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The Inaccessibility of Publishing March 7, 2021

A literary agent on Twitter posted this question yesterday:

I've had a few neurodivergent writers message me about querying, and how the process often feels inaccessible. What are some ways the pitch process could be made easier?

As a systems librarian whose life from 8:30 to 5:30 Monday through Friday is dedicated wholly to organizing information and making it easier for others to find, I have to say the querying process for writers seeking traditional publication is terribly inaccessible to all but the top few percent of neurotypical, highly educated, computer-savvy writers. And the problems are too big for a single literary agent to fix.

Academic publication is a mess. But at least if a patron comes up to a reference desk and says, "I need to find literature reviews for my psych class? And the prof says they have to be from 'scholarly sources' or something?" a librarian can say, "Ah, let's go here on the website to access Ebsco's PsycInfo. Here's the checkbox for peer-reviewed publications, and the dropdown to narrow the resource type down to literature reviews."

If a patron were to come to the desk and say, "I wrote a novel, and my friend told me I need a literary agent to get it published," there is no one free, comprehensive database of agents a librarian could help them search. They must...

  • Work their way through a 300-entry, 5-page long list like the Association of Authors' Representatives that offers no advanced search and shows only a third of the agencies out there.
  • Comb through thousands of #MSWL tweets in broad categories to see if any agents are looking for the kind of book they wrote.
  • Pay a subscription fee to a site like QueryTracker to access essential features like searching agent listings by genre, location, and query method.
  • Take books off the shelves and hunt for the agents' names in the front or back matter.

This part alone is incredibly time-consuming, but it's only the beginning of the research project. Now that you have a name, the real Googling begins. Agents today tend to provide information about themselves in four or five different places, and that information is often confusing and contradictory. A typical experience for me researching one agent goes like this:

  1. I see on a Manuscript Wish List profile that an agent is looking for high-concept romcoms featuring people of color. Perfect.
  2. I follow the link to her agency's website. The agent's short bio says she specializes in suspense, with no mention of romance or women's fiction. Is the wishlist old, or is the agency's website old?
  3. I comb through the agent's tweets and see one from last summer saying she wants to "expand her romance list." But is she still interested in romcoms, or did she change her mind since then?
  4. I choose to assume the wishlist and year-old tweet are still relevant, and the agency's website has an old bio from when she first started. I attempt to find her submission guidelines.
  5. The agency's website has a page called "Submissions," but the content is just advice about composing an effective query letter. Buried in the dense text is the sentence, "See our agents' bios for email addresses."
  6. The agent's bio doesn't list an email address, but instead links to a personal blog.
  7. The link to the blog lands on a homepage with posts answering questions about the publishing industry, giving tips for writing compelling opening pages, sharing photos of cute pet dogs, etc. I see many pages in the menu, none of which are named "Submissions."
  8. After clicking around I finally find submission guidelines on a page vaguely named "Agent."

The research process will be unique for every agent, because they all present information in different ways and different places. They all require different things in submissions, too, and one simple mix-up could lead to an automatic rejection. Examples:

"We accept submissions through QueryManager. Do not email individual agents."

"Email only one agent with the subject line 'QUERY: TITLE, GENRE.' Paste the first ten pages into the body of the email. We will not open attachments."

"Attach the first ten pages as a DOCX or PDF file. Please, please, please don't copy the text into the email itself."

The confusion of querying can't be fixed by an individual agent, because it isn't caused by an individual agent. For one agent, their process makes perfect sense. The agency's official website is too limiting and hard to edit, so the agent creates a WordPress blog where they can easily control all the content. People probably aren't going to find a blog all on its own, so they make profiles in social media to reach more potential clients. To be extra helpful they make sure their recent sales and submission requirements are up to date in Publishers Marketplace, too.

From the perspective of one agent, a writer who doesn't thoroughly read the content on these five measly webpages is careless and lazy. They tweet, "Please read my submission guidelines before pitching to me!!! They state clearly that I focus on adult fiction. I DON'T REP YA!"

But the hypothetical writer who irked that hypothetical agent by flouting her guidelines didn't need to read only her five webpages. He needed to read two hundred webpages for forty or fifty different agents, and keep track of who wants A and hates B vs. who wants B and hates A. This agent said "I focus on adult fiction" to mean she doesn't want to see anything else, while other agents said "I focus on adult fiction" to mean they mostly represent adult fiction but are open to other genres. Then after coming to the conclusion that many of those agents probably wouldn't consider his book, the writer personalized thirty different queries in different combinations of formats: plain text in emails or attachments in 12-point double-spaced Times New Roman, first three or ten or fifty pages, lengthy online forms with unique questions like "What is the last book you read in your genre?" and "What is the one sentence from your manuscript you feel best represents your voice?"

