Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Things New Writers Say That Drive Me Crazy

Today I saw yet another comment on a writers’ message board comparing the process of finding publication to a crapshoot. The odds are stacked against new writers. There are so many people trying to sell a book, and so few publishing slots, that you’ve got a better chance of getting struck by lightning than you do of getting published. Etc. Etc.

This kind of thing makes me nuts. Sure, there’s some truth in it. There are thousands of manuscripts in circulation at any given time. The number that find publication in any given year is very small. But the assumptions that accompany this little bit of truth are incorrect, and so are the conclusions drawn from it.

The first assumption (unless you subscribe to the "you have to know someone" myth--see Ann's next post) is that all those thousands of manuscripts are on an equal footing in the marketplace--that all of them have basically the same chance. As anyone who has ever looked at a slush pile knows, this isn’t so. Most manuscripts stink. Less than 10% of what’s out there even approaches publishability--and of that small number, even fewer are polished/original/intriguing/whatever enough to be attractive to a publisher. Granted, agents’ and editors’ decisions are at least partly subjective. But if you’ve written a marketable book, you’re not in competition with every other writer out there, just with that publishable less-than-10%.

The second assumption is that there’s some sort of industry-wide prejudice against aspiring writers. Aspiring writers are lonely outsiders banging on the doors of an exclusive club that doesn’t want to let them in. But every published writer was once unpublished. If the industry doesn't want new writers, how could they ever have sold their first novels?

In fact, all other things being equal, A. Newbie can be a lot more attractive to a publisher than Joan Midlister. True, A. Newbie is an unknown quantity, which means his book may tank--but also means it might succeed (J.K. Rowling was once A. Newbie, and every publisher wants one of those). Whereas Joan Midlister, who’s got several books under her belt but has never quite stepped over the line into mass popularity, is a much too well-known quantity. Perhaps her books sell steadily but not in spectacular numbers. Perhaps her readership is slowly dwindling. Either way, Joan Midlister is constantly in peril of getting the heave-ho from her publisher--which means there’s now a slot for A. Newbie.

(This is the real crapshoot, folks. It’s no more difficult these days to get a first novel published than it ever has been. What’s hard is to sustain a career.)

I understand how tempting it is for writers who consistently receive rejections to assume that there’s something at work other than the quality of their writing. Sometimes this may be so. There’s no question that good books fail to find publication--sometimes simply because the writer gave up too soon. But in most cases, rejection is a result of the quality of the writing--or, less often, of bad research skills or an inability to craft a good query letter.

Of course, no writer wants to believe this. That’s what keeps scam agents, and vanity publishers, and incompetents of every stripe, in business.

If you’ve written a marketable book, if you do your research, if you’re smart and persistent, you have a good chance of finding publication. If not...you don’t. Either way, though, it’s not a crapshoot.

8 comments:

Bernita said...

I hold that thought to my heaving bosom and hope.
Thank you for the context and the perspective.

James Goodman said...

You mean it's not just "the man" trying to keep us down? :D

Mark Nutter said...

That's the most encouraging post I've read in a while! It's not just fluff and "when you wish upon a star", it's solid and reasonable. Thanks!

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

I think your points in this post are very well-taken. But I think it still doesn't take into account the author who wows an acquisitions editor, then an executive editor, then an editorial board, who in turn takes their beloved, championed manuscript to the marketing department----only to be shot down. This happens a LOT with first-time, agented novelists, who are often not considered marketable enough by persons who are not editors. (It's happened to me more than once).

But I keep trying. That's the key---don't give up, no matter how many times the door gets slammed in your face.

Kathleen Bolton said...

Great post, and a timely reminder that this isn't a business for sissie. Learn the craft, bust your chops, keep trying, and stop whining. I tell myself this every time my tears sprinkle another rejection letter.

Anonymous said...

jill, how does this post not take that into account? No one said it wasn't tough.

Julie Carter said...

Wait. This is really putting the crimp on my Misunderstood Genius persona. You're trying to oppress meee!

Or, you know, give good advice, but sometimes it's all the same. :D

Sarah said...

Very encouraging! I think sometimes we forget the amount of utter drivel out there. Reading agents' and slush readers' blogs has illustrated that for me lately. I find myself thinking, "Are these people kidding? How could you let that out of your house? Did they even READ it first?"

Guess it just takes time!