Publishing and Human Nature
Sometimes considered the greatest headache for writers with commercial aspirations, I and countless others in the same position are acutely aware of the pressure and stress that suddenly roll around when a manuscript is rewritten, revised, and polished and it’s finally time to look into doing the one thing that justifies all those weeks or months spent writing the damn thing.
Publishing is the ultimate gatekeeper in the literary world. Theoretically it’s what separates the hobbyist from the professional and in one fell swoop provides both validation and a way to monetize all that hard work you’ve poured in.
A word of advice that I’m typing just as much for myself as for anyone out there reading: don’t let getting published become the end all be all of your literary existence. Whether something you created from nothing goes on to sell a million copies or none at all, be proud of your accomplishment. The director should love every film he brings into existence, the comedian should inwardly laugh at every joke she tells. In short, you enjoying your own finished product is important. It counts for something. There is no controlling if other people will like what you wrote, but you should.
Just one problem. Unless you’ve already put out a string of bestselling hits or your name happens to be (insert ex-president or celebrity), getting published is damn hard. And that goes for just about everyone. Odds are your favorite author struggled to gain traction at one time or another. Everyone has heard the story of Harry Potter getting scoffed at over a dozen times before turning J.K. Rowling into a billionaire. That’s just the way it goes in this business.
I considered myself becoming a published author something of an inevitability going all the way back to my early teens. Not that that was the only thing I wanted to accomplish in life, but it was one clear goal I clung to.
While learning how to write well enough to warrant people paying to read your work and pondering what exactly you will write are both undoubtedly important, I could have done my future self an enormous favor back then by being proactive and at least dipping my toes into how the publishing business works.
Genres and word count matter. My first manuscript, completed in 2015, weighed in at 170,000 words. That’s George R.R. Martin territory. 170k isn’t getting it done for a debut author in a genre (mystery) where going over 100,000 words is dangerous.
But I didn’t know that. I started peddling this ridiculous tome to agents thinking it was the greatest thing under the sun and that I was a shoo-in for the bestseller lists. As you probably guessed, I had several chance meetings with rejection over the span of a few uncomfortable weeks.
Know your genre and know the corresponding widely accepted word count range for that genre. Don’t be the novice that wildly deviates unless you have an ironclad reason. In the case of my debut monstrosity, it was so bogged down with unnecessary verbiage and description that shaving it down to a leaner 100k proved to be not too difficult.
Genres can be a little trickier. You’ve got the big five: Mystery, Thriller, Romance, Sci Fi/Fantasy, and Literary. There are several others, and each has its own cadre of subgenres. Even with all of this it can still be difficult to know where you stand. And then there’s the evasive manuscript that transcends or combines genres (known as upmarket fiction within the industry). Upmarket is all the rage. But just when you think you’ve nailed that next upmarket phenom you open your email and you’ve gotten a rejection because your project was deemed to hard to sell.
No discussion of genre can be complete without a subsequent discussion of the inherent barriers to entry in publishing. The better you understand how the overall industry works the better you’ll understand how you, the writer, fits into it all.
Literary agents and publishers alike walk a tight rope that most writers don’t recognize. On the one hand, they want new and fresh. These words get thrown around all the time. Take something that’s been done a thousand times before and put a creative spin on it. If a manuscript reads as too derivative of works that are already out there it’ll get tossed in the trash.
But agents and publishers are ultimately in the business to make money – to sell. Human nature and inertia cause us to instinctually avoid things we perceive as risky. That goes for books just as much as anything else. It’s a paradox of sorts. An idea must be new and fresh, but it can’t be perceived as too new and fresh or else there’s the fear that people won’t get it and it won’t sell. This dilemma trickles down to writers who must also balance the tight rope.
Remember, even if your project doesn’t fit neatly into a specific genre, even if it’s the next upmarket sensation, it will still need to be marketed if you ever hope to earn anything. And that means being able to describe what it’s all about from a genre-specific standpoint in a couple words.
And then there’s that other pesky addendum written into our human coding that it’s just plain easier to say no and not take the risk. I can’t and don’t speak for agents or publishers, but I imagine if they’re on the fence about a project it gets rejected more times than not. This kind of thinking explains how mega hits like Harry Potter get passed over for another helping of what’s in vogue and what publishers are confident will sell. It all boils down to business, and if the gatekeepers don’t think your project will sell then you’re dead in the water.
Of course, the gatekeepers get it wrong plenty of times. That’s one reason to not give up. You believing in your work is paramount to anyone else ever believing in it. I try to act with a heady mix of accepting feedback and using it to improve the writing coupled with remaining committed to the big picture idea I had in the first place. Getting away from what you were passionate about bringing to life usually doesn’t end well. There’s a time to capitulate to criticism for the sake of the story and a time to stick to your guns if you truly believe in something and think it’s crucial to the overall objective. It takes wisdom and experience to know which is which.
And if you have absolute faith in your work but for some reason or another can’t find a way past the industry gatekeepers, self-publish and see what happens. Just don’t expect it to be easy.
- Charles Harned