Posted by : Sherri Cornelius Tuesday, July 21, 2009

It rained last night, but I don't think we got as much as other places. This year an odd trend has emerged, where the radar shows a line of storms heading right for our little dot, but as they reach the dot they either weaken and die, or they weaken and re-form just on the other side of our dot, or they split and go to either get the idea. So last night's rain was welcome, but I'm sorry I missed it.

Yesterday's post spurred some interesting comments, so I thought I'd address them in a new post. I referenced a post by Rachelle Gardner, in which she says it's better for an unpublished writer to have more than one book under her belt, in a couple of ways. The part of the post that struck me was where she points out that it takes more than one book to learn how to be a writer, and that's the part I blogged about yesterday. I was grateful for her honesty. It helped me appreciate my journey over the past year. I took it as a helpful and honest glimpse into the mystery that is the agent.

But others saw it as arrogant or judgemental. So what if you have only one book. Is that book a good one? Why wouldn't they give that single good book a chance? (A quick Google search brought up this post and this one about one-book authors.) Would today's market have room for great books like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird or Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind? Marta mentioned Sylvia Plath, but I'm not sure I'd put her in this list, because she was already a published poet when The Bell Jar was published.

So here are my thoughts on the feeling that the system is unfair. With Mitchell, yeah, she wouldn't have been published today, because she never even submitted her manuscript! The editor came to her, something that would NEVER happen in today's market, and neither should it, because they have plenty of books to choose from. Mitchell is a great--if extreme--example of why it's a gamble to work with an author who has only written one book. The pressure of her success crippled her. Yes, she made everyone involved with her single book oodles of money and notoriety, but like I said, that's an extreme situation. Most authors will never reach that level of fame, and yet still find the pressure to be too much. That's where the "learning to be an author" part comes in, I think.

As Rachelle said in her post, "Any editor will tell you that no matter how fabulous an author's first book is, it's rather scary signing a contract with someone who's never written more than the one." And I think that's the point, and here's an example. Patrick Rothfuss is a guy who published a really popular first book, and he had trouble producing the second book. The post I linked to explains why, but basically he had a lot of personal stuff happen to him, plus the pressure of his new-found "popular writer" duties. (I really appreciate his being so open about his reasons, because it gave me hope during a very dark time.) Now, I don't know if The Name of the Wind was his first novel ever, or just the first to be published, but his struggle illustrates why publishers are nervous about debut authors and why they want to be as sure as they can about an author's ability to produce work.

With Lee, I think To Kill a Mockingbird WOULD be published today. Agents and editors do take chances on very good first novels. White Oleander is the first contemporary example that comes to mind (yeah, it's a little old, but it was still acquired under the system we use today).

I've had this discussion several times over the years, but I still don't really understand the frustration with the "gatekeepers", i.e. agents and editors. I understand being frustrated with wherever I am on the path, like receiving a form rejection letter, but I don't have a problem with the form rejection itself, understand? Overall, the system makes perfect sense to me. Do a few publishable books fall through the cracks? I'm sure. But overall I think the system keeps the quality of the books we're offered to a higher standard. If I have to jump through their hoops to prove my worth, it's okay. It sucks, but I accept it. Does that make me weird?

Dang, writing a real post is a lot of work. Let me have it, people. Rebut.

{ 9 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. No rebuttal. I think there's something to be said for the process, I'm sure. I don't think a bunch of people who aren't even writers should be able to arbitrarily decide on their opinions what's good and what's not.

    You make a point about how the process is keeping our literature standards high. I disagree. I think the vast majority of stuff I run into is rubbish, and I think there are plenty of very good writers out there (like you, for instance) who aren't getting a shot because of the gatekeeper methodology.

    Then again, I am nothing and no one and don't know the industry and yada yada yada, so I should just STFU. And I will ... riiiiiight ... NOW.


  2. I see rejections as a challenge. I don't pay attention to form rejections at all. Just file them and continue on. Anything that's a more personal rejection earned an "oh yeah?" from me, followed by more work on the manuscript. I query with the attitude "I dare you to reject this book because if you do, you'll never make one red cent in it."

    Then I go eat fistfuls of raw meat and punch my hands into buckets of broken glass. One way or another, I'll break through their bozo filters.

    Now that I'm agented, I'm just at a higher level of bozo filter to overcome.

  3. I read Patrick Rothfuss' blog frequently and absolutely LOVED his first book. He has the second book (and possibly a third?) 'written' but not to the point where he feels he could publish it. As you mentioned, he didn't know how much publicizing that first book would take away from his other pursuits and had to give up his full-time college faculty job as well as advising some student groups.

    What I found interesting is that even when one of his parents was dying of cancer he was in the hospital room with her wielding the red editing pen and revising things because he felt that his hold on the publishing world was so tenuous that his agent / publisher would drop him.

    I'm waiting and hoping for the next book to come out. The Name of the Wind is absolutely brilliant.


