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My Proposal

Below in a separate post, I have the overly long rant on agents. Herewith my proposal.

First, a recap of the major points:

1) In my experience agents are less likely to know what the publishers want than the editors are.

2) Logically, therefore, the editors should be reading the slush pile. But . . .

3) . . . can't, because we're talking roughly nine billion submissions per week.

4) Publishers outsource the slush pile to the agents . . .

5) . . . who are paid by published authors. Thus neatly shifting the cost of the slush pile off the publisher's balance sheet and onto mine. Well, mine and many others.

6) The unpublished authors get a free ride financially, but are reduced to groveling, weeping, sycophancy, the desperate reading of tea leaves and eventually, if they have any pride at all, a serious drinking problem.

My proposal? Publishers charge $50 to read a submission. Here's what that does:

1) Eliminates people who don't really want to be writers but figure "What the hell, I'll give it a try." These are the people who clog the system resulting in the current mess. Am I picking on these people? No. But figure ten submissions, at $50 each which, according to my always shaky grasp of mathematics comes to $500. You want a career in writing, you want to be Stephen King, but you won't beg, borrow or steal $500? Then don't waste everyone's time.

2) Turns the slush pile into a profit-generator for the publisher. Why is this a good thing? Is it because I think Rupert needs still more money? No. By making the slush pile profitable it ensures a vastly-improved degree of efficiency. Response letters would fly out the door. Let's say a reader can burn through just a dozen submissions a day. That's $600 a day, $3000 a week, 156k a year. And if you don't think that is profitable for the publisher then you have a sadly inflated opinion of pay scales for entry-level editors.

3) This new system would allow a direct feedback system from senior editors to the editorial grunts, which would be more efficient (and involve fewer business lunches and less butt-kissing) than the current agent-editor system. The readers would have a far better grasp of what their editor overlords wanted and needed.

The part of the agent's job that involves negotiating the deal can be handled by a publishing lawyer for a flat rate. 300 to 500 an hour, which seems like a lot, but is less than 15% in perpetuity, which is what your agent takes.

The $50 proposal cuts the number of submissions, makes the process infinitely more efficient, actually placing a premium on speed, and allows serious writers to get their work in front of actual editors. It puts publishers back directly in contact with the people who, after all, provide them with the raw material from which they derive their unholy profits.

Next: I'll solve that whole Palestinian/Israeli thing.

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“My Proposal”

  1. Blogger Nathan Bransford Says:

    Thanks for de-anonymizing on my blog. As I posted over there, FYI, you were in my top 10 first pages, Holly's top 30. In case you think I'm blowing smoke up your *** I have backup correspondence. But that's neither here nor there. Even if I DIDN'T think yours was good and it went on to be a lucrative deal I don't think it would prove the publishing process was broken.

    I'm happy to have this dialogue, although I don't know that I agree with your proposal. The $50 thing, cutting out agents assumes 1) that all agents do are filter out proposals and sit back and pick up commission and 2) that the publisher is always on the author's side once the contract is signed. Both premises are flawed.

    To be sure, there are some people who don't really need an agent. Bill Clinton, for instance, uses a publishing attorney. But for the 99.9% other authors out there, an agent can help with editing, submissions, managing the publishing process (which a lawyer won't do, or at least won't do without charging an hourly rate), publicity, getting information from the publisher, making sure things are happening on schedule and properly etc. etc. All while keeping an eye on growing the author's career, giving the author access to the agent's network, And agents have much more expertise with subsidiary rights. than publishing attorneys. And throughout the process, being squarely on the side of the author -- authors need advocates, especially when they don't have the heft of bestsellerdom to carry them through (and even the vast majority of bestsellers still have agents because of what they bring to the table).

    And perhaps most importantly, the agent does all this pro bono for unpublished authors -- we only earn commission if the work sells.

    The last thing I'd say about the $50 is that we have a long tradition of broke writers in America, and I'd hate to see someone's lack of access to money become an impediment to publishing. A submission fee is kind of like a poll tax. Not how things are done in America.

    I think it's impressive that you've been able to accomplish what you have without an agent -- however I don't know that it's a sign that the rest of publishing should be on that same system.

  2. Blogger Alan Stewart Carl Says:

    Could work -- I preferred the way we did it at the publishing house I worked for (which actually went through the slush pile back then).

    Once a month, all the editorial assistants would gather in a room with beer and pizza and slam through the thousands of submissions. I usually gave an author half a page to interest me. As I sent out piles of rejection letters, I always thought it amusing that the fate of all these writers were being determined by a bunch of half-drunk 22 year-olds.

  3. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:


    I understand your position. It is not consistent with my personal experience.

    In my personal experience, agents have cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars, and wasted months and months of my life, and pushed me toward decisions that, had I listened, would have left me foaming lattes at Starbucks fora living.

    As for sub rights, you should have lunch with my lawyer some day. The man writes a very good deal.

  4. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    I bet you find it a lot less amusing now, eh?

    Actually, I'm mostly good with the drunken 22 year olds. Most of them really give a damn about writing. They haven't had the idealism burned out of their souls. Editors frequently piss me off, but they don't pick my pocket, and even when we disagree I never see them as opponents or obstacles. (Well, okay, a few . . )

  5. Blogger Nathan Bransford Says:

    I can't, of course, speak to your personal experiences with agents, which don't sound positive. And really -- the fact that you've been able to do it your way is really impressive. I'm not trying to take anything away from that or suggest you personally should have done something differently.

