If Only I Had Connections . . .

A few notes on getting published, for what it’s worth, expanding on some of the tweets I offered yesterday morning. Much of this I’ve said before, either on the blog or on my website, but many aspiring writers are interested in figuring out the enigma of getting published, and I don’t blame them.

I don’t offer these ideas to burst bubbles or discourage, but I think it’s always best to have a clear picture of what you are dealing with.

The assumption:

The main reason I’m not getting published is because I don’t have a foot in the door. If only I knew an agent or an editor or someone important to give my manuscript the attention it deserves, I would get published.

My take on it:

Connections, at best, might get you a slightly longer and more polite ‘no.’ They help much less than you might imagine.

The first time I got published, my only connection was a local novelist whose six-week writing course I had taken. I paid her to line-edit my first manuscript, which was very helpful, and which anyone can do if you’re willing to pony up the time and money. Most communities have adult education classes in creative writing at local colleges or high schools.

At any rate, when the time came to query agents, I asked permission to use my teacher’s name, then wrote in my query letter that so-and-so, author of x novel, suggested I contact this agency. Did this help? It’s hard to know. I got many, many rejections from agents. The agent who eventually accepted me as a client had never heard of the novelist who recommended me. She just liked the premise of my book. After I got an agent, she shopped it around and got rejections from thirteen publishers before one said yes. I considered myself lucky. My first manuscript was published! That’s better than many aspiring writers manage, but I certainly had no inside track.

The second time I launched a series, Percy Jackson, I still used no connections. I intentionally sent out The Lightning Thief anonymously, under the pseudonym Ransom Reese. I wanted the manuscript to sink or swim on its own, without relying on the people I knew in the business (though honestly, I didn’t think those connections would make a difference either way). The result? Lots more rejections from agents. One agent liked the premise enough to give it a shot. She had better luck with the publishing houses than I had the first time around, but it had nothing to do with who I was or the people I knew. It was all about the book.

No agent or editor will say ‘yes’ to you simply because they know you and think you’re a nice person. Publishing is a business – a bizarre, sometimes maddeningly convoluted business, but a business. If an editor takes a risk on a novel, his or her job is on the line. The editor has to love the manuscript and believe it will sell. Whether or not you have a personal connection is irrelevant. In fact, I’d venture to guess the submissions that editors dread most are from people they know. It makes it awkward to say no, but ‘no’ they will say, unless the novel is dynamite.

Similarly, agents have to make money by representing books that sell. They build their reputations by finding new authors who turn out to be successful. Whether or not they know you -- that means nothing. I recently spoke with an agent about writers’ conferences. Often I will encourage aspiring writers to go to such conferences, where you can listen to editors and agents speak about the business, schmooze with publishing industry types, and practice making your pitch. I asked this agent if meeting an author in person affected her decision to represent them.

The answer: no. At best, a personal meeting will assure that she would agree to look at the query letter and sample chapters (which she would do with any project that intrigued her). But if the idea or the writing did not ‘wow’ her immediately, she would reject the project just as fast. I then asked how many new clients she had found at writers’ conferences, since she had attended dozens. She looked rather sheepish. “None. Not one.”

My point: no number of connections will get a bad first novel published.

The flipside to this may seem radical: A good novel will find an outlet one way or another, whether you know someone or not.

Yes, agents and editors say no 99% of the time. But remember they are actively looking for great writing. That’s the whole point. They would be in heaven if every novel that came to them read like The Next Big Thing, or even just a moving novel with quiet appeal. The sad fact is (and every editor and agent I’ve ever spoken to will quietly confirm this) most submissions they get are nowhere near publishable. The writing is clunky and garbled, showing a poor command of grammar and style. The ideas are tired and cliché.

I hear the embittered writers out there, because I used to be one of you. You’re thinking, “Ha! That description sounds like the last bestseller by X #1 New York Times novelist I read.” Sure, we’ve all read successful books and wondered how they got published. Taste is purely subjective, right? “Why, I could write better than this!” we confidently declared. Easier said than written.

Even mainstream or genre blockbusters, so easily dissed, have some quality that made them successful in the first place. The pacing is good. The plot has twists that no one else has quite mastered. The settings and characters are memorable. Most of all, there is a certain level of technical competence to the writing. Even if he or she isn’t Shakespeare, the writer knows how to craft readable prose. This is no small feat, nor is it something that every (or even most) aspiring writers can do.

