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Cut Agents and Editors Some Slack July 17, 2021

I make my fair share of complaints about the publishing industry: how innaccessible it is to people who are not neurotypical, tech-savvy, and financially comfortable Americans; how it's a purely profit-driven industry with a tenuous claim to supporting the arts; and how it discourages innovation by hewing to formulas that sell, and alienates potential readers as a result.

But I hope I've never belittled publishing professionals at a personal level. I might criticize their business practices, or the opinions they've expressed on the internet, but I try to make it clear the problems with publishing are systematic. Individual agents and editors don't deserve vulgar attacks on their intelligence or integrity.

Some writers have no qualms about attacking them anyway.

Earlier this week I saw a writer share an essay about "query hell." At first, it was humorous and relatable. Anyone who's queried before would agree the process is, in fact, a labyrinthine hell.

But then they segued from playful jabs to low blows. To paraphrase from memory, "Why do all literary agents seem to be Millennials? I don't think a single one of them is over thirty. Where are all the seasoned agents with experience and good taste? And they all spell their names in ridiculous ways, like 'Aimee' with an I and two Es. Maybe if I spelled my name in a ridiculous way too, I'd get more full requests. Maybe if they didn't spend so much time coming up with cute new ways to spell their names, they could respond to my queries in less than six months."

The writer was going for self-deprecation, but the result was cruelty.

Firstly, ageism is never funny, and the particular joke about agents under thirty is both very common and very old. Ten years ago I unsubscribed from one of my favorite blogs when the author stooped to a "witty" line about manuscripts being read by "twenty-something interns in New York who think novels about women over forty are like, totally gross." Any intern at a publishing company in New York fought hard and sacrificed a lot to get there, purely for their love of books. They're the young people who want to argue the merits of W. Somerset Maugham over coffee at the library, not Cher from Clueless.

Secondly, making fun of a person's name is one of those sneaky things that seems harmless, but is frankly white supremacist. No one mocks common Anglo-Saxon names like Margaret, or Jessica, or Brittany—they mock the foreign-looking ones. How pretentious, to have parents who spelled your name Aimee instead of Amy, like some hoity-toity French person. How un-American, to have a name with weird letter combinations I don't know how to pronounce. How trashy, to have a name that's just some random word, like Precious or Tiara. Lololol.

Finally, I don't think this writer—or any of the others who disparage agents and editors freely on the internet—have read enough blog posts to get a clear picture of what working in publishing is like. I have, and that picture is bleak.

Once I saw a shared spreadsheet of the anonymized salaries of people working for publishing houses, and I wish I had saved it to link every time someone talks about agents and editors as if they're snooty gatekeepers living the high life. Assistant editors working for Big 5 publishers in infamously expensive NYC listed salaries of $20K-$30K. Editors who'd clawed their way up to a senior position over a decade made $50K-$60K.

Articles about becoming a literary agent have figures that look about the same: hustling for $25K a year when starting out and building a client list, and earning $55K once you're wildly successful. I've seen too many social media posts by the people in publishing whose paychecks have the same numbers today as their parents' entry-level paychecks did in the 1980s. Countless contractors who do meticulous work aren't even salaried, like copyeditors and typesetters. Seriously, it's more lucrative and less stressful to be a public school teacher than it is to go into publishing in the 2020s.

Presumably all writers know agents work on commission, but I don't think they consider what that means. It means they spend many unpaid hours a week reading dozens of pitches and samples from hopeful writers, trying to give free feedback without hurting our squishy artist feelings, working with clients over months to prepare manuscripts for submission, constantly networking and building professional relationships...all on the hope that they can convince an editor to buy something for $5K, and they will earn $750 before the agency's cut and taxes.

Why does it appear that there are no agents or editors over thirty? Because if they make it that far, they have an established author list and have earned a respite from all those volunteer hours on the slush pile. But I imagine most don't make it that far. Few could afford to work in Manhattan on $20K a year for very long. Even if you paid me $100K, I personally couldn't survive working 10-hour days just to keep my unread emails in the double digits, plus spending every weekend reading a stack of full-length unpublished manuscripts.

When you feel the urge to complain about publishing, by all means, complain about capitalism, and the entertainment overload hastened by Netflix and Steam, and the depressing unfairness of it all. But let's lay off the "funny" tirades about 20-something interns in New York named Aimee.


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