Friday, March 30, 2007

The Biggest Mistake Would-Be Writers Make

Underestimating the slush.

Really, I shouldn't term this a "mistake," singular. The fundamental lack of understanding about how much slush there is feeds many, many of the most commonly made mistakes writers make--mistakes that hurt their chances of getting published, and often hurt their morale. Some of those mistakes are below; but first, a visualization excercise:

First, you need to realize that you do not know what a pile of 15,000 manuscripts looks like.

Let's say you have a table that seats four. Imagine that in your kitchen at home. 1,000 manuscripts would cover that table in piles that would teeter. Tall piles. Take a moment to picture that.

Now fill the floorspace underneath and around the table with 4,000 more manuscripts. There is no room for chairs anymore. You can't reach the manuscripts in the middle of the table.

1,000 manuscripts fill your counter space; another 2,000 stuffs all your cupboards and shelf space. There is no longer any room for the coffeemaker or toaster; all of your food and crockery has been displaced to the living room. You cannot close the doors on your cupboards because of all the manuscripts spilling out of them. The kitchen is no longer about eating or cooking or anything but manuscripts.

The remaining 7,000 manuscripts cover all the remaining floor space in thigh-deep drifts. You cannot enter the room now. You can only reach those manuscripts at the doorway. Your kitchen is now less a "room" than a tank of paper.

Good. Keep that image in mind. Now imagine that you read 15,000 manuscripts last year, and a good 50% were so inappropriate, illiterate, or crazy that thoughts of the hard work you did in college and the enormous debt you're still carrying from attending that schmancy institution made you nigh-suicidal. The cause of literature seemed futile and meaningless. You might as well hole up in a shack in Montana, awaiting the end of western civilization and stockpiling Joyce.

Now imagine that another 47% were just poorly-written, or aimed at the wrong age level, or derivative of much better (and better-known) writers, as well as having several concept/plotting/arc issues. If asked to say what was wrong with any of these, you would first have to think hard about how to prioritize the problems you saw, and then think hard about how to put them nicely. (Editors are picky, critical people, but they're also nice people. They don't want to hurt your feelings.)

The last 3% were nice, but manuscripts that no consumer was going to spend her money on when she's got so many other choices.

Which left you with 0.02% --3 manuscripts from 15,000-- that were worth publishing and ended up paying you back for the time it took to read them. (As well as, of course, the tens of thousands of dollars it took to publish them. Let's not forget about that.)

Did those 3 manuscripts pay you back for the time it took you to read the 14,997 other manuscripts in slush? No. Why do you have to read another 15,000 this year, when you have more than enough work to do (and agented manuscripts to acquire) to completely fill your 50-hour work weeks?

That's a good question.

And yet we do keep reading. Maybe it's 'hope springs eternal,' maybe it's the thrill of the chase. Maybe we're nuts.

Now see if you can answer some of these commonly asked questions yourself:

1. "Why is it so hard to get published?"

2. "Why are decline letters so impersonal?"

3. "How can some publishers decide not to reply at all unless they're interested in acquiring?"

4. "Why does every publisher have to have a different set of submission guidelines?"

5. "Why are they so slavishly attached to their submission guidelines?"

6. "How can they be so perfunctory about something that means so much to me?"

5 Things Not to Write Any More Rhymed Picture Books About:

1. Insurance
2. Calculus
3. IRS audits
4. Shakespeare
5. STDs

It's been a bad week in the slush.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

In wildest woods, on treetop shelves...

Okay, I have a question about similar concepts. Good God, no, not another Harry Potter rip-off. Fairies. Two or so years ago I began submitting queries for a young adult novel I'd completed. It happened to involve sinister fairies, which as you are well aware, now plaster every back cover of every young adult urban fantasy known to man. (Well, toss up between sinister fairies and sexy vampires). I was told time and again by editors that my writing was spot on and my book was infinitely publishable . . . except for the small problem that they already had several books like that about to published. I rolled my eyes and moved on to writing another manuscript, which I've just started to push out into the slush piles of agents and editors, with good response so far. My question is - what of Sinister Fairy Novel? Is it unmarketable now? Did my timing damn its chances? Or is there a chance that time will heal all wounds and I'll one day be able to market it again? Thanks for your time!

The children's book market, like most things, is cyclical. So yes, I'd say "sinister fairies" has a chance of one day not being so overdone.

It might even be sometime soon--though in editors' terms, "soon" can be something like 5 years. God, how time flies when you spend your days running around like a headless chicken.

If I had to guess (and it would be a wild guess; the market's unpredictable), I would say perhaps two years for most submitters to get tired of hearing "no more sinister fairies" and give up, and maybe another year to let editors feel like it's been a while since they saw anything about the evil fay.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

How do authors really get carpal tunnel?

From twiddling their thumbs.

Dear EA,
I have interest in my manuscript from a couple other presses, but my preferred publisher hasn't responded yet. If I let them know that they have some competition, would it get them to give me an answer sooner?

Well, depends. Answer these questions first:

1. Has your preferred publisher had the amount of time it requires (as posted in their submission guidelines) to evaluate your submission? If not, sorry. Trying to jump the queue is more likely to get your manuscript declined without a look than otherwise.

2. Not all publishers are in the same league. Would your preferred publisher call those other presses "competition"? If not, sorry again. Keep twiddling.

Ok. So let's assume that everybody has had enough time to review your manuscript, and all the publishers in question are (a) selling into the same markets and (b) of comparable reputation.

In this case and this case only, yes, you may inform your preferred publisher that press X and press Y are interested in the manuscript you submitted on date Z. Be sure to name names. If I get a letter informing me that unnamed publishers are interested in your manuscript, I will assume you're jerking me around and decline your manuscript without looking at it.

Good luck!

I've got your "special treatment" right here

A woman calls me up about her manuscript. She sent it in a while back and hasn't heard from us. I have no record of it getting declined, but that doesn't mean anything. We don't track a lot of our declines. Well, she's sure that the mistake is ours.
Can she send it again?
Is there a fax number or email she can send it to, since it's been so long since the original submission? And can she get her response emailed to her?

Ah. If she's read our submission guidelines (always a long shot, to my continuing frustration), she knows she's asking for two separate kinds of special treatment.

She should have tried this on me in the morning. At the end of the day I'm tired, and I practice being a hardass.

Look. It's possible we made a mistake. It's possible the post office made a mistake. It's possible she made a mistake. I have no proof that the manuscript was ever submitted to us in the first place, except for her word for it.

She's probably used to businesses graciously assuming it was their mistake in such circumstances. That's because to most businesses, she is a Valued Customer.

But she isn't a Valued Customer here. "Valued Customer" in my terms means an author who I know and whose work I know I can sell.

What she is is one of the 15,000 people every year who want us to take the time to read their manuscripts--99.99% (I'm not exaggerating) of which will be a waste of our time.

So no. No special treatment today.

Friday, March 2, 2007

From the Tampa Craig'sList:

Publisher Wanted for Children's Story
Reply to:
Date: 2007-02-17, 10:32AM EST

Looking for a publisher interested in a new imaginative children's book with illustrations. Not looking to self publish.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Embarassing Wetness

I opened just one piece of slush today, and what was at the very top of the cover letter?
"Within this 6,000 word picture book you will find the legend of the bed-wetting fairy..."
I am now trying so hard not to laugh that my eyes are actually watering. "Are you all right?" asks the editorial assistant.

"Six thousand word picture book," I manage to gasp.