Publishing professionals say they want to see more books by authors from underprivileged backgrounds. Great. But the entire system is currently set up to be navigable only by the privileged. The querying process is inaccessible to people who don't have the information literacy skills to work in ten browser tabs at once, or the leisure time to devote many hours to the research required to query at all. If a person needs clear and consistent directions to complete a task, forget it.

The system wasn't purposely designed to be inaccessible. Hundreds of different agencies simply set up their own in-house systems to fit their preferred workflows, and those many little systems add up to one big inaccessible industry. If all literary agencies agreed to work together, this could be easily fixed. One free database of agents open to queries. One universal form for submissions to all agents who represent the selected genre. One standardized set of guidelines and clear definitions of terms.

But that will never happen. The current system works just fine for most agents, and they have little reason to change it to work for more writers. Their slush piles are overflowing as it is. Because their systems are set up for their specific preferences, any change would be a loss of convenience.

And, when you get down to it, agents like requiring writers do all that research to personalize every query just for them. They say so, over and over. Google "query letter personalization" and you'll see 798,000 results.

Agents say they're more likely to request manuscripts from authors who reference their bios. They want authors to prove they put an abundance of care into this single submission and aren't "just spamming agents with a generic form letter." They write articles and host webinars about customizing queries to the perfect degree: reference the agent's personal details, but only if they're meaningful enough to show you read all of their blog posts and tweets, but not if they're too personal and make you look like a stalker who read all of their blog posts and tweets.

I've seen one or two agents say they think personalization is a waste of writers' time, but countless more defend it. "Think about it this way," they say. "When I have a hundred queries in my inbox, I have to weed out the ones from authors who don't seem like they care. If an author can demonstrate they put a little bit of time into picking me, I'll pay closer attention."

Sure, that sounds reasonable. Now say it to a person on the autism spectrum who's anxious enough about seeming friendly but not too friendly. Say it to a person who lives on a reservation and has to drive down to the McDonald's on the highway with public WiFi to scour all your blog posts and tweets to "seem like they care." Say it to the people whose "little bit of time" between jobs and childcare is too precious to spend figuring out how to flatter thirty different people who will each spend sixty seconds scanning their letters just to say, "Not special enough to grab me. Pass."

I, myself, am as privileged as they come. I'm a middle-class and white-passing Millennial with plenty of free time, no children, twelve years of professional experience in information science, and few obligations outside of my convenient work-from-home job in my comfortable house. The querying process is perfect for people like me. I thrive on complex research questions that require lateral reading and intermediate data entry. You should see my houseplants spreadsheet.

But if the publishing industry is serious about reaching people who aren't like me, they need to evaluate what demands they make of new authors submitting books for publication. Collectively. It's awesome when nice individual agents ask how they can make the pitching process more accessible, but that individual agent can't represent every underprivileged writer who deserves a shot at publication, can he? And maybe he consolidates his five webpages into one, with clear directions and an easy-to-understand QueryManager form, but it won't have much of an effect if the other thousand literary agencies in this country don't try too.

Writers, Count Your Blessings February 28, 2021

I recently watched a video sensationally titled, "Singers born BROKE vs Singers born RICH" by one of the popular stars of YouTube, Joel Gustaf Berghult. It seems the world of YouTube today is like the small television studios of yore, with whole production teams who dedicate themselves to pushing out new eyeball-catching content daily. In this video, Joel's editor plays songs by singers born to wealthy families and singers born to poor families, and Joel marks which songs were "better."

As the video progresses, Joel seems increasingly chagrined that so many famous singers today were born into wealth. In fact, there are so few pop singers born into poverty, the editor had to stretch back in time and match up Ed Sheeran against Johnny Cash and Lana Del Rey against Dolly Parton. Joel ruminates that so many of today's idols are probably in the "born rich" category because their parents' wealth allowed them to focus solely on music.

As explored in depressing nonfiction books like Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, social and economic mobility in the U.S. is largely illusory. In the late 20th century, some people (the white and male ones) could pull themselves out of poverty with shrewd choices and hard work. These days, a person's net worth at thirty was pretty much set at birth.

Writers are similar to singers. We're overwhelmingly privileged, from families middle-class or higher, and we owe a lot of our "talent" and success to our lucky births.

And here is where, I'm sure, some readers will reflexively kick back against the word "privileged." They'll think, "You don't know anything about my life! I skipped meals in college to afford my books. I endured apartments full of cockroaches and inconsiderate roommates for years while publishers sent me rejection after rejection, but I didn't give up. So don't you dare tell me I'm 'privileged,' because I work hard."

