Friday, December 7, 2012

You Are Not Entitled to a Successful Publishing Career

Part of this post really resonated with me. Alvina Ling talks about an encounter she had with a writer at a SCBWI conference:

"'The problem is, agents and publishers aren't knocking on my door.'

I didn't have a response for this, and we were already walking away from each other, so I just continued on my way. But later I replayed the conversation and marveled at the woman's attitude. It was as if she felt she was somehow entitled to be published, that it shouldn't be so hard.

I don't know the woman's background--perhaps she'd been coming to conferences for years and was just speaking from extreme frustration. Or maybe it was her first conference, and she was disappointed by what she had learned. But I'm really not sure what that woman wanted me to say. That it should be that easy? Did she want me to somehow feel guilted into publishing her? That I'd say, without having read anything she'd written, that I'd publish her book?"
The nature of my job as a literary agency intern means I have to reject a great deal of people every week. I work at a smaller agency (in terms of the number of agents, not clients), and we receive about 400 queries a month. I've been here 4 months, and out of all those queries, I've probably requested about 25 full manuscripts, and of those 25, I've actually reported on about eight I felt were good enough to show to one of the agents. And of those eight, they've taken on exactly...none. Since I've been there, I think the agency has signed two new clients. As a small agency, most of their time in the office (like other agencies) is spent on their existing clients. They talk to their authors, they call editors they think are a fit for the manuscript they're shopping, they discuss foreign rights, they talk to Amazon about problems with their authors' ebooks, they read their authors' new manuscripts, and type up editorial notes and pitch letters, among other things. Most of their reading is done outside of the office. Your manuscript may not be bad, it may be just good - instead of great. For an agent to spend their precious time reading your manuscript, it has to really pique their interest (I think it's safe to say every agent wants to find that manuscript that makes them miss their subway stop).

So you can start to see how hard it is to get published. 

There are plenty of reasons why an agent will pass on your manuscript that have nothing to do with the quality of your plot or writing. I've passed on things because they're too similar to books my agency already represents. This is a huge problem. I see a lot of queries where people gush that they love X author or X book that we represent, and then proceed to pitch something that is almost exactly the same. I'm glad that you have the same taste in books as our agents, but there's not room on our list for something that's exactly the same as what we always represent. Selling both books would become a problem.

I've passed on things because their premise is too similar to projects that have over saturated the market. For example, I will almost always pass on something with vampires, unless the query really grabs me. Sometimes a project just doesn't fall under the scope of what the agency represents. For example, short story collections, poetry, and books written for an academic audience are not a good fit for our agency. Also, every agent has their personal list of things that make them groan when they see them in their inbox, because it's just not their cup of tea. I'm just an intern, so I don't take my personal preferences into consideration, but personally, I groan when I see a story with fallen angels or a story where the protagonist is 'fated,' 'destined,' or 'bound' to their love interest. However, if the author makes me like the manuscript despite my biases, that shows they are a strong writer.

I see the attitude she's talking about a lot in queries. There was one query in particular where the author felt compelled to inform me that even if I pass on their work, they "intend" to get published. The people who praise their own writing in their query, or who blog about how easy it should be for them to get published (I do google you, authors, I do), really turn me off. If you send me a strong query, and your sample pages deliver on what was promised in the query, that's all you need. It's cool if you have writing credits, degrees, and memberships in various writing groups, but none of those are relevant if I'm not compelled by your story and your writing.

Not everyone is going to be a successful writer. Just like not everyone is going to be a successful doctor, lawyer, actor, artist, musician, etc. My family members joke around and ask me, "How many dreams did you crush today?" However, not everyone should be a published writer. For the most part, I'm confident when I reject people that they will keep writing for fun even if they never get published, or that even though they're not right for our agency, someone else will publish them. Fact: some people are just not good writers. Some people will never get better, and some people just need to write a couple more manuscripts to develop their skills before they query again.

Most published writers have day jobs, and only a very small percentage of writers can live off their writing. Even the most successful authors didn't get that way overnight. Meg Cabot has talked about the hundreds of rejection letters she received before she got published, and even then, her books weren't that successful. It wasn't until the Princess Diaries movie came out that she was able to republish her old books, and they became successful as well. John Green, arguably one of the most popular and talented writers in YA, wasn't a best-selling author at first, and he worked really hard to earn a devoted following that is largely responsible for his current overwhelming success.

Bottom line: Getting published is hard. Getting published is a business. Agents want to represent good writers and stories, and editors want to publish them, but nobody owes you anything. You have to work for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment