“Somebody ought to write A Pictorial History of The Cuban Revolution,” I brayed to a top American writer who was a close friend of the family and knew of my interest in Cuban affairs. He also had a sense of humor.
“Sounds good,” he responded, “I´ll put you in touch with my agent.”
Two weeks later, a letter arrived from James Brown Associates (no relation to the singer). I worked with them for 3 months putting the text together. I cut a deal with the newspaper Revolución in Cuba. They would put me onto photos never before published. Price: $5.00 a pop. Other sources in Havana and Santiago were waiting in the wings.
The project eventually crashed because the State Department refused to give me permission to travel to Cuba. Through it all, my agent was helpful, patient, determined and encouraging.
That positive personal experience does not alter the general conclusion found below.
* * *
Did you ever try to publish something? If you failed -- congratulations: you are in the best of company.
In 1816, former president John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson about the latter´s project involving a ground-breaking French work on ideology: “If you, with all Your Influence have not been able to get your own translation of it with your own Notes upon it, published in four Years, where and What is the Freedom of The American Press?”[i]
Twenty years later, Alexis de Tocqueville definitively answered Adams´ question:
“I know of no nation where there reigns, in general, less independence of spirit and true liberty of discussion than in the United States…In America, the majority draws a circle around thought. Inside its limits, the writer is free, but woe to him if he dares go outside them…Before publishing his opinions, he thought he had supporters; now he believes they are gone…those who curse him express themselves with vigor, and those who thinks like he does, without having his courage, stay quiet and distance themselves. He gives in, he bends under so much daily effort, and enters into a silence, as though he regretted having said the truth...
The Inquisition never could stop numerous anti-religion books from circulating in Spain. In the United States, the tyranny of the majority has taken away even the thought of publishing them.”[ii] (My translation)
America is more censored than Spain during the Inquisition: there you have it. A tough act to follow -- literally. Yet, incredibly, America managed to do it. Since Tocqueville´s time, censorship has expanded exponentially.
What made that astonishing development possible: today, in the rampant unofficial censorship assaulting and battering freedom of expression, the front line is not media tycoons. Perish the thought; they wouldn´t dirty their hands. The shock troops are literary agents.
Back in the good old days (1950s and before), you sent your query or ms directly to a publishing house. There, legions of readers filtered the submissions. No doubt about it: in allowing direct access to all, publishing was more democratic (see below). Its loss is one of thousands of manifestations of The Second American Revolution that surreptiously replaced the polity, or oligarchy/democracy hybrid, with an oligarchy. (See The Big Movida: The Third American Revolution).
Today, no major publishing house or other private mass media will even consider your work unless it is represented by a literary agent. The agent grabs 15% of the take, assuming there is one. And there had better be one. What I am saying politely is: contrary to what everybody will tell you, literary agents do not represent their clients. They represent The Deal. No deal, no money. Simple, no?
No wonder writers love to complain about agents – in private, of course. As one writer friend prudently proffered during a fishing trip, “99% of literary agents wouldn´t know a good book if one jumped up and bit their balls off.” Indeed, it is common knowledge that 20% of the agents make 80% of the deals, which can only make you wonder about the other 80%. Crooks? Crackheads? Pedophiles? I have heard those charges and plenty more.
My problem is not with the high crimes and misdemeanors of which literary agents are accused daily, but rather with the socio-economic system they form.
Put yourself in the agent´s place. You arrive at work in an uncompromising commuter train stuffed with passengers who look like Gerald Ford and sound like Lawrence Welk. You unlock your office door. Oh, ...something on the floor. During the night, a 20-something nervy writer tossed a first novel over your transom. You give the ms the once-over; it is magnificent.
Only one problem:
A publisher will typically pay $15-20,000 for a first novel. 15% of $20,000 = $2,500 for you, Mr. Agent. Rents in New York on the upper West Side aren´t cheap. Neither are electricity, water, heat, furniture, office supplies, your secretary´s salary, ad nausea. That means the magnificent novel must be sold with 2-3 phone calls. An agent simply cannot afford to invest more time and effort; he´ll go broke.
Result: formula writing. What sells, sells because…you know, it…ah...sells. In fact, stop reading this post and take a look at the New York Times bestseller list, especially fiction. Go on, I dare you: read a few pages of the top five books. Humph…you feel your breakfast start to warm. The books are all made out of ticky-tacky and they all read just the same. Of course. Under an agent system – 2-3 phone calls -- how could it be otherwise?
