Publishing fads

Hey ho —

Did you miss me? No, I didn’t take the long weekend off; as a matter of fact, I was working extra hard: I needed to do a final edit on my novel before my agent starts shopping it around. (Out comes the broken record again: most of the publishing industry was on vacation until today. Translation: there wouldn’t have been much point in my agent’s trying to market my novel last week, or even last month.) I sat down, much to the chagrin of my cats, and read every syllable of the book IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD.

You’d be amazed how many errors in grammar, spelling, and cadence you catch that way — and, speaking as a professional editor myself, there are problems that cannot be caught any OTHER way. Small monitors don’t let you see the entire page, which leads to uncaught word repetition; monitor light leads to eye fatigue, which automatically makes you read faster, and thus proofread less well. I have years of editing experience, a computer monitor the length of the average skateboard and twice as tall as my head, AND an agent with an excellent eye — and I still would not let any of my writing leave my house until I have proofed it in hard copy. I would urge you to do the same.

(A quick tip to self-editing novelists: always read your dialogue aloud, or have some nice person read it to you. Different characters should have different cadences, just as people do in real life, and the easiest way to tell if your characters sound too much alike is to hear them speak aloud. Also, if you discover a sentence that cannot be said in a single breath, chop it up: even the hyper-educated, people whose spoken words form themselves automatically into paragraphs, keep their sentences to under a breath in length. Happy editing.)

All right, back to the topic at hand. I talked last time about the many reasons your query might be met with a form letter rejection because of the structure of the agency system. Today, I would like to discuss factors even more mercurial, and even less under the writer’s control. I will speak, in short, of fashion.

At many of the larger agencies, assistants are told to look for very specific things in the queries they accept, and those things may change with great frequency, based upon what is selling well at any given moment. Remember a few years ago, when half the agents at any conference would say they were violently interested in representing chick lit, because BRIDGET JONES was on the bestseller lists? Depend upon it, this change in the marketplace happened too fast for agents to record it in their agent guide listings — so asking writers for it at conferences was the fastest way to scare up BRIDGET clones.

This was great for writers who already had been working on books that fell into the chick lit category, but hard on virtually everyone else. The publishing world does most assuredly experience fads, and unfortunately for all of us, no writer can accurately predict at the beginning of the writing process what will be the hot thing at the end of it. You need to write what you want to write, and hope that your timing will be good. To win at the fad game, an author always needs to be a year or two ahead of the curve.

I have a very distinct memory of a group meeting a few years ago at a conference that shall remain nameless with an editor who shall remain nameless from a major publishing house which — well, you get it. As we went around the table, pitching our books, the editor grew restive: a memoir about living with AIDS, a how-to book by the daughter of a con artist, a thriller that honestly sounded thrilling for a change, all flashed by without eliciting so much as an eyebrow twitch from the editor. The last writer, a sweet young thing who admitted she had not actually written any of the book she was pitching yet, talked about a story that sounded suspiciously like COLD MOUNTAIN, which had just made it big. (For those of you who weren’t paying attention, COLD MOUNTAIN was a surprise hit at a time when industry wisdom decreed that NOBOBY was buying historical romances anymore.)

The editor practically flew from her seat, exclaiming that she had been waiting for days to hear someone pitch a decent historical romance — because, she said, in the wake of COLD MOUNTAIN, they were so easy to sell. After gushing all over the nonplused sweet young thing (who I began to suspect of having made up the story on the spot), the editor turned to the rest of us. “I have some advice for you,” she said tartly. “Start reading the bestseller lists every week. Then start writing.”

It is a tribute to the good manners of writers everywhere that none of us at the table threw anything at her, for it was in fact a spectacularly poor piece of advice. Yet what would have been the point of excoriating her for her shortsightedness? It would have been like punishing a panda for liking bamboo: editors like to sell books.

Although she wasn’t articulate enough to explain it to us, what she really wanted us to have done is to have predicted today’s bestsellers a year and a half ago, and THEN started writing, so we would have been ready in time. How she expected us to do that — Ouija board? Tarot cards? Wandering around a well-stocked bookstore with a dowsing rod? — we shall never know.

