Pre-pandemic, at a time when I was still looking for an agent and hadn’t yet published four novels and two poetry books, I attended an author/agent symposium, an event sponsored by the American Society of Journalists and Authors. The location was gracious—the officer’s club at Fort Mason in San Francisco, a building with windows along one side, overlooking the bay. The view takes in Alcatraz and parts of Aquatic Park, the waves sweeping along the shore, swimmers tackling them without wet suits.
An opening address on what agents do and don’t do, panels covering what’s happening in publishing today (and how it affects authors and agents), what agents are looking for, and how to get an agent competed with the view. Many of us found our attention drawn to the bay and the boats gliding in and out of the Golden Gate.
Perhaps, like me, others noticed that these protected waters opening up into the ocean suggested unlimited possibilities. By contrast, what we were hearing inside this room conveyed the opposite: a contraction in the publishing area, an unwillingness to take risks, publishers’ marketing departments having the strongest voice.
In the past, agents and publishers were responsible for the marketing process. According to one agent, now, not only must the writer create an elegant, sexy, gripping overview of a non-fiction work, she also must find a well-known authority who will write the introduction; do research on all the books in the field and explain how hers is unique; present a marketing list of thousands; identify the subsidiary rights and spin-offs; explain what she will do to promote the book (“potentially the most important part of the proposal. Make this list as long and strong as you can”); include a list of major cities around the country that she will get herself to (“the number of events you will continue to do for a year, and the number of copies you will sell a year at these events”); and provide an 8 x 10 photograph along with a bio that makes you look like a successful author, one who can handle herself on television interview spots (How to Write a Book Proposal, Michael Larsen).
If you want to publish a book, you must sell your soul to corporate publishing and jump through their hoops, and this still applies in 2022. If you don’t write what’s currently considered profitable, forget it. Agents have trouble selling adult fiction, especially by an unknown, and many won’t go near it. A children’s book agent, who has been in the business for over twenty years, said that publishers have decided that kids, even very young ones, want darker stories dealing with divorce, eating disorders, school shootings, and other difficulties facing today’s youth. Children’s writers have to compete with television, computers, and smart phones where almost anything goes.
Of course, many people in publishing still care about finding and presenting good literature. They know that the human spirit needs it. Those people were at the symposium I attended. But they have very little power in this era of conglomerates.
No longer does the writer have a privileged place in the publishing world, assured because she has learned her craft well and developed the necessary creative capacities through perseverance and hard work. A prostitute at best, a beggar at worst, she stands at these conferences, holding her sign that says, “Hungry and homeless. Please represent me at any cost.” (My husband pointed out later that when I was a cocktail waitress at the Fairmont years ago, I was granted more dignity.)
At this conference, I prostrated myself, taking careful notes, gathering all the free literature that was offered. But I hated every minute of it. I hated the groveling, the indignities, the humiliation of being reduced to this level just to see my name on the cover of a book jacket.
Still, I paid my $10.00 (in addition to the $150.00 symposium fee) to meet for ten minutes with an agent. During the no-host bar “schmoozing” period, I searched the room for people I’d seen on panels that I felt some rapport with and dutifully chatted about the possibilities of a future relationship, feeling as if I were at a singles’ dance.
My desire to publish is not just for recognition or fame, though of course I would like some of both. I write because it gives me immense pleasure to make a work that illuminates my own inner processes and could give others enjoyment. I’ve never expected a large audience, but I want to publish because—naively perhaps—I think it matters, that the word still has some power to transform minds and change perceptions.
At the end of the day, I looked around the room at those gathered there, some young, mostly older, both genders equally represented. They looked eager, having given up a beautiful autumn Saturday, hoping to find an agent who would recognize their value and represent them. I shared their hopefulness. I stayed until the last possible moment, wanting to be sure I didn’t miss anything, my briefcase stuffed with names and numbers.
Once in my car, I headed for the Golden Gate Bridge. At a stoplight, I noticed a woman standing there, wearing tattered jeans and a war surplus jacket several sizes too big. Straight as a sentry, witnessing for the homeless, she held her sign in front of her: “Will work for food.” I opened my window, handed her my last $5.00 bill, and almost asked “Could I have your sign?”
But then I realized that though I identified with her in some ways, I at least had a place to live and other ways of earning money. Yet I still felt homeless in the sense that I couldn’t count on my writing skills to earn me what I needed in order to survive as a writer. And that’s a very difficult realization at any age.