Monday, March 07, 2005

On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile -- Part 4

Continued from last Friday. Here is Part 4 of my new essay on writing and publishing. Please remember that, if at any point you decide that you would like to have all of this essay available in one lump, you can go here and download the whole thing as a PDF file. You can then print it out, pass it to friends, et cetera.

Part 4: Strategies for slush-pile selectors (agents and publishers)


This essay has been written mainly to consider the problems relating to the writing and publishing of fiction; and that focus will be maintained in Parts 4 and 5.

Part 4 will look at the problems which agents (and publishers) face in finding suitable material, particularly material from as-yet-unknown writers. But first let us step backwards and take a hard look at the question of whether there are any rational reasons for being involved in the fiction-publishing business in the first place.

General difficulties in thinking

In undertaking hard thinking of any kind we are handicapped by human nature. Taleb presents evidence that human beings are simply not wired for rational thought. Modern behavioural science has shown that our cognitive apparatus has considerably less influence over our actions than does our emotional machinery. Apparently there are good genetic reasons why this should be so: if we made all our decisions rationally they would take far too long. Taleb maintains, and I agree, that we should all be aware of this flaw in our thinking, in order to protect ourselves (as far as possible) from the essentially emotional nature of our decisions.

In few areas of life, I suggest, is this warning more apposite than in relation to writing and publishing.

Is publishing a sensible business?

We must remember throughout our consideration of the problems connected with the writing and selling of novels that publishing is first and foremost a business. Whether it is a sensible business is a different matter altogether. Like all businesses, publishing requires capital; and investors, sooner or later, will need to consider whether they are earning a decent return on their capital.

As far as the specific returns on investment in publishing are concerned, we are handicapped by incomplete data. But such data as we have suggest that publishing in general is not a good field for investors to enter. (See, for instance, Eric de Bellaigue’s interesting collection of essays, British Book Publishing as a Business since the 1960s). At best, publishing seems likely to yield a lower return to investors than do many other industries. Within publishing, trade publishing is less profitable than the mundane areas of textbook and reference-book publishing; and within trade publishing, fiction is particularly demanding of cash and typically appears to provide lower yields than non-fiction. ‘People who make money in literary publishing are rare,’ says Carmen Callil.

Luke Johnson, currently Chairman of Channel 4, once owned a book publisher and found it ‘a painful experience.’ Generally, he said, publishing is a ‘terrible business… a barely rational industry.’ The cash-flow characteristics are unattractive. ‘You ship finished volumes to booksellers who only accept them on a sale or return basis, and demand at least 55 per cent trade discount, and pay 120 days later.’

In America, the situation seems to be worse. Richard Curtis, a leading New York literary agent, says that the returnability of books is killing the business. ‘The old system has become corrupt and dishonest.’

Prima facie, therefore, there is not much reason for investing in a company which publishes fiction.

Why are big conglomerates involved in publishing?

It is no accident, in my view, that today’s most powerful publishers are subsidiaries of much larger companies, which have a broad-based involvement in other media, such as newspapers and television. HarperCollins, for example, is a big publisher but occupies barely a couple of pixels on News Corp’s overall screen.

It seems reasonable to assume that the managers of major international companies are well aware of the relatively unsatisfactory rate of returns from trade publishing in general and fiction in particular. Parent companies’ continued involvement in book publishing must therefore be seen as a long-odds bet. Inspired by the occasional black swan, investment in publishing is seen as a quirky and risky part of the overall portfolio: it may be regarded as something that’s worth a punt, but don’t hold your breath.

Here again we have some wonderfully fuzzy thinking. Fiction publishing and retailing are only rendered remotely profitable by the blockbusters; and blockbusters cannot infallibly be manufactured. So the business hinges upon black swans, which are random events. But what observers tend to forget is that random events do not occur at evenly spaced intervals; they occur at random intervals. Thus if HarperCollins has a black swan this year, it does not follow that it will be Random House’s turn next year. Good ole HC may turn the same trick for ten years in a row. And if they do, of course, the HC editorial department will become legendary; but they won’t deserve it.

