Thursday, September 10, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Writers' Myth: "You Have To Know Someone"

We've punctured a number of writers' myths on this blog, including the notion that commercially-published writers must give back their advances if their books don't earn out, the fear that agents and editors will blacklist writers who displease them, the conviction that "just getting it out there" (via self-publishing, for instance) is enough to jump-start a career, the idea that getting published is some kind of crapshoot, and the "everyone has to start somewhere" excuse that throws so many writers into the arms of amateur agents and publishers.

Here's another one: "You have to know someone in order to get published."

Agents and editors simply aren't interested in work by unknown writers, this myth goes, because unknowns are too risky. In order to get attention for your debut manuscript, you need to be famous, have a friend or relative in the publishing biz, be referred by a client, or already possess a publishing track record (hence a popular variant of the myth, "You can't get published without an agent, but you can't get an agent unless you're published"). Without these connections, your chances of selling your first book are practically nil.

Of course, having connections doesn't hurt. But trust me, they aren't a pre-requisite for publication. If they were, very few debuts would ever reach the market.

Along with the "everyone has to start somewhere" fallacy, the "you have to know someone" myth is one of the most pernicious, because it convinces many writers that it's not even worth trying for commercial publication. Instead of boldly querying the top agents who can get their manuscripts onto the desks of editors at big publishing houses, or going direct to the reputable independent publishers that accept unagented submissions, many writers who buy into this myth confine their queries to amateur or track-recordless agents, or decide to self-publish, or approach only micro-presses. Of course, while hooking up with an amateur agent is never a good move, self- or micro-press publication can be entirely appropriate in the right circumstances. But if you have commercial ambitions, it's probably not the best place to start--especially if you haven't even given the commercial route a chance. You'll never know whether you could have succeeded if you don't try.

We've actually touched on this myth before. Then, we had only anecdotal evidence with which to debunk it. Now there's something a bit more solid.

A few weeks back, YA author Megan Crewe decided to conduct an inquiry into the publishing connections myth. She recently published the results of her poll--and they're very interesting.

270 writers participated, representing a variety of genres: children's picture books, middle grade, YA, adult genre, and adult literary/mainstream. Although "[o]nly 55% of the respondents had an agent when they sold their first book,"

[t]he majority of the authors who had an agent, got that agent with no prior connection (62%). They simply cold-queried the agent, submitted their book or proposal, and were offered representation...

Authors were even less likely to have a connection to the editor who bought their first book. 72% sold to an editor they had no connection to (28% cold-queried or submitted on their own, 44% had their agent submit to an editor the author didn't know).


Megan's conclusion:

The poll wasn't perfect, but it seems pretty clear to me that having connections in the publishing industry is far from necessary when it comes to both getting an agent and getting an editor to buy your book. So if you have connections, sure, go ahead and use them. Certainly can't hurt. But if you don't have any, if you can't afford to go to conferences to meet agents and editors, don't despair. Cold querying works just fine!

There you have it--persuasive proof that you do not, in fact, need to know anyone in order to sell your first book.

(A note on the respondents who sold their first books without an agent: Given the reluctance of the larger houses to deal with unagented authors, the fact that nearly half the respondents had no agent surprises me. However, many respondents appear to have been children's picture book writers, which is one of the markets in which it's more feasible to go agentless, even with the bigger publishers. Also, the numbers may be skewed by when the writers sold their books--before the 1990's, the big houses were still relatively open to unagented writers--or to whom, since smaller publishers are more likely to be willing to work directly with authors.)

(And another note, on why, rather than triggering publishers' and agents' risk-averseness, new writers can actually be more attractive than established ones: A new writer is an unknown quantity. He or she could fail--but s/he could also break big. J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer are extreme examples, but there are many more modest ones. An established writer, on the other hand, is a known quantity, since publishers and agents always have access to his or her Bookscan numbers--and this is not always a good thing, especially if the writer's sales have been flat over a couple of books, or if they're actually shrinking. In those circumstances, the publisher may well well feel that the untapped potential of the brand-new writer is a better investment than the lackluster track record of the established author, who may have proven his/her talent and professionalism, but has also demonstrated that s/he is not going to break out. This is why I'm always saying that while the difficulty of first publication hasn't changed greatly over the past few decades, sustaining a career has become enormously more challenging.)

19 comments:

Lydia Sharp said...

Excellent post. I love myth-busters.

adobbs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jenny Brown said...

I can attest it really helped to know YOU. Via this blog that is.

You pointed readers to Authonomy last winter, warning it probably wouldn't lead to publication. You were right about the site. Its premise is flawed. My book did not rise anywhere near the top nor did anyone agent or editor ever contact me because I posted there.

But last winter Authonomy hosted a group of intelligent writers willing to give detailed critiques. I used their feedback to make some major revisions to a novel I had just about given up on. The revision hooked an agent who put the book up for auction and sold it a week later as part of a three book series.

Before signing with the agent, I checked her out on Absolute Write where an enthusiastic client recommended her.

That pretty much ends my list of "industry contacts." I've published a lot of nonfiction over the years but that has never given me any kind of leg up when it comes to selling fiction. Nonfiction is a completely different business.

So my conclusion? It really is about the book.

Thanks!

--Jenny Brown (formerly posting here as Jenny)

adobbs said...

Very informative. I'm a writer who plans to avoid getting an agent and submitting to large houses.

My reasons to avoid the traditional path are different from the myth you mentioned, and I'd like to hear your thoughts on the potential for authors to use digital technologies to engage directly with readers.

One of my biggest issues with traditional publishing is signing away rights to your IP for little to no advance and a 5-10% royalty. As a new and successful author, you might sell 5-10k units...assuming $1.50 per book sold, you make 7.5k to 15k for the book.

If you self-publish digitally, you can get anywhere from 50-95% of the sale price of your book depending on where it was sold. If you price the book at $5 and get 70% then you get $3.50 per book. To make 7.5k to 15k, you need to sell roughly 2150 to 4300 books.

If you are prolific and skilled enough to put out 2-4 books a year, that's more than enough to make a modest income. In addition, you retain all the rights to your IP, develop a direct relationship with the audience, bring more negotiating power to the table for a print deal, and made headway toward figuring out a way to make money if you do fall out of favor with publishers (or if they are out of business in five years).

I guess this idea may sound completely insane, and I'd love to hear the pitfalls. It is my belief that the only essential roles are the author and the reader, and at some point technology is going to marginalize any entity between the two. Although, in the near future I think marketplaces like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and iTunes will retain significant power.

Traditional publishing pipelines and paper books are still dominant now, but will they be in 10 years? What about 20 years? Digital music has officially overtaken CD sales in revenue, and digital music crippled that industry in only a span of a couple years. I'm not even sure print media has 10 years left in it as the market leader.

As a young, aspiring author, isn't it better for me to put my effort in the direction publishing and media in general is headed? Or do you think it's still better to go the old route?

Any thoughts? Thanks!

Sara Creasy said...

One of the 62% here... I sold my book by getting a good agent, and she found me in her slush pile.

adobbs, selling 2000+ self-published books (2-4 times a year, per your figures) is a huge undertaking - I would say near impossible. One part of your equation that's missing is the marketing, which is what the publisher does: getting the book on shelves via the book buyers. How does a self-published author get those 2000 readers to buy? Or even to know you exist?

Also, most books don't earn out their advance, which the author keeps, so sometimes those royalty figures don't mean much in these comparisons.

The other part of your equation that's missing is the editorial filter. Readers probably trust books from established publishers more than self-published books because an objective professional who wants to make money off the author has put their stamp of approval on the book. Self-published books don't come with that assurance - they are the printed slush pile that agents and editors rejected - which is not to say there isn't the occasional rose among the thorns, but the reader may lose faith after reading a few thorns.

Note that I've seen e-publishers pay around 40% royalties (but often no advance) so this is something to consider before going the self-publishing route. Plenty of people make a good living this way.

Self-publishing may be the way to go for many writers, and it's easy to do with Lulu etc. But if everyone does it... how do you stand out from the crowd and attract those 2000 readers?

adobbs said...

Hey Sara,

You brought up the things I am most worried about: editing, marketing, and distribution. Regarding the first two, I am skeptical about how much effort would go into the editing and marketing for a new author. I could be believing in a myth here, but it seems like the budgets for both of those are dwindling if you aren't a big name or one of the few deemed to have big market potential.

