An assertion we often read on book trade blogs is that the process of selecting a book for representation and publication is subjective. I have to confess that this idea raises major red flags for me, not necessarily as an author, but as writing professional who has worked as both a writer and an editor.
First, let me admit that I can accept the idea that a literary agent might not want to represent a book in a market for which he or she has no publishing house contacts.
(But, in such a case, wouldn’t a referral be in order? I mean… shouldn’t a professional maintain contacts outside of his or her specialization? Doctors do this. Attorneys do this, too. I’ve even gotten referrals from auto mechanics.)
However, when the blog writer is implying a complete, hands-in-the-air abandonment of even the possibility of objective selection in publishing, I smell the sour stench of the same post-modern relativism that made my college literature courses such a frustratingly irrational mess.
Beyond the influence of bad literary theory, however, there are also sound scientific arguments in favor of the subjective approach.
Most people succumb to bias
Some might argue that it is cognitively impossible to choose a book that someone else would like even if you don’t. In fact, Scroogenomics author Joel Waldfogel demonstrates that choices like this (specifically, buying Christmas gifts for others) lead to massive economic inefficiencies because, in most cases, people do not value the gifts they are given as much as the gift-givers spent for them.
Key phrase? In most cases.
Typical of the genre of hipster economics books, Waldfogel’s application of stastical evidence focuses too much on general tendencies and too little on the exceptions. This is fine when discussing the general population, but I would contend that professions, by their nature, rely on exceptions to the rule.
For example, Michael Jordan is a professional athlete precisely because he is not riding the belly of the bell curve when it comes to hoop skills. If research showed that a majority of people cannot dunk a basketball, that’s no reason to pretend MJ doesn’t exist.
Professionals are (or should be) in the statistical minority, the upper fringe. If most people suck at selecting things that other people will like, this only means that most people shouldn’t be professional thing-selectors, including professional book-selectors.
It certainly does not mean that professional selectors should only be expected to select things they themselves appreciate. I mean, imagine a corporate head-hunter saying something like, “I know there’s a demand for accountants, but I’m just not that into math.”
An anecdote (or is it?)
Moreover, I know from personal experience that it is manifestly possible for a person to accurately pick books in which they have no interest, but for which they know someone else does.
One of my ex-girlfriends (a class of creature notorious for bad gift selection) was so spot-on at guessing what I like that she once inadvertently bought me a second copy of one of my favorite self-purchases. She had never seen my original copy, which was in long-term storage, and it was unlike anything she would have been in a habit of buying for her family or friends. I would never have had an occasion to mention the book to her specifically; in fact, I don’t believe I ever told her — even afterward — that she had bought me a duplicate.
I was far too impressed at the purchase and the reasons she gave for it, which were not only related to the subject of the book, but also took into account my preferences in graphic presentation and reliability of the material. She had to seek out books that I might like that she would not, analyze the book’s potential — objectively according to criteria very different from her own — and make a choice.
If not for the irony of her selecting a book that I had already selected for myself, it would have been a remarkably efficient economic selection, particularly since I would have been willing to pay far more than the retail price she likely paid.
Moreover, this is not an isolated anecdote. She did a damn good job on the dozen or so other books she bought me during the course of our relationship, none of which she would ever have bought for herself. All of them are now on my list of favorites and several of them I had never seen before unwrapping them, making the economic efficiency of her choices tremendous.
The experiment repeated and confirmed, she was clearly exceptional at doing what many professional literary agents seem to believe can’t be done.
Now that I think about it, I wish we were still on speaking terms, because I would suggest she become a literary agent. She absolutely has the objective talent for it.
A matter of choice
And, I believe a lot of currently working literary agents also have the objective talent for it. Many of them probably use this objective talent in their work every day, so it never occurs to them to fall back on the subjectivity argument to defend their professional practices.
Those who do insist on the subjectivity of book selection probably could do it, too — if only they would more meticulously delineate between personal reading preferences and professional, objective knowledge of the market.
Long story short, if I can randomly meet another human being who can accurately identify books outside of her own subjective preferences (even when paying her bills did not rely on it), I feel justified in being extremely skeptical of the suggestion that those whose assert that their profession is to select books cannot do the same, or should not be bothered to do so.
… even if the reason they shouldn’t be bothered to do so is because they are doing well enough otherwise.
There is an enormous gap between merely staying in the black and professional excellence.