The modern world is a result of a rattling device, Gutenberg’s invention that printed endless books, each of them conveying new ideas to readers. Texts were banned and burned, but a magic circle had been set up: printing nonfiction brings an idea, which leads readers to new ideas, which in turn bring new books.
It worked for six hundred years, until the twenty-first century, when the connection between the book and the idea was severed, and the magic circle is dead.
Time for a book of my own
I would not have discovered this, had I not, after over twenty published works of fiction, also decided to go about writing my own first book of literary nonfiction: about (interpersonal) relationships and regulating closeness, in which I illustrated my ideas with well-known examples from history and more or less bitter examples from my own life.
Now I realise how extremely naïve I had been in imaging how things would develop:
a book proposal, meaning a description of the ideas presented in the book, a sample of the writing, sending it all off to literary agents, who would either say, NO, these ideas are not of a wider interest and/or the writing is not good enough, or YES, these ideas are worth reading and the book is well-written, thank you.
A marketing and promotional plan
My naivety began fraying around the edges even as I read the web sites of agents who stress how the most important part of your proposal is the financial-marketing section, stating clearly that “your business case may matter more than the writing”.
This is what agencies ask for: “A Marketing and Promotional Plan: Explain how you plan to market or promote the book, whether through speaking engagements, online marketing, seminars, videos, television appearances, radio, advertisement, podcast (your own, or guest appearances), blogs, your social media following, influencers who will help you get the word out (and what, specifically, they will do in this regard), etc.”
In short, dear Author, please take upon yourself not only agent’s work but also the work of the publisher.
Who needs an agent?
If the authors themselves prepare appearances all around the word, have millions of followers, and keep getting called up for comments by the media, why would they even need an agent? Is not all they need a lawyer who will take care of the details of the contract?
A brief search showed that the most famous have already realised this. There is a law firm whose web site at first glance has no connection with books, claiming simply that it is “one of the world’s premier litigation firms”. You need to search before finding a subpage explaining they are also literary representatives for “more than 250 fiction and nonfiction authors”, among them President Barack Obama, President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Michelle Obama, Tony Blair, Prince Charles…
So agents want those authors who do not need them.
Who needs a publisher?
Let’s take this thought through to the end. If you are famous enough to not need an agent, why use a publisher? With a few clicks you can upload your book to Amazon and millions of your fans will buy it.
The answer is probably simply that you do not even want to think about it or deal with it. For now. New generations are growing up that have entirely internalised the do-it yourself method.
The publishing system, the way it is at the moment, clearly cannot be sustained in its borderline bizarre state, but the sailors in the boats (the agents) and ships (publishers) dare not move about too much, in case they all fall overboard.
My personal experience
I wrote to 227 agents and all but one first wanted to see a marketing and promotional plan. As this was not promising enough, they were not interested in the actual manuscript. The only agent who first looked at the manuscript was enthusiastic about it – but then also demanded a marketing and promotional plan.
After 227 rejections of my marketing and promotional plan (not my work!), what I know is what I knew from the start – that I am not famous enough. I had no feedback whatsoever about my book, the ideas it contains, and how it is written.
Sadly, the only advice I can give to my colleagues is: put all your energy into your marketing and promotional plan. If you have some time left, you might even write a book. If not, the ghost writer can do that.
Nonfiction authors agree: yes, first lectures, performances, (self-) promotions…, and then, at some point, a book. This means that you will first put forward your new idea in all other media and by the time it ends up in a book, it will be old and spent, basically merely a keepsake that those who like something tangible to carry away from lectures.
In as far as spreading ideas go, you do not in fact any longer need the book.
So, what are nonfiction books now?
Gutenberg’s magic circle has been broken because the publishing system has fallen for the dangerous illusion of consumerism: that the human spirit is no longer driven by ideas but merely by money.
Nonfiction books used to be a source of new ideas. Today they are just another piece of merchandise among many.
Miha Mazzini is a Slovenian writer with more than 30 published books and translations into 12 languages. He is also a screenwriter and filmmaker of award-winning short and feature films. One of his short stories won the Pushcart Prize in 2012. He grew up with a grandmother who was seeing ghosts and souls, angels and devil and a mother who was Stalin in a skirt. That’s why his novels and films deal with what others do (or pretend) not see and with people who have found themselves without rights in the clutches of bureaucracy.