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or had an agent and/or those who are published) play the part of agents, choosing from many submissions an un-agented, unpublished writer and helping them with their manuscript.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!”
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