Saturday, 8 August 2009

From Pitch to Perpetuationof Privilege: why publishing MUST change its application procedures

The pitch is the publishing Industry’s equivalent of the University Entrance exam, a selection system that perpetuates disenfranchisement, and serves to narrow the pool of available applicants to a point where the literary world becomes nothing more than the chattering classes talking among themselves. As was the case for hundreds of years in our universities, no one has really noticed this until now, because the people the literary industry marginalise had been marginalised from other forms of communication. Worst of all, they have gone unnoticed because they have until now had no expectation or belief that literature is their world.

But as wider and wider portions of society become cultural consumers, so their hunger for stories by and about people like them grows. Television, through initiatives like the BBC’s My Story, is beginning to take notice, but the publishing industry is standing back and does not, it is my firm belief, even realise there is a problem.

This is just another example of an introspection that will in the not too distant future kill the industry off if it doesn’t do something. The fact is the internet is making culture by and for previously unrepresented voices (be they inner city teenagers, battered sex workers, refugees fleeing from, and would-be refugees trapped in, the world’s war zones, or the women of the world’s shanty towns) widely available. And it’s great. Millions of voices are being heard that would never have been heard before – hope that “I am not alone” is being offered to millions more who never heard culture spoken in their own voice before.

It’s a WONDERFUL thing.

And it’s a phenomenon that is going to kill publishing dead. Or rather, pass it by on the road whilst publishing kills itself. Unless the industry does something serious and soon.

There are many thins the publishing industry needs to look at if its isolation from the consumers of the majority world is not to prove fatal, and I’ve got time to talk about them all eventually. But today I want to focus on the flagship ridiculosity: the query.

This is NOT a piece about higher education. I am merely referring, in passing, to an allegation levelled at the entrance exam (because it IS true of publishing, and it’s a good analogy). The problem with the university entrance exam, the argument goes, like the problem with the 11+, is that you do better if you’re coached for it. Which means you do better if your parents have the money AND the inclination to pay for a tutor. Which means two children of equal “ability” will finish with very different marks. Which means, finally, that if selection is based on entrance exam performance alone children whose parents lack either the money or the inclination to pay for coaching will be disadvantaged when it comes to getting a university place. And to add to all this, the privilege this perpetuates means that those from marginalised backgrounds expect not to get places, so they don’t apply, furthering the divide.

That may or may not be true of universities, but I’m sure you get the logic. And if you don’t get where I’m going, then frankly, well, I can’t say in polite company.

At the moment (and especially in the US where you don’t submit ANY script with your query), whether you get an agent depends on the quality of your query, and a huge part of that is the synopsis and, even more, the query letter. There are many wonderful websites and books devoted to polishing your pitch, and I have benefited immensely from them (and still do). But the system reinforces the status quo in a way that is both shocking, and seemingly invisible to the industry.

How are those who do not currently read their voice in books, written by people like them, and who have stories to tell, and a talent for telling them, get published? They must submit a query – for which they have no training – not just because they have no access to the great query sites and books out there (they may well HAVE the internet), but because they are not surrounded by people who know about sites like this. They may not even know what the “application” method is. It is a mystery. So what happens? They don’t send off their stories – “people like them don’t write books”. And the divide is reinforced.

So what? Well one, it’s just wrong that people be denied a voice for their story – and the notion that the vast swathes of people underrepresented in publishing are underrepresented because there is no talent is just nonsense. Systemic barriers are wrong. Full stop.

Two, these are groups of society for whom the internet allows, more and more, instant access to the consumption and production of culture by and about “people like them”. Whole groups are realising that culture is for them. But books aren’t – and THAT is the problem for the publishing industry. A vast swathe of ever more powerful cultural consumer is ignoring books because books are irrelevant to them.

So what does publishing need to do? Well, more than anything else, what it needs to do is what the “Russell Group” of universities (the UK’s “old elite”) sort of tries to pay lip-service to doing. It needs to stop talking to itself. It needs to stop telling would be writers about “show not tell”. It needs to stop focusing on how to write a query letter. Stop focusing, mind, not stop doing – there is, and always will be, a very large, commercially and culturally important group who like books done that way. What publishers need to wake up to is the fact that this is a segment of the population – a segment whose share of wealth, purchasing power, and access to culture, is shrinking.

What the publishing industry needs to do is not try and “help” people on the “outside” to get to the “inside”. People don’t need it. They have other ways of telling their stories. IT needs THEM. And that is something I have NEVER heard someone on the “inside” admit. So what SHOULD the industry do? It needs to find ways to convince the new generation of storytellers that books are a good medium through which to tell those stories. It needs to think like an “outsider”.

