One of the first and foremost functions of a literary agent is sorting through her slush pile – all those manuscripts that are sent to her, uninvited and unsolicited.
Literary agents hate reading through their slush piles for good reason. They’re filled with bad writing. When faced with a brimming email inbox, agents procrastinate for as long as possible, take care of all their more rewarding tasks first, go get another coffee, watch the latest episode of Downton Abbey, anything to avoid wading into the dreaded slush pile.
They demand that authors do as much of their work for them as they can. Authors must jump through hoops for the agent: write engaging query letters, provide synopses, send writing samples, anything that lets the agent reject the project without having to read the actual, probably dreadful manuscript.
Yet eventually they have to read authors’ works. They have no choice. Agents need to find the next King or Grisham or Patterson or Meyer. If they don’t find authors who sell, they won’t eat.
Agents are literary prospectors who have to wallow through a sea of muck to find the rare nugget of pure gold.
But ereader technology is changing everything. The marginal cost of publishing an ebook is essentially zero so authors can publish themselves. They no longer have to query an agent. They can submit their manuscript directly to Smashwords and Amazon and be published without any human intervention. And it doesn’t cost the author a single penny.
This changes the nature of published works in a number of ways. The most important of which is that the collection of ebooks available from a major publisher is not equivalent to the traditional publisher’s catalog. It is equivalent to the traditional agent’s slush pile.
Not only is there no guarantee that the ebook is professionally written and competently edited, I can personally guarantee that the overwhelming majority of the ebooks that are self-published on Smashwords or Amazon are not worth reading.
But some are gems. And anyone who wants to read good books is going to have to find the few rare gems in that massive heap of junk.
The reader is force to act as a literary agent faced with the world’s biggest slush pile.
Ebook publishers are struggling to find a way to enable readers to fulfil the agents’ function.
The first step and simplest is to allow their customers to sort books by the number of sales or downloads. Presumably the better books sell more and the junk hardly sells at all.
This is the best indicator, but not perfect. Books which have a compelling, professionally designed cover and an enticing blurb will be viewed and purchased more often than a book with an amateurish, mis-designed cover and a dull description.
The next step is to allow customers to read the first part of a book before they commit to purchasing it. If an author’s writing is trite, ungrammatical, and laden with typos, the customer will see this in a few minutes and avoid purchasing the book.
Notice that both of these presentations of the book are exactly what authors previously sent to agents. The blurb is equivalent to the cover letter and the sample pages are sample pages. That’s more than a clue that the reader is now being asked to serve as her own agent faced with a slush pile.
The third step is allowing readers to rate and comment on books that they have read. All major ebook publishers allow online reader comments, ratings, and reviews.
In my experience, about one in a thousand readers takes the time and effort to write a review. Better stories earn a somewhat higher ratio of reviewers to readers, worse stories, a smaller ratio.
Reader reviews should be the best indicator of great books, but the process has a few problems.
First, unscrupulous authors can salt their reviews the same way that unscrupulous prospectors used to salt their worthless claims by planting a few gold nuggets before selling them to the suckers. The best books get reviewed about a dozen times on Smashwords. When you find a book that has been reviewed more than fifty times and every review gives it the highest rating, you don’t have to be a genius to know that, not only is the author faking his own reviews, he’s not even smart enough to do it in a believable way.
Second, a lot of readers are not good literary critics. They may write a scathing review because they found a typo on the fifteenth page and were so offended that they stopped reading right then and there. They may be looking for erotic stimulation and, if they haven’t got off by the third page, they damn the book for being useless. Or, in the other direction, they may be so in love with the Twilight series that they’ll give five stars to the worst written dreck in the pile only because the protagonists remind them of Edward and Bella. Where’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer when you really need her?
All of these innovations that allow readers to act as amateur literary agents are necessary and work in the right direction. But they are not sufficient to save an avid reader from spending too much time wading through the slush pile and not enough time curled up with a good writer.
The most recent innovation is Goodreads which tries to promote personal recommendations as a step above anonymous reviews. Good try but keeping active on Goodreads requires more work than I’m willing to devote to finding a good book.
One promise that I can make is that we will soon see yet another innovation in crowdsourcing the function of the literary agent. And there will be another one after that.
Technology is a genie that can never be stuffed back into it’s bottle. Self-published ebooks are not a fad. The technology is simply too powerful to fade away. Not only are ebooks here to stay but they will increase in prominence and importance every year for the foreseeable future. And traditional publishing will slowly become less and less economically viable.
Technological innovations that let readers serve as crowdsourced literary agents will proceed apace because there is such a clear and obvious need for it.
Change for the better is inevitable. We need only wait to see how the world solves the problem of crowdsourcing the literary agent’s most important function.
If I had to guess how it’s going to happen, I’d start by taking a close look at how Twitter trending works to direct and focus the public’s attention and extrapolate from that.