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How to Stay Sane in an Insane Industry

Last Saturday I sent out a half dozen queries to literary agents. Bright and early on Monday morning, I woke up to a rejection in my inbox.

I knew this was going to happen, and I know enough about the publishing world not to take rejection of a query as a judgement of my work. But even with many years of rejection notched into my writer's belt, it's still difficult to stay upbeat and confident when reading emails like, "After reading your letter I'm afraid I just wasn't hooked enough to want to ask for more."

A cold, hard fact of the publishing industry is that "hooks" drive sales, and quality of writing matters much less than we writers would like to believe. While a writer's number one concern is whether readers will enjoy a story, a publisher's number one concern is whether readers will buy the story.

When the acquisitions staff of a publishing house evaluate a manuscript, they don't ask themselves, "Is this a good story that will make readers happy?" They ask, "Does this premise sound sexy in a single sentence? Can we convince Target to put this book on the shelves in a five-minute sales call? Will people see this title at the checkout counter in Kroger and grab it impulsively?" In other words, "What's the hook?"

So what, exactly, does it mean when an agent says she "just wasn't hooked enough"? It could mean many different things.

  1. The premise doesn't sound like a sexy high-concept bestseller in a single sentence.
  2. The book doesn't fit into any of the specific slots publishers are looking to fill right now (e.g., "Realistic contemporary YA featuring diverse characters.")
  3. The agent is already representing a client with a similar project.
  4. The genre or subject matter was "hot" with publishers last year, but it's gone cold now.
  5. Nothing at all. This is an auto-generated form letter the agency sends to everyone with the click of the Decline button.

What "wasn't hooked enough" seems to imply, but does not necessarily mean, is that the query isn't well-written or the book isn't interesting.

More cold, hard facts about the publishing industry: advances for debut and midlist authors are shrinking to nothing. Even bestselling authors are getting "eBook only" releases. A novel can be a thrilling page-turner, a poignant masterpiece, a memorable story that readers will want to relive over and over for many years...but still no publisher will buy it, because it doesn't fit into a free "slot" and the author isn't named Danielle Steele or James Patterson.

One literary agent wrote that, statistically, a new writer has a higher chance of getting struck by lightning than she does of getting published. If she does get published, she'll be lucky to get a $5,000 advance. Then she probably won't earn out that measly $5,000, publishers will label her a bad investment, and she'll never sell another book again.

Knowing all this, how do we stay positive? How do we keep writing, keep hoping, keep sending those query letters to their doom, instead of burning our lucky writing pencils in abject despair?

A lot of people do succumb to despair. They give up and stop writing or, even worse, turn into vengeful banshees who haunt the Internet, shrieking about gatekeepers. How can we avoid becoming those people?

1. Adjust your expectations.

When it comes to the arts, people have a bizarre expectation that the economy will work differently than it does for every other industry. They think quality and creativity will trump all else, when that's not the case for any other product in existence.

Does Old Navy stock thin, scratchy shirts made by kids in Indian sweatshops because those are the most comfortable and flattering shirts available? Does Lowes sell nine-foot-tall blow-up penguins because those are the classiest Christmas decorations they could find? Does Fred Meyer throw Hershey's Milk Chocolate Hearts in your face the second you walk through their doors because those are the most delicious candies ever made?

Businesses will sell what makes them the most profit, period. Publishers know they'll profit from any book with Danielle Steele's name printed on the cover, regardless of the words printed inside. They know it's very difficult to get people to buy a book with an unknown name on it. When consumers have a choice between cardboard-like, chemical-tasting Chips Ahoy they grew up eating, vs. gourmet cookies by some new brand they've never heard of, which do you think the majority will pick? Only adventurous cookie connoisseurs will take a chance on the new brand.

We writers want to believe that if we write good stories, we will be swiftly rewarded. Publishers will fight over our manuscripts. The New York Times will rave over us. Hollywood A-listers will Tweet about how desperately they want to star in the movie adaptations of our books.

