Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, December 27, 2010

Holiday Repeat: Digging For Mushrooms

Happy Holidays, everyone! I'm going to be running a few posts from Christmases past (or in this case Septembers past) today, Tuesday and Thursday. On Wednesday we'll have a fresh new You Tell Me, and on Friday I'll post a review of This Year in Books. Hint: Agency model. No, please come read the post anyway!!

This here post was from 2007, when I was an agent. Important note: I am no longer an agent. You can stop querying me. Really. (Please.)


Watch out, because I'm about to get all metaphorical on you.

I recently read a New Yorker article on mushroom pickers (bear with me here). There are these people who go into the forests in Oregon to pick matsutake mushrooms, which are very popular but difficult to find. You see, the matsutake doesn't grow above ground, so the mushroom pickers have to look for small mounds in the ground in certain places near certain trees and dig to see if there's a matsutake there. So there are these people who will see an almost imperceptible mound of dirt and yell out, "MATSUTAKE!"

(I especially like to imagine the part where they yell out "Matsutake!", which I completely made up. In fact I just like saying, "matsutake." I think I'm going to use that when I finish a book or find a good manuscript. The end MATSUTAKE!!)

Anyway, the whole matsutake search is just like being an agent. Mostly. Kind of.

As anyone who has worked in publishing knows, there's a huge psychological difference between reading something as a finished book and reading it in manuscript form. With a book, not only is the reading experience completely different, but when the book is published by real publisher you are absorbing the implicit endorsement through the binding -- someone out there believed in the book and invested in it and thinks the book is good and will sell. Sure, not everyone will like the book, but it still carries that implicit weight of endorsement, particularly one that has already been branded a "classic." It's a mushroom that has already been dug up and cleaned off.

But when the book is just a manuscript, especially one by an unknown author, it is really, really difficult to read something and decide if it is good or will resonate with readers. Really difficult. Finding a mushroom in a small mound of dirt difficult.

Which is why I cringed when I saw the recent New York Times article that highlighted Knopf's old rejection files and readers reports, including the rejection letters for classics like The Diary of Anne Frank and The Good Earth and Lolita.

Let's be honest, people love playing the schadenfreude game with rejected books that went on to be mega-successes (to be fair, the Times article is very balanced). It's extremely tempting to laugh at publishers and agents who missed the big ones, and similarly tempting for publishers and agents to kick themselves when they miss said big ones. But there's a good reason this happens: it's really, really hard. It's subjective. It's slippery. Heck, sometimes an agent or publisher just wasn't the right fit, and even if they had repped/bought the book it might not have caught on like it did because they didn't see what someone else saw in it. The right fit can be everything.

So sure, everyone who has spent much time in publishing has missed one, but it doesn't mean we're stupid. At least I hope not. No one said digging for mushrooms is easy.



Josin L. McQuein said...

You're still getting queries? Maybe you should start another blog, like slushpile hell for "Queries to Someone who isn't an Agent!" and put a disclaimer here that anyone who queries you shall be subject to public mockery.

(It's amazing how many non-agents / non-editors get query letters. Even the woman who runs Absolute Write gets them!)


Joanne Bischof said...

Yes, working on turning my little button mushrooms into Matsutakes! Just hoping a publisher will think so too :)

Anonymous said...

My mom is one of those Matsutake hunting fanatics. And she said to tell you that no one yells," MATSUTAKE!" when they find one because they don't want reveal their location(it's very competitive). But she got a good laugh over the analogy... I don't know, are agents at all secretive about possible finds?

Mira said...

Yay, a Nathan post! I was wondering if you were taking the week off. I remember this article - I liked it then, and I like it now.

The Matasuke thing was funny.

I think these lists can be experienced very differently depending on who you are. As a writer, who is receiving rejection after rejection, those lists are very comforting and encouraging. It's not just schadenfreude, it's motivation. I've sent them to writer friends who were feeling discouraged to help inspire them and bolster their heart. I've read them myself for the same reason.

But I think the pressure on agents and publishers is very real, and these lists probably don't help THAT. I believe you, Nathan, when you say that sifting for gold is very, very hard. That's especially true if you're looking for a commercial hit, or - even more difficult - a literary book of beauty and genius.....that will also be a commercial hit. Talk about a high order. Now that's hard.

