Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part II: why are those first readings so harsh, anyway?

Are you recovered yet from the trauma of yesterday’s post? It honestly is jarring to step into an agent’s shoes, even for a couple of hours: theirs is a significant responsibility, one that tends to incline even the nicest person to peevishness. I’m going to talk about this responsibility today, because if you are going to use yesterday’s list of general rejection reasons fruitfully to improve your chances of submission success, you are going to need to understand why an industry ostensibly devoted to bringing the best writing to the reading public runs on knee-jerk first reactions to the first paragraphs of submissions.

In the old days, when editors would routinely take on writers of promise and work with them on a line-by-line basis to make their first books better, agents often signed writers whose voices they liked but whose presentation was less than perfect, or whose plots needed polishing, and send out their work. Now that agents are expected to screen out all but the most polished books before the editorial submission stage, the agents don’t have the luxury of falling in love (the way they usually put it, incidentally) with books as often as they used to be able to do. At least, not the ones who want to stay in business.

Now, the first book is starting on a higher diving board — and instead of the agent’s signing a writer just after she has started to climb, the author is practically at the top before the agent commits to walking the plank with her. Yet, as we’ve discussed here before, most of the rhetoric of the industry still implies that all a writer needs to be is talented to succeed.

That’s just not true. A writer needs to be brave, too, and willing to revise her work again and again until it’s so good that it’s quality is self-evident, even on the first page. It’s a tall order.

Before you start getting angry with agents for this situation, take a moment to consider submission from the editor’s perspective, because they have had a lot to do with creating the agents’ reject-all-we-can mindset. Even with the agencies screening out 98% of submissions, the average editor at a major house will still receive 4-6 new manuscripts per day. To put these numbers in perspective, at most of the major houses, thi is as many projects as any given editor takes on in a YEAR.

So they, too, are looking to cull radically. For this reason, generally, even after they’ve listened to an agent’s pitch for a book and decided whether they are interested in the premise or not, they do not read the manuscript until after it has passed through at least one level of editorial assistant screenings.

What does this mean, in practical terms? Basically, before the editor will read it, your book will be handed to someone who has, just like an agency screener, been handed a list of criteria. This person has two jobs: to write a summary review of the book, for the editor’s perusal, and to weed out as many submissions as humanly possible.

The quickest way to do that, of course, is to stop reading as soon as a red flag pops up.

See why those first few pages are important?

So at this point, your book’s fate relies not so much upon YOUR writing as upon the editorial assistant’s. Scary, no? If that review is positive, AND if the book fits into the publishing house’s notions of what it wants to be offering a year from now, the editor will read it. Before he lugs it home on the subway, however, the editor usually glances through the first few pages in order to try to weed it out of consideration.

Again, see why an agent might want those first few pages to be perfect?

“Wait a minute,” I hear some of you out there saying. “Why home? Isn’t reading my submission the editor’s job?”

Well, yes, technically, but as editors are fond of telling anyone who will listen, their days are a lot fuller than they used to be. A whole lot of meetings, for instance. So for manuscripts they have not yet accepted, or writers not yet signed, their reading time tends to be limited to a few stray moments throughout the day — and whatever time they can snatch during evenings and weekends. And since he can take on only a few projects per year — and those he will need to fight for in editorial meetings — he, too, will be reading in the hope of finding an excuse to say no.

Think about this for a moment, to understand just how much an editor has to like those first few pages to take it home. A manuscript read at home will competing for the reader’s time and attention with any or all of the following: the reader’s spouse or partner, if any; the reader’s kids, if any; going to the gym; giving birth; AMERICAN IDOL; following current events; taking mambo lessons; trying to talk his best friend through a particularly horrible break-up; his own particularly horrible break-up; Jon Stewart on THE DAILY SHOW; grocery shopping; a teething infant; a date with someone who acts like a teething infant; personal hygiene, and voting in local, state, and national elections.

Just between ourselves, I don’t think any of us should be surprised that when our manuscripts have been sitting in editorial limbo for a month; we should be surprised that it gets read in under a year.

Which is, again a good reason to make decisions very quickly. In the long run, a snap decision saves time. However, it may take them a long while to find a moment in which to make that snap decision.

So when an agent is seeing your submission for the first time, she is not merely thinking about whether your book is well-written; she is thinking about whether it is nay-saying-proof, whether it is interesting enough to compete with the ideal editor’s children, etc. She will only take on a project if she is confident will survive all the way through an honestly brutal submission process.

And that, my friends, is what the over-used rejection letter phrase “I just didn’t fall in love with this book” actually means. It is an admission that the agent does not think a particular book will run the nay-saying gauntlet successfully. Whereas statements like Nos. 72-74 from yesterday’s list (“It just didn’t work for me,” “It didn’t do anything for me,” and “I like this, but I don’t know what to do with it.”) translate into an admission that the agent isn’t so enthusiastic about the project that she is willing to help you make it strong enough to survive.

It does require a significant commitment of time and energy from the agent, because she is often doing part of what the editor used to do: telling the author what needs to be done to the book to make it marketable. Most of the time, the editors do not give specific line feedback to writers, even after they acquire a book. Instead, they write brief, general editorial memos, usually about 4 pages to cover an entire book.

Not precisely the writer’s fantasy of a close working relationship with a sympathetic editor, is it?

As anyone who has ever heard an editor speak at a conference can tell you, editors are more than a little defensive about how the industry has changed. They DO still edit, they insist — but what they are talking about, usually, is that brief editorial memo, not wrestling over problematic paragraphs with the author until they sing. It really miffs them to be told that the former is not the common conception of what editing is, though, so I wouldn’t advise bringing it up.

If you will pardon my jumping around from conference class to conference class a little, I think the “How to Make Your Editor Happy” list Kristen Weber of the New American Library (NAL) gave at the recent Flathead conference only goes to underscore this point. Here are the six dos and don’ts she identified for being the author the editors like:

1. Don’t make excuses about missing a deadline; just say when it will be there. Really, the editor has enough to do not to be waiting with bated breath for your revision. (This is her justification, mind you, not mine.)

2. Send all of your questions in a single e-mail, rather than sending them in a flurry was they occur to you. Better yet, ask your agent to answer them first.

3. Don’t panic if you don’t hear back from an editor within a reasonable length of time. They have a lot to do.

4. Don’t try to talk with your editor about how your book is doing on Amazon. (According to her, those numbers don’t really matter — which is a trifle odd, since online sales make up about 20% of the market now.)

5. Don’t ask why your book is not getting the same promotion, advance, etc. as another similar book.

6. Read Publishers Weekly or Publishers Marketplace, so you understand how the industry works and how often the decision-makers change jobs.

She did mention a seventh point, but it was not on her list per se: go ahead and make all the changes the editor asks you to make, because they know the market better than you do.

That’s it.

I think this list is admirable as an indicator of how the industry has changed, because of what it does not contain: any injunction that the writer would, say, take criticism well, or be able to incorporate it promptly. Or that the writer be committed to promoting the book. Or even that the writer would be good about adhering to deadlines. All of these requests are, essentially, pleas that the writer would not take up any more of the editor’s time than is absolutely unavoidable.

Because, you see, the editor is really, really busy. Blame his ever-expanding job description.

With such expectations, it might occur to you: so who does the author ask when, say, it’s been four months since the editor got her manuscript? Her agent, that’s who.

Blame HER ever-expanding job description.

Tomorrow, I shall dive a bit more into the nitty-gritty of the rejection reasons from the Idol session. In the meantime, pat yourself on the back for being brave enough to want to submit your work under these conditions, and keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *