The Talent Killers: How Literary Agents Are Killing Literature, And What Publishers Can Do To Stop Them

This post, by Mary W. Walters, originally appeared on her The Militant Writer blog on 4/14/09 and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Dear Senior Editor, Any Major Publishing House, Anywhere:

I am a member of a growing company of writers of literary fiction whose works you have never seen and probably never will.

It’s not that we are lacking in the talent and credentials that might attract your interest: indeed, we have already published one or two or three books with respectable literary presses, attracting not only critical acclaim but even awards for writing excellence. Our work has been hailed as distinctive, thoughtful, darkly comic. As fresh. Even as important! Reviewers have compared us to Atwood, Boyle and Seth. To Tyler, Winton, Le Carre.

That you have never heard of us nor read a single paragraph we’ve written is not—as you might think—a side effect of the cutbacks, mergers and downsizings that have devastated the book-publishing industry in recent months. Nor is it yet more evidence of the impact of electronic media on the printed word.

No.

The substantial and nearly unassailable wall that separates you from us has been under construction for decades. You can find the names of its architects and gatekeepers on your telephone-callers list, and in your email in-box. They are the literary agents—that league of intellectual-property purveyors who bring you every new manuscript you ever see, those men and women who are so anxious to gain access to the caverns of treasure they believe you sit upon like some great golden goose that they would likely hack one another’s heads off were they not united by one self-serving mission: to ensure that quality fiction never hits your desk.

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I am sure that this news comes as a surprise to you, Dear Editor. I am certain that you were drawn to your career—and by “career” I mean “vocation,” including the spectrum of responsibilities that ranges from new-book acquisition to the kind of excellent substantive editing that makes great novels outstanding—because of your love of literature. You probably started with an education in the literary classics which you have since enriched by reading the very best writing being published in the world today. In your few spare moments, you may wonder why it is that aside from an occasional new voice that may become great in another twenty years, the only authors of literary value have been around for decades.

I can answer that question for you. I can tell you why your desk is piling up with flimsy bits of vampire literature, fantasy, romance, detective stories and the kind of first-draft bubble gum that used to be called chick-lit but is now shuffled in with other women’s writing in order to give it heft—although as far as you can see, neither the quality nor the subject matter has improved—which you are required to somehow turn into publishable books. It is because the vast majority of literary agents do not, in fact, have any interest in literature. They are only interested in jackpots.

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As you know—better than anyone, perhaps, since you are the one who needs to negotiate with them—agents’ incomes come off the top of royalties that publishers pay their writers. The agent’s cut is generally 10 percent of the writer’s portion, which is in turn about 10 percent of the book’s cover price. Ten percent of 10 percent is not a lot. In order to create a decent cash flow, literary agents can only afford to represent writers who are going to sell truckloads of books (or millions of megabytes in the case of e-books) and therefore merit significant advances. The bigger the better: a substantial advance is money in the bank.

As you also know, publishing is a business, which means that publishing houses can only afford to offer advances they are likely to recoup—which means that advances only go to established writers with massive followings, and to particularly brilliant (or particularly sleazy) first-time novelists. They are generally reserved for what’s known as “commercial” fiction. (Of course, an advance is no guarantee that a book will sell. But that doesn’t matter to the agents. By the time the book’s not selling, they already have their cuts. They simply abandon writers whose books did not hit their projected sales numbers and move on to the newest shiny thing—indifferent to the fact that they’ve turned those abandoned authors into the pariahs of the slush pile.)

Clearly it is not in the best interests of literary agents to represent writers whose book sales are likely to build only gradually—perhaps after a well-thought, positive review appears in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail or on a high-quality books blog, inspiring a few people to buy the book, read it, and then recommend it to other readers who will also recommend it. It can be years before a literary agent can start sucking a living out of a writer with a book like that. Frankly, who has time?

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There is no room for gourmet tastes or discerning palates in this system. Agents’ websites may trumpet their dedication to literary fiction, but what they really want is books that sell. These purveyors of literary costume jewelry seek out the kind of quirky but unsubstantial mental junk food that is as similar as possible to last season’s bestsellers—fiction that will sell quickly and widely by association with the almost-identical books that have preceded it. See last week’s best-seller list for an eloquent guide to this fad-based publishing system.

Since they know what they are looking for, literary agents are able to post tips and pointers on their websites and blog posts for the benefit of would-be clients: they want books that are going to get their immediate attention, impress them within the first five pages—books that are going to sell.

(If you click through the links I have provided here, Dear Editor, you will become aware of a certain tone of disdain toward the target audience. This tone is very common among literary agents, who are doing their best to undermine the confidence of writers as a group. Please also note the fawning tone of the comments by the authors responding to these blogs. We have lost our self respect, I am afraid. We have learned to see ourselves as unworthy, stupid, and probably unclean. We’ve forgotten we’re the talent.)

Having set out what they do and do not want from writers, the agents then demand that we, their would-be clients, condense our novels into 300-word “pitches” that will convince them of the marketability of our books. (One might think that this would be the agent’s job—to develop pitches for the manuscripts by the writers they represent which they will then present to publishers. But no. That is not the way this system works.)

Next the agents engage “interns”—usually selected from among the wannabe writers enrolled in one of the creative-writing courses that proliferate at our universities and colleges—to read the queries that we, the writers, have written about our books. The interns measure our pitches against the criteria the agents have devised, find the disconnects, then write us our rejection letters. These interns don’t get paid, of course: they get credit for “work experience.”

The upshot is that fine fiction writers who are crappy copy-writers attempt to write fast-paced pitches about their own serious novels that will make those novels sound as much as possible like commercial drivel. Most of us aren’t very good at that (how do you describe The Road in 300 words and make it sound like a piquant coming-of-age story? Or A Confederacy of Dunces a sweet novel of redemption?) but we have no choice but to try. We submit our pitches in good faith by email or snail mail (depending on the dictates of the individual agent-god. They tell us how they want us to submit right on their websites!) where they are read by interns with little experience of literature or life, and are rejected.

Some of us have had our query letters rejected more than 50 times.

No one has asked to see our manuscripts.

Read any good Kafka lately?

Read the rest of the article on The Militant Writer blog.

Mary W. Walters is a writer and editor whose fourth book will be published in the fall of 2009.

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