If HC were to strike lucky in that way, for ten straight years, the not-so-lucky conglomerates might begin to wonder whether the game was worth the effort. Publishers might find that their parent company’s patience and tolerance were not inexhaustible.

Factors for individuals to consider

If we assume that a major company has decided to remain involved in book publishing on the basis described above, it still remains for individuals to decide whether an involvement in the business is wise for them personally.

Surveys of remuneration packages in publishing tend to show that average salaries are low, when compared with other industries: pitifully low when compared with jobs in the financial sector. A survey by, in 2004, showed that the average salary in UK publishing firms was just under £24,000 a year, about 10 per cent below the national average. And this, mark you, in a business which is largely based in London. In the publishing industry at large, there are few jobs which pay in excess of £100,000 a year.

In order for an individual to build a career it will be necessary (on present evidence) for that person to change firms several times; this is unlikely to have an advantageous effect on pension rights.

The evidence therefore suggests that a career in book publishing is not attractive in terms of the rewards which are normally regarded as significant.

As for agents who specialise in fiction…. What can we say about career prospects for them?

Well, I have long maintained that being an agent is the toughest job in the business. If you happen to belong to a firm which was established a hundred years ago, and which controls the literary estates of some household names, then the job of making a decent living from 10 per cent or 15 per cent of writers’ incomes becomes less formidable. But not much.

Hilary Rubinstein was reported as saying, in 1995, that work in a literary agency offered the participant ‘a better life, albeit a less decent living.’ Less decent, in this context, refers to publishing as the alternative.

Why does anyone work in publishing?

We have seen that there are few rational reasons for either investors or individuals to become involved in fiction publishing or in agency work. Anyone who joins a publisher or an agency is either too dim to have cottoned on to a few simple economic facts, or else has decided that they will sign up regardless; probably, in many cases, the former. Most individuals who do become involved in the book trade tend to drift in, I suspect, on the strength of a vague idea that they would like to work with books. And if they remain in, after the truth has belatedly dawned upon them, it is often because it is by then too late to do anything else.

It is a curious fact, which I noticed in my principal area of employment (education) before I noticed it in publishing, that people who work in a particular industry often know nothing about it. They have a job, and that is enough; they show no interest in understanding a larger picture. When Jason Epstein wrote his extraordinarily interesting Book Business, I read it as soon as it came out, and for the next year or so I made a point of asking everyone I met in the book world whether they had read it. I never found anyone who had. People who work in publishing seem to be far too busy to read anything; and they’re certainly too busy to think.

I suggest that this lack of interest in the broader perspective is to no one’s advantage.

How do we find the best books?

If we are involved in fiction publishing, for better or for worse, how then do we find the best books to publish?

Let us assume, optimistically, that a hypothetical publishing company, Clapham & Irons, has made a conscious and rational decision that it will enter (or remain in) fiction publishing. And let us assume that Clapham & Irons is staffed by dedicated and keen employees, who have joined the firm despite being bright enough to understand the limited career prospects that the industry offers. Such employees are naturally interested in finding the ‘best’ books to publish.

Definitions of ‘best’ will vary. But even if the firm has a preference for literary fiction, the term will imply the sale of large numbers of copies. One of the few universally agreed ideas in modern publishing is that publishers and booksellers alike depend for their survival upon a steady flow of big sellers – and I do mean big. So what are the sources of such books, and how can they be identified?

One well tried method of obtaining books which will sell is to steal an established author from another company. The usual method for doing this involves offering more money than the writer’s present publisher is prepared to pay, and this calculation is clearly a risky one. We need go no further into it than that, but my view is that firms which pay silly money to established names and then run into trouble have no excuse.

Given that the ability to write effective prose (whether fiction or non-fiction) is a rare skill, publishers also tend to commission books, even novels, from those who have demonstrated, in related fields, that they have unusual writing ability: which means, mainly, journalists. Jilly Cooper and Penny Vincenzi were both journalists before they became successful novelists. So the commissioning of a novel from such recognised talent may well be an effective strategy. However, it is easy for all parties to misjudge the differences between fiction and non-fiction; and paying a substantial advance for a book which has yet to be written is sheer folly.

