Honest Critiques

No, I mean it. REAL honest. Email your excerpts or full stories, up to 1000 words or so, to honestcrits [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk. Synopses would also be welcome. My backlog is so daunting now that I recommend not submitting anything you are not prepared to wait a couple of months for a response on.
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  • Tuesday, November 01, 2005

    Everybody be cool, this is a colloquy

    If you've been reading Miss Snark recently, you might have come across postings about Bookner, a new website which aims to "evaluate the worth of manuscripts for the benefit of the publishing industry". The idea is essentially that writers upload their manuscripts to a central server for peer review by the community there, thus ranking submissions, which can then be cherry-picked by publishers. "It is hoped that Bookner will allow a not inconsiderable quantity of good material, which is currently falling between the cracks, to find a worldwide audience."

    What's wrong with traditional methods of spotting talent? According to the website, the status quo is slow, ambiguous (little feedback), laborious for the writer, and redundant (duplication of effort by readers).

    Bookner tells us a story about publishing; on the front page, under the heading 'trash your assumptions', there are two narratives posted to show you the difference between myth and real life.

    In 'Myth', a literary agent spots a great MS, has a deep and meaningful conversation about it with the author, instantly sells it to an editor, and the writer lives happily and successfully ever after. In 'Reality', the writer is rejected by almost 150 different literay agents, before finally, after various reminders, memory lapses and episodes of incompetence, she sells her book to the agent. The agent sells the book as something completely different to what the writer intended, but nevertheless the writer lives happily and successfully ever after.

    What I don't get, first off, with these stories, is that both end up with the writer lighting Cuban cigars with $50 bills in their Dom-Perignon-filled hot-tub. Now, we know that doesn't happen. Not everyone makes it. The point of the stories seems to be just the 'unnecessary' effort involved in selling the book, and the attitudes of the literary agent ('mythical' aesthetes vs 'real' shysters.)

    Instead, Bookner's community of writerly sages will take the commercial and time pressure off literary agents and publishers, whereupon we will all be free to be the kindly aesthetes of legend.

    Let me tell you something about 'Myth' and 'Reality': they're both bullshit.

    The underlying assumption seems to be that the processes by which the vast majority of publishers acquire their books are designed and operated by slack-jawed cretins. Furthermore, these poor fools have never investigated their own broken policies, whether from the point of view of simple curiosity, or indeed from a desire for competitive advantage. Agents don't bother to read submissions or to follow up properly on their interest; editors allow themselves to be sold books they have not read, but which they can sell with phenomenal effectiveness.

    In fact, the characters in 'Myth' - the wise literary agent, the enthusiastic editor - are much closer to the truth than the clueless dunces in 'Reality'. Literary agents and publishers, who in the main have top-class judgement, are continually on the lookout for new talent, and are excited to find something saleable. The point is that it has to be better than what's already on the list. If I already publish ten excellent, commercial writers, you have to be slightly more excellent to get signed. If I am worried that I don't have a good mystery writer, then I'm on the lookout for that new person. And if they're unpublished, they come ten times cheaper than someone who has twenty books under their belt.

    Bookner says:
    neither publishers nor literary agents are interested in discovering new writers, because unpublished writers are an unknown risk.

    Nonsense. The risk is assessed on a case-by-case basis by the system Bookner regards as broken. Unpublished writers are published all the time. The worst outcome for the publisher is known absolutely, and is far from catastrophic, given the initial outlay. The best outcome for a book is predicted, with good success rates, by experienced publishers. This is how publishers make a living.

    Hence we have a surreal situation where it is easier for a pro wrestler to publish a book than a writer.

    Yes, of course it is. Millions of people are prepared to buy books by celebrities, and the publishing industry supplies those, subsidising some more literary works and contributing to the growth of the industry.

    As a result, the writer - someone who is good at putting thoughts into words and spinning a good yarn in printed form - is in danger of extinction.

    No, the writer isn't. Honestly. I see them every day. They look fine. They continue to write and publish books. We all continue to make money.

    Given that - which, let's be honest, seems to be the message of 'Reality' as well as 'Myth' - the main complaint is that the submissions system is 'labyrinthine' and impersonal. I do not recognise the picture painted by Bookner.

