Thursday, October 18, 2007

Unconventional Wisdom

Since I shared a writing tip yesterday that kind of went against conventional wisdom, I thought I'd share some more unconventional wisdom, but this time focused more on the business end of writing. From hanging out with my agent and her agent and editor friends at conferences, I've gleaned a number of insights that go counter to what you might expect.

1) Writing-related activities aren't necessarily the key to breaking in.
I heartily endorse the idea of belonging to a writing group or organization, reading books about writing, and staying on top of the industry by reading blogs and web sites about the publishing world. That's how you can learn a lot about the craft and business of writing and better position yourself for success. But never forget that talking about writing or reading about writing does not equal writing. If you're going to go anywhere in this business, you have to actually write something. When you're off at conferences or meetings, you're not writing. When you're reading blogs or books, you're not writing. Find a balance, and don't let yourself think that all this work about writing counts as writing time.

2) Selling your first book is not like getting a first job.
When you're going for that first job and don't have a lot of experience, it makes sense to fill out your resume with related activities. The really gung-ho college students get involved in a variety of professional organizations, run for offices in other groups, do internships and apply for awards and scholarships so they'll have impressive resumes in spite of their lack of formal job experience. And, speaking as someone who used to hire entry-level people back in my corporate life, all that activity does count for something. It demonstrates a willingness to work hard as well as some experience doing the kinds of tasks they might have to do on the job.

The writing world doesn't work that way, but a lot of aspiring writers act like they're going after that first job. If they don't have publication credits to put in a cover letter, they try to make up for it with writing-related activities. They join writing organizations, run for office, and take on volunteer jobs in those groups. But the truth is, editors and agents don't really care. Membership in a writing organization does indicate a degree of seriousness about the business and that the manuscript likely isn't written in yellow crayon on paper torn out of a spiral notebook. Beyond that, though, it makes no difference if you've been president of your RWA chapter or organized a conference. The benefit you might get out of doing those things is the contacts you might make. You might get to know editors and agents through organizing conferences and workshops, and that might help your manuscript avoid the slush pile. It's still all about the book, though. If the book isn't what they want, all the volunteer work in the world won't change that. Leave that off your cover letter and focus on pitching your book.

3) Don't get caught up in the contest quest.
RWA chapters may put out a hit on me for this, since contests are a major fundraiser for them, but manuscript contests really are not the best path toward publication. They're great for getting some feedback on a manuscript, and some of the bigger, more prestigious contests do have some credibility with editors and agents, but in general, contests won't get you published. I've noticed that in all the contest results that are announced, very few of even the winning manuscripts are requested by editors and agents. In those editor and agent conversations I've sat in on, they generally say that they pick winners because they have to, but none of them are really things they want. If they do find something they want to see more of, it's something they would have requested anyway if it had been sent in through normal channels, and they suspect that the preliminary judging in most contests doesn't necessarily select the manuscripts they'd be most likely to want. It's really hard to standardize something that's based primarily on personal taste, so the contests create score sheets to quantify various aspects of a book. But going by that kind of form tends to penalize uniqueness or anything that doesn't meet usual expectations -- and it's uniqueness and going against expectations that editors and agents are generally looking for. When they do request a manuscript through a contest, they often find that the first chapter or three (the parts entered in contests) are polished to perfection, but the quality of the rest of the manuscript drops off sharply after that. That's if the book is even finished and ready to submit. In a lot of cases, even when the agents or editors request the whole book after judging the contest, they never get it because the author never finished it. I've known some people who got so caught up in the contest whirlwind that they forgot about actually finishing and submitting books to people who could get them published. All they did was polish contest entries, and their signature lines on loop posts listed all the awards they'd won -- but they still hadn't sold a book.

Now, here's the part that will really sound crazy: Having a long list of contest wins on your cover letter can actually count against you in the eyes of an editor or agent. Here's why: If you've won that many contests judged by editors and agents and yet you still haven't sold a book and still don't have an agent, that suggests that none of those editors and agents who've judged your books have wanted them. That's a red flag. It's even worse if a single book has won a lot of contests without selling or being signed by an agent. That gives agents and editors the impression that the rest of the book doesn't hold up to the promise in the part judged by the contest. And it means that the book has essentially been shopped around, as a number of editors have read at least a part of it without buying it. Agents usually don't want to take on a book that's already been seen by a lot of editors (unless there's an offer on the table).

Disclaimer here, before I get slammed by people who've won a lot of contests: This is the way some agents and editors say they perceive the situation. I'm not saying that if you've won a lot of contests and still don't have an agent or still haven't sold that your book sucks. I'm just saying this is how some editors and agents say they interpret query letters mentioning a long list of contest wins. If they still like the premise, they may ask to take a look, but they're a bit skeptical about it.

Bottom line: If an editor or agent requests a book through a contest, it's a book they would have requested if submitted through normal channels. One or two contest wins indicates that you might have something good going on. Half a dozen or more without publication or landing an agent suggests that you can write a great contest entry but not necessarily a great book. A contest can fast-track you past the slush pile to a read, and that can be helpful when you're dealing with a publisher that won't look at unagented work. Just remember that you have to get past the first-round judge before you get to the editor, and the first-round judge probably isn't looking for the same things the editor is. This is all probably a bigger problem in romance than in other genres because there are a lot more manuscript contests for novels. Short story contests are an entirely different issue, and credits there, as well as magazine publication, can help.

Also, beware of contests sponsored by publishers. There again, if they like it enough to publish it through a contest, they'll probably like it enough to publish it if it's submitted the normal way, and part of entering the contest usually involves agreeing ahead of time to the terms of the publishing contract you'll get if you win. If the book is that good, an agent could probably get a much better deal for you as a regular submission. I do know of some big-name authors who've broken in through publishing contests, but at least one has been pretty vocal about how stupid she was to agree to those terms and how she felt she got ripped off in the long run. There is some prestige associated with winning a contest like that, and the promotion you get as a contest winner may outweigh the downsides to the more restrictive contract, but know what you're getting into and don't let yourself think that this is the only way to make it.

In fact, I would bet that the majority of novelists break in the old-fashioned way: they write a great book, then a great query letter that intrigues an editor or agent, who then asks to see the book. They don't necessarily have contacts, and they didn't find some secret shortcut through belonging to the right club or winning the right award.

And now I'm going to see if my still-aching legs will carry me to the post office.

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