Blogger and researcher Jim Fletcher has worked in the book publishing industry for 15 years, and is now director of the apologetics group Prophecy Matters. His new book, "Truth Wins," provides important analysis of Rob Bell and his Emergent friends.More ↓Less ↑
I was at a writer’s conference in Chicago some years ago. It’s always fun to meet aspiring and published writers who are serious about honing their craft.
There as an editor, I was supposed to keep appointments with writers who were attempting to “get published.” Presently, a lady introduced herself and we sat down to chat. She pulled out a manuscript.
I leafed through it and I remember that it was well-written. The subject (which now escapes me) was fairly distinctive. It stood out. In other words, she had helped herself with her choice of topic and excellent writing style.
And she didn’t have a chance to get published.
What I’m about to say sounds cold; I know that. I am mentioning this story purely to illustrate both the challenges and advantages facing an aspiring writer – one who first needs to successfully pitch an editor and then eventually create a winning project with sell-through ability in stores.
The lady I was chatting with had the advantages I mentioned above. She was intelligent and engaging. But three things were immediately clear to me.
My new friend was greatly advanced in age, which would preclude her from really traveling and promoting her book.
She had a speech impediment. Please, please don’t hammer me for mentioning this. I am simply explaining the challenges facing her in becoming a published author. This, of course, would hamper much of the radio publicity a publicist could generate.
Finally, she lived in a very remote area, or at least an area of the country that vied against her desire to find solid media markets for promotion.
I have thought of her often since that meeting – a dear lady and a talented writer. But purely in terms of promoting herself and her book, it seemed to me that she had challenges that couldn’t be overcome.
All that to say, if you are interested in being a “successful” author (no one has ever offered a definition of author success that I could understand. Book sales? Advancement of a world view? Notoriety?), certain things have to happen.
You are the primary gatekeeper for these necessary elements. Gaining success in book publishing involves a couple things for the writer (okay, I’ll pitch a definition of success): getting a few titles in print and, the all-important follow-up, sell-through in stores, which leads to multiple printings of a title.
Most people never get there, so I consider that to be a fair amount of success.
First, the writer must find either an agent or an editor. To get a hearing in these arenas can be a challenge in itself.
Editors are generally a friendly lot. Some of them are arrogant, “failed” writers themselves. These are the ones who like to think of themselves as gatekeepers to fulfilling the dreams of hungry writers who weren’t loved enough as children.
But a good editor has an eye for talent, a nice balance between realistic expectations and encouragement. Most are approachable. But the sheer number of projects being pitched today mitigates against a lot of face-to-face interaction. There is a firewall that keeps writers from getting to many editors. This is where writer’s conferences can be beneficial. Most publishers today don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts and I don’t blame them. They only accept material from agents – which is our subject for next week.
And when you do have that chance to pitch, remember my personal favorite rule: get in and get out.
Let me say something sexist here, just for fun (and illustration): Most writers are like shoppers of a certain gender, who, I’m told, can spend many hours in one store. Men, on the other hand, mentally prepare beforehand; socks are on aisle 5. I get in the store, select a couple packages of socks, pay and leave.
Aspiring writers should follow the same plan. Prepare your brief verbal pitch. Offer a proposal (concise cover letter, synopsis, perhaps a chapter or two). Then – and this is paramount – resist the urge to launch into an hour-long speech about why your project belongs in the Ark of the Covenant with the Ten Commandments. Or, at least in Barnes & Noble.
This is the hardest thing for aspiring writers to internalize. A brief, polished pitch will achieve for you publishing immortality, simply because the editor or publishing representative will always remember you for your brevity. Almost all writers feel intense pressure to keep going on the pitch, simply because their lives will have been meaningless if they didn’t maximize every second with a potential publisher.
Wrong. Be confident of your abilities and in your project. Prepare, pitch, then let it go.
The key to becoming a successful author is to have perfect pitch as a pest. Got that? You have to have the right blend of pestering a potential publisher (or agent), and then back off. Your patience will be further tested, because you will encounter editors who don’t respond quickly. You are focused on your project. The editor is focused on the hundreds on his or her desk.
It’s a waiting game, but I’m a big believer that talent rises to the top. It’s not like the next Mark Twain is going to get lost in the paper pile.
I have a firm conviction that true competition in publishing is not quite what people think it is. Sure, a quarter-million new titles each year is enough to scare off other would-be authors. Those numbers are staggering.
But that isn’t your real competition. Quality is the key to competition in book publishing. Of the hundreds of thousands (at least) of manuscripts editors at least glance at, only a fraction are the somewhat mythical homeruns. I can probably spot a high-quality project, and I’m not that smart. I can spot it because it looks different, smells different, feels different from others.
So, take heart. You are not competing against 200,000 other titles. Disregard them. You are competing against yourself, to make your project as compelling as possible. Embrace that challenge and enjoy it. It will drive you to be better, to be the best you can be as an author.