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.