Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Editors Rant: Jessica d'Arbonne


The stupid mistakes that put me in a rejecting mood:
As an acquiring editor, I spend many weary hours combing through my slush pile. Sometimes this process is exciting and fulfilling—like when I find exactly the sort of diamond in the rough I’ve been hoping to find for months. And sometimes it’s the worst part of my day. But it’s never more baffling, tedious, aneurism inducing, and annoying than when I’m faced with stupid and avoidable mistakes.

Many of these mistakes are merely nuisances, and not automatic cause for rejection. But think about it: why would you risk putting an editor in a bad mood right before she reads your query letter? Other mistakes are so egregious or just plain brainless that they immediately set off my highly sensitive Reject Reflex (every editor has one).

If you’re the sort of author who takes painstaking, neurotic care with every one of your query letters, it’s probably unimaginable that an aspiring author would be so careless as to not only irritate an editor, but to shoot their publishing prospects in the foot. And yet, I find authors making these same dumb mistakes every time I wade into the slush.

1. Research the publisher before you query them! If you've written a book of poetry, don't send it to a publisher of nonfiction. You will be rejected. Every publisher and agent has a different specialization, and we rarely deviate from our chosen path. We will not make exceptions for you. As soon as I see the word “memoir” in a query letter, I toss it in the pile of stuff to reject. I could’ve turned down I Am Malala three times by now and I’d never know because I. Do. Not. Publish. Memoirs.

2. Don't send your query letter to every single person at the publishing house. The rest of the staff will just forward your emails to the acquiring editor, who will then be inundated with copies of your query letter and therefore very, very annoyed. And in publishing parlance, “annoyed” is synonymous with “in a mood to reject the next poor fool who crosses me.” If you’re not sure who should receive your query letter, consult the submission guidelines.

3. Include your name and the title of your book in your query letter. I just... why is that so hard? I once referenced an author’s “untitled manuscript” in their rejection letter because they literally did not give me that information anywhere in their query letter. He sent me a very snippy note back informing me that his manuscript certainly was not untitled, it had a very nice title, thank you very much. I could have told him the title was missing from his query letter. But I didn’t. Because he got snippy with me.

4. If a publisher or agent has already rejected you because they don't publish books like yours, do not keep querying them. They'll just keep rejecting you. I know these repeat offenders probably aren’t reading my rejection letters (the irony is not lost on me), but if they did, they’d know not to waste their time anymore. I will remember you. And I will remember that I already told you three times we don’t publish books on chupacabra husbandry.

5. Proofread your query letter. Thoroughly. Sometimes there’s an obvious typo in the first sentence and you’re so wrapped up in other things that you miss it. But the query letter is a litmus test for your writing skills, and if you can’t even successfully proofread a letter as important as the one you send out to impress publishers and agents… well, then what does that say about your writing skills? Fix the typos or you will be judged.

By virtue of visiting writing blogs and being part of online writing communities, you’re probably the kind of author who takes a lot of time and care with their query letters, and not the kind who keeps making these stupid, time-wasting errors. So consider this a bleak look at your competition: those who aren’t putting in the same amount of effort you are to send strong queries out to the right agents and editors. Keep putting the same amount of professionalism and time into your query letters that you expect editors and agents to put into evaluating them, and you’ll be fine.

And for god’s sake read the submission guidelines.

Jessica d’Arbonne is an acquiring editor at the University Press of Colorado. She is an alumna of the Denver Publishing Institute and Emerson College. You can follow her on Twitter @JessDarb.

16 comments :

  1. What genres do you represent? What type of story makes your toes curl with excitement?

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    1. I work exclusively with nonfiction at the press. Nothing gets me more excited than an innovative, well-researched work that reexamines common misperceptions about our history and culture. And I love working with young or first-time authors. <3

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  2. I went to an agent panel at the Gold Conference in Colorado in 2015. The agent said they reject 80% of submissions because they don't follow the guidelines. I was shocked! It also made me quite hopeful. I know how to follow directions!

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    1. You are a smart man, Jason!

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    2. Exactly! You SHOULD feel hopeful. So much of your competition is being eliminated for dumb, completely avoidable mistakes. You're actually working among a much smaller pool of queries.

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    3. This is what I tell other writers who think getting published is tantamount to winning the lottery - if you can follow simple directions and know what a SASE is, you've just beat about 90% of the competition and your odds of getting published are now way better than your odds of winning the lottery.

      I don't know why people don't understand that publishing is a business, with particular market demographics and subject matter needs - and that no one just goes around buying beautiful things that they don't need or want. It isn't a personal rejection (unless you're ANNOYING THE EDITOR), but a reflection of what the publisher is buying and not buying, and clearly they're not buying what you're selling.

      Authors always want detailed critique - they want to know what would have made the Acquisitions Editor fall in love and buy their "baby." Having worked both sides of the fence, I now understand and appreciate the terse, "This does not meet our needs at this time. Best of luck elsewhere." It's a firmly shut door that doesn't invite quibbling over writing style and whether you're a discerning reader or any good as an editor. Do you get many authors who want to ARGUE the point with you?

      Did you ever read Ms. Snark? Good Lord, that blog came to a close in 2007, but if you're not familiar with it, you'll love it: http://misssnark.blogspot.com/

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  3. Sheesh, Jessica ... where were these tips when I started the campaign to get my books published? I just figured that if I threw enough 'stuff' against the wall, something would stick somewhere. Well, it didn't, and my arm got so tired throwing it that I had to quit ... you get the picture. Annnyyywaaaaayyy ... good tips.

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  4. Excellent post for anyone querying. Follow instructions.

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    1. I had a college prof who repeatedly said this to me. Followed closely by "answer the question". How many times did he write that on an exam? I eventually learned. :D

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  5. Jessica, thanks for this great reminder of what not to do when writing a query letter. When I was the managing editor for a suburban print magazine eons ago, there was a writer who desperately wanted to see her words in our publication. Unfortunately, she never submitted a professional query, even after I told her on the phone that that was the way to contact me regarding an idea for an article. She kept calling me, wanting to pitch over the phone. She would never listen, so even if she had finally given in and written me a query letter, I would have rejected it because she triggered my "reject reflex."

    Welcome to the BRP.

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    1. That is MADDENING.
      And thank you. :) Proud to be here!

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  6. As a freelance editor who has a small publishing company, I relate to your frustrations. My website is very specific about what we accept and what we don't, but that rarely seems to register with those who query about submitting manuscripts. I always wonder how they manage to self-edit their entire works when they can't seem to get through one page of directions on my site. Or perhaps they do read them and decide they are the exceptions to the rule. These I definitely do not want to work with; nor do I wish to publish their books.

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  7. Surprisingly, there are many who are fumbling along and don't know the proper procedures. Your advice should help them.

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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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