Sunday, May 5, 2019

407. Damn the Gatekeepers, or Why I Go with Small Presses or Self-Publish


The release date of The Eye That Never Sleeps was last Thursday, May 2; pre-ordered copies have now been shipped.  For the first review, go here and scroll down.  A five-star review by jetangen. 

The release date of the e-book is May 9.  The giveaway of 100 e-books ends May 8; when I last checked, 251 people had signed up.  

 The Eye That Never Sleeps eimage.jpg

A story of the strangest friendship that ever was: a dapper young bank thief and the detective hired by the banks to apprehend him For more about this and my other books, go here.  

Fascinating New Yorkers has been reviewed by The US Review of Books. Reviewer Gabriella Tutino says, "There's something for everyone here in this collection of profiles, and it serves as a source of inspiration for readers who love NYC."  For the whole review, click on US Review.

          Damn the Gatekeepers, or Why I Go
           with Small Presses or Self-Publish

         Literary agents are the first gatekeepers that aspiring writers bump their head against.  Just getting to them is tricky, since they are usually overwhelmed with submissions and want no more.  And if you do get to them, the odds are against their taking your manuscript on, and if they do, the odds are against its finding a publisher.  So the big publishers’ acquisitions editors are a second round of gatekeepers that writers come up against, and in doing so usually end up bruised.

         Let’s talk about the agents.  On page 8 of the Sunday Review section of the Times of Sunday, April 21, 2019, the Loose Ends column, under the caption Literary Agents Seek Fresh Voices, is a list of what some agents are looking for as the next big thing.  Here, seemingly, is a writer’s dream: agents open to new voices and telling those voices exactly what they want.  And here, in the words of the column, are some of their “perfectly reasonable requests.”

  •         Neil Gaiman, but a woman, and also not so tall.
  •         I want a writer with a sensibility at the intersection of Shel Silverstein and Milo Yiannopoulos who can whip up a mean keto cookbook.
  •         A sexy Ursula K. Le Guin.
  •         A Stephen King type who loves adverbs.  No clowns.
  •         Jane Austen geared toward men who hate manners.
  •         Anne Lamott, but make it fashion.

         And more, but why go on?  The four authors of the piece – Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer – run a satirical website, so I suspect that their presentation of the agents’ requests has more than a dash of humor, and edged, satirical humor at that.  And since no agents’ names are given, I suspect that the whole thing is one big spoof at the expense of agents and their demands.

         But let’s assume that it’s for real.  If so, what gives?  For me, not much, since I don’t recognize a single one of the names mentioned by the agents, except dear Jane.  Which means that I’m not “up,” I’m not "in the swim" or "in the know."  But let’s google a few of those names, to make sure that they, at least, are real.

         They are.  Neil Gaiman is an English author of fiction, audio theater, and films.  Fair enough.  But why not so tall?  Maybe that’s the point of the spoof.

File:Neil Gaiman (2005).jpg
Neil Gaiman answering questions while
on a book tour in Berkeley, CA, 2005.


         Ursula K. Le Guin is an American author of speculative fiction and fantasy.  She is about 90, looks very human, but I wouldn’t call her sexy.  Maybe the books need to be sexy, not her.

Ursula K. Le Guin at a meet-the-author
Q&A session in Albuquerque, 2004.


         Stephen King is a prolific bestselling author of horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, sci-fi, and fantasy – precisely the genres that I don’t do.  He wears glasses, looks serious, squints, and smiles, but I’d have to read him to know if he eschews adverbs.  (Another spoof, no doubt.)  He’s 6 foot 4, but in this case his height seems not to matter.

Stephen King at the Harvard Book Store, 2006.
bunkosquad/Michael Femia

         Ann Lamott writes fiction and nonfiction about subjects beginning, as her website states, with capital letters: Alcoholism, Motherhood, Jesus.  She has signature blond dreadlocks that hang down charmingly over her forehead, and at age 65 is about to marry for the first time; she met her prospective hubby through an online matchmaking site.  Of all these authors, she’s the one I personally find the most congenial, but is she lacking in fashion?  That too is probably a spoof, but if she does lack it, that may be why I take to her and wish her well in her new real-life adventure.

Ann Lamott at the lighting ceremony for the Rainbow World Fund's World Tree of Hope, 2013, in San Francisco City Hall.

         Spoof or no spoof, these are my betters.  They have agents, are prolific, do book tours and (hopefully) good works, sell well.  But I don’t want to copy them – least of all with the twists supposedly stipulated by the agents – any more than I would want them to copy me.  To each his own … or hers.  I have my path, and they have theirs.  Theirs involves fame, money, and success; more power to them.  Mine is a quiet bit of endeavor involving none of those things, but it’s my path and no one else’s.  So on I plod, agentless, and contentedly so.  Because I’ve bypassed the gatekeepers.  For me, they don’t exist.  I’ve found several small presses interested in my work, and if ever they reject a manuscript I believe in, I’ll publish it myself.  Self-publishing today is relatively easy.  Admittedly, it floods the world with bad books as well as good ones, but the good ones will win out – however modestly – in time.  We unagented authors are unknown to vast multitudes of readers, but one precious thing consoles us: we are free.

          Did I ever have an agent?  Yes, several for various manuscripts, back when the gatekeepers weren't so inaccessible.  But something was always wrong with the relationship.  For instance:
  • She never answered letters, couldn't be reached by phone.
  • She answered letters, but never the one that I'd just written.  She must never have kept files.
  • She promised and promised and promised to read my manuscript, never did.
  • Unable to sell my manuscript, he returned it to me, but said he'd offer suggestions as to where I should go next.  But when I asked about those suggestions, he always put me off.  Finally I realized that he had no intention of suggesting anything, just wanted rid of me.  At that point, I wanted rid of him.
Those that took on my manuscript tried their best to find a publisher; for this I have no complaint.  It was their contact with me, or the lack of it, that was troublesome.

          I rarely saw an agent face to face.  My keenest memory is one of an older woman sitting at a desk covered with manuscripts, toiling away in solitude in a tiny inner office, her door open just enough to let me sneak a peek.  Ruling the small outer office was her one assistant, a younger woman, another gatekeeper, who received or returned manuscripts; beyond her I never got.

          One thing all agents want is for a manuscript that comes their way to be exciting.  They want to come alive when they look at it, want to be unable to put it down, want to keep turning page after page.  But -- and what a But it is -- it also has to be something they can sell.  Many of them tell sad stories of loving a manuscript but having to reject it.  Why? Because it's not what the acquisitions editors of the big presses want.  So what do they want?  A woman I know who represents authors at BookExpo, the annual gathering of the book trade in New York, tells how she gets the editors' attention.  She goes to them, promo sheet in hand (a sheet listing the basic features of a manuscript), sniffs it, and says, "I smell money."  And does that ever get their attention!  Because today that's all the big presses care about: money, and big money at that.  They want to drown in it, and I hope they will.

          Do writers ever have good relationships with agents?  Of course. Especially if you write books that sell, and sell big.  How-to books, celebrity biographies, vampire novels, another twist on Ann Boleyn, or how I got cured of cystic fibrosis: the stuff that I don't write.  No wonder I prefer small presses and the DIY option.

         Even so, I don't resent the success of my betters; they deserve it.  I especially wish Ann Lamott well, and hope that her newfound hubby will let her keep her dreadlocks.

Coming soon: From Illusions to Gas: Mo Kwon Do, Bath Bombs, and Rolfing.  

©  2019   Clifford Browder

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