    P.S. DZ submitted his poem to Horror in Words on a whim because he wanted to see what a rejection letter looked like. The first issue (with him credited as Benjamin Kotz) came out today. Keep going!

  4. Hon, this is a rebuttal. lol We’ve discussed this before so we each know the other’s arguments, but for the sake of public discussion, I’ll take it point by point.

    Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying the system is perfect, and it does have a lot of flaws. I can see why it is what it is, and while I don’t love it, I don’t spend a lot of time railing against it. I prefer to work with it, instead.

    I don’t think a bunch of people who aren’t even writers should be able to arbitrarily decide on their opinions what’s good and what’s not.
    I’m going to challenge you on the word “arbitrary.” It’s not arbitrary at all. Once a book catches their attention, they look at each book and each author from every angle, weighing their love of the work against the commercial viability of it. And yeah, that commercial part has to be there. It’s a business, flawed as it is, and they have to make money. Editors often are writers, too, and they are always book lovers. The editor should be your best friend, because she will champion your book and push it as far as it can go. Right?

    You make a point about how the process is keeping our literature standards high. I disagree.
    Actually, I said “highER”, as in “higher than they would be without the hoops.” Sorry if I wasn’t clear. Vast numbers of writers = vast numbers of unpublishable books. Playing the devil’s advocate here: Somebody has to decide what’s good, and why shouldn’t it be avid readers of your genre like agents and editors? I’m curious…What system would you put in place of the one we have now? What would make the standard higher? And who, then, would be in charge of deciding what fit the standard?

    …I think there are plenty of very good writers out there (like you, for instance) who aren’t getting a shot because of the gatekeeper methodology.
    Thank you for your vote of confidence. :) I am getting a shot. Things are going slower than I’d like, but I understand where I am and why I’m there. Hindsight is 20/20, and I can see that I was not ready for publication when I started looking for an agent. As far as I can see, all writers think they’re publish-ready when they start the process or they wouldn’t have started it, but I think you’ll agree that most of those people are wrong.

    Thanks for your comment, as always, dear Knyt. :)

  5. I love that: "bozo filter." LMAO Perfect!

  6. I found that interesting, too, about editing in the hospital. And oops, think I called his book the wrong thing. I'll go fix it. Congrats to Ben!

  7. Back in "the day," when agents were considered more of an option than a requirement to even get your work read by an editor, a lot of wonderful work was published. But now that the publishing market is contracting into this entity of three huge publishers vs billions of tiny small presses that make little to no money and the rest being published POD, it has gotten really difficult to go the traditional route. There are the "gatekeepers" to sift through the dregs so the editors at the giant publishing houses (that can publicize your book and help you get on the coveted, you're-nothing-if-you're-not-on-it NYT Bestseller's List) don't have to anymore. That's all fine and dandy, though I'm not sure if it results in better books being published overall than it does FEWER books being published by traditional means. Fewer bad AND fewer good ones too. As with any large industry, (and as Stephenie Meyer would undoubtedly and happily attest) it's less about the art and great writing than it is about the $$$. Knowing the right people doesn't hurt either.

    The system is not what it was thirty, or even twenty, or even ten years ago. Print is dying a very slow death while the digital market has yet to get any real legs of legitimacy. We're sort of living in the transition and more people are falling through the cracks than ever. In the meantime, we have this question of what it takes to get picked up by a traditional publisher, because it is after all still the Ultimate Goal of any serious writer. We want to be like the print heroes we grew up reading and loving. Who knows what our kids and grandkids will aspire to be.

    But to the point of the question... is it necessary to write more than one book in order for agents to take you seriously? Who knows. One of my editing clients is possibly getting picked up by an agent on her first book. And I know the nonfiction market is full of first-time writers who had a great idea and managed to sell it. I'm cutting my teeth on the short story market to at least get some publishing credits under my belt before sending in a novel. So far I have two credits and a couple of novels that need finishing, and another one in the works. I'll get there eventually. Either way, I think if you write a great, marketable story and sell yourself well to the right person at the right time, it will happen.

    If an agent is sticking to some sort of rigid algorithm of "current submission + other novels written but failed to publish = writer I will sign," then I will honestly have less respect for that particular agent.

  8. We are definitely in a state of publishing flux, that's fo' sure.

    Maybe the problem I have with the whole "gatekeepers are a bad thing" argument is that it takes the stance of, "they don't care about the quality of a book, only its ability to make money." I don't see it that way. Of course the money is a consideration. It just goes with the territory. Too often, though, people declare a book "bad" because it's in a genre they don't like, you know? I just think it's so subjective, there's no point in trying to understand why some things get published and others don't.

    Either way, I think if you write a great, marketable story and sell yourself well to the right person at the right time, it will happen.
    Agreed. I think you're well on your way, Miss Allie. :)

  9. Ha! I didn't even notice that you didn't get the name of his book right. My brain read it correctly. Either that or you DID get it right and I'm nuts.


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