And I'm sure those people do work hard, because everyone does. Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey work hard for their musical success, too. Every single person has to work hard to succeed in a career, regardless of background. When we say people are privileged, we don't mean those people didn't have to make any sacrifices and merely used their daddy's connections to sell terrible art for unearned fame. We mean that for those people, their path to success was unimpeded by systemic obstacles.

Writers frequently say in their bios that they wrote their first little book at the age of six. That they have fond memories of staying up to read chapter books under the covers with a flashlight. That they had an amazing English teacher who told them their essay was "the best paper she'd ever read" and encouraged them to pursue a career as a journalist/novelist/poet.

If you wrote your first book at six, it's a fair bet your parents spent a lot of time reading with you as a toddler, and then they sent you to a reputable preschool that taught you how to write. They bought or borrowed those chapter books for you to read by flashlight. They advocated for you to be put in classes with the best teachers. If you were the top writer in your class at fourteen, yes, it's in part because you were quicker to learn and more studious than your peers, but it's also likely because you were given a strong head start.

Imagine both of your parents worked two or three jobs each to pay the bills, and they didn't have the leisure to pick up books from the library or the energy to read to you. While your comfortable classmates devoured Nancy Drew mysteries until midnight, you had to make dinner for your kid siblings and figure out your homework without any help, then get up early to walk to the bus. You couldn't concentrate in school because you were always hungry and tired. That same great English teacher you heard telling another student they'd be a novelist someday shook her head at you and said, "You'll never amount to anything if you don't stop goofing around."

And this is the sanitized version of poverty. Add in an unstable parent with drug and mental health issues, a racist school system that labeled you a "problem child" because you lashed out once in Kindergarten, or undiagnosed learning disabilities educators chalked up to a low IQ and laziness, and the barriers to your academic and future success are so high they're nearly insurmountable.

When exceptional people do manage to overcome unfair obstacles, they're held up as examples that there's nothing wrong with the system. "See," comments on that YouTube video say, "this proves when it comes to music, money doesn't matter. The poor singers were just as good and went just as far as the rich ones."

So dedicated are we to the myth that commercial success in the arts is earned solely through talent and hard work that we go out of our way to stack the barriers higher. We say if a writer is serious about breaking into the industry, they'll pay $1,000 for registration, travel, and lodging to attend a conference and speak with an editor for five minutes. I've seen literary agents assert in Writer's Digest profiles that they strongly prefer to work with authors who have MFAs, because that shows they have a dedication to the craft. "Dedication," of course, means a person is willing to go $30K-50K in debt for a degree, and then deprive their family of $500 a month for the next ten years to pay it off.

The vast majority of writers probably have privileged lives, because we wouldn't have been able to become writers otherwise. Yet despite our enviable advantages, and the fact we're fortunate enough to have the tools and time to pursue our dreams, somehow we became the whiniest, most self-pitying group of professionals I've seen on the internet.

Writers' blogs post long-winded essays about how the life of a creative professional is so much more important and meaningful than the lives of those smug corporate drones who sell their souls for health insurance and 401(k)s. (Certainly you chose the creative life because you're courageous and wise, not because you have a spouse who endures dronehood for you.)

Or how non-writers could never understand what it's like to be so unique and quirky, you'll meet a friend for coffee but don't hear a word they say because you can't stop thinking about your book. (Certainly that means you're gifted, not rude and self-absorbed.)

Or how writing novels is a "Sisyphean effort" because we work so hard for so long, and then we have to start again from nothing and suffer the torturous process of writing yet another story, over and over and over. (Certainly that's a curse unique to writing. No other professional has to keep working day after day, finishing one project only to tragically start the next one.)

The authors of these essays are usually men, but not because female writers don't think the same way. Women just aren't rewarded for complaining about how important we are in long-winded essays. Instead, women complain about our importance through self-deprecating jokes, saccharine pep talks, and brave emotional confessions. A pastiche of tweets:

"If you're wondering how my writing is going today, the laundry is done and the kitchen is spotless!"

"I don't know who needs to hear this, but you can write that book. Even if you feel like it's trash and it will never be done and no one will care, please keep writing! Somewhere out there are people who desperately need your story! Your book could literally save a life!"

"I try to be upbeat and positive on this site, but sometimes I just wanna be honest and say writing is so hard, every day you feel like crying and giving up cuz it's not working, and no it doesn't ever get any easier."

Yes, writing a book is a difficult and draining task. Yes, the publishing industry is unfair. Yes, literature plays an undervalued function in society.

