Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Old Girl's Club

Q: I've been noticing that at least in the "writers forum" world, male writers are seriously outnumbered by women who write. I'm also seeing a relative scarcity of male agents. Now, I realize that there is no "old girl's club" per se, but has anyone studied the unbalance in new debut fiction published between men and women authors? Can a female agent be expected to warm up to the work of a male writer as easily as the work of another woman? Is this a silly question? I know there are sucessful male writers who write what would be considered "women's fiction", but I'm beginning to wonder how gender plays in the market, both reader/consumers and publishers.

Though this question was originally asked on my Absolute Write Ask-the-Agent thread, that thread is actually closed. I thought I'd answer it here since I've gotten similarly worded questions a number of times recently, both on forums and in person at conferences.

Thing is, 80% or more** of the people buying literature are women. This goes for all kinds of mainstream fiction, male protagonist & female protagonist, debut as well as backlist. In the realm of mysteries and narrative nonfiction, possibly the numbers are slightly more even, but I am willing to bet that even there the majority of readers are still women. [ETA: And as is pointed out in the comments, horror, SF/F & hardboiled crime probably skews more male] .***

In children's publishing (The Bunny Division) certainly most editors, agents and buyers are women. Not all, but most.****

Writerly gender is probably split pretty evenly in Literary Fiction land. My expertise is children's books, though, and I'd still say that in children's, lady writers are the majority. I would also suggest based on purely anecdotal evidence that male writers and illustrators are better paid, and disproportionally more lauded and more award-winning... but I could certainly be wrong. I haven't crunched real numbers on that one.*****

But I am sorry that I could not resist teasing you a bit, and I didn't even really give you an answer. The plain truth is, there IS an Old Girl's Club.******

* Tact-level varies, but the question is always posed by a man - which doesn't mean anything, per se, just noting the "unbalance".

** This statistic provided by the Out Of Thin Air But Probably Right Dept.

*** Still, a few brave male authors are able to somehow muddle through, and "Man type" books still get published. How, I am not sure -- I guess a few women gatekeepers are able to cast off their femininity and warm up to them. 

**** Probably because most men don't want to hang around reading children's books all day. They have real stuff to do, don't they? Putting out fires with their big barrel chests, etc. 

***** And the two very biggest names in children's books are women, so that would skew the statistics a bit. 

****** But of course, I can't tell you any more about it, and you aren't invited. Sorry! :-) 

Monday, April 26, 2010

On Rejection

Q: When you get form rejections from agents, how can you know if your manuscript is unpublishable crap or if you just haven't found the right agent yet?
I know this is going to be difficult to believe for a lot of you, but, I swear it is true: Rejections are not personal, and they are not value judgments about your work.

If anything, they have a heap more to do with the agent than they do with the author. Look, as you can see from the sidebar, I have about 22 clients. My first year as an agent, I picked up 16 of them. In the two years since, I've added about three a year.  There is no limit set in stone, of course, but I can afford to be very picky.

I get 200 queries a week, or so, not counting ones that just come to the agency generally. So you do the math.  Oh you want me to do it?  OK.  You have roughly a 1 in 3,467 chance that I will not send you a rejection.  Did all of those 3,467 things just suck?  Heck no!  Lots of them were probably terrific, or at least had potential to be terrific. Lots of them were probably terrific for somebody but just not me. Lots of them needed work. Some of them might have been just... wrong, for whatever reason.  But one of my form letters went to the vast majority.

"Query" means question. So think of it this way. You're asking us a simple question, we are replying simply.

The question that we are answering: Do you want to represent this?

The question we are not answering: Is this good?

To answer the second question and find out if, indeed, you are writing an "unpublishable piece of crap", you need to listen to fellow authors and teachers and your own gut instinct. Get a critique partner or join a writer's group. Here's a quick vlog from YA author Jackson Pearce about helpful rules for critique partners. You could also pay for a critique at a writer's conference. Take a class. Read your book aloud to the cats and see if they hide.

So you do these things. It becomes pretty obvious that you have a book that doesn't make readers clutch their heads in pain. The cats haven't tried to claw you to death. You love your book and you know other (smart, well-read, preferably published) people do too. You know that you have followed the query directions to the letter. You are getting rejections - some of them personalized, some with notes for revision.  At this point you can pretty much assume that rejections mean you just haven't found the right agent yet.

For me, rejections and acceptances are entirely down to my personal weird quirky taste, and the fact that I only take on three or so new things a year. Very occasionally there is some concrete point I can give the author, and I try to do so when it is easy to see. But I advise against replying to a rejection with a plaintive "Whyyy??", because you probably won't like the answer: "I didn't like it enough."

Which totally sounds mean, right? But think about it this way: I also don't like the color yellow. Or the flavor of clove. Or Irish Wolfhounds. Or the way birds legs look like dinosaur legs. Or messy food. Or summertime. So what? Are any of those things bad? No! They just aren't for me.

So what do you think? Still going to take rejections personally?

(Yeah, I thought so.)

Saturday, April 24, 2010


I've had this account for five years, just so that I could comment on other people's blogs. But... you know. I have things to say, and sometimes they go long. So I am going to start talking here.

Some topics that might come up in the course of this blog:

The Wonderful World of Agents
What Books Do I Love?
What My Clients Are Up To!
Awesome Literary-Type Events I'm Attending
What My Cat is Up To!
When Does Mad Men Come Back On?
Scathingly Brilliant Schemes!
... etc.

Join me, won't you?