Agenting needs to evolve

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djf881
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Re: Agenting needs to evolve

Post by djf881 » August 18th, 2010, 5:41 pm

Knight, the fact is, this happens. It's just not happening to you. Talented writers get fellowships to go to MFA programs. There are folks out there getting artist-in-residence grants and other funding that allows them to write full-time even though their writing isn't paying their bills.

There are agents who are signing fiction authors who have not completed novels on the basis of short stories published in literary journals. And there are publishers who are buying short story anthologies from these authors at high prices, even though short story anthologies don't sell, because they want to lock in their option on a future novel the author hasn't written yet.

Prior to this stage, there are a lot of important things you should do, like reading as much of the canon of Western literature as you can and getting a broad liberal arts education.

But there are also ten thousand people who are querying agents every month, and most of their books are not of publishable quality. There is no possible mechanism for professionally cultivating all of these authors without charging them for it, and then the service becomes kind of a scam. And, to put it bluntly, most of them will never produce anything worthy of cultivation.
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Re: Agenting needs to evolve

Post by Holly » August 18th, 2010, 6:08 pm

Margo wrote:...Since six-weeks at Odyssey or Clarion is right out (understandably)...There are webcasts, however, and web Master classes that you 'attend' when you're available. One has to really stay on their toes to keep track of when they're offered, but they are out there. Have you seen that Odyssey has some podcasts posted? And Clarion used to have Ex Machina, which is archived up through 2005 or 2006 or something.

You can do this studying on your own if you have to. You really can.
Odyssey has online classes: http://www.sff.net/odyssey/online.html

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Re: Agenting needs to evolve

Post by knight_tour » August 19th, 2010, 1:08 am

I'm not convinced it has to be so complicated as many suggest. I am suggesting that the current system where a writer is picked up and then goes through an editing process with a professional works quite well, for the most part. All that is really needed is a company or two that is willing to extend this process a bit, not by taking everything on the slush pile, of course, but by looking for those rough gems, the ones that show some real talent but need a bit more work than agents are able to provide in today's working environment. You can't tell me that a new writer who is very talented but hasn't quite mastered things yet wouldn't improve much faster if they had the pro editor to work with. If they show a bad attitude towards this, then obviously you don't take them on.

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Re: Agenting needs to evolve

Post by Margo » August 19th, 2010, 10:55 am

knight_tour wrote: All that is really needed is a company or two that is willing to extend this process a bit, not by taking everything on the slush pile, of course, but by looking for those rough gems, the ones that show some real talent but need a bit more work than agents are able to provide in today's working environment.
You just described a freelance editor. Several of them take only clients of polished-but-not-quite-professional level. If you would like the information to a very good one who specializes in fantasy, PM me. She's expensive, but she's very good, and you can decide what level of involvement you can afford.

I get the impression, though, that you're hope is that an agent would be willing to do this, for no upfront pay, in hopes of finding a writer who could be truly brilliant. If so, I see several problems with this. There are plenty of brilliant clients out there who don't need the extra help, and an agent has a mortgage, etc, just like the rest of us. The less editorial work an agent needs to do on one client, the more time for other clients and for working on sales. More clients and more sales, easier to pay the mortgage. Also, weren't you just expressing concern that agents get 15% of royalties as well as advances? If an agent has to mentor a writer along more than they do currently (and lots of agents are very involved in editorial work with their clients), I'd think they would fairly expect a higher percentage in compensation.

In general, I think the agents are already doing what you want. The level of clients they are willing to work with is higher than most unpublished writers would like. The freelance editors who work that extensively with writers who are almost there, but not quite, are reaching a little further down to writers who can't quite make the cut for the level of skill the agents are willing to mentor. But it's not free, and it shouldn't be, and you have to work pretty hard to get up to their level as well. People don't realize the amount of work that goes into editing at that level. The less advanced a writers is, the more work it is to edit them and the less likely they are to actually take the advice.

