Anyone who has tried to get a book published in the traditional sense knows about queries. A query is the first communication between author and agent. A brief but succinct whiff of prose that communicates the author's voice and a sense of theme and plot. Literary agents receive hundreds to thousands of queries every year. According to the agent blogs I read, every year there are more and more first time authors seeking representation.
When I began my writing career three years and a quarter million words ago, many if not most agents considered only queries that arrived by the US Postal Service. Before long, most joined the electronic age and began considering queries and manuscript submissions sent by email. An already daunting problem became worse now that the authors could fire off queries at less cost and less hassle than before. The agents now had to spend less time responding to the queries that didn't appeal to them. Form rejections became the norm. Some agents began to not send anything if they passed on a query.
Try as they might to assure everyone that it was business, not personal, the take home message for a lot of writers was negative. Legends have existed for years about famous authors rejected by numerous agents and publishers. Part of the process of becoming a writer was the boot camp shared suffering of rejection. Agents and publishers alike continue to try to reassure the majority of writers who are destined never to get even a request for a partial manuscript that their travails are not in vain. If, they say, you persevere and improve your skills, sooner or later we will discover you. Well and good. But what then?
The economic truth is that blockbusters and book club selections drive the traditional publishing business. In the movie Sideways, the main character is a middle school English teacher who has written a lengthy semi-autobiographical novel he is desperate to see published. At least he has gotten far enough along to have an agent. He patiently waits for an answer to the latest submission to a publisher called, ironically, Conundrum. His agent finally returns his call with the bad news that although the novel made it through several levels of editorial review, eventually they passed on the chance to publish.
"I think it's one of those unfortunate cases in the business right now -- a fabulous book with no home. The whole industry's gotten gutless. It's not the quality of the books. It's about the marketing," says Evelyn the agent.
I don't want to be harsh. Publishing is a business. It doesn't exist to make authors feel wonderful or reward them simply because they have spent many hours writing. I get it. I also understand the belief, communicated directly or not by agents, that self-published books are pretty much trash and that the agents are gatekeepers for traditional publishing. Bad books never make it out of the slush pile. Good books are sometimes not recognized at the outset, but cream rises to the top. I have enough ability to self-reflect that my books are not going to be best sellers. Depending on how hard I work at marketing and publicizing them, they might not even be mediocre sellers.
I am a believer in the wisdom of the marketplace. Self published ebook authors are the literary entrepreneurs of the 21st century. The investment in dollars is modest. Time is the largest factor for us. It doesn't cost much to hire a graphic artist, editor and formatter to prepare an ebook. Kindle, Nook, Smashwords and others allow for electronic browsing to help readers pick out what they like. If they want a good beach read or airport thriller, they will find what they want in short order. My goal is to produce a novel that entertains readers. If I succeed, readers will buy my books and tell their friends. I will be motivated to finish my second, third etc book. If I break even with my production costs I will be ecstatic. Perhaps I will be able to afford to have some paperback copies printed and sell them over the Internet. I'm keeping my day job regardless.
All of this would be impossible without the increasing numbers of ebook publishing platforms. The traditional publishing industry will continue as before, although their margins are going to decrease further. More and more new authors will ignore them completely unless they, like Amanda Hocking, become so successful that publishers have bidding wars for their work. I foresee agents being in the middle of the squeeze and having fewer and fewer clients. At this point, why would I want to participate in a process that has such a bleak future?