In my opinion, a better method than commissioning is to breed and develop talent within the house. In other words, a firm should find a promising writer before anyone else does, treat her well, invest in suitable publicity budgets, and build her reputation. This procedure used to be widely used: in the old days, once a writer was taken on by a firm she could expect to stay with it pretty much for life, and she would not be expected to succeed overnight. But nowadays writers are given much less time to deliver the goods. Indeed in many cases they are expected to hit the ground running. Quite how they will have acquired the necessary skills to do this is evidently beyond the understanding of those who make decisions in modern publishing.

This question of allowing a writer time to develop is in my view crucial. So far as I know, no modern trade publisher has yet followed the example of Antony Blond (with Simon Raven) whereby a writer is effectively put on the payroll and paid a monthly amount to produce fiction. And yet this seems to me to offer great advantages to both parties.

I suspect that the writing of fiction looks so easy, to the people who do nothing more than read it, that both embryo authors and publishers systematically underestimate the difficulty of the task. It fact, narrative technique is something that can only be mastered over a longish period of time and perhaps half a dozen books. A paid apprenticeship looks to me like a better investment than a huge lump sum paid for a book which a leading agent has managed to persuade six competing publishers is absolutely wonderful.

Another useful device, which appears to me to be underused, is ghosting. In today’s market the ability to appear on TV chat shows and mix it with the likes of Richard and Judy is a key factor in building a bestseller. The use of a celebrity to give a brand name to a book, or series of books, is therefore a smart move.

How to manage the slush pile: reactive procedures

We now turn to the last of the established strategies for finding people who can generate the product without which a publishing business simply cannot function. It is the method which has traditionally proved to be remarkably inefficient, and it is, of course, searching through the slush pile.

The suggestions in this section will be couched in terms of procedures to be operated by agents, since the task of slush-pile reading has very largely been shifted in their direction; but the suggestions will apply equally well to any publishers who may still be reading unsolicited submissions.

We begin by considering reactive procedures: which means that we will look at the slush pile in its traditional form.

Financing the slush-pile operation

If the slush-pile procedure is not operated to an exceptionally high standard it is a waste of resources. If the best an agent can do is to employ (or exploit) as a reader some kid who is halfway through a degree course in media studies, then I suggest that the agent should not bother. In other words, if an agent can’t read the slush pile herself then she should employ someone with enough experience to be a tolerably reliable judge. And that means that the agent must pay a decent hourly rate.

Skilled and experienced readers are inevitably going to cost serious money; and an agent’s only source of such money is her income from published writers. Thus the cost of servicing an agent’s slush pile is met partly by the agent herself (through money which she would otherwise take as salary) and partly by the writers in her stable.

Actually the position is worse than that. Most major publishers no longer accept unsolicited submissions, which are now sent almost entirely to agents. So publishers have saved money while agents have seen their costs increase. This is one of the reasons why agent’s commissions, in many instances, have crept upwards from 10 per cent to 15 per cent.

All of this is unfair and unnecessary. The solution lies in the introduction of a system of fees.

In principle, agents can either charge publishers for doing the job of sorting out the publishable from the oh my god, or they can charge the as-yet-unpublished writers.

It seems unlikely, on the whole, that agents will be willing to propose charging publishers a fee, or that publishers would pay it if they were asked to. It follows, therefore, that the only method of financing the slush pile which is both fair and practicable is to charge a fee to those who submit unsolicited manuscripts.

To my knowledge, only one firm of any standing is at present charging fees for reading, and that is the Scott Meredith Agency in New York. The present owner of the agency, Arthur Klebanoff, says bluntly in his book The Agent that ‘agents typically get their clients by referral or by soliciting authors or celebrities. It is a rare agent who finds his opportunities from the slush pile.’ He, at least, is not going to waste his resources on a procedure which is both costly and ineffective.

