Agoraphilic

(Posted by Jeff Porten)

Now that I’ve established my credentials as an unsuccessful writer, I’d like to propose an idea to aid unsuccessful writers everywhere—and maybe a few editors and readers to boot.

The problem with being a successful writer boils down to two crucial components:

  1. You have to write well.
  2. You have to start a business to sell your writing.

Most would-be writers get the first part but not the second, which is why the frustrated writer commmunity is the world’s largest market for voodoo dolls and Jim Beam. It’s not enough to craft the most beautiful essay in the English language, if you don’t know how to get it to someone who will buy it. Someone who is extraordinarily endowed on only one side of the equation may be able to overcome a failing in the other (and I suspect that this is probably more common with bad writers who are good salesmen), but you need both to really make this a working career. Exhibit A: John Scalzi, whom I think regular readers of the Whatever recognize as being well above-average on both scores.

The problem is that not every good writer has the ability or the inclination to be a good professional writer. The market as it stands allows plenty of good writing to be lost—most of it never being written in the first place. In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, he postulates a dream library where all the things that were never written are curated. It’s a beautiful idea, but also intensely depressing; this is squandering the intellectual wealth of our species. Our writing is a bulwark of our civilization and our legacy for future generations. Engineering the free market to more effectively inspire good writing is one path to improving the lot of humanity.

I’ll start with myself as an example of the difficulties of the market. I think I’m reasonably good at this wordsmithing thing, and I start new businesses with the regularity of lunar cycles. The issue is in opportunity cost. Freelance writing pays laughably small sums of money compared to what I make in my regular endeavors—or at least, it does now while I’m still getting started. I have to get to the bottom of my speculative barrel before trying to sell my words becomes the best use of my time.

Or take my buddy Brian Greenberg. We finally convinced him to start a blog, and he comments here on a regular basis. John just called him a smart guy in one of those threads, and it’s safe to assume that John’s criteria are similar to those of professional editors. But Brian is not self-employed, so he’s got even fewer career reasons than I do to write professionally. Plus I’ll guess that he knows little about getting into that marketplace and doesn’t have the time to learn. So he’ll probably sooner start moonlighting in Dixieland jazz (that boy can really swing) than as a freelancer.

That’s the author’s side. How about the editors? They have it as difficult as we do, because every one of them has to maintain a slush pile, the dreaded mountain of unsolicited proposals that buries every publisher who has even thought of listing in Writer’s Market. The worst piece you’ve ever read in print was the result of culling out the more execrable 99% that came in the mail slot. If they didn’t need new writers, acquisitions editors the world over would be using their slush for merry bonfires and toasting marshmallows.

But they need us, because every week or month they need another 50,000 words to fill in the space between the advertising. And most of them, I reckon, are in their line of work because of their love of writing, and truly do care about the quality of what they print. The avalanche of slush makes it that much harder for the truly good undiscovered writers to break out.

The solution, I think, can be found in the sister market to freelancing: book publishing. There the market has created a niche for a creature known as the “literary agent,” who acts as a middleman between the publisher and author. Agents are routinely despised as unfair gatekeepers by frustrated writers, but it’s simply a fact that they serve a vital purpose connecting good writers with the publishers who need them.

What I’d like to see is a writer’s agora: a community of authors, agents, and editors, mostly conducted online, who come together to broker short writing and take the pain out of the business of freelancing.

Here’s how I think it would work. Start with the agents, who will most likely come from jobs within the industry, and who will be part-timing here themselves. They’ll have experience, they’ll have fat Rolodexes, and they’ll have a clear understanding of what writing has to be in order to survive as a business.

They begin building a stable of writers, primarily reaching out to the Brians and Jeffs of the world, but possibly also to the Scalzis who want to stretch into new markets. I don’t suppose John knows offhand who the English language acquisition editors are in Tokyo, but maybe the Japanese are dying to learn more about astronomy and indie bands. The authors would either be invited or auditioned; unpublished writers are welcome, but only if they convince the agents with the quality of their work.

The editors will come of their own accord. A hunger for talent will find it—and the fat Rolodexes are there to get the ball rolling.

What follows is Internet dating for the literary set. Authors could query at will by submitting ideas to the agents, or by dropping whole pieces into a library of unpublished content. The agents would earn their keep by knowing what will sell; good stuff will be proactively moved to the most likely markets, while less salable work can sit on file until an editor asks for it. Meanwhile, the editors get quality work and fast turnaround, both to fill that emergency hole for Thursday’s deadline, or to provide peace of mind for a schedule six months in advance.

