by Donna George Storey

I started writing fiction in the spring of 1997, which makes
this more or less my fifteenth anniversary of dealing with the writer’s life
(see Kristina Wright’s spot-on post from last month, “What It Means to Be a Full-Time Writer” for what I used to believe sixteen years ago).  It might sound like a decent chunk of time to
have experienced the perils and triumphs of academic, literary and erotica
publishing, and I do know a little more than when I started, but the realities
of the literary marketplace continue to surprise and mystify me.

Recently a good friend has started seeking representation
for her YA historical novel.  Many people, especially those who want to write but haven’t, are ready to smirk at the pathos of a first-time novelist taking on New York.  In this case, however, I’m excited for her, because I’ve read a draft and absolutely loved it.  My friend lived in the country where the
novel is set, is fluent in the language, and has done significant scholarly
research on the time period.  More than
this, she’s managed to weave her deep knowledge into a suspenseful story that
gives the reader an honest look at this culture through the eyes of a
believable, sympathetic young female protagonist.  I’d be proud to have written this book.  Need any writer say more?

My friend has also done her homework on the the process of
selling her novel.  She’s read how-to books,
checked appropriate agent blogs and polished her cover letter and synopsis to a
shine.  Apparently now agents don’t only
require that your current project be as timelessly classic as The Great Gatsby
while having the appeal to reach an audience at least twice that of the Harry
Potter series, you have to have an impressive set of saleable future projects
ready to push out the door in a year or two. 
Since self-publishing is threatening to make the job of literary agent
obsolete, I have to admire their balls in being so extravagantly choosy.  Or perhaps they figure only a blockbuster
author will be willing to pay the 15% to handle all the sub rights’

Even with an excellent manuscript,
my friend’s search may not be easy.  If
the agents deign to reply at all, some will tell her one or more of the following: that
the book has no payoff; that it’s too fast-paced; that it’s too slow; that it’s
too obvious; that it’s too subtle; that it was well written, but they didn’t fall
in love with the characters; that the characters were likeable, but the writing
too esoteric; that they could only commit to a series; that she should change
the love interest or have the father marry a different character or have the
protagonist be prettier; that there is too much cultural explanation; that
there is too little cultural explanation. 

It sounds like I’m joking. 
I’m not.

Yet I realize, too, that beneath a very thick layer of
cynicism, I still actually believe in the grand romance of publishing.  Let me roughly
outline the basic tenant of this sweet illusion.

The ultimate writer’s romance is the beautifully uplifting
belief in a kind of literary justice.  That
is, if the publishing industry accepts and publishes your book, it is “good”
and if they reject it, it sucks, or is at least not good enough.  What is published by New York is the
cream of the writing that is out there, because agents are selecting the most
worthy work submitted to them.  Beyond
that is the most important criterion by which to judge a book—the number of
sales.  The same logic applies.  The more popular a book is, the “better” it
is.  Although I will agree higher sales
are better for the publisher, agent and, to a lesser degree, the author, what I’m speaking of is the popular
assumption of quality, as in this book is worthy of the precious moments of your life you will spend in reading it.  Therefore—and I probably shouldn’t mention
this book because I haven’t read it, but that deficiency is irrelevant for my present
argument—Fifty Shades of Grey is the “best” and most important erotica book
ever written because of its phenomenal sales figures.

If you’re tempted to point out my confusion between the
popularity of a book and its admittedly subjective “quality,” I believe that is
exactly what happens on an emotional level for many readers and critics,
including myself.  And the reason I’ll
admit this is because of my hopes for my friend’s novel.

Talk about a fantasy. 
In my fevered mind, the first round of agents she’s approached will all
immediately reply asking for the full manuscript with the following

Dear Ms. A,

I can’t tell you have thrilled and relieved I am to have the
chance to read an intelligent page-turner. 
To be honest, these vampire-sorcerer-shapeshifter-dream-catcher
spin-off’s are starting to eat my brain. 
It’s okay with me that this is a stand-alone novel, because most of the
world’s memorable literature has not been written as a seven-part series (I
mean really, who’s read all of
Remembrance of Things Past?).  It gives me great pleasure to serve
humanity’s higher need for an excellent story that will encourage its readers
to engage in deeper thought about actual historical events and what we can
learn from them, rather than worry only about making tons of sales with any old
crap that can be described with the hot-button tags of the moment.  Thank you for allowing me to be genuinely proud
of what I do.

I’m setting up the auction for your book now.

Best regards,

Hot-Shot New York Agent

Because my friend’s novel is
one of the best things I’ve read in a long time, and that includes an
embarrassing number of disappointing but very popular Oprah Magazine
recommendations, I expect that the publishing industry will see the value of
her work, too, and realize how far they’ve gotten off track since the days of
Maxwell Perkins.  Go ahead and laugh at
my naivete, I deserve the ridicule.  However, many
readers out there, who confidently insist that advertising doesn’t affect them
in the least and that they watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians with
ironic distance, also fall prey to this appealing delusion.  And many publishing professionals will swear
that their experience and instincts maximize the success of the projects they
choose to champion, while they, too, are constantly taken by surprise by what
actually performs well. 

Few of us would admit that we still believe the free market
naturally brings us what is good and right, although in darker moments we might agree it gives us what we deserve. 
But then why do we (okay, I’m sort of using the royal “we”)  get so angry when what we are presented with yet
another disappointing mega-seller?  Maybe
because deep down writers are romantics who still hope that our innate talent
will be seen by the right billionaire publisher who will then elevate us to the
level of the truly beloved Voice of the Culture?  Or at least that a quality book will be
treated with respect and presented to an audience of readers who will feel
their lives are better for having read it?

Call me a foolish romantic, but a little illusion always helps
us on our writing journey.  I still have
my fingers crossed for a HEA ending for my friend and her book–and wish the
same for all writers who have the courage to write what they truly love. 

Donna George Storey is the author of the erotic novel, Amorous Woman.  Her short stories have recently appeared in Best Women’s Erotica 2012, Best Erotic Romance, and The Best of Best Mammoth Erotica.  Learn more  at