Profound Questions and Humble Answers - Part I

By: Jeff Herman (Excerpt from Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents)

In the course of my ongoing participation in publishing workshops, seminar presentations, and panels at writers’ conferences, certain questions arise time and again. Many of these requests for information go straight to the heart of the world of book publishing.

The following questions are asked from the gut and replied to in kind. In order to be of value to the author who wishes to benefit from an insider view, I answer these serious queries in unvarnished terms, dispensing with the usual sugarcoating in order to emphasize the message of openness and candor.

Q: I have been at this for a long time, and can’t get published. How come? 

Well, your stuff may not be good. That’s the easy answer, which probably applies to most of what gets written and, frankly, to some of what actually gets published. After all, books get published for many reasons, including the possibility that they are of high quality. But lack of quality is not, never has been, and never will be the only factor as to why books do or don’t get published. That said, it’s good to make your product the best it can be.

It’s safe to say that everyone who works in publishing will agree that countless works of excellence don’t make it to publication. That’s unfortunate. But is it unfair? Who’s to say?

Many works get published because the writer managed to get them to the right people at the right time. How and why did that happen?

Other fine works fail to “connect,” in spite of the diligent efforts made by the writer to sell them. Why? I don’t know. Why are some people very pretty, while others are very ugly? I don’t know. Some consequences can be logically traced backwards to a cause or causes, or a lack of necessary acts.

But sometimes there is no apparent pathology behind what does and doesn’t happen. And that’s when we must simply surrender. There’s an ancient Jewish saying, “Man plans, God laughs.” Some things are left to our discretion and control, whereas other things obviously are not. It’s possible that that may be why you did not sell your manuscript. But I don’t know.

Q: Why are memoirs and autobiographies hard to sell? 

Because the vast majority of us lead lives of quiet desperation that would bore even a 300-year-old turtle. None of us ever truly listen to each other. That’s why a lot of us pay strangers $90 or more an hour to listen to us. Or at least we think they’re listening.

So why should someone actually pay you to read about your life? If you can effectively answer that question, you may be qualified to write a book about YOU.

Now, there are ways to maneuver around this conundrum. For instance, you can place your life within the context of fascinating events. People do connect to events and situations that mirror their own lives and feelings right back at them.

You can think ahead by doing something notable or outrageous for the sole purpose of having a platform for writing about yourself. A lot of us do ridiculous things anyway, so why not do them in a planned conscious way? It’s said that we all write our own script in life. So, if you are the designer of your own life, who do you have to blame for leading a boring life? Think about your life as a feature film, and start living it within that context. Pre-empt the cutting room floor whenever possible. Become someone that other people will pay to watch, read about, and listen to.

Even if you don’t get anything sold, you may still end up with more friends.

Q: Why do editors, agents and some writers seem so snobby? 

Because maybe they are. Why should you care? Because you want validation and snobs counter that. A long time ago, when I was young and a bit more stupid, I told a snobby editor to come clean my bathroom for me. He didn’t. Neither did I; I hired a housekeeper. To this day I enjoy foiling people who think they are better then the rest. Sometimes, I think I’m better than the rest. But my better angels take care of that by hiding my car in a parking lot, or causing me to wash my mouth with shampoo. My list of due personal humiliations is infinite, and appreciated.

Snobbery is a burden, and a punishment unto itself. Let the snobs have their burden, and keep writing.

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