Talking turkey

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

I always wish my readers joyous holiday gatherings with just a touch of trepidation, I must admit. Why, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: in descending order of probability, a fellow writer, a writing blogger, and an editor provide the three most likely shoulders writers will dampen with their frustrated tears immediately after the festivities cease.

“Why?” they inevitably wail, and who could blame them? “Why is it that my kith/kin/the kith and kin of some acquaintance kind enough to feed me don’t seem to have the faintest idea of what it means to be a working writer? I swear that I heard, ‘So when is your book coming out?’ twice as often as ‘Pass the gravy, please.’ Why is publication — and wildly successful publication at that — so frequently held as the only measure of writing talent?”

Although I’m relatively certain that the question-asking gravy-eschewers who drove these writers to wail did not intend to be cruel, the short answer to the wail’s content is an unfortunately cruel one: because that’s how society at large judges writing. Not only does popular misconception holed that the only good book a published book — a proposition that would make anyone who actually handles manuscripts for a living positively choke with mirth — but also that if a writer were truly talented, publication would be both swift and inevitable.

That means, on a practical level, that there are only two possible reasons that a manuscript could possibly not already be published: it’s not yet completed (in which case the writer is lazy, right?) or it simply isn’t any good (and thus does not deserve to be published). While it is of course conceivable that one of these could be true of any particular manuscript to which a hopeful writer might refer after a relative she sees only once a year claps her heartily on the back and bellows, “How’s the writing coming, Gladys?” again, the very notion that writing success should be measured — or even could be measured — solely by whether the mythical Publication Fairy has yet whacked it with her Bind-It-Now wand would, again, cause the pros to choke with mirth.

Yet I sense that some of you are not in fact choking with mirth. “But Anne,” frustrated writers who have internalized these pernicious assumptions point out, “although naturally, I know from reading this blog (particularly the informative posts under the HOW THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WORKS — AND DOESN’T category on the archive list at right), listening carefully to what agents say they want, and observation of the career trajectories of both my writer friends and established authors alike that many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up, part of me wants to believe that’s not really the case. Or at least that it will not be the case in my case. If the literary universe is fair, a good manuscript should always find a home, right? And if that’s true, perhaps my kith and kin are right that if I were really talented, the only thing I would ever have to say at the Thanksgiving table is that my book is already out and where I would like them to buy it.”

“Wait just a book-signing minute!” another group of not-yet-completely frustrated writers roar. “What do you mean, many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up? How is that possible? Isn’t it the publishing industry’s job — and its sole job — to identify and promote writing talent? And doesn’t that mean that any truly talented writer will be so identified and promoted, if only he is brave enough to send out his work persistently, until he find the right agent for it?”

“Whoa!” still a third sector shouts. “Send out work persistently? I thought that if a writer was genuinely talented, any good agent would snatch up her manuscript. So why would any talented writer need to query more than one or two times?”

Do you hear yourselves, people? You’re invoking the Publishing Fairy. That’s a dangerous practice for a writer, for her long, long shadow can render seeing one’s own publication chances rather difficult. Following her spectre can lead a writer to believe that the goal of querying is to land just any agent, for instance, rather than one who already has the connections to sell the book. Or simply sending out a barrage of queries to the fifty agents a search engine spit out, or even every agent in the country, without checking to see if any of them represent a particular kind of book. Or — you might want to put down your fork, the better to digest this one — give up after just a few queries or submissions.

Because if that writer were actually talented, how he went about approaching agents wouldn’t matter, right? The Publishing Fairy would see to it that nothing but the writing quality would count — and thus it follows like drowsiness after consuming vast quantities of turkey that if that writer gets rejected, ever, the manuscript must not be well-written.

Heck, by this logic, it’s hardly necessary for the writer to make any effort at all, beyond writing a first draft of the book, is it? Those whom the Publishing Fairy bops in the noggin need merely toss off a first draft — because the honestly gifted writer never needs to revise anything, right? — then wait patiently until an agent is magically wafted to her doorstep. (Possibly accompanied by Mary Poppins, if the wind is right.) The agent reads the entire book at a sitting — or, better still, extrapolates the entire book from a swift glance at a query — and shouts in ecstasy, “This is the book for which I have been waiting for my entire career!” A book contract follows instantly, promising publication with in a few weeks. By the end of a couple of months at the latest, the really talented writer will be happily ensconced on a well-lit couch in a television studio, chatting with a talk show host about her book.

Oh, you may laugh (please tell me you are laughing), but you would be astonished at how pervasive this narrative of authorial success actually is amongst aspiring writers. They may not all believe it intellectually — they may have come to understand, for example, that since no agent in the world represents every conceivable type of book, it’s a waste of time to query an agent who does not habitually represent books in one’s chosen book category — but at a gut level, every rejection feels like just more evidence of being ignored by the Publication Fairy.

Which must mean that your manuscript isn’t nearly as good as you thought, right? Why else would an agent — any agent — who has not seen so much as a word of it not respond to a query? The Publication Fairy must have tipped her off that something wasn’t quite right.

Come on, admit it — you’ve thought this at least once, haven’t you? Practically every aspiring writer who does not happen to be a celebrity (who enjoy a completely different path to publication, typically) entertains such doubts in the dead of night. If the road to publication is hard, long, and winding, it must mean something, mustn’t it?

Why, yes: it could mean that the book category in which one happens to be writing is not selling very well right now, for one thing. Good agents are frequently reluctant to pick up even superlative manuscripts they don’t believe they could sell. It could also mean that the agents one has been approaching do not have a solid track record of selling similar books, or that one has assigned one’s book to an inappropriate category. Either can often result in knee-jerk rejection. Or, even if the manuscript is a perfect fit and everyone at the agency adores the writing, the literary marketplace has contracted to such an extent that the agent cannot afford to take on as many talented new clients as she would like.