As for the magnificent over-the-transom ms, it goes without saying that it is different from the rest, it doesn´t fit the mold, which means you, Mr. Agent, are going to have to work extra hard to move it. You go beyond the call of duty and make 4 phone calls; no editor bites. You take out your pen, shake your head. Not this again! You feel guilty and write a personalized rejection to the author. After that, it´s “Miss ´Em Quick!” -- an expression from golf which means that if you make a bad stroke, don´t let it get you down. Move on to the next swing.
As for nonfiction books, there are additional reasons for a literary agent to say no. An obvious one befell The Big Movida: The Third American Revolution:
In our litigation-infested society, all literary agents either are or have lawyers with veto power. They got as far as Chapter 1 of The Big Movida, which concludes that the Supreme Court should be stripped of its unconstitutional power to decide the constitutionality of laws. (That power properly belongs to a commission composed of all three branches, including the Supreme Court.)
There, the lawyers cowered down.
Presumably, like other citizens, lawyers have freedom of speech. But look out! Unlike other citizens, lawyers are Officers of The Court. That status transforms them into weak sisters. For those who proclaim and defame to the stars above that it just ain´t so -- that lawyers are restricted only when they are in the courtroom -- click on Reality Therapy Time.
Here, the lawyer´s imagination gets the better of him: Gosh, this book says the Supreme Court needs to be stripped of…if some day I argue a case before the Court…well…the judges are going to look at me… I mean…wife and kids…house and car payments...no.
And so, to all the 80 agents and their lawyers who turned down The Big Movida, all I can say is: sorry but as the book points out, Thomas Jefferson -- him again -- was right. He warned that the Court´s seizure of the power to determine constitutionality would end in the “despotism of an oligarchy.”
Jefferson, by the way, is not the only father of independence to be disowned and dishonored by his countrymen. Simon Bolivar was also repudiated. Bolivar, however, has since undergone a renaissance throughout Latin America. The resurrection of Jefferson in the United States awaits The Third American Revolution. In the meantime, you might wonder why that rejection took place. Who benefitted?
No, I will not retract Jefferson´s insight into despotism in order to render the book agent-worthy, hence, publishable. For their part, no agents will -- indeed, CAN -- retract their position.
* * *
In reality, finding an agent was only one of 5 hurdles The Big Movida had to clear:
(1) Anybody, such as a legislature leader, who had the practical political experience required to write The Big Movida would lack the theoretical/philosophical background to create a work with any serious impact. The T&A side of political insider revelations always lights up the talk show circuit. However, in the end, as many people see you on TV and hear you on the radio as forget you. Publish and perish, then.
(2). Anybody, such as a political science professor, who had the requisite theoretical/philosophical background would lack the practical political experience to make the project credible or interesting to a wider audience. Exclusivity is contrary to our goal of democratization.
(3) Anybody who had both the practical experience and theoretical background would lack the time or money to write The Big Movida.
(4) Anbody who made it over hurdles (1), (2) and (3) would not be able to find an agent to represent the book. Look again at the Officer of The Court dilemma.
(5) Even if an agent accepted the book, no publishing house would buy it. The Officer conundrum, it turns out, is only one in a stack of publishing taboos broken by The Big Movida.
Every day, books like The Big Movida don´t happen. Or if they do happen, you never get to see them. Deleted, dumped, returned, refused -- censored -- is their destiny. We will explain why this time, things were different.
* * *
The behavior of agents cannot be separated from the publishers with whom agents interact. To explain agents, therefore, requires explaining publishing houses.
Publishers love to proclaim long and hard how they are nothing but whores, no pride/no shame, that they`re only in it for the money; All Who Enter Here: Forget Ideals: Romanticism -- Go Home. To which I can only respond…how dare publishers compare themselves to the world`s oldest profession! If the publishers truly only wanted to make a buck, they would be 2,000 years ahead of where they are now.
So, what and where are they now?
Montesquieu answered the question in 1748:
"In a despotic government…authority must ever be wavering; nor is that of the lowest magistrate more steady than that of the despotic prince. Under moderate governments, the law is prudent…and perfectly well known, so that even the pettiest magistrates are capable of following it. But in a despotic state, where the prince's will is the law, though the prince were wise, yet how could the magistrate follow a will he does not know? He must certainly follow his own.