If those two elements are marginalized (which maybe they aren't), then more and more of the publisher's power is as a distributor and gatekeeper to the book buying market. Which, of course, is kind of a big deal!

However, I'm not looking at self-publishing physical books at all, but just doing ebooks only. It may make sense to go physical at some point, but it costs nothing but time to publish digitally and that's pretty appealing.

Another key motivation for me is a personal belief that corporations should not own a creator's heart and soul, and in order to get published by a major house, you sign away lots of control to someone else. Just as an example, imagine the outcome for George Lucas if Star Wars wasn't an independent film. Someone else would have made all the money off of that person's creative effort, which I feel is wrong.

Anyway! My other feeling is that 2,000 people buying anything write is probably a best case scenario, and I'd be incredibly happy and rewarded to have a few hundred people feel my work is worth buying. If you go the traditional route and only a couple hundred people buy your book, you're a failure. If you go digitally, and you sell a couple hundred, you've made a little bit of money doing something you love and you haven't put control of your creation in the hands of someone else.

I realize my perspective is probably flawed and perhaps too influenced by my own political views toward intellectual property, but I do believe the model at some point will shift toward a scenario where the most important relationship is author to reader not author to middle-person. Thank you for your insight!

Sara Creasy said...

adobbs, I see your point, and if you're concerned about retaining your rights then it sounds like self-publishing is the way to go. For those interested in commercial success (wide distribution and the chance to sell a lot of units), a royalty-paying publisher would be better.

Regarding editing and marketing for a new author, I think that might be another myth that needs busting. Advance-publishers want to make back the money they spent, which means producing a professional, well-distributed product.

The publisher owns the right to publish the work but only until it's out of print (the definition of which is clearly defined in my contract) - and that makes sense to me. As long as it's in print, let them do the work getting my book into stores.

You make a good point about "traditionally" published authors who fail by not selling well. I have heard stories about authors being unable to sign anywhere else or having to change their name. But they still keep that advance!

The truth is, many of us want to make a living doing this. We are "in it for the money" and are lucky enough to be using our creativity to make that money. And like any job, that means falling in line to some extent.

Sara Creasy said...

I meant "advance-paying publishers"!

wealhtheow said...

@adobbs -- I can't speak to marketing specifically (although see Patrick Rothfuss ...), but everything I've heard from pro writers suggests that, if anything, books by new writers get more editorial attention, not less.

As a reader choosing a book to read or to buy, or deciding whether to keep reading one I've started, I am most likely to be put off by two things: poor writing (which remains visible in the finished product, of course, only because of poor editing) and a failure on the author's part to make me care about the characters. I have read and adored several books with plot holes a kilometre wide and two kilometres deep, because the characters felt real to me and the prose never triggered my inner proofreader; but even the most exciting plot will not convince me to finish a book that I find myself copy-editing in my head as I read. And if there are typos in the back-cover copy (or electronic equivalent), I can promise you I will never even read the first sentence of the first chapter.

Of course, that's just me. But I think a lot of writers starting out in, or trying to break into, publishing really underestimate the value of the work editors do, as well as the amount of attention their books are likely to receive from said editors as new acquisitions.

adobbs said...

@wealtheow editing does concern me. Nothing pulls you out of a story quicker than a blatant typo or obvious grammatical mistakes. Beyond that, issues of style may be felt more than read, and that's where I feel an editor could really help. And then there's feedback about the story itself, which can help make a good story great.

I would love...absolutely love...a close relationship with an editor who really helped polish the work. I guess I just don't have much faith in that happening.

Instead, my hope is to connect with other writers to get feedback and help them with feedback of my own. In addition, I plan to draft my stuff publicly, and get feedback directly from readers...a "beta" version I guess. The idea would be to write a story publicly, and then polish the work and put it up for sale. People can participate in the beta story for free, and then purchase the release version.

Maybe I've done too much gaming and software development, but I view creative output more as a perpetual work-in-progress than a finished product.

Marian said...

I've seen defenders of vanity presses make this claim: that commercial publishing is a closed-circle and if you don't know someone within that circle you'll never break in.

It's good to see that being refuted with evidence as well as anecdotes.

Entrepreneur Chick said...

