BECOMING A WRITER
Common Sense Principles On Dealing With The Publishing Industry
When I began publishing, I knew nothing about the business side of things. So in my first year as a professional writer, I inadvertently offended an agent, made a thoughtlessly opinionated statement to an editor, and gave myself apoplexy over things which should have warranted little more than a shrug. In the next year, I made poor decisions, expected too much, did too little. I didn't understand that there was a certain protocol for doing everything, or I did understand but I didn't know what it was, so stumbling and thrashing through publishing became my way of life.
I wanted some wise old author to sit me down and give me the basic, common sense principles of surviving in the publishing industry without upsetting either my business associates or myself. But I didn't have one. I spoke with other writers, pondered such principles myself, and finally, after several years and a lot of snafus, I began to get a handle on some basic rules of attitude and expectation.
So here, after much sweat and tears and conversation, are publishing rules I try to live by. The first one is a large umbrella that covers everything, including the remaining rules, but each of those seemed important enough to point out specifically. Unfortunately I couldn't address every situation you might encounter, and for that you should try to find someone who can mentor you, or take note of someone who's admired and watch how he handles things. But I think these will cover the basics so you can get your foot in the publishing door and keep it there without messing up your reputation. Then you'll be in a better position to find that mentor anyway, and you'll be well on your way to having a better time of it from the start.
1. Behave professionally at all times.
When you first start out, it can be tempting to think that your work and you are so original that you don't need to learn, much less follow, the standard procedures for submission, nor the unwritten rules of appropriate behavior, nor even proper etiquette. After all, you might think, isn't the point to stand out? Why not write a cover letter in pink, or single-space the manuscript, or blast out a five-page letter to an editor who's rejected your masterpiece to give her what for? Writers at the beginning of their career sometimes think this because they buy into the myth that authors are such temperamental geniuses that everyone finds their eccentricities acceptable, perhaps even charming — and then they use that as a justification for first-draft submissions, or ignorance about grammar, or behavior that no one would want to contend with in a law office, doctor's waiting room, accounting firm, bookstore, or any other place of business.
And that's the point: publishing is a business. This is the fact that most startles my students when I bring in editors and agents for a class discussion. It is not there to serve a writer's needs, or to make allowances for sloppiness or rudeness or work that's okay but not revised to the point of being publishable. Unless you have a brand name like Tom Clancy or Anne Rice, editors are too overwhelmed with manuscripts and deadlines to accommodate your careless or idiosyncratic or needy way of doing things, whether during the submission process or in person. It is simply a business, like the legal or medical professions. And it is a terribly competitive and difficult business in which survival is hard enough even if you're fully professional. So it is imperative that you recognize that there are certain behaviors that are seen as appropriate, and that to behave otherwise is to thwart your own progress.
For instance, when you receive a rejection, accept it and move on, even if it annoys you, seems unjust, or was handled insensitively. Do not call the editor and ask for an explanation, or write the editor a rant about how she just doesn't understand your brilliance. Every editor I know has received a call or letter like this, and the result is not that they've suddenly seen the light about that writer's genius, but that they write the poor slob off as inexperienced — or ignorant, foolish, even arrogant. They feel this writer would needlessly make their lives hell, and wash their hands of him forever.
By the same token, you hurt only yourself if you respond to a rejection by wallowing in defensiveness, assuming the rejecter is an idiot, seethe, whine, etc. It's just business — that's all. It's not about you. It might be about the work, and if you've received multiple rejections on a piece, perhaps you could consider reworking it. But it could also be about other factors. As I sometimes say to students, you could be a shoemaker and make the best saddle shoes in the world, but since no one wears saddle shoes anymore, you won't find a store willing to buy them from you. The same is true if you make a great new sandal, but the store already has enough contracts with other sandal designers. It's just business.
You have to be TOUGH to get in this business and even tougher to stay in it. Being professional means knowing how to be gracious and use proper etiquette even in the face of bad manners from the publishing world, or long bouts of rejection. The other way I think of this is: Remain dignified at all times.
At the end of this article, I list a few basic things you can do, in submission and in person, to come off as professional.
2. Work to learn from the lessons that are offered to you.
I remember well the gasp in my class when a visiting agent said that she'd rejected a manuscript because the cover letter was addressed to someone who'd died three years beforehand. How could the editor have been so cruel to the writer? my students asked. The agent pointed out that a job applicant wouldn't get an interview if she'd been so slipshod about her homework. And any writer who messed up such a crucial detail would most likely be inattentive to zillions of others throughout the manuscript, rendering it not worth her time to read.
The smart students went home with the awareness that they were dealing with a business which has certain expectations, and that they would need to raise their standards accordingly. The other students went home annoyed with the agent for being so petty, convinced that she must be an exception. They never considered that people in the publishing industry get fifty manuscripts showing up on their desks every day, so just to keep up they have to reject almost all of them — and a detail this glaring is a sign of someone who's not yet professional. In other words, some students chose to take this as a lesson in the need to be professional; others chose to ignore the lesson, and hence to make life a lot harder for themselves if they ever tried to enter the field.
3. Never say yes on the spot.
A famous agent was looking at my book. Another agent, not nearly as prominent, called me up and asked to see my book. "Well, Ms. Bleepson has it right now," I explained to him. He said, "Call her this afternoon and see how far along she is. If she's not finished, tell her you have someone else who's waiting. I want to read it tonight." I now see how foolish (read: unprofessional) it was to do this, but I was so green that I actually made the call. Ms. Bleepson was so insulted by my request that she returned the manuscript to me without finishing it. I immediately saw the error of the other guy's advice, and never called him back. I learned my lesson — though at a cost, because I'm sure that Ms. Bleepson will never speak to me again.
