(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:
- You have to write well.
- 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.