Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Nurturing Talent in Writers

Yesterday's post was useful to me in that I learned something new about agenting. In close to two years of studying writing and reading about agents on their blogs and in articles I have never once seen them state that they got 15% of both advances and royalties. I've always read they got 15% of advances. I'm not saying they are being purposely deceptive, but it seems odd that agents are not more forthcoming about this. I imagine I am not the only budding author out here who views advances and royalties as two distinct things. Yes, I have always read that publishers recouped their advances from future royalties, but that is not the same things as understanding that agents will continue to draw 15% from royalties indefinitely. Just to be clear, I am perfectly fine with this arrangement; I just wish agents were more direct in stating that they get 15% of 'earnings' rather than using the word 'advances'.

I still believe the system for developing writing talent is severely broken. Let me use a chess analogy, since chess is something I am an expert in. I view those writers picked up by agents these days as being somewhat equivalent to titled chess masters. They have a product that is already pretty much publishable with some relatively light work by the agent and editor of the publishing house that picks the book up. However, this illustrates exactly what is wrong with publishing today.

If chess organizers only cared about chess masters, there would be no chess on an organized basis. It is well known that there are many talented people out there, but they cannot simply become masters on their own except under rare circumstances. They need to have their talent recognized first so that they can be developed and become masters. Russia and China, to name a couple of countries that do it best, are well-oiled chess monoliths, because they understand that they need to comb through tens of thousands of prospective players to find the talented ones and nurture them.

In the writing world, agents have no incentive to recognize when a new writer has talent. There is no incentive to develop talent and help that writer become a master. Therefore we are losing potentially tens of thousands of writers who could have been the next Pushkin or Poe or King or ... take your pick. It makes sense on one level because agents simply need to make a living, and choosing talented but raw individuals is much harder work than picking out those who are already masters. But, isn't it a crying shame to lose all of those potential greats out there? There must be a better way.

Amateur critting groups are fine, in a sense, but they don't provide any professional level support to the budding writer. Chess masters don't become masters by working with other amateurs. They become masters by working with master level players. Writing courses are also not a fix. I have been through a number of them, and they do some few things well, but they don't truly develop writers adequately. I think some smart publisher, perhaps one lucky enough to have the backing of a wealthy book loving patron, could get the jump on everyone else by going further and actually seeking out and developing raw talent. We need at least one publishing house out there willing to take on those works that show true promise but which need a bit more editing work than today's agents are willing to tackle.

In a post on Nathan Bransford's forums, I wrote about one possible solution/dream:

I don't have a brilliant solution to this. It would take something other than the worked-to-death literary agent to tackle this issue. It could perhaps be solved by a wealthy patron who loves books and could support a publishing company that would be willing to take on writers who show real potential but need more polishing than today's agents and publishers are willing to deal with. I wish I was wealthy, as I would love to do this. I know how wearisome the slush pile is, but nurturing talent is a noble thing and I wish it could be done better in book publishing.

Part of me thinks that it could even be done with a collaboration between such a house and agents. After all, any good agent should have a true love of books. Rather than an entire slush pile descending on this fictitious publishing house, the house could have agents pass along those writers that they felt showed talent but were too raw for the agents themselves to take on.


  1. I wish this were the case too. A lot of agents have commented on my talent but didn't care for the story itself. Another idea would be to pair up published authors with budding talent as well. Hmn...:)

  2. What a good idea...sighs, it would be good to have that nurturing value- you make a good case. :)

  3. Hi Ted! I got an award for you!

  4. I have a thought on this... Chess amateurs learn from master PLAYERS, yes? In the writer equivalent, the PLAYERS are the WRITERS... so WRITERS who have mastered craft, then have an obligation to help newer writers.

    I think MUCH of the problem with the system is the AGENTS have to screen ALL COMERS trying to get into the tournament, when if there were some sort of contest at a lower tier and only the proven could submit to the agents, then the agents would have time to help better with the honing... (is this making any sense?)

    I guess I'm suggesting a professional society of writers or something. I do know of writers who are at a similar stage to where I am who belong to critique groups where a few members are much farther in their career--that is ideal. Mostly though, critique groups are matters of convenience. Mine includes writers across 7 or 8 genres, and I will be the first one published. I LOVE THEM. And they've helped me a TON, but I've needed to go outside for some stuff they just don't know.

    I agree that the system as it stands doesn't have much chance of developing talent. But I really think writers are the only ones who can be inspired to do anything about that.

  5. and i wonder if the education system could help.

    i hear a lot of english majors complaining that the courses bleed the love of writing out of them... is there a way to fix that?

    and it would be nice if there were electives in schools (not just the rich ones) to promote creative writing. most schools seek out talented artists, musicians, athletes...etc. and nurture their abilities... what if schools did the same for writers?

    i don't know...
    nuturing talent is a good thing- but how much is the writer's responsibility to educate and improve himself?

  6. Hart, the best chess trainers are often people not much different than literary agents are in comparison to writers. They have a gift for teaching but are not necessarily the best players. That is why I think agents could be a great filter for talent, passing along their recommendations from those they see as talented but not close enough yet in their writing to sign on. There just needs to be someone or some place to pass such people along to!

  7. I don't see that changing anytime soon though. Agents deal with so few authors. Most writers work with publishing houses long before they work with an agent. So I guess they have to become a chess master before agents will take notice.

  8. I love your analogy, Ted. I think it's spot on. The real problem, as I see it anyway, is that because this is a highly-competitive, market-driven enterprise, agents won't risk taking on unknown writers because they can't sell them to the publishers (who, for the most part are owned by mega-conglomerates). There's just no money in it.

  9. Time was, editors used to do just that...nurture young authors. But now the whole writing gig has become too competitive for multiple reasons. I do wish some system like the one you suggest would evolve with time.

  10. Sorry to be late in commenting, but work got in the way.


    I think what's being missed here is that agents operate in capitalist economies.

    When you have free enterprise no one is obligated to groom you. You can, of course, take matters into your own hands. And many people do.

    What you suggested was a way of life for artists particularly during the Renaissance and to some extent even into the modern age. I had my share of mentors and teachers who took a special interest in me when I was learning to be an artist.

    The same can happen with budding writers too, though it's not quite as easy to find a mentor. There are just too many new writers and not enough established ones willing to take on the task. And it is a task. If a professional writer takes an interest in you, it is a HUGE gift and not one to be abused.

    The route I took was to immerse myself in a writing group that contained a lot of published authors who wanted to help. As my writing matured I sought out more established authors who not only understood craft, but the business of publishing.

    Social networking has never been more important than now to develop a writer's craft and career. By visiting the authors I admired, asking them questions, commenting on their blogs, or actively promoting their work, I was able to earn their trust and their friendship. They in turn shared some of their experience.

    It's not a quick road and it's not for everyone, but it's the path that works for me.

  11. I have to say that I have found the writing community to be INCREDIBLY nurturing. I have found most of the mentoring and help I needed over the Internet, and through an inexpensive writing course I'm currently taking. (look on and search for Advanced Fiction Writing). I am amazed by how much I have grown as a writer in the past few years, and it's all due to social networking.

    If you take the time to get to know people and help them in ways that matter to them, they will help you. For example, I have gotten to know a professional editor/author through his critique website, he's given me some pointers on my novel, I've been a beta reader for him for his own novel and gave him pages of feedback which he thought was fabulous, I've promoted his writing book on my website and I believe that if I ever do get published he'll do the same in return.

    The whole "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" adage is very true. Help others, and they will help you. But you need to be consistent and sincere. Find those who share your particular interests, and invest some time in them. They will do it for you.