It’s Not Like Other Businesses
I get weary of hearing people complain about publishing, comparing it to other industries and saying, “In no other business…” followed by whatever their complaint is. People even go so far as to claim the entire publishing industry is “incompetent” because it doesn’t work like other industries with which they’re familiar.
To me, those complaints are irrelevant and unhelpful. In some cases, you’re trying to compare apples and oranges. In other cases, the complaint is simply untrue because other businesses have the same pitfalls publishing does. In most cases the complaint comes from simply not understanding how publishing works. It’s not like other businesses many people are familiar with, and that frustrates them.
So let’s take a look at a few of the complaints:
In no other business does it take so long to get a response – if you get a response at all.
In any business situation in which there are far more applicants for a position than can ever be hired, it may take a long time to get a response, and many applicants will get no response whatsoever. Have you ever applied for a position, in which the company has advertised they’ll hire one person, and they’ve received 400 applications?
This is the situation when you send a query. You’re applying for the job of “published author.” Nobody owes you anything. Not a job, not a response. You put it out there and hope for the best, just like any job applicant. So in this way, publishing is just like other businesses.
I’m well aware that a writer isn’t applying to be an agent’s employee. But you are applying for the job of published author and the agent is screening applicants for that position. Bottom line, in any business that involves screening a large number of people for a limited number of slots, responses are varied, may take awhile, or may not come at all. (If you are an actor and have ever auditioned for a show, you’re familiar with this scenario. You only get a “call back” if they’re interested in you.)
In no other business does one have to wait so long to get paid.
Well, let’s say you are an artist, you paint a picture, and hang it in a gallery. It may or may not sell. You’ve already done the work, but you may get paid in a week, or a month, or six months, a year, or never. That’s the way it is when you work on spec. You’re doing the work, and you’re well aware that you may never get paid for it, and if you do, it may be a long time in the future. There are other industries that work the same way. What about a builder who puts up homes or offices before they’re sold?
If you don’t like the way it takes awhile to get paid in publishing (and I don’t love it either, believe me), it may help to realize that the publisher also has to wait a long time to get paid. Like any company that develops and manufactures a product, the publisher puts out thousands of dollars ahead of time to produce the product and distribute it. And not only do they have to wait to get paid, in some cases they might not get paid at all. If the bookstore returns your books unsold, the publisher doesn’t get any money – but you’ve already received your advance.
In no other business do things move so slowly.
Really? How many businesses are you familiar with? Do you understand how long it takes to develop a product, perfect it, publicize and promote it, and bring it to market? I can tell you that in any industry where new products are constantly being developed, there is a significant passage of time between the conception of the product (or the contracting with the inventor) and its eventual appearance in the marketplace.
Are you familiar with the film or television industries? It’s not uncommon for a movie or TV show to be “in development” for years before finally either being made or scrapped.
I’ve heard it said recently that there is no other business besides publishing that introduces such a large number of entirely new products every single year. Each one of these products requires a significant investment of time, money and expertise to prepare it for the marketplace. How many companies bring literally hundreds of new products to market each year? Not many – but that’s what the big publishers do.
In many ways, publishing can’t be compared to other businesses. When you look at publishing through the filter of your own experience in another business, you may not see it correctly. You may be tempted to think that because publishing operates differently from other businesses with which you’re familiar, that must mean the publishing business does things “wrong.” But most likely, you’re just not seeing the whole picture.
Publishing is a huge industry that’s in the midst of massive change, so things aren’t perfect. Things are, in fact, difficult. Can we learn from the way other industries do things, especially from how other businesses are responding to technological and sociological changes? Sure. Are there a lot of things that could be improved about publishing? Definitely! We just have to keep in mind the uniqueness of publishing while we’re figuring out how to improve it.
Q4U: What are some other ways publishing is NOT like other businesses? Does it frustrate you when you try to look at publishing the same way you look at other industries with which you’re familiar?
Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent
>I'm late to the party, but I have to comment on, "In no other business do things move so slowly."
Try working in defense contracting for a while.
>I think it's the best business in the world. I just hope I can make something happen. I'm actually glad it's such a challenge to publish the traditional way. In my view, self publishers run the risk of bypassing critical attention to detail that agents and editors would likely spot right away. Why should readers want anything less than expert endorsed writing? I simply hope I can produce such work.
