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.