Writing Nowadays–Who You Know

A number of people are lying to you. If you want to get published, it really is who you know.

I can hear you shouting all the way over here. “I knew it!”

But . . .

“But?” you say. “No! No ‘but.’ I want to hear how all those hacks who wrote those crappy steaming piles managed to get in so I can do the same thing with my own crappy . . . steaming . . . wait.”

Look, the publishing industry is run by humans, and humans respond better to people they know than they do to total strangers. So yeah, it’s lots, lots, LOTS easier to get your book published if you’re dating the publisher’s son, just like it’s a lot easier for a lawyer to get a court date moved up if he’s friends with judge’s clerk and it’s easier for a contractor to get a project permit if his brother-in-law works at city hall.

However (or maybe that should be “but”), you still actually have to write the book. And it has to be at least vaguely readable. And if you want to write a second, third, or fourth book, that first “hey, do me a favor” book had better SELL LOTS OF COPIES. If the first book tanks, then whoever got you the favor will say, “Look, dude–I got you in the first time. If I buy a second crappy book from you, I’ll lose my job.” Same goes for that contractor with a brother-in-law–if the first job flunks inspection, the bro-in-law will get into trouble with his supervisor for granting another permit.

In other words, “do me a favor” books do exist, but unless the writing is really strong to begin with, “favor” books won’t float a career.

Okay, having said all that, we need to ask, how difficult is it to get an “in” with someone in publishing?

Honestly, it’s not all that hard. Let us count the ways.

1. You can go out of your way to meet, date, and pretend to fall in love with a member of the publisher’s family. This is probably the most challenging method, since the pool of available victims is limited.

2. You can attend conferences and conventions that editors and agents attend, then hang out in the bar or at parties. The next step is the hard part, but if you are determined, you will soldier on: buy an editor or agent a drink on your own dime (I said it was hard) and make interesting conversation with her. By “interesting,” I mean do more listening than talking. If you’re truly smart, you’ll do a little Google stalking beforehand to find out what she’s interested in so you can keep the conversational ball rolling: “I’ve heard you’re a big Lady Gaga fan. True?” At some point in the evening–later rather than sooner–mention off-handedly that you’re working on a book BUT DON’T ASK IF YOU CAN SEND IT. Don’t describe it, either. Just dangle the fact and then let the editor/agent ask what it’s about. Then you can give the 30-second back-cover blurb and off-handedly say, “Would you like to see it?” Regardless of the answer, your next step is to buy your new friend another drink and change the subject entirely. Do NOT abandon the conversation and flee–you’ll come off as a mercenary jerk. When you finally part company for the evening, you can say, “Oh, and I’ll send you that novel proposal next week.”

3. You can sell a bunch of short stories, preferably to the same editor, and when your novel is complete, ask your short story editor for an agent recommendation and permission to drop her name in the query, as in “Brandina Redpen at TOOTHY STORIES magazine suggested that I contact you.”

4. You can sell enough short fiction to join a professional writers group such as SFWA, the HWA, MWA, or MWA and then hang out on their on-line community for a while. When your novel is done, ask your on-line friends for agent recommendations.

5. Write a fabulous book that makes the editor willing to climb over her own grandmother to publish it.

Hmmmm . . . maybe it’s harder than it looked at first.

Will knowing someone get your book published for sure? Absolutely not. Knowing someone can get you a ticket out of the slush pile and a faster read, but the editor isn’t the only person who decides if a book gets published. There’s the marketing team, the editor-in-chief, and sometimes even the publisher, and any one of them can reject your book, no matter how powerful your hold on the editor may be. The only person, in fact, who has the absolute power to say, “We WILL publish this” is the publisher, so if you want absolute certainty, you’re best off with Step 1 above. And good luck with that.

Do you NEED to know someone to get your first book published? Also absolutely not. Lots and lots and lots of writers (including me) did it blind. So can you.

Your best bet is to write a damn good book and submit to everyone who has the faintest possibility of accepting it. Use Steps 2, 3, and 4 above whenever you can to smooth the way, but Step 5–writing a good book–is the most useful “in” of all.

“Hold it, Piziks,” you say. “What about all those dreadful books written by celebrities? Huh? Don’t they prove that it’s who you know? You can’t tell me they aren’t connected!”

Ah yes. Them.

I thank all the gods for those dreadful celebrity books.  But we’ll discuss that next week.

–Steven Harper Piziks

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Writing Nowadays–Who You Know — 3 Comments

  1. I sold my first book to an editor at Fawcett who was an old and dear friend of my mother’s, and who had known me since I was in my crib. I felt guilty about it for years. Finally my father, in some impatience, pointed out that while she might have bought the book for who I knew, Fawcett-the-company didn’t know me from Adama and had no loyalty to me, and the beancounters had to believe that my book would make them money before they would have permitted my editor to make an offer.

    I felt a little less guilty, but only a little.

    Contacts, as you say, can get you in the door. Once you’re in the door, you better be carrying a good book.

  2. I’m going to have to add social media to the list. Interact enough in the writing community and you get noticed by editors and agents (of course, you have to be professional and vaguely entertaining). It’s happened to people I know.

  3. I wish reviewers could tell us outright that a certain book was only published because the author plays tennis with the publisher’s wife, or the author came with certain celebrity endorsements, or the author’s husband happens to own the parent company, etc etc. These books piss me off because they push legitimate writers off the shelves for hidden reasons that have nothing to do with talent, and the books get trotted out and reviewed in the place of real books.