Such a business would require hefty volume to survive; even with a 20% agenting fee, it would be rare for a sale to make more than a few hundred dollars for the agora. But I suspect most authors would be willing to pay that fee, or split it with the editors—80% and getting published is better than the current state of affairs. Pipeline those fees through the website to ensure that everyone gets treated fairly. This reduces the agents’ risk, simplifies the paperwork for the publishers, and creates a de facto writer’s union to prevent an editor from delaying payment, lest he be cut off from future work until he makes good on his arrears. Good luck trying to enforce your policy of paying three months after publication with this crowd.

With any luck, this would make authors’ and publishers’ lives much easier, and could also provide a decent income for the agents in question. I’m hoping someone will mention in comments if something like this already exists; I’d much rather use it than build it. But the sites I have seen bypassed the agents, or tried to replace them with software, and collapsed under the weight of the slush pile and spam from vanity publishers. The critical factor for success is expert intermediaries.

If anyone’s interested, I suspect the Republic of Scalzi has critical mass on all three fronts. And I know a guy who can do the web stuff <ahem>. So swing on by the comments thread, and we can hash it out there.

12 thoughts on “Agoraphilic

  1. Jeff’s right – I don’t know much about this business, nor do I have a lot of time to learn. But I do know a thing or two about free markets, so here’s my first impression based on Jeff’s “agora” idea:

    — Such a system certainly needs volume to survive, lest it not be worth the agents time to logon once in a while & check for new stuff.

    — Volume, however, has the potential to drown such a system, because if it ever did take off in a serious way, then the massive rush of wanna-be authors would turn it into yet another slush pile for the agents to wade through.

    So here’s my idea: make it demand driven, rather than supply driven. If the agents’ function is to “know what sells,” then let the agent put requests out for the writing. On the fiction side, maybe it’s a plot summary or outline they’ve come across that they think could make a good (saleable) book. On the non-fiction side, maybe they know the guy in Japan who desparately needs an article about indie bands who sing about the universe.

    Authors get screened before they join the collective (based on prior work or references from existing members). Once they’re in the group, they can scan the request log and “sign up” for something they think they can tackle. If more than one author signs up, then the editor reads them all & healthy competition ensues (or maybe the authors decide to collaborate?). In any case, the stuff the agents want written gets written, the clients are happy, and there’s money to be made by all.

    As the non-writer in the group, I can say that if something like this existed, I might be tempted to scan it periodically, and if a request that fell in my sweet-spot came up, I might try my hand at contributing, especially if it meant a few bucks in my pocket for writing something halfway decent.

    Thoughts?

  2. the “screening” process would kill the lovely democracy of it. how would the talented but socially retarded author who has never shown her work to anyone get in?

  3. I wasn’t thinking in terms of democracy, I was thinking it terms of hard-nosed business. Authors submit their work (i.e., some form of appliication) to the agents. The agents decide if the author is a marketable asset. If yes, in (s)he goes. If not, feel free to come back next year.

    If you wanted the illusion of democracy, you could always *accept* everyone, but then the database that catalogs everyone would have some kind of marker to keep the bad writers from being returned if the agents are looking for a writer. The idea is to create a factory system — to do the volume this will require, it’s gotta be dead simple for an agent to match an editorial request. The best agents will probably supplement the central database with their own mental lists of who to call.

    Re Brian’s question, yes, the upfront application process is a sticky wicket. That’s why I was thinking it would be invite-only to start. Afterwards, the slush pile would be processed on an as-available time basis. But this has to be on the supply-side first, because the only way to get money pumped in is to solve editorial problems. The key problem I can think of is turnaround — give any editor a place to shop when he’s in a fix and on deadline. For the authors, if they have to sign up and wait a while at first, that’s exactly what they’re doing now. And for the agents, the low-revenue starting period falls under the category of “business development”.

    What I glossed over in the essay is that the agents wouldn’t be a fixed pool either — applications could be accepted there as well. Hence, the whole system could be fine-tuned to handle whatever traffic is being generated on supply or demand side.

  4. Whoops, glossed over Claire’s question. She’d submit it by email. It would probably take a while for her to get read, but I’m guessing that since the agents are just skimming for quality on the first pass (rather than focusing on topical areas), she’d make the cut. Much as you can tell that a work is UNprofessional in the first 10 seconds.

  5. Why not use an eBay style rating system where purchasors or fellow writers could leave positive or negative comments about one’s ability to write? The buyers could then guage whether or not they wanted to have that person compete for the job (e.g. no application accepted from author’s with less than 50 ‘kudos’ and a 95% positive rating). Other buyers would be more desperate and would accept submissions from everyone.

  6. Corina — I think those models exist already. Arguably, the Writer’s Market site does something very similar. Where this falls down here is that editors aren’t democracies — they don’t want the author judged best by a jury of his peers, they want the author that meets his editorial needs. And they want him immediately.

    i can think of some software algorithms that might simplify this process, but at its core I see this as needing an expert human in the middle. For some jobs, the agent might only need 10 seconds to make a decision — but the key here is trustworthy supply for editors, and fire-and-forget for authors.

  7. Why not make the criteria for inclusion objective: something like 1 or 2 published articles to a paying market. Then you don’t have to worry about the problems inherent to a subjective screening.

  8. i’m intrigued by the thought, though not convinced. i’m an agent, and i can definitely agree that it would be a possible place for a writer to do some learning — to find an introduction to the business side and also to see what other people are finding success with. and yes, definitely the business development front could be interesting.

    i agree, the application process is the really difficult part of it — and the problem with brian’s projection of the agent putting out requests is that the writing is ultimately the determining factor. an agent or an editor is always looking for a clear and coherent writer, who can tell the “story” a way that it works, whether that story is science fiction or romance or advertising copy or anything but lorum ipsum. and that isn’t easily quantifiable or reducible to a formula or a story idea.

    and Tony, that’s … well, have you read any local newspapers or magazines recently? depending on where you live, big publications produce some seriously dreadful writing … and other paying markets are more interested in the look of words to surround the ads.

    and there are also plenty of really good writers who tend to be shyer about getting their work out there — or novel writers who simply write long and not short. which is not to say that the experience of having written and having previous publication experience isn’t a good idea for a pre-screening idea; it is, and could be part of the process. just not all, would be my vote.

    but this seems like an interesting starting point, at least.

  9. What you think is dreadful someone else obviously found good enough to pay for. And THAT’S the problem with doing a screening. I’m not saying that requiring a paid print credit will mean that the agora will fill up with exactly the kind of writers agents and editors want. I think a “screening” is time and labor intensive, and too subjective. Requiring a published article from a paying market says “Someone bought this,” and that kind of someone might be looking to buy articles on the Agora.

  10. I lament all of the time about my horrible inability to do the business of writing. Few creatives (and I live in LA, a city full of ‘em) are any good at business. The few who make any money often screw it up.

    That said, I’m a killer HTML coder, pretty good in Photoshop, a newspaper editor who can reach 35,000 south Los Angeles county residents a week with virtually no oversight, and I write like a mad bastard. Well, being purely technical, I _am_ a mad bastard, but that’s not really the point.

    I’m in, if we’re coordinating … and here’s why …

    http://www.operative.net/professional/411/whyop.html

  11. I think people are getting hung up on the mechanism here — I’m not proposing this as a “save the shy people from themselves” system. Nor am I doing away with the slush pile — I’m just shifting it to where it will do the most good.

    Let’s use the agent POV. A new agent in the system is going to be looking for properties to sell. Most likely, that will mean starting with existing authors she’s worked with. But an agent who is hungry for business, or has some extra time, will delve into the submissions to find more authors. The decision there is PURELY subjective — the agent saying, “I can sell this author.” I expect some agents will take on “projects” to groom authors as time permits, but essentially the weeding-out process is going to be as brutal here as it is in the current model.

    What makes it different for authors is that multiple agents may review their work (eventually), and agent #5 may pick someone up after they’ve been passed four times. This all takes place behind the scenes — the authors won’t know that an agent has dinged them. (They might get the hint if they’ve submitted 10 queries and not heard back in six months, though — but they only have to submit those queries ONCE.)

    The authors focus on writing and idea-generation. The agents serve as the filters. The editors provide the market — and I expect it’s quite likely that some author will make the cut when some editor asks for a piece that’s already been queried. At that point, it becomes remunerative for an agent to pull that writer into production.

    In other words, it’s all about the aggregation. Relieve the authors of the need to track multiple submissions and generate editorial leads from cold-calling. Pay the agents from the proceeds.

  12. So, from an agent’s POV, I can pick a genre, and start going through query letters, just clicking once to get the next one…click, click, click. I can burn through as many as I can read in the time I have (maybe 70 an hour), never having to stop and send a rejection letter.

    As a writer, I write a single query letter, specify genre, and it goes into the digital sluch pile, where someone may find it and contact me.

    If that’s your vision, I am awed by it.

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