Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Big Publishers, Little Publishers, etc.  

I was going to leave my response to Kevin Wignall's comments in the related section, but since it's turning into a long response, I'm putting it here for all to see.

Responding to David Murrell's article in Poets & Writers, Wignall wrote:

In defence of the big five, here goes. Simon & Schuster took a gamble on me - they published a first time English author with an unusual "literary thriller" that wasn't easy to pigeonhole. I didn't get all the hype and stuff but I got a good campaign and was very happy with my treatment. The book didn't break any records but it did okay and they've stuck with me. It's this careful career-building that the big 5 are accused of abandoning, but we forget sometimes that the publishers at these companies are just as passionate about books as we are, and I think (under a lot of pressure) they get it right more often than they get it wrong.

I'd be happy to. First, I'd also like to point out that to add further, the publicity isn't done yet, what with Kevin's book just about to be released in a trade paperback edition next month--and since pbs have (much) larger print runs, those that missed it the first time around (like me, alas) have their chance to read it and spread the word accordingly.

Now, I had put up Murrell's article verbatim with only a couple of throwaway comments, but have more time now to expand further. Personally, potential for backstabbing notwithstanding (that's another story for another time) if someone at a major house is willing to put themselves on the line for a certain book, then they will, and will go to all lengths to do so. I think no matter where a book ends up (if a book ends up anywhere) then the best thing that could possibly happen is to have a) an excited, enthusiastic agent and b) an excited, enthusiastic editor working on your behalf.

I'm going to go off on a bit of a tangent, but I've never really understood why writers are happy if they get an agent and that's that. Ask questions. Be prepared. What's said agent going to on your behalf? Will they sell your work, believe in it, or let it languish and not offer it up for years and years? Same goes with editor or publishing house. What's the editor going to do for you? Will they have the right marketing plan in place, will they jump ship from the house and orphan your book? In short, the writer has to find the right people doing the right things. It's like looking for a job--if you have a dream, are you going to be satisfied with taking whatever is available, or will you push that extra bit for what you're really after? Granted, there are a lot of extenuating factors at work--personality traits, being in the right place at the right time, talent/ability and all that, but as long as you're able to do so, why wouldn't you? Why settle?

It doesn't mean that goals don't change, or dreams don't change. Of course they do. And so too does writing ability and craft. One would hope so. But if you've done everything possible to get that novel or short story collection or nonfiction book in shape, and you want to send it out, then don't just send it out blindly. Find the people you believe will be most interested in making your work available. Do the research. Sure, it's great to say that you sent it out to 100+ agents, but I'd venture to say that 80% of those mailings shouldn't have been done in the first place, b/c one should be able to tell from, yes, research, that they wouldn't be interested in your work. And then once you find the right agent, grill 'em. Ask about job performance, how long it took to sell their clients work, and who they sell them too. Ask the agents which editors they like dealing with and which ones they don't. And this may sound radical, but give them a list of editors you would want to work with and why. Have a plan in place. Make them work for you.

A lot of people say that writing "beats working for a living." Uh, guess what, writing IS a living, and so you have to treat it exactly like you would any job that you'd otherwise be earning your living at. Sure, sending out queries and proposals can be as vexing as sending out resumes and lining up interviews, but I really don't see that much difference. And good targeting is key in both instances.

So back to the overall point, which is this: if you find the right people, and have an idea of realistic--not necessarily lowered, but practical--expectations, then your writing career will be successful and fruitful. Sure, horrible luck can happen, and often does, but those "overnight successes" are hardly ever that. There's a lot going on behind the scenes that average readers are never privy to. Find out what they are. Work. Start with the manuscript, and then do what else is necessary. The days of sending your work out and hoping it will speak for itself is long gone and it's doubtful it will come back. Be proactive, and expect it of those working for you and who you work for.

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