What is Your Job?

What is your job? What qualities do you need to do that job?

As fiction writers, our job is to tell stories that readers want to read. At a minimum, we need to be creative, have a better-than-average grasp of grammar and composition, some basic research skills, and very good imaginations. Understanding people and how to stir readers’ emotions is a big plus, whether it be to make them very happy, curious, angry, sad, or fearful.

We need to connect to readers, and the more tools we have in our toolboxes to do that, the better off we are. Not every story uses the same skill set, but all the basics had better be there.

What is the job of an agent? Most of us would say, an agent is supposed to present a writer’s story to a publisher, then negotiate a contract between the writer and the publisher, and keep track of financial and related business matters. Occasionally acting as cheerleader, counselor, and motivational coach (“No write, no eat!”) can be part of what authors and the general public assume agents do.

So, what skills are needed? Being good at evaluating manuscripts, salesmanship, some business accumine, familiarity with contract law and publishing as well as with copyright law, and decent interpersonal skills? Those all sound like things a successful agent would have, along with a very full Rolodex of contact names and favors owed.

Do physical capability, sexual preference, skin color, and cultural background matter? A little, perhaps, especially cultural background. But perhaps not quite as much as this individual believes:

“With nearly 80% of the industry identifying as white, straight, and able bodied, is it any wonder that so many stories sound the same? Calls for more diverse characters, authors, and stories are great. There’s a step further that must be taken, however; we need to make changes to the gatekeepers. As Kacen Callender rightly pointed out in their Publishers Weekly article, “We Need Diverse Editors,” sometimes stories weren’t written for the people we have guarding the house.”

The writer’s second point is probably more important if having fewer People of Pallor in Publishing is the goal:

“The second barrier is literal proximity. People of color have less wealth overall, and they have one-tenth of the generational wealth of whites, according to an article in the Washington Post. In a sector of the industry where starting pay is low or commission only, and that is based in a city with skyrocketing rents, many diverse candidates do not have the financial resources to take jobs as agents’ assistants. Without that first job, it’s nearly impossible to gain the necessary industry experience.”

Granted, this is from Publishing Perspectives, a print and electronic news and review publication that to this writer at least often sounds as if it is whistling while striding past the graveyard, as Death (and his white horse, Binkey) waits around the corner, tapping his watch and saying WHAT IS TAKING THEM SO LONG? So we are reading the New York establishment’s worries, concerns, and interests, which do not always coincide with the interests and desires of writers. Should there be more Writers of Color? Sure, if they are good. More good writers is always a good thing, because good stories are always welcome and more than welcome.

What about agents of color? Well, back up one step. Do we need agents? If an agent is needed, what about them is the most important?

I can sympathize a little with Callender about getting frustrated with people who say, “We love your book, but . . .” “It’s great, but . . .” over and over. And if, indeed, editors (and agents) only buy stories from people who are exactly like the editor and agent in every way, then yes, adding people from different backgrounds is needed.

As most readers of this blog know, there’s a really fast cure for the gatekeeper problem. Indie publishing, or small press publishing. Good stories will find readers, and if there is a market that is hungry for good stories, any author who can satisfy that hunger will do very well. And will keep the 15% that agents take off the top.

I suspect we are seeing the same phenomena at work in these two articles that we’ve seen in other places. Once the search stops being for people with skills and instead shifts to checking off cultural boxes, main-stream publishing will have even more difficulty producing books that people want to read. If readers love Tom Clancy, Stephen King, and Brad Thor, trying to get them to read Danielle Steele, say, is going to take a lot of work, especially if the copy-editing is “creative.” If ten percent of readers are X, then focusing on writers and acquisitions editors who are X ignores ninety percent of readers (assuming that only X readers read books from X editors and X writers.) And then they will finish going broke, because “No one reads anymore.”

As the other Mad Genii have said so often, if you want a traditionally published career with a mainstream publisher (Big 5), think very, very long and hard about the benefits and costs. If you are looking for an agent, do a lot of homework before you start sending out packets.

