Why You'll Never Be Published
When browsing through the various titles on Hubpages detailing how to go about getting your manuscript or anthology published, it occurred to me that not anywhere have I found a comprehensive explanation of why you work won’t be published. And for those of us who’ve paid our dues, kept our heads down, followed the rules, and still ask ourselves “why?” when the 256th rejection letter appears in the mail (along with that overdue rent notice), fear not, I’m here to break it down for you.
You may be wondering what my credentials are for me to be telling you all this. You may ask yourself, “Who the hell does this guy think he is? After five years of revision, my script’s perfect! No one in their right mind would reject it!”
My answer is: Yes, you’re right. No one in their right mind would reject it, but publishers and literary agents are rarely in their right minds. Because, while writers are faced with the onerous task of creating works of art that are as beautiful as they are fun to read, publishers and literary agents are in the business of making money. It just so happens that they do so by selling books. In short: You’ve been warned.
But I digress. As a writer of the last four years, I’ve established a collection of rejection letters for short stories and novelettes currently at 600 and counting. As for my attempts to get my first manuscript published over the last two years, I’ve amassed 372 form rejection letters presented on varied and wonderful stationeries that have tragically been rendered worthless thanks to the global scourge of cheap copiers.
I am, I like to think, well versed in not getting published, and would take this opportunity to share my wealth of knowledge with you, dear readers and poor, poor misguided souls.
So, in essence, here is the key reason why you will not get your work published. Or, for those writers who still have some glimmer of hope—God have mercy on your souls—here is why it’s so very hard to break into writing fiction professionally.
Forty years ago, it was quite possible for a writer to get his work published without the representation of a literary agent. He would simply send query letters (for those who don’t know what a query letter is, get out) directly to the publisher. Nowadays, this is not possible. The vast majority of publishers in North America and the United Kingdom do not accept unsolicited submissions from private citizens. Translation: If you don’t already know the editor, you’re SOL.
That’s where literary agents come in. Apart from helping to find venues in which you can increase your readership and raise awareness of your name, a literary agent is in the business of knowing all the people worth knowing. Traditionally, they worked in publishing for five to ten years, established contacts, and then decided representing writers was a better way to make a living. The contacts established from those early days are what allow literary agents to pitch a writer’s book directly to the higher-ups with the power to accept or veto the book. In the past thirty years, things have changed again. New literary agents would not work in publishing ever, and instead apprentice under an agent that was already well established, building contacts and shaking hands (very back room conspiracy-ish, isn’t it?) until they either inherited the agency or broke off to form their own.
In theory, this seems acceptable, as every writer has an agent who’s looking out for their best interests. But a number of problems make literary agents your worst nightmare.
Because you’ve got to go through an intermediary (the agent), another step in the publication process has been added. This equates to another chance to fall flat on your face. Remember, you don’t hire a literary agent, you send them a query letter and hope they like it enough to consider representing you. So, before you’re even in the lobby of the publisher’s building, you’re having to fight to justify your work. Because literary agents know that they essentially hold the keys to the kingdom, they can afford to be selective. And they are. Many agencies claim that they receive so many query letters annually that they can’t even bother to send out rejection letters or emails. They simply never write back. And since they’re making money hand over fist in any case, once again the unrepresented writer is left to fend for himself.
Many agents require a prospective client to have already published a book before they consider representation, nevermind that representation is what a writer must have before he can publish a book.
More and more restrictions are being set into place because literary agents are in high demand that they can afford to snub people, which leads me to my next point.
Jim Butcher, the noted author of the Dresden Files as well as other wonderful urban fantasy/mystery novels, once gave an interview I was lucky enough to watch. He broke down the numbers for us. Essentially, only one in 300 wannabe writers will ever get published, be it short stories in a magazine, a play, or even a book. This is taken a step further in that only 1 in 3,000 wannabe writers will make enough money writing for it to be considered a full time job.
