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The Plight of Pitch Wars

Allow me to preface this by saying I’m not a journalist, nor have I ever aspired to be one. I’ve always wanted to write fiction, which is what I currently do. I won’t get specific about genre and category or my publication status. For the purposes of this story, it doesn’t matter.

I also won’t go into the difficulties an aspiring writer must face on the road to publication: there’s nothing you haven’t heard before. Yes, agents’ inboxes are flooded with manuscripts of varying levels of mediocrity, yes, getting noticed is nigh-impossible, yes, you’re competing for the attention of what used to be the reading public but is now the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/YouTube/Netflix public. Writing fiction isn’t a domain you go to for easy cash. With that in mind, you’d be crazy to even try—and yet try we do, continuously, sometimes for decades, sometimes without ever seeing results.

So it’s no wonder that, in order to vent, commiserate, and share experiences, fiction writers tend to gather in online communities. Back in the LiveJournal days, I used to belong to several writing groups there. These days Twitter has become the place where writers gather and interact, but it has become so toxic of late that I do my best to ignore it. Just days ago, yet another drama erupted when debut author Amélie Wen Zhao pulled her own YA fantasy debut from publication following attacks by social media mobs. This dismal episode reminded me of another from many months ago involving Pitch Wars, a pitching contest that’s been a mainstay of the online writing community since it was inaugurated in 2012.

The way Pitch Wars works is simple: mentors (writers with a certain amount of publishing experience, like those who have or had an agent and/or those who are published) play the part of agents, choosing from many submissions an un-agented, unpublished writer and helping them with their manuscript. Sounds innocuous enough. But then comes the so-called agent round: the manuscripts, workshopped and spit-shined, are posted in a showcase for select agents to peruse, request, and—ideally—sign their authors. Pitch Wars rose among many other online pitch contests mainly due to its impressive results, especially in the YA category. Several years in a row, a number of participants ended up signing with A-list agents and getting high-profile book deals. Several recent YA hits came out of the contest; there’s even the Cinderella story of a top-notch agency flying to a mentee’s hometown to meet her and sign her on the spot.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the mentors did this for absolutely no compensation whatsoever. That’s right—hours of sifting through submissions (hundreds of them per mentor), hours of reading requested manuscripts, plus some mentors even send personalized feedback for many, if not all, submissions. This without counting all the work a mentor does with the mentee: several readings of the manuscript, writing a professional-grade edit letter, and then reading and evaluating any edits made. Why do we do this, you ask? Just for the love of writing, really. And to give something back to the writing community, since many of us also got our start in publishing by entering similar contests.

Aspiring writers of all levels flocked to Pitch Wars. The number of mentors (and entries by prospective mentees) grew and grew, until it became nearly impossible for the contest’s founder, writer Brenda Drake, to manage the contest and to assume the associated costs. In past years, other methods to finance the contest had been tried and proven somewhat successful. For instance, while potential mentees can only apply to a fixed number of mentors, they could buy extra applications for a fee, thus maximizing their chances of being picked. However, even that became insufficient in the end. It’s not surprising: I was one of the mentors in previous years, and the views of my manuscript wish-list numbered in the thousands—per day. So for the 2018 edition of Pitch Wars, Brenda was finally forced to implement a small entrance fee. She solicited feedback from the broader community to help her hammer out the details, including the exact amount and how to make several “pro bono” entries available to those who, for whatever reason, couldn’t pay any amount at all.

Writing Twitter exploded with the usual indignant commentary about how this was “not inclusive” and that it would “marginalize the disadvantaged” and so on. Brenda Drake and Heather Cashman, the organizers of the contest, were subjected to an avalanche of online abuse, up to and including accusations of racism. Eventually, after several years of giving her free time and effort to the contest, Heather decided to end her involvement altogether. 

Worse still, authors with major book deals and even some literary agents joined in. Until then, I’d thought of literary agents as apprehensive hostages of sorts, stuck between the increasingly extreme demands of the Twitter mob and the demands of the marketplace, two things that, shall we say, don’t always overlap. But it was a strange and disconcerting experience to see these publishing professionals gleefully joining the mobbing of a contest that, only a year before, had brought them clients with ready-to-submit manuscripts.

