Writing Doesn’t Matter?

I’m going to address some of the comments that came in last Friday on what was surprising to you about the publishing industry.So I want to start with this one simple truth: If you are an unpublished fiction writer, trying to get published, then the writing matters more than anything.The first comment on Friday’s post said:The most surprising thing to me is that the writing doesn’t matter. I’ve got an email (forwarded from my agent) from a MAJOR editor at a MAJOR house in which he says explicitly that they aren’t really interested in taking on unknown writers no matter how good the writing is or how good the book is unless it’s got a foolproof marketability angle. Here’s a direct quote: “Even if the story is some of the best writing you’ve ever seen or the storyline is so penetrating that you couldn’t put it down, it’s hard to sign an author on a good story alone.”The information from the editor isn’t surprising to me. It’s the interpretation that I find shocking. Let me see if I can explain it:YES, several of the big houses are only looking at previously published authors. Are you a previously published author? If the answer is no, then this information is irrelevant to you, except to point out that those houses are not options for you right now. Don’t worry about it, just put them out of your mind. Find the publishers that are right for you.The information from the editor cannot possibly be interpreted to mean “the writing doesn’t matter.” It means exactly the opposite. The fact is, many publishers ARE looking at newbie writers. And if you are a newbie, what do they have to go on? What do they make their decision on?THE WRITING.So in fact, if you are an unpublished fiction author, the writing is the most important thing, and some editors will say the writing is the ONLY thing that matters. Everything else can be worked on. Platform can be built. But the only way for a newbie author to get published is to write a book that professionals in the industry fall in love with.I know this business can be difficult and frustrating, and there is so much conflicting information out there. But it really bothers me when perfectly legitimate pieces of information are so radically misconstrued.In a related comment on Friday, Nicole lamented the hypocrisy of proclaiming only the “best” or “great” writing gets published. Again, I believe this is a misuse of the facts. If we look at it in microcosm—from the perspective of any individual agent or editor—we find that it’s true: I, an individual agent, definitely look for the very “best” writing that comes across my desk. I may see a lot of “good” writing, but I will only be interested in representing it if I think it’s great. It doesn’t have to be “great” by an objective standard. I simply have to love it enough to call it great. So yes, I only choose to represent the “best” of the writing that comes my way.I doubt you hear people saying “only great writing gets published.” But you DO hear agents and editors explaining that amongst the unpublished authors that come their way, they must often bypass the “good” in hopes of coming across something “great.” And great is in the eye of the beholder.More tomorrow as I continue my crusade to unravel mysteries and clear up misinterpretations.

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

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. Peter Jurmu - Creative Byline on August 27, 2008 at 2:56 PM


    Thanks for this post. I’ve encountered the same frustration you describe in my own work and the work of my writer friends and classmates (I’m between a BA and an MFA): no matter if you use a submission service like the one where I’m grad-interning (Creative Byline) or a great agent, some editors just aren’t interested in you if you’re somebody they can’t market like crazy. On one hand it’s understandable. Especially with the paradigm shift caused by the upswing in digital distribution and ebooks, traditional publishers without much of a stake in the digital realm aren’t especially willing to take risks on unproven authors because the merits of a manuscript aren’t the only matters under their consideration. Moreover, they and their first readers are inundated with slush-destined manuscripts in greater volumes than ever before. On the other hand, it’s tremendously annoying for writers. I’ve never encountered so much cynicism than with my friends who slaved over a manuscript and had it soundly rejected by everyone they sent it to. But few, if any of them, took a page from your book and sent it to a smaller publisher afterwards, used a service like CB to focus and refine their query packages, or got an agent to advise them on the marketability of their work. It’s a strange block: “My friends like it, my professors like it, my author friend likes it. It’s as good as it can be.” Be that as it may, there are positive ways to direct that frustration, and giving up is rarely one of them.

