Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Giving startups a chance

Why shouldn’t we give new and startup publishers/agents chances?

I’ve seen a lot of arguments in favor of doing so. To list just a few…

• It’s either a startup or Random House.
• If no one submits any manuscripts to these publishers/agents, how will they grow to the point where they’re good choices for writers?
• Newer publishers and agents tend to be nicer and more approachable.
• A new outfit is more likely to be unconventional, to take chances, to be hungry for success and to consequently work hard.
• It’s a stepping-stone to better places.

These reasons sound plausible and can be persuasive for new writers, especially if they’re coming off a round of rejections. After years of work and refusals, nothing’s more heady than the thrill of finally having succeeded. Sadly that emotional response won’t distinguish between an acceptance from a good publisher/agent and one which is mediocre, amateur or a downright scam.

Further complicating matters is that there’s so much information on the web about publishers and agents, and some of it may not be helpful. When I first looked into publishing, I read that Nicholas Sparks’s agent had no sales when he signed up with her. Obviously she went on to do very well by him, but for a long time that story had me sold on the idea that a startup agent could and would be an acceptable risk.

Exceptions like that can be misleading. If one person wins the lottery, that doesn't mean everyone should go out and buy tickets. So let’s take a closer look at those arguments…

1. False dichotomy

If criticism of an amateur micropress is met with an inquiry as to whether the critic with Random House, that’s a false dichotomy. It implies that writers only have two choices. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to publishing.

These days, you can be with a major publisher, a reputable small press (Ellora’s Cave, for instance) or even a good self-publishing service. All of those are likely to be better for writers than an outfit which takes their time, their rights or their money – or all three.

2. Startups need manuscripts to grow

This one seems very plausible. If no one ever submits anything to a startup, it’ll remain a startup and be forever criticized for that, for something which isn’t under its control. This can appear inherently unfair and may generate quite a bit of sympathy for the unfortunate publisher or agent.

But no one’s manuscript deserves to be treated as a guinea pig, and such startups often lack the experience and resources to do much else with manuscripts. Even if they learn from their initial mistakes, I’d rather not see a company built on a foundation of unsold manuscripts and sunk books.

“Getting in on the ground floor” is a risky proposition when the building doesn’t have an elevator yet.

Since I’m a newbie to the field of health care, I’m starting out with simulated clinical specimens in a controlled setting where experienced professionals are monitoring my work to make sure I do it right. My college isn’t letting me out to learn off the backs of actual patients just yet. Likewise, a newbie to the field of publishing should get their start working as an intern and then an employee with an established publisher or literary agency. Neither of those are entry-level professions.

Once such a newbie becomes more experienced, he or she may well found a new company – but it won’t be amateur hour. Literary agents who leave established firms to strike out on their own may take their own clients with them, or they may attract new clients because they already have recognition for the sales they made while with the established firm. In other words, they will have a proven track record already and won’t be treating anyone as a learning experience.

As for publishers, a good startup press should have manuscripts ready to go before it opens its doors to the general public.

3. Niceness and a positive attitude

“We treat you like family.”

“We read each manuscript in full and give you comments and feedback even if we can’t accept it.”

“We are enthusiastic about our authors and want to make their dreams come true.”

These are frustrating because it’s difficult to reason with an emotional response – and that’s what niceness usually produces. A warm friendly connection to an agent, a feeling that you’re now part of a publisher’s close-knit family, a sense of belonging and acceptance… all these are good things. Why are those crabby naysayers trying to talk you out of your happiness?

Even when such agents/publishers are clearly in difficulty, many authors feel loyal to the person or company which gave them a chance.

”Also, I applaud the authors who come out and support their publishers. For those who choose to throw their publisher under the bus though.... shame on you.”

Unfortunately, niceness doesn’t get distribution or sell books. Reading manuscripts in full is a waste of time if you can tell from the first few pages that it’s not a genre you publish or the writing isn’t up to standard.

As for replying with feedback to rejections… well, some writers respond angrily or bitterly to even form rejections. People with experience reading slush for pay do it as quickly as possible and rarely give personalized feedback, because that’s usually not a productive use of their time.

I don’t recommend even querying amateur agents or publishers because if they accept - especially if they do so enthusiastically and tell you how fantastic your writing is and how they would love to help launch your career - it will be difficult to say no.

4. A new outfit is more likely to take chances and to be hungry for success.

That’s true enough. But without experience, how far can they go? Wanting something, even wanting it desperately, doesn’t mean you’ll get it.

New agents at established agencies are a good bet because they’re likely to be working under the guidance of senior and more experienced agents. New publishing houses owned and operated by people with prior experience in publishing are a good risk too. Otherwise, better not bank on it.

5. Startups can be a stepping-stone

”I want to one day sell thousands of books, what author doesn't? But you have to get your foot in the door somehow.”
a writer with the now-defunct Cacoethes Publishing House

Micropresses may or may not be stepping-stones, depending on how professional they are and how many copies of the book are sold. The worst-case scenario, though, is that such a press will collapse and take the writers’ books with it. Even if they get their rights back, many publishers are reluctant to take reprints. And the fact that the startup accepted it may not mean anything if the startup – in the eyes of industry professionals – didn’t have the experience required to tell a great, marketable manuscript from a mediocre one.

If there’s a risk that my getting my foot in the door will result in the door slamming on my foot, I’d rather try an automatic door (another publisher) or use a bigger foot (a better book).

Image from : http://www.jupiterimages.com/Image/royaltyFree/78766407


Polenth said...

The "we're like family" thing always makes me shudder. It's used so often to stop people complaining about bad treatment. I've also seen it used to stop people getting published elsewhere, with the idea that family ought to be loyal to one publisher... this effectively stops the victim learning that other places are better.

Marian Perera said...

The term "family" in that context always bothers me because it seems to imply a parent-child relationship, with the publisher/parent holding most or all of the power and the author/child being grateful and submissive.

Not conducive to business at all, IMO.