I was chatting with some colleagues about assorted misconceptions about publishing, and I thought I’d pass along three.
1) In the name of writing an arresting, throw-down-the-gauntlet type of query, insult the agent to whom you are writing. Every so often I get a query that dares me to look past my own evident myopia/mediocrity/corporate co-option and read a project so mind-blowing that it will challenge everything I presume to know. Although it’s true I am near sighted (and entirely open to earth-shattering literary experience), I’m always a little astonished that anyone imagines contempt might be an effective conversation starter. I do wonder whether the writer in question started out composing less strident letters, and has simply grown bitter over time. If so, I get it. Rejection is excruciating, and who wouldn’t love to craft some cutting cri de couer? Satisfying? Certainly. Self-sabotaging? Probably. Calling an agent a tool seems a poor way of hiring one, but perhaps even Pyrrhic victory can be sweet.
2) I often hear it bandied about that it is harder to get an agent than a publisher. Comforting as this may seem, I feel fairly certain it’s not true. To find representation, you must convince only one person that your story is well-crafted, saleable, and worthwhile. To get a book into print, you generally need to convince a battery of people with disparate tastes and interests, a long, highly particular history of success and failure selling books, and improbably high sales targets that your work is worthy and commercially viable. Most slots on a given list are carefully guarded, and awarded to people who can play some active role in rounding up readers. In the case of business books, an “active role” might take the form of a “buy-back” in which a company or foundation commits in advance of publication to buy ten or fifteen thousand copies. Quite a deal sweetener, also something like the publishing equivalent of Stone Soup. The house brings the stone, but the author brings all the other ingredients, including a baseline of sales. Getting an agent means recruiting a single (albeit tenacious) ally; getting a contract means winning over a whole team.
3) Once you have a publisher, your book will be available in bookstores throughout the country. Not always the case. Publishing houses, even those with great distribution, are not solely responsible for the number of copies shipped. They may announce an ambitious first printing, but the bookseller accounts have a say in how many copies they will take, how many stores will stock it, and for how long.
Any misconceptions that you have encountered/discovered? I’m happy to add to the list.