Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Is the Publishing Sky Falling? Part Two


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.


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14 comments :

  1. "...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." This is scary...(or not!) Thanks for your clear, objective optimism. In what ever form it takes, reading will never go away...so in some regard there will always be a market for good writing.

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  2. Optimism is hardest to sustain for those of us writing in the cracks between genres or with a style and agenda that does not fit current formula and fashion. My last serious encounter with an interested agent resulted in a plea to write something more "edgy." Not me. My optimism dwindling, I'll cling to hope and keep writing.

    --Larry Constantine
    Lior Samson, author page

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  3. Larry, I do hope you keep on writing. Not only will you improve with experience, the difference between writers who succeed in getting published and those that don't often is how much tenacity you have. There are few overnight successes in this business and the only way to "make it" is to keep on keeping on.

    Kathryn, thanks for the thoughtful and inspiring post.

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  4. I think also the publishing industry is stormy in some places and sunshiny in others. For a writer like me in Botswana, ebooks are fantastic. The barrier to African literarture is distribution. With ebooks that falls away. We now get fair footing. I think once things settle down all will be well and writers will be more in control than ever before.

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  5. The issue isn't 'drivel' vs 'quality' ... the issue is still 'marketing'. Whether is is mainstream, self, or 'e-published, good marketing beats high quality every time. The publishing world is undergoing a sea-change right now, but it will stabilize eventually and marketing will still be the most important element.

    In Erratum: This dyslexic commenter used 'know' in place of 'no' in a recent comment ... sheeesh!

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  6. Christopher, if "good marketing beats high quality every time," that's a sad state of affairs for writers and readers. I've seen way too many half-baked, amateurish novels self-published or e-published on Amazon,that should have had knowledgeable advice and a lot of revisions and polishing (read: hard work) first. That prior effort would have resulted in a book worth marketing, and one that would deservedly sell well. Bestselling authors revise their stories 30 times or more, before they even reach the editing process. Don't put the cart before the horse!

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  7. Thanks for an excellent two-part, informative, thought-provoking article, Kathryn!

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  8. Kathryn, you say "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 true. Author readers can get some tips on hooking agents and readers in on "Those Crucial Five First Pages" at http://crimefictioncollective.blogspot.com.

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  9. Having waded through a slush pile or two, about half of submissions are pretty solid. Then a second tier of scoring becomes necessary to eliminate manuscripts. I find contest submissions to be the same. The challenge for the juror or acq. ed. is declining some really good writing, and hoping the author won't be discouraged and stop seeking a home for their writing. Tenacity is the name of the game. Certainly, if a house editor makes some personal recommendations, think about taking the advice. They might just know what they're talking about, and paying attention could result in an accepted manuscript at the next stop.

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  10. "It might take (the agent) 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."

    All the more reason to self-publish, prove the market in a few months, and let the agents come to you.

    Agents sell to publishers. Publishers sell to book-stores. Only the self-published writer sells direct to readers.

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  11. Maryann, thanks for encouraging words of wisdom. I will keep on writing and honing my craft, as I have done over the last 50 years as an author and 20 books worth. The shock to my system has been going from decades of traditional houses begging me for mss. to not getting so much as a reading once I took the plunge into full-length fiction. The late Steven Jay Gould said, "The indifferent universe rewards on and only one thing: persistence." Tenacity. Persistence. Success?

    --Larry Constantine
    Lior Samson, author page

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  12. This is a post hopeful authors should read. As the post says, a command of English is important to a novel. If a great story isn't being told well...then it's not that great of a story after all, at least certainly not one people will want to read.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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