Yes, it would be so much faster if someone else could show us what we're doing wrong. I don't see how it's feasible, in either time or cost for the professionals. And what is gained cheaply is valued just as cheaply.
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Re: Agenting needs to evolve

Post by Margo » August 19th, 2010, 11:05 am

knight_tour wrote:I'm not convinced it has to be so complicated as many suggest.
Then I think you should make your case. I am sincerely interested, and I know there are a few agents and editors who browse Nathan's blog (though I doubt they read the forums a whole lot). Maybe you can get their attention.

How would it work? How would they find these writers? What level of writer would you propose they accept? How would it change the contract for representation, or would there be a separate contract that does not guarantee representation if the writer does not develop to a professional level? How many hours per week do you think they could/should reasonably dedicate to this, etc? How would it affect the current percentage an agent gets of advances/royalties? What form of compensation should they receive besides advances/royalties (as mentoring is no guarantee of advancement)? Etc...
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Re: Agenting needs to evolve

Post by polymath » August 19th, 2010, 11:57 am

There are companies who work with as yet unpublished writers to varying degrees. The Maass agency, Fine Print do that I know of. But then they charge higher-end commissions too and get them. I know of other agencies who work with new writers but there's no standard amount of developmental editing going on. It's a project-by-project as needed for that last iota of refinement attainable by imperfect mentors basis at best.

I understand Maass goes for up to thirty percent commission. Seventy percent of something is better than one hundred percent of nothing means writers agree to his terms. For thirty percent, Maass puts his stamp of approval on a manuscript and all but assures publication for a ready, willing, and able writer. He's quick to say no thank you, not right (not ready) for us, too. He's one of a very few agencies who will reconsider a previously refused manuscript, though.

One of the many complications for someone mentoring writers is how much resistance to change they put up. Dancers, actors, athletes in few uncertain terms have quantifiable and qualifiable physical and visual performance standards to meet and can be told and shown those standards for motivating change. The plastic arts are more subjective, still physical and visual, based on a knowable set of audience expectations and cultural coding conventions, also have performance standards that can be told and shown for motivating change. Knowing the sets of audience expectations and cultural coding conventions of literature or any given genre niche for performance standards is far more demanding for their many, approaching infinity, mostly esoteric natures.

A classic example is Upton Sinclair. He wrote socially conscious fiction and nonfiction. By and large the target audience he reached was/is like minded. He preaches to a choir. He aspired to change minds, though, and targeted the public at large, who didn't like his preaching ways. He messed up in reverse with his most popular work, The Jungle, 1906, aiming for the public mind and hitting them in the gut, a very visceral novel that changed the world. The term muckraker was coined in 1910 by Theodore Roosevelt to apply to writers like Sinclair. Sinclair's nonfiction The Cup of Fury, 1956, is more typical of his preaching style, about the perils of alcoholic spirits he encountered in his writer acquaintances. He ignored any audience expectations and cultural coding conventions he chose, and though he was a successful and accomplished author, he ultimately did not deliver his intended message to his target audience.

I've had a few private writing mentors. Their lessons weren't as inspiring or as directed as I desired or needed. They did do what mentors do best, fostered my fledgling efforts at learning for myself and set me on a fruitful course of my own choosing. After the fact, I realized they spoke to themselves from their experiences. Some of their unintentionally best advices were offhanded remarks on topics of little importance to them. Their mentoring approach was organic, shotgun like, scattering a survey of seed possiblities. Some stuck right away, some fell on barren ground. Years later, contemplating what fell on barren ground now provides benefits. What I've had to do is survey a large base of knowledge to get to a comprehensive picture of creative writing. No one mentor can share it all, it's too vast a knowledge base, too much of it is subconsiously driven for one and an isolated focus of another, and disagreements abound.

I recently read E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, 1927. It wouldn't have made any sense to me if I hadn't also read beforehand the dozens of poetics and fiction texts he references. But it does. I learned a few new things no one else has said. He takes several exceptions with Aristotle's Poetics, circa 353 BCE, as do I. But there's much to learn from Aristotle. Yes, the persons and poetics of the ages are my mentors. I like Forster's artistic flair for poetics writing. Aspects is a rhetorical farce of the first stripe, and, if one is familiar with the texts he references, one of the more accessible poetics texts I've encountered.

