(Encore presentation.)

There are always myths floating around in publishing, so today I’m going to try and explain just a few of them.

Myth: Publishers & agents know exactly what they’re looking for.

Back in 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was wrestling with what defines obscenity and pornography, and in his famous quote, he said he couldn’t quite define it but “I know it when I see it.” Sometimes that’s the way it is with publishers and agents. They know they’re looking for books with certain sensibilities that fit their audience; they know they’re looking for great ideas, great writing, and authors with great platforms. They usually have generalities that help them make decisions, such as “We have enough marriage and parenting books for now” or “We’re looking for new voices in the postmodern movement.” They might say, “I’m looking for some terrific fantasy or supernatural fiction” or “We need more books for men.”

But nobody ever said, “We need a book about a kid who goes to wizard school – man, that will sell a bajillion copies” or “If someone could just come up with a story about a chick with no personality who has to choose between a vampire and a werewolf, we’d for sure have a bestseller on our hands.” Nope. It’s up to the writers to come up with books that make publishers say, “THAT’S what I want to publish!” Publishers know in general what they want to publish, but not exactly.

Myth: No news is good news / No news is bad news.

No news is simply…. no news. That’s it. It often means nobody has had a chance to read your stuff yet. Don’t make any predictions based on the lack of news.

Myth: Never give up. Persistence will pay off.

Writing a good book is kind of like getting to the Olympics. It involves a complex interplay of natural talent, good luck, great teaching, perseverance, and practice, practice, practice. So yes, persistence is key, but that isn’t a guarantee it will “pay off.” (Of course, I could write a thesis on how we define “pay off” but I won’t.)

The key to remember is that there’s never a guarantee that persistence with pay off with a particular project. As you probably know, most bestselling authors wrote several books before they wrote the one that finally sold. If you’re having trouble getting publisher interest in your book, perhaps it just needs to be back-burnered for awhile. This is a great time to work on a new project. That first one might eventually have its day. But don’t wait for your first book to sell before you start your next one. I’m not saying “give up.” But sometimes it makes sense to give up a specific idea and work on creating a more saleable one.

Myth: Editors and agents are intimidating and self-important.

Most of the time, agents and editors are under a lot of pressure, and they are tired. Just like most writers!

Editors’ jobs depend on them finding great authors and books that sell. They usually find one winner out of every several hundred possibilities they see. They can get weary of writers who are simply not ready; writers who are not paying attention to learning the craft; writers who are SURE they have the next bestseller when they’re not even close; writers who argue when told their work isn’t publishable.

I occasionally lose my patience. I lose patience with writers NOT doing their homework about how to write a proper query or proposal. I lose patience with writers who greet my attempts at constructive criticism with contempt. I lose patience with writers trying to tell me how to do my job or what I should like and dislike. I’ve definitely lost patience with writers who stop me in the restroom while I’m trying to wash my hands and try to pitch me their book (and yes, it’s happened more than once). I apologize if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of an editor or agent losing patience. It’s probably not self-importance. It’s more likely the daily grind, and the constant pressure to find the next bestseller.

Don’t look at editors (and agents) as scary. They’re simply trying to find the right books, and they face a tremendous amount of pressure and competition in doing so. They’re forced to rely on their experience, their knowledge and their gut instincts to make difficult decisions on a daily basis. They have to wade through an awful lot of mediocre or even bad writing (and this is painful because editors are people who love great writing). When they reject your work, it is not a personal affront to you. It’s their job.

If you’re friendly with editors and agents, if you listen to what they have to say and trust their experience and knowledge, if you avoid arguing with their advice and instead try to learn from what they say without giving it TOO much weight (remembering they are human), you’ll get along just fine.

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. Russo on August 1, 2010 at 4:44 AM

    >I love this blog, I have learned so much in just 5 minutes. Thank you!

  2. Tahlia on July 29, 2010 at 7:30 PM

    >Great post – as they always are. I'm finding the occasional line from them that inspire a whole post for me, sort of a side shoot.

    As for the above – I always say, no expectations, no disappointments. And the greater our expectations, the more disappointed we'll be.

    I think this is so important that I did a post on the topic myself.

  3. Tahlia on July 29, 2010 at 7:30 PM

    >Great post – as they always are. I'm finding the occasional line from them that inspire a whole post for me, sort of a side shoot.

    As for the above – I always say, no expectations, no disappointments. And the greater our expectations, the more disappointed we'll be.

    I think this is so important that I did a post on the topic myself.

  4. Bri Clark on July 29, 2010 at 10:50 AM

    >Dear Rachelle,

    I want to offer my thanks for your post. Nevertheless, I also find it irritating that common sense has become a lost charateristic which has been replaced by the ever persistent character flaw selfishness. Thank you again for persevering the waters of mediocracy in order to find that shell that shines.

  5. Walt M on July 28, 2010 at 10:32 PM


    Great post. Sorry I missed it the first time. I had to laugh at the "Editors and agents are intimidating and self-important" section. I recently wrote a column about my suggested rules for "stalking" Agents and Editors, based on the laws of motion developed by Sir Isaac Newton. (My RWA chapter found it funny enough to post in the chapter newsletter.) Given that the only conferences I've ever attended had few males attendees and only female Agents and Editors, I'm always a little nervous. Anything I might do wrong will be remembered easily.

  6. Kellye Parish on July 28, 2010 at 3:56 PM

    >I've definitely lost patience with writers who stop me in the restroom while I'm trying to wash my hands and try to pitch me their book (and yes, it's happened more than once).

    Reminds me of last summer – I was leaving a bookstore, and as I was getting rang up, I mentioned in passing that I was an editor as a sort of apology to the clerk when she exclaimed over the amount of books I was purchasing (who else buys fifteen novels waiting forty-five minutes for a haircut?)