Again, as the law is only the prince's will, and as the prince can only will what he knows, the consequence is that there are an infinite number of people who must will for him, and make their wills keep pace with his. In fine, as the law is the momentary will of the prince, it is necessary that those who will for him should follow his sudden manner of willing." (The Spirit of The Laws, Book 5, Chapter 16: “Of The Communication of Power”).
The despotism of one man gives birth to a thousand despots. Every public employee is condemned to keep pace, i.e., try to divine what the prince wants. It´s easy to spot a despotism -- just look for the rumor mill; it dominates the landscape.
Montesquieu was writing about governments, but why should it be different for prívate enterprises? The guy working for Rupert Murdock, Silvio Berlusconi, Ted Turner or any media magnate does not ask what is right or even what will sell, but rather what the boss wants. As the prior post explained, the boss is into mystification, so the employee´s quest to keep pace with his chief´s momentary will is as hopeless as it is endless.
For his part, the media tycoon is not about the change. To show how desperate is the magnate`s need for mystification, he will not allow survey research to show how a best seller is made. He forbids it because survey results would constitute an objective standard independent of how the magnate “feels” or “senses” things – feelings and intuitions which supposedly are in tune with destiny, history, public opinion, the universe, God. Any objective standard would only reduce his personal power. Of course, publishing houses would make megabucks from poll findings; however, the tycoon`s heart is elsewhere. After all, he already has money. What he lacks is legitimacy. In America, he cannot obtain it -- not yet, at any rate -- so his only recourse is to try to replace legitmacy with mystery.
Second guessing, interpretations of interpretations, filling in blanks: it is easy to see that dynamic at work. All children play “The Telephone Game” in which someone invents a message and whispers it to his neighbor, who does the same, until the last person announces aloud the message he received. Always, the creator of the message doesn`t recognize the end product; frankly, neither does anybody else. As Montesquieu noted, in a despotism individual interpretations of the chief´s inscrutible will flourish like weeds, so the weirdness of the end product is magnified a thousand-fold. What we have here is not a failure to communicate but the rule of the lowest UNcommon denominator.
Look, again, at the New York Times bestseller list; you will see that denominator in action. Make that inaction. It is the inevitable outcome of any despot´s sudden manner of willing.
If the media were democratized, the lowest uncommon denominator would cease to prevail. In a democracy, of transparency, in which each person in the telephone chain is free to say publicly what he thinks or feels, the incessantly-turning rumor mill characterizing all despotisms automatically loses credibility as the primary -- if not the only -- source of truth.
* * *
Let´s go through the standard arguments why you need a literary agent. None holds wáter.
(1.) “Quite a few well-known, powerful, and lucrative publishing houses do not accept unagented submissions.”
As mentioned above, this statement is all too true. However, that status quo not only is revocable, it is about to be revoked. Democratic publishing and the trimming of agents is just around the corner.
(2.) “A knowledgeable agent knows the market, and can be a source of valuable career advice and guidance.”
As the prior post noted, no American publishing house has the foggiest idea of what makes a best seller. Neither do literary agents. Or do they? In truth, for agents the “market” is what publishing houses will buy – not what will eventually sell in bookstores.
Here we revisit Montesquieu`s despotic world of whispering, of messages thrown over the wall, of he-said-that-she-said, in which each and every editor is looking for what he thinks the boss is looking for. Since nobody knows, not even the boss, what is the boss´s wavering will, each editor´s viewpoint is perpetually changing. And that means an agent´s valuable career advice and guidance can only be perpetually changing too. What is true and victorious today may be false and calamitous tomorrow. (Note to agents: if you want to sell something to an editor, go to the end of the line. It is the last person the editor sees that he listens to.) Once more, all that flux and foam flooding the publishing world is the irredeemable outcome of despotism, in this case privately owned.
If you don´t like what you are reading here, Dear Reader, there is an alternative: democratizing the media. More to follow. For now, onward through the fog of pro-agent arguments:
(3.) “Being a publishable author doesn't automatically make you an expert on modern publishing contracts and practices, especially where television, film, or foreign rights are involved. Many authors prefer to have an agent handle such matters.”
