I dare you, agents. I double dare you to close your slush pile, take a sweep of the internet, and solicit submissions from marginalized ppl.
— sarah HANNAH gómez (@shgmclicious) February 6, 2016
The first time I saw this tweet thread from Sarah Hannah Gómez on Twitter, I scrolled past it thinking ‘well, I already solicit manuscripts from marginalised authors sometimes. I’m doing okay’.
Then I thought ‘when was the last time I actually approached an author to request a submission from them?’. I’ve been pretty busy since Frankfurt last year, and finding and approaching new authors takes time. Especially when you’ve got a brimming slush pile – how can I justify going out to find new authors when I have all these nice ones right here waiting far too long to hear from me? I thought about a closed, empty slush pile, and about how much more time I would have to find new authors if I didn’t have to deal with it, just for a few months. So I decided to accept the challenge – this summer, when publishing is quiet and I’d usually be concentrating on my slush pile, I will instead be closing to queries for three full months and spending my slush-pile time reading short stories by marginalised authors online, getting more involved in Twitter discussions and generally trying my very best to connect with marginalised authors and get them to send me their writing.
I’m a bit scared about this. Partly I’m scared because I’m still a new-ish agent (though not brand-new any more – it’s been nearly 18 months since my first submission!) and while I’ve got my first few deals under my belt and have eleven great clients, I haven’t made much of a name for myself out in the writing community yet. I don’t imagine many of the authors I approach for this pledge will have heard my name before (maybe some will know me as that Bechdel Test agent, from my most popular post, but not many in the grand scheme of things). And I’ve seen a number of author advice posts like this which allege that real agents are too busy with their slush piles to bother with this kind of thing, and if one actually takes the time to seek you out it must be because they’re unsuccessful or shady or probably both.
Partly I’m scared because when you Google my agency (which I very much hope that every author does when I approach them), one of the results is an Absolute Write thread with comments from a couple of very hurt and angry ex-clients back in 2012, and one from 2014. While there are two sides to every story and we all know not to take everything we read on the internet at face value, it’s true that a few people have had unhappy experiences with my agency in the past and I don’t wish to minimise their pain. (On the other hand, we’re the third biggest agency in Canada by worldwide deal volume, have done deals with all of the Big Five and plenty of respected independent houses, and currently have about 170 clients including many award winners, so it’s clear that we’re doing some things right).
I’ve started bringing up this Absolute Write thread with each of my clients before offering representation, and encouraging them to check in person with people at Writer Beware etc and make sure they’re completely comfortable with me before signing anything. So far, every author with whom I’ve discussed this issue has ended up signing with me, but of course, I have no idea how many authors read that thread and decide to cross me off their query list without looking any further. And if authors have been told that soliciting manuscripts is a shady practice in itself, and then they Google me and find that thread…I’m opening myself up for some hatred, one way or another. (Although I should mention that the authors I’ve approached in the past have been nothing but pleasant, so hopefully I’m overestimating this risk).
And partly I’m scared because rejection is scary and I like my slush pile. I’ve found most of my clients there so far, and what if doing this means that I miss out on a bunch of other great potential clients? This is the least justifiable aspect of my fear – after all, authors put themselves out there for me every single day, and I think it’s time I started returning the favour. The publishing industry and its traditional practices need a shake-up, the slush pile takes up a lot of time and has a pretty low rate of return, and I’ve been wanting to be more proactive about approaching marginalised authors for quite a while. Abandoning my slush pile feels like a big step, but really it’s not that much of a big deal – trying it for a few months can’t hurt, and it might even be the start of something great.
I’m making this post because I want people to know what I’m doing and why, and also because I’m hoping that some of you will have some recommendations for authors I should be aware of. Thanks so much to Sarah Hannah Gómez for issuing this challenge – I know that caring is not trying and trying is not succeeding, but it’s long past time for me to move from ‘caring’ to ‘trying’, at least.