The upcoming “Insider Tricks to Getting Published” event at Oblong Books is billed as follows: “Are the best writers more likely to get published? Not necessarily. Many excellent writers never get published, while many less-than-stellar writers are serially published. Why?”
The speaker’s book, Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents: Who They Are What They Want How to Win Them Over, offers a few reasons, best summed up under the banner of “professionalism.” A less-talented writer can be successful by writing something for which there is a market, being productive, being persistent, seeking out a genre-appropriate agent, following submission guidelines, being receptive to constructive criticism and not badmouthing their agent on social media.
The bulk of the book is devoted to Q&As with literary agents, with a focus on how they interact with unpublished writers. It is agents, not publishers, who read unsolicited manuscripts. They act as a sorting mechanism for the publishing industry, of which most are veterans. They work on commission: The better their authors do, the higher their compensation, so it pays for them to hustle.
The potential for self-publishing to disrupt this system is a recurring theme. It’s quite easy for an author to transform a Word document into an e-book that can be sold on Amazon. It might even sell – especially if the author ponies up a few thousand bucks for freelance editing and cover design, and is part of an online community dedicated to a particular genre, like paranormal teen romance. The agents acknowledge that there are authors who began by self-publishing and went on to land contracts with big traditional publishing houses. But they warn against trying to pitch a book that has already been self-published and failed, which agents won’t want to touch.
That warning reminded me of another that appears a few times: the admonition against agent-hopping. That is, if an agent agrees to represent you, you should shut up and trust that they are competent and trying their best. If the work isn’t selling, that’s the work’s fault. You should think twice about dropping the agent, because other agents will interpret that as a sign that your work can’t be sold and you will be regarded as a potentially difficult client.
The “how to please the whims of the gatekeeper” approach employed by such books is necessary because publishing still has gatekeepers, for better or worse. First, the good: For all the talk of making yourself attractive to a potential agent and publisher, the literary world is full of smart people who are passionate about books and writing and can spot true talent among the introverted, less savvy self-promoting types, and fight for them. The bad: Gatekeepers aren’t always right. They tend to be elitist. They have their prejudices. They create a barrier between the artist and the people that strikes the 21st-century mind as unnecessary. A more modern attitude would say, “Post it all and let the wisdom of the crowd sort it out.”
Ten years ago, everyone assumed that e-books would take over, but that didn’t happen. It turns out that there’s no replacement for the printed book – especially a weighty, well-designed hardcover with that fresh-off-the-presses smell and century-old publisher’s imprint, the opening dedication like a Renaissance work of art, the acknowledgements. It’s a beautiful object with prestige. A wall of books is a signifier of substance. It’s one bit of clutter even a minimalist will accept.
Aspiring writers looking to get published and readers who are curious for a glimpse behind the curtain should both find something interesting in Wednesday’s event. Admission is free, but RSVP is requested on Oblong’s website at www.oblongbooks.com.
Insider Tricks to Getting Published with Jeff Herman, Wednesday, May 22, 6 p.m., free, Oblong Books, 6422 Montgomery St., Rhinebeck; www.oblongbooks.com.