Marlon James’ post, Americans vs. Brits, got me thinking even more about publishing and the players: the conglomerates, the independents, and the agents. The conglomerates are only in publishing to make money. Period. Independent publishers, God bless ‘em, survive on the margins with a combination of love and good business sense. Which leaves the agents.
Agents control publishing and the majority that I’ve met are in the business to make money. They make their living off the 15% (and upwards) commissions. They have to eat. Realistically, they are the final arbiters of who and what gets published. 95% of all publishers nowadays will not accept the work of unagented writers. Money is the force behind what agents do. In this respect, book agents are no different than any other kind of agent--they sell things: books, cars & pork bellies. For many of them, especially the younger ones, it’s just one of the things that they can do or will do in their lifetimes. If selling books works out, they can retire (before they are 35!) to a beach (it really doesn’t matter which beach) with their Blackberries (or whatever new gadget is in vogue) and drink mojitos (or whatever new drink is in vogue).
If selling books doesn’t work out, they can take a “long vacation” to a fashionable beach somewhere where they can meet and network with someone who’s been there and who can give then some tips on “selling.” It really doesn’t matter, for even if that doesn’t work out, they can always move on to something else.
I know. I’ve met them on the beaches of Negril or overheard their conversations that sound like “Sonny” in The Apostle when he rattles of his talents, “I can speak in tongues” and the other “gifts of the Spirit” as merely some of the things that he can do to make a profit for the church: “It's pay before you pray."
Here’s my dilemma. Writing is my vocation. Writing not one more thing that I can do. It’s like building a home in Negril. Your first concern as a homebuilder is to make sure that the foundation is secure, to use the natural beauty of landscape to enhance the attractiveness of the house, and to negate the natural threats of salt water intrusion and termites. You’ve built the house from scratch. You’ve lived here all your life and this is your baby that you’ve nurtured and protected against hurricanes and the harsh sunlight.
Enter the agent. If nobody’s buying houses in Negril (“It’s a seller’s market, baby!”), don’t call her. It’s not worth her time. If people are buying houses in Negril and she shows up, she is looking for one thing—how many units can she move? Negril is just another beach. She may even say, “Why don’t you spruce it up a little! You know, Negril could be the next New York!” You resist. You’ve done all that you can to make sure that this house has been true to the natural surroundings of Negril. All the additions that she’d like you to make, even if you had the time and the money to do so, don’t make any sense in Negril: “We could build a skyscraper, a bridge and a subway! The New Yorkers will love it!” The house has all the modern amenities such as indoor plumbing, electricity and a generator in case the lights go off in hurricane. You haven’t compromised on anything, and you say, “Negril should never be New York,” and then add some inanity by paraphrasing Gertrude Stein, “Negril is Negril is Negril.” And she says, “What ever! Suit yourself. It will never sell. But I have to admire you, it's well built!" To which you mutter something under your breath. But to be civil, as the British also taught us, you smile.
The house may or may not sell. Either way, you may find our agent, sad, lonely, and depressed in a small bar in Negril wondering where her life “went wrong” and why things aren’t “working out.” You sympathize with her and even though you’re dirt poor, you offer to buy her a drink. She says no because she knows she’s rolling in the moolah, and that you can’t afford it. Still, you say, “You’re a guest in my country,” and the bartender, whom you’ve known "from him was a bwai," cuts you some slack on the price of the drinks. You say “Cheers,” and you have a drink together while the blue waves crash against the dried roots of a coconut tree.
After the drink, you say it was pleasure and you say you’ve got to get back to work. “Just one more drink,” she says, “I’m here all alone.” You may or may not have that other drink that she is willing to pay for. Chances are you accept the drink because “Bird cyaan fly on one wing.” But then, you leave the bar. You’ve got work to do.
The last thing you hear was that she ended up drunk on the dance floor with a rent-a-dread and that the two of them were grinding on each other way into the night before she left for New York the next morning. Before leaving, she slurred something about she how empty her life was and that she needed some time to “sort things out.” Perhaps, find another beach.
The next afternoon as you walk along Negril with an Appleton on the rocks, in your hand, compliments of the bartender and the rent-a-dread, you look back at the house. It’s still not sold. It may never sell.
Still, you’ve done your job. And that's all you can do, for as Margaret Atwood once said, "Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan.. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine."