Everything is pretty horrible, but I’m doing the best I can. I hope there is the smallest bit of succor in your life. I am currently listening to a lot of Radiohead, which is very soothing to me.
Anyway, on to guts. I’ve been thinking about my gut feeling a lot recently, and I’ve seen some threads on Twitter rightly questioning whether agents and editors leading with this is a good, or at best unbiased, approach to helping writers get published. By this mean, reading a query and trusting what I feel in terms of evaluating it. If most the people trusting their guts are cis, straight, white, able-bodied, upper/middle class people, then does that mean they’re only, or even mostly, going to have good gut feelings about things they’re familiar with? It’s the same argument against agents and editors relying on what they connect with in a story. Can a white editor connect with a Black narrative? I want to say yes but I know it’s not that simple. Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. Is that how books should even be evaluated? If not, then how? It’s not a great system, regardless.
But I want to talk more about this gut feeling and how I approach it, putting aside the idea of connecting with a story, which is and isn’t the same as this gut feeling. Yes, it’s confusing. But let’s see if I can explain what I mean. When I feel in my gut that something will sell, it’s just that. A gut feeling, born, I hope, from my experience as a reader and an agent. Books I’ve loved in the past have given me this feeling. Books I’ve sold in the past have, too. It’s a flush through my body, a physical sensation that says ohhhh, this is good. Sometimes it’s the subject matter. Sometimes it’s the writing or the voice. Sometimes it’s the author’s platform and vision. Different books sell for different reasons. Good means something different to every book. Sometimes I can see people buying a book, regardless of whether I think it is good by any number of arbitrary metrics. Is that bad? Is that “selling out?” I don’t know. My job is to get authors book deals. There are lots of different books to sell on any given day. I am not a patron looking to distribute riches to artists. If only.
But this doesn’t touch on my own biases, because of course I have them. Everyone does. I am cis, straight, white, a woman, a mother, married, upper middle class, able bodied, and neurotypical, minus my pretty mild dyslexia. If this feeling is based on the things I’ve read and sold before, have I read and sold a diverse enough body of work to be unbiased? I’ve been thinking a LOT about how these things affect how I evaluate the work of people who are different than me. I am a gatekeeper (though I hate that term) and I have to be aware of this. I should have been even more aware of this long ago, but here we are.
For example, a while back, there were a lot of YA novels about teens with mental illnesses. A lot of characters with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, among other things, were showing up in novels, published and in my query pile. And after a while, it felt like there were too many. What’s too many? 8? 45? 112? Who knows? There’s no number, of course, but it’s whatever us agents and editors and the sales team feel in our gut, or see on the balance sheets, as what the market will bear. So I started to shy away from those stories in the slush pile. I didn’t think I could sell them, when it seemed the point of the story was the mental illness. This isn’t great! There isn’t, shouldn’t, be a a sense of whelp, we’re all set with those kinds of books! in publishing, though I know for a fact there is that sense, especially when it comes to BIPOC writers. There’s a we’ve got one of those already mentality. This. Is. Not. Good. And I’m doing my best to make sure that is not my reaction to the slush pile either. It’s hard, it’s imperfect, but it’s important. A book is not just or simply the underrepresented characteristic of it’s author or character.
That doesn’t mean doing this work is going to ensure that publishing ends up fair. It’s not. It’s going to take a lot to dismantle systemic bias, in publishing and in the world, though we agents and editors can’t use this to let ourselves off the hook. Publishing is not, as I’ve said many times before, a meritocracy, so lots of “good” books, about and by worthy, underrepresented people, are not going to get published.
On top of the work editors and agents need to do to address their own biases, publishers need stop assuming that all readers are white and that white people want to read like one Black author a year tops, and that Black people don’t buy books. This, too, is wrong and bad! There are so many more biases like this, and if we dismantle those on top of agents and editors unlearning their own biases, then the floodgates will open and underrepresented voices will be heard. We must remember publishing is a retail industry. Someone has to BUY the books. And publishing needs to remember that there are many, many different kinds of readers who want many, many different kinds of books. It’s hard, but what isn’t? We can’t let bias feed us easy answers anymore.
If we all examine our biases—publishers, agents, editors, readers—then we can all potentially be more open to a more diverse set of stories by a more diverse pool of authors. This is the goal. I recognize this is pretty Panglossian, but I have hope. I am examining my motivations every time I send a rejection. WHY do I not like this? WHY don’t I think it will sell? Where is this gut feeling coming from? It’s work I can only do one email at a time, myself. Over the next weeks, months, years, I hope it will make a difference.
Keep wearing those masks loves. Keep the virus at bay so we can send kids to school in the Fall and so I can read more of your queries. See? Masks benefit all.