Profound Questions and Humble Answers - Part II

This is Part II Continued from Part I

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

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: Is it more difficult to get an agent than it is to get a publisher? 

I believe it’s substantially easier to get an agent than it is to get a publisher. The primary reason for this is that no agent expects to sell 100 percent of the projects she chooses to represent. Not because any of these projects lack merit (though some of them may), but because only so many titles are published per year—and many excellent ones just won’t make the cut. This is especially true for fiction by unknown or unpublished writers, or for nonfiction in saturated categories. As a result, many titles will be agented but never published.

Naturally, a successful agent prefers to represent projects that she feels are hot and that publishers will trample each other to acquire. But few, if any, agents have the luxury of representing such sure-bet projects exclusively. In fact, the majority of their projects may be less than “acquisition-guaranteed,” even though they are of acquisition quality.

The agent assumes that many of these projects will eventually be sold profitably, but probably doesn’t expect all of them to be. Every experienced agent knows that some of the best cash cows were not easily sold.

Make no mistake—it’s not easy to get a reputable agent. Most agents reject 98 percent of the opportunities that cross their desks. They accept for representation only material they believe can be sold to a publisher. That is, after all, the only way for them to earn income and maintain credibility with publishers. If an agent consistently represents what a publisher considers garbage, that will become her professional signature—and her undoing as an agent.

But don’t despair. This is a subjective business, composed of autonomous human beings. One agent’s reject can be another’s gold mine. That’s why even a large accumulation of rejections should never deter you as a writer. Some people get married young, and some get married later!

Q: Is there anything I can do to increase my odds of getting an agent? 

First consider the odds quoted in the previous answer. The typical agent is rejecting 98 percent of everything he sees. That means he’s hungry for the hard-to-find 2 percent that keeps him in business.

If you’re not part of that 2 percent, he’ll probably have no use for you or your project. Your challenge is to convince him that you’re part of that select 2 percent.

Q: What do agents and editors want? What do they look for in a writer? What can I do to become that kind of writer? 

Let’s back up a step or two and figure out why agents want to represent certain projects and why editors want to buy them. This industry preference has little to do with quality of writing as such.

Many highly talented writers never get published. Many mediocre writers do get published—and a number of them make a lot of money at it. There are reasons for this. The mediocre writers are doing things that more than compensate for their less-than-splendid writing. And the exceptional writers who underachieve in the publishing arena are (regardless of their talents) most likely doing things that undermine them.

In other words, being a good writer is just part of a complex equation. Despite all the criticism the educational system in the United States has received, America is exceedingly literate and has a motherlode of college graduates and postgraduates. Good, knowledgeable writers are a dime a dozen in this country.

Profitable writers, however, are a rare species. And agents and editors obviously value them the most. Once more: Being an excellent writer and a financially successful writer don’t necessarily coincide. Ideally, of course, you want to be both.

To maximize your success as a writer, you must do more than hone your ability to write; you must also learn the qualifiers and the disqualifiers for success. Obviously, you wish to employ the former and avoid the latter. Publishing is a business, and agents tend to be the most acutely business-oriented of all the players. That’s why they took the risk of going into business for themselves (most agents are self-employed).

If you wish, wear your artist’s hat while you write. But you’d better acquire a business hat and wear it when it’s time to sell. This subtle ability to change hats separates the minority of writers who get rich from the majority who do not.

In my opinion, rich writers didn’t get rich from their writing (no matter how good it is); they got rich by being good at business.

Many good but not-so-wealthy writers blame various internal or external factors for their self-perceived stagnation. My answer to them is: Don’t blame anyone, especially yourself. To lay blame is an abdication of power. In effect, when you blame, you become a car with an empty gas tank, left to the elements. The remedy is to fill the tank yourself.

Learn to view mistakes, whether they be yours or those of the people you relied upon, as inconvenient potholes—learning to move around them will make you an even better driver. Remember the old credo: Only a poor workman blames his tools.

Observe all you can about those who are successful—not just in writing, but in all fields—and make their skills your skills. This is not to insist that making money is or should be your first priority. Your priorities, whatever they are, belong to you. But money is a widely acknowledged and sought-after emblem of success.

If an emphasis on personal gain turns you off, you may, of course, pursue other goals. Many successful people in business find the motivation to achieve their goals by focusing on altruistic concepts—such as creating maximum value for as many people as possible. Like magic, money often follows value even if it wasn’t specifically sought. If you’re unfortunate enough to make money you don’t want, there’s no need to despair: There are many worthy parties (including charities) that will gladly relieve you of this burden.

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