But if you think writing and publishing is so hard you wanna cry and give up every day, watch a few episodes of "How It's Made" on the Science channel. It's a show that sounds like it would be about the fascinating inventions used to make random things like badminton shuttlecocks, but it's really a show about emaciated people on the other side of the world tying duck feathers into bunches at breakneck speeds to earn two dollars a day, while a narrator smooths over the horrific conditions like, "A skilled technician sorts the feathers by length to prepare for the next stage of the process."

I know I sound like a Boomer mom wagging her finger and saying, "There are people suffering in sweatshops in Indonesia who would love to have your problems." But seriously, there are people suffering in sweatshops in Indonesia who would love to have our problems. In fact, there are people suffering in sweatshops right here in America (see "Meatpacking: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver"). Yet writers really think they're being deep and insightful by bemoaning the Sisyphean effort of typing 90,000 words of fiction while sipping tea in their pajamas.

It's normal to get discouraged and to feel like throwing yourself a pity party sometimes, but let's keep some perspective. Having the free time and solitude to write is a luxury. If you truly don't enjoy doing it, you can stop.

Thoughts on the Women's Fiction Label February 8, 2021

After the inauguration went through without a single murder, and desperate newspaper editors had to resort to headlines about Rolex watches to fill the controversy vacuum, my writing mojo came back like magic. I've now written more than half of the "new" Kagemusha, now tentatively titled Our Little White Lie.

Of course I did what every writer does when they're halfway finished with a work: consider it basically done already and immediately start filling out a spreadsheet of literary agencies and small presses to query. No matter how many times I declare I'm giving up on publishing because money poisons everything, I've never written "for myself." I write for readers who will find joy in my stories. After self-publishing for several years, I know it's not likely I'll reach those readers all on my own.

The first thing one must do when searching for literary agents and small press editors is filter by genre. So the first conclusion one reaches about publishing is that its genres make no sense.

"I'm a huge fan of RomComs like CRAZY RICH ASIANS and TO ALL THE BOYS I'VE LOVED BEFORE. However, I don't represent romance."

"I focus on book club fiction with rich character-driven plots and fantastic writing. No literary novels, please."

"I'm actively seeking LGBTQ+ and BIPOC voices, but I'm not looking for anything political."

Obviously words like "romance," "literary," and "political" have much narrower definitions in publishing than they do in colloquial conversation. This is manageable. Okay, RomComs aren't romances. Cool. Got it. Makes total sense to me. (No, it doesn't.)

But then you get to the most ill-defined and nonsensical genre of all: Women's Fiction.

Google will tell you women's fiction is "a less infantilizing term for chick lit." Or it's "a story that centers on a woman's journey." Or, most helpfully from Wikipedia:

Women's fiction is an umbrella term for women centered books that focus on women's life experience that are marketed to female readers.

So...every book in existence with a female protagonist is Women's Fiction? Yes? But no, according to people on Twitter and Goodreads who "thought this book would be a fun romance, but it turned out to be Women's Fiction." And the agents who say they love upmarket novels with complex female characters like LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE, or twisty thrillers that explore female rage like SHARP OBJECTS, but they don't represent Women's Fiction.

In my unscientific study of the term Women's Fiction in popular discourse, readers tend to decide certain books are "for women" because they...

  • Were written by a female author.
  • Have bright cover art depicting a woman in a dress and/or domestic items like flowers, scones, and shoes.
  • Are about boring stuff like interpersonal relationships, instead of cool stuff like violent crimes.
  • Have the Oprah's Book Club logo on top.

The slightly more scientific 2013 article "Adult Reading Habits and Preferences in Relation to Gender Differences" from Reference & User Services Quarterly, a publication of the ALA, describes a study of 29 men and 29 women. While most female participants showed no preference in the gender of an author or fictional protagonist...

  • "Of the 60 authors chosen as favorites by male participants, 57 were male and 3 were female."
  • "Of the 29 male participants, 24 indicated that they preferred books with male protagonists, while 5 indicated that they had no preference."
  • "In the men's favorite books, male protagonists were featured in 64 books and female protagonists were featured in 8 books."

The article ends with this line:

While gender equality in life is crucial, when it comes to the realm of reading, particularly for leisure purposes, it might not be such a bad idea to embrace readers' preferences...and give the men and women what they want.

Though this study was published eight years ago, and the sample size was small, the continued existence of the Women's Fiction genre shows people in the book world still think that way. Men don't want novels by or about women, so women, go sit over there in your own genre and don't bother them. If your protagonist is a middle-aged woman dealing with family issues, please sit next to Liane Moriarty. If she's a single twenty-something dealing with workplace and dating issues, find Sophie Kinsella. She's the one waving the colorful shopping bags full of high heels. Perfect. Thank you, Sophie.