    Timothy, regarding church.. It may be splitting hairs, but I believe the historical problem of “lenders in the temple” was that the lenders were in the temple directly in the path of people on their way to worship and sacrifice. Where commerce occurs, resentment and envy and all sorts of negative outcomes and emotions also lurk and distract. That is not something you want in a place of worship, regardless of religion (and I believe, in fact, that adherents to other faiths have the same sentiments as you). That does not mean, however, that simply because you attend church with people who could aid you in your vocation means that you cannot ask their advice or help, or join together in a common venture, outside of church. Particularly if you are of the same faith: that will unite you, not make you timid and petty. Best of luck.


  2. Nicole on July 29, 2008 at 8:45 AM

    >Kim, don’t bite your tongue.

    I must say that the ABA market has plenty of ill-written books and cannot claim a superior skill level in publishing especially in proportion to what they produce.

    “Too good” for the CBA market? What was the last book your agent read in CBA? And what year was that?

  3. Kim Kasch on July 28, 2008 at 10:37 PM

    >. . . I’m biting my tongue.

  4. Anonymous on July 28, 2008 at 9:39 PM

    >I appreciate the response to my comment Rachel and first let me say that I know I’m playing a bit of the devil’s advocate part here. I know the equation is complex. The original comment was an expression of just how surprised I was at the nature of the industry.

    I think it’s certainly wrong, though, to say that writing is the ONLY thing to any publisher. I’ll give you a couple of examples from my personal experience. First, a very close friend of mine that has an established reputation in another artform was approached by the christian imprint of a major house and asked if she ever thought of writing fiction. She had been working on a book for a while and showed it to them, they snapped it up, no questions asked, and it’s currently on bookshelves. While it’s a successful book, it certainly isn’t a very well written one, even by the author’s own admission, in fact the author in question has admitted to me personally many times that it was a simple case of ‘right place, right time’ and would never have been picked up outside the CBA market.

    Case two, another personal friend has had a few books published, YA christian fiction. Once again, they aren’t very good, even she knows this, and she readily admits that they’d never have seen the light of day if it weren’t for the CBA market. So even after the failure of her previous books, she told me a few weeks ago that she got a cold call from her old publisher asking if she had anything else in the hopper because they were looking to fill their roster. She was as shocked as I was (she told them no).

    So my point is that in these two cases (which comprise the bulk of my firsthand experience with the publishing industry) the writing didn’t mean much of anything, only marketability and name recognition did. I’m not saying that’s totally unacceptable, I’m just voicing my surprise as I learn how the industry works. I’d also point out that both of the authors I’ve mentioned, as well as my agent, point out that my own manuscript is ‘too good’ for the CBA market and shouldn’t be shopped or published there unless all else fails.

  5. Megan DiMaria on July 28, 2008 at 9:05 PM

    >Timothy brought up an interesting point about selling “at church.” That isn’t something I’ve done, but then my church is large (5,000 on a weekend), and no one is allowed to advertise to the church. However, I think sharing news about your life is not the same as being a salesperson.

    So I’m wondering, Timothy, if someone has gotten a great promotion or opened a new business or created a non-profit organization or a new ministry—would they not mention it to their friends at church? Sharing your life and the gifts and ministries the Lord’s given you is not the same as being a paperback huckster. (I’m not saying that’s the way you characterized your statement, BTW.)

    But my point is that sharing your spiritual gifts (books you’ve written) could bless another person. I thought I wrote a simple, cute story. The reader feedback I’ve gotten has blown me away. I had never considered my writing to be a ministry until I’ve been forced to acknowledge it that way based on the beautiful emails and conversations I’ve had about Searching for Spice. One gentleman I’ve never met spoke on the phone with me and told me that both he and his wife read my book, and it’s changed their perspective on their marriage. One reader didn’t know it was a Christian novel when she picked it up, and she wrote to thank me for reminding her to put God in her marriage.

    When someone gives you a wonderful gift, don’t you acknowledge it and thank them and perhaps share it with friends and loved ones? The Lord’s gifted Christian writers, and I think He takes pleasure in us acknowledging that gift and sharing it with others.

