Thursday, March 25, 2010

Misconceptions

by Jessica

I was chatting with some colleagues about assorted misconceptions about publishing, and I thought I’d pass along three.

1) In the name of writing an arresting, throw-down-the-gauntlet type of query, insult the agent to whom you are writing. Every so often I get a query that dares me to look past my own evident myopia/mediocrity/corporate co-option and read a project so mind-blowing that it will challenge everything I presume to know. Although it’s true I am near sighted (and entirely open to earth-shattering literary experience), I’m always a little astonished that anyone imagines contempt might be an effective conversation starter. I do wonder whether the writer in question started out composing less strident letters, and has simply grown bitter over time. If so, I get it. Rejection is excruciating, and who wouldn’t love to craft some cutting cri de couer? Satisfying? Certainly. Self-sabotaging? Probably. Calling an agent a tool seems a poor way of hiring one, but perhaps even Pyrrhic victory can be sweet.


2) I often hear it bandied about that it is harder to get an agent than a publisher. Comforting as this may seem, I feel fairly certain it’s not true. To find representation, you must convince only one person that your story is well-crafted, saleable, and worthwhile. To get a book into print, you generally need to convince a battery of people with disparate tastes and interests, a long, highly particular history of success and failure selling books, and improbably high sales targets that your work is worthy and commercially viable. Most slots on a given list are carefully guarded, and awarded to people who can play some active role in rounding up readers. In the case of business books, an “active role” might take the form of a “buy-back” in which a company or foundation commits in advance of publication to buy ten or fifteen thousand copies. Quite a deal sweetener, also something like the publishing equivalent of Stone Soup. The house brings the stone, but the author brings all the other ingredients, including a baseline of sales. Getting an agent means recruiting a single (albeit tenacious) ally; getting a contract means winning over a whole team.


3) Once you have a publisher, your book will be available in bookstores throughout the country. Not always the case. Publishing houses, even those with great distribution, are not solely responsible for the number of copies shipped. They may announce an ambitious first printing, but the bookseller accounts have a say in how many copies they will take, how many stores will stock it, and for how long.



Any misconceptions that you have encountered/discovered? I’m happy to add to the list.

4 comments:

  1. Maybe I'm just a glutton for punishment, but I wanna see Query Writer 1 on a first date.

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  2. I know many authors who have received offers from editors before securing representation. Yes, with NY houses. I know authors who received representation almost immediately and still have not sold to an editor, after several manuscripts.

    Just as with everything else in this business, I believe that the answer to this particular question is more subjective than absolute. It depends on the author, the editor, the agent, the book, the time, and luck. A whole lot of luck.

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  3. Wow...I almost don't know where to start. I know someone who thinks that having a killer concept and a great illustrator lined up will ensure any author a quick sale. Nothing I say will disabuse him of this notion. I've told him that writers can't choose their own illustrators, but he feels that once they've dangled their great premise in the faces of agents and publishers, they can get anything they want. I've also had people recommend grammar books and style manuals, as though English infelicities are the only thing standing between me and instant publishing success. In a way, I don't mind this. It's refreshing to meet people who are more clueless than I was when I started out.

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  4. So why not self publish and create your own buzz? ........and save yourself a heck of a lot of frustration?

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