Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Q & A 82 Can I get agents to bid on my book?

Would it ever work to have an online "auction" type system for query letters and book proposals?

What I have in mind is the following: Currently, agents and editors must be contacted by the author on an individual basis and receive a query regarding an item to represent or publish. Authors must spend time trying to find the right agent for their work. There might be an agent who would love to rep a certain work, but this person could be number 42 on their agent list.

For the agent, the drawback of the current system is that another agent could find and rep a work before you ever had a chance to hear about it. You might have been looking for that Zombie time travel YA novel for 2 years, but if you are agent #16 on the author's list and agent #15 jumped first, well, tough luck. So, why not put the queries and proposals in a central online location?

There are a million problems to work out. How do you keep out the junk? How do you protect an author from "preditors"? I assume such issues could be handled somehow. The central idea then is to have a single slush pile that is categorized and available to all immediately.

I'm having enough trouble solving the two problems you mention; if there are a million, count me out.

I suppose sooner or later everything will be done online, but I can see how an agent would feel that it's easier to let writers know what genres she deals with, and read the ones that show up in her mailbox, than to visit a web site that has fifty times as many works to look through.

And suppose the system were up and running and showed early signs of success. Now every writer wants in. Meanwhile, the reputable agents who wanted in to begin with have picked up a few new clients, and now have all they can handle if they want to have time for their blogs. So eventually we're down to 25 interested agents, and a slush pile of 500,000 manuscripts. Not a good ratio.

If you aren't going to let everyone in, someone will have to read the books to determine which deserve to get in. They're not going to do this for nothing. Suppose they say, "For $200 we'll read your book for as long as we can stand it, and if we make it to the end without gagging, you're in." Those who don't get in (98 percent) will inevitably feel it's all a scam operation. So will those who do get in, if no agents show interest in the book. And they're probably right, unless the readers deciding what gets in are infallible.

None of that matters as much as the fact that agents don't need this. If they did, it would exist.


none said...

Such sites do exist, in various forms. Whether or not they are successful is another matter.

I believe the now-defunct bookner.com was one of the most recent attempts to revolutionise the submissions process by encouraging agents to sign up to read mss online. It met with a hostile response--you can read Miss Snark's thoughts in the snarkives, for example. Lots of people tried to persuade booknerguy it wouldn't work. His response was that of course it wouldn't work if we kept on saying so.

If I wasn't so tired, I could probably name a few more. The Front List is one. A little bird tells me they have about 14 members.

Anonymous said...

I think it also shows a degree of commitment on the author's part to actually go through and research agents, prepare queries, synopsis(es?), partials, not to mention postage and trips to the post office, than it would simply be uploading it to a web site and then forgetting about it. (Holy run-on sentences Batman.)


pacatrue said...

Thanks for the links, buffy. I will have to check out the snarkives and others. I was sure such an idea would have been tried before because it is so obvious, but the only examples I could think of were the opposite - a publisher marketplace allowing writers to bid for work to be done.

It does seem like the biggest issues would be 1) participation of agents, editors, and authors and 2) quality of the works available for review and of the agents/editors reviewing. As for participation, you'd probably have to get some big names on board and in the publicity early on. That way, Miss Snark can say, "well, it's not for me, but I know Kristin Nelson has been trying it out, so it's not idiotic," or the like.

For quality, it seems like you could do a lot of filtering for the agents (I only want to see mystery queries that I haven't read previously for novels under 120,000 words by previously published authors). Such filtering could result in a better slush pile than agents currently have, since they currently have to read and toss the unrepresented genre away and run to their blog to rant about authors who can't read submission guidelines. You would also have to protect authors so that they don't just get the vanity press offer over and over again, not realizing what the offer really is.

In the end, agents still have a role, because they still have to judge the partial (this is just a new location for their query letters) and authors still have to research the agents they wish to represent them (they just do it post-contact, not pre-contact).

Anyway, I have enough to do with my own novel and a doctorate, so others can have at it as they wish. And as buffysquirrel points out, they already are. If you can make it work, please send my a cookie or something. Chocolate chip macadamia nut would be nice.

Anonymous said...

Where's the incentive to construct a killer query? Sounds like a bad agent magnet to me, in spite of any precautions. Lazy way to do things. Hey, waitaminute. Sounds like Workopolis or Monster.ca, where you post your resume and the employers look for you.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like Workopolis or Monster.ca, where you post your resume and the employers look for you.

Yeah and all I ever got from Monster were interview offers from temp agencies.

I agree with EE, there's no incentive for agents to do this right now. The balance of power is so much in their favor, why should they change?

Anonymous said...

This approach is actually taken quite often for screenplays. Visit InkTip.com, which boasts an enviable record. It's a fee-based service and there's nothing to keep out the crap. The site employs a sophisticated search function, so producers, agents and managers can at least find the correct genre.

When I used the service I actually got lots of requests from legitimate producers (small time, but hey).

Members post a logline and synopsis, not the whole script.

I know the movie biz is a bit different than publishing, but it seems like it COULD work. Most agents and editors don't need to go trolling for material, but you never know.

pacatrue said...

