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
Author: STORMS OF DESTINY/HarperEos