Almost as hard as being a writer. :)

Okay, I'm not sure exactly what I'm saying, so I'll stop now. Thanks for the post, Nathan.

Hope everyone had a nice holiday!

Emlyn Chand said...

Hi Nathan.

I like this Matsutake analogy. I especially enjoy the picture it brings to my mind of literary agents on their hands and knees, clutching their miniature spades with bloody, calloused hands as they root around for these gourmet treasure. As an unpublished, unagented writer, this gives me hope as well as a dark sense of satisfaction, so, as always, thank you.

Emlyn Chand, The Ambitious Ambigue

Tracey Neithercott said...

Great re-post. I hadn't read this one the first time around.

And now I'm imagining agents wading through the slush, finding a good manuscript, and yelling, "MATSUTAKE!"

J. T. Shea said...

The Post Of Christmas Past!
I just like saying it too. Must be something contagious in those damn mushrooms.
Speaking as a writer, I love being compared to fungi. Just keep us in the dark and feed us sh!t. Oh, wait...
Seriously, no man, woman or child is an island. Other opinions do indeed influence mine, for better or worse. Endorsement, pre-approval, synergy, bandwagoning, call it what you will, it's something I ignore at my peril.
Somebody stop me!

The Red Angel said...

Interesting post! Hope you had a happy holiday, Nathan. :)


R.D. Allen said...

Haha I loved this post the first time around. hehe~ Made me laugh out loud. Still makes my day. Thanks Nathan~!

Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado said...

I've always thought the Matsutake post was your best... THanks for reprinting.

I am pleased to report to you that my first Matsutake was indeed discovered and is now in print... If you send your address I'll be pleased to send you a copy.

Best wishes for 2011...

wendy said...

I'm with Mira - happy to see a post from you, Nathan. Actually, I agree ith most everything Mira posts. 0.0

Can you reveal to us curious posters how you're finding your new line of work? As challenging and/or rewarding as your agency days?

Hope you're holidays are filled with fun and sun.


Sarah said...

Good reminder of the process that agents must go through. Sometimes I think those of us who are unpublished and unagented get to a point where we just want someone/anyone to represent our books. But, the right book has to find the right agent in order to succeed. It really is about making a good match, not just any match. Maybe one person's forgettable manuscript is someone else's matsutake.

A.M Hudson said...

Yes. It is enough that those agents or publishers would have been kicking themselves, without having people ridicule them for missing the diamonds in the rough.

That is why I have started a review blog--to let brand new authors (that no one wants to listen to) get their work out there, and noticed.

So, all of you in this comment stream, come on over if you don't have an the writers of the world what you have to offer.

Diana said...

When I read this:
"Heck, sometimes an agent or publisher just wasn't the right fit, and even if they had repped/bought the book it might not have caught on like it did because they didn't see what someone else saw in it. The right fit can be everything."
The movie "Mystery, Alaska" popped into my head. This is a wickedly funny movie starring Russell Crowe about a team of amateur hockey players playing the New York Rangers in an exhibition match. It didn't do well at the box office and it really should have. My guess is that the production company didn't market it well.

I've also been borrowing books from the library lately as I am getting tired of spending $8 or more on a paperback that I end up tossing aside after the first chapter. I've discovered several books written by favorite authors in the past few years that I've not seen in the bookstore. As these were NY Times bestselling authors, you would think that the bookstores would stock their books.

Samantha G said...

Nathan, I think the popular saying is once an agent, ALWAYS an agent. You will forever be queried. I suggest a new email adress. =)

Robena Grant said...

I enjoyed this in it's first round. Thanks for a second look. But I have questions, as much has changed in the publishing industry since the original posting in 2007.

Uh oh. Questions?

Even if you find the Matsutake, it seems it's all about the cooking choice these days. Steam, fry, roast? And you can't hold on to that treasure for too long while your trying to make that decision. The Matsutake will wither and rot.

So how do you present it to the powers that be, in a timely fashion, and in a way that will encourage them to take a bite? It seems they've become disenchanted with the Matsutake, and mushrooms in a can will suffice. How do we get them to even take a sniff of what we have on the plate?

Mira said...

Wendy - thank you! You just completely made my day. :)

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