Almost Doesn't Get There
I’ll often tell people about the slim odds of getting a fiction book contract. As an acquisitions editor, last year I received over 500 logged submissions—queries and manuscripts—from individuals and literary agents. We contracted three or four books a year from that entire mixture of material. Yet even with this volume of material, I am actively looking for quality writing which as an editor I can champion and show to my colleagues at Howard Books.
In past entries on the Writing Life, I mentioned the busy editor’s schedule and the little actual time devoted to processing these manuscripts. I’ve read other editors say it’s a matter of seconds for the editor to decide to read more or reject the submission. It’s true. In many ways because of the massive volume of material and the few manuscripts to champion, the editor is looking for a reason to say no. Your responsibility as the writer is to bulletproof your proposal and compel the editor to read your submission. It’s a rare author who understands this necessity.
In the last couple of weeks, I received an email from someone I met when I worked at a previous publisher. I recalled this writer and our meeting at a conference, then encouraged the writer’s submission. This particular writer had mentioned reading my Book Proposals That Sell and how helpful it was to the process of preparing a proposal. I appreciated those kind words and when I received this proposal, I recognized the amount of work into it.
Often when I receive a submission (if I can), I will open the envelope and take a quick look. At times, I will make an instant judgment whether to read closer or not. When I received this submission, it looked promising. The writer had worked on compiling the competition and a realistic marketing plan plus other valuable elements in the proposal. Then I flipped to the writing (some publishing executives read this material first), on the third page I noticed some “language” issues. I haven’t made a complete decision on this project and will return to it and read it carefully—yet I’m fairly confident it will be returned. You can talk about realistic language all you want to in fiction—but in the Christian marketplace it’s still taboo. You can have a large body count in terms of deaths or murders—but don’t have your characters curse. Publishers have experienced the returns from retailers (who have had the returns from their customers). You would be surprised at some words which will set off a negative attitude about a book.
My point with the submission is that it was a quality effort. The author put a lot of energy and thought into this proposal. The reality is almost doesn’t get there. As an editor, I have limited opportunity to “develop” a project. If the proposal is very close to what I need, I may be able to push it the final percentage. But I can’t educated and explain to an author about something as basic as “language” which is built into the core of their manuscript. It’s easier to return it than to fix it. It sounds pretty cruel as I write these words but it’s business and reality.
During the last few weeks, I’ve been reading Making the Perfect Pitch, How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye by Katharine Sands. The book includes chapters from 40 top literary agents and is loaded with valuable dos and don’ts. For me, it is not the type of book you read from cover to cover. Because each chapter is from a different agent, it’s a pretty easy book to start, put down and read something else, then return to it. Katharine Sands in her chapter on Practicing Pitchcraft captured some of the challenge in this process. She writes, “If you want to understand and speak the language of bookselling, answer the question posed by Max Perkins (who discovered Hemingway and Fitzgerald), still being used by editors today, “Why does the world need this book?”” Many writers don’t want to face that question with an honest answer. If they did, I believe they would return to their proposal and reposition it so it gains a better hearing. Almost doesn’t count and ends up rejected.
In a few days, I’m eager to meet Katharine Sands at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Dayton, Ohio. We are both on the faculty at this sold out conference. I plan to haul my book to the conference for her autograph.