making books: harvest of fire publishing reasons i suck
by Harry Connolly
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Let’s say you’ve got Reggie Jackson willing to give away hitting tips, answer questions about breaking into the Major Leagues. And someone says, “Hey, Reg! I want to be a pro ballplayer — but my local Thrifty doesn’t carry batting gloves. Where can I buy a pair?” I think most people would recognize that question as a waste of time for all parties involved.
– Quote from here.
I wasn’t really planning to write this post, but my editor suggested it. (Or did she? I remember that she did, but I was getting a lot of input at the time, so maybe I misremember.) Here’s the story behind that suggestion:
I had just finished the “Escapist Fantasy” panel at San Diego Comic-Con, and I knew I had stammered and lost the thread once or twice, but I’d also made a decent point or two. While I’d been up there at that long, long table, I’d seen my editor out in the audience. We’d never met, but thanks to the power of Google, I knew what she looked like. Hey, no pressure, right?
Also, during the panel, the moderator mentioned her by name, saying something like: “We have Betsy Mitchell, editor-in-chief at Del Rey, in the audience today. What do you think, Betsy, about…” and outed her to the whole room.
After the panel ended, I thanked folks and made my way down to the floor. I was meeting my editor face-to-face for the first time–and I hadn’t done as well as I’d have liked on the panel, so I was all set to apologize, plus I was on my way to my first signing, and I was trying not to be a complete goof–but before we could get past the pleasantries, a guy butted in to say “Hi, I’m an aspiring writer and I’d really like to be published with your company. I’d really appreciate any advice you could give me.” Or whatever.
Now, I was sorta annoyed by this, because that was not the conversation I needed to be having at the moment. Betsy gave him a brief answer, stating that they only accept agented submissions, then she turned to me and said: “You broke into publishing recently. Do you have any advice?”
My first instinct was to say: “Well, the really good advice for getting published is concealed on the internet.” I didn’t say that. Did I mention that I was meeting my editor for the first time? Snarking at J. Random Fan in front of her would have been inappropriate. Probably.
Here’s what I told him instead: “I wrote the book. I wrote the query. I queried widely and carefully. I picked the agent that seemed to fit best.”
I could tell he didn’t think much of my advice, but really, what else was there to say? I wrote a book that a couple agents thought they could sell, and a few publishers wanted to publish. I worked like crazy on the query, going over it and over it and soliciting advice on my LiveJournal (and it still wasn’t all that great, but what the hell. It worked). I sent the queries to agents who seemed to be a good fit.
That’s it. The rest of it happened to me. It wasn’t anything I did. I signed with my agent and the rest was a conveyor belt to where I am now, six-and-a-half weeks before my first book hits the stores.
But I’m going to take a couple seconds to type out “Breaking into publishing” advice, because it would useful to have this here where it’s easily accessible. And keep in mind that this is what I did–it’s not a universal prescription for everyone. See below for further explanation.
1) I’m interested. I’ve been reading about the publishing business for years. When I started writing, I didn’t know that “recto” referred to the right hand page of a book and “verso” the left hand. I also didn’t know what ARCs were, or what a blurb was. But I learned all that, for free, just by being interested in the business. And I didn’t spend a penny, either, because I’m a cheap bastard. I learned all free on the internet, just by following blogs and asking the occasional question.
When the time finally arrived that I had an offer, I had read so many personal stories by other writers about their first sale that I didn’t lose my entire mind. I came close, but not all the way.
2) All “rules,” but one, are actually tools. Tools not rules! as Bill Martell says. The only honest and true law of writing is this: Be interesting. Writers can break every other so-called rule in the book including grammar and spelling rules, but if they have my interest, they have my attention (and money).
3) After a certain point, there are no more “insider” secrets to learn. Once a person has learned to write synopses and query letters, and once they understand that agents and editors are looking to sign writers, not teach them, there’s very little they can do to improve their chances at publishing besides work on storytelling.
Someone who responds to rejection with “How am I supposed to get better if no one will tell me what’s wrong?!?!” or even “You’re an asshole who MISSED HER CHANCE TO WORK WITH A GENIUS LIKE ME!” then there’s no hope. Better to sign up for a free LiveJournal and post the novel a couple pages at a time, with a donation button at the bottom or something.
But a person who’s respectful of the guidelines and isn’t a nuisance will succeed or fail because of the book they’ve written.
Which is why the quote at the top of this post is a little misleading (for the record, my editor is Reggie Jackson in this analogy, not me)–”What advice can you give me to break into publishing?” is not really an answerable question. She’s never going to answer “Write me a book about magic boomerangs” or “I’m sure there’s an audience for a series of combat golf books. Write that.”
Editors and agents never give those answers. No agent or editor has ever answered “How can I break in?” with “Horror westerns with a strong romance element.” None that I’ve ever seen, anyway. Occasionally, an editor will say something like “MilSF does well for us in paperback,” but it’s never couched as advice for what any individual ought to write to break in.
It really comes down to working with other writers on your style and storytelling, arguing theory, retyping favorite chapters, replotting favorite stories, and all the other exercises writers do to improve their work. Once you create a book that you love, you send it out and hope that they read it and think “I can sell this.”
A couple final notes so I can wrap this up: I broke in with a cold query, but others have gone different routes. Some interacted with editors online. Some met editors or agents at conventions or conferences. Me, I’m an introvert and a skinflint. I don’t do well in social situations with strangers, and for people like me, queries are entirely sufficient (a point I argued some months ago).
It’s not the path you take to getting published that truly matters. It’s whether you have written the right book.
Also, please note I never said writers needed a “good” book. For whatever reason, that always leads to digressive discussions about what makes a book “good” and how such-and-such is published but not “good.”
I’m not talking about whether a book is good or not, at least for this topic. The real questions are: Will this book appeal to readers? Can the publisher reach those readers with this book or would a different publisher do better? How good the book is will have to be left to each reader.
And that’s all, I think.