    Unfortunately, the woman behind me in line overheard me and pounced into her spiel about how she was a Writer Laboring On The Next Great American Novel.

    I hated having to tell her I am a pissant in the industry with no connections to help her and that I too am writing The Next Great American Novel, so good luck with that. (Not that connections would have helped that pitch, honestly.)

    Intimidating? Nah. Impatient? Hells yes. I think authors forget that editors and agents are people too – we have cats to feed, bills to pay, other authors to demoralize, and a plethora of other time-intensive responsibilities to fill our time.

    And yeah, a lot of us are writers, too. So when we're not having to massacre your manuscript, we're gnashing our teeth over ours…it's really difficult to get your "inner critic" out of the way when that's what you do for a living.

  7. Michael K. Reynolds on July 28, 2010 at 12:45 PM

    >Too often the word stubbornness is a euphemism for being unwilling to learn. Humility is not only a virtue, but a strategy for personal growth.

  8. Reena Jacobs on July 28, 2010 at 11:58 AM

    >Myth: Never give up. Persistence will pay off.

    I like the truth of this. With 99% of work rejected, it's obvious most aren't going to make it in the game.

    It doesn't mean to give up your dream or throw writing to the curb. Just realize the dream of being published (not self-published) may never be realized, and one probably should have another motivation for writing.

  9. Sharon A. Lavy on July 28, 2010 at 10:38 AM

    >(Encore presentation.)

    Love that phrase to replace reprint.

  10. Daisy Harris on July 28, 2010 at 10:11 AM

    >Great post! I particular appreciate the comment about persistence paying off, but not necessarily for the one project. I see other writers bang their heads against walls on that one. I assumed my first book(s) wouldn't be my best work and just kept writing new stuff. It's less work than sending out 100 queries that come back rejections!


  11. Jill on July 28, 2010 at 9:56 AM

    >Please don't tell me that luck has anything to do with it. I have the worst luck!:) God's grace, though, has always been on my head. He trumps luck any day. Thanks for the post.

  12. Colleen Coble on July 28, 2010 at 9:55 AM

    >Spot on, Rachelle! I especially tell aspiring writers not to make my mistake. I wrote and rewrote my first novel for 5 years, determined that it would sell. It finally did but if I'd just moved on to a new project, I believe I would have sold much sooner. You learn to write by writing. No amount of how-to books and conferences can substitute for work spent on craft. πŸ™‚

  13. Jaime on July 28, 2010 at 9:43 AM

    >I promise I will never pitch to you in a bathroom. πŸ™‚

    Great post!! Good to get definition to myths … it's encouraging πŸ™‚

  14. Erika Marks on July 28, 2010 at 8:33 AM

    >Rachelle, I like your distinction about persistence–that it isn't necessarily about the project but the craft.

    Too often we cling to a project that simply isn't working, so sure that it's merely a matter of sticking with it to find it a home. Not always. Better to bring that determination to every project, but know when it's time to turn that same commitment to a fresh one, as well.

  15. Teenage Bride on July 28, 2010 at 8:04 AM

    >You always give such great advice. Thanks for giving us the inside scoop on some of these myths.

  16. Shmologna on July 28, 2010 at 8:00 AM

    >Ha ha. I can see someone lurking in the bathroom stalls, gripping their manuscript and peering through the gaps in the door.

    ~Britt Mitchell

  17. Melanie on July 28, 2010 at 7:54 AM

    >Thank you for this honest and up-front information! This is helpful advice I will keep in mind.
    ~ ~

  18. salarsenッ on July 28, 2010 at 6:43 AM

    >Your words are so true and always delivered with such clarity. Thanks for reminding me that most successful authors wrote many manuscripts before they sold The One. And your comment about putting a current project on the back burner, and writing something new, could be just what I need to breath life back into me. I've been working on a project that everyone seems to love but has gotten me nowhere. Maybe putting it aside to work on that MG story that's gnawed at me for months will really help.


  19. Mark on July 28, 2010 at 6:30 AM

    >I'll try not to accost you in the ladies as I'll probably get arrested…

  20. Jason on July 28, 2010 at 6:24 AM

    >Great post Rachelle…even the 2nd time around… πŸ™‚

    The scary thing is (assuming the rumors are true), the "I know it when I see it" rule didn't really apply to Harry Potter. Wasn't it passed over by several publishers and it took an editor's eight-year old daughter to finally champion it.

    Not sure if that's true, but a little scary if it is…

  21. Em-Musing on July 28, 2010 at 4:42 AM

    >You always have great things to say. thanks

  22. Jessie Mac on July 28, 2010 at 4:22 AM

    >It's good to know that 'no news is simply…no news'.

    I'll try not to accost you in the ladies. It helps being separated by an ocean.

    Thanks for the advice, Rachelle. Have a good day.

  23. Marja on July 28, 2010 at 3:30 AM

    >Thank you Rachelle for a great post! I'll take your words to heart πŸ™‚

  24. Dawn Embers on July 28, 2010 at 1:51 AM

    >Great post. I will refrain from ranting about obscenity law, because any reference makes me do that (I blame Stanford, lol). Though that is an amusing, albeit overused. Not quite as funny as the comic with "Justice Scalia to the rescue!"

    And I got off topic. I'm glad that my new internship in publishing currently is just writing my opinion of stories sent to me by the main editor. I don't have to influence decisions, as I'm not sure how I'll feel if I get to that side of the industry.

  25. Anonymous on July 28, 2010 at 1:29 AM

    >FAB post–sorry I missed it the first time. Thanks for your sound advice and common sense in a topsy-turvy publishing climate.