Sorry about the skipped day of posting, everybody: yesterday just seemed to slip away from me somehow, probably because I was in the throes of Deep Thought. This summer has been an unusually intense one for me, teaching fewer classes, but editing more; doing less original writing, but selling one NF book and making the last tweaks on a novel to head out the door just after Labor Day. So it’s safe to say that I’ve spent the last few months buried up to my neck in the sand of publishing industry expectations.
Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the most graceful image.
But it does give an accurate sense of how the prevailing norms both surround and constrain a writer. Or an editor, for that matter: a freelancer like me is at the double disadvantage of enforcing the prevailing rules without being able to reward good book with a publishing contract.
I was thinking about this yesterday, and I realized with a jolt that even though we are approaching the end of the Summer of Marketing (to be followed, I devoutly hope, by the Autumn of Craft), I have not yet written about one of the single most important truths a submitter needs to know about the industry. It is this:
Agents and editors do not read like other people.
Do I hear some guffawing out there? “Come on, Anne,” I hear the odd skeptic calling from the gallery, “give us a little credit for paying attention. Of course, they don’t read like other people, or at any rate don’t read submissions that way: while the rest of us read for pleasure, they read for business. Whether they pick up a book or not is not merely a matter of whether they LIKE it, but whether they think they can SELL it.”
My, but the skeptics are articulate today, aren’t they?
And smart: all of this is indeed true. However, there is another immense difference between the way professional readers and other book-lovers scan a manuscript. When your garden-variety reader picks up a book, she will generally read a few pages, a chapter, or even the entire book before making up her mind about it, right? Even if she doesn’t like one of the characters, or finds an aspect of the premise improbable, she will usually give the book a chance to change her mind.
Professional readers, on the other hand — and that includes not just editors like me, but agents, their screeners, and pretty much everyone in a position to say yea or nay on acquiring a manuscript for publication — read a manuscript line by line, especially at first. Then page by page.
And if something in one of those lines, or on one of those pages strikes them as off, they will stop.
Now, when an editor stops reading a manuscript she’s already acquired, it’s generally to write suggestions on the manuscript page; when an agent is perusing an already-signed client’s work, that tends to be the case, too.
But in a submission, it’s not the agent or editor’s goal to improve the manuscript: it’s to decide whether they want to take it on.
Which is precisely why the VAST majority of submissions are not read beyond the first page.
If this is news to you — in my bones, I felt a number of you clutching your hearts immediately after I typed that — I implore you to set aside a couple of hours before the next time you submit to read through the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE category at right.
It may be a trifle depressing to see just how many ways a first page can garner rejection, but winnowing out the factors that tend to provoke a knee-jerk reaction in our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, will improve your submission’s chances of getting past her to the agent of your dreams markedly.
The fact is, agency screeners and editorial assistants are generally told to stop reading as soon as a red flag flutters its nasty little head.
Even if Millicent does not begin her career in submission-reading thinking this was a good plan, after she’s spent a few months, or even weeks, going through fifty submissions at a pop, she’s quickly going to realize that this policy is not about hating literature or making it as hard as possible to pass the Rubicon of landing an agent: it’s about time management.
Which means, as I have been saying for a couple of years now, that yes, presentation counts. It means that it is not only possible that some very small problem will knock a submission out of consideration, but that it is the norm.
Thus the difference in how they read and how we do: they are looking for a reason to stop reading; we are living in hope that the author will wow us.
I think it would save a great deal of chagrin if this simple dichotomy were more widely known. But the opposite seems to be true: the vast majority of aspiring writers believe, bless their optimistic hearts, that agents and editors will read with a kindly eye, one that can see errors in presentation and execution understandable in someone new to the biz to the talent that lies underneath.
You know, the way the members of a good critique group do, pointing out the problems, yes, but responding to the essential story and craft.
Most writers believe, in short, that when an agent asks to see the first chapter or the first 50 pages, someone at the agency will read the entire thing; if the agent asked to see the entire book, he will read it end to end in a single sitting. Then, and only then, will the agent decide whether to give the author a chance or not.
Believe me, my friends, if I ran the universe, the industry would work this way. Every submission would receive a full, thoughtful consideration before any decision was made. Armies of literature-loving cherubim would be employed around the clock to write encouraging, helpful analyses of each manuscript, to explain precisely why it did not, in the parlance of the industry, meet their needs at this time. Rejected submitters would be urged to work on specific craft issues, clearly explained in the feedback, and resubmit at a later date.
And flower gardens would spring up spontaneously amongst urban sprawl, every child in the world would have adequate health care and a good reading light installed over her wee bed, and dear little birds would come and perch on my finger while I drew water from the well to prepare the Seven Dwarves’ dinners.
As I believe I may have mentioned before, I do not run the universe.
99% of the time, rejected writers never find out just why Millicent bounced their manuscripts. But I’ll bet you a nickel that no matter what aroused her ire, she did not read even a sentence beyond it.
I mention all this not to depress you into a stupor, my friends, but to empower you: most of the time, a rejection is not based upon an entire manuscript, but a fraction of it. Which means, contrary to popular belief, that Millicent is not passing judgment on the entire book when she tucks that form letter into a SASE.
Logically, she can only have rejected only the fraction of it that she read. So does it make sense to revise the entire manuscript in the wake of such a rejection — or to go back, sit down, and figure out where she probably stopped reading?
Yup. That’s a LOT less work for you. When you start getting rejection letters that give substantive feedback, where the agent or editor has taken the time to explain why he is passing, THEN you can be sure that someone in the industry is basing his opinion upon a close reading of your entire work.
When that happens, you should be very pleased: it means that your manuscript is so clean, so free of logical leaps and narrative problems, so interesting that even a time-pressed professional reader, someone whose entire career has trained him to respond on a line level to writing, couldn’t find a reason to stop reading.
And that, my friends, is why detailed, personalized sorry-it’s-not-for-us letters are known in the biz as rave rejections. If the rejecter didn’t like the book quite a bit, he wouldn’t have read that far.
Allow these home truths to settle in the backs of your minds, awaiting the next time you receive a request for pages. Then, when you sit down with — long-time readers, chant it with me now — a hard copy of your manuscript and read it out loud, in order to catch any potential problems, you can try to read like a professional reader: when you encounter a problem, you will stop reading and fix it before moving on.
I actually will launch into my promised discussion of query letters tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!