Literary agents are crucial to a traditionally published writer’s career. Some sneer at them and view them as soulless “gatekeepers.” I never liked that term because it doesn’t do justice to everything agents do for writers. An agent doesn’t just sell your book. She negotiates the best possible contract, helps you sell rights to other countries (a wonderful thing I call free money, because you don’t typically need to do extra editing or marketing on your end) as well as film and TV rights (no need to explain those!). They get thousands and thousands of submissions a year but can only sign a handful of those writers. Since forever—or at least for as long as they’ve been online—agents keep repeating that there’s no magic trick to skip the line: you have to write a great book, edit it well, write a stellar query letter, follow their submissions guidelines, and then and only then will you get the time of day. Nobody, they say, is entitled to a book deal, and everybody has to work hard, to their best, and—most important of all—have a great manuscript.

In 2019, though, it turns out that yes, you’re entitled to a book deal—as long as you collect enough marginalization points. At least a lot of people in the Twitter writing community seem to think so. They don’t hesitate to resort to online abuse, taking rejection letters not as an indication that they need to write a better book but as some sort of ultimate proof they’re being discriminated against. The same abuse was heaped upon Pitch Wars, and, by extension, mentors. It seems these writers, who couldn’t spare a paltry entrance fee, felt that we owed them those hours and hours of our unpaid time. And as I, and other Pitch Wars mentors past and current, have noted, one of the most disconcerting aspects of this debacle is that behavior that once got a writer blacklisted in the industry is now rewarded with book deals.

The saddest part of the story is the conclusion, so similar to the conclusion of Amélie Wen Zhao’s story. In the end, despite backpedaling about the entrance fee, Brenda Drake all but surrendered Pitch Wars to the mob. As a writer with a career in her own right, she couldn’t face the hatred and abuse.

And now there’s—wait for it—a committee to vet prospective mentors, to make sure Pitch Wars remains a safe and inclusive environment. Unless you don’t agree with every single one of the committee’s views, of course. And in no way is this directed at those mentors who were in favor of the fee and stood by Brenda Drake…

And so, we lose another beloved mainstay of the online writing community to the social justice mob. Who’s to say how this new iteration of ideologically vetted Pitch Wars will fare? I don’t wish for them to fail, nor do I wish ill to any mentors who are once again choosing to give their time to help aspiring authors. But as the agent round nears, I can’t help but wonder how far this is going to go before somebody says, “Enough!”

 

The author is a published author and longtime member of the online writing community. “J. Avery” is a pseudonym.

34 Comments

  1. Irrational Actor says

    Thank you for bringing this to light – I had no idea about the level of woke toxicity in this field, but I am very sorry to say it is entirely unsurprising.

    I hope you can help new writers in other ways, and please continue to push back against this mob mentaility.

  2. E. Olson says

    I assume all this “woke” activity is to “help” victim classes overcome “white privilege” and get juicy book contracts, but when will all this affirmative action run up against the reality of the marketplace? Given how “woke” the publishing industry already seems to be, after all an unknown Kenyan man was able to get two autobiographies published before age 45, how racist can the industry possibly be? Thus when I see frequent stories in the media about academia proclaiming that proper grammar is “racist” and that grading based on quality is “racist” I have to wonder if the problem for most would-be victim class writers is that they lack the skills necessary to write a coherent manuscript. Yet, in the current “woke” times that we live in, what mentor in their right mind would take on a victim class writer and try to “correct” or “improve” their manuscript, since doing so will likely lead them to be called racist. And assuming some victims do end up with juicy book contracts, how many readers will desire to buy a book filled with “authentic” bad writing?

    https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/feb/21/college-writing-center-proper-grammar-perpetuates-/

    https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2019-01-21/writing-professor-grading-based-quality-racist

    • Angela says

      Wait is the unknown Kenyan man Obama that youre referring too? If so that’s pretty insanely unfair. The guy was the first black president of Harvard Law of Review when his first was published. You can argue that was affirmative action influenced, but doesnt change the fact that he wasnt some random unknown Kenyan guy. When his second autobiography came out he was already a political star. It was post 2004 Keynote DNC speech and post election to the Senate. The guy was obviously running for president. About as far from some unknown Kenyan guy as you can get.

      Id also add that the 2004 DNC Keynote Speech Obama delivered was a serious reubke to the type of idenity politics we see today. Yes Obama was a disappointment on many fronts, but that 2004 speech was truly top notch.

      Now if youre literally referring to an actual unkown Kenyan guy then please accept my apologies.

  3. Dr Damian P.O'Connor says

    I joined a writers’ group once. During that time I submitted a piece of fantasy work in which a chap bought his bride. Jeeeeeez! You should have seen the reaction of one young woman! I thought she was going to explode. ‘I guess you haven’t heard of Thomas Hardy and the Mayor of Casterbridge’, I replied.

    As to agents; well I went almost all the way with two of them. With one of them, we almost got to signing but then he got a different job and my manuscript was dismissed by his successor with a one line flip off. Ho hum.

    Still, I just write for myself and anyone who wants to read now. I don’t need a gatekeeper and given that anyone can read the first bit online now, I don’t see what use they are beyond marketing. And as you say, the chances of making a living from scribbling are almost zero so you have to question whether the time and effort of dealing with agents is worth it, especially when they are become more ‘woke’ – and they were usually Leftist to begin with.

    If you want to read something that isn’t, well, have a look at ‘The Triumph of Stollie Prendergast.’

    Thanks for reading.

  4. Truthseeker says

    Here is an idea … why don’t people stop being invertebrates and ignore the “mob”. If you let your dream die because of what a twitter mob thinks at this moment, then it deserves to die. Real life is not about likes and dislikes on social media. Listen to real people that talk to you face to face. Ignore those that pile on hate from behind an anonymous handle. Yes I am using a handle, but I want you to succeed in helping people getting a start and let them succeed of fail on the basis of the merit of their output, not because they failed to tick intersectionality boxes.

    • david of Kirkland says

      Even those who grumble about the mob tend to be the same child-like actors as those in the mob…looking for others they give power over to to help them and keep them safe and happy.
      Child or adult…it’s a choice.

    • yandoodan says

      If you let your dream die because of what a twitter mob thinks at this moment, then it deserves to die.

      I’ve been wondering about that myself; then again, I find social media fundamentally uninteresting. Evidently a lot of people have so much of their self-image wrapped up in the opinions of anonymous strangers that they can be devastated when they turn against them. I can’t imagine apologizing under these circumstances, much less groveling.

    • It’s much more than dislike. It’s about full-blown harassment and abuse. Insults, invitations to die in graphic ways, etc. Twitter mobs are known for being vicious, and imagine how taxing it must be to be receiving such abuse from colleagues, agents, other writers? People from your social circle and others who you need to have good relations with for your job? You say “listen to real people” as if online abuse didn’t hurt: how course being called a “cunt” online is hurtful, especially when it’s among a thousand more messages relaying the same content in a number of creative ways…

      Online abuse is real and it’s vicious. In some cases it can lead to suicide. And it’s not as if you can log off that easily: professional writers and others in the publishing industry kinda need to be on Twitter… it’s become a necessary evil of sorts. And even if you leave Twitter, they can always find your personal contact (writers or others in the publishing industry usually post them somewhere for potential clients).

      Before being quick to judge people who have abandoned their dreams and calling them “invertebrates”, or, as below, accusing them of being “wrapped up in their own image”, perhaps it would be better to try to understand the context and the severity of the abuse being dished out online. The Internet has taken bullying to a whole other level.

    • Craig WIllms says

      @ truth

      I used to write a blog (of no import or consequence) which had maybe 20+ regular readers with each post getting a handful of comments. When I posted my reaction to a Quiznos commercial doing a “hard” sell for the new Torpedo “foot long” sandwich that had instantly creeped me out.
      – There was a glowing red hot masculine toaster oven imploring Scott the sandwich maker to “put it in me”. The oven continues “say it sexier, Scott, sexier”. Homo-erotic commercials for submarine sandwiches – my post set off alarm bells in the homosexual community.

      I was inundated with comments hundreds and hundreds of them in a coordinated fashion, some were quite nasty. And this was a few years before the SJW phenom. I wasn’t afraid so to speak, but it was a wake up call for me.

      I understand how these people that are targeted by the ‘woke’ crowd can be disaffected, depressed and even frightened.

      • Stephanie says

        I have no doubt it is a horrible thing to be the target of the mob, but people do have the freedom to shut down their social media accounts and step away from the screen. No profession truly requires social media presence, even if it is advantageous to many.

        I deleted one of my Facebook accounts because three friends were calling me a racist. I had the nerve to tell a Metis girl who was a close friend what I thought about her meme threatening to beat up anyone who wore a Native Halloween costume. As supremely gentle as I was, not pointing out her hypocrisy in being a stripper who’s chosen name was appropriated from the Greek goddess of chastity, I was deemed not sympathetic enough to First Nation pain, and thus a racist.

        It was a terrible feeling, and juxtaposed with the Kavanagh hearings where some of my friends expressed the sentiment “it doesn’t matter if he’s guilty, what matters is stopping Trump,” I realised these people were cannibals, and they would happily eat me, too. Anyone concerned with their mental health should get out of social media.

        • Craig WIllms says

          @Stephanie
          It saddens me that people are at each others throats like this, and yes social media has made it much worse. The negatives of all this social connectedness are outweighing the positives by a wide margin.

          I suspended my blog in 2014 and look at Facebook 3-4 times a month. Not that much there worth caring about.

        • Cary D Cotterman says

          Exactly, Stephanie. I dumped Facebook a year ago and have been happier ever since.

  5. I am reminded of Neil Gaiman’s colorful observation to a fan who thought George R.R. Martin had a responsibility to deliver the next installment at some faster pace: “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.” Perhaps aspiring authors looking to avail themselves of the opportunity Pitch Wars offers should understand that the sentiment also applies to Pitch Wars and the mentors who make it possible.

  6. Dear Sir/Madam,
    I am sure I have been microaggressed for 60+years. I don’t remember details, but I am sure with the proper recovered memory techniques they will come back. As this is the anonymous internet, it is likely I can recover whatever is needed. Thus, I am positive I will be a fine fit for the new Pitch Wars. However, could we skip the tiresome writing, editing, review and mentoring? Just write something for me, get it published and send me a check. Much, easier for everyone involved! I’ll send you an address to mail the check. Thanks a bunch!

    • V 2.0 says

      What? You are required to make the effort to send your address? What if you have no hands to type with? I smell oppression!

  7. Sydney says

    “…to make sure Pitch Wars remains a safe and inclusive environment.”

    “Safe and inclusive environment” needs to be in quotation marks so the absurdity of it doesn’t become normalized here, as it has become everywhere.

    Hahaha, Quillette needs to guarantee that Quillette is safe from zones of safety and inclusivity!

  8. Who reads fiction, anymore? I have few YA fiction titles but they’re in German. I bought them simply to improve my German not for the quality of the English language originals.

    I haven’t bought many newish English language fiction titles for their own sake since the bookstores started closing 15 years ago and those I bought were limited to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubry/Maturin series and an occasional buy of an old fiction title simply to see how people thought and the way they used the language in the 18th-19th C. I’ve also bought a few classics like Beatrix Potter and “Wind in The Willows” for the grand kids. Since I discovered the on-line libraries of out of copyright titles, I don’t even buy those anymore.

    Usually, I buy 15-20 titles a year but they are all non-fiction. Truly, life is stranger than fiction these days and I have no interest in trying any of the over-curated titles now being offered.

    • Craig WIllms says

      @EK
      Millions read fiction, I don’t even know what to say to that. God, anything to distract from this burgeoning nightmare we see online and on TV.

  9. V 2.0 says

    What a lot of entitlement from the most useless of professions (except for the .0001 % that actually have something interesting to say). I feel sorry for for Brenda Drake but let’s face it she made a mistake trying to help these whiny babies in the first place. My hope is that online publishing rescues literature from the terminally stupid (there’s some pretty good stuff even on fan fiction sites if you care to do some digging). If the writing is decent, the ideas original (eg. not the usual intersectional blather) and the author has the stomach to face down the mobs we might see some fiction that’s actually worth reading survive.