    BOOKNER: It takes forever to get a manuscript read.
    TORGO: Yes, because of the volume of submissions, and because they do in fact get read.
    BOOKNER: No, they don't. Editors and agents barely look at manuscripts.
    TORGO: You think we're inundating ourselves with slush for our health? What are we, crazy? Why don't we just throw the mail sacks straight in the incinerator? We read as much of a manuscript as we can stand. As we can physically stand.
    BOOKNER: Aha! Well, Bookner will take the strain off you. It is normal in any economy to have people specialize into certain disciplines, and outsource as much work as possible.
    TORGO: I don't think I want my judgement outsourced to an online critique group with a mysterious ranking algorithm.
    BOOKNER: But who better to evaluate manuscripts than writers?
    TORGO: Almost anyone else in the world. If the manuscripts in my slushpile were rated by all the authors in that pile, a tremendous amount of crap would rise to the top. The twenty percent or so of all the children's stories that are tedious, 'empowering' Ugly Duckling stories, for example. Or the ones written by people with tin ears. Or the really mad ones, as they are a significant subset. So anyone, really, but luckily there are people who specialize in doing this for a living, and they're called publishers and literary agents.
    BOOKNER: But you never give any feedback - how is the writer supposed to know if they have any chance?
    TORGO: Look, it isn't our responsibility to give free critiques on your work. A person would have to be crazy to try something like that. We have neither the time nor, occasionally, anything to say that isn't actually abusive.
    BOOKNER: Abusive, eh? Admit it - secretly you hate writers, and enjoy making them jump through arbitrary hoops.
    TORGO: Well, that's a slightly more flattering description than the one where we're all moronic incompetents. Actually the hoops are not arbitrary, nor are they onerous. Submission guidelines are clear and usually pretty forgiving of minor transgressions - if we can read it without going blind, we'll read as much as we can. Just don't send in your novel inscribed with a burnt matchstick on the back of a cereal packet and then whine about how the rules are so unfair and shouldn't apply to you because you're special.
    BOOKNER: But we can save all that duplicated effort - sending queries to all those literary agents and editors, who then all read the same thing!
    TORGO: It saves the author a few stamps, granted, because the MS can be read off the net. But firstly, I don't trust your Bookner Ranking. I have no idea of what the algorithm is or how it's supposed to work its magic; the magic it's working is in some way involving slush-pile authors, who are not necessarily exemplars of commercial or literary wisdom. So I'll end up digging through the slush pile in any case, when I have a perfectly good one in the office at the moment. Secondly, as an author who is part of the Bookner community, I have to invest time in reading slush myself to rate it, which I could otherwise spend writing a second novel; what I should really be doing when I have my first one under consideration.
    You have hordes of agents reading the same query, because writers send out queries indiscriminately. This is a massive waste of time. Why would hundreds of agents have to do the same chore?
    TORGO: Er... they're in competition with each other? And writers who query indiscriminately are making unnecessary work for themselves.
    BOOKNER: You can't deny that the submissions process is long-winded and labour-intensive.
    TORGO: No, I can't.
    BOOKNER: And why should writers have to do all that hard work? You don't have chefs carrying their creations to diners; waiters do that. You don't have architects laying bricks; builders do that. You don't have pilots selling airline tickets; travel agents do that.
    TORGO: So the idea is that writers should not have to sully their hands with these tedious tasks? The sort of thing that mere builders waste their petty lives on? (Mrs Torgo is in the construction trade, you know.) Sure, that'd be nice, but in a highly competitive market, with so many good books being published, you need to work a little to sell your book. Actually, you don't have to work nearly as hard as publishing companies do to sell your book on to shelves in bookshops, or as hard as literary agents do to sell it to editors. You just have to do your research, send a really good book out there, and get on with a second novel.

    Torgo will be back this week. Thanks for your patience.

    ADDENDUM: Of course, I didn't really interview Mr Bookner for this - but many of his words above are as they appear on the website. I would say I'd been 'fair and balanced', but Fox News would probably sue the tar out of me.

    If I seem a little annoyed on this subject, it's not because of any inherent 'negativism' on my part. It's really because I get ticked off when people with no real experience of publishing pop up and tell me why what I do every day is really stupid and unhelpful (eg. PublishAmerica) or make up stories about me and my colleagues that are wildly inaccurate.
    Torgo, 3:07 am


    Great job with the defense!!! Loved it. Also had to laugh aloud when you said someone would have to be insane to critique all those manuscripts. Tee Hee Hee: Honest Critiques! I've heard a lot about Bookner. All bad. Thanks for posting this.
    Blogger M. C. Pearson, at 4:03 am  
    Ahhhh, the Bookner head rises from the ashes to be smacked into oblivion with a shovel by the venerable Smokey the Bear aka Torgo! Good job, dude...nice to see you back!
    Blogger Bonnie Calhoun, at 4:25 am  
    Thank you, Torgo.
    Bookner, who has Shadwellian similarities, seems to promote his agenda on the rather shaky foundation of persistent paranoid myths and misunderstandings - a technique usefully employed by certain types of salesmen and some rather reprehensible religious groups.
    Blogger Bernita, at 12:56 pm  
    Thanks for the honest assessment - I read through your Bookner/ Torgo dialogue with great humility. After receiving too many quick or curt rejections, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that the current process is flawed (rather then my manuscript/query/synopsis/choice of agent). That doesn't mean it's time to listen to the rainmaker.
    Blogger jackie, at 2:41 pm  
    What's also interesting is that the Bookner concept of peer-reviewed/rated manuscripts is not new! Bookner touts itself as a revolutionary new paradigm, but during the last manuscript display site boom (in the late 1990's through early 2000), there were several sites that had this as their gimmick. As far as I know, all are now defunct--not due to lack of writer interest (of course) but because agents and editors just didn't care.
    Anonymous victoriastrauss, at 3:37 pm  
    The really sad thing is that, in one sense, Bookner is right—the acquisition process does have a lot of problems (but they are mostly beyond the control of the editors). Of course, Bookner's "solution" does nothing to address the actual problems in publishing… except if one defines those problems in publishing as "Bookner isn't making money from the publishing industry."
    Blogger C.E. Petit, at 5:41 pm  
    It certainly has problems, but I think these are largely down to volume of submissions, and to a lesser extent the market at any given time.

    Thanks for stopping by!
    Blogger Torgo, at 5:51 pm  
    You made Miss Snark again! Yay! Be careful though, she seems to be developing a crush on you...
    Blogger Zolah, at 6:02 pm  
    Welcome back, Torgo! The long wait for your return was worth it for this post. You are dead-on right, and this coming from one of those pesky writer-type people. I'm snorting coffee right now...

    Thanks for your fab insights. Editors are just as underpaid and underappreciated as teachers--you poor soul!

    Blogger S. W. Vaughn, at 6:24 pm  
    It boggles the mind how some people interpret 'inefficient' as 'needs fixing.' There are plenty of inefficient systems that work perfectly fine.

    Same deal with seeing people as roughly equivalent -- an opinion of an unknown scribbler is treated as if it were the same as that of a well-respected editor or agent. If evaluating MS's was easy, published books would never flop.
    Blogger Fish Monkey, at 7:41 pm  
    I just realized the Easter Island thingy is back. Cool beans, it adds ambience!
    Blogger Bonnie Calhoun, at 3:17 am  
    The Inexplicable Statue disappeared because my file host deleted my account due to neglect... it's nice to see it back though, isn't it?
    Blogger Torgo, at 11:43 am  
    That'll teach you to leave us! So there :-)
    Blogger Bonnie Calhoun, at 4:08 pm  
    Good to see you back, Torgo. Thanks for the insight on Bookner. I actually had not stumbled across his website as yet, but I'm sure I would have eventually.
    Anonymous David McAfee, at 4:26 pm  
    With so much on your plate, thanks for putting in the effort into unmasking a "Wizard of Oz' trick. There will be many that will follow his trail and pay for it with the abuse of the manuscripts.
    Anonymous Ann Casey, at 8:02 pm  
    Glad to see you back, Torgo. This has got to be one of the most comprehensive debunkings of Bookner I've seen yet. Since the guy who runs Bookner seems so intent on popping up anywhere people question his site, I wonder if he'll put in an appearance here.

    And if he does show up here, I'd like to see him explain how he can get editors or agents interested when the only ones that I have seen publicly commenting on this have been saying the idea is really, really bad.
    Blogger Mad Scientist Matt, at 2:59 am  
    The whole concept of Bookner is so wonderfully... clueless.. I immediately signed up! One of my personas is a comedy writer and it's not often I am gifted with such great material.

    Alas - despite signing up months ago - and agreeing to read.. anything... I have never heard from him.
    Blogger Brady Westwater, at 5:57 am  
    I feel as if I should have your dialogue engraved on my forehead so that all aspiring authors I encounter will understand. Unfortunately, I would have to shave my head to do it, so I'll have to be content with expressing my gratitude and sending people to read it.

    What never ceases to amaze me as well is the arrogance of some writers when they submit to a small or mid-sized press, apparently under the assumption we are so starved for talented writers to sign contracts with we will grasp anything that flies over the inbox.

    What's doubly amazing is that they tend to swarm when one closes submissions.
    Blogger Elizabeth K. Burton, at 3:21 pm  
    I am rather in awe of anyone who can finish a coherent novel. I am a published author, but one of those things is only 28pp long, and another could happily be read out of sequence - it's more a collection of pictures with my text on it than a story. So, I have the greatest respect for people who have the discipline to spin any kind of yarn. Getting to work with writers is what gives me job satisfaction (it ain't the salary...)

    On the other hand, publishing is a business, and has to operate under commercial pressures; unfortunately, the vast majority of people in any slushpile will not ever get published. I'm sorry that it's a tough old process to go through. I feel guilty about the way it works. Tomorrow, for example, it's time to gather the editors again and clear our submissions backlog, and the earliest books in there are now 2 weeks past their reply-by dates. I feel bad about that, but it's unavoidable.

    I suppose what I'm saying is it's tough all over, and everyone is entitled to feel that the system as it is can be frustrating. But there's another feeling that unpublished writers are very liable to have, and that's that they are entitled to be published, and that the industry is thwarting them. I wish we could publish everything and still have an industry that made any kind of sense; it isn't going to happen.

    Hello to everyone that's commented - nice of you to stop by.
    Blogger Torgo, at 12:33 am  
    Thanks for a professional view on Bookner. And also for encouraging writers. It's nice to know that yes those manuscripts do get read.
    Blogger Lauri, at 8:50 pm  
    Nice to have you back, Torgo. Great commentary on Bookner. The blog is amazing in its arrogance. I found this amusing, though:

    "As a result, the writer - someone who is good at putting thoughts into words and spinning a good yarn in printed form - is in danger of extinction. Well, Bookner is about to change all that." ~Bookner

    Just think, soon we'll have an international "Save the Writers" group banging doors in Washington and London because any time something is about to become extinct...

    Can't wait to see that.

    Getting close on that August 18th pile?

    Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:41 pm  

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