Monday, March 13, 2006

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.  Book proposals that sell-cover image

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.

4 Comment:

At 10:48 AM, Blogger Cathy West Left a note...

I love your posts and all the wonderful advice that you give so freely, but I admit I tend to come away slightly disheartened, feeling as if I will never measure up to the expectations of the publishing world.
I guess it's just been one of those weeks. Still looking for a critique partner - feel like I'm just treading water in the writing world right now.
But please keep giving out the advice, I certainly need it.

At 6:38 AM, Blogger Sam Pakan Left a note...

I'm grateful for your posts, too, Terry. And, like Cathy, I wonder sometimes how possible it is to make a good impression in seconds. That being said, I still have to do what I can to glean specifics that might apply to my writing and make every attempt to accomodate your suggestions.

In that regard, can you tell us what words--other than the obvious profanity and vulgarity--might turn an editor away from our work? I'm thinking of a specific character that is prone to coarse language. On two occasions I have him begin a curse or epithet only to be drowned out by other action. His interrupted phrases could certainly be guessed by the reader. Though the words don't ever appear, his intention is clear. Would that be a reason to be turned down?

At 6:56 AM, Blogger Terry Whalin Left a note...


What turns someone away will be different for different people. From your magazine writing, you know that one publication decides it isn't right and another loves it. It's the same thing in the book area. It's a matter of continuing to push for excellent storytelling and the initial sentences which will draw the reader into the story. It's not easy but possible.

In addition, you have to show you are in tune with the need to be actively involved and sell your book into the marketplace to your own audience and the people you can touch.

It's rare to find any writer who includes this type of information in their submissions. If you include it, it will make you stand out from the others.

At 10:05 AM, Blogger Heather Ivester Left a note...

I've only recently discovered CBA fiction, and I don't understand where it's been all my life! Maybe there's been a bigger marketing push in recent years to get these authors and novels recognized and on the shelves in chain stores (where I do most of my shopping). I've stayed away from mainstream novels for a few years because of the "reality language issues." I don't say these words, so I don't want to read them. Yet I'd never heard about CBA novels.
Now I'm reading a novel in the Robin Jones Gunn Sisterchicks series -- it's fantastic and clean. I wish I'd discovered writers like these 20 years ago when I had more time to read fiction!


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