Sadly, I really don’t think it can. Which is why more and more of us who would, ten years ago, have been part of the “trying to get inside” crowd, are ignoring it, letting it slowly eat itself to death, whilst we get on and enjoy the exciting future.

Half of me thinks it’s a tragedy. The more so because, like an animal walking to the abattoir, or a patient slipping gently from a coma, I really think most of the industry doesn’t recognise it. But half of me thinks that systems which perpetuate divide and exclusion SHOULD perish, and wonders if we shouldn’t offer a helping hand.


  1. Your complaint about query letters reminds me of complaints about theatre/movie auditions: how can you possibly judge an actor based on less than two minutes of them doing a rehearsed speech, that may or may not be like the thing you are currently casting? It's patently unfair - except the only alternative is to cast someone you know.

    When you are dealing with thousands and thousands of hopefuls, you must have some culling process.

    The Olympics aren't fair either.

  2. Long time, no see, Osiander. What a pleasure :-)

    Of course publishers must have a culling process - what I'm saying comes from two angles - 1. I think there's a moral/social problem that you can get a "leg up" by being coached - query letters are something we can learn to do better, can be taught to do better. If we have no way of knowing that bokos are made by a process that starts with a query letter, how do we possibly compete with people who spend their lives stalking QueryShark? We don't. We just say "I'm not the sort of person who writes books" - and everyonw loses out.

    2. The publishers are the ones who are going to lose, because people will find other ways to get their stories out there, and they'll find other media to spend their money on

    Publishing really has to address this - there is a whole new generation of cultural consumer, and publishing has to find a way of getting a slice of the pie - but to do that it has to have stories written by people like the consumer - and to do that it needs a culling process other than the query letter.

    I've no idea what the answer is. I'm just saying I find it ALARMING that I haven't really come across the question before.

    So like I say - I'm not saying agents nad publishers have to read the whole caboodle. But they have to find some way of getting to that talent - or "the market" will do it for them - at their expense.

    And on the subject of teh Olympics - I have a feeling you might be talking about "competition" - which is what I want to promote, not quell - I want the BEST storytellers to get their books published - not those who know what a synopsis is. If, however, you're making a point about privilege, I agree - sport favours those whose parents have the money and inclination to suppotr their training and buy equipment. And that sucks just as much.

  3. there really is no getting around this problem. Anyone, almost by definition, who is articulate and intelligent enough to put a publishable manuscript together, is more than capable of doing the research to find out how to put a query letter together. You don't really need to follow queryshark obsessively to get the drift.

    So first of all I would question the assumption that there is this tremendous talent out there that is being blocked because of this single letter.

    The really important part of the query letter, truth be told, is how much confidence and professionalism it exudes. That's a very hard thing to teach - it comes from actually having relevant experience and publishing credits.

    Query letters are a bit dumb, IMHO, but they are not an insurmountable obstacle to publication.

    The issue of exclusion etc is a very big topic - too big to pin on something as trivial as the query letter. And, also, what's the alternative? What is the actual alternative to having to read 50 or more query letters a day?

  4. Absolutely it is too big a topic to pin on the query letter (I hope I made it clear this is one of many issues, as well as the huge question of the way we approach culture as a subject - on the other hand, this is a blog rather than a book, with all the time and space restraints that entails).

    The point is I don't know what the alternative is for the publishing industry (as an "outsider" I don't, either, have a vested interest in finding it). I DO know what some of the alternatives will be for people wanting to put their story out - and they often involve bypassing books altogether (and ALWAYS involve bypassing "publishers") - so I think publishing SHOULD be looking.

    "articulate and intelligent enough to put a publishable manuscript together, is more than capable of doing the research to find out how to put a query letter together"

    I am sure you can anticipate my response :-) I am quite at a loss as to how someone living in the shanties of Quito who has a story they long to share, and a wonderful way of expressing their experience and worldview through words so that it connects with people in the slums of Mumbai would ever have HEARD of a query letter. Or someone who's been sleeping rough in london for 15 years - how are they supposed to "research how to put a synopsisi together"? And why should they? And, movig to a slightly different category - people on benefits in a housing project who want to know there are people going through the things they are, and coming out the other side. How are these people, who will increasingly - especially with cheap e-books - be able to purchase fiction - for whom every second of every day is a struggle, supposed to teach themselves to convey confidence and professionalism to someone from a different world? And what relevance is that to their readers who want to hear stories told by people like them?

    The problenm is that "a publishable manuscript" is, actually, one that can be sold commercially. Give that more and more previously silent people are becoming cultural consumers adn producers, "publishable manuscript" in 5 years' time will, by this definition, have nothing to do, in many cases, with being able to do with passing a test that is irrelevant to the subject supposedly being examined.