The world of contracts and practices is indeed complex – far too complex for any agent who is not an attorney. Why, then, beat around the bush? There are attorneys who are NOT agents and who specialize in theatrical law. They go over a contract and rework it to your benefit; they also will negotiate for you with a publisher. Unlike agents, since theatrical attorneys work by the hour, they are free to fully, truly represent you, the client, instead of The Deal. If nothing happens, the theatrical attorney loses nothing. At the end of your session, you take out your check book and pay his hourly rate – AND THAT´S THE END. I know; I did it. That´s right -- a theatrical attorney does not charge 15% of what the author earns.
(4.) “The author's working relationship with his or her editor isn't muddied by disputes about royalty statements or late cheques.”
This ítem was covered in (3). If you don´t like haggling, a theatrical attorney (or more likely his paralegal assistant) will handle petty nuisances for you – again, for an hourly rate.
A few other reasons are routinely offered for needing a literary agent:
(5). The agent is a book doctor. He will tell you where your ms is weak and help you fix it.
Think so? Want to see a real live agent? Watch this video. The deciding question: Do you want these guys in your living room?
Sidebar: making the New York Times bestseller list is not as difficult as you have been told. See Albert Zuckerman´s (an agent) book, Writing The Blockbuster Novel, Chapter 14.
For all you true believers in the bestseller list, I must make this potentially disastrous footnote:
They are not playing our song! How could they? When I was a kid, I took music lessons in the back of a music store. While waiting my turn, I read the Billboard hit parade, and developed a fascination for the silly thing. Over the years, I noticed something. A close friend, today a prominent attorney, and I performed an experiment which resulted in the record “Strolling on The Beach.” It rose on various hit parades; on one chart it went to Number One.
What made our remarkable achievement all the more remarkable: the record did not exist. As my friend emailed me last week, “It was so much fun. Fooling the system.”
Is the New York Times bestseller list immune from that bit of witchcraft cooked up by two fifteen-year-olds? From what I have seen to date, the answer is no.
(6) The agent is a Noah in a New Flood. He saves publishers, indeed all of us, from being inundated in slush. 2,000 pages of My Sumer Vacashon in Mane With Ant Mary will never darken your doorway, menace your family.
Two questions arise regarding screening:
First, at the end of the fiscal year, which costs a publisher more: pay agents 15% of their authors´ earnings or, as in former times, hire a squad of readers?
Second, what is it, exactly, the agents are screening out? They exclude far more manuscripts than they include, which means their real function is NOT to get works published (as the agents claim), but rather the opposite -- TO NOT PUBLISH WORKS. Not publish is, of course, what censors do.
Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway: artists are factors of population numbers. For every 50 million souls, a Rimbaud or a Poe will appear. They are out there; don´t let anybody tell you otherwise. The fact that there are none today among published authors tells you a full-fledged disaster is occurring. Makes you wonder what happened to the 20-something writer with the magnificent novel: which plastic shower curtain company is she working for? There is only one way to stop such nonsense in which all writers and readers lose: democratize the media.
(7) Finally, an agent supposedly will help you make more money. This recommendation is the most squirrely of all. The answer depends entirely on circumstances outside your or anybody else´s control. Dan Brown´s (Da Vinci Code) agent probably took 15% of the cut and became a multimillionaire. Betcha Dan, who is worth some $200 million, more than once drummed his fingers, looked at the phone and wondered about the theatrical attorney route. Ten grand or so coughed up, then Shazam! -- out the door.
* * *
Part I of this series on democratizing the media proposed that the existing public broadcasting obligations be toughened and extended to media other than TV and radio. Also, councils should be formed with the authority to legally compel, under certain circumstances, the media to turn around and publish books, articles, etc., they previously censored.
Part II showed how the Internet makes the impossible possible. Works subjected to unofficial censorship by the private media -- suppresed, tossed in the trash -- can now be read by billions of people worldwide. The Big Movida: The Third American Revolution comprises the first, consciously-designed test case in democratization by computer technology. With every download of the book, agents and publishers objections are summarily overruled where it counts: you.
We end where we began:
Literary agents are the point men in the private media´s attack on freedom of the press in America. Consequently, democratizing the media is at best futile, at worse a sham, without dismantling the antidemocratic structure that agents comprise.
What is at stake: the revolution in communications technology can finally rid America of a censorship system more powerful than the Spanish Inquisition. The best part is, nothing needs to be created. All the elements are there; they only need to be put in place.
Literary agents originated in the horse and buggy world. Travel was long, arduous and dangerous. The post office and pony express were comparable to a militia: mostly a state of mind. As for long-distance telephone calls, you needed plenty of cash and lots of luck.
Result: because not everybody lived in New York, London and other publication centers, a representative in The Big City was indispensable.
Today, we live in another world, a new millennium. The communication revolution has made agents the fifth wheel on the car driving the media. What is to be done?
Again, nothing needs to be invented. The solution is here, now. To see it, click on InkTip. What you will find is a huge bank of movie scripts contributed by authors and accessible to producers and other professionals. A studio in search of a love story set in New England in the 1930s, for example, enters the appropriate specifications; presto, scripts appear. The agent as the connnection between seller and buyer is disposed of. The pointmen are pointless.
As InkTip demonstrates, technology exists for authors to email books and articles to a bank for perusal by publishers. As for screening out slush, with direct access to manuscripts, publishers can have their own staffs perform the initial reading – exactly as in days gone by. A Steinbeck can still be overlooked, but his odds are a lot better without the agent ceiling of 2-3 phone calls. Indeed, the complete absence of Steinbecks shows the cost of the agent system is too high in more ways than one.
In the end, in allowing screening by publishers, the Internet creates a paradox: not Back to The Future, but Forward – To The Past.
As for who or what can get things started, the Association of American Publishers is one promising possibility. Here is their statement of purpose:
"WHO WE ARE. The 300 members of AAP are building the future of publishing.
We are America’s premier publishers of high-quality entertainment, education, scientific and professional content – dedicating the creative, intellectual and financial investments to bring great ideas to life. We are also at the forefront of publishing technology – delivering content to the world’s audiences in all the ways they seek it."
The Association would render its words more than words by creating and maintaining a bank a la InkTip for manuscripts. With access of, by and for all to the bank, democratizing the media becomes more than a noble ideal. Inside of a year, publishers and authors will have agents off their backs and out of their pocketbooks. Audiences will watch rule of, by and for the lowest uncommon denominator go the way of Metrecal, clackers, the Edsel.
Not to worry. If the Association does not create the bank, somebody else will. The potential financial gain is monumental. In dollar terms, we are looking at something a lot bigger than Dan Brown or even Pablo Escobar.
It is becoming fashionable to argue that only agents benefit from the present system. I disagree. Looking at their kids, that exception is dubious. Nevertheless, I hope that, like Edsels, there will always be some literary agents. Variety -- the very thing agents and publishers work night and day to destroy -- is essential to freedom be in on the road or in the library.
In truth, I suspect agents will always be with us. There still are horse and buggies; I hope you will take a ride in one. They are fun.
In their impending trimming, I hope agents will neither be disowned or dishonored -- as was Thomas Jefferson -- nor viewed with contempt or consternation. Simply put, they belong in their proper place: alongside so many inconsolable golf strokes.
[i] John Quincy Adams, “Adams to Jefferson, Quincy Decr. 16th 1816,” in Lester J. Cappon, Editor, The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2005, p. 501.
[ii] "Je ne connais pas de pays où il règne, en général, moins d'indépendance d'esprit etde véritable liberté de discussion qu'en Amérique... En Amérique, la majorité trace un cercle formidable autour de la pensée. Audedans de ces limites, l'écrivain est libre; mais malheur à lui s'il ose en sortir. Ce n'est pas qu'il ait à craindre un autodafé, mais il est en butte à des dégoûts de tous genres et à des persécutions de tous les jours. La carrière politique lui est fermée: il a offensé la seule puissance qui ait la faculté de l'ouvrir. On lui refuse tout, jusqu'à la gloire. Avant de publier ses opinions, il croyait avoir des partisans; il lui semble qu'il n'en a plus, maintenant qu'il s'est découvert à tous; car ceux qui le blâment s'expriment hautement, et ceux qui pensent comme lui, sans avoir son courage, se taisent et s'éloignent. Il cède, il plie enfin sous l'effort de chaque jour, et rentre dans le silence, comme s'il éprouvait des remords d'avoir dit vrai…
L'Inquisition n'a jamais pu empêcher qu'il ne circulât en Espagne des livres contraires à la religion du plus grand nombre. L'empire de la majorité fait mieux aux États-Unis: elle a ôté jusqu'à la pensée d'en publier.”
Alexis de Tocqueville (1835), De la démocratie en Amérique I (deuxième partie), pp. 84-5. (“Du pouvoir qu´exerce la majorité en Amérique sur la pensée”).