Yes, But Do You Want Anyone To Read It? An Intro To The World of Agents, Editors and Publishing

Russell Nakamura
by Russell Nakamura

Posted February 25th, 2008 • 7 comments

Good writing is hard.

Think of the countless rewrites you’ve done with a project even after coming up with a killer idea you know is just going to rock. Well, if you’re a creative writing student, or just someone whose friends get a kick out of your wildly-spun tales, you’re guaranteed to get read and likely receive feedback.

But if you’re talking about the professional market, it’s just not the case. Whether you’re dealing with publishers, editors, or literary agents, if you don’t hook them in the first paragraphs of the first page, you’re done.

BooksIt doesn’t matter if your story is utterly mind-blowing on page six. Sad news, kids. You’ll never get that far. These people are trained to sniff out crap from a mile away, and if your work remotely resembles crap, they just plain don’t have time to sit around and wait for the stink to go away.

Don’t get me wrong. Writing is individual expression, and in a free society everyone has the right to say what he/she feels. No one should censor you—that would just plain be un-American.

But what I’m trying to answer is: Yes, but do you want anyone to read it?

If you dream of one day having your book at Barnes and Noble next to Wally Lamb or Mary Higgins Clark, you’d better learn this quick: It must show market potential—which means:

  • It’s engaging to read
  • It’s got an innovative, original concept
  • It’s written with clear, strong language
  • It plays to an audience that is currently buying books

If you’re an unpublished author and your work can’t meet these criteria, nobody in the publishing world will go near it.

Why? Because publishing is a business—a simple fact they don’t teach you in creative writing classes. When a project comes across an agent/editor’s desk, they’re only thinking one thing: Can I sell this? Although you may love and emulate books by Austen, Hemingway or Tolkien, you should realize—those books would never get published in today’s market!

A lot is happening in the industry today. Did you know that nonfiction is outselling fiction by more than 3:1? Did you know that giants like HarperCollins and Random House are gobbling up every small press that demonstrates niche-market sales? This may not sound like it pertains to you—but it does. Remember Tower Records? That place with the orange and red sign that set the standard for the music megastore during the 90s? Gone. Why? They couldn’t compete with Wal-Mart and iTunes.

The point: Everyone’s in stiff competition. Publishers have to pay bills too. So if they don’t think your book will sell, you’re S.O.L.

You may be thinking I write what’s in my heart! I’m no sellout. I won’t chase fads and markets in order to get published! Am I doomed to forever write on Scribophile as my sole medium for creative expression?

First, settle down. Agents and editors are still aficionados of good literary work. But face it. Time is money. We live in a fast-paced world of cell phones, T1 lines, and Tivo. Every moment an agent is talking to you is a moment spent not talking to someone who may have a better project. So make strong first impressions and ensure your book is saleable. Otherwise they won’t even read it.

This little story I’m about to write may come back to bite me in the ass, but I just returned from the Southern California Writer’s Conference (a great tri-annual event with some amazing faculty and staff) where I had the pleasure of meeting a few literary agents.

One of the biggest surprises among conferees was how every single one of them (all females) was young—and hot.

I stood with a fellow writer named Jim (also in his twenties) several feet away from two agents (for sake of the story, let’s just call them Michelle and Kelly). These two beautiful, sharply-dressed young women got approached by guy after guy—some middle-aged and balding, some overweight and awkward—and with each one, they smiled politely, shook their head, and gave some bodily gesture as to say, go on now, step away from me.

Jim and I stood chuckling, discussing how approaching agents is exactly like the bar scene. The hottest girls at a bar get approached by countless men with absolutely no game—so naturally, their defenses are high. I was fortunate to chat with Michelle later that evening about how it wasn’t a far cry from college admissions either (which, in my experience, is twenty-somethings traveling the nation while predatory parents and college hopefuls try desperately to secure their acceptance). Even bribery isn’t unheard of.

Believe it. An agent/editor is looking for an excuse to turn you away. It’s nothing personal—you’re just not for them—or you didn’t win them over.

So do yourself a favor. If you want to sell your book, build up some game. Put together a professional piece of work. Study language, rules of writing structure and plot arc. Do market research to see if your story is saleable. And hook them with the first paragraphs of Chapter 1.

Good writing is hard, yes. But not nearly as hard as getting published. Writing can be a very personal thing; it’s not a business. But publishing is. Don’t take it personally. I can’t tell you how many projects I’ve abandoned simply because there’s no market for them.

I realize not everyone has the goal of getting published. However, if you do, get acclimated to the realities of this world as soon as possible!

 

 

Before I finish, let me offer a hint. Scribophile isn’t just a social writing workshop. It’s unwittingly a model for the publishing world.

You may find yourself saying “Hmm, I wonder why nobody’s reading my story. It must be the review queue, that’s not fair.” But is it really?

Users view two things to decide whether or not to read your work. 1) Title and 2) Chapter description.

This is no different from a pitch to an agent or a summary on a book’s dust jacket. Come up with a great title and description, and we might just read it! Practice your advertising. How is your work an innovative thriller? Love story? Comedy? Don’t tell us it’s good. Convince us!

Scribophile is like a virtual bookstore. If you don’t capture our attention with your title/description (or unless we’re fans of the genre or your other work) we might not choose to read your stuff. After all, a hundred other works are available to browse!

The same goes for chapters. Just because we read Chapter 1 doesn’t guarantee we’ll read Chapter 2 or 3. Agent/editors do the same thing. Hook us in your first chapter, or you’re toast. Scribophile is an outstanding way to practice hooking your reader in, from pitch, to chapter, to the next chapter!

Remember, you’re not doing this just to convince your family and friends you’re a good writer. Your mom will always finish reading your work.

Well, at least, she’ll pretend to…

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