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Non-Insane Proposals for Publishing Industry Professionals

Posted by on March 28, 2014

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.

4 Responses to Non-Insane Proposals for Publishing Industry Professionals

  1. CWJ

    What makes you think magazine editors don’t already do that? If you look at the stories published, the vast majority are by previously published writers.

    I checked my recent Duotrope figures–I have two fiction sales for 15 submissions of four stories. That’s actually a pretty high rate– sales for 14% of my submissions, and 50% of my stories. Do you really think my previous ten sales didn’t increase my chances?

    I know, I know–you are suggesting it should be based *solely* upon reputation, out of frustration, I suspect, of the difficulty of definition what makes a “good” story. (I agree it is difficult.) But let’s do a little Gedankenexperiment. Suppose now that I have a modest reputation, I wrote a little computer code to generate stories randomly. I could even put a filter so that each sentence is grammatical and spelled correctly. Do you think I would get a similar rate of return? Do you think I *should* get a similar rate of return? If I distributed my program freely and everyone submitted random stories, would it be indistinguishable from the current market?

    (By the way, I am *not* going to do this experiment for real, because I think this would sour the tiny reputation I have and I don’t care to ruin it for someone’s postmodern theories…)

    • Robert Pritchard

      Delayed response, but I only became aware of this comment today. To answer your 1st question, nothing makes me think editors don’t already do this; in fact I suspect they do and was intending to imply that such was my belief. Even if they don’t mean to, say, preemptively dismiss stories by people who’ve already been rejected 2 dozen times, it would be hard for any human being to avoid doing so. For your 2nd, no, I absolutely *do* think your previous sales increased your chances. That’s what I’m saying, that previous sales help, even if they were gained through luck; the cause of the credits doesn’t matter, only that they exist. I’ve said luck is cumulative. But that one’s previous credits affect your chances of acceptance is contrary to the proverbial editor’s claim that each story is evaluated strictly on its own merits.

      As for the gedankenexperiment, I totally concede that such a randomized computer-generated story would certainly be rejected. Where does that get you? That is a ludicrously extreme limit-case that sheds no light on any kind of real-world anything. Let’s move on to an even marginally realistic scenario. E.g., let’s pretend a clerical error moved your rejected story into the accept pile, and nobody caught the error and the story appeared in the magazine. Will readers say, “This doesn’t belong here, it’s obviously inferior!”? Will it necessarily be the worst story in the issue or in that year’s worth of issues? Because that’s the claim. Or how let’s say “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu, which won all those awards, had appeared in Betwixt or something similar that nobody reads instead of F&SF; would it have still won all those awards? Or what if we took a bad writer (someone with the leaden prose and Transformers-cartoon-level ideas of a Kevin J Anderson, say) and through nefarious magic gave him a stunning resume; is such a person more likely go on to failure (i.e., his essential badness eventually becoming revealed and known) or success (i.e., Damon Lindelof)? Or how about a name-switching error so your MS says something like “The Bride of Higgs” by Bruce Sterling? Now this we could test without risking reputations, but that would be superfluous because we already have the results of many similar natural experiments, and they strongly indicate reputation is the primary determiner. Do you think your gedankenexperiment sheds more light on the problem than these?

  2. CWJohnson

    Well, in response to your Ken Liu experiment, it has just been done: Aliette de Bodard’s story “The Waiting Stars,” which was published in an anthology from a micropress by an unknown editor with no reputation and sold less than 1000 copies, including e-copies, just won the Nebula for best short story. And 4 stories from that anthology have been selected for various “best of” collections. This was an anthology that Tor and other major publishers turned down because of the editor’s lack of reputation.

    My gedanken experiment actually proved my point: that you don’t fully believe your own thesis. You agree that there is a minimal competency, a minimal quality for stories.

    Of course, to some extent we are arguing past each other. I don’t deny that reputation does influence what stories get bought and what stories get awards. I certainly don’t believe there is a one-to-one mapping from “quality” to “success.” On the other hand, I do not believe that there is no correlation between quality and success. I am not sure exactly what you believe; you clearly believe reputation trumps everything, but you haven’t given a coherent ontology for reputation. If my “reputation” allows me to sell stories, how did I get that reputation in the first place? You suggest that luck may play a role in generating reputation. But is luck the ONLY source for reputation?

    Let me give another couple of gedanken experiments. Suppose I take out of my files some stories I wrote 30 years ago, and stories I just wrote in the last 30 days. Do you think a neutral party (let’s say Zak or Sharon or Lise) could read them and be completely unable to have a good idea which were the older stories and which were newer? Maybe not 100%, but far better than 50-50? Because if “quality” is illusive, then there is no way to tell the difference between juvenilia and mature work. Or, again following your suggestion, do you think if I gave you a set of stories from say Analog and a set of stories from F&SF (avoiding the obvious wizard stories) you could not have a good idea of which set came from which magazine?

  3. Athena Andreadis

    I resemble the “unknown editor of no reputation” remark! *laughs*

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