    Again, I don't have the answers for publishers, but am extraordinated that publishers don't think there are questions.

    And I really ought to have plugged this amazing projcet earlier:

  5. "Poetry has become nothing more than a class adornment" Phil Hall. Great work, keep getting the message out.

  6. I hope I'm reading your ideas correctly, its complex but I'm simplifying this way - any system (workable or not) is created in order to facilitate the work that needs to be done. A publishing company is set up in a certain way so that it makes money - end of story. A query letter is nothing but an introduction to an agent who is out to find works that will make money. End of story.

    Unfortunately, we live in a world of the haves and have-nots, where the winners decide what is written in the history books and who is remembered. There is nothing fair about any of it, but there is something practical: if your goal is to be published, then you must follow a certain system to get there. If you do not agree with this system, you are, at least, free to develop your own.

    Is the publishing industry eating itself alive and losing possible revenue by not exploring all of the possibilities over whom it could publish? Of course it is. Publishing houses are behemoths that could topple at any moment - what keeps them going is the fear that in losing them, we lose another tradition and once more the world becomes unsettled and unnerved and on its way to hell. This need not be the case, of course, but that is the perception (jobs lost, income lost, etc).

    Fortunately, technology is narrowing this gap over what is published (outside of free content, ie: blogs) - and how we obtain access to it. Perhaps if we start with literary agencies (and I'd love to hear from one on this topic) - but I'm unsure they could run any differently than they are now (on the query system). Given infinite number of resources, certainly, but, as almost any hard-working agent will tell you, they are simply not paid enough, nor have the time, to look at every little thing that comes through the door.

    So what will the publishing companies of the future look like? I think with the emergence of e-publishing and print-on-demand, we are seeing the greatest glimpse. I hope it does not mean an end of 'books' as we have known them - but the possibility that a, for example, unemployed fisherman from Sitka, Alaska, who has hundreds of stories to tell from his fishing days and wants to see them in book-form, could, potentially find online access and, through e-publishing or blogging, share those stories with the world. Blogging is, after all, the closest thing we have to the self-publishing model, even if it is not in print form. It is simply free - something publishing companies cannot bend to. This is a capitalist society, after all - whether anyone likes it or not (I don't).

    As long as expense is involved in the creation of a piece of work, there will be limits as to whose work is published. It isn't fair - but we can continue to diminish its power by expanding technology to where it has never been (if that is a moral thing to do) and 'spread the word' as it were wherever and whenever we can. It is possible to get around the system (ie: bloggers whose blogs have become printed books or films like Julie and Julia without the benefit of going through an agent first), but you must have to want to get around the system.

    I am convinced that our technology - which allows for greater access, independence and, most importantly, archiving of material - will continue to show up the publishing world (it already has) and, at some critical point (soon, I'm sure), a new model will be developed that may help facilitate an introduction to a broader range of authors.

    In the meantime, I would encourage anyone with the resources and the ability, to go out there and find the stories that are waiting to be told. Document, archive, take a deeper look where no one else does. We are moving so fast I'm worried that we are not stopping long enough to take a look at and preserve what is already there, what is being left behind (culturally and otherwise). If it isn't online, its probably being ignored.

  7. Hi Paul. Lovely to see you.

    Talking of poetry, it's the 2009 National Poetry Slam in the US this week. I've been rather tickled pink that about 50 American slam poets have piled in and joined the Free-e-day Facebook group. I'm rather hoping we will get to have some live performances on the day. I don't know if you fancy reading something? We have lots of things going on in the UK and US, but lacking in Aus at the moment

  8. There are a couple of things tangled up here, I think. If you are talking about giving people who have a story to tell a chance to tell it, well that process is going on and is alive, well and vibrant. Producers, documentary makers and many others are always on the lookout for good stories.

    If what you want is a way for a slum dweller or disadvantaged homeless person to have access to publishing, that's a different thing altogether. Such a person has far more problems than a query letter - first of all is access to the means of production (a computer, or pen and paper, and somewhere non-chaotic and non-violent to work) and that is not a publishing problem.

    To be honest, if you're talking about 'stories' then someone who is disenfranchised has a better chance of telling their story to a third party - someone with a camera or a notebook, who can take the raw material and turn it into something else. In which case it is the person with the notebook who has become 'the author'.

    If you are talking about someone wanting a means of literary self expression, then there is no way about it - they must be able to competently write and shape a narrative and do it with correct punctuation, spelling and so on. At a minimum. And if they can do that, they can write a query letter.

