Columnists > From the Publisher

Writer's block

When we're too eager to be taken seriously, we risk looking silly

Issue: "Day scare," Jan. 10, 1998

A significant part of our incoming mail every day is made up of correspondence from aspiring writers. If I add in e-mails and phone calls, two or three hours of every week goes to interaction with people who are almost desperately eager to see their writing in the columns of WORLD.

From the time we're little kids, of course, nearly all of us have scribbled things on paper and then taken them to our parents or some other easily impressed adult for confirmation that we're headed soon for the first in a series of Pulitzers.

What's odd is that most of us, while setting aside other childish behavior, never outgrow that impulse. Through our whole lives, few pleasures match finding an appreciative audience that likes the words we've so carefully assembled. Some of us are content to hear ourselves talk, but even more of us like to savor the words we've written. And if even one other person will agree that what we've written is worthy, woe to that editor so uppity as to decide otherwise.

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So the stakes are high when we start talking about the words people have written. Better perhaps to insult a person's son or daughter than to question the profundity of what that person has labored so hard to express on paper.

Writing, I've heard, is the only vocation more people want to get into than teaching which accounts, no doubt, for the traditionally low wages in both. The law of supply and demand stays profoundly at work, and the motivation to see one's name in print is so high that thousands of people will work for slave wages to reach that goal.

Even so, I was taken aback just before Christmas when a WORLD reader stopped by to tell me how aggressively someone had taken advantage of his desire to be published. After working for 20 years, he had finally completed work on a book. With high hopes, he sent off copies of the manuscript to a variety of publishers but with no immediate success.

Then, to his great delight, he finally got this letter:

Dear Mr. XXX:

You are a talented writer. Your manuscript impressed everyone on our staff. However, out of hundreds of submissions, your manuscript just barely missed being selected. Personally, I thought it deserved to be published, but, alas, my opinion was in the minority.

I usually do not do this, but since I think your manuscript is better than alot of books I see in book stores these days, I am going to recommend that you submit it to a literary agent with an excellent track record for selling books that fall into the genre in which your book falls. He is especially effective in working with unpublished writers.

Cordially,

Jay Walton

Senior Editor

Based on such hearty promises, my friend sent the manuscript off to the agent. Surely enough, just a couple of weeks later, he heard back with these smoothly reassuring words and a few suspect typographical and grammatical miscues:

Dear Mr. XXX:

[Your manuscript] is one of the best books I have read in some time. It is a book that should help a lot of people, for it is a spiritually uplifting book, a book that certainly deserves to be published. You have written an exceptional book, Mr. XXX.

"Do I think your book has a good chance of being published?" you may ask.

My answer: "YES."

There is something, however, I believe you should be aware of. The publishing industry has changed dramatically in recent years. Many publishing houses have merged, for it costs so much to publish and promote a book these days. Therefore, editors have to be SOLD on the idea of publishing a book.

That is why an agent is so important to the author. As a writer, I am sure you are aware of the value of havingn agency represent you. An agent can provide you with up-to-date information on publisher's buying trends, deal with contract terms, ancillary rights and royalties.

In short, the odds against an unrepresented writer getting published these days are enormous. But our agency has the experience and expertise to identifymarkets for your book, to anticipate where you are likelyto encounter probmes, and to serve as your advocate with the publishing industry.

Normally, Mr. XXX, we charge a consulting/marketing fee of $700 for our new clients (to cover phone calls, postage, traveling to meet editors in other cities, etc.... But since we believe it will require less time to successfully represent you than it takes with new clients, we will require only a nominal fee: $300.

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