Exploding Another Writing Myth — “You have to KNOW someone…”

Okay, folks, here’s my next “Exploding Myth” post. Today the myth I’m torpedoing is probably the one most commonly passed around among aspiring authors. It basically goes something like this: “There’s no point submitting your book to a big publishing house, unless you are a celebrity, or your have an “in.” To get published by a big house, you have to know someone. They don’t even look at manuscripts submitted by unknown authors.”

I have actually had aspiring authors in Aol chatrooms who, after disocovering that my books are listed on Amazon.com as having been published by major publishing houses calmly announce to the room that the “know” in “know someone” was “know” in the Biblical sense. When I pointed out that I’m female, and that the vast majority of acquisition editors in today’s publishing houses are also female, my detractors didn’t miss a beat. “Well, it’s lucky that you swing both ways then,” was the riposte. I gave up in the face of such determined wrong-headedness.

I used to wonder why this myth was so prevalent, when I had concrete proof that it just isn’t so. I submitted my first book back in 1979, unagented, and was an unknown quantity. I knew no one. Then in 1982, Pocket Books bought the book.

(A clarification: the book was first brought into the Pocket Books editorial office by published science fiction author Jacqueline Lichtenberg, who had read it and thought it showed promise. But by the time anyone got around to glancing at the book, six or eight months later, the fact that she’d dropped it off in person while visiting her publisher in New York had been forgotten. Jacqueline didn’t write a cover letter for the book or anything like that. If anyone’s interested in the further chronology of how this book sold, I could go on…but the point is, by the time the manuscript made its way to an editorial desk, it was just another manuscript out of the slush pile.)

So if the time-honored Writing Myth was true, the book should have been shoved back into its return envelope and shipped home to me, unread. But it wasn’t.

I’m sure that at times that manuscripts that writers have sweated blood over receive very short shrift in editorial or agent offices, don’t get me wrong. But I suspect that it’s quite rare for a manuscript to be shipped back to the author without anyone ever reading any of it. Look at it from the editor’s or agent’s POV. It only takes a five-minute skim to determine if a writer’s style is professional enough to make the book worth looking at further.

One editor I know of in New York, in the science fiction field, makes it a practice to read the first three pages of everything that comes through his door. He was one of the editors who was working at Pocket Books when my book came through the door, matter of fact.

Okay…so it’s NOT true that publishers and agents just send your submission back without ever glancing at it, at least not in the usual run of things. But look at what you’ve got to impress them with – one query or cover letter, and possibly the time it would take to skim the first three pages. Maybe less.

This is why your writing style has to be at least as good as the style of the books you find on the shelves in bookstores. If there’s anything awkward or clumsy in your style, if you have no narrative hook, if in three pages nothing of any interest has happened…well, we all know what happens then, and it’s a word that starts with “R.”

In my time as SFWA Eastern Regional Director, over a decade, it was my job to introduce new writers from my region around at SFWA events. So I met lots of first-time published authors. None of the ones I met were celebrities, or had a relative at the publishing house that wound up publishing their book. Most of them, unless they had “come up through the ranks” of science fiction/fantasy fandom knew nobody in the writing field when they first submitted their book. Many of them had managed to land real agents. Some had not.

Point is, if they can do it, you can, too – IF you write well enough.

This particular Writing Myth is the most prevalent of all of them. You hear it everywhere, in writers groups, at conferences, online, etc. Why?

After some thought, I’ve concluded that it’s a control issue. Aspiring writers don’t want to admit that they have little or no control over what happens to their manuscript when they put it in that envelope and send it out, or click “send” on that email query. And the thought that their writing might not make the grade is anathema. So they go along with the “conventional wisdom” parroted by other aspiring writers that holds that nobody has a chance, because then everyone’s on equal footing. It’s much less threatening that way.

Okay, so you’re thinking. So if agents and publishers do actually read submissions, and recognize when they receive something that’s well written, is there anything I can do to improve my odds? Is there anything I can do to improve my chances that an agent or editor will pay special attention to my submission, for long enough to recognize its merit?

Well, as Victoria just pointed out, just writing well will make you stand out. Theodore Sturgeon once observed: “80% of everything is crap.” Well, these days, when you’re talking about slush piles, I’d put the percentage at 90% or a bit more.