    But as a "model for publishing"... just not sure.

    And with all due respect to your lawyer, unless he is out there in the translation and film rights trenches every single day, selling stuff all the time and all over the world for many different authors like our foreign rights and film departments, I really don't think he could match their expertise. I'm sure he does a good job fielding offers that come your way, but our foreign and film departments are out there making sure every country and film studio is aware of our clients' works and beating down doors. It's a big advantage when you retain those rights and don't have to split it with the publisher (who I can guarantee ISN'T working as hard on your behalf as an agent would).

  6. Blogger ChristineEldin Says:

    This is interesting.
    I agree with some of what you say, but overall I think a good agent can be a really good ally.

    That said, I've queried several agents and have had most of them request fulls. I've received a lot of positive feedback. My story and writing are solid. But what I'm gathering is that they don't think they can sell it due to market reasons.

    So I've just started querying publishers. I've queried 3. One was a very nice personal reject. One is reading it. One I haven't heard.

    I think your model can work in some cases. But I wish I had an agent....

  7. Blogger Alan Stewart Carl Says:

    Michael: You know, we were all highly motivated to find a good book since that was the only way we could advance our careers. Unfortunately, 99% of the slush was sub-literate drivel. All the good stuff was agented.

  8. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    I think you point to one of the problems with agents. They drive while looking in their rear-view mirror. They use as a guide what has sold in the past. They are not in touch with what happened at the editorial meeting at Harper or Simon and Schuster today. They don't know that editor X was wandering the halls saying, "I wish I had a cowboy vampire book."

  9. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    What's your guess as to how many proposals an editor could screen in a day, averaging between the quick toss-outs and the ones that take more time and attention?

  10. Blogger Chro Says:

    Regardless of all the other things an agent does besides filter out queries, your idea would only work (I think) if these slush pile editor-readers gave individualized responses to each author. Receiving 50 bucks just to glance at something and send out a form rejection sounds almost like a scam. I'd gladly pay 50 bucks to have someone in the publishing industry give me a detailed critique. 50 bucks to have them essentially pat me on the head and say I'm cute? Not so much.

  11. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    What do you think agents do? 99% of their responses are form rejections. They don't hold your hand and tell you how you did. In fact an awful lot of the time they don't respond at all. Or respond six months later. Or, as in one case I cited, advise you to commit professional suicide.

    Editors, when you can get to them, are so much better in the responses.

  12. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    I just realized you were making another point. So, yes, I think the editors would in some cases give more complete responses. I suspect it would be a triage matter: some auto-blow-offs, some more detailed.

  13. Blogger Alan Stewart Carl Says:

    Michael: you mean between the marketing meetings, the publicity meetings, the sales beat downs, the production snooze fests, the editorial circle jerk meetings, author calls, agent calls, lunch, coffee, bagel runs and general abuse of the assistants?

    None. All the editors I know do their reading after hours. But, under your scenario I suppose they could dedicate an editor to just reading submissions. In that case, you can get through 20 proposals an hour if they're rejects. A good submission takes about 10 minutes to decide it's worth a deeper consideration. That consideration period can take several hours as it usually involves sales research and general hemming and hawing.

    You know, I spent 6th months at an agency after burning out at the publishing house. It was mostly paper shuffling but the guy I worked for was an attack dog -- he got great deals for his authors. He earned his 15%.

  14. Blogger Hallq Says:

    Not sure you're getting the full force of Chro's point, Michael. If you're paying a $50 fee, you'd better be getting more than a page worth of consideration. Doesn't have to be two hours of a senior editor's time, but if it's not 20 minutes of a drunken 22-year old's time, I don't see how it avoids the problem you described in the OP, namely too brief of consideration by agents.

  15. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:


    I think just about anyone in the business who is honest would say that 90% of submissions -- conservatively -- should get a form letter rejection. If you got a couple of drinks in people most would admit that 90% should get a response of "Are you kidding me?"

    There's a mistaken belief that pretty much everyone can write fiction. It's not the truth. It comes from a kind but dishonest desire on the part of people who should know better to sell a dream to people who would be better off either writing for their own entertainment, or getting back to their real job.

    There is also a sense of entitlemnt in a lot of people, when it comes to writing, that they would never express when it comes to working as a doctor or a lawyer. This isn't a democratic institution, it's not egalitarian: not everyone gets to play because not everyone was born with a marketable level of talent..

    I know it seems nice to encourage people who have no talent, but at some level it's like telling little people they can play in the NBA.

  16. Blogger Nathan Bransford Says:


    So everyone who has $50 can write?

    I mean, I know a lot of rich people who are terrible writers, and a lot of broke ones who are terrific.

  17. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    No, I'm saying that anyone with $50 can submit. 90% + will get a form rejection. Same as now. But without the 3 month wait. And the rejection will at least come from the publisher.

    A writer can submit to however many publishers he likes. So long as he has $50 each. If you've submitted to ten pubs and been rejected each time you may want to think a while about going on.

    I've got a buddy who is in the film industry. He spends $500 to buy a cable and a lens bag. So why is it a crime to suggest writers spend a little money to advance their careers?

    And to take another tack, why is it the job of published writers to pay the way for unpublished writers? Because that's the deal. It's not publishers who pay agents, it's writers. The agent's slush pile is financed by published writers so that unpublished writers can submit for free.