Myth Busting – Part 1

One of the great things about the Internet is that it has made it so easy to find information. But the downside is that it’s just as easy to find misinformation. With authors, agents, and publishing people out there on blogs, loops, and forums, constantly talking with one another and often contradicting each other, it’s sometimes hard to discern what’s true and what’s rumor. So this week I’ll take some time to bust some myths you shared with me in the comments of my March 4th post. Today we’ll start with…


Myth: You have to have an “in” to get an agent or a publisher. It isn’t what you know but who you know.

Truth: While having an “in” helps, and networking can be quite effective, it’s not necessary nor is it the only way to break in. Many agents and publishers take on new writers through queries.

Myth: If you want a big publisher, get published at small presses first and work your way up.

Truth: While this can work, it’s not the best strategy. With a small publisher, your books may have modest sales figures, which may make it impossible for you to get a big publisher later. However, sometimes a small publisher is right for you, and can be a good home for you long-term.

Myth: Getting published is a catch-22. You need to be published in order to get an agent; but you can’t get published without having an agent first.

Truth: You do not need to be published to get an agent. Getting published is hard, but is not a catch-22. We always need fresh voices, so there are always new authors getting published.

Myth: Publishers can buy a spot on the NYT bestseller list to debut their author’s work.

Truth: While the formula for making the NYT list is somewhat mysterious, it does NOT involve publishers paying the NYT for a spot.

Myth: If your first book tanks you might get blacklisted and be banished from the publishing community forever, requiring you to change your name and begin from scratch.

Truth: If your first book tanks, you definitely have an obstacle to overcome, and using a pseudonym might be one way to try and deal with it. It’s not a matter of blacklists and banishing, but a very real concern about whether your future books can sell.

Myth: Once you are published, you no longer need to submit a proposal for each book thereafter. A synopsis will do and your publisher will keep you indefinitely.

Truth: This varies publisher to publisher, and is totally dependent on the performance of that first book together with the quality of your writing. As an author, you are constantly beholden to the sales of your latest book, and if your books are not performing, the publisher can drop you. If you’re making money for the publisher, they’ll want to keep you.

Myth: When your books are published, they will automatically be in bookstores.

Truth: Distribution to every single bookstore in the U.S. is impossible. When you walk into any Barnes & Noble or other bookstore, it’s a crapshoot as to whether your book will be there.

Myth: You’re finished with rejection once you’ve signed your first book contract.

Truth: Rejection is a part of every single phase of your publishing career…and it’s the worst when your book is published and “rejection” comes in the form of nasty reviews on Amazon and cruel letters from readers.

Myth: A good story with good characters and strong writing will eventually find success with a traditional publisher.

Truth: There is a good deal of mystery, serendipity and luck involved in getting published, and once you’re there, the level of success can be unpredictable. A great book may or may not find a publisher, and if it does, it might be modestly to wildly successful, or it might not live up to expectations. In her March 7 post, agent Kristin Nelson said:

Regardless of whether an author self-publishes or pursues traditional publishing, some writers just win the publishing lottery and their books become major successes. We honestly don’t know why that sometimes occurs; and even more telling, why it sometimes doesn’t occur—even for some really good books. It’s basically a mystery. (And of course I know every blog reader can point to one book they think is totally awful and was a big success. Truly a mystery!)

Myth: There is a formula for getting published and if you just crack the code, it will happen.

Truth: There is no “one” path to getting published – every author’s journey is unique.

Any questions about these myths?

TOMORROW…Myths about agents, and myths about self-publishing.

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Anonymous on March 20, 2011 at 9:35 PM

    >While publishers don't hand over cash for slots on the NYT list, books that get financial support (bookstore co-op, advertising, blog tours, aggressive publicity human resources to get it in magazines/newspapers) are the ones that are going to hit. I think the argument could be made that those slots are purchased, albeit indirectly.

  2. Nath Jones on March 16, 2011 at 12:53 AM

    >Thanks for the post. Great read!

  3. Neil Larkins on March 15, 2011 at 9:55 AM

    >Wow. I sure do like this. Hopefully tomorrow's post (I guess today by now) about agent myths will answer one of my questions: why is it that every time I find an agent that I like and will accept my genre also says somewhere in his/her blog that they are no longer accepting queries or queries from non-clients? Even if that question isn't answered I know I will find useful info. I always do here. Thanks, Rachelle.

