Thursday, December 25, 2014

"Storytellers have a right to fair pay"/ literary agents

This is on my

Nov. 5 “Storytellers have a right to fair pay”: I cut out this Edmonton Journal article called “Storytellers have a right to fair pay” by Joanne Harris on Jul. 18, 2014.  The subtitle is: “Writers' income has plummeted in last decade.”  Here’s the whole article:

Samuel Johnson once said: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

If so, then there are a lot of blockheads (including me) in the books business, and a lot more eager to enter it. Most authors are driven to write - would probably write whether or not they were ever published or paid, just for the joy of it.

This is their strength and their downfall. With the exception of a canny few who treat art as a business, writers are often reluctant to think of their work as just another product. We do not like to think of our books as units, to be bought and sold.

And yet, to the publishing industry, that's exactly what they are: the product of thousands of hours of work - of editing, copyediting, design, marketing, proofreading and promotion. It takes a lot of people to help create and publish a book. And although the creator - the writer - is surely the most important of these, the average author's earnings have fallen quite dramatically over the past 10 years or so.

Part of the problem is that, thanks to the media, the public has a distorted view of what the average author's life is like. Not everyone can expect the kind of success earned by Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling. If anything, quite the reverse. According to the recent survey by the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society in the U.K., the average fulltime author's earnings have dropped by 29 per cent since 2005. The number whose sole income derives from writing has been slashed from 40 per cent to just 11.5 per cent.

I am one of the lucky few who still earns a better than-average salary just from writing. But that hasn't always been the case. For 15 years, I worked full-time as a teacher, making progress on my novels whenever I could. Most successful authors have known a time when their work was not as successful, a time when they struggled to make ends meet (as did Rowling before her Potter novels took off). As a result, we know full well that the world does not owe us a living.

But the drop in authors' earnings is not simply due to market forces. Pressures within publishing; the emphasis on marketing the bestsellers at the expense of the mid-list; the easy availability of free digital content; a public increasingly used to the lower pricing of ebooks - all these have played their part in making authors feel the pinch. A few of us are wealthy. But most - yes, even ones you've heard of - are finding it harder to earn money creating the books that they, and you, love.

Some of this is due to exploitative contracts, the fact that our work is shared or downloaded online without permission. But if even authors are reluctant to see what they do as a real job, deserving of a real salary, then who can blame the public for taking advantage of their work? There are things that can be done: Make it easier to pay for copyrighted content online; encourage publishers to be more forthcoming with their data; track down piracy; combat the apathy of those who see copyright theft as inevitable; draw up fairer contracts. All these things are practical solutions to a very real problem.

But the most important - and possibly the most difficult - thing is to promote respect and appreciation for writing, of whatever sort, and for those who produce it. The authors whose books we enjoy have the same right to fair pay as the actors we watch on TV, or the people who empty our trash cans, or anyone whose labour brings us any kind of benefit. Yes, most authors love writing. That doesn't mean others should benefit from their work for free.

Stories - even fairy stories - are not just entertainment. Stories are important. They help us understand who we are. They teach us empathy, respect for other cultures, other ideas. They help us articulate concepts that cannot otherwise be expressed. Stories help us communicate; they bring us together; they teach us different ways to see the world. Their value may be intangible, but it is still real.

That's why our politicians, far from closing libraries, should be opening new ones. That's why our thinkers, instead of dismissing fairy tales as fantasy, should celebrate creativity. That's why our schools, instead of teaching literature in the way that gets the best grades, should be using it to fire pupils' enthusiasm and imagination. In the dark old days, the storyteller always had the best place by the campfire. Those days may be gone, but the power of story remains. It's time we acknowledged that, and brought our authors out of the cold.

A Creative Mom: I cut out this Edmonton Journal article “Who’s their big inspiration?  A creative mom” by Elizabeth Withey on May 10, 2014.  It was in time for Mother’s Day.  It interviewed people who are visual artists, musicians, architects and writers.  Here’s an excerpt of one of the moms:

Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail Writer and Edmonton's historian laureate, age 31:
"My mom, Mary Metcalfe, went to Carleton journalism school and really fell in love with communications and always nursing this creative side of herself. I saw, growing up, that she could make a living with words and ideas, which was pretty inspirational. She branched out on her own and started her own communications consultant company. She has also written a trilogy of contemporary women's fiction. In the last five years her focus shifted to novels and she looked for an agent but had battled cancer and realized the clock was ticking, so she decided to self-publish. Then she created her own publishing company, Laskin. She is also freelance editing and doing other writing work.

"She's a talented writer but she's always been really good at encouraging writers and she's been my editor since grade school. In large part I became a writer because of her, and also because of my dad, Jacques Chenail, who's heavily involved in translation. My mom's entrepreneurial spirit really influenced me and showed me I could go outside the traditional routes of academic writing or traditional publishing and make my own path. And she's always surrounded me with books and opportunities to meet with books and other writers in the literary community in Ottawa where I grew up."

My opinion: It was uplifting and inspirational to read.

Dec. 13 Literary agents: I found this article “‘A Right Fit’: Navigating the World of Literary Agents” by Michael Bourne on Aug. 15, 2012.  It was in my “parking lot” email and it was probably during the beginning of 2014 when I was going and deleting my old emails.  This is a long article about how Bourne struggled to find a literary agent and his tips on how to get an agent.  Here is an excerpt: 

If that sounds like I’m saying, “It’s all about who you know,” that’s because that is exactly what I’m saying. You can rail about how unfair that is, and how it makes publishing into an incestuous little club, and to a degree you would be right: a lot of very dumb books get published because somebody knew somebody. But that’s the way the machine is built, people. It may come a-tumbling down in the near future in the face of e-books and indie publishers, but for now, if you want to get published by a major publisher, you have two choices: you can keep banging your head against a wall and be angry, or you can figure out how to get yourself into the club.

To do that, you have to immerse yourself in the literary community. Five years ago, with my first book, I sent roughly 60 query letters to agents and editors at smaller publishing houses. I had an MFA, a few publications in small literary magazines, and not much else. My success rate – that is, the percentage who asked to see all or part of the manuscript – scraped along at about 10%. It was, let me tell you, dispiriting as hell. Then I went to a couple writing conferences, and my success rate began to climb. I met agents in person and told them about my book. I met other writers who referred me to their agents. By the end, my book was getting read by about half of the people I sent it to, a fair number of whom seriously considered taking it on.

That experience, painful as it was, taught me more about writing than I ever would have expected. Agents and editors began writing me real letters, not form rejections, but long, thoughtful responses telling me precisely where they had stopped reading with interest and why. Until then, I had always written for other writers – classmates, friends, the dead greats I imagined myself competing with – but that experience taught me to write for a reader, a smart, curious person who just wants to be told a good story.

My opinion: It was a very informative article on how to get an agent.  I agree with the last part where the experience of him getting rejections, but he also learned a lot about writing.  I can relate because when I was pitching my script The Vertex Fighter to producers and writers-in- residences (mainly in 2008-2010, a little in 2011-2012), I got a lot of good feedback.

I got a lot constructive criticism on how to improve my script because they are objective.  All those people who read my script and I talked to, I have never met them.  They can really read the script and see the pros and cons. 

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