Several of the more determined writers I've graced with a report have later, after much hemming and hawing and more than a few responding with abusive replies, thanked me and commented that it took them awhile to fully comprehend my points, but that my advices helped short term by causing them to bluntly assess their work. In one case it was two years later the writer said, I get it now, you were saying my narrative point of view was unsettled in narrative distance and voice while I thought you meant my main character was too active. You can imagine why I thought you were a moron. It was apology enough for that writer's uncalled-for abuse.

What would suit your individual needs? A congenial developmental editor? An agent who grudgingly works with a writer? And agents balk at it if it's a chore. It is a chore. Me, I balk because it's helping someone else achieve his or her dreams and sidelining my own. There has to be something worth the effort to look forward to. A writing workshop? No, individual attention is what you seek. An approving audience of alpha readers? Many of the writers of projects I've contemplated didn't want any constructive advice, nor really advice at all for that matter. They wanted an approving audience, desperate for someone to applaud their little author surrogate prince and princess heroes. What then? An altruistic goal for all writers? Impossible. There can be no all things to all people, not even enough things for one person, except what that one person can be for the self through determination and hard work. The secret is, in life as well as art, there is no secret. The easy way is the hardest way. The hard way is the easiest way.

It is human nature to seek the path of least resistance, which is great for portraying in narratives, but it is not an easy lesson to learn which path of least resistance is most likely to achieve desirable outcomes.
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Re: Agenting needs to evolve

Post by Margo » August 19th, 2010, 12:21 pm

polymath wrote:There are companies who work with as yet unpublished writers to varying degrees. The Maass agency, Fine Print do that I know of. But then they charge higher-end commissions too and get them. I know of other agencies who work with new writers but there's no standard amount of developmental editing going on. It's a project-by-project as needed for that last iota of refinement attainable by imperfect mentors basis at best.

I understand Maass goes for up to thirty percent commission. Seventy percent of something is better than one hundred percent of nothing means writers agree to his terms. For thirty percent, Maass puts his stamp of approval on a manuscript and all but assures publication for a ready, willing, and able writer. He's quick to say no thank you, not right (not ready) for us, too. He's one of a very few agencies who will reconsider a previously refused manuscript, though.

One of the many complications for someone mentoring writers is how much resistance to change they put up.
Now that's really interesting. I knew Maass and his agents were very hands on in the editorial process. I didn't know they would take clients who needed more work with the sliding scale on commissions.

I have seen the proof of the last statement in person, though. I got to witness a...um...vehement discussion between one of Donald's clients and an unpublished author who didn't like what either Donald or the client had to say about her project.
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Re: Agenting needs to evolve

Post by Margo » August 19th, 2010, 12:27 pm

polymath, when you edit fiction projects, are they generally literary? (No, I'm not hinting around that I need an editor. I'm just curious.)
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Re: Agenting needs to evolve

Post by knight_tour » August 19th, 2010, 12:31 pm

I specifically mentioned that I wasn't speaking about agents with this idea (and I can't edit the thread title), as they don't have time for this. Also, the examples you keep giving tend to be for those who really need a ton of help, not the talents I am meaning. Of course I don't expect it to be done for free, but it is also not possible for most to pay lots of money for help. Your statement that there are already many who don't need any help is misleading. I have already said that it is possible for rare people to become masters all on their own, but any of them could have done so faster (and possibly even become better than they now are) had they been pushed and challenged earlier. Anyone, no matter how talented, can improve quicker and better with professional guidance.

A country that can subsidize such work would be nice, but that won't happen in the Western world. The only way that I can imagine it working in the US would be through a patron system; a 'Bill Gates who loves books' type who could found a publishing company that would pay agents a finder's fee for passing along real talent that they cannot take on themselves (fee paid only if the person referred is taken on by the company). The talented writer would need to provide a certain amount of future compensation to the company in order to cover the greater editing/mentoring costs.