What is a realistic reading fee? Well, if you submit a 300-page manuscript to the UK-based Literary Consultancy, for example (and this is a body supported by the Arts Council, no less), it will cost you some £450. In return the Consultancy will give you a detailed report on the manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses, one which has been prepared by an experienced professional. In the past there has been considerable resistance to this idea of agents charging a reading fee, for a variety of reasons: these include ‘a desire to be fair to people’ and a fear that fees will alienate some good writers. At present the code of practice of the UK Association of Authors’ Agents discourages such charges.

Well, sorry, but this is all nonsense. One of the major problems in publishing and agency work is that the people who do it tend to be too damn nice for their own good (or anyone else’s). Book people are awfully sensitive themselves, and they just don’t like to hurt anyone’s feelings. But publishing is a business, and it needs to be conducted in a businesslike manner: that manner should be polite and friendly, but it should be firm, and it should be based on clear thinking, not sentimentality.

Writers, as we shall see in Part 5, tend to be quite exceptionally clever people who are at one and the same time extremely dim. If they weren’t dim they wouldn’t be writing a novel which they are now trying (mostly in vain) to get people interested in. Agents are under no obligation to give these people free services. Quite the reverse: they are under an obligation to see that their existing clients don’t pay for things which are not their responsibility.

Neither is there any need for agents to fear that, if they start charging a realistic fee for reading a novel, the supply of new talent will dry up. There is no risk of that. There are plenty of people willing to pay several thousand pounds to see their book in print, so asking them to invest a small proportion of that sum in order to be considered as a possible client by an agent is not going to be a major deterrent. In any case, various blow-softening arrangements are obviously possible: an agent can offer to waive the fee if a client is taken on or a contract offered; et cetera.

Providing clear guidelines for submissions

To protect its reputation, any organisation which is going to charge a fee for reading an unsolicited manuscript needs to set up some tight guidelines for submissions, so that writers do not waste their money. These guidelines ought to include, as a minimum: a list of genres which will be considered; the lowest and highest acceptable word lengths; and layout requirements.

Personally I would go a lot further and require those submitting a manuscript to provide a biography, evidence of previously published work, an outline of the next novel that is planned, and a description of what sort of career as a writer they envisage for themselves. The more detail that is demanded the better, because it will concentrate the minds of a group of people who tend to be hopelessly vague and woolly.

At this point, anyone who is familiar with my other diatribes on publishing will be asking a question. Just a minute, they will say. How does all this charging a fee business equate with your frequently stated view that the treatment of writers by agents and publishers borders upon the scandalous? Are you not being somewhat inconsistent by recommending that agents give writers so many hurdles to overcome, and charge them a fee to boot?

My answer to that accusation is that there is nothing shabby or disgraceful in telling writers the truth and acquainting them with the painful facts of publishing life. (It is something that I try to do on an almost daily basis in my blog.) On the contrary, by setting out the plain facts you are doing wannabe writers a profound favour.

If an agent says, point blank, that in the previous year she considered 2,000 new novels and agreed to represent just one of the authors, then that is useful information to those who are thinking of making a submission.

If the agent tells the writer, unambiguously, that a £300 (or whatever) reading fee does not mean that every word of a book will necessarily be read – indeed it may mean that no more than the traditional two pages will be read – there is nothing shabby in that either. The writer can accept the deal or not.

What the £300 fee should mean is that a competent reader will be employed – for the benefit of the agent, please note, not for the benefit of the writers – and that the reader so funded will have sufficient time to give a proper appraisal of those books which appear to justify a proper appraisal. Books which are clearly semi-literate will be identified as such and will be given short shrift.

Neither do I believe that, in return for the fee, a writer is entitled to a critique of the work submitted; the readers’ reports are provided for the agent’s benefit, not the writer’s. (A manuscript submitted to a reading agency set up specifically for the benefit of writers, e.g, the Literary Consultancy, is a different matter; in that case writers certainly would be entitled to a lengthy report for their money.)

There is, as I say, nothing shabby or disgraceful about an agent who tells writers the painful facts of publishing life. But the point is that they should be told – up front, before they decide to send in their cheque. This is a tough world, and it is tougher for writers than for most people, so it is to the advantage of all the naïve hopefuls that they should have their naivety kicked out of them at as early a stage as possible.