Tangentially related: One of the predatory vanity presses is still around. Feel free to warn aspiring authors.

23 comments

  1. As fiction writers, our job is to tell stories that readers want to read.

    I read that statement with a “prompt” reaction of “Of course,” then slowed down a bit and chewed it over. Now I’m thinking…in one sense, yes; in others, perhaps not.

    If “your job” is what will bring in revenue, then the statement is impeccable. A writer’s revenue comes from sales of his books, which will only happen if readers find them and purchase them. But no small number of us have other motives for writing. In some cases they’re more important than the potential for monetary return.

    In a conversation with military SF writer Tom Kratman, he said that “I write to illustrate eternal verities.” It was a statement of immense power that resonated with me immediately. “A kindred spirit,” I thought. For to the conceptually oriented writer, there must be a theme that surrounds and perfuses the story. A story without a theme, he will regard as pointless hackwork.

    There will surely be a lot of disagreement about this. What I call “pointless hackwork,” others will see as bread and butter stuff, the sort of fiction that puts food on the table. Heinlein was curiously conflicted about this. In the afterward to his Revolt in 2100 collection, he claimed that he wrote stories “to buy groceries”…then went on from there into an analysis of the themes he’d striven to elucidate in “If This Goes On” and “Coventry,” the two critical elements of his “Future History” that appeared in that book.

    Rather than flog this corpse all the way to disintegration, I’ll close thus: Yes, revenue is very nice. To some writers, it’s the be-all and end-all of their efforts. But that’s not the case with all of us. And while I’d love to have the satisfaction of writing books that express important themes and bring in truckloads of bucks, if I can’t have them both I’ll settle for the former. That’s what I see as my job, though your mileage may vary.

    1. This is a good point, but I think Heinlein had the priorities straight. The good story that people will buy and read has to come first. Then the important themes have to be worked into the story in a way that doesn’t damage the book sales. If the important theme with no story doesn’t sell, then very few people will get to learn about the theme. It may still be satisfactory for the author, but won’t do much for everyone else. If the book with the important theme is a best-seller, then lots of people will be exposed to it.

    2. I’m not so sure that the distinction between those is so hard and fast. I’m reminded of the bit in Misery where Paul reflects on the fact that his “masterpiece” that Annie forced him to destroy really was pretentious drivel, while the book that he only started to keep Annie from killing him was the best thing he’d ever written. And while I know that’s a fictional example, I remember that several of the best Start Trek episodes were “filler” episodes that existed only because they needed to fill out the 26-episode season.

      I’m not sure that I’m stating this well, but my point is that the “books that express important themes” might not be the ones that you think they are when you write them.

    3. Job is what brings in money or other material resources necessary for survival. Or processes said resources. Profession and vocation are fancier concepts that come with non material purposes, but if they first fail at being a job, they also fail at being true examples.

      If it doesn’t bring in money, it is a hobby.

      Kratman is by vocation and was by profession an infantry officer. Yes, he is also a fancy literary sort of writer. He brings in money as a writer, so it is a job for him. His eternal truths have the context of an infantry officer’s professionalism.

      Themes and truths put into a work are both outside of the author’s complete control, and impossible to objectively and conclusively measure. This poses two challenges for treating them as your job. How do you purposefully do them? How do you know when you have done them?

      Kratman’s expertise, and that he writes a particular sort of book, permit him to evaluate a narrow slice of the themes and truths in his works. His process and his choice of material let him identify all military activity in the story, and study whether the activity is honestly accurate. Like an engineer taking however long to write a hard sci fi story. It is not something that can be generalized to every writer, or to every story.

    4. An eternal verity written badly won’t get many readers. An eternal verity that also entertains and sticks with readers long after they put the book aside, will prove more eternal, I suspect.

      It’s not a pure either/or, but more of a “yes.” We need to keep readers reading. To do that we need to tell stories that entertain the reader, be they mil sci-fi, romance, fantasy, contemporary fiction, or literary fiction.

