Oh God, Thy Sea Is So Great and My Boat Is So Small

I have a friend who’s written a book. It’s about his recovery from cancer. His friends and family think it’s an amazing book and should be published. He wants me to say the same thing. Instead I say: “Is it unusual, this story? Is there something unique about the way it happened? What’s the hook? We’re all very glad you survived this ordeal, but—as heartless as this sounds—surviving is not enough. You have to be famous (Lance Armstrong, say) or have a hook. For example, Brendan Halpin’s It Takes a Worried Man is written from the point of view of a healthy husband with a very sick wife. Marisa Acocello Marchetto is a cartoonist, and her story, Cancer Vixen, is, well, told in cartoons. It’s a graphic memoir. But what is going to make people who don’t know you buy your book? I don’t think a publisher will take it.”

I don’t like delivering this kind of news but isn’t honesty best? My friend at a respected literary agency says they get 500 to 800 queries a month. My editor friend at a well-known publishing house says, “I wish I had the budget to develop some of the manuscripts I’m seeing; instead I just say no.” Publishing guru Michael Hyatt says, “The supply of hopeful authors is infinite while the supply of publishing resources is finite. Publishers can only publish a fraction of the proposals they receive.”

You have to admit the competition is stiff. What lots of people, understandably, do not realize is what sounds like a terrific idea to them, often based on some horrific event in their lives, has also been proposed by other people. My friend at the literary agency says a majority of the manuscripts they receive are about one of the following: abused childhoods; recovering from alcoholism; dealing with breast cancer; Mafia-types; or 
paranormal adventures, often featuring fourteen-year-old boys.

This sort of unoriginal thinking is one reason why publishing professionals say no. Yet some very vocal aspiring authors rail against the gatekeepers, moan about the lead time, and think there’s some sort of conspiracy to keep them from becoming a Published Author. Sometimes it hurts my heart, y’all, the ugly things I read on the Internet.

What I don’t understand is the sense of entitlement implicit in these complaints. Typically folks who are trying to succeed in the arts—and I have some personal knowledge of this—have been working on their craft since childhood. (Remember the 10,000-Hour Rule?) Artists, musicians, actors—all have had plenty of experience with competition and rejection and disappointment. They have had teachers and mentors who told them, perhaps, “No, this isn’t good enough. Go practice some more.” Musicians and actors in particular have endured dozens of auditions by the time they’re adults, most of which they didn’t win (because the competition is stiff for the biggest rewards). They understand clearly the concept of gatekeepers and the general unfairness of life. :) They have, in essence, practiced losing. So they don’t feel so entitled. They know you have to work hard, do your best, keep trying, and pick yourself up again when you don’t succeed. They know, also, their mothers will always love their work.

Could that be the lesson here? Grownups aren’t used to being told no, but sometimes that is the honest answer.

Tweet: What is going to make people who don’t know you buy your book?
Tweet: You have to work hard, do your best, keep trying, & pick yourself up when you don’t succeed.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in The Book Biz | Tagged as: , , , , | Bookmark the permalink | Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

10 Comments

  1. Marti Pieper says:

    Amen and Amen. In my collaborative work, I often have people bring me personal stories, sure that if I can help with the writing, the resulting book will top the bestseller lists.

    I don’t like delivering bad news, either, but here it is: Everyone has a story. But not every story should become a [traditionally published] book.

  2. Randi Sue Huchingson says:

    The truth is always the best.

  3. This reminds me of the day that my girls and I were going door to door selling ads for our favorite magazine.

    After our first bombed request, I was afraid of going to any more businesses. I was not afraid of hearing no. I was not afraid of hard work. I was afraid of wasting my time.

    I didn’t just want to work hard. I wanted to work smart. Which businesses would benefit from our offer? Those were the ones we needed to visit.

    As a new writer I need to know which “stores” to visit and what to offer them.

    Thanks again.

  4. Sarah says:

    I relate! I’m not an editor or publisher by any means, but some of my friends are just NOT that good at writing. They still insist on complaining when they don’t get noticed. I’ve been writing since I was four years old. And I KNOW my writing was very often just crap. My first through fourth manuscripts will NEVER see the light of day. EVER. :)

    I have high hopes for my next manuscript, but I also know that I have to work hard and not get disappointed when it gets turned down.

    I think sometimes I DO see the reason for people to feel entitled though. There have been some published novels (series mainly) that absolutely stink. There is no story, the characters are not developed AT ALL, and the editors who might or might not have looked at the first draft ought to be drawn and quartered for letting them through the gate (publishing house)…

    Right now, those authors are millionaires with movie deals and a ton of publicity they really didn’t deserve…except that there are enough readers out there who just don’t seem to care about quality writing anymore.

    So it IS disappointing when someone actually has a good piece of work on their hands that NO one will publish. Even if there is a darn good reason it doesn’t get published.

    At the same time, that’s life. No one said it was fair.

    • Jamie says:

      IF it gets turned down. If. :)

      • Sarah says:

        Okay, maybe I’m slow today or something, but I laughed when I finally realized what it was you were referencing.

        You are correct. IF it gets turned down. I didn’t even notice my defeatist attitude when I wrote that. I did have an agent tell me that if my first ten pages were an indication of what the rest of the manuscript would be like when I was finished editing, she’d probably request more. So I have hopes…

  5. Misha says:

    I think I agree with the spirit of what you’re saying here. My only protest would be this: If said ‘gatekeepers’ really strived (as a practice) for original content, with original characters that are not 14-year-old boys, then perhaps they should publish and market some of those stories. There is a great deal of entitlement by a great many people in arts, however, I’ve seen a large amount of cowardice too.

    • Jamie says:

      It’s unfortunate that publishers have to make a choice between art and commerce, but they have to keep the doors open or there will be no choices to be made at all. Very often commerce (EL James’s Fifty Shades) makes art (anything by Richard Russo, say) possible.

  6. […] Halpin. I read it before I wrapped it :) and thought it was wonderful. So when I was writing this post earlier this summer, I looked around for Halpin, and found […]

  7. […] As I’ve said before, in order to be saleable your memoir needs to have a twist or a hook that makes it different. Surviving cancer isn’t enough. Being famous and surviving cancer (or dying tragically, far too soon), now, that’s another story. If Steve Irwin had not been a celebrity, I’m not so sure Terri would have found a publisher. Fame is a hook. […]

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] Halpin. I read it before I wrapped it :) and thought it was wonderful. So when I was writing this post earlier this summer, I looked around for Halpin, and found […]

  2. By The Way We Were on 31 January, 2013 at 7:59 pm

    […] As I’ve said before, in order to be saleable your memoir needs to have a twist or a hook that makes it different. Surviving cancer isn’t enough. Being famous and surviving cancer (or dying tragically, far too soon), now, that’s another story. If Steve Irwin had not been a celebrity, I’m not so sure Terri would have found a publisher. Fame is a hook. […]