When an agent comes across a novel that reads like . . . well, a real novel, it is a rare and joyful event. The agent will not care if they know you. They won’t care if you are twelve years old or ninety years old. They will get on the phone and offer to represent you.

Which raises the awkward question: “Um,” you say, “but my manuscript is amazing and awesome and I write so well! Why have all these agents said no to me?”

Explanation 1:

It’s possible you are writing a book that the publishing industry would find difficult to sell. If the editor doesn’t see an audience for your story, he or she will most likely say no. A story about your grandmother’s struggle as a waitress in Louisiana in World War II? Well . . . aside from your immediate family and/or waitresses in Louisiana, who will want to read this? Maybe they will! Maybe you’ve managed to elevate family history into an art form, touching on the human condition in such a way that it will leave readers everywhere in tears. But the market is flooded with memoires that simply didn’t catch on. Everyone thinks they have a family story that the general public is dying to read, just like people so often think their guests are dying to see their pictures from their recent trip to the Grand Canyon. Most of the time – not so much.  We are not interested in your story just because it’s your story. We are only interested if you somehow find a way to make it our story.

In a similar vein, if you write Cyberpunk zombie novels set on Mars and involving dinosaurs, the publisher may have a hard time marketing such a novel. (Hmm, actually it sounds pretty good to me!) These niche markets are small and difficult, unless again you somehow manage to make the story appeal to a broader range of people.

Explanation 2:

Taste is somewhat subjective. We all know that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels were rejected by numerous publishers. In retrospect, I’m sure those editors feel like idiots. Some publishers rejected The Lightning Thief, too. The less said about them, the better! But to be fair, editors have to go with their guts. They have to feel a strong connection with the novel in order to accept it. Once an editor acquires a book, they must defend it to everyone in the company. They have to represent it to the sales and marketing team. They have to fight to get the book a proper cover and a proper marketing budget. Most of all, they have to fight to even get the other people in the company to read it and be excited about it. You can’t do this unless you are wild about the book. Sometimes, books are simply sent to the wrong agents or editors.

To solve this, be very careful when submitting your work. If you write romance, make sure you are only sending to agents who love romance. If you write books somewhat similar to X author or Y author, find out who represents those authors and try those agents. If nothing else, this shows the agent in question that you have done your homework. Agents, in turn, try to be careful about which editors they submit manuscripts to, but they aren’t always right or successful.

So what if you target your submissions carefully, and still the agents and editors are ignoring you? Is this because you are so far ahead of your time, so avant-garde and original that no one recognizes your true genius?  Well, maybe. Or maybe . . .

Explanation 3:

That well-written, brilliant manuscript of yours? Uh . . . how to say this. It’s not as well written or brilliant as you think it is.

It is exceedingly hard, nigh impossible, to be objective about our own work. You have to believe in yourself and your own talent. You have to have a thick skin and persevere in the face of rejection. But you also have to listen to criticism if that criticism seems well founded. If twenty different agents have told you ‘no,’ something is wrong, and it’s probably not with the publishing industry for failing to acknowledge your brilliance. For some reason, your query letter isn’t getting their interest. Your sample chapters are not grabbing them.

It may be (I cover my head to avoid bottles thrown at my face) your writing simply isn’t there yet, and/or you haven’t found the novel you need to write.

I said earlier that my first novel-length manuscript was accepted for publication, and that’s true. But that wasn’t the first thing I wrote. I started writing short stories when I was thirteen. For years, I submitted stories to magazines and collected rejection notes. I would dabble with manuscripts only to give up halfway through. The truth was, I wanted to get published, but I had nothing much to say, nor did I practice writing enough to say things well.

It’s a Zen thing. You have to forget you want to be published in order to get published. At least, that’s how it worked for me. I went into teaching. I kept writing just for fun. Then, one day, the story I needed to write came to me. I was homesick for my native city of San Antonio. I’d been reading a ton of private eye novels. I decided to ‘visit home’ by writing a detective novel set in San Antonio. Suddenly, all these disparate things came together – my pleasure reading, my writing, my knowledge base, my yearning for home. And ka-bam. As I wrote Big Red Tequila, I knew it would be my first published book. It just felt different from anything else I had ever written. It grabbed me. It compelled me to write. It wasn’t something I could fake or force. It simply happened.

That’s not to say it wasn’t a lot of hard work. I went through a full two years of edits, and it was still rejected many times.

After it was published, it did only modestly well. A private eye novel set in San Antonio didn’t appeal to a vast audience. I kept my day job. I gnashed my teeth at the unfairness of the publishing world. Why wouldn’t more people read my work? Why wouldn’t the publisher promote me better?