  10. Sigh.

    It seems to me the the majority of people who call themselves writers have no clue at all how the process should work. Last year I tried mentoring in a different writing forum than the one in the article because I love supporting new writers and there is a need out there to help the deserving. I couldn’t take it for long. Almost all those newbies provided me dull first drafts littered with grammatical and spelling mistakes, never mind the obvious rip-offs of popular series and Mary Sue characters. Then they freaked out about my gentlest suggestions – how are they going to handle real, negative reviews that will linger on Amazon for eternity? I think I know where this comes from. My college-attending daughter has a friend whose roommate is a creative writing major. She’s not allowed to give ‘unsupportive’ feedback in the class writing circles that might hurt feelings, so no questioning the, I kid you not, ‘furry’ romances.

  11. No, as I think of this, I put at least partial blame on the fan fiction sites and Tumblr. Teenagers can post low quality fan works that will get loads of kudos from their buddies, so they develop too much confidence in their talent and too little awareness how much effort is needed to succeed in the paying fiction world.

    Totally unrelated, but I love this factoid. As of last year, the longest written work in English is a fan fiction written about the Mario Brothers. When I last checked, it had surpassed 3 million words.

  12. Barney Doran says

    If I read one more apology, I am going to puke all over my keyboard. No more freaking apologies, people. Stop feeding these monsters. They will never be sated. It’s time for some hearty FUs to be thrown their way. Make yourself free!

  13. “Nobody, they say, is entitled to a book deal, and everybody has to work hard, to their best, and—most important of all—have a great manuscript.”

    If you are unsuccessful as a writer, it is important to identify the factor which is holding you back. It may be that your writing is not good enough. Or it may be that you are being discriminated against. If your writing is not good enough you should strive to improve your writing and don’t see yourself as a victim. On the other hand, you don’t want to spend years polishing your writing when the real problem is that you are black or a woman. Ultimately if you face obstacles it should just cause you to strive more and become a better writer until you reach the point where your writing cannot be ignored. It is crucial not to become disappointed for no good reason and that is what happens to people who assume they are being discriminated against with no real evidence.

    • Writer anon says

      Having spent many hours beta-reading, critiquing etc, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that 99% of the time, it’s the writing. But to see it, let alone admit it, you need self-awareness.

  14. while I would advocate standing in the face of unreasonable people and mobs, its hard to tell other people to risk their careers, personal life, and income needed to support themselves and their family. I’ve face many “tolerant” people threaten physical and economical attacks, and seen many try to find personal information to use, which makes me glad that I keep my online and work life separate and I’m just some random dork with a manual labor job that rants on Facebook and random blogs. I can’t imagine someone who’s work life is so volatile and dependent on the public having to stand in front of the SJW train and hope to survive. so I don’t blame people who fold under certain pressures, but I try to support everyone who does stand righteously and on principle. I hope that is enough to keep ethics, principles, truth, and integrity alive and the good fight going, but it gets harder and harder with these unethical SJW tactics and methods, who say they are moral while willing to attack someone’s personal life and risk the well being of even their children.

  15. RickyT says

    So how much is Brenda Drake and crew paying out of pocket? They’ve only raised $4,000 from their GoFundMe.

  16. jimhaz says

    I’m an avid Fantasy reader. I used to be able to trust to some degree books with awards, such as the Hugo Award.

    I recently bought a book called The Firth Season, by N. K. Jemisin purely on the Hugo Award Winner sticker.

    I read about 100 pages. It is absolute trash. This made me look into the author – she is a youngish black female.

    Looking at the Hugo Award entry on Wiiki, I noted this comment.

    “The leaders of the campaigns characterized them as a reaction to “niche, academic, overtly [leftist]” nominees and the Hugo becoming “an affirmative action award” that preferred female and non-white authors and characters”

    There goes another reasonably reliable authority – lost forever to non-meritorious do-gooders.

  17. David Turnbull says

    To get a completely different take on this, go to Brenda Drake’s twitter feed.

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