Thursday, September 18, 2008

Publication = lottery?

On the Absolute Write forums, a writer querying his first novel said he was giving up on trying to find an agent. His reason? Representation and publication were a lottery where “Chance is everything”.

I’ve come across this before, the belief that acceptance in the publishing industry is as arbitrary and unpredictable as a roulette wheel. I can understand why people think this way. Writing itself is subjective, and the opinions of the industry aren’t black-or-white either. A novel that one agent loves may fail dismally with another.

But does this mean that trying to get a book represented and then published is a crapshoot? That you just have to rely on chance, with no way to influence the outcome? To illustrate my view of it, I’ll tell the story of another kind of lottery.

The Green Card Lottery

When I was 18, we were living in the Middle East and my father would play the Green Card Lottery every year, trying to get us into the United States (which by then had moved away from the “Give me your poor, tired, huddled masses” approach to immigration). So every year he would give me all the family’s passport photos. I would carefully type our names and birthdates on sheets of paper, cut the photos to the correct sizes, stick then on the correct papers and mail them off.

We carried out that dutiful routine every year, as did thousands of others. Naturally, there were scammers who offered to apply on people’s behalf for a fee (even though there was no fee to enter the Lottery). We never got accepted.

Canadian Provincial Migration

Ten years later I was trapped in the Middle East again, and I considered provincial migration to Canada. More than anything, I wanted to be in a First World country which would give me citizenship, which wouldn’t make me leave when I was too old to work, which wouldn’t require permission from a male relative before I could work. With a graduate degree, I had just enough points to qualify for provincial migration.

I saved every dirham I could to pay the fees, then studied French intensively to pass the interview. The waiting lines for an interview in Dubai stretched out for a year. So I flew to Damascus for one, even though Syria can be… inhospitable, shall we say… to young single women who dress and behave in a Westernized way. There were moments during the Syria sojourn when I was afraid for my safety, but I passed the interview.

Next came a battery of exhausting and painful medical and psychological tests, all of which I paid for and which left me utterly worn down. There were moments during that time when I thought of giving up, but fortunately I was a member of a supportive Internet community which had been closely following the saga (with my regular updates) and which encouraged me not to quit. All the tests came back normal.

About five months later I received the Canadian visa.

What does this have to do with representation and publication?

Some writers may believe that representation and publication are like the Green Card Lottery. Send out the book or query over and over. Rejection means sending the same thing out again without making any changes, and ultimately it’s all down to chance. However, I believe that a successful search for representation and publication is more like Canadian migration.

1. Make sure the submission matches the agent’s or editor’s requirements.

I hated every hoop that I had to jump through to fulfil the Canadian High Commission’s requirements, but I jumped them. So even if it takes time to tailor submissions – one agent wants a two-page synopsis, another one wants the first five pages pasted into the body of the email – it’s time well spent.

2. Make sure the submission stands out from the crowd.

I took French classes, and had a graduate degree giving me even more points so that I qualified. I’m not saying go as far as J. A. Konrath’s submission strategy, but just making a query letter relevant, professional and interesting can be enough to attract an agent’s attention.

3. Make sure there’s nothing about the submission that sabotages it.

There was another applicant staying in the same hotel in Damascus, and she had her interview just after I did. She was rejected because her application included her husband, and although she could speak French, he couldn’t. Likewise, a query letter for a manuscript of 275,000 words may not get many requests for more material, especially if the writer is unpublished. And if a query letter is rejected over and over, it’s a good idea to pause and re-evaluate the query letter, rather than simply continuing to send it out.

Getting represented and published would only be a lottery if the agents or editors randomly picked query letters or manuscripts out of a hat – which they don’t. It can be a depressing feeling, to think that you’re competing with thousands of other writers, but in reality, so much of the slush pile is unsaleable that if you can put together a good query letter, you’re already standing out from the crowd.

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