  6. Timothy Fish on July 28, 2008 at 8:25 PM

    >Since the discussion has moved to marketing and I’ve been goofing off instead of working on my book, I would like to mention one of the problems I have with marketing. Megan mentioned leveraging friends and family to help her promote her book. I’m sure we all do that at some level and most of our friends are happy to help. The problem that I have is that most of my friends are church people and mostly I see them at church. I was taught as a child and it has stuck with me that church is not the place to be selling stuff. That isn’t to say that I’ve never sold anything at church. I once sold a book during the invitation, but that was at the request of the customer. When I am at church, I do not encourage people to buy from me. I feel that doing so detracts from our purpose of being there, which is to worship the Lord and to study his word. That is a problem because it makes it more difficult to tell my friends about what I am promoting.

  7. Sheri Boeyink on July 28, 2008 at 7:52 PM

    >Megan–thanks for your post. It’s nice to hear what makes those who are published or represented do to develop their platform.

  8. Megan DiMaria on July 28, 2008 at 7:09 PM

    >I’m a newly published author (4/08), and I believe that it was my writing combined with my ambitious marketing plan that cemented my contract with Tyndale House.

    I thought of every possible avenue to explore in marketing my books. I racked my brain to think of anyone I may know or have known, or anyone my friends/family knows who might be influential in helping me to market. I even reached back as far as 28 years in contacts. And then I followed up on all those strategies. In 1979 my husband worked with a guy who is a morning DJ on an Albany, NY radio station. After my book released, I contacted him and he interviewed me on the radio. That’s just one example.

    My launch party was deliberately designed to draw media attention. As wonderful as it is to celebrate with family and friends, the whole idea is to make a big deal of it for the sake of media attention. I printed custom invitations and held it in a cool, elite venue on a Thursday night. Media folks are more inclined to come if it doesn’t eat into their personal/family time, hence the decision not to hold the party on a weekend night. An editor from Denver Magazine came to my party, and now I’m scheduled to be one of the monthly profile articles this fall. I doubt she would have gone to the party if it were held in my church basement or neighborhood rec center. Disclaimer: The venue was given to me free of charge by one of those valuable contacts. Otherwise I would never have been able to afford it. If you’re curious about the party, go here to take a peek: http://megandimaria.blogspot.com/search/label/Book%20Launch%20Party

    My editor at Tyndale has told me that she’s never worked with an author who markets so aggressively. Not that every tactic is successful, but I keep pressing on. I’m also not afraid to try something new. My advice: be brave. It’s not egotistical to market your books. Your editor has made a financial investment in your career, and it’s your responsibility to partner with them to sell books. My book is on display at my insurance agent’s office, my compounding pharmacist’s store, etc. We have a neighborhood rec center, and two weeks ago I posted a small sign with info and bookmarks on the community bulletin board—this morning I got an email from an (unknown) neighbor who wants me to sign four copies of my book for her.

    Okay, I won’t bore you any longer with my marketing ideas because I could go on and on and on.

    A prisoner of hope,

  9. CaroleMcDonnell on July 28, 2008 at 11:37 AM

    >The post is fairly honest, i think. It’s stating clearly that it’s about marketing and sales. And that is true. Especially in the Christian publishing world. I’ve had Christian editors say as much to me.

    Publishers, editors, agents, are there to make money. They need books that will appeal to most of the people they serve. They have to be very careful what they buy. Famous or already published writers already have a track record.

    In the Christian non-fiction world, most of the famous books are written by famous writers and preachers. And I think I read that 93% of Christian books are self-published. As for Christian fiction, there are several niches and markets. And all of those niches have already published writers who have their following.