      1. I can hardly differ with any of that, but we were talking “job.” A job is a task for which you’ve accepted a responsibility. If you see your job as revenue generation, your output is likely to differ from that of someone who sees his job as the illumination or illustration of an important theme.

        Coincidentally, I’m currently working my way — mild emphasis on working — through a military SF series from a writer with a strong and obvious passion for the themes involved, which are plainly expressed throughout. However, the writer is technically deficient and badly needs a good proofreader. I’m sticking with it because the themes are of the sort I find very valuable. Ironically, even if they were technically impeccable, most publishers in our time would disdain these books for the very reasons I find them valuable.

        So, while one swallow doth not a summer make, I have before me an example of fiction that doesn’t make the cut on the level of technique or adequately careful preparation, but which a number of readers have praised for the same reasons I value them. This is a big part of what indie fiction is about, isn’t it? Writing the sort of thing the New York houses won’t touch because it goes against their political sensibilities?

        1. If you purely optimize for theme or message you cut out considerations of fun.

          Kratman does not purely optimize for theme. He states that his design intent is providing enough fun to balance the message.

          Fitting the preconceptions of New York publishing has nothing at all to do with the matter of providing enough fun to serve your target chunk of the market well. Fun does not depend on any particular measure of technical excellence.

  2. The job of a writer is to appease online ideological lynch mobs and lecture their readership on the talking points of Current Moment, of course.

  3. What is the job of an agent? Most of us would say, an agent is supposed to present a writer’s story to a publisher, then negotiate a contract between the writer and the publisher, and keep track of financial and related business matters.

    The cynic in me says that the job of an agent is to treat the author’s royalties an interest-free loan until they’re absolutely forced to pay out the 85% the author is owed.

  4. I remember an online conversation about the possibility of getting an agent, among some of the authors in my early indy-writers group (gads … can it have been a decade ago?). The intelligence was if you had managed to sell as an independent something like 5 thousand, or thirty thousand books (can’t recall the exact figure) then agents would be panting to represent you. To which the reply was – if you had managed to sell that many as an agent, what in hell did you need an agent for, again?
    I was listening to a conversation between two other indy writers yesterday at the Goliad Author Corral – and apparently, from their experience, agents are now a lot less snotty about considering representing indy authors. Or at least the lean and hungry ones are. YMMV.

    1. For a while I remember reading that several agencies were interested in indie writers, so long as they had at least 50K sales in the first three-four months. As you say, at that point, who needs an agent or other publisher.

      1. Only reason I can think of is if the agent has a filmmaker already on the hook and eager to pay you a fat option fee. (99% never get made into a film, but you get to keep the option fee. I know a guy who lived on option fees for a long time.)

        More broadly, an agent might be good for finding non-publishing markets you don’t have easy access to. Otherwise? Phhbt.

      2. Those desperate for the Blue Fairy to wave a magic wand and turn them into a “real writer.”

    2. I think the only use I ever heard of for agents post-indie had to do with getting translations done, but Kris Rusch addressed this in a couple of places. Bottom line is that an agent is not even useful for translations; Rusch got better terms with foreign publishers when she cut out agents. The foreign publishers also term limit their contracts, which is great for a writer.

      Frankly, the IP lawyer looks like the better bet to go, especially as writers start thinking in terms of licensing their stories. I enjoy her posts on that.

  5. Saw this on Twitter, and thought I’d share. ^_^

  6. Some Wise Person whose name escapes me wrote, (or said, memory fails me) money is if nothing else, a true unbiased measure of the utility (or pleasure) you have given to other people. The example s/he offered was Bill Gates. Despite your opinions of him, his OS launched a revolution that made individuals and businesses orders of magnitude more productive. So he was rewarded with riches hardly countable. So, I hope my series will sell zillions. Not because I got big plans for the money. How many houses can you live in? How many cars can you drive? Been there, done that. Indescribably boring.It was real ego-boo being the guy that created a place that gave a platoon of folks a way to make a good living. That’s what I miss the most. Being the guy who created something for the peeps I cared for.

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