I have encountered similar situations with film production companies, newspaper editors, and people who run readings.
When you begin to get recognition as a writer, some people may pressure you to say yes to them or no to someone else. They'll tell you that their business with you needs to be concluded right now. This might be true, but might also be a tactic to get you to do what they want — and chances are that if you do say anything on the spot, they won't be as prompt with their end of the deal anyway.
Never make a hasty decision. There is no hurry. Tell them you need to discuss it with your spouse or friend or agent, and then do. Always take at least twenty-four hours to make decisions.
4. Do not badmouth anyone to anyone in the industry — you do not know who knows whom.
It's possible that the person whose book or character you are deprecating is currently sleeping with the person you are speaking to, or is editing their next book, or is their stepfather. The best approach is to keep your big mouth shut, because it is remarkably easy to put your foot in it. The industry is a very small world, and a very political world. Your reputation is all important — don't blow it.
5. Choose your battles wisely.
It is the kiss of death for an author to fight everything. Then you become known as a "difficult author," which means people in the publishing house are less inclined to help you out. Don't become a difficult author. Just fight the major battles, such as over a cover you think is inappropriate, or getting your book into the hands of the most important reviewers. Let the minor fights go. I realize that keeping your mouth shut may take a great deal of self-control, and seem more passive than you truly are. But it's worth it, unless you've got something big on your hands.
6. Look at each publishing experience not as the climax of your life, but as another step in your career.
Take the long-term view. Author expectations are met by an infinitesimally small number of magazine and book publishing experiences. This is true even of the most brilliant writing. If you shovel all your hopes into this one achievement, this one time, then you may well be very disappointed. Remember: you are only one of many authors published by this magazine or publishing house. They may not treat your writing as preciously as you would like, and even if they do, you are competing with tens of thousands of other books, not to mention hundreds of movies and television shows and computer games. And so, despite all your hard work and talent and your publisher's efforts, you may still not get the acclaim you deserve and desire.
But that does not mean you are a failure. It means that this step in your career didn't carry you as high as you might have hoped. Keep writing — another story or book, maybe another genre. You have your whole life to produce your body of work, and all eternity in which to have that body of work recognized. If fame or riches or vast recognition isn't happening this time around, don't get caught up in it. Just focus on the pleasure you get from writing well and from seeing your work in print. The pleasure of fame and fortune can wait a while. After all, delayed gratification never hurt anybody.
7. And for starters, here's Protocol 101 for Publishing:
A. The following are the basics of what you should know about submission:
- Know the name of the person you're submitting to. Find out through an online search, a personal connection, or a call to the main number.
- Many agents and editors accept queries, proposals, and manuscripts through email, but be sure to check their website in advance to know their submission policy.
- Everything you send to an agent or editor should be written in a professional manner. This includes your initial query letter, proposals, and even cover letters. Everything should be error-free. Keep your initial query brief, i.e., the equivalent of one page.
- The manuscript itself should be not only finished, but revised to the point of professional standards. This is the major problem I see with aspiring authors: they over-estimate how well they've achieved professional writing standards. I recommend that you hire a free-lance editor to go over your manuscript in detail before you submit, even if you've already received approval from a writing class. And when that free-lance editor gives you feedback, do what he says. Arguing, or saying, "It's just his opinion," is only going to waste your money and time. It will also come off as unprofessional and, frankly, obnoxious.
B. The following are the basics of what you should know about dealing with an editor or agent directly:
- Do not call or text out of the blue.
- Do not call or text when you haven't been specifically invited to, but just think it's okay. I've heard this story from an agent: Sometimes when writers query her, and the idea intrigues her enough that she sends a letter or email asking them to submit the first fifty pages of their manuscript, they take this as an opportunity to call her and up and "try to show me how charming and witty they are." She's usually icily polite, because, first of all, she's terribly busy, and secondly, if she'd wanted to hear them try to make her laugh, she would have placed a call in the first place and not written a letter. She adds, "In fact, after having gone through the rare step of asking to see more of their work, I now regret doing so, knowing how irritating they are."
- Respect everyone's boundaries. Recognize that everyone has limits. This is true for email as well as phone calls.
- Be polite and cooperative, both before and after an agent or editor decides to take your work on. It's easy to think that you know exactly how your work should be written, but you need to work with your agent and editor as well, and you might discover that you have a lot to learn. To resist every suggestion is not only to come off as arrogant, but to gain a reputation for being difficult to work with.
- Send thank you notes. I know in many quarters thank you notes are seen as absurdly old-fashioned. But the person who sends a note does stand out. Certainly an emailed thank you is better than none, but an actual note is best.
- Acknowledge everyone who does you a good turn, including writers you contact for advice. Just about every writer I know has had the experience of getting an email from an aspiring writer who asks for some kind of advice or guidance. The writer, remembering how hard it was to learn the ropes herself, then stops her own work, puts in an hour or even more to respond - and never receives any response whatsoever, let alone an expression of thanks. Many writers just stop helping people after a few rounds of this sort of thing. By being gracious and communicating your gratitude - even if you don't like what the person has told you - you accomplish two things: You leave the person you contacted with a favorable impression, and you make it more likely that other young writers asking for assistance will get a positive reception in the future.
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