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President’s Report: Every Book Has an Audience with Its Own Expectations, and Other Insights from an Editor

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This month I want to share
with you a terrific book about publishing that is impressive in its insight,
wisdom, and unvarnished truth about our business. Every serious aspiring author
should read this book, and it has many applications for self-publishers and
independent book publishers, too.

 

Released this spring, <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>78 Reasons Why Your Book
May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might
(Penguin,
trade paperback, 192 pages, $14) was written by Pat Walsh, founding editor of
the San Francisco-based literary publisher MacAdