Writers’ laments very often are not unique, which could be one reason they tend to enjoy each other’s company. In any occupation, being able to communicate shared experience easily with jargon creates camaraderie and perhaps even a comforting insularity. Unfortunately, new writers sometimes have trouble interpreting the complexities concealed behind their experienced colleagues’ platitudes. Even more difficult for aspiring authors is accepting the fact that there are no ironclad rules that will help them write well or get published. There’s an exception to every guideline.
There are exceptions to rules. There are rules that need to be broken. And there are rules that seem unnecessarily restrictive and simplistic because they are designed to achieve effects that aren’t explicit.
I’ve been thinking about a restriction that seemed odd when I first heard of it. In fact, when writers began to mention it to me, I thought it might be an exaggerated rumor. But it’s not. There are several literary agents whose query guidelines specify they will consider inquiries only from previously published authors.
Coincidentally, all of my clients had books published before they contacted me. The more I think about it, the more I suspect this made them appealing as prospective clients, but not in the way one might automatically assume.
It could be that, to some agents, an important distinction between a writer who has been published and one who hasn’t is the nature of expectations. A radical method of eliminating any contenders who are unrealistic about the amount of work involved in getting published is by considering only writers who’ve already been through the wringer. Unfortunately, the method also eliminates new writers who have been thoroughly educated by others or who have carefully conducted the necessary research on their own.
Why isn’t every agent willing to explain matters to prospective clients, to break the news of harsh reality gently to anyone who asks? Shouldn’t that be part of the agent’s job? I guess I don’t want it to be part of my job if I can easily avoid it. Too often, the bearer of bad news makes an awfully handy target.
Business realities change rapidly, and I invest a lot of time in staying aware of new technology and trends. I’d rather spend the rest of my time trying to make money for my clients and, therefore, me. If I feel this way, even though I wouldn’t mind having another client or two, then certainly an agent who already represents plenty of authors might be even more cautious and less approachable.
To some readers, this post might seem as opaque and mysterious as agencies that don’t want queries from unpublished writers. So, let me offer just six examples of answers that are difficult, if not downright embarrassing, to explain to new writers but that seasoned authors often have learned from experience.
- Sorry, but I can’t afford to waive my commission fee.
- Many agents include developmental editing or copyediting as part of the services they perform for clients, for which they’re paid a (typically 15%) commission only after the rights to a manuscript are licensed (sold). Because editing has a monetary value, it represents an investment in the work. The less editing a writer’s manuscript requires, the more appealing it will seem to an agent.
- Licensing agreements, publication agreements, and other contracts are as legally binding as copyright. Misunderstanding a contract is not a legal justification for violating its terms, especially terms that are fairly standardized. In most cases, it’s not an ethical justification either. A writer’s signature on an agreement indicates the writer understands the particulars of that agreement. Writers should always be willing to ask about any contract terminology they don’t understand.
- Many, if not most, literary agents are not publicists. Most can refer clients to excellent publicists if asked.
- Most publicists don’t work on commission. They get paid up front.
- Writers might not be the best judges of their own manuscripts.
Novelist Randy Susan Meyers, one of the co-bloggers at Beyond the Margins, offers her tongue-in-cheek warnings to other writers. There may be no rules, but as you can see, it doesn’t hurt authors at any stage in their careers to gather a little intelligence so they can position themselves to their best advantage.
Do you have some additional insight gained from publishing’s school of hard knocks? Comments are welcome.