>Great comments. Especially the comparison of query letters to job applications – my hubby and I have done our fair share of waiting for responses to both of those lately and you're right, it's about the same. 🙂 As for getting paid later… there's lots of businesses that require an investment up front and the money comes in later. At least with writing, the writer's only investment is time (and maybe money for stamps for that query or submission), rather than thousands of dollars like in other businesses.
>I've just decided to be happy that I was published and whatever else happens from there is worth the whatevers.
But, having worked in State Gov't years ago – now that's a "what business does business in that way?" kind of business!
>In no other business do you put out an ad to hire a secretary and get 100 resumes from plumbers. The industry would work better if people submitting would read the guidelines.
>Again, I wish I had time to read all these wonderful comments so forgive me is I restate something.
What I'm finding recently is a fascinating difference between ABA and CBA. I was reading an article in Writer's Digest and the author made a random comment on spending a year or more on a book. This isn't abnormal in ABA, as well as the Nicholas Sparks and Stephen Kings who churn out more. So timing seems relative there as well.
What also fascinates me is the publishing industry as it stood 10 to 20 years ago. Of course the volume of books put out then was significantly less as well as the time it took. So in that sense, is the publishing industry actually moving faster right now? And are we just more impatient? 🙂
>Thank you for the reality check.
I promise not to complain if when I make it to the published author's club. The waiting is part of the process. 🙂
>Great post! I, too, find the whining a bit much.
>Maybe I'm naive, but I can't imagine resenting the marketing side of things. No one will ever be as excited about my kids–ahem, characters–as I am. It stands to reason, then, that I am potentially (once educated how) the person who can do the most to get others excited about them. How could I resent that?
That said, I'm still the platform-less first-time writer out here in the Land of Obscurity, terrified by all that I don't know. But! I know more now than I did a month ago. And my proposal is closer to being finished. And I'm going to a conference in a couple months. If I ever do break into this industry, I'll probably have some "whining" days of my own, but they will be far from the majority of my days. After all, my biggest ambition will have come true.
>"The freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps." – Robert Benchley
>I love the post and I'm enjoying the comments, but doesn't the title of the post say it all?
>On my first step into the world of publishing, I entered a writing contest during my sophomore year of college. I didn't win the contest, but the magazine surprised me with a contract and a check anyway. I thought, "Wow, people will pay me for stuff I just make up?"
Publishing is like no other business because only in publishing can a person reach out to the universe of words swirling around us, grab a bucketful of them, arrange them into a unique pattern that's never existed before–and get paid for it!
>Great post, as always! I agree that it helps to think of a writer's interactions with agents/editors as those between small businesses. Things take time, usually a lot more than all parties involved would like.
One big difference with publishing is market research, or the lack of it. Television shows and movies are famous for running projects by focus groups before bringing them to a general audience. Websites will a/b test new functionality or content on a sliver of traffic to see what moves the needle. Companies of all sizes conduct surveys to help determine what their customers want. I see almost none of this with even the biggest publishing houses. Yes, what's acquired is most often based on past success, but new projects are also often based on what's essentially a hunch.
Taking the small business idea one step further though, market research is also the writer's responsibility–not only in terms of agents, editors, and publishers, but also readers and what they want from books.
>Many authors are impatient for sundry reasons, mine is that I am 71 years old and wonder if I will live long enough to see my as yet unpublished book in print. Nevertheless, I believe that the journey has been, in itself, a reward. Pity any writer who does not believe that!
>It is interesting to read how many people think that publishing is a business akin to anything else out there…it just isn't. Comparisons to drug companies or acting just are not applicable except in the abstract.
>Colleague interaction is very different in the publishing industry, I've found. My husband is a teacher and he doesn't get together with other teachers, have coffee, and go over ways to improve each other's lesson plans. They don't encourage him to go to classes to become a better teacher, or help him through difficult times when he feels discouraged. I don't think I've ever seen him comment on a teaching blog, or take a submit your best lesson plan challenge.
Critique groups, seminars, conferences, online yahoo get-togethers…authors have an enormous amount of encouragement available to them which makes the tough parts like waiting or working on spec kind of worth it.
>David Jarrett: Sorry for the misinterpretation. You do have valid points. Now excuse me while I go teach some fish to fly. 🙂
>Rachelle, I believe you misinterpreted my statement. The comparisons are definitely not irrelevant. It takes billions for a large pharmaceutical firm to R&D a new drug, and they often get shafted because the FDA will not grant approval or because some study after the fact shows the drug has toxic side effects. Sure, they have the potential to make billions, but also to lose billions as well.
You suggest I said that I thought publishers should have large promotional budgets for every book — not so. I did not say that, nor did I mean it. However, if they are going to take on a project, they should have something in their budget (not necessarily large) to advertise and market it. Moreover, when I said "If they lose, that's business," I was referring to one project, not the entire industry.
I understand profits are lower in this business than in others, but to try to make the author the "point person" for marketing when most authors (other than James Patterson, for example) have no experience in marketing, is akin to trying to teach a fish to fly.
>Love your honest posts. They help me keep writing. Regardless.
>A friend of mine is an art director in a gaming company. It takes years for a game to be developed, produced and put on the shelves.
I desire just about more than anything to be a successful, published writer. Part of that equation is knowing the business. I am not going to change it nor is any other writer. If you want to write your book, see it in your hot little hand and watch the Amazon ratings, the only guaranteed way to do that is self pub.
If, on the other hand, you have enough confidence in your skills, you accept there are steps to get where you want to be. Railing about the system only drives you nuts and everyone who has to listen to you.
I have nearly quit one writer chat because there is one person on there who hates agents, publishers and everyone else associated with publishing. He is a self-made man who self-pubs everything he writes and is on a crusade to convince everyone else to do the same. Oddly enough, I doubt he has even paid his expenses with his sales, but he is suffering for his art and his greatness needs no monetary validation. Yeah, right. In other words, you couldn't get an agent. Your writing is probably subpar, but you refuse to listen to anyone. You are convinced of your own greatness and you don't care what anyone else thinks.
Then, there is the expert. She writes and writes and writes and writes. She has XX years worth of writing advice on her site. She happily links it numerous times during the chat regardless of what the subject is. Oh, by the way, she's also an expert editor and everyone MUST have their work professionally edited before you submit to an agent or publisher. If you do this you will find the magic door to publication. I don't think she's ever been published aside from some freelance work, though.
Many people have an opinion of how the industry should work, but the fats are the facts.
It still boils down to you writing something fabulous.
Acceptance of your work is subjective not personal.
Rejection is part of the journey; dejection is a choice.
You probably won't be able to give up your day job even when you are published.
Get used to waiting. Find something productive to do while you wait. Don't be a pain while you wait.
Agents know the business in ways you can't even fathom.
Very few businesses spend resources calling back people who applied for the job, but the company is not interested.
Be happy with who you are, not who you want to be.
>I started my marketing career many years ago in publishing, spent 25 years in high tech, and am now back in publishing. Here's my view:
1. Publishing has really smart people
2. Publishing has people who do what they do for the love of it, because it's certainly not for the meager pay
3. Publishing tends to keep the customer, that is, the reader in mind – other industries do not always think about customers
>Yes, publishing sucks but artists in general get taken advantage of in all creative industries. There's always some greedy businessperson trying to exploit the new, starving artist. It even happened to the Beatles and Elvis but they did fine!
>I have never understood the purpose/benefit of complaining about the publishing industry. It seems to me that complaining about this world that we have chosen to put ourselves in is really counterproductive. This is a great post!
>It's easy to see why so many writers get frustrated. The ones that can't handle the pressure of waiting will probably filter out into self publishing eventually. There's nothing stopping anyone from uploading their novel onto the Kindle store and having a "published" novel within an hour.
Like all things in life if you want to do something well, you should do it right. What good thing comes overnight? Nobody writes a book overnight, and they shouldn't expect their success to be packaged that way either.
Yes publishing is slow, but it is evolving. It's exciting to see the landscape of publishing change before our very eyes. I'd go as far as saying there's never been a better time to be a writer.
>David Jarrett: It has nothing to do with justice. And no, it can't be compared with the invention of the laser printer. The economics of those companies are completely different from the economics of publishing. Once again, like I said in my post, it's an irrelevant comparison.
Simply put, the economics of publishing only allow for a severely limited promotional budget, and careful decisions have to be made about how to spend it.
Lots of people need a laser printer and even more people might need an antibiotic. Those companies will make literally millions of dollars on those products.
Not so with books. The margin is low and there's simply not enough profit in it.
Don't you think that publishers would LOVE to be able to promote the socks off every book they publish, to help it sell? It's kind of a no-brainer. If they could, they would.
Write a book that's guaranteed to make a million dollars; that will also guarantee you a large promotional budget.
You suggested publishers should have large marketing budgets for every book, and "they may lose, but hey, that's business."
I submit that if they lose, you and all the other writers lose, too. Because publishers will be going out of business.
>I think it's curious that not one of these comments has mentioned the one way I see publishing is different from most other businesses.
I see few, if no, other businesses in which the inventor of a product (i.e. a book in the publishing industry) is compelled to participate in the advertising and marketing of that product as authors are expected to do in the publishing industry.
Everywhere I look, in all the agents' and self-help blogs, there are all these tips on how to promote one's book and gain a following so that the publisher can sell it more easily and thus derive greater income from it. Do the publishers not have promotion or advertising budgeted into their business model?
Does the biochemist who invents the latest antibiotic for Merck have to blog about his discovery before the company begins to advertise it? No.
How about the guy who first invented the laser printer? Did he or she have to promote it privately before H.P. and the other manufacturers started marketing it? No.
I could go on and on. My feeling is that if the publisher has enough faith in the author's product that it is willing to publish it (and receive a substantial reward if it is a hit), that publisher, not the author, should be responsible for marketing it also. Granted, they may lose, but hey, that's business.
The author should be willing to help, of course, but the way I have been reading things, the publishers want to make the author the first string offense, as it were, and I do not think this is just.
>I used to think in no other industry than agriculture did you find so many whiners.
And then I got introduced to writing.
Life is tough and no body promised me a rose garden.
>I love this post! It's so true. I'm thinking of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where my husband works. You know how hard it is to get from idea/proposal to an actual thing in space? It's a long hard road that can be cut at any time and for any reason. But you keep doing it because it's important and meaningful to you, even though you know the risks. And if and when it pays off – WOW!
I also love your comment about the largest number of new products in a year. What a great way to look at it!
>Call me lucky (or crazy or unlucky), but I have no clue how other businesses work. None. Zip. Nadda. So I have no framework to compare publishing to anything else; that might be bad or it might be good!
If I had to guess one source of frustration over the "slowness" of responses to queries, etc., I would say that writers tend to want to know if their work is publishable, and we don't REALLY know that until an agent/editor tells us that. So we're waiting around for validation that, no, we haven't wasted our time pursuing a dream that is completely out of our reach.
Understandable. Just don't let that need for validation of our writing turn into "being a published author will validate my life!" (Chip MacGregor talked about this a bit on his blog yesterday.)
Thanks for the post, Rachelle. I always appreciate your honesty.
>Here's my concern in the "problems with publishing". It would seem the "failure" rate of books not earning out their advances–and I'm not exaggerating when I say I've heard professionals estimate it to be as high as 80%–would not keep most businesses afloat. Somehow, if this is case, somewhere someone is not making the selection of the "best" book to be published as far as public appeal or the promotion of said book is in question.
Second, I think it's ridiculous to take/buy back/refund unsold books. Let the buyer beware of their purchases and not get "freebies" if they misjudge their consumers. This policy should be changed.
>I agree publishing is a business and works like many business. No business is exactly the same, so authors will see differences.
My experiences are mine and no one else's. The biggest difference I’ve noticed between jobs I’ve sought versus looked for a literary agent is in follow up. Even though this a client/literary agent and not an employee/employer relationship, sources encourage applicants to call about the job after a few days time and to follow up (not harass) about the status. In the publishing industry it’s seems to be the “don’t call us; we’ll call you” mentality. I’ve adjusted to this. Like I said, each business is unique.
I do think literary agents (in terms of the individual) have more of a public presence than other industries. I think this has worked for and against the publishing industry. Perhaps even the underlining reason we’ve seen such an outcry from authors. Public opinion is important to many companies. It’s part of the reason so many have PR. Companies have an image they want to portray and tailor each response to keep the appearance. Very seldom do top members of a business ridicule the individuals they may partner with one day.
On the other hand, I’ve seen literary agents do this often. Not many, but enough to make it a concern. Negativity tends to shadow a lot of good. And there is a lot of good to being in the public eye. The resources available are abundant. There are just as many agents who strive to help aspiring authors as agents who take time to trash them. But at the same time, it leaves a bitter taste to know the same people authors try to reach are the same ones who mock them.
>In no other business do you have the potential to leave the kind of legacy that will touch the hearts of people long after you are gone.
>Having been at various levels in many different companies,I have to agree with you. The publishing industry moves at the speed of supply & demand. The end-user/consumer has to be willing to purchase the product; otherwise, the company spins its wheels.
Retail, chain retaurants, Fortune 500 companies all move at the speed that fits their niche. R&D is an on-going process in all of these that may never get to the market. But, it is the life blood that leads to greater product innovation, new processes, etc.
This is the business of every writer; improving their product to get it to market. Speed has nothing to do with it. It's about the 3 r's – right time, right place, right product.
Edison learned a thousand ways how not to make a light bulb and we are learning a variety of methods for penetrating the market, producing viable products, and building careers.
Think of it like Noah's Ark. The guy went out and built his boat. He didn't care what everyone else said or when they laughed. He just kept building. And when it was complete and the rain came, nobody laughed – right place, right time, right product.
Keep plugging away, learning and moving forward. Don't focus on the elements you can't control. Ask not what the writing can do for you; ask what you can do for the writing. It will all fall into place from there.
>Rachelle, I don't often comment, but I'm a regular reader of your blog. This has been something on my mind every since I start exploring the publishing industry. I'm a human resources professional by day. I've worked in several industries. You're dead on when you write that some of these characteristics of publishing aren't that different from the rest of the world.
As to your question regarding how publishing differs, I offer this. In no other industry (that I've worked) can those seeking to break in find such a wealth of information online, and insiders who WANT to help them join the club. In no other industry (that I've worked) can those seeking to break in complain so publically about the process, and to such discourteous ends that I've seen and heard of in publishing, and still expect to get in.
I hate to share this little HR secret with the rest of the world, but if you call/email/otherwise communicate with a typical company to demand why you weren't selected, or complain about how long it took, etc. you're not going to be likely to hear from them again. Ever. If you should just find the need to talk trash about them as publically as happens here, you can probably expect not to hear from any of their peers either. I rarely give feedback to applicants not chosen, and even more rarely have it requested in a constructive manner that motivates me to WANT to share. More often than not, it is a sign that I made the right choice.
>In no other business can you enjoy the process of creation, and then share your ideas and enthusiasm with others while allowing their creativity an outlet through the medium of your words. Movies and art come close, but to my mind, nothing is as intimate and influential as a book–especially a book for children.
As writers, we are so privileged to be part of this process! Publishing may not be perfect, but using the time before publication wisely only makes us better writers. Maintaining our professionalism and understanding that this is a business as well as an art form will help ensure that the widest selection of books remains available to future generations. Publishing houses that aren't profitable do not stay in business.
>Publishing is the marriage (sometimes a shotgun wedding) between business and art. The industry is the way it is because very few other business even attempt to do something like this.
I don't believe that the industry was deliberately set up the way it was to scorn authors (or even potential authors). It's set up this way because this shoestring, duct tape MacGyver construction is the only way the industry can actually work.
Society would collapse if other businesses attempted the publishing model, and I have no doubt that the publishing industry would change many practices if able and they were practical, but the reality is that this is the only thing that works for a business that has been around for hundreds of years, and is still relatively unchanged simply because there's no other way to make it work.
>The flip side is, in no other business can you get a book published by a reputable house, so really, what's the point of comparing apples to beef?
>In the 18th century books were often the only form of communication not subject to pre-publication censorship. Broadsheets, pamphlets and newspapers it was thought were able to incite fast, emotional, and violent reactions. Books on the other hand because of the length and time and effort it took to produce and the concentration they took to read and comprehend were considered reasoned, thoughtful and reflective rather than reactionary. This is the difference between the mediums of blog and book for example.
Like no other business does so much care and thought go into the words before they are presented to the public.
>As I try to get my foot in the door of the publishing industry, I see many frustrations. But, as a business person, I can tell you that every industry has their problems. Ask anyone you know, and they will be happy to share, vent, the problems they face in their world.
I keep telling myself that it will all be worth it when I succeed. Keep positive. -LJ
>Sure, the whole realm of writing/publishing is different, but really what does complaining about it get anyone?
Does it get you faster responses?
No, it just brings you and people around you down–in my opinion.
Instead, I'd rather spend my time writing.
Waiting is tough and being a writer has its ups and downs, but the best response to that is to write, write, write
>Publishing's not like other businesses because rarely do consumers or low-level employees in other businesses get to air their grievances in managers' blog comment sections. Nor do they get to say obnoxious things to managers via Twitter. This makes me love the publishing industry, just a little bit….
