Forty years! That’s how long it’s been since the publication of my first children’s book, a novel titled Shelter from the Wind. The very roundness of the number prompts to take a look back. What has happened to our industry since 1976?
Lots, of course. Far more than I have been privy to from my solitary writer’s desk. But there is one thing in particular I can name:
When I began my career, selling a book was very much like stepping into marriage with someone you had never met. There had been a phone call maybe. An editorial letter certainly. But you were committed for life without having a clue about how much the two of you might like one another!
It might even be more realistic to say that when your book was purchased, you were purchased along with it. Your newly discovered editor owned you.
Now, there were good things about being owned. That meant an editor didn’t just buy your book. He invested in your career. And if your next manuscript turned out to be a royal mess, he would probably work with you until you got it into shape.
Sometimes editors would even buy first novels that weren’t quite there. Because they saw a spark, and they wanted the books they presumed would follow. That could work for author and publisher alike.
On the bad side, however, as your career trundled on, if your editor really didn’t like something you showed him and didn’t want to work with it, you weren’t quite free to take it to another house. I say not “quite free” because usually there was nothing in writing to circumscribe your freedom. But if you did run off to another publishing house, and if that house was so indiscrete as to publish you, there was a name for you. Whore. (Remember, ethics are always defined by those in power.)
For more than fifteen years, every book I wrote passed through the hands of the same editor. I was pretty content with this arrangement. He and I worked well together, and he did truly develop my work as a novelist. However, as much as I loved writing those novels, I wanted to explore other kinds of work. So from time to time I submitted a picture-book manuscript to this, my only, editor. His answer every time was the same. “Marion, you are not a picture-book writer.”
Now, I don’t want to suggest that he was being mean or small minded. Looking back, I can see that he could, very legitimately, have said, “Marion, this is not a picture book.” Because it wasn’t. I hadn’t yet figured out how to write a picture book. The difference is that he was interested in developing me as a novelist, but he had no interest in supporting my learning curve with any other genre.
Which would have been fine if the unwritten, mostly unspoken rules hadn’t made the idea that I might approach another editor a betrayal of the first.
I didn’t begin to publish picture books and thus to have an opportunity to learn what the market wanted—and what it did not—until those rigid walls finally fell. And when they did, they tumbled rather spectacularly. Changes occurred in the industry. Editors began playing musical chairs and taking their authors with them when they landed at another house. And soon no one could enforce those old rules, not even with a glancing allusion to loyalty.
And so I discovered, to my delight, that I am a picture-book writer . . . only not for that first editor.
At the forty-year mark in my career, I have published with nearly a dozen different publishers, and that doesn’t count different imprints under the same publisher.
And the reality? No one editor is committed to developing my career. Each one cares primarily—probably exclusively—about the particular book that stands between us right now. And that has to be enough. We writers are free agents in charge of our own choices, and editors are free as well. This new way of working is an improvement in some ways. Those picture books again! But it also comes with real losses.
When I find myself with questions that involve my career as a whole, I have no place to turn . . . unless I am working with a wise and truly committed agent, one who is interested in my dreams, not just my current book.
That’s why, after managing my own contracts, my own access to editors, my own career for a long, long time, I have, in recent years turned to an agent.
Which is what I’m going to talk about next. Why agents?
[This blog was drawn from a talk I gave in September at LoonSong, a writers’ retreat in the wilderness of northern Minnesota.]