Monday, August 29, 2011

Is the Publishing Sky Falling? Part One

I stole this title from an e-mail responding to the career travails of a young adult writer I’ll call Natalie (I’ve always loved that name). Natalie’s agent had left the industry because she couldn’t sell a thing. NowNatalie is resubmitting the same query that landed her an agent a couple of years ago, and it is going unanswered. This rattled the e-mail writer, who’d always equated getting an agent with “making it” past the industry gatekeepers. Against a backdrop of technology shifts, bookstore closings, and other manifestations of our unhealthy economy, this felt to her like an industry death knell.

Can BRP’s resident optimist still find a positive spin on the situation (see my Ten Affirmations to Bolster Optimism, from 2009)? Of course she can! This is why.

• The agent—the one who believed in Natalie—no longer believes in the industry. This makes her, hands down, the wrong agent for Natalie. An agent's job is to sell. By leaving the industry, she has freed Natalie to move on.

• By her own admission, this agent couldn't sell a thing. Perhaps her personality wasn't well-suited to agenting, or her ability to identify a salable manuscript was off. Unfortunately this
makes her a questionable gatekeeper as concerns her enthusiasm for Natalie’s manuscript. Young adult readers are particularly fickle, and it takes a good agent to stay on top of the trends—a fact that raises the question of whether the project, well targeted just a year ago, might already have outlived its relevance. That may or may not signal the tabling of this one project—but it doesn't signal the death of publishing.

• Agents and editors leave the industry all the time. It is always aggravating for an author, but nothing new. I've heard many such stories over the past decade. It is the very reason for the term "orphaned" manuscript.

• This "not answering" is not so new. I have a friend who got a rejection back after six years. Another did get a request to resubmit, but only a full year after an enthusiastic request for the full—an assistant found the manuscript wedged between the radiator and the wall when they rearranged the office furniture (guess that’s the hard copy version of getting caught in a spam filter). Stuff like that happens. Who’s ultimately responsible? You are the one seeking an agent to help conduct your business. When in doubt, follow up.

• Computers have made it way too easy to fill white paper with little black marks; now low-cost electronic methods have thrown wide the door for submissions. No more hard copies slipped “over the transom”—now queries arrive in agents’ offices in a constant digital stream. Anyone can submit, and they do. So much of it is drivel. If agents responded to each and every submission they would never get any useful work accomplished. And why hire an assistant to answer drivel? In a sustainable business model, one hires an assistant to do work that can make you money!

Q: Kathryn, did you really use the word “drivel”? That doesn't sound optimistic! And as a developmental editor, don’t you believe that each project has a sacred core of creativity you hope to nurture into fruition?

A: Yes, I do! Join us tomorrow for part two, in which I substantiate my use of "drivel," and show how it should lead the diligent writer toward optimism.


Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, has been published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.

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  1. I'm glad you pointed out that the agent who left the industry may not have been a good agent to begin with. As with ANY industry, there are those who are wonderful at their jobs and those less good. We should all remember that agents are human too...

  2. I still resent -- strongly -- agents who say "If you don't hear from me, I'm not interested." How do you know your submission actually made it to the right place. I don't care if they're busy. To me, ignoring a submission, even if it's merely an automated reply is Just Plain Rude and leaves the author hanging.

    Don't get me started on exclusives. I can't believe agents still want them. I think the late Kate Duffy (who was a publisher, not an agent) said, "You snooze, you lose." Why should an author hang up her career waiting months to hear from an agent.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  3. I don't know if the sky is falling, but it is certainly changing color ... things are a'changin' and know one really knows how it'll all shake out ... but I suspect books will be around for a while ... remember, when television debuted, the movie moguls panicked, but in the end there was a place for both mediums ... but there sure was a lot of drivel in both of 'em.

  4. Christopher, there still is a lot of drivel in film and television. LOL

    Terry, I agree with you on the courtesy of letting an author know the status of a submission. So many editors and agents have been rude about this just because they could be. Desperate writers never called them on those practices and so they thought they could just treat everyone that way. Having been on the other side of the desk, I do know how busy editors are and how frustrating it can be to deal with those desperate, almost goofy writers who seem to do anything to get attention. But it is easy to spot the professional approach and make a professional response. Geesh.

    I think this is a hot button for both of us. It's Karma, I tell you.

  5. I'm glad you're still optimistic! We need to be!

  6. This post helped me a lot - especially when I sent my MS to an agent four months ago and have been in 'limbo' ever since. It's a horrible experience.
    New writers really do need to shake off the fear of querying. It feels so much like blind-dating, and you cross your fingers and hope the agent likes you enough to 'call back'.
    I've learned, been prodded into action, read great posts like yours, and now I'm off to query other agents. No more Limbo for me!

  7. Interesting post. I often wonder about the future of publishing, but also realize that it's not something any one person has control over. We just have to go with the flow and take it as it comes.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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