What I don’t understand is why we writers believe that those on the other side of the transom act in such illogical ways, ways in which I definitely wouldn’t act if I were in their shoes.
Agents. If I were an agent I wouldn’t read anybody’s stories or novels. I’d simply accept as clients the writers with the most previous credits or who were otherwise the most successful as I could get. Look, one’s time is limited, and if you were to spend all of it reading the submitted stories, you’d never have time for anything else. Even if you devoted all your waking hours to reading them, you probably still wouldn’t be able to read them all. It’s an activity whose time demands always expand to encompass all that time that is allotted to it and more. Agents have to schmooze and hype, and you can’t do that if you’re immured in some library carrel all the time.
Besides, what would be the point of reading clients’ stories? In his autobiography F. Lee Bailey said that he never asked after a client’s guilt or innocence. It just doesn’t matter; his job was to construct the best possible defense for his client, and he didn’t want his head cluttered with information that might compromise his thinking. What if I read a client’s novel and hated it? That wouldn’t mean it can’t sell. That wouldn’t even mean it can’t sell a million copies. Plenty of stuff that has sold a million copies has struck me as complete dreck. If I knew a client’s work was bad, I don’t think I’d be able to lie convincingly about it, but as long as I’m unaware of his terrible writing, I could continue to sell the hell out of him at whatever meetings or functions agents do their work at. The agent’s job isn’t to select writers that he himself likes, but those that stand the best chance of selling the most copies. Letting my own personal taste be the arbiter of a writer’s chance at doing so sounds like a good way to fail.
Magazine Editors. Again, I’d probably do basically the same thing as I’d do as an agent—simply buy the work of the most previously successful writers who’d submit to my publication. As an editor, your success or failure isn’t determined by what stories you buy or reject. It’s determined by the economic resources your publication has at its disposal. Your status as an editor is determined before you buy or reject your first story, and it never changes. Let’s say you edit one of the top magazines in your field, and you pass on a story by an unknown writer. What are the possible outcomes? Will anything bad ever happen to you because of it? No; in buying the work of an unknown, there’s lots of downside and very little upside. On the other hand, in rejecting the work of an unknown, just the opposite is true: lots of upside and very little downside. Let’s say that this unknown goes on to become to biggest thing since sliced bread. Is anyone going to criticize you for rejecting him when he was a nobody? Of course not; they’re not even going to know you ever did it. And it’s not like the Hot New Thing is going to shun you for the rest of his life, denying you his work, and leading to the downfall of your publication when everybody realizes the best work doesn’t appear in it anymore. On the contrary, as soon as he’s a Big Name, he’ll use his status to get himself published in your magazine—its prestige further advances his own, and vice versa. He’ll want to do so regardless of your past history together, no matter how many times you rejected him, because you pay the highest rate, a function of your economic resources, the hierarchy of which underlies and determines the hierarchy of prestige.
Now, on the other hand, let’s say you edit one of the lesser magazines in your field. Will buying the work of an unknown who later wins the Nobel Prize boost your magazine into the stratosphere? No, because as soon as he does, he’ll desert you for the big money. Will buying the work of famous writers boost etc.? No; it’ll help, but your magazine’s status won’t appreciably change because, first of all, lesser magazines already do buy whatever works famous writers submit to them, so there’s no competitive advantage to be gained, and second because those famous writers will never desert the big-paying markets; they only send your lesser market what’s already been rejected by those more prestigious ones. Those are your best scenarios; remaining is only buying the work of unknowns who stay unknown (the most common) and buying the work of famous writers who become unknown (can happen in the long run; rarely or possibly never happens in any given decade); neither do much for you. Your rank in the hierarchy is fixed, unless you strike oil under your offices. Discovering a massive lode of gold under the family homestead is a much better way of raising the prestige of your publication than spending all your time poring over stories trying to select “the best” ones that you can. Nobody knows what “the best” stories are and often the mere fact that they’re appearing in your low status publication will cause them to be less appreciated than if they’d appeared in a high status publication.
Another wrinkle I’d add is a lifetime cap on the number of stories a writer can submit to my magazine. Scuttlebutt says slush piles are perpetually overflowing, and anything that can cut them down would be a boon. A writer’s first, say, 20 stories will be read and considered, but if we pass on them, all of his future submissions will be rejected unread. Maybe we’d make an exception for people who received personalized rejections, but if it’s 20 form rejections, then starting with their 21st, it’s no dice. I mean, what are the odds that a writer whose first 20 submissions have been rejected is going to start producing suitable work? However, there’s always the possibility that a writer who’s exhausted his cap will become wildly successful through other means, and in that case, I’ll want to start publishing him afterward. So to that end, the writers won’t be told about the cap. His twentieth story will be read and, if rejected, will receive the usual form letter; his twenty-first and every subsequent story will receive identical form letters, even though we never read the stories. That ought to put a nice dent in the slush pile at no cost.
These don’t strike me as insane proposals; they just seem like the logical way to do the work. Anybody who approached the business with a fresh eye would, I think, arrive at the same conclusions.