Affirm me

I was sympathizing a few days back with a fellow author who was in despair, because her agent had stopped talking to her, no new contracts were happening, royalties were small… and she written to a new agent and hadn’t had a reply. Now she’s a nice woman, writes quite beautiful prose. It’s lyrical rather than commercial, and not particularly PC and political (so while the useless are often beloved of agents and editors for beating their favorite drum and don’t have to be commercially appealing or successful, this does not help her). Also, to be blunt she is not much good at facebook-and-blog publicity charge that agents and editors also love for the free ride it produces for them.

She’s sold a number of books, some which did relatively well, and got foreign rights sold etc…

And she was at her wits end because some penny-ante agent hadn’t bothered to reply(and let’s be real here, almost all of the agent profession is operating on the smell of an oily rag right now. Any ‘big-name’ of yesteryear is being slowly devoured by the declining mainstream advances, and shrinking sales. Yes, a few are still selling. But it’s not the naughties, let alone the 90, and the 80’s are wild dream.) And she hadn’t queried their non-reply. She’d just been the the good little author of yesteryear, and waited like a wallflower at the ball. Because that’s what a good little supplicant did. Agents and editors, bless their overworked little socks, and wash their tired feet in sweet unguents and dry them with your hair, had to deign to notice you, or you were toast.

Needless to say fairly robust comfort and advice was applied liberally. The general message was you had move on, and query the non-reply, and work your way down a list of agents… and then to a kickstarter project, and failing that to Kindle. Me, I’d pass on the agents and kickstarter and just go straight to Smashwords and Kindle, but any steps are better than none. And times have changed. Agents and editors are slowly going to have to come to terms with the new paradigm: they need to make themselves valuable and relevant or authors will simply disintermediate them. There is still almost complete denial about this, but it’s got to get through soon.
Behaving like you’re still a good little slave with no options but to obey the masters will have them continue to treat you like that. There is no need to be nasty about it, but letting them politely know they’re not the only game in town does improve the terms and treatment you get. And if it doesn’t, selling anyway is the finest payback you could have.

Her reply let me know, particularly, that it wasn’t the difficulties of doing this yourself, or the difficulty of selling yourself that were her fear. She wasn’t confident about those, didn’t think she could, wanted a publisher to do it for her, because what she did well was write stories. Yeah. That’s most of us. I have no real interest in Corel draw and making covers (which is what I was trying to do today). I don’t want to spend my time editing, proofing, and formatting. I suck at self-promotion. But I do these things. I’d rather do them than give up, and having a small independent revenue trickle from the various shorts is very satisfying. But that wasn’t her problem…

Her problem was she wanted an agent to believe in her, to sell her to publishers, who would in turn sell her to the readers.


She needed others to believe in her ability.

It’s a lovely feeling. To be affirmed. To be told you are good. To win awards, to get kiss-up write ups in Locus etc.

But honestly, the only real affirmation is people telling their friends they have to buy your book. Selling 10 copies off your own bat is worth a thousand agents (who, I am sorry, outside of O’Mike who has some taste, and selling what he likes, sell what the publishers like. And the publishers have proved by losing ground in a recession (which as publishing is a countercyclical industry, like camping gear and seeds, they shouldn’t) that their affirmation doesn’t mean people will like and buy your book.

Believe in yourself. And believe that every sale you got without that publisher pushing you, putting you in bookstore shelves, providing editing and covers… is worth 50 of those in affirmation terms.


  1. I’d add having people cuss you out because they just HAD to read the whole thing and they didn’t get any sleep that night as one of the best affirmations. Along with “You bastard, I nearly broke something trying not to laugh out loud in public” if you write funny. (Yes, Dave, you’ve done both to me.)

    1. Or, “I don’t read [genre] but I really like your stuff. Got any more?” As hard-nosed (and hard-hearted in some ways) as the traditional publishing industry has grown, affirmation seems hard to come by even for “Serious Best Selling Authors.”

      1. Hell, except for their precious parrot chorus, we’re considered darn near interchangeable widgets. Affirmation for me is readers finding my books and laying their money down. If they do it twice, I’ve won.

    2. My favorite ever letter from a reader (I won’t call him a fan, because he was mad with me) was from a Japanese reader, who was furious with me because ‘you nearly make me lose my job’ – he’d been unable to stop reading, and thus overslept…

  2. YES! Very yes. All of it. With bells on and stomping feet. But Dave, I’m running into this with well-established authors suddenly given the cold shoulder and with beginners too “I want to be a writer just like my dear papa” — if you take papa to mean the father figure in the field. Well, wouldn’t we all. No, the dreams we had weren’t of this writing/cover making/editing/selling. But dreams, I’ve learned, come true in their own way, now the way we want them to. It’s that or give up and die. And that I will not, on any front. I now can’t remember from what movie/book I got this, but there was a sentence at some point that struck my mind “I won’t die, even if they kill me.” It’s become my motto. The zombie career lurches on.

    1. (chuckle). I do Black Knight (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) ‘It’s only a flesh wound’ . The truth is the industry doesn’t know where it is all going any more than we do. But instead of trying to work it out, trying new things, looking at what IS working for Independents and Amazon… they’re muddling along repeating the same command economy experiment. Traditional publishing still has huge advantages and strengths – but it needs to change its outlook so it can use those, and drop the dross yesteryear. A darling of the industry was telling me how he always takes his London and NY editors to lunch because they’re overworked and therefore will notice him. My question is overworked doing just what? It’s not editing. I suspect a careful analysis of the ‘work’ of a an editor at a large traditional publishing house would come down to a lot of meetings… which add very little real value. A three hour meeting with marketing… who have no real data about readers and readers tastes. They know about book chain buyers tastes – which is increasingly irrelevant. Or they get together with the art director – who doesn’t know a darn thing about internet size covers, and ALSO has no data on what readers really like.

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