So many people want to become writers, and so few are able to. This is only exacerbated by the current plight of the publishing industry, thanks to the internet and online books. Because people no longer need a physical book to be printed, bound, and shipped to bookstores all over the world, the publishing industry is hemorrhaging money. They’ve been circumvented (I’m a bit mixed in feeling about this. I believe they’re getting what they deserve for being so elitist in the first place that writers decided to take their work elsewhere. Nevertheless, having a physical copy of your book, professionally printed and distributed, has a certain mystique which Kindle lacks.) As such, they are extremely reluctant to take on new writers, and only do so in small numbers. And because literary agents are reliant on the publishing industry, they do the same thing.
As publishers are in the business of selling books, it stands to reason they will only choose to publish titles which are extremely marketable. That is, they would appeal to a large demographic. As demographics are in turn determined by random trends, there is little any writer can do about this.
I realize this is contrary to the inculcated belief that the quality of your work is what will see it sold. Look at the sales for Twilight and John Grisham’s last book, and you will see two examples disproving this belief completely.
In the case of Twilight, it can be safely said that Stephanie Meyer is sorely lacking in narrative style. However, the premises and events that take place in her books hit the tween market—which is extremely impulsive and has access to their entire family’s money—squarely between the eyes. And because some publisher recognized this, they were accepted immediately.
John Grisham’s last book, I forget the title as they all seem to be the same, sold because the man has already developed a name for himself. Everybody knows who John Grisham is, so if he randomly banged on a typewriter for 400 pages, it would still be published, and it would still sell.
Literary agents must think along the same lines. Well-known writers are a safe gamble for everyone involved. New writers are an unknown quantity. No one ever knows for sure whether their work will be a hit of a flop. As such, in times of economic instability, i.e. now and the foreseeable future, they prefer to stick with those writers that are tried and true.
This leads me to the conclusion that getting representation for your first book is the most difficult thing you will ever have to do. If you can’t manage it, you will never get published. And for about 50% of the population, it’s becoming a lot harder.
In this section, you will probably think me a sexist. And if telling what I’ve learned to be the truth is sexist, than I gladly accept that title.
Forty years ago, when women were just diving into the workplace, the majority of literary agents were male. Now, about 85% of literary agents are female. This is a problem for men.
And this is the sexist part: Women are more emotional than men. This is in no way an indication of weakness, but it means separating logical decisions from emotional ones is much more difficult if not impossible.
A male literary agent may look at a prospective book, regardless of the genre, and, based on past experiences, weigh whether or not it’s likely to sell well. Every rejection letter I’ve ever received from a male agent said they did not think it would sell well. Focus on the word “think.” No personal preferences were involved.
However, every rejection letter ever received from a female agent was on the lines of: I don’t feel confident about this book. I don’t feel enthusiastic over the story. Note the consistent word “feel.”
A female agent will look at a prospective work and go with her gut instinct. She will try to put herself into the novel and see if she enjoys it. She will try to imagine it on the shelves in a book store. And if she can, she might consider accepting it. Here’s the rub: she will never accept a book in a genre she doesn’t personally prefer because, if she doesn’t like that genre, how can she put herself in the novel and enjoy the experience? She is biased, whether she means to be or not.
This matters because men tend to write in different genres than women. Likewise, men tend to read in different genres than women. As such, there are alarmingly few new writers in traditionally male-read genres: fantasy, science-fiction, historical fiction, and military fiction. Nevertheless, just as many men want to read these works.
At present, only well-established authors are currently writing in these genres, because the new female majority of literary agents will not represent these genres. If you walk into a bookstore—provided you can find one anymore—you will see a few tried and true male fiction writers: Patterson, Koontz, King, Hickman, Cornwell, Iggulden, etc. Also, if you look up each of these writers, you will see they have one thing in common: They’re all over 50. Eventually, these literary greats will die off, and there will be no one to take their place because no literary agent is willing to represent new writers in these genres.
And there’s not a damn thing any of us can do about it.
Sorry if you thought I had a solution to this problem to share. I don’t. But if I did, do you really think I’d be screwing around on Hubpages instead of working on my next novel? Probably why no one will ever have a solution to present.
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