But presuming that your writing IS good, that it IS of publishable quality, there is one thing you can do. It’s called “networking,” and I’ll talk about some methods for doing that in my next post.


-Ann C. Crispin


  1. “On the other hand, I also know that many many agents specify on their websites that they give “priority” or (in worse case scenarios and in growing numbers) “only” accept submissions by REFERRAL from one of their clients or another published author.”

    That’s pretty lazy. Anybody pointed out to them that in that case it’s the authors (who aren’t getting paid for the privilege) who’ll be facing towering slushpiles? I’d be pretty pissed off in that situation.

  2. Yes, you do need an “in” to get published. It’s called a stunning book. If you submit this stunning book to the correct publisher you get published.

    That’s why you need to follow submission guidelines and submit to as many suitable agents and editors as you can.

    J.K. Rowling didn’t have an “in” when she first shopped around Harry Potter. Her manuscript was rejected at least 12 times for being too long of a children’s novel before someone took it on.

    Now, it’s one of the most-read books in the world.

    No need for any “in” in the sense the “conventional wisdom” implies.

  3. I completly agree that in mnay cases this hysterical “need” to blame being an unknown is unwarranted and counterproductive.

    On the other hand, I also know that many many agents specify on their websites that they give “priority” or (in worse case scenarios and in growing numbers) “only” accept submissions by REFERRAL from one of their clients or another published author.

    Which makes, in fevered desperate waiting-to-be-published minds, an easy jump to “you have to know someone”

  4. You make it scary, putting the responsibilty back on good craftsmanship. But you sure make good sense. Thanks from all of us who need the help.

  5. I rarely hear this because I live in France, lol. I suppose it might be true in some cases, but in 98% of the cases, the author sent the query in without ever knowing more than the editor’s name.
    And some names are sexless – so a few times, in order not to goof, I’ve put (for ex.) “Dear Terry Smith…”

  6. Heh–I’ve got that You-Have-to-Know-Someone excuse on my “10 Reasons Why You’re Not Published” list, which I read from when called to give a talk to aspiring writers.

    Of course #1 on my list: “You never send anything in.” Took me a bit to get past that one, but I eventually made it–right off the slush pile, too!

    Love your blog, love what you’re doing. Links will soon be on my wesite.

    Hugs and mayhem — Pat

  7. Aspiring writers also have blinders on as to how good or bad their writing actually is. It’s much easier to say “Well, that person got published because they knew someone” then to say “They got published because their story was fantastic.”

  8. I think the problem some people have with the notion is because it is easier to get in the door if people point at the door and say, “Here, see? Here it is. Turn the knob and push.”

    Of course, in my context, “knowing people” = “talking to other writers,” not “schtupping editors.” The internet has done wonders for aspiring writers, in that they now have a relatively easy time finding out the basics of the biz: proper manuscript format, how to write a query letter, how to find legitimate agents (and avoid the fakes), how to find publishers’ submission guidelines. They also have an easier time learning how to write: crit groups abound, and they recommend books and blogs that help writers learn to tell stories well.

    I got my agent because a friend and fellow writer happened to be talking to her at a convention and when she mentioned she was looking for a certain kind of book, my friend was able to say, “Hey, I have a friend who wrote that kind of book!”

    If my book hadn’t been the right sort, the connection wouldn’t have meant a darn thing. And it didn’t take anything special to have that connection; it’s just friends talking.

    I sometimes wonder if the “You have to know someone!” crowd are just lacking in social skills. Oh, wait, that’s kind of self-evident, isn’t it.

  9. Great points here, Ann. Good writing gets everyone in the door—-eventually. Sometimes it can take a very long time, though, before a new, talented author breaks through.

  10. Ann,
    Well said. Writing is the same as all other professional fields, sometimes knowing someone can get you in door, but the ultimate fate lies with us.
    I sincerely appreciate your willingness to share. And I marvel at your patience and kindness with some of the people in the author’s chatroom.
    Again, thanks.

  11. So glad you posted this. I just responded to someone on this exact same issue on my blog. I hope you manage to get through to them better than I did.

    I didn’t get the “submissions couch” story, but I was told by some seriously misinformed individual that I sold a book because I was a “cover model.” (to date: three small press books and a Harlequin category. Not exactly Fabio, here…)

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