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.
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.”