1 : a magic spell
2 : an exciting and often illusory and romantic attractiveness
The thought of being published is one that sends many budding writers into glassy-eyed euphoria. It seems like the ultimate goal, the pinnacle, the achievement that finally makes us “real” authors. The publishing dream holds us in thrall until finally, ecstatically, it happens-- and then the glamour often evaporates, leaving authors confused, bitter, and less confident than they were before.
It’s crucial that, as writers, we take a careful, realistic look at the publishing world and adjust our expectations to fit. This week I read a lot about publishing, and even though I’ve been a writer for quite some time, I’ve never given much thought to the other side. I almost prefer not to know how editors and agents do their work. I just want to send my work off into the ether, where some disembodied hands will accept it in silence and I can go on about my life not thinking about the real people in NYC or wherever who are reading my novel and judging it with their shrewd, cool, jaded eyes. Yet it’s important to understand the publishing process from the moment the manuscript leaves you to the day it appears on a bookstore shelf. Below are some of the more interesting things I learned.
“Four months after your book is published, it’s dead.” -Carolyn See. No, seriously. The bookstore will take down unsold copies of your book and ship them back. This blew my mind. You have to do everything in your power before and during those four months to make sure that people get it while it’s hot.
Editors are nearly as angsty as writers. In Betsy Lerner’s piece “What Editors Want,” she gives a revealing account of what it’s actually like for editors on the other side of what I always imagine are big, imposing, mahogany desks. They become hopeless when the good submissions dry up, they get totally jazzed about projects only to be shot down in meetings, they get criticized for the bad novels they edit but get no praise for the good ones, and they have to deal with authors at their worst: “needy..., egomaniacal, delusional, paranoid, insecure, and arrogant.” This makes me want to be kind to any future editors of mine and maybe bake them some cookies.
Self-publishing is... complicated. I have no desire to self-pub, despite the urgings of (not-so-literary) friends and family. I also have no desire to read self-pubbed work. To me-- and this is probably unfair-- it screams, “I am too impatient, too arrogant, or just too crappy of a writer to do it the hard way.” There are, of course, great self-pubbing authors and there have been numerous success stories, like this one. But for every Cinderella, there seem to be hundreds of ugly stepsisters. Further, as Jackie Mitchard notes, self-publishing usually robs you of feedback from editors and agents who could make the difference between your work being a dud or a bestseller. In Jane Friedman’s blog post on how to get published, she uses the phrase “meaningfully published,” which to me sums up the difference between self-pubbing and traditional publishing.
So what do editors want? In Editors on Editing, Gerald Gross gives his standard reply when someone asks him this question: “Something I haven’t seen before.” Originality goes a long way in getting the attention of agents and editors. Good writing and professionalism are key, of course, but pitching a surprising and intriguing idea can be the best way to get your foot in the door.
The Jehovah’s Witness approach. Should you pack up and go visit editors in NYC with a new pair of heels on and a list of ideas in your hand? Carolyn See says yes-- in fact, she devotes a chapter to how you should go about it in Making a Literary Life. She thinks you should let them know you’re coming and preferably have already sent them some nice notes about their work over the years, but you should definitely go. Jane Friedman dismisses the idea immediately, suggesting that aspiring authors seeking connections go to a writer’s conference instead. Who’s right? I hope Friedman is. The idea of showing up on an editor’s doorstep like a sweeper salesman is horrifying to me (though the whole trip to NYC thing sounds all right...). I feel like I would be falling all over myself with nerves in that situation. Agents and editors at conferences are often there for new clients, so it doesn’t seem like such an imposition, but it also limits the number of professionals you have access to. Still not sure about this one.
“It’s not likely your first attempt will get published. It will likely be your second, third, or fourth attempt.” -Jane Friedman. Okay, I already knew this. I mean, I’m living it. But it’s still nice to hear that I’m normal.
Your book is your baby. You think you can just pop out a baby and hand it to someone else and say, “Here, make this kid a star,” outside of some silly novel (which yours had better not be)? - Carolyn See (in, you know, more professional phrasing). I’ll end with another thought from See. After your book is sold, you don’t get to rest on your laurels-- you don’t even have any laurels yet, really. Your job isn’t over. As the author, you should be proactive about marketing your book. The publisher will only do so much, especially if yours isn’t one of the handful of new releases they have decided to really push that season. Make contacts whenever you can, and when your book is about to come out, flip through the Rolodex and use whatever means are at your disposal to get people interested. It may not be glamorous, but you’ll probably never get to the truly glamorous parts if you don’t put in extra effort from the beginning.
Have any tips on publishing? Any thoughts on self-pubbing, the role of editors, or that contentious NYC trip? Share below!