>Ellen Painter Dollar,
What you're pointing to is one of the more serious critiques I have about the industry – the way the writer is under-valued and under-paid.
It's a very real concern, and one that I share with you.
>Well, I can't think of ways that publishing isn't like any other industry, though I'm sure there's a myriad of reasons… (maybe once you're contracted, you only get paid 2 times a year, when most other jobs pay bi-weekly or semi-monthly.)
I can think of an industry that moves even slower than the publishing industry: pharmaceuticals. Most people don't realize that it takes years, if not decades to develop medications–probably much longer than an aspiring author takes to finally publish their first book. And, like an author, there's no guarantee of success.
Publishing is not something to compare with any other industry. I most certainly wouldn't compare it to a restaurant franchise or an insurance company or an auto-repair facility. Each industry has their own expectations and needs, it's ridiculous to try to compare them to each other. Sure, there are certain principles most if not all businesses should apply, but they'll be applied in different ways because the end product is not the same.
>The problem with feedback on a work of literature is it is subjective and unhelpful. If you make adjustments for an agent who rejected you, whose to say those changes don't jeopardize the work for another agent.
When you submit and get a partial read, three things are possible:
a) The book is fine, but bores the agent.
b) The book shows promise, but has too many problems to address without a detailed response.
c) The book is good, but not quite as good as another prospect.
How can an agent give useful feedback on the book?
If a), they could write back "Boring. Sorry." which I suppose could provide some motivation to "prove them wrong" but really doesn't help your craft.
If b)they could write "Too many problems to list" which will only inspire a follow-up email 9 times out of 10, asking for free book editing.
If c) they could let you know that the book is decent, but they have a better one in the wings, but that really doesn't help you to improve the book.
In short, outside of a full (and expensive) post-mortem, agent responses need to be professional brief, if they occur at all. If every employer allowed themselves to get tangled up with questions from all the employees they didn't hire, they'd get nothing done and the unemployed would stay that way!
If the agent requested a partial, didn't take the full (or the full but rejected to rep): that's the feedback! The mission is clear: onward and upward – but elsewhere!
>Honestly, some people don't know what they are talking about.
On the subject of 'no other business replies so late if at all' I can say that every other single business out there only replies IF interested. Most often than not, this means *never*. Speak to anyone who has been looking for a job for the past 18 months and you will hear that letters may as well have been posted through a shredder, not a letterbox, such is the supercilious silence reserved for the applicant. Add an acknowledgment postcard to your submission and every single agent out there will post it back to you. Request the same of a recruitment consultant and you'll hear static if anything at all.
On the subject of 'no other business takes ages to pay you' I can say that people who think that way are those who have never operated on a freelance basis. The day you start freelancing is the day you realise that many people hire you under the assumption that you work for free, hence you call yourself a FREElancer.
On the subject of 'no other business works these slowly' I can say that these are obviously complaints of someone who has never worked within a university or within management consultancy. A uni project may take 2 years to get approved and 2 years to get done; a management consultancy one may take 3 years to get approved, 3 years to get underway and 1 hour to be scrapped by the new CEO.
So, yes, I guess some people really don't know what they're talking about. Good post as usual,
>Alexis Grant: Don't take this too personally; I'm aiming this at many others who hold the same opinion you expressed here.
Once again, the argument "in any other profession" doesn't hold up to scrutiny. In any other profession, people get feedback on their work? Dream on!
My sister works for one of the largest advertising agencies and they routinely bid to become the agency for some of America's best known brands. They'll spend hundreds of man-hours preparing their pitch and presentation, and several other agencies will do the same. Eventually the company will choose which advertising agency they want to use. And they DON'T feel like they owe an explanation to those they didn't choose. They chose someone else, end of story, move on.
I can also use the analogy of the actor in auditions. You might get a callback and you might read for the part several times, getting closer and closer – but in the end they choose someone else. Does that actor expect the director to take them aside and say, "Okay, here is why we didn't choose you." No way!
What about building contractors? Like the commenter mentioned above, contractors bid on jobs all the time. Their bid either gets accepted or it doesn't. Nobody whines, "Please tell my WHY you didn't accept my bid."
