Best laid plans

I’m starting to suspect I might never talk to an actual literary agent.

I have, by this point, two and a half novels sitting on my computer.  Everybody thinks their own work is amazing, naturally, yet I do feel pretty confident that these novels are better than many others I’ve read on the market.  (Seriously, Dangerous Days of Daniel X is a terrible series of books.)  I’ve sent out manuscripts to a wide variety of carefully targeted agents.  Yet I’ve yet to had a single agent ask for anything past the first twenty pages.

Mind you, with my most recent project, I haven’t sent it out to a lot.  My Nephilim Protocol story has been seen by ten, fifteen agents, tops.  I’ve heard of people who’ve sent out their manuscripts to hundreds of agents and only come back with rejections.  Yet I feel as though I have looked at hundreds of agents.  The fifteen that I actually sent the manuscript to were the only fifteen that I thought might be remotely interested based on their preferences.  And they weren’t.

YA, by its nature, is a market driven by trends.  Each agent has the unenviable task of trying to predict what is going to be popular in two years when the publishing process finally completes.  And that means that each agent is basically looking for the same trends as the others.  Strong female protaganist, LGBTQ issues, #OwnVoices, a quirky sense of adventure, etc. etc.  I imagine they list these trends because there’s a real shortage of these works and there is, also, a great interest in them in the socially-aware generation that’s now reading.

All well and good.  People like to read what they like to read, and it’s the agent’s job to make that easier.  It just means that there’s not many agents looking for a book that is none of those things, and few that are going to be interested in one.

More, because of YA’s infamous call-out culture, agents are likely to be especially leery of not seeming socially conscious enough.  A prominent publishing agent I follow on Twitter recently retweeted a comment from a YA writer reminding her followers that JK Rowling had “appropriated” Ojibwe culture by using mythological figures in the North American “House” names.  I’m having a hard time thinking of anything more petty than being mad that another writer is using names from your culture.  I suppose we will need to start watching as to whether people who use “Mjolnir” as a reference are actually of Nordic descent, or whether this author who has “Zeus”-class robots in his story is truly Greek enough to reference mythological figures from his culture.  Perhaps Neil Gaiman ought to be sued for including Anansi in American Gods, despite Gaiman’s lack of African ancestry.

Ridiculous.  Yet this tweet was being shared by industry professionals.

YA has the reputation of having the worst variety of call-out culture anywhere.  SLATE ran an article about a college grad who received a horde of death threats after she was shown on TV criticizing a particular YA author. Amelie Wen Zhao famously had to pull her finished novel after people decided a Chinese girl couldn’t write about magical slavery.  One of her critics, Kosoko Jackson, was in his turn determined by readership to be insufficiently sensitive in his depiction of the Kosovo War.  Many published, even moderately successful writers in YA have been humbled by the Twitter mob.

A New Yorker article points out that in such wild “cancel culture” atmosphere, editors carefully curate what might cause such a moral panic.  Such  mobs can crush writing careers, which can in turn leave an editor with egg all over their face.  So works need  to follow certain rules.  Everyone wants something that will “push the envelope” and “isn’t afraid to rustle a few feathers,” but of course it’s only one sort of envelope and a few select feathers that should be unsettled.

I realize I sound like I’m satirizing this, but it’s really not so ridiculous.  It’s nothing, in fact, that hasn’t always been true.  Publishers have always worried–have always HAD to worry about what fits in the bounds of orthodoxy and decency.  It’s literally their job to figure out what people are willing to hear and what will send them into a rage.  Anybody who says they’re for “pushing all boundaries” is kidding themselves–everybody draws a line somewhere, and publishers need to guess where that line is, for the market at large.

It’s worth noting that the publishing market is overwhelmingly white and that probably a lot of this moral panic is driven either by people anxiously striving to be as un-racist as they can, or by idealistic young teenagers fired with the zeal to right the world’s wrongs.  What’s interesting is that the New Yorker article speculates that publishing houses may actually be becoming LESS likely to publish books on minorities, due to the scrutiny that immediately gets levied as to whether the book is sensitive enough.

Odd, that.  Safer to avoid representation altogether than to be accused of misrepresentation.

I doubt anything I could write would satisfy this crowd–and if it did I would be the wrong person to write it.  I know I wouldn’t, if I were an agent, want to represent a book like the one I’m currently proposing.  I don’t mean this as some “honest-man-against-the-world” posing; it’s just a fact.  For all I know, maybe it’s not that great a book to begin with.  But the point is that I’m doubting that, bad or good, I’d ever learn that from a literary agent.

Guess it’s time to start looking into independent publishing.


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