  4. Martha Randolph Carr on March 15, 2011 at 9:23 AM

    >What a great column! You cut right to the heart of what it's like to get published without doom and gloom, which isn't at all necessary. There's some good direction in there for authors to follow and that's why I'm going to send this to a few writer friends.
    Thanks Rachelle!

  5. Anonymous on March 15, 2011 at 7:22 AM

    >It certainly is a myth that once you have a publishing deal it is all plain sailing. For my first book, I got an agent straight away, and a deal with a major publisher following a five-way auction. The book comes out in a couple of weeks.
    My editors say they love my second book proposal, but the finance director is refusing to let them make an offer until they see the sales figures for this first one.
    It's a tough business, especially in this current climate.

  6. Michelle Franklin is a on March 15, 2011 at 4:01 AM

    >A lovely post. I'm glad I found this.

  7. Ishta Mercurio on March 14, 2011 at 8:54 PM

    >Awesome myth-busting! Thanks for addressing these – especially for the one about starting small and working your way up. I'll take your advice to heart.

  8. Dave Fessenden on March 14, 2011 at 6:43 PM

    >Rachelle — great post! As for the NY Times Bestseller list, I was told by my journalism professor in college that to set up the NY Times list, reporters call around the city to several bookstores, asking what's selling. The store managers usually have several titles that they've bought a ton of, so they always name those books. That's the story I was told, which may have been a literal urban legend. Even if it was true back then, it may not be true 30 years later!

  9. katdish on March 14, 2011 at 4:57 PM

    >One myth not covered here is that you need thick skin in order to be an author.

    It would be incredibly helpful to be thick skinned, but it's been my experience that the best writers do not posses it, and as painful as it might be, it's the ability to endure the pain of rejection and bad reviews that makes them better writers. My opinion, anyway.

  10. Tana Adams on March 14, 2011 at 4:05 PM

    >Great post. Thank you for answer some of my questions.

  11. Mark Browning on March 14, 2011 at 4:05 PM

    >These are fascinating. When my first (and only) book appeared, I beat the odds while believing several of these myths. As an academic book, it sold very well–as in, I actually made some money–but I realize now that I should have parlayed that good fortune into something more.

  12. Amarissa Amber Cale on March 14, 2011 at 2:38 PM

    >If I may quote…cynthiaherron said…

    "The one myth I hope you dispel this wk…"Oh, ANYONE can write a book." I still hear that jewel every now and then."

    I had to chuckle when I read your comment; my sister is one of those people who believes she can do anything better than anyone else (especially me). When she learned I was writing my own book, she casually says., "I could write a really good book if I wanted to!" When I asked her why she didn't then, she snapped back, "I just don't want to, but if I did, I could write a better story than the one you're writing!"

    Ask her what an active verb is!

    So true though, writing takes a lot of patience and hard work… it's not simply a matter of putting a series of thoughts down on paper!

  13. Rosemary Gemmell on March 14, 2011 at 2:26 PM

    >Thanks for cutting through the unfounded stories people tell us, as always! Love the mermaid.

  14. cynthiaherron on March 14, 2011 at 2:18 PM

    >Since I'm a person who tries to see the glass half-full as opposed to half-empty, I take most myths with a grain of salt until agents like you, Rachelle, give us the real skinny on them.

    The one myth I hope you dispel this wk…"Oh, ANYONE can write a book." I still hear that jewel every now and then.

  15. JoEtta on March 14, 2011 at 2:10 PM

    >I really look forward to reading this week's blog, Ma'am.

    I'm not sure if you've ever referred to getting published as being similar to getting a record deal, but they seem similar to me–even with the myths. Although, I'm sure a record deal is glorified much more than a publishing contract.

    It seems more of a matter of "luck" or an act of serendipity than anything else (as Ms. Nelson slightly hinted at). You can have the raw talent, the personality, the capabilities, the drive, the work ethic, and the hope, but you're at the mercy of the industry. I'm guessing, politics has its insidious fingers in the mixing bowl as well.