As an entrepreneur and owner of four companies- that post, which was EXCELLENT, shores up the reason why I've been successful and why I'll be successful as a writer. If you want something, by damn, you get yourself in front of the people who matter.
GREAT POST.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to see statistical evidence that it's easier to get a publisher than an agent.

I was published by a major publisher when an editor pulled my manuscript from the slushpile.

To get an agent, though, was a lot harder. And I had to know somebody.

christine tripp said...

I agree with Sara.
I would bear in mind Lucas produced Star Wars though a traditional movie studio, Fox. He negotiated retaining the rights by not taking a salary. At the time Fox thought this a great deal, as they had no idea the block buster the movie would become.
He did not make this movie alone. In essence, he had a "publisher" to pay for it's production.
I would much prefer to create and leave the production of it to a publisher. I want to make money, I want my advance and I want my royalties, all while leaving me time to work on my next project. Your time IS worth money:)
I can also attest to "it's NOT who you know or if your already published".
I was an unpublished illustrator when Grolier/Scholastic offered me an 18 book series to illustrate. I had never done a trade book when I was offered a series from a small but traditional publisher (with advances, as smaaaaallllll as they were:)
I am published and it is completely a struggle to get more work. So, it's not who you know, it's not if you have been published before and you do not always automatically get MORE work once you ARE published.
I am sure this scenario would be the same for authors, it's all about the quality of the work being submitted at that moment (with a nod to timing and sometimes a little luck:)

christine tripp said...

Anon, yes, agents are much harder to interest then publishers.
I suppose it is mostly because, while publishers (at least decent sized ones) can take on many authors/illustrators, agents can only work with a small number or creatives to represent. Also, while a publisher is only committed to an author or illustrator for short period of time and perhaps only 1 book, an agents committement is, basically, forever or until one of the parties ends the relationship. So, I do see why they must be very careful.
That said, when they see someone good, they jump on it.
I have watched (literally, at one of our agent days in Ottawa) a big agent hand cards to only a certain few illustrators. She was PICKY but she was right, in my opinion. If I were a rep, I would have signed them up too:)
(I wasn't one of them by the way:)

SB said...

So true, so true. This is actually a rather widespread myth among the people I know - not just for aspiring writers (for which I'm personally glad that this myth isn't true), but just life in general, like getting a job in today's economy.

The difference for me is, while I've always been under the impression that you have to know people, at least I didn't take that to extremes. Personally, I saw it more as "You don't have to know people to succeed, but you have to know people if you want to succeed *quickly*".

That was, of course, excluding the obvious (and somewhat less obvious) examples who had success without any previous 'foot in the door', so to speak.

That said, I'm glad to hear that this myth isn't all as accurate as people like to believe. Another excellent post.

Anonymous said...

I'm not exactly sure these myths have been refuted. In the piece, it was noted that the polled writers had landed publication in a more open earlier era, and I'm not exactly sure whether or not this sample was representative. The fact that many were childrens' authors may not be as instructive to, say, novelists aiming at a more mainstream market. I certainly would LIKE these myths exploded, but I remain yet a bit unconvinced.

Anonymous said...

I think you actually proved the myth was reality. According to the stats over a quarter of writers had "connections to" prior to getting a publisher or agent - that is actually a considerable number and proves that you are far more likely to get taken up if you have connections within the industry.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous said,

In the piece, it was noted that the polled writers had landed publication in a more open earlier era,

Actually, what Megan says is "I also know from the comments that the respondents sold their first books across a pretty wide range of time--some decades ago, some this year, the rest everywhere in between." So recently-sold authors are represented.

Also, while publishers in earlier eras were indeed more open to unagented submissions than they are today (at least the big houses), the notion that previous eras were more open to writers in general is a fallacy. It has always been hard to get published.

Another Anonymous said,

According to the stats over a quarter of writers had "connections to" prior to getting a publisher or agent - that is actually a considerable number and proves that you are far more likely to get taken up if you have connections within the industry.

Anonymous, this is peculiar figuring. The survey clearly shows that a majority of responding writers had no connections prior to getting their agent or publisher. To me, that doesn't say that connections make you "far more likely" to get signed.

No one is denying that connections help. Of course they help! But the myth is that they are essential. And I think that the survey--as well as the experience of many published writers I know--clearly demonstrates that they're not.