But those are not the justifications that occur to one in the dead of night, are they? Which is interesting, as offhand, I can think of approximately no well-established authors for whom the Publishing Fairy fantasy above represented the actual career trajectory.

If you have fallen prey to these feelings, especially after having spent even a few minutes having to defend one’s writing habit to non-writers with whom one is sharing a gravy boat, try not to be too hard on yourself. The popular conception of how publishing works is, not to put too fine a point on it, composed largely of magical thinking. There’s a reason for that, I suspect: all of us would like to believe that if a manuscript is a masterpiece, there’s no chance that it would go unpublished.

We believe, in short, in the Publication Fairy. That’s understandable in a writer: those of us in cahoots with the Muses would prefer not to think that they were in the habit of tricking us. (Although, let’s face it, even a passing acquaintance with literary history would lead one to suspect that they do occasionally get a kick out of snatching recognition from someone they have blessed with talent. Edgar Allan Poe didn’t exactly die a happy man, campers.)

In non-writers, though, this attitude can come as a bit more of a surprise. What, after all, does an otherwise upstanding citizen whose idea of Hell consists of a demon’s forcing him into an uncomfortable desk chair in front of a seriously outdated computer and howling, “You must write a book!” possibly gain by believing that, unlike in literally every other human endeavor, excellence in writing is invariably rewarded?

Yet even those who strenuously avoid bookstores often seem to cling to the myth of the Publication Fairy. Don’t believe me? Try talking about your writing over a holiday dinner to a group of non-writers.

“So when is your book coming out?” Uncle Ambrose will ask. “And would you mind passing the gravy?”

“What do you mean, you haven’t finished writing that book yet?” Great-Aunt Mavis chimes in, helping herself to sweet potatoes. “You’ve been working on it for years.”

“Are you still doing that?” Grandpa George demands incredulously. “I thought you’d given up when you couldn’t sell your first book.

Cousin Elaine might try to be a bit more tactful. “Oh, querying sounds just awful. Have you considered self-publishing?”

Because, of course, that would never have occurred to you. You’ve never had a dark midnight in which you dreamt of being wealthy enough to thumb your nose at traditional publishing — at least long enough to bypass the querying and submission processes, rush the first draft of your Great American Novel onto bookshelves, and then sit back, waiting for the royalties to roll in, the reviewers to rave, and publishers the world over to materialize on your doorstep, begging to publish your next book.

Never mind that the average self-published book sells fewer than five hundred copies, or that most publications that still review books employ policies forbidding the review of self-published books. Ignore the fact that all of the effort of promoting such a book falls on the author. And don’t even give a passing thought to the reality that in order for a self-published book to impress the traditional publishing world even vaguely, it typically needs to sell at least 10,000 copies.

The Publishing Fairy can merely wave her wand and change all of that, right?

Contrary to what some intrepid readers might be beginning to suspect, I’m not bringing all of this up in order to depress everyone into a stupor about just how difficult it is for a first-time author to bring a book to publication, but to provide a bit of ego salve for the many, many aspiring writers whose otherwise charming Thanksgiving table partners might not have been as supportive of their writing aspirations as they might have liked. Try not to hold it against your father-in-law: chances are, he just doesn’t have any idea how publishing actually works.

But you do. Don’t let anybody, not even the insidious hobgoblins of midnight reflection, tell you that the reason you don’t already have a book out is — and must necessarily be — that you just aren’t talented enough. That’s magical thinking, and you’re smarter than to buy into it.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that those of you who have yet to dine today deliberately pick a fight with your third cousin twice removed or any other delightful soul considerate enough to ask about your writing. In fact, I’ve been deliberately delaying my own foray into the kitchen in order to help you avoid that particular argument — or, more likely because writers tend to be awfully nice people, avoid the hurt feelings that those unwilling to fight often find hard to digest.

How might one side-step that especially indigestible discussion? Had you thought about abruptly asking how everyone at the table voted in the last election?

Just kidding. Just as it is always dangerous to presume that everyone at an agency or publishing house will share the worldview or life experiences of the submitter, it’s risky to assume that everyone gathered around even the most Norman Rockwell-pleasing holiday table shares identical political beliefs.

So how might a writer besieged by the Publication Fairy’s adherents do to protect his digestion? How about limiting to the discussion to, “The writing’s going very well. How’s your handball game these days?”

Seem evasive? Well, it is. But would you rather allow the discourse to proceed to the point that you might have to say to a relative that has just referred to your writing as Alison’s time-gobbling little hobby, “Good one, brother. Seriously, though, I don’t want to bore you with an explanation of how books actually get published.”

If you do feel compelled to try to talk your loved ones into a more supportive attitude while they are gnawing upon drumsticks, dinner might be an excellent time to disabuse them of the also quite ubiquitous notion that author’s kith and kin routinely receive free copies of books. Yes, publishers do generally give their authors an extremely limited stock of their books, but it’s with the expectation those will be used for promotion, not to grace one’s mother’s bookshelves, if you catch my drift.

That means, in practice, that if you recklessly promise free copies, you will almost certainly be buying them yourself. And to answer your mother’s next question: yes, Mom, authors do often receive a discount upon their own books, but the books the author buys do not count toward sales totals.

Translation: the best thing Aunt Hattie could do to support your writing career would be to commit to buying your book(s) herself. Promise to sign it for her when she does.

Or just bookmark this page and forward the link to your kith and kin a few months before your first book comes out. I’ve spent a lifetime explaining to everyone’s relatives that since the Publication Fairy so often falls down on the job, it’s up to the rest of us to support the writers in our lives. I see no reason to stop now.

Keep your chins high, campers: your writing deserves that support. Happy digestion, and keep up the good work!

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