How to manage the slush pile: proactive procedures

As before, this section is written from the perspective of the literary agent but much of what is said is equally applicable to publishers.

It is certainly arguable that, for agencies which are already well established, the traditional slush-pile procedure has had its day – even if amended as suggested above. There are already some bigger agents who will not read unsolicited submissions: ICM in New York being an example. I for one would not necessarily disagree with anyone who said that sitting and waiting for a black swan to come floating though the door is a ridiculous strategy. And there are certainly alternatives.

In the first place, big agents can in practice draw clients from a host of smaller firms – both publishers and agents. It is a simple fact of life, though one that is bitterly resented within those smaller firms, that a writer who has had some modest success will either approach a larger firm herself or will be receptive to an approach if it is initiated by the larger company. (Remember Arthur Klebanoff’s view, quoted above.)

This is all very painful and agonising, and may contravene certain written or unwritten ‘laws’, but in the final analysis writers need to decide why they are in the business at all. Are they putting in all that labour and time just to meet some nice people and make friends? Or are they anxious to build literary reputation and/or make lots of money? Either way, the big agents (and publishers) carry much more clout than the small ones, and they are the people to be with.

It is therefore possible for a powerful agent to ignore unsolicited submissions entirely, and to sit back and wait for those who have had some small success to use that success as a calling card.

But there are other, more proactive, routes to the recruitment of talent by an agent.

The last ten years have seen remarkable changes in printing technology and internet communications. What these developments mean is that it is now far easier for writers to get some exposure somewhere – even if it is only on their own blog. But the exposure may be a little better than a blog: it may be on some sort of selectively edited ezine or web site. Or the writer can publish her own work through one of the many firms that now offer that service. Instead of paying a well qualified reader to go through a mountain of manuscripts – even if accompanied by cheques – it might be more effective to pay this reader to go out and look for writers who have produced something which is already out there in the marketplace in one form or another.

I also think that, if I was an agent, I would be much more inclined to consider seriously a writer who had gone to the trouble and expense of having a book printed (albeit through some form of print-on-demand vanity press) than a writer who simply had a pile of paper under her arm.

For one thing it is psychologically easier to judge a book that actually looks like a book.

Prices paid

There is evidence to suggest that, overall, the proportion of publishers’ income that is paid to writers has diminished over the period since conglomeration began in earnest, and since the abolition of the Net Book Agreement. However, agents will naturally press for their clients to be paid substantial advances, and publishers will resist.

As far as publishers are concerned, modern strategies for book selection are so painfully and obviously fallible that it is tempting to suggest that some lateral thinking ought to be applied. It would be interesting, for instance, if one of the major houses introduced a rule that, in the case of a previously unpublished and untested author, they would never bid for rights in competition with another publisher, and would never pay an advance greater than a modest sum. In this way they would at least avoid some of the Type 2 errors described earlier – in other words, publishers would not end up paying silly money for writers without an established reputation. The results of such an experiment might be illuminating one way or the other.

The above paragraph, by the way, is written in a week when a leading publisher announced an advance payment of £500,000 to a previously unpublished author. This was after an allegedly ‘frenzied auction’. Yes, well, I dare say that if you assemble five or six desperate and over-excited people, who are bidding with someone else’s money, things may get a bit frenzied. Whether the bidders are acting sensibly is open to question.

Rejection letters

My view is that, whether rejection letters are sent by agent or publisher, they should say nothing. And especially not Sorry.

Any advice whatever, given to a writer, will result in the manuscript coming back to you six months later, with the advice followed to the letter; probably to the detriment of the book. And any encouragement, however minor, will be treated as a justification for sending you everything else that the writer has ever written.

If that’s what you want, fine. But I don’t believe it is.

Making decisions

Finally in Part 4, a word about making decisions.

Taleb tells us that, before beginning a meeting with his colleagues, he always issues a standard reminder, just as one might say grace before a meal. Taleb asks his colleagues to remember that, collectively, he and they are a bunch of idiots who know nothing and are prone to make mistakes; but they do happen to be endowed with the rare quality of knowing what they are.

I recommend this procedure for adoption whenever a decision has to be made on the publishing of fiction.


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