This is a fun fantasy to imagine while drifting off to a peaceful sleep at night, but it's silly to be disappointed when it doesn't come true. When I go to work each morning, I don't expect the college president to suddenly rush at me and say I'm the best librarian she's ever seen, and she's promoting me to director right away. I expect to keep going to work every weekday for many years, slowly building my resume and earning the respect of my colleagues, until one day I'm lucky enough land the directorship of a tiny library in Nowhere, Oregon. Why would my writing career be any different?

2. Stop assigning blame.

The current situation in publishing is nobody's fault. It just is. Both writers and publishing professionals are just trying to survive in an insane world.

The shrieking banshees want to believe everything is somebody's fault. They grumble that literary agents are brainless twits who couldn't recognize a masterpiece if it bit them in the derrière. They opine that editors are greedy vultures who care more about soulless numbers than beautiful words. "Just take the gatekeepers out of the equation," they say, "and Great Stories will reign once more."

I wonder if there's an unpublished manuscript called Zen for Writers somewhere in the world, because we all need to read it and chill out. I imagine this manuscript would have calming lines like, "To rage against the publishing industry is to rage against the sea. One cannot control the market trends, as one cannot control the tide."

Blaming people for your publishing misfortunes might make you feel better temporarily, but the bitterness gnaws away at you. Soon you're spending all of your writing time crafting barbs about twenty-something interns in New York, instead of crafting new stories. If you want to remain sane, happy, and productive, you're going to have to forgive the universe for not playing fair.

3. Make contingency plans.

So you can't sell your books, it's not your fault, it's not anybody's fault, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Now what?

This is why no one should depend on writing to make money. Just like the visual arts, theatre, and music, writing is a career for a lucky handful and a mildly lucrative hobby for everyone else. I believe every aspiring writer should build a career in something other than writing, for many reasons. Here are the reasons pertinent to this post.

  • Even if/when you don't win the publishing lottery, you can still pay the bills without worrying.
  • Every weekday morning you must close your laptop, make yourself presentable, and leave your house. You will be forced to accomplish things for the next eight hours, instead of stalking agents on Twitter and obsessively refreshing your Gmail to check for more rejections.
  • You'll build a network of colleagues with whom you can share your publishing woes in the breakroom. These colleagues will cheer you on and tell you how awesome you are for writing a whole book, and they can't imagine how you found the time.

When you finish a manuscript and send out a batch of queries, of course you'll hope to finally win the lottery this time. But you should formulate a contingency plan for what to do if you don't.

  1. You can self-publish.
  2. You can submit directly to small presses.
  3. You can drop the project and move on to new ideas.

I personally suggest number three. If the project didn't work out, it didn't work out. Maybe the next one will. I'm not of the camp that endlessly revises and resubmits the same stories, hoping small tweaks will suddenly make the project more appealing to agents.

If no agents or editors are interested in Whacked in the Stacks, I'll probably skip the sequel. I'll send CreateSpace paperbacks of WITS to family and friends to enjoy, but I won't try to self-publish it for money. Too much headache, too little return. That time would be better spent diving in to the Xing Dynasty trilogy instead.

Yes, I'm dubbing my fantasy wuxia project the Xing Dynasty trilogy. Xing ("star") is a silly play on Qing ("clear") and Ming ("bright," with the radicals for "sun" and "moon"). Also, I can abbreviate it to XD.

Thinking about what you'll do if your book fails might be depressing, but then if the worst happens you won't be left adrift. When you receive that rejection from your very last hope, you won't feel like your whole world is falling apart. You'll be hurt, you'll be angry at the universe, you'll eat a ton of raspberry cheesecake gelato...but then you'll sigh and say, "Well, on to Plan B."


Jennifer Prevost (February 17, 2017, 5:49 pm)

I prefer to avoid "sugar coating", at all costs, and I found this to be refreshingly honest. (Speaking of sugar, raspberry cheesecake gelato sounds like a wonderful way to soothe a wounded pride.)

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What is the first letter of "Massachusetts"?