couple of friends who can tell you how having an agent doesn’t guarantee anything more than being agented.

Who, then, are writers writing for? Are they writing the stories they have to tell, in the best voice for their characters and drawing readers into their world of wonder and fantasy, or are they writing to the publishing industry, reduced to boot-licking from one to another until they are finally, maybe, possibly, graced with a nod from first an agent and then, if the stars all align, the publishers?

What do you think? How long does it take to write a good query letter? I have one acquaintance who worked on no fewer than six drafts, another with a similar draft count, trying to find the magic combination, the silver bullet, to do what they so desperately wanted. But the cruelest joke is, there isn’t a silver bullet. The one which would work with one agent won’t with another. The one which would with the big agency does nothing for the independent shingle-hanger who decides to branch out on their own.

And really, what does an agent do but provide you with “contacts”? But they don’t, do they? Not always. Why is that? If they like your book enough to look at, accept for representation, and supposedly offer to their “contacts”, how is it so many books from agents are turned down? Why aren’t all represented books published? That’s what the agent is supposed to be doing, after all. If they weren’t sure their “contacts” would love the book and want to publish it, why did they offer to take it on? There’s a huge disconnect here.

My agent didn’t fool around. When he agreed to take me on as a client he sent me work within three weeks. He told me what to do and how to do it and who to contact and put me together with the publisher. I wrote the book and less than 90 days later it was finished. A couple months after that it’s on the shelf. My agent gets things done. I ask for information, he gets it. I have a question, he finds the answer. Period. He does his stuff. He vets his writers. Then he lets them do their stuff.

Why do so many agented writers find out the hard way their book isn’t being published by someone? This is the entire reason they needed the agent in the first place! If I have a friend and I know the friend and I tell him my mechanic is good, my friend will use the mechanic I recommend at least once. Or a plumber, or a landscape architect, or what-the-hell-ever. People use the person I recommend or I stop making recommendations to them. This is what agents are supposed to do, isn’t it?

But they can’t recommend anyone unless they see a great query. Writing doesn’t matter; if you don’t have an amazing query getting at least one response in every twenty queries, you fail. And your manuscript languishes in something which shouldn’t exist in the first place – the slush pile.

Who are we writing for? agents and editors? traditional publishing establishment members? or readers?

Who would you rather write for?

I can tell you who I’m writing for, and I’ll say that even if it means I never sell a single book, or make a living as a writer. I will offer my wares to the reading public and their all-powerful wallets and let them decide whether I’m any good or not. They will determine my fate. Because that’s how it should be, ladies and gentlemen. The ones who read our work are the ones who should be letting us know if we stink or not.

The gatekeepers must go. Full stop. And I, for one, am sick of writing for them.

-JDT-

Copyright 2011 DarcKnyt, All rights reserved

Proof Negative

Nothing like negative attitudes to make truths you’ve been preaching ring even truer, you know?

Yesterday I read a post on a literary agency blog, and you’ll NEVER guess what it was about.

Go on, guess.

It was about QUERY LETTERS! No lie, I kid you not!

You know what’s funnier? The poster made sure to point out how the blog has been around since 2006, and is repeating the topic. Comedy! Wow! And for free!

But that’s not the part I found funny. The part I thought was funny was the content. The poster wrote:

I was talking to an author recently who told me that she had been rejected by 120 agents on query alone. Not one had requested a partial. How does that happen? Here’s how. Your query isn’t strong enough.

Gosh, how eye-opening. Since 2006, no other literary agencies have blogged THAT bit of earth-shattering news. And you know what? The hits just keep on comin’. It goes on:

To be honest, even the crappiest (apparently word of the day) book should be getting requests because a good query, like a good car salesman, can sell anything. If you aren’t getting any requests on 20 queries (that means at least one request for every 20 queries you send), you need to rewrite your query. It’s not working.

You see here, writers and wannabe authors? Struggle all you’d like to make your manuscript great (you should), it’s not going to matter. In the end, all you need is a great query letter. This is proof positive of what I’ve been saying to anyone who will listen for a couple of years now. I don’t believe vanity publishing is an alternative – never did. I have and always will discourage vanity publishing. But epublishing is completely different, and is, in my not-remotely-humble opinion, the wave of the present wherein the future of great authors is decided by readers, not agents and editors at publishing houses.

Oh, but don’t you dare question the gatekeeper system. One commentator suggested epublishing is superior:

I think this is yet another sign of how antiquated the traditional publishing route is becoming. If a great storyteller can’t get noticed because they’re not a good letter writer, there’s a disconnect. It’s like picking an electrician based on his plumbing skills. This is another example of an advantage of e-publishing. When you put the power into the hands of the writers and readers, the cream will rise to the top on its own, and a great book will be more noticed than a great letter.

They met, of course, with sycophant backlash, but the funniest part of the whole article came from the “agent” herself:

I agree and from now on we’ll stop writing cover copy for books. Instead you can go through the bookstore read the title, author name, look at the pretty cover and then read the first 5-10 pages of the book before making a decision to buy. As a new author, one with no audience, let’s see how many books you sell.

And yes, I couldn’t avoid the snark on this one.

Couldn’t avoid it, huh? Good to know. And the next several authors whose manuscripts are unlucky enough to be under her hand for the next several hours will be REJECTED. Because… well, she’s in a bad mood now.

It all just goes as evidence of what I’ve been saying for a while now. The gatekeeping system doesn’t work like it did before. It’s established so no one thinks anything else will work or even exists, and when it’s suggested to them they get a little freaked out. It’s rejected out of hand. But the ebook isn’t going anywhere, and the future of publishing is going to be different because of it.

I, personally, cannot WAIT to see this ivory tower topple and collapse. It’s not supposed to be about how great a query letter you can write. It’s not. It’s about how great a BOOK you can write. But look at the blogger’s response to that suggestion. She “couldn’t avoid the snark” in addressing it. I like the use of that word – “couldn’t”. No, of course not. If she had, the point might not have been strong enough for the a$$-kissing boot-lickers in the comments section to see how outsiders will be treated.

Until the tower falls. Soon, my pretties, soon. And I hope THIS agent’s the first to go.

-JDT-