I'm sorry but I'm just not buying this argument. This is not a college creative writing course; this is a business. Do I try to give a few words of advice if I choose not to pursue a project for which I've requested a partial? Yes, I do. But sometimes it would simply take me too much effort and far too many words to explain it, and it's not worth it. Sometimes I just didn't like the story and I didn't want to keep reading and I did not have time to sit down an analyze why not. If I'm not your agent or your paid editor, it's not my responsibility. Like I said, I try, and I give writers feedback as often as I can. One of the reason I write this blog is because I simply cannot answer every writer's question individually and I can't give feedback to every writer who ever queries me.
Let me shout it from the rooftops loud and clear: It is NOT a literary agent's job to help every writer in the world figure out how to write a saleable story. It is the agent's job to serve their clients, period.
Thanks for addressing this topic head-on. What's hard for me to swallow is that when an agent reads a partial or full and then rejects, the writer is not supposed to write back asking for feedback. (Please correct me if I'm wrong!) If an agent takes the time to read 50 or more pages, I don't understand why she can't take the time to write one sentence (not a full-page critique, just one sentence) about WHY it doesn't work. Not to justify her choice — that's not necessary — but so I can make it better during my next revision.
My dad's in another industry, and when I tried to explain this to him, he looked rather horrified and said something like, "Are you kidding? If she didn't explain why she doesn't want it, write back nicely and ask." In any other profession, it'd be silly NOT to ask for this feedback.
Before I start to sound like one of those people who rants online, let me add this: I've only just begun to query, so y'all have a lot more time to impress me 🙂
>This all makes sense and I'm just so happy to be a writer that I'm willing to accept how it works.
I have been reading some blogs and such, though, about the prevalence of non-paying opportunities for writers–literary mags or book anthologies that pay authors with a free copy, blogs hosted by reputable companies or institutions that don't pay contributors, etc. Some argue that these entities would never dream of asking a web designer, editor, cover artist, etc. to contribute without pay, but they regularly ask writers to do so. I'm not sure what I think. Right now I have more publishing opportunities than I've ever had and I'm loving it. Most are unpaid, but they have led to some paid work. So the system seems to be working for me and I have reason to hope that, as time goes by, the ratio of unpaid to paid work will shift. On the other hand, I spend an awful lot of time working for free and while I enjoy the work, I am producing something tangible and being repaid mostly with intangibles (exposure, name recognition, etc.). I'm curious what people think about this aspect of the business.
>Great post, Rachelle. The world would be a better place with less whining.
>In a way I think the misconception is business in general. Most people are used to being an employee, they understand that. From my experience, publishing is more akin to being in business, being the owner, the boss, not being an employee.
I've been in the construction industry for 30 years and all those complaints can be applied there as well, from the business pov if not the employee pov. I submit bids to other contractors that may never be responded to, it takes forever to get responses from engineers, architects, owners on the simplest issues. And of course the work has to be done yesterday and they will pay you next year. Typical business.
Writers are sub-contractors, independents, self employed. In that sense the publishing industry is not unlike other idustries that use sub-contracted, independent individuals.
I often think of the query process as sales, and most like door-to-door sales. You knock on door after door. Some don't answer, some politely turn you away, some sick the dogs on you. Then one invites you in, listens to your spiel. They still may not buy, but they listened. Then finally comes someone who wants what you have to offer and you close a deal.
>I think people get frustrated because they're told that if you're going to be a writer, you have to treat it like a business, act professionally, etc. The trouble is, most people's point of reference for professional conduct is their sphere of the business world. So they get in the mode of being professional, and don't adjust their thinking, so get frustrated when their expectations aren't met. Even something so simple as getting an email response–in their world, it should take two business days or less. In the world they're diving into, they may never get a reply. And both sides think they're being professional 🙂 I think it's all about adjusting expectations–when in Rome, email as the Romans do. Thanks for sharing more of your perspective!
Thank you for the time that you take to explain, educate and encourage writers. I like this post. It has GUTS! The things you target here are right on and really clarify the bottom line facts of the publishing process. it is what it is.
There are options for those who have their peace and joy stolen in the steps…Don't Do It! or Self Publish and get out there and make things happen for yourself.
See how that works!
Thank you for stating the facts without flowering things up.
>I guess I can say I have a unique perspective in comparing publishing to other businesses b/c I do get an inside look into so many industries as a CPA – from the thoroughbred horse industry to car dealerships. On the one hand, publishing IS unique because of the product that is produced, but on the other hand people in the publishing industry are in the business of making a profit just like any other industry. Not just anyone can write a book, sell a book, publish a book, but doesn't that make publishing LIKE other industries? Not just anyone can run a car dealership or train a thoroughbred to race. Interesting question, Rachelle.
>Having said that…I think any model can be improved upon. I don't think hiding behind the "it's not perfect, but…" mentality is healthy.
…not that anyone is doing that… 🙂
>In software, companies have a specific need, and our business fills those needs. Simple.
But publishing is the business end of the art of writing. And no one knows exactly how to describe an artistic "need," because no one really knows the hearts and souls of a people group. Publishers essentially have to give it their best guess. And often the best way is to take an "I'll know it when I see it" approach.
Highly frustrating for the writer, but it allows the industry to play it as safe as possible and thereby sustain itself.
Bottom line, it's easy to define business needs, not so easy to define artistic ones.
>People complain about whichever industry they're in, I'm willing to bet that the complaints in this industry are among the most eloquently delivered 😛
>Really, I think ALL industries are unique. Compare manufacturing to retail… Publishing to Film Making… There are a TON of differences as well they should be. What works for one industry does not, and probably shouldn't, work for another. They all have unique needs and constraints regarding how they have to work.
The one similarity is that they are all out to make a profit, including us lowly writers. And to make a profit, they have to offer something that someone else wants to purchase, and they have to offer it for a price that person will pay, but also at a price that is greater than their operating expense. The less their operating expense, the more $$ they make.
Maybe that's simplifying it a bit, but just because an industry is carved around how they can operate the cheapest and most efficiently and still make goods for a profit… I will never complain about that. Sure there are ways to improve, as in ALL industries. But I sure don't expect the industry to make changes just so I won't be inconvenienced (as an author.)
>I hate sounding like a patsy, but in no other business would I be able to realize my dream of being a published, working author. So, bring on the waiting, rejections and no responses. Bring 'em on.
>Writing is an art and I just don't think people see it that way. You have to love it. The people who don't love it are probably the ones who are impatient for the fame and money. But the long, slow process is what makes it better. If they went faster we would have even more books out there and there wouldn't be a standard to stick by. That's what self-publishing has ruined. Yes, some good books have come from self publishing and vanity publishers…but they also produce a lot of not so good and that ruins the market.
Publishing needs to be the way it is to weed out the bad.
>I agree that publishing is like no other business. When I was first navigating the publication path, I remember saying (several times) how it's got its own language, own set of rules, etc. It was very foreign, but I found it fun in many ways too.
But, in answer to today's question, the one aspect of publishing that is unlike any other branch of retail (that I'm aware) is the returns system. I can't think of any other that allows a merchant to buy and display merchandise for an unspecified amount of time and later return unwanted merchandise for full sales credit. I know there's reasons for it, but I'm not aware of any other business that operates that way.
>Well, I think I've been fairly outspoken about my critique of the publishing industry.
Although, I do agree with your first few points, actually. I think it's admirable and friendly if an agent does respond, but I understand sheer numbers makes that difficult.
I also don't have an issue with the long payment time, I agree – that just seems like the nature of the product.
On the other hand, I do disagree about the slow pace of the industry. I think it's just in the culture that people move so slowly. It's unfortunate, because money is lost by such a long response time.
I have other, much stronger critiques of the business, but they're not related to this post, so I'll hold off for when you want to open that topic.
I am curious, though, if you'd like to address this at some point, Rachelle – you said that there are things that can be improved in the industry. What do you think those things are?
>You're pretty right on the mark with what you're saying. Business is business and they're all trying to push something to make a buck. I guess the biggest difference from the author's point of view is that their is not as much team effort of development of product if you disregard editors and art departments, etc. And the product is nonessential to consumers and probably overall less desirable than many other non-essential products. The product of publishing often moves on the basis of whim, luck, or reputation and if it doesn't go over it's a big bust.
May 3rd A to Z Challenge Reflections Mega Post
>I really think that the publishing industry is one of the best places to work.
In no other industry that I have worked in do I get to entirely decide when and where I work. As long as I have a laptop and an internet connection, I can work at my friend Cheri's beach house at 1 in the morning and have the rest of the day to hang out in Monterey with my husband.
When people are complaining about the industry, I wonder what exactly they are looking to get out of it. Money? Fame? Validation?
Entitlement is one of the most unattractive features in kids and it is downright ugly in adults. We are not entitled to anything. Hard work, learning the industry and patience often pay off. But, if you are expecting the industry to be something it's not, you will be forever frustrated…