Competition among writers has been reviewed on this site in a wonderful piece by Daniel Quinn. This piece looks at the other side – how literary agents compete and how market forces created an extraordinary market with headquarters in…Brooklyn.
Beware, males! Let my personal experience serve as a warning for you who aspire to see your names on a best-selling novel.
Barriers to entry into a market can be obvious: a dominant incumbent, the need for economies of scale, etc. Sometimes they’re less obvious, such as political connections with government officials (e.g., see my article on Elon Musk’s Telsa).
But what do you do, and how do you compete, when the barrier is… sex?
No, not that. Gender.
We all know Silicon Valley is friendliest to males, especially white or Asian, especially young. But sometimes the sex barrier sneaks up on you, or at least on me, when least expected. Specifically, in writing and publishing.
After many years of writing — I’ve published dozens of professional articles and seven books — I finally fulfilled an old dream: I wrote my first novel. Hooray for me, right? Not so fast. Writing a novel is the easy part, a mere gut-wrenching, sleep-depriving joy ride. The hard part is getting an agent to represent the novel.
For the past few months I have researched the fiction-publishing industry, which doesn’t work like the non-fiction I’m used to. My goal was to find a literary agent. An agent is a kind of a broker who connects the buyer (the publisher) with the seller (the author, i.e., me). The literary agent represents the author. Like real-estate agents, the literary agent earns a commission from the seller only if the manuscript is sold. The buyer (publisher) pays nothing to the agent. How does the buyer get such a sweet deal? It’s an absolute buyer’s market.
In a buyer’s market, the buyer dictates the terms. The buyer has more than enough options and can tell anyone to get lost. With this power the buyer pays lower prices than would happen otherwise, except for the unique properties such as books by Hillary Clinton or Glenn Beck that say nothing new but are sure to sell to devoted fans. In other words, having a “platform,” as it is called in publishing, raises the bargaining power of the seller.
Platforms are essential in non-fiction publishing. In fiction they are less obvious, unless you are J.K. Rowling. But even J.K. started without a platform, because in “debut fiction” there is no platform. No one knows you or Harry Potter. So, the bargaining power of debut authors is low. I mean, really, really low. “I’ll go to your competitors!” is met by “Here’s their phone number.”
And yet there are 313.8 million potential writers out of 313.9 million Americans. (The others have real jobs.) Defying odds lower than winning Powerball, those starry-eyed hopefuls keep sending their horrible manuscripts to the agents I’m trying to contact.
My manuscript is different. It is unique, hilarious, suspenseful, quirky, and politically incorrect. There isn’t an agent or publisher who wouldn’t see its blockbuster potential immediately.
Literary agents have proliferated after publishing houses started cutting out editors to save cost. That was a move of accidental genius brought about by rapid consolidation; there are only a handful of major publishing houses left today. Declining readership of books didn’t help either. Hundreds if not thousands of talented, laid-off editors started free-lance editing businesses, and in a short decade or two, the big publishing houses discovered the benefit of not paying anyone to read unsolicited manuscripts. This is not unlike large companies letting venture capitalists find the next startup gem for them.
I figured I would look into online directories of literary agents and select the lucky one on whom to bestow my masterpiece. To my astonishment, I discovered that 99.999 percent of agents (and I am talking hundreds) are women. But that wasn’t what stunned me most. The most amazing fact I found was this: while almost 100% of literary agencies reside in New York City — they surround those big publishing houses — ALL of their agents state on their profiles that they’re “living in Brooklyn with (fill in the blank: my husband and two kids, two dogs and a cat, two cats and seven dogs, etc.)” Such homogeneity defies explanation with economics. It must be a sociological phenomenon!
The Brooklyn-resident female-agent phenomenon intrigued me. As a believer in the power of the market, I wondered where all the men went. I knew that in the old days, male editors dominated the publishing firms.
I found out the answer is simple. Wherever they went, it wasn’t to read books. It turns out only women read books (some estimates are by a margin of 4:1). So the cruel Darwinian invisible hand selected out all the male agents in favor of female agents, who pitch to female publishers, who sell to female readers, who read female authors, who write about female travails and adventures. The result is amazing uniformity in what the agents state on their sites: “Especially seeking upmarket women’s fiction.” I have no idea what upmarket means, but I suppose it is the opposite of downmarket. Is it like the S&P after good news?
Even the few hapless males who live underground in this Alice in Womenland territory had to adapt. They too are looking for “character-driven literary women’s fiction with emotional depth.” All these years women have been looking for men who understand emotional depth. There they are, a few literary agents in Brooklyn.
Back to my masterpiece. My character is a tough policeman, a libertarian with zero emotional depth and a lot of anger issues at those who seek to impose their political correctness on him. He likes logic instead of psychological babbling. And he is not very complicated.
I stand no chance.
I need your advice.
At this point I have these possible strategies:
1. Pretend my name is Ellison Gilad. Paula or Carol might work too.
2. Turn my protagonist into a strong but complicated emotionally driven woman with interesting psychological issues.
3. Place her in some foreign locale (I’m thinking Iran, Afghanistan or India) and make her life hard as she journeys to a better place (or not) and overcomes a broken heart (or not).
4. Lobby the government to require agents to take on some percentage of male-driven, inconsequential novels with direct language and awesome hardware, citing fairness and equal opportunity.
5. Give up on publishing my book or finding a male agent who likes fast-paced, hilarious Christopher Moore-type plots with little attempt to change the world or move the reader into cathartic fits of weeping.
6. Publish a cry for help on this site.
Now I know that among you readers there is at least one who is smarter than I am, and all of you are better connected. Do you have a better strategy? Tell me! Comment below!
Evelyn “Ben” Gilad
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