It seems like if you did this you should start the same way you start most any good software project, i.e., you go to the agents and editors and ask, "what are some problems with the current submissions process?" Then you try to provide a tool that alleviates those problems. I read a lot of the Snarkives about the old bookner site, which is definitely different than this proposal but in the same ballpark, and it seems that bookner took the opposite approach. He tried to invent a system that got rid of the problems that he as an engineer saw. You have to instead get rid of the problems that the users see.

Anonymous said...


Except the system's already backwards. We already have authors (potential employers) on their knees begging for salesmen to rep their products. The submission process is already monster.com. It's name is just agentquery, or agentlist or whatever. Because money (eventually, we hope) flows from the writer to the agent, that makes them our "employees," not the other way around.

Though I'm surprised EE missed the biggest downfall of this proposed system: the diabolical satisfaction he gets from chucking manuscripts in the trash unread would be finito.

Luna said...

(Formerly know as Also, a Vampire)

This is an extrordinarily bad and unprofessional idea for several reasons:

1. Display sites don't work, and there are already plenty of them.

2. That comment about agent 15 jumping before agent 16 gets a chance to look can be solved by acting like a professional, telling agent 15, "Hey, thanks, give me 24 hours to think this over" and promptly calling/emailing agent 16 (assuming agent 16 is your Dream Agent and Agent 15 is merely okay) and saying "Hey bub, I got an offer...so do you want to make one too, or what?" This is commonly done and is considered entirely professional. Gigantic internet slushpiles are not.

Agents specialize in genres for a reason, and they expect submissions to be filtered to their tastes. That's why they reject you if they rep mysteries and you send them military SF. And need I mention yet again that agents (and evil editors) are busy with current clients and don't really have hours at a time to surf the internet reading slush?

About the only use I can find for this proposal would be to keep an unusually incompetent intern occupied for a few hours on a slow afternoon...

pacatrue said...

The idea is not to just dump whatever junk anyone in the world can come up with on an internet site and then say, "hey, agents have fun; call me with an offer." The idea is (ideally working with agents and editors in the development process itself) to remove problems that they themselves think exist in the system. We all are acting like the current process is agent euphoria, but all you ever hear is jokes about the horrible query letter slush pile. Yes, it is obviously functional, but that doesn't mean it cannot me improved.

1) Currently, agents say they toss half of their queries because they don't represent that genre. Appropriate selection filters could remove much of this filler for them. 2) They mention wonderful books repped by other agents and sometimes wish that they had heard about the project as well so that they would have at least had a chance to rep it. Having queries available at once to all agents gives them an equal shot (which of course might be viewed negatively by already famous agents, since they currently have an advantage). 3) Overseas postage can be annoying to some, etc.

The idea is to listen to the real people in the publishing business and solve those problems that they identify, not that I make up

The question is of course do you create other worse problems with the proposed solution? Possibly so, and that's why I floated the idea and this feedback, even though almost entirely negative, is really useful. However, the idea that a query in an email box (or on a piece of paper) is fundamentally the only good way to view queries, while viewing an identical query in a browser window (that might be targeted directly to you by the author just as it works now or that you selected yourself with complex filtering) seems unwarranted. Imagine if there was some way to take the mystery agent's slush pile that today has 30 mystery queries and 70 bum submissions and then turn that pile into 80 mystery queries and 20 bum submissions. That would be something of value. Wouldn't it?

I hope people continue to comment even though most everyone disagrees. It really makes me think through the issues of which there are so many important ones.

Anonymous said...

Would it really turn the pile into 80 mysteries and 20 garbage? That would require accurate labelling of (the majority of) the queries.

I honestly don't know what proportion of badly targeted queries are due to laziness and what proportion to "He doesn't take SF, but he'll take mine." The problem is, people of the latter type will lie to the categorization system. What proportion of resumes on those resume sites are mis-categorized?

My other concern would be with the broadcast nature of the system. If I were an agent looking for a mystery, I think I would rather take my chances with the queries in my mailbox (which, among the hopeful writers I know, may have been sent to 5-15 agents each) than with the queries on the website (which have effectively been sent to all agents simultaneously). It would be frustrating to read all those queries and then find out, over and over, that the good ones were gone already.

As a writer, I think I would be troubled to possibly receive an acceptance from an agent or publisher I would not have chosen to query. It's easy enough to ignore the major scam sites, but it would be awkward and uncomfortable for me to reject a legit agent I just didn't care for. I also like knowing who has considered my work and who has not, and occasionally hearing what they think about it.

A moderated clearinghouse which accepted queries and then pushed them out systematically to agents would perhaps meet some of my objections here. But you have to wonder who would pay for it.

I think the fundamental unsolved problem is that there are so many unacceptable queries and manuscripts, and no one in the system (understandably) really wants to read all that slush. You can chase this problem around from editor to agent to display-site moderator but that's not really getting rid of it.

Baen Books has been trying an experiment which essentially makes an online forum like this one into their slush-reader. I don't know how well it's working, but it's an interesting model.