    Here's a question: at what point would you advise, or would you ever, someone to "give up" on their pursuit of publishing with a traditional publisher? Because aren't one of the myths (although not mentioned here) "if I just keep persisting, eventually I will get published" ?

    I mean, there is faith, but there is also reality, no? And they are anything but amiable to one another.

  16. Kathryn Packer Roberts on March 14, 2011 at 12:28 PM

    >I really liked this post. There are a lot of rumors around the publishing world and it's nice to know what really goes on. Some things you wonder about. But I think you are right, there isn't a magic button that needs to be pushed at the exact right time for someone to get published and there will ALWAYS be trials throughout the experience.

    And I like Micheal's thoughts on agents. I used to be scared to death of all agents. Like they were superheros (some may be, of course =), but I have been pleased to find that they ARE actually human afterall. AND helpful.

  17. Amarissa Amber Cale on March 14, 2011 at 12:09 PM

    >I always try to be positive, and am someone who appreciates constructive criticism. After reading your advice here, I can say not only thank you for dispelling some myths about the trials of getting published, but "with hard work and determination, I am bound to succeed!"
    Thank you from the tip of my pencil to the bottom of my page!
    I look forward to your next entry!
    Cheers, Amma

  18. Shelly Goodman Wright on March 14, 2011 at 11:38 AM

    >As a memeber of a writing group, I've heard some of these myths. Thank you for your insightful blogs and setting us straight. The bottom line is to work hard, study the craft, keep writing, and if you heed to critiques, eventually you'll end up published. Isn't that the truth about anything worth while in life? I think so.

    Side question: In a query, if your pitching a fictional story, can I mention newspaper article publications for my publication history?

  19. Mary Martinez on March 14, 2011 at 11:03 AM

    >Thank you for sharing all of this great information. It really does help an author hoping to find a partnership with an agent. Sooner rather than later. I look forward to the rest of the myth busting.

  20. Susan on March 14, 2011 at 10:23 AM

    >I discovered this blog recently, and am so grateful. I'm going to learn all I can, but honestly, it all makes me a bit nervous. I'm willing to put in the hard work of writing, but it seems like such a needle-in-the-haystack thing to find an agent or to be published. I'll keep reading. Thank you!

  21. Loree Huebner on March 14, 2011 at 10:21 AM

    >Thanks for the myth busting. It helps to answer many of the questions in the back of a writer's mind.

  22. Casey on March 14, 2011 at 10:03 AM

    >GREAT myths to burst.

    I believed for a long time that an editor won't look at you if you don't have an agent and an agent won't look unless you have either an interested publisher or am published.

    Whew! How daunting is that?? But the more I learn about the industry and listen to conference recordings and read this blog, I see that isn't always the case.

    Thanks for bursting more bubbles here!

  23. Sarah Thomas on March 14, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    >What a lovely combination of relief and angst! Thanks for clearing these myths up for us.

  24. Rick Barry on March 14, 2011 at 9:23 AM

    >Thanks for the myth-busting, Rachelle. Fun to read both the myths and the replies.

    Hope you've been having a good time at the latest conference!

  25. Anonymous on March 14, 2011 at 9:01 AM

    >A comment on your third myth– not only don't you need to be published to get an agent, you also don't need an agent to get published.

    I'm one of many midlist authors with major publishers still trying to get an agent. (That's a "myth" you don't hear much about.)

  26. Chris Shaughness on March 14, 2011 at 8:42 AM

    >Regarding not needing to submit a proposal once you are published: I remember Lisa Scottoline saying that for her, each book was like starting over as a new author. That comment has stuck with me.

  27. Chris Shaughness on March 14, 2011 at 8:42 AM

    >Regarding not needing to submit a proposal once you are published: I remember Lisa Scottoline saying that for her, each book was like starting over as a new author. That comment has stuck with me.

  28. Tamika: on March 14, 2011 at 8:18 AM

    >The biggest quiver in my publication dream would be that landing an agent only happened through referral or something of that nature.

    Since I can still showcase my work to agents and pitch my own prose- I breathe a collective sigh of relief.

    Let my work speak for me:)

  29. Christine on March 14, 2011 at 8:15 AM

    >I appreciate the time and effort you give to assembling these posts. They are a tremendous help and encouragement to writers trying to "break in" to the business.