    I write for secular fantasy companies which are actually quite open to new writers…but again…they are a niche too: fantasy. -C

  10. Karen Witemeyer on July 28, 2008 at 11:05 AM

    >To JC:

    A Launch Party is where you launch your newly released book. It’s not really for the “upper echelon” of the publishing community. It’s more of a celebration and sales opportunity. You host it in a cool location, provide refreshments, possibly entertainment or games, maybe giveaways every 30 minutes. You invite everyone you know, you advertise through local bookstores, libraries, and newspapers, and pray for a good turnout. Then you celebrate the publication of your new book, have fun, mingle with your guests, and hopefully sell and autograph a lot of books.

    It’s a great way to publicize your book locally. Even those who are not able to attend will hopefully see your cover and read your blurb in your invitation and be intrigued enough to check the book out later.

  11. Sheri Boeyink on July 28, 2008 at 10:59 AM

    >Thanks for the post, Rachelle. Very helpful.
    I have a somewhat related question: How does an agent assess potential?
    What I mean is, let’s say an agent reads some work from an unpublished author and the agent loves the story; however, the writing is a little rough around the edges. Basics are good, but still a little rough.
    I’ve heard that some agents out there sometimes work with authors (suggesting re-writes, etc) because they see the potential (writing basically good, story great, etc). Have you found that to be accurate?

  12. Rosslyn Elliott on July 28, 2008 at 10:27 AM

    >Thanks for the post, Rachelle. It’s interesting to see how different people react to various tidbits of news from the publishing world. I’m a former pessimist who saw the error of her ways and converted to optimism. Optimism of the clear-eyed, informed, realistic kind. Acknowledging the difficulty of a challenge doesn’t have to be discouraging. It can be inspiring to know that no matter what faces you, you have decided always to have hope, work hard, and remain determined. Sometimes it’s the attitude toward the journey itself that is the victory. I think many of us see that in our faith life, and we benefit by applying that understanding to our professional pursuits. God never said any part of life would be easy or fair. But it’s still good.

  13. JC on July 28, 2008 at 10:21 AM

    >What’s a launch party??? It sounds really cool. How do you get the upper echelon to attend?

  14. Nicole on July 28, 2008 at 10:12 AM

    >”I, an individual agent, definitely look for the very “best” writing that comes across my desk. I may see a lot of “good” writing, but I will only be interested in representing it if I think it’s great. It doesn’t have to be “great” by an objective standard. I simply have to love it enough to call it great. So yes, I only choose to represent the “best” of the writing that comes my way.”

    That’s what I like about you, Rachelle. You always qualify your opinions, you address subjectivity, and you’re honest about the biz. Because you have insights into the biz and opinions of other professionals, you are able to translate what their generalized statements imply. Believe it or not, few of them come across as succinctly and, quite frankly, as honestly as you do in addressing the subjectivity factor of this writing gig.

    And for the record, I wasn’t accusing them of being intentionally hypocritical. Often they just refuse to address the subjectivity of their assessments and comments.

  15. Timothy Fish on July 28, 2008 at 9:50 AM

    >No author, with a contract offer, cares whether the publisher made the offer based on writing alone or based on previous success. On the other hand, the rejected author is going to disagree with the publisher’s opinion whether it is because of writing quality or because of previous work. Even if we could educate every author to write well and even if every author worked assiduously, there is no way for every author to reach the level of success that he or she desires. No matter how good or bad the preponderance or writing is, some of us are going to be let out in the cold. Many of those who are will think that the decision makers are making their decisions based on the wrong things.

    But, for the record, I think there are some editors that need to take their subjectivity in for a tune-up.

  16. Jessica on July 28, 2008 at 9:38 AM

    >Hi Rachelle,
    Thanks for the post. Very interesting. The subjectivity of publishing, in my opinion, is both the scariest and most wonderful aspect of the biz.

  17. Karen Witemeyer on July 28, 2008 at 9:32 AM

    >Marketing is one of the aspects of publishing that I look forward to the least. However, I understand and accept it as a neccesary part of the process. Since I am not yet published in novel-length fiction, I base my marketing plans on what I see and hear other authors doing as well as any creative ideas I can come up with. Launch parties, Web sites, newsletters, any major group I have ties to who may be interested in my book, etc. My understanding is that including a marketing plan shows the editors that I know enough about publishing to understand that I will be expected to combine my efforts with the publishing house to market my book. Showing my willingness to do this emphasizes that I am a team player and will go the extra mile to help produce sales for my company.