I'm not suggesting that I know the answers, only that I see how such systems really work with other arts, and I don't see any reason it couldn't also work with writing. Our main drawback in the US is our stubborn insistence in going it alone. That is why we never have the best chess players in the world (with the one-time exception of Bobby Fischer, who was just a nutcase who was singularly driven toward one and only one goal in life). In the US chess players must teach themselves or pay a ton of money for pro training. In other countries they subsidize training and have programs that seek out and find talent so they can nurture it. They consistently end up with the best players in the world.

To me the current system seems to be one of settling for good writers because they make enough money, rather than producing much better writers who could really floor people. There is a vast difference between a run-of-the-mill chess grandmaster and a Garry Kasparov. They are not even in the same league, yet people seem content to have most published writers simply be like regular grandmasters rather than pushing to be the true masters they could be. I think most can't even tell the difference, so they don't see any reason to push for better. I can play a regular grandmaster, lose, and be very impressed with their talent. But, that same grandmaster will lose to Kasparov with Kasparov not even having to really break a sweat.

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Re: Agenting needs to evolve

Post by knight_tour » August 19th, 2010, 1:08 pm

Apologies for always using chess for my examples, but it is the art that I have mastered most. I've also trained in music and a bit in art. I really don't see vast differences in what it takes to master the different arts. The one difference I do see is that artists in other fields tend to be more objective about their own skills (and in some cases like chess there are even real measurements, so there is no reason to ever overestimate ones mastery). In writing no one is told the truth by anyone about their talent level, so many believe they are better than they are. I am not excluding myself from this, as I also have no way of knowing how good I can be in writing.

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Re: Agenting needs to evolve

Post by Margo » August 19th, 2010, 1:23 pm

knight_tour wrote:Also, the examples you keep giving tend to be for those who really need a ton of help, not the talents I am meaning.
But people who don't need 'a ton' of help are already being picked up by agents and editors. It's certainly not as if agents and publishing house editors only take on people with perfect projects. They take on those who only need a reasonable amount of editorial guidance, by industry standards. So for them, the others do need a ton of work.
knight_tour wrote:Your statement that there are already many who don't need any help is misleading. I have already said that it is possible for rare people to become masters all on their own, but any of them could have done so faster (and possibly even become better than they now are) had they been pushed and challenged earlier. Anyone, no matter how talented, can improve quicker and better with professional guidance.
I don't think it's misleading at all, because I don't think that level of writer is rare in relation to the publishing slots available. There's no point in having x,xxx,xxx master level writers when you can only publish xx,xxx books a year.

Could writers progress faster with the right help? Yes, provided the help is received at the right time and when the writer is in the right frame of mind.
knight_tour wrote:The only way that I can imagine it working in the US would be through a patron system; a 'Bill Gates who loves books' type who could found a publishing company that would pay agents a finder's fee for passing along real talent that they cannot take on themselves (fee paid only if the person referred is taken on by the company). The talented writer would need to provide a certain amount of future compensation to the company in order to cover the greater editing/mentoring costs.
Yes, that would be a great thing to have, but outside our control.
knight_tour wrote:Our main drawback in the US is our stubborn insistence in going it alone.
I would have said it was our desire for a quick fix and instant gratitification without regard to long-term repercussions. But I do see aspects of our culture that have suffered from the pioneer mindset of rugged individualism taken to the extreme.
knight_tour wrote:To me the current system seems to be one of settling for good writers because they make enough money, rather than producing much better writers who could really floor people.
This is probably where I disagree with you most. The people with books on the shelves in bookstores right now did something right or they wouldn't be there.
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Re: Agenting needs to evolve

Post by Margo » August 19th, 2010, 1:25 pm

knight_tour wrote:The one difference I do see is that artists in other fields tend to be more objective about their own skills (and in some cases like chess there are even real measurements, so there is no reason to ever overestimate ones mastery). In writing no one is told the truth by anyone about their talent level, so many believe they are better than they are.
I agree on every count.
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Re: Agenting needs to evolve

Post by polymath » August 19th, 2010, 1:31 pm

Margo wrote:polymath, when you edit fiction projects, are they generally literary? (No, I'm not hinting around that I need an editor. I'm just curious.)
Like my reading, I'm not partial to any particular genre. Literary genre are more challenging, though, from having comparatively broad expectation and coding convention bases.

