The bad old days

The Passive Voice has this link to a post by a writer who wasted five years of his life and career with a literary agency, but who still thinks getting a literary agent is a really good idea.

(Think about that one. "I wasted five years of my life shooting heroin. You should totally try it--it's the best!" ETA: OK, now he's getting sucked into the PV comments and hopefully is beginning to realize that There Is Another Way. Run to the light, Scott! Run to the light!)

The thing that really makes me wince about his post is that he has a little pep talk about how writers should feel free to contact their agents about stuff:

[W]e writers usually are introverts, and the idea of bothering anyone (especially someone that promised to make us rich and famous), is just too nerve-racking an idea to consider.

What if I said something that ruined everything? What if I make them change their minds? Our creative minds will reel with horror possibilities that could all occur because of one simple phone call or e-mail.

OK. Do you know why people think that you risk total rejection every time you contact a traditional publisher or agent to ask what's going on?

Because it's true. Or at least it was when I was doing it.

How true was it? Well, when I was first submitting Trang, I submitted it to a large sci-fi publishing house that didn't require an agent. Thinking about it later, I decided that I didn't want to submit it to them after all--it was too niche for them. I knew that big publishing houses took forever, and I didn't feel like waiting years for what was basically guaranteed to be a form rejection. Under the unwritten rule of traditional publishing, I couldn't possibly submit my book to more than one publishing house at a time--only agents were allowed such a privilege. As a lowly author, I would need a rejection from this publishing house before I could submit Trang to another.

So I sent the publishing house a letter saying, I'd like to have a decision on my book.

I got my form rejection shortly thereafter.

I should note that my letter was perfectly polite--publishing is a small world, and I didn't want to get a reputation as a scary crank. But, as I knew it would be, a simple, polite request was treated with extreme prejudice, and I got my rejection.

There is so much wrong with that story, isn't there?

I seriously doubt anyone at that publishing house ever even read Trang--the letter was a lot shorter. But the letter nonetheless gave them something everyone in traditional publishing is looking for--a reason to reject a book. Remember, traditional publishing is no ordinary industry: It is an industry forged in an environment of scarcity. That makes it extremely risk-adverse.

Which is a huge problem for you the writer, since you basically are the risk. That's why you get treated like crap: Chances are, you're career kryptonite.

Why would you want that? Why? When I hear people say, "I finished my first book, and I'm sending it out to agents," I want to throw my body in between them and the danger, the way you would if a small child ran past you toward a busy street. I yammer on about how you'll be in a better position to negotiate if you self-publish first; what I'm thinking is, Nooooooo!!!!! Don't do it! Noooooo!!!!

As Laura Resnick writes in the PV comments:

The problem [with agents] is not specific individuals whom you can readily avoid by taking down their names.... The problem is the business model–and the sh*t the writers keep putting up with from agents as the “normal” s.o.p. of the biz....