Thursday, August 19, 2010

Missed boats

by Jessica

I spotted this post on Little, Brown editor Reagan Arthur’s blog, and I thought it was well worth sharing. I always tell writers that this business is a subjective one, and that the alleged “gatekeepers,” agents, editors, etc. are by no means infallible, and although we are immersed in the book industry, our judgment is necessarily colored by our own our interests, predilections, and the myriad of other factors, both profound and ridiculous, that compose taste. Superimposed upon this is our professional experience with “similar” books (none of which are precisely alike) and our own understanding of the publishing successes and failures of the recent past.

There are published, successful and much celebrated writers whose skill I admire but whose work I fail to adore—had their manuscripts arrived in my inbox, I would likely have turned them down. Sometimes it’s the style, sometimes the subject matter, very rarely it’s the setting. But usually it’s an inchoate jumble of things, at which point I, (and most every publishing professional whom I know) tend to resort to opaque and sometimes maddening phrases like “I just didn’t fall in love.” Since, by virtue of being an agent, I am not only in a position to employ this phrase, but also on the receiving end of this very rejection, I encounter such demurrals with both frustration (i.e. how can editor X be unmoved?) and also a measure of grudging recognition. Both agents and editors must be determined advocates for the projects they champion, so most tend to be highly selective. The acquisition process is an imperfect science, one short on objective criteria and rife with mistakes in judgment, missed boats, and tales of the “one that got away.” Reagan Arthur’s post, coming as it does from an editor well known for her terrific taste—injects a good dose of humanity and humility into a process that many writers feel is short on both.

3 comments:

  1. It does seem to be an interesting distinction between agenting and a lot of other jobs, though - there are plenty of people in retail and the service industries who quite happily push products they haven't 'fallen in love' with. I'd go as far as to say that's the norm.

    Agents don't seem to be anything like as cynical. It does seem to be quite common for an agent to turn down something they can see selling simply because it's not their cup of tea.

    It's maddeningly unscientific. Particularly when modern publishing and bookselling seems to be almost purely driven by numbers. Do Amazon 'love' everything they sell? No. Could a small bookseller survive if they decided not to stock every big name author they don't personally love? Of course not.

    So why are agents allowed to? I can think of a cynical explanation: the 'I fell in love' line can only work so many times. To preserve the value of books imbued with agent love, an agent has to limit the number of times they declare that love.

    But I can think of a more Darwinian reason, too. Why do we buy a particular novel? Because we think we're going to like it, maybe even love it. So one of the selection criteria is that a book has to be lovable. So if one person, the agent, loves the book, that's a start.

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  2. Hm. But would the project have been as successful without an agent/editor who DID "fall in love" with what was submitted?

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  3. I think, yes, it's easy to imagine a parallel universe where agents were number-crunchers who looked to maximise sales and left their own feelings out of their cold, cruel equations. They don't like what they're selling, but they know who'll publish it and how to get those people to buy it.

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