Are good books the ones being published?

book - Alejandro Escamilla
Photo courtesy of Alejandro Escamilla

T.T. Thomas and I recently discussed the role of literary agents. T.T., who’s been represented by one in the past, claimed that being able to recognize talent is a fraction of the skill a good agent must possess. She said:

Being able to judge what’s good and what’s great is only half of the half—gotta know what will sell. The pedestrian minds in this country are the majority, I fear, but hope springs eternal.

Having been assigned to a project team for two weeks earlier this year, T.T. and I know each other only through written correspondence. When asked if she would mind being quoted, she added:

By the way, knowing what will sell is only half of the half, too. An agent, one who is truly well-rounded, will know how to sell. I know agents, usually the more literate and conceptually sophisticated, who can spot a winner from the sales point of view, but they blanch and freeze when it’s time to ask for the sale.

I also know agents who can sell paper to a tree, but they have no idea if the book is good, great or screamingly bad—and it doesn’t matter to that type of agent. Whatever it is, he or she has no problems trying to sell it. The dynamics of the sale do not frighten this type of person, however inadequate his or her appreciation of good literature might be.

On balance, then, a good agent, with a good or great book, might sell it; a great agent, with a good or great book, will sell it. The book will get published; the author will have been represented.

Our conversation was inspired by the June 4 issue of New York magazine, which devotes some space to both new and under-appreciated authors. It includes profiles of six promising creative writing students, nominated by their instructors, along with the magazine’s sheepish request that readers vote for the young writers whose story excerpts they prefer. The vote gathering is not such a bad idea, but there’s no mention of a prize (such as a book contract) for the beleaguered winner.

In any case, I wanted to see if my pedestrian tastes encompassed not only wine but literature. What do you know? I picked the author with yesterday’s highest vote tally, proving I’m ordinary to the core.

You, too, can read and vote for “The Stars of Tomorrow.”

The adjacent magazine article mollified me. It lists 61 professional critics’ picks for the best underrated books of the past decade, including a slim volume sitting on my bookshelf—Achilles by Elizabeth Cook.

4 Replies to “Are good books the ones being published?”

  1. I’ve been wondering if the developing system of cultural production without so many gatekeepers, credentialists, and agents might someday (probably after I’m long gone) be a system where profits and money are parceled out across the whole of the producer spectrum. As it is, the money is simply spread around to those making the decision of who to let into the protected monopoly– and those they let in.

    If it was a zero-sum game, then that money will re-direct towards the whole long-tail of the actual producers. When any monopoly falls, the possibilities fly in all direction. When a distribution monopoly falls, it seems the effect would be even greater.

    It’s probably just wishful thinking, but some of the other intermediary-types like travel agents and real-estate agents have come under increasing pressure. Maybe culture-agents and culture-brokers too are feeling some disintermediation pains. I’d be lying if I didnt add that I hope they are.

  2. Your analyses are always astute, Dan. I have little tolerance for the attitude that business of any sort is merely a system of favors to curry and repay, perhaps because I’ve never been part of that system. However, people who spend entire careers learning and adapting to existing business models can become truly desperate when the established methods stop working. Efforts to maintain the status quo consume enormous amounts of energy that would be better spent on innovation and education.

    Is it humanly possible to avoid the abuse of power? Notice how much effort it takes to socialize children so they don’t brutalize each other. How many times have you found yourself believing you’d earned the right to make a decision that affected others?

    In the end, new gatekeepers replace the old, and alternative power structures evolve to someday be toppled by fresh crowds of restless malcontents. It’s enough to make us all too careful what we wish for.

  3. “…restless malcontents,” or better yet, “fresh crowds” of ’em. I think it’s inevitable. Nature hates a power void, if that’s not an oxymoron, which, I suspect, it is. Still, as Dan points out, other intermediary types, like real estate agents and travel agents, have been feeling the pressure—but, very little has changed in the actual power quotient because the agents (land and travel) have fine-tuned the art of spinning what they do to justify the go-between take of 5-7%. They offer, they say, market knowledge, professionalism, aggressive, yet tasteful (somehow) marketing techniques, and generally all the stuff you thought you were getting anyway. I don’t think we’ll be getting rid of either the middlemen or the powergators (sic) anytime soon, but we might get a bit more of the better service we used to pay for and not get. Or am I being cynical? Wait: let me be the intermediary and the gatekeeper of that question and that answer: Why yes, yes I am. heh. ttt

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