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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 rom-coms 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 rom-coms, 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 named "Agent."

The research process will be unique for every agent, because they all present information in different ways and different places. They all have unique concepts of the genres the represent. One agent with an #MSWL tweet for women's fiction wants lighthearted rom-coms with no trauma, while a second agent asking for women's fiction wants dark and twisty stories with a big shock factor, and the only way to tease out who's who is to read every blog post and watch every YouTube interview you can find. 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 twenty pages as a DOC or DOCX 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 fields like "List three books you read recently 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 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 as an employee of a library consortium of thirty-seven institutions, I know how borderline impossible it is to get many unique organizations to use one system with one set of policies, and to redesign their local workflows around it. Literary agencies are stretched to their limits just keeping up with the day-to-day work, so an enormous systematic reform is not likely to ever happen.

However, there is one thing agents could do to make the industry more accessible without significantly changing their processes: loosen the requirement to personalize every query letter sent to them.

Agents say they're more likely to request manuscripts from authors who reference their bios. They want authors to prove they put research and care into their submissions and aren't "just spamming agents with a generic form letter." Some state outright that one of the top reasons they reject queries is a lack of personalization.

"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's reasonable...if we assume every writer in the world has every modern advantage. But writers from marginalized backgrounds might have written their novels on their phones, and researching agents is much more laborious on the tech they have than it is on a nice home office setup with dual monitors. Or they might have to take a bus to the nearest library with free wi-fi to scour the blog posts and tweets of thirty different people, who will each spend sixty seconds scanning their carefully constructed letters and, 99% of the time, either click "No" to send a generic form rejection or never respond.

Some might say, well, if you don't have the time and technology to personalize a few dozen letters, you wouldn't make it through the grueling process of traditional publication. But if we do say that, we might as well admit that we don't want to put the work into making publishing accessible, and that wealth is and always should be a prerequisite to become an author. That's an attitude I saw too often in academia, from professors who required $200+ textbooks and special software subscriptions because if students aren't "willing to invest in their education," they don't belong in college at all.

I, myself, am as privileged as they come. I'm a middle-class white-looking 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.


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