Our reader "Julie" posted this message here today in reference to our recent post on Bowker's new service for authors. I appreciate the time and effort Julie dedicated to this post and I think she brings up valid points that resonate with many authors and others in the book world. I'm going to attempt to answer and/or comment on some of the points she makes.
Julie: I agree that this sounds like a way for this company to make money. However, as an unpublished author, I find it frustrating that a very small group of literary agents gets to decide which books are shown to publishers.
KT: Yes, Julie, there is a small pool of agents. But not all publishers require that you submit your work through an agent. I'm always lecturing authors to learn about the book publishing industry. One of the things you should investigate is the publishers who accept unagented submissions. You'll find them listed in references such as Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents. You can also find this information on publishers' websites.
Julie: I’ve been sending queries out for at least 12 years. Over that time, I’ve been struck by what a small pool of agents we have and how many of them are based out one city.
KT: Ahem!! Not ALL literary agents are based in Fogelsville!
Julie: I can’t count the number of times that an agent has told me that he or she likes my work but doesn’t know how to market me. I understand why they don’t want to waste time on a writer who may not sell, but I wonder why we all assume that this small group of agents has their finger on the pulse of American readers more than anyone else.
KT: It's not the agents' fingers you should worry about--it's the publishers' fingers or other items they use to judge what Americans and others want to read. Agents are at the mercy of publishers. I just had my heart broken again last week when an editor at a major house emailed me that she'd fallen in love with one of our books and was taking it to the editorial board. She called a week later to report that the board said the author was "too close to the topic." They turned it down. I still don't understand why, but it illustrates that even when an agent is high on a book, and even when an editor shares our enthusiasm, we have to deal with editorial boards at publishers who must SELL, SELL, SELL. (Book publishing, like any other business, MUST make money to survive.) The editors who make these decisions are just human beings like you and me and, as far as I can tell, they make their decisions based mostly on what they've sold in the past. They are not perfect and they make mistakes and they take very few risks these days. An agent must temper his or her own feelings about a book with the reality of the marketplace.
Julie: It reminds me of how GMC and Chrysler keep building gas guzzlers because they think Americans want big cars. (I don’t want a big car. I want a fuel efficient car and I don’t think I’m alone, but I don’t own a car company).
KT: I don't want a big car either, Julie, but those guys are all morons, IMHO. We've all seen what happened to these companies.
Julie: I think that self-publishing to Kindle and other sites will democratize the publishing world and I’ll be interested to see if it alters the kind of books that become popular in the future.
KT: I would agree with you EXCEPT that most self-published books are simply not that good. There, I've said it. Although the book publishing system in place is inefficient, often unfair, unimaginative, and cumbersome, it still provides a structure for separating the wheat from the chaff. (Love that figure of speech--my mom used it all the time, but then she was born in 1911.)
Back to the point--self-published books do not have the benefit of: tough readers and editors who make them sing; proof readers to catch grammatical errors and misspellings; marketing and publicity teams who will get the word out about them; sales forces who will push them out to major retailers, Amazon and others. Is that to say a self-published book will never rise to the standards of The Great Gatsby or The Prince of Tides? No. It could happen. Maybe someday it will. But...don't hold your breath.
Agents and editors, today's "gatekeepers" for mainstream book publishing, are there for a reason. They love books. They've educated themselves about literature and most of them have developed a good instinct for identifying good writing. I believe they still have an important role to play in the publishing world. But time will tell. Self-publishing is here to stay and is a powerful force. Self-publishing and traditional publishing will operate on parallel tracks in the foreseeable future. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
What do the rest of you think? Will self-publishing eclipse the traditional model or is it more likely that the two will meet the needs of different kinds of authors and books?
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