I recently read an article on the author of “Still Alice,” Lisa Genova. In it, she talks about her decision to self-publish following a protracted struggle to find an agent. A hundred agents turned her down – yet her book (after a lot of hard work on her part) became a best-seller and inspired the Oscar-winning movie of the same name.
This is not a new story. I read the same about Kathryn Stockett of “The Help” fame. In her case she didn’t self-publish, but was turned down by 60 agents before being picked up. Dr. Seuss (yes, THAT Dr. Seuss) was rejected 27 times before he found a publisher – who knows how many agents that represented.
I myself looked for an agent before selecting a small independent publishing house for my books. But don’t let the “publisher” moniker fool you – it’s still self-publishing because most small publishing houses don’t offer the marketing that is critical to getting a book known. If you want a big publishing house with their vast networks and know-how, you gotta have an agent. Seldom is there a way around this.
Agents perform a vital service. I get that. They are the gatekeepers. Agents vet the entries into the book pool to ensure they are “worthy” of a big publisher’s attention. By refusing to look at any book not brought to them by an agent, big publishers can be assured that they see only works that will meet the needs of the market. These works are not necessarily well-written, but they do fill an established market niche.
And there’s the rub – “an established market.” Already been done.
What about emerging markets? Or yet-to-be-discovered markets? Where are the agents who can recognize an interesting and well-written work for which a market has yet to be carved? Where are the book agents willing to invest the time needed to expand a fledgling niche?
Apparently agents didn’t know that the world wanted to read about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice.” Agents didn’t know that American readers would welcome a story about black domestics during the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s (“The Help”). Agents didn’t know that children of any age from 9 to 90 would devour stories about boy wizards and their magical world (for J.K. Rowling experienced much the same struggle as Ms. Stockett to find a publisher for her Harry Potter series).
So where are the forward-thinking agents who recognize good works that introduce new subjects to the reading public? Where are the agents brave (or clairvoyant) enough to sponsor a book for which no market currently exists? When do the gatekeepers become impediments to the world of ideas?