I get this question a lot. Especially at writer's conferences. At a writer’s conference, there’s always too much information. You need to purge it and sift through it afterwards. And some things need to be debunked, clarified, or given proper context. I hear things some of my colleagues say to new authors and I wonder what they’re smoking. Authors misunderstand some things, but some publishing folks talk out of their—out of turn. As I’ve told many an author, don’t believe everything you hear at a writer’s conference. When the fatigue catches up on some of us, it’s not our fault. We simply don’t know what we’re saying.
Yes, sometimes the confusion is entirely an author's fault. Many writer’s conference attendees are wasting money and time to attend their idea of "American Publishing Idol." These natural geniuses are the authors who have no pitch and sit down to read their plot synopsis, while glancing up every few seconds to see if the editor has fallen over themselves to offer up a contract on a silver platter. I imagine I'm Simon Cowell and I want to ask, “What do you think it tells me about you that you think I can make a decision to publish your book on the plot summary?” First, I don’t decide what my house publishes. Second, ten or fifteen minutes isn’t going to tell me your book’s potential appeal, especially from the plot synopsis. Third, and probably most importantly, if you think the plot is what best represents your merit, you’d better go home and do a little research before you come back. You aren’t ready to be pitching, let alone published.
I’d say it in the nicest way possible, of course. But some editors and agents add to the confusion by offering such helpful advice as “keep your eyes open” and “pay your dues.” My favorite is “do your homework.” What the @#$%! does that mean, doing your homework? Is this 3rd grade?
So today, I offer, The Non-Essential “Essential” Quality of a Publishable Author:
Here it is, ready?: Know important people. Have you heard this one? You’re supposed to research authors, agents, publishing houses, editors, and comparable titles on Google, Amazon, and your local bookstore. They want you to find interviews, news reports, trade articles, and scuttlebutt about these people and use this info to impress them. They’ll say things like “books are for people and the industry is made up of people. Do you know them, know what they like, know what appeals to them?” They’ll ask if you read PW and NYT Books and know the bestseller lists. It’s all well-meaning. Editors are swamped, so they want you to follow protocol and formal queries and treat them like professionals with little time to spare for unprepared authors. You’re supposed to convey your advantage of experience, knowledge, and deep passion for your message. And most of all, position yourself as the author not overeager to get one book or one series published, but as someone with too much going on to waste time talking about their book. See, the book doesn’t matter. It’s the vehicle, the means to the end. You should talk about the end instead: the huge media attention and public interest you’re poised to exploit, and never-directly-but-always-covertly alluding to the chance for an editor to be the hero by finding this golden, untapped opportunity.
That is, in short, “doing your homework.” And those who have invested the time, the logic goes, will rise to the top. I’ve said this at conferences myself. You won’t be daunted by the sea of rookies surrounding you because you’ll be better prepared. You’ll know what’s expected. You’ll be able to answer an editor’s 4 questions: 1) Have you read the books like yours? 2) Have you researched your market and the conventions of your genre? 3) What proof have you found that your voice is needed? 4) Are you targeting me specifically because you know what I represent and what I want to publish?
Those are the questions I have asked. Those are the things a publishable author supposedly must have to get published by a top, royalty-paying, high-profile house.
The rest of this post will now debunk that load of crap.
This is what a publishable author should have.
Publishable authors should know what they’re about. They’ll need to know why they write what they write, and not be easily swayed from their purposes by comments from rookies or even pros (though if an editor with 25+ years’ experience tells you it’s not going to work, pay attention and get why). They need to have thought through the decisions about their writing and the reader’s journey through their book, and have good reasons for doing what they did. They should know what their passion is to write and not change to fit an expectation or prejudice about what the market wants or accepts without soliciting second and third opinions by qualified, experienced counterparts in the business. This is not about forming a theory about why the market needs what you’re writing, and then boldly going out to gather the requisite evidence before you attempt to test those theories, i.e. paying more dues. You could still crash and burn, and that would be the end of your publishing career. Better to know how to filter the info, the helpful from the damaging, the “conventional” from the untenable. Better to be willing to be a little unconventional and not market saavy, because you are unique and want to say something new (or at least in a new way).
Know this: the trick to being published is writing well. And the trick to writing well is simply learning what to give away when. Most books could be better (i.e. more satisfying) if the author had told us more, or told us less, at a particular place. There’s no quick way to learning how to read your ideal reader, but authors who study them and how to satisfy them, will find an audience.
That’s your only task in becoming publishable. The “seasoning” and “dues-paying” and “market-studying” will come. Or not. After all, that’s what agents and editors are for.