----
And knight_tour,

The truism it takes a village to raise a child is also true of authors. The existing creative writing community for all its frustrations and failings and diasporas is that village, actually more perfect than it seems on the surface, perfectly messed up, perfectly suitable for filtering out the bargaining for unjustified approval also-rans. The child turns out the way the child turns out in spite of best intentions and attentions.

Before I'd consider entering into a monetary contract with a writer to mentor him or her, I'd require them to study and demonstrate an understanding of a poetics text that most covers their greatest deficiencies. But I don't come out and say read this first. I prompt. My prompts are more often than not savagely denigrated or callously ignored. My hurdles are high for a reason, accommodating to my hurdles demonstrates to me a writer is ready, willing, and able to make the necessary committment to achieve his or her goals.

For example, my developmental editing rate, $0.35 to $1.00 per word. It's a test of determination not an absolute price. It's negotiable. A writer willing to pay that amount either doesn't need the help and is already there, so wouldn't be that much of an expensive burden (emotionally and temporally and monetarily), or has more money than writing sense and I would earn it by ghost writing the manuscript in the first place, and in a predictably contentious relationship too. Besides, a writer with that kind of money to throw around can afford to buy an approving audience and doesn't really want a mentor anyway.

Establish a congenial working rapport, discount.
Demonstrate a manageable facility with structure or aesthetics, discount.
Demonstrate determination, discount.
Demonstrate improvement, discount.
Demonstrate self-reliance, discount.
Recognize and acknowledge deficiencies, discount.
Know and demonstrate knowing it's an open-minded exchange of ideas process, discount.

To name a few. A project that asks for years of dedicated work exacts and deserves a high price. A project that asks for a few hours of reading and one or two informed suggestions deserves deep discounts. Most all the projects I've looked at asked for substantial rewrites and their writers didn't adequately demonstrate their determination to do so. They wanted me to do it for them. That's why I turned them down.
----
Frank Zappa is one of my at-large writing mentors. I resort to "Cheepnis" on the Mothers of Invention Roxy and Elsewhere album when I'm in need of a little humorous consolation.

"Cheepnis" lyrics from LyricsMania;
http://www.lyricsmania.com/cheepnis_lyr ... zappa.html

On the other hand, a little bit of ars poetica metafictive doggerel for expressing my grieving. I've been revisiting this one for years. I'm content with it for now.
polymath wrote:It's a Muddle

As I stew here,
Brokenhearted,
Harshly started,
I dip in
Once and once again,
Study, wonder, ponder,
What I'll give--
What it takes
To fit in
Over yonder.
Last edited by polymath on August 19th, 2010, 1:48 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Agenting needs to evolve

Post by knight_tour » August 19th, 2010, 1:46 pm

Margo wrote:This is probably where I disagree with you most. The people with books on the shelves in bookstores right now did something right or they wouldn't be there.
'Doing something right' is no different to me than saying to a chess player that there is no reason to push harder because they have already achieved a master title, when in fact if I did keep pushing that player he or she could become an elite grandmaster. There is a world of difference between settling for good and reaching greatness. If we only ever settled for good then we would consider it great and not even realize that there were higher levels that could be achieved. Like I have said, each and every art demonstrates this fact, so there is no reason at all writing should be any different. It is an art, also.

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Re: Agenting needs to evolve

Post by polymath » August 19th, 2010, 1:55 pm

knight_tour wrote:It is an art, also.
And like any art, an art of widely varying degrees of artistry, popular appeal, dedication, accomplishment, and outcomes. The only absolute law I allow, there are no absolutes, save the one, there are no absolutes. And even that absolute I challenge and question.
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