Many years ago when I first learned of the Women's Fiction genre, and I saw the authors in it complaining men weren't interested in their books, my reaction was, "Well, you can't be surprised men aren't interested if you literally label your book Women's Fiction, now can you?" But if you don't even need the label—if all it takes for a man to decide your book isn't relevant to him is a female main character—that does surprise and disappoint me. What the heck, fellas? I thought those dudes complaining they don't want SJW heroines in their video games were immature outliers.

A slight preference for reading about your own gender makes sense. Everyone wants to identify with the characters in the books they're reading, the movies they're watching, and the games they're playing. I can better relate to the books about young women navigating early-career workplace issues than I can to macho hard-boiled detectives with unusually intelligent cats. But I'll still happily read about the detectives if the story is intriguing. I won't pick up a book, notice the cat-loving detective in it has a male name, and say, "Never mind, this book is for men" with a sneer. That would be biased and unfair, wouldn't it? Hm?

However, the results of that study wouldn't be so stark if men's preference for male-centered books were simply an issue of individual bias. It's sytemic. Those numbers are a reflection of what the entertainment industry taught us all for decades: that books, movies, and video games about white men are the universal default everyone can enjoy, while stories that focus on women or minority groups are niche products. The marketing of books for women taught us they're all paperbacks about shirtless Scottish dukes, shoe shopping, domestic drama, and the hollow "life-affirming" brand of feminism that encourages women to Be Empowered without challenging the status quo. ("Look, the heroine was unattractive and mousy, but then she got a makeover, and now she has the strength to speak up for herself AND hook a rich man!")

Let's be honest about what people are thinking when they call a book Women's Fiction: it's bland fluff of inferior quality. They're titles that appear on listicles of Best Summer Books for the Beach and described with phrases like "quick read," "guilty pleasure," and "typical chick lit." Women's Fiction is the vanilla cupcake of literature—sugary and comforting, with no strong flavors or real substance. And marketing departments from the 1990s to the present cultivated this image on purpose, because they believed that's what sells books to the womenfolk, whose pretty little heads can't handle big words.

As Liz Kay put it in her 2016 Literary Hub article, "What Do We Mean When We Say Women's Fiction":

There's something about the way these books are marketed that tells us the pages inside are meant to be easily consumed, that they might be smartly written, but the reader herself will not be required to think. There's something vaguely, scratch that, there's something overtly misogynistic about a whole category of books whose central promise is to not shake up the world as the reader already sees it.

Because this is the Internet in 2021, I'll spell out that there's nothing wrong with liking books about shirtless Scottish dukes. Sometimes—and by that I mean most of the time—I'm exhausted and crave cotton-candy wish fulfillment too. And the traditional concerns of women are no less important than what we call the concerns of men. Books about domestic drama aren't any more "frivolous" than books about lawyers ensnared in cat-and-mouse games with serial killers.

But are sexy dukes, fashion, and PTA power struggles really the primary concerns of women? I've never met a woman in the twenty-first century whose biggest problems were the age of her wardrobe and her mortifying lack of a husband. We read about dukes only to escape our real-life concerns about the rent or mortgage, career goals and setbacks, the toxic state of the U.S. government, problems in our relationships with parents or partners or kids, racism, taxes, the costs of higher education and healthcare, the sorry state of our lawns and what the neighbors must think, etc. Basically, the exact same concerns the menfolk with big brains complain about on Reddit.

I think the author of the 2013 study, and the publishing industry in general, have it backwards. They say, "Men like these things, and women like those things, so we need to give the consumers what they want." Instead, commercial entertainment shaped what men and women believe they like, then shrugged and said, "What can you do? That's what sells."

If I had a magic wand, I'd wave it and erase the existence of Women's Fiction as a genre label. A "book about a woman's journey" is so broad, it's useless as a category. Imagine it's 2022, the pandemic is over, and you go into a department store. You say to an employee, "Excuse me, I'm looking for running pants?" And the employee gestures broadly to the entire first floor and says, "There's the Women's Department." Then you find out the store carries only two brands: a line of the latest trends for young white career women called Sophie, and a line of matronly blouses and jeans for middle-aged white suburbanites called Liane. As far as that store is concerned, other types of women with different tastes don't exist.

Unlike clothing made specifically for female-shaped bodies, there's no such thing as a story written specifically for female-shaped brains. Marketing books by women and about women to women only, with the faceless models and country cottages and sparkles, is an active choice, not a necessity. We could choose to do things differently, if we wanted.