In part one of this post I began a list of reasons to have faith in the publishing industry even though it is suffering from the crucible of change. I pick up here substantiating my use of the word "drivel" with respect of much of what the agents see:
• I know a lot of manuscripts are “drivel” because agents tell me so (okay, they used a saucier word). One told me that if you have a great story and a decent command of the English language, and submit a clean manuscript without dog-eared corners, you are already in the top tier (10%) of submissions. As a developmental editor, I see work all the time that is on the low end of the learning curve, yet the author has asked for that "final line edit." Even more than reduced publishing house purchases, this glut of unpolished submissions is the main reason for so many rejections.
• Keep in mind that your manuscript is not competing with other submissions for bookshelf space. It is competing against the work of every author currently in print, alive or dead, in addition to the growing volume of self-published works. There's a lot of good work out there. What does yours add to the canon? If yours is “just as good as” Hunger Games, why would a reader buy yours instead of Hunger Games? This knowledge is the key to effective marketing. If the agent digs your story, the whiff of convincing salability will seal the deal.
• Authors complain that their manuscript can't be judged by only a query and a few paragraphs. But that’s exactly how I purchase a book—back jacket plus the first few paragraphs and I know whether I’ll buy it. So if an agent sets yours aside, does that mean it's not publishable? No. It means the agent is setting it aside the way any book shopper might. It’s not like she’ll only have to read it once. It might take her a few years, with revisions and submissions, to make a sale. She must love it, because current market conditions often require that she go to the wall for it, time and again. And if she only "likes" it, she might as well dive back into that obscenely dense pool of submissions and find "love."
• Publishing still is a gambling business—read Publisher's Lunch, where agents report their deals on behalf of both established and debut authors. In fact, an untested author with a great book idea now has an advantage over an author whose foot is already through the door but whose first book didn't sell through.
The work of new authors, represented by our country’s some 850 literary agents, will continue to be acquired by editors. Roles will continue to shift in response to new technologies, and agents will strive to stay on top of this, predicting what success they can, as they have now for decades. Only you can decide how much rejection you can bear before you start submitting your next book—and if you decide instead to self publish, make sure you have in place the brilliant marketing plan that was escaping the industry professionals who already rejected your manuscript. Natalies of the world, take note: these agents may know a thing or two about what sells, after all.
The publishing sky is stormy, for sure, but I’m not convinced it’s falling—there are too many people passionate about reading and writing trying to hold it up. Yes, in this uncertain climate, there will be cloud-watchers who decide to leave the game. A sure way to avoid being among the agents and editors and even writers who do so is to keep playing.
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, has been published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.