And really, since most books are not actually published until more than a year after the contract is signed (you knew that, right?), what she wanted us to do was even more magical: to have predicted next year’s bestsellers three years ago, to have written one in record time, to have approached her about eleven months before COLD MOUNTAIN was slated to come out (i.e., about a month after the contract for it was signed), taken her in a time machine a year forward so she could see for herself that COLD MOUNTAIN was going to be a runaway bestseller, and blandished her into publishing our novel so it would come out at about the same time. Piece o’ cake.

I can assure you, my friends, that unless you are the next Amazing Kreskin, you will lead a far happier and more productive life if you do not try to second-guess the trends of several years from now. Accept that, and write books that YOU like.

Screenplays are particularly susceptible to being rejected because they are not the hot thing du jour. If a comedy about werewolves did exceptionally well at the box office over the weekend, you can bet your boots that all over Southern California, producers and script agents rushed into their offices Monday morning, crying, “Where is the next werewolf picture?”

You really will live a happier life if you just accept that this is beyond your control.

Sometimes, the focus du jour at an agency or publishing house is based upon personal preferences, over which you have even less predictive control than of market trends. If a given agent just had a baby, for instance, she might well be more interested in stories about young mothers; if her brother has just been diagnosed with cancer, she might well suddenly be in the market for books about that. I once heard a well-known editor say that she went through a year of snatching up anything about Paris because neither she nor her new husband had managed to garner enough time off work to go on their long-planned honeymoon there! Imagine the happiness of the struggling author who had toiled for ten years on her book about a hat maker in Paris, and happened to be in the right place at the right time!

This is a good reason to go to conferences: agents and editors will often spontaneously open up about this sort of preference. But never — well, hardly ever — will you see such spur-of-the-moment switches in taste written up in an agency guide. Just accept that there are some things you will never know.

Then again, you may just have caught the agent or assistant in a bad mood. I call this the grapefruit rule, lifted from how trial attorneys talk about the moodiness of judges: how your query strikes any particular reader is often dependent upon what the reader had for breakfast that day. We would all like to think that when we craft a thoughtful, innovative cover letter and send it along with a synopsis or a chapter or whatever the agent in question says he wants to see, it will be given a fair and impartial reading. But sometimes, your reader may have a tummy ache from a bad grapefruit, and is accordingly not to be pleased, even by the best book in the world.

If there is a way to avoid being the submission read immediately after the agent has scalded her tongue on a too-hot latte or right after having a fight with his ex, I don’t know about it. (Believe me, I would tell you if I did.) This is an instance where your fate is truly in the lap of the gods; my only advice is to be kind to children and poor people, and pray that you spent the entirety of your last life helping little old ladies across the street or rescuing people from collapsed mine shafts. Here, you really are relying upon your karma.

I mention all this to you not to urge you to hire a private detective to ferret out the personal preferences of your dream agent or editor, or to encourage you to burn sacrifices to Gladys, the goddess of easily-available parking spaces, to assure that your first reader at an agency arrives for work in a good mood. No, I am trying to help you see that sometimes, your query or your book gets rejected not because it isn’t good, but because it is not precisely the book that particular agent wants to see at that particular moment. Think of it as a big game of “What color am I thinking of?” where the winner gets an agency contract or a book published. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but honestly, sometimes rejection is that arbitrary.

You might have gotten a form letter rejection for any of these reasons, or for any of a hundred others that are utterly beyond your prediction and control. It does not mean that you are a bad writer, or that your book is a bad idea. It is just the way the game is played these days. If you really wow an agent’s assistant (who is usually the person screening query letters), you might get a note scrawled in the margins of the form letter, explaining why the agency isn’t asking to see your work. (I once got a “Wow! What a great query!” written on a form rejection, which was frustrating, yet pleasing at the same time.) Take that as a compliment, for it means that a rushed, overworked agent or assistant gave your query an extra thirty seconds of attention.

But whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up about what you cannot change. No matter how hard you try, you will not be able to anticipate what will strike the personal fancy of any particular agent or editor at the moment when your query is released from its envelope. I hope and pray that you will strike lucky, but in the meantime, all you can do is craft the book of your dreams, present it in a professional manner, and keep sending it out. And out, and out.

Hold your head high — and keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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