But in truth, I still hadn’t arrived. I was publishable, but I wasn’t yet good enough at my trade to be truly successful. That took another ten years. Finally, another novel grabbed me. The Lightning Thief combined all my skills at writing, all my years teaching middle school, and my desire to tell a story for my son that would keep him interested in school at a time when he was really struggling with ADHD and dyslexia. The ingredients all came together, and I was ready and skilled enough to capitalize on them. Finally, I managed to create a story that appealed to a lot of people.

Looking back, I see now that the only variable I could control – and the only one that mattered – was my own craft. Connections did not matter. Perseverance did. Practice did. And learning to accept that maybe, just maybe, I still had a lot to learn about writing. I still do, for that matter.

I firmly believe that quality will be recognized. It may not be immediate. It may not be through the channels you expected, or in the way you expected. But if you truly have a wonderful manuscript, it will find a publisher. It will find an audience.

You do have to accept, however, that sometimes it takes a long time. Sometimes the manuscript you have written is not, ultimately, the manuscript that will make you successful. I needed seventeen years to get published, and ten more years before I could become a full-time writer. Maybe your quest will be shorter than mine. I hope so! However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the world of publishing is against you. Publishers very much want to find new, exciting novelists and make them famous and filthy rich. But that requires a brilliant compelling book. Sometimes we convince ourselves, “Hey, I’m that guy! I’m brilliant and compelling!” But maybe we’re not – at least, not yet.

One thing I’ve discovered. People who believe they are awesome and wonderful at their profession are often . . . not. People who have more self-doubt, who question themselves and are always examining what they did wrong and how they might do better – those folks are often better than they think they are, and they are much more likely to improve. It’s a difficult balance, between self-confidence and self-reflection. No wonder writers are a little barmy. But it is an important balance to strike.

So What’s the Secret Formula?

There isn’t one. There is no shortcut or path to success that will circumvent years of hard work and uncertainty.

So many times, aspiring writers have asked me to lunch to ‘pick my brain.’ They have the impression that I have some secret knowledge to impart. Some of my magic will rub off. If I just put in a good word with the agent, or read their book and gave them a blurb, their career would be made!

Sadly, I have no magic. I don’t know anything you don’t know. I just have more practice banging my head against the wall of the publishing industry, wringing my hands, and staring at blank screens. You can have this wonderful experience, too!

Blurbs – those little quotes on the covers of books – help very little if at all. I’ve been blurbed by wonderful authors. I’ve blurbed many other authors. I have yet to see any evidence it affects sales at all. In fact I recently came across a novel blurbed by none other than J.K. Rowling. A dream endorsement! The novel was one I’d never heard of. It was languishing in the bargain bin. No one, not even the Mother of Wizards herself, can wave a magic wand and make you a success.

“So, yeah!” you are saying. “Great pep talk! Thanks a lot, Riordan!”

But in a way, this knowledge can be reassuring. You aren’t missing anything. There is no secret being hidden from you. You are not being rejected because you missed a meeting of the Secret Society of Successful People. You do not need to know a publisher or an agent or Rick Riordan to get your novel published. You just need to labor long and hard, like all the rest of us, until you build your chops, pay your dues, and find the novel you need to write.

It’s human nature to look for shortcuts and easy answers. The twenty-billion-dollar diet industry is counting on this! Everybody wants to believe a secret food or pill or no-pain program will make you healthy and attractive. Nobody wants to hear the truth – eat less, exercise a lot – because that’s hard.

Writing is the same way. Like dieting, it is something many people talk about doing, many people try to do, and very few will succeed at. Like the weight loss industry, the creative writing industry will try to sell you all sorts of secrets and tricks and special insider knowledge. The truth is a lot less appealing and glamorous. Writing is hard. Not everyone can do it. It requires a combination of innate talent and lots and lots of practice and endurance. It also requires the right story, and publishing that story at the right time.

Most people will not get published. Most people who do get published will never make a living at it. These are simply facts. But your chance is as good as anyone else’s – assuming you have the talent and the story and the drive to put in the hours, days, years to hone your skill. It doesn’t matter who you know or what writers’ group you belong to. It doesn’t matter where you got your degree, or if you even have a degree.

So forget about shortcuts and magic coattails. Forget about meeting so-and-so, who might introduce you to so-and-so. It’s all about the quality of your book. Now get out there and make a quality book.

Oh, right . . . I knew there was something I was supposed to be doing.