  9. Hi, dijeratic. I'll tweet you the link as well, but you must take a look at jay Adler's amazing

    I blogged about just the problem you are alluding to a couple of posts ago - there is a grave danger that global internet access will create a cultural exploitation that sees many stories die or change beyond recognition before they are documented - I don't think I went too far when I likened it to a potential repeat of the colonial cultural pillage of a few centuries back. Whcih is why groupd like teh endangered languages fund are so important - the internet is a great tool for cultural good, but we need to think about what happens and how before it's too late.

    Osiander, I agree on access to means of production - also that this is not publishing's problem - but access to the internet is moving very fast - and at that point, from an economic standpoint, it may BECOME publishing's problem.

    On you other points, I think we see literature, and its place in the world, differently at a fundamental level, and will just have to disagree amicably.

  10. I'd certainly never heard about the "query" system, but it reminds me of my teaching interviews. As a teacher, my most important "tool" is my relationship with the children I teach. Yet to get a teaching post, I have to teach a bunch of kids I've never met and achieve brilliant results in half an hour.
    One more reason why I left teaching.

    I wonder if unknown writers (whether they can spell correctly or not) even know there is an "approved manner" of querying? Blogs being free to the reader means they're not much of a livelihood to the writer of course!

  11. Exactly.

    My main memory of teaching interviews was being told I had to take a GCSE class on "worship", and trying, amongst other things, to get people to listen to Taize on a walkman. The person who actually got the job gave a class on David Beckham. How could I cmpete with that?!

  12. Excellent blog. I couldn’t agree more.

    Years ago, a doctor coached me, preparing me for the final, stressful step of getting into medical school—the interviews. He told a story of a candidate entering an office and being asked to take a seat, any one of the three chairs set before the magistrate’s desk. The candidate settled into the nearest chair and immediately received a disapproving scowl with a quick invitation to leave. In confusion, the candidate asked for an explanation.

    “Wrong chair,” was the simple response.

    The anecdotal story illustrated how arbitrary the selection could be. I got into the medical school of my choice, and I attribute much of my acceptance to being lucky enough to fall into the right chair. My best interview was all about football. The interviewer was a big football fan, and the university’s star quarterback (Scott Mitchell) was from my home town. So that’s what we talked about.

    I wrote a murder mystery several years ago. Upon completing the draft version, I began studying the submission process. Multiple synopses and draft query letters all seemed to fall flat. They were never submitted. The odds of being published and promoted seemed overwhelming, even impossible, as if I would have to be lucky enough to fall into the right chair out of thousands.

    I haven’t given up hope for publishing my story, but gave up hope on the publishing industry long ago. I have a sister-in-law that works as senior editor for a small-time publisher. They have published two of her books. But after seeing the scanty returns on her emotional and time-consuming investments, I’ve refused to submit my manuscript to her company. I’d rather self-publish and make my book available on-line for free.

    The big-house publishers will adapt or die—just like the newspaper and magazine companies. Paper and ink are disappearing.

    High-quality magazines arrive at my home, completely unsolicited and absolutely free. After a period of time, as long as a year or two, such magazines include a notice that this will be my last issue unless I subscribe.

    But I don’t subscribe. Too many online choices. Information instantly available, completely customized to whatever momentary whim I may have. And today, I happened upon this blog—first time ever—and I wasn’t even looking for author/publishing information. I fell into this chair simply by screening and following multiple links of interest.

  13. LOL - there's an excellent blog for teaching assistants called (if I remember rightly) "the spare chair".

    So much in life comes down to chance!

  14. Hi, anonymous. Lovely to meet you, whoever you are. Anecdotes like that sound daft, and are written off as urban legends, but there's more than a little truth. When I told people I was applying for Oxford, I was told all kinds of stories about interview questions (a tutor telling interviewees "surprise me" and so on). It's tempting to disregard the stories, but in my day at least, that wasn't so far from the truth.

    Very best with the mystery - I wrote a thriller a couple of years ago. My impression is it would be very hard to market because I wouldn't know where to start (it's much easier with niche books), but I think the best piece of advice would be to find the places people who read that type of book like to hang out and hang out with them there.

    NK, that's a rather super title - it ALMOST sounds like one of those daft business jargon things - like Who Moved My Cheese or Six Thinking Hats. I often think the people who come up with those titles ought to write slightly whacky fiction, but I guess jargonese pays better.

  15. spare chair = teaching assistants enter classrooms to support pupil, look around them for somewhere to this a spare chair?

    another interview story - 30 years ago, I wanted to be a speech therapist. Interviewees all sitting together in waiting room, chatting amongst ourselves until ourturn.

    It became clear during my interview that in fact there was someone in the waiting room taking notes and reporting back to interviewers.

  16. :-) cruelty personified! Like those awful lunches where you're actually being interviewed so you daren't actually have that third pudding!