No, it’s not the U.N. but the “un” agented and “un” published. More correctly referred to as the great “un” washed. These are the masses of people who write stories and have the temerity to try to sell them. Literature is unique amongst the arts. Many people cannot carry a tune, read music, play an instrument or draw, but everyone can write and most do it every day. So, many people can be induced (self-induced?) to think they can write for commercial consumption.
From that pool of would be writers, many actually give it a try; give it a go. They write something, family and friends say it’s good and they offer it up to the world. If they go the traditional route, they solicit agents in hopes of acquiring one, which will lead to a publishing deal and author nirvana.
Decades ago publishers accepted manuscripts from writers directly. Over time, starting after WWII, literary agents saw a value in inserting themselves into this process, similar to how real estate agents inserted themselves between the buyer and seller of a house. They made a fine art of providing some added value to earn their cut of the deal. They do the work to find the offerings (if working for the buyer) or create the listing (if working for the seller).
In this same way literary agents found it profitable to get in the middle of the writer/publisher process. In doing so, the writer was helped by having a “salesperson” on his/her side. The publishers also benefited as they quickly realized the agents could be a first “filter” and relieve them of a huge work load, evaluating manuscripts. The process kept developing until it is now hard to find publishers who will accept writer’s offerings directly. The agents have become the gate keepers.
Why does the industry need gate keepers, you might ask? Think how art galleries could be swamped if everyone thought they could paint and many started submitting their bad paintings to galleries. It’s hard to imagine because so few of us claim the skill of painting or drawing.
So I have this image of the great “un”washed, clamoring at the walls and gates of the castle. Inside reside the publishers and their stable of authors, those who had survived the gauntlet and are now the insiders. The walls are too high to climb; the would-be authors beat their heads and bodies at the gates and the blocks of the walls. Agents look through this thick stream of literary traffic, looking for a winner amidst the crowd. They are doing their agreed task for the privilege of earning a cut of the author’s profits for as long as they both can hang on to each other.
Agents get up to 50 query letters a day. Due to this volume, I’ve read that agents will look for anything, even something in the first sentence, to disqualify a piece and throw it in the reject pile. This is a tough situation for an aspiring writer.
Now practical self-publishing comes along. With modern, high speed, digital printing and binding machines a quality paperback book can be printed on demand (POD). The author doesn’t have to resort to what were derisively called “vanity presses” to self publish. Such presses may soon be things of the past, like typewriters. Add to this innovation, the ebook and you have a revolution. Many of the great “un”washed are turning from their assault of the castle and simply going around it to find their own publishing platform.
Amazon leads this revolution, having purchased CreateSpace for POD and having invented the Kindle. They have 75% of the ebook market in the U.S. so they have become the marketplace. I spent 6 months, soliciting over one hundred agents with only one request to read the full manuscript (to no avail). Now, to be honest my story (my product if you will) was not fully ready for prime time. Six months passed from my turning away from agents to self-publishing. During that time I continued to learn my craft, so my novel was much improved by the time it came out this spring. (I was making changes to it within days of publishing.) That said I’m not sure I could have gotten a look by continuing on the traditional route and submitting to agents. It was time to move forward. Both the economics and the timing called for pursuing a different path.
But it isn’t all sweetness and light. It’s just as big a challenge to break out in self-publishing as it is to get noticed by an agent. One is still competing with the immense volume of work that is not ready for commercial presentation; remember, there are no barriers. All it takes is a little ambition, very little talent, and one can put out an ebook or paperback. The challenge is to rise from the mass of new works offered and get people to read what you’ve written.
I think I have a novel that rises above what can be called the amateur level. The reviews from people I don’t know are bearing this out. In my life, racing and business, I was acutely aware of the difference between an amateur and profesisonal. I always tried to place myself on the professional side of the equation. That meant more work, more time refining, more practice and less trusting to luck.
I think it’s worked; time will tell. The good news for readers is that there are no more walls or gates to publishing for all practical purposes. The bad news is there are no more walls or gates—filters, if you will. So, as consumers of books, especially ebooks, you, the reader, must become your own filter. Let me know how you do your filtering. I’m curious.
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