Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Just Teach Me The Rules

Throughout my years in publishing, I’ve met many new writers. They prepare and arrive at their first writer’s conference with high expectations.  These writers have come to sell their creation to the editor. You can see that glint of determination in their eyes and the eagerness in their jump into the conversation.

In the same way you can see their enthusiasm, if the conference lasts several days, you can also see when reality hits them. They begin to see the complex way the publishing world works and their need to understand the rules—much less produce excellent writing. It’s like they entered the conference with rose-colored glasses and these glasses have been removed.

These writers need to learn the rules of the road. They cry out, “Just teach me the rules and I’ll follow them.” Certainly there are a few rules and expectations from the editor. Then there are the exceptions to every rule. Publishing (magazine or book) has various systems in place. For example, most magazine editors read query letters from writers. Based on this one-page letter, the editor makes an assignment. In the book area, editors read book proposals—not full-length manuscripts. On the basis of these proposals, the editor champions your project internally and ultimately issues a few book contracts.

While there is a science and expectations to publishing and how it works, there is also art. It’s a funny mixture of art and science combined with standing in the right place with the right material at the right time. One editor loves your work while another one can’t slap the form rejection note on it fast enough. I’m certain you’ve heard this rule. “The first rule is there are no rules.” Not hardly true in this world but it’s not like you follow a particular well-worn path. Everyone follows a different path and a different journey.

No matter where you are in this journey, it’s important to understand publishing is based on excellent storytelling. You have to invest the time and energy to learn how story works and how you can tell good ones—whether you are writing nonfiction or fiction.

This week, I’ve been writing about packagers and how they produce a variety of products for publishers. I’ve worked with gift book packagers and children’s book packagers—as a writer and other times as an editor. Here’s the beauty for the editor: They have a stack of contracted manuscripts going through their system yet the sales people want a certain type of book. Where are they going to squeeze that new book into their already full schedule? If the new book comes from a packager, then it’s not much of an issue. The packager will deliver the designed and edited manuscript. The editor simply maintains a quality control on the project instead of a direct hands-on role. The sales area is happy because they get their product. Yet this type of system is outside of the normal rules and expectations of the system.

The journey is exciting because you never know what will happen with a particular project. Going into it, you have high hopes and dreams. Our responsibility is to simply keep learning along the journey—and constantly improving our body of work and our writing skills. It will pay off in the long run.

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