One of the more challenging aspects of being a literary agent is dealing with the incredible deluge of submissions that pour in every single day, twenty four hours a day, from all corners of the globe and for every type of project imaginable. I don't keep precise stats on the number I receive (it's hard enough just to answer them all), but in any given year I receive somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 query letters from aspiring authors. Out of those tens of thousands I reject all but a tiny handful of them and take on perhaps three to five clients a year, whose work I then shop to publishers.
Contrary to the myth that an agent is sitting at a desk cackling as they read the submissions from the supposedly untalented masses, I loathe sending rejection letters. Loathe loathe loathe. Not because it's tedious, but because honestly: who am I to be telling someone they're not worthy of publication?
Well... who am I? I'm a literary agent, and my job hinges on having a good batting average at the sorting process and pulling gems from the virtual pile. I have to use my knowledge of the industry and hopefully some skill to find what will ultimately sell to a publisher.
But as I search for the diamonds, every day I have to pass on the life's work of cancer survivors and abuse victims and war heroes and many more people who spent hours upon hours of their life writing a novel in the faint hope that it would someday find publication. I don't enjoy sending these rejection letters, and I never forget that on the other end of the letter there's a person out there whose day I'm probably ruining and whose dreams I'm chipping away at. What makes these books unworthy, other than the fact that it simply wouldn't be profitable to publish them in print?
The lack of commercial viability of 99% of the books written every year necessitates all this rejection. I can only take on the books I think I can sell to publishers, and aspiring authors receive this judgment in the form of a rejection letter. But the very nature of commercial viability in the publishing world is changing quickly with the transition to e-books, and I think it's ultimately a change for the better.
The Print Funnel
In the print era, there was a good reason to create a funneling process rife with rejection: making a book and getting it to readers is a costly process. It requires extensive and expensive infrastructure (production, printing, warehousing, shipping, retail) and realistically there were only a finite number of books a publisher could publish and still have a chance at making a profit.
All the other books that, rightly or wrongly, were viewed unworthy: they disappeared into drawers, never to see the light of day. While many of the vanished manuscripts were likely passed on for good reasons, who knows what masterpieces and gems were lost to bad guesses?
Luckily, the e-book era is changing all of that. Anyone can upload their work to the Kindle or iBooks or insert e-book store here and make their work available, and thousands of authors are currently doing just that.
Contrary to another publishing myth, I'm not an agent that's opposed to self-publishing, nor do I see it as anything close to a mortal threat to the world of literature and publishing. People fret as a swarm of books hit the market, many of poor quality, but I don't see any reason to fear the deluge at all.
Let's face it, folks: the deluge is already here.
The Digital Deluge
Walk into any large suburban bookstore and you'll find tens of thousands of books to choose from, more than you could possibly read in an entire lifetime. Head on over to your friendly neighborhood online superstore and you'll find hundreds of thousands more. We're already faced with (literally) millions of options when it comes to choosing a book. And guess what: faced with all that choice we are still able to find the ones we want to read.
No one sits around thinking, "You know what the problem with the Internet is? Too many web pages." Would you even notice if suddenly there were a million more sites on the Internet? How would you even know? We all benefit from the seemingly infinite scope of the Internet and we've devised a means of navigating the greatest concentration of information and knowledge the world has ever seen.
So what's the big deal if a few hundred thousand more books hit the digital stores every year? We will find a way to find the books we want to read, just as surely as we're able to find the restaurants we eat at and the movies we want to see and the shoes we want to buy out of the many, many available options.
Infinite Choice Instantaneously
I grew up in a tiny farming town, and for me a fun afternoon consisted of standing in a rice field and shooting things with a BB gun. I didn't have a beloved neighborhood bookstore to peruse, and as this was pre-Internet I certainly didn't have a lot of choice in what I was able to read. My choices were basically limited to what was stocked at our small-but-awesome library and whatever I was able to wrangle from the small-and-not-awesome mall bookstore over 30 miles away.
Not only did my experience growing up give me the skill to shoot dirt clods with the best of them, it also gave me a tremendous appreciation for the importance of choice (because let's face it, nothing gives you an appreciation for choice like not having any). I probably would have bankrupted my parents if I had regular access to a Barnes & Noble growing up, but I would have loved it!!
And now we have even more choice than a big bookstore. Instantaneous access to every book you could ever want to read: how could this possibly be construed as a bad thing?
The Sound of Silence
Clay Shirky, author of HERE COMES EVERYBODY, notes that we're moving from an era where we filtered and then published to one where we'll publish and then filter. And no one would be happier than me to hand the filtering reins over to the reading public, who will surely be better at judging which books should rise to the top than the best guesses of a handful of publishing professionals.
I don't see this transition as the demise of traditional publishing or agenting. Roles will change, but there are still some fundamental elements that will remain. There's more that goes into a book than just writing it, and publishers will be the best-equipped to maintain the editorial quality, production value, and marketing heft that will still be necessary for the biggest books. Authors will still need experienced advocates to navigate this landscape, place subsidiary rights (i.e. translation, film, audio, etc.), and negotiate on their behalf.
What's changing is that the funnel is in the process of inverting - from a top down publishing process to one that's bottom up.
Yes, many (if not most) of the books that will see publication in the new era will only be read by a handful of people. Rather than a rejection letter from an agent, authors will be met with the silence of a trickle of sales. And that's okay!! Even if a book is only purchased by a few friends and family members -- what's the harm?
Meanwhile, the public will have the ultimate, unlimited ability to find the books they want to read, will be unconstrained by the tastes of the publishing industry and past standards of commercial viability, and whether you want to read experimental literary fiction or a potboiler mystery: you'll be able to find it. Out of the vastness of books published the best books will emerge, driven to popularity by passionate readers.
Sure beats shooting dirt clods.