    If an editor has two manuscripts on his/her desk that are equally well-crafted but one shows a well-thought-out marketing plan and the other does not, which one do you think he will choose? The one that has the best liklihood of bring in the highest return for his investment. The one that shows the author is willing to do everything she can to boost sales.

    There are so many talented authors out there today, that we have to make ourselves competitive in the market. Great writing is the most important way to do that, but great writing plus a solid marketing plan will give us the edge over the other great writing that may come across the editor’s desk.

    So yes, great writing ALONE may not be enough to land a contract. Especially if Author B competing for the same spot at the publishing house has great writing AND a great marketing plan.

  18. Rachelle on July 28, 2008 at 8:55 AM

    >Anon, here’s how it’s being misconstrued. There are two words that editor left out of the sentence. “…it’s hard FOR ME to sign an author on a good story alone.”

    That means, in MY position, at MY publishing house, we are looking for authors who have previously published and already have a platform.

    Don’t ignore what I said… there are many OTHER pubs looking for unpublished authors.

    And yes, platform information and the beginnings of a marketing plan are usually included in the proposal, that’s standard. As an agent, I make sure all my authors have that in their proposals. But make no mistake: no editor will even look at that part if they don’t already like THE WRITING.

  19. LurkerMonkey on July 28, 2008 at 8:50 AM


    Thanks for addressing that comment directly … I remember being vaguely distressed when I read it because, of course, such a thing cannot be true. From my vantage point, as a fiction writer, it seems that the whole industry is always, always, always looking for the next great thing (sometimes desperately). I would only add that, in addition to excellent writing, I think it’s important that we have a unique hook, a finished manuscript, a thoroughly professional attitude vis a vis revisions, a workmanlike attitude toward marketing and selling, and a very solid work ethic. While this sounds like a lot, I think success in any profession would demand many of the same traits.


  20. Anonymous on July 28, 2008 at 8:49 AM

    >Well, then. I don’t see how this quote:

    “Even if the story is some of the best writing you’ve ever seen or the storyline is so penetrating that you couldn’t put it down, it’s hard to sign an author on a good story alone.”

    could have been misinterpreted by anybody. Word for word, it’s saying that even the best writing is not enough.

    Maybe in the good old days it was, but the more agent and published author blogs I visit, the more I see that authors who go into the game thinking their writing alone is all they need, will be in for a rude shock.

    Some agents even want to see some hint of a marketing plan in the query letter!

  21. A Musing Mom on July 28, 2008 at 8:36 AM


    Thank you so much for clarifying that. It is encouraging to know that editors and agents really do look for great writing.

    The one thought that has been going through my mind related to this is, as Christians, why do we write? Or maybe more specifically, why do we work to improve our writing (ie why do we care about the excellence of our writing)? If it’s all about being published, then we’re setting ourselves up to be discouraged by the realities of how difficult the process is. If it’s about giving God our best at what He has gifted us to do, then we will work to improve no matter what appears to be happening in the publishing industry. It may sound trite, but shouldn’t the biggest answer to the whole “does the writing matter?” be that we should do everything “as unto the Lord”?

    Just my two cents (which is probably worth about half that).


  22. Yvonne on July 28, 2008 at 7:56 AM

    >Rachelle, thanks… I was getting a little discouraged myself. I know it’s hard to get in the “system”, and the only way I knew was to write my best. I don’t know what a publisher is looking for, that’s why I came to you. I’m trusting you to be my mediator.

    It’s also discouraging to see poorly written material being published, horrible grammar and bland vocabulary and boring characters. It makes an unpublished author feel like giving up.

    Thank you for giving us some insight into how your job is done, so we know what an agent or a publisher looks for.