    I have heard most of these myths before. The only one I bought into was the first one due to a rejection letter I received from an agent. Her reason for not accepting my work was that I was too unknown. Her words, not mine. Another agent liked my work, but wanted a detailed list of how I would participate in the marketing. I sent it to him. He rejected my work saying I didn't have a network to reach 20,000-30,000 people.

    I have worked at expanding my network just for my own benefit. I need to learn as much as I can to improve my craft. I am also now published with an online newspaper and a couple of other sites. My articles are receiving a good number of hits.

    Thank you again for this series. I look forward to learning more.

  30. Sharon A. Lavy on March 14, 2011 at 7:33 AM

    >Some of these myths come from well meaning friends and relatives who don't want us to get our hope up too high. Or don't want to tell us our writing stinks.

  31. Jean Ann Williams on March 14, 2011 at 7:01 AM

    >Thanks, Rachelle, for busting the myths.

  32. Jackie on March 14, 2011 at 6:50 AM

    >'Rejection is a part of every single phase of your publishing career' – That's a really helpful reminder. Handling rejection when we're seeking publication should be viewed as a toughening up process, a chance to develop a thick skin, at least in a professional sense, and never take rejection as a personal slight.

  33. Anna Zagar on March 14, 2011 at 6:46 AM

    >This is so true! I snagged an agent out of the slush pile! And if you think rejection is over, wait until you get your first editorial letter outlining everything that DIDN'T work with your book! Develop that thick skin now, BEFORE you get your first bad review!

    These are encouraging posts, Rachelle. Thanks for them, as always.

  34. Wendy Paine Miller on March 14, 2011 at 6:19 AM

    >Oh, I’m looking forward to the continuation of this series!

    Have you ever seen Shakespeare in
    Love? I kept thinking of a line in that movie while I read this…

    “It’s a mystery.”

    ~ Wendy

  35. Rasquachi on March 14, 2011 at 1:14 AM

    >This was great; I loved it. As a professional actor and fledgling casting director, I have very similar mythbusting sessions with novice and would-be actors from time to time.

    The myth that's the hardest to bust –and, for me, the most painful, since I wish it weren't true– is "talent doesn't necessarily guarantee success or even a career." So painful to discover, and so sad to break to people (who never believe you until they discover it for themselves). It's a mystery!

  36. Rasquachi on March 14, 2011 at 1:13 AM

    >And my favorite one you covered as well– there is no *one* path to a career in the arts. SO TRUE.

  37. Carol J. Garvin on March 14, 2011 at 12:34 AM

    >Your final 'truth' is probably the one most of us need to put up on the wall above our computers: "There is no 'one' path to getting published – every author’s journey is unique."

  38. Michael K. Reynolds on March 13, 2011 at 11:58 PM

    >I'm going to jump ahead to tomorrow's post and debunk a myth about agents: That they are uncaring and just out for the money.

    My most pleasant surprise in working with folks in the CBA is what genuinely wonderful and caring people they are and agents are high on that list.

    Rachelle…you personally debunk this myth with each post you write. May God bless you richly for all of the time you invest in each of us who grow as writers daily because of your Blog.

  39. Angela @ HomegrownMom on March 13, 2011 at 11:40 PM

    >I have a question for you. I have the opportunity to attend a writer's conference and have a 15 min. consult with an editor or agent. I have a completed book proposal. Would you recommend I meet with an editor from a publishing house or an agent?

  40. Christine Tyler on March 13, 2011 at 11:27 PM

    >A lot of these myths sound like excuses people use when they meet– and have a hard time with–rejection. Or they're used as reasons not to try. "My manuscript was rejected because I didn't have an in." "It's no use querying because no one reads the slushpile anymore." And that's why, as often as agents debunk these for us, they're going to stick around.

    Still, it's nice to be reminded they're not true 🙂

    As far as the last myth goes, I suppose it also depends on what you consider "success." To many, writing a good story with strong characters is a good reason to be happy with oneself at the end of the day, even if it doesn't catch on with the masses. And mild popularity with the right niche might appeal more to some writers than wild popularity with an audience they don't relate to.

    What a thought-provoking post…

  41. bfav on March 13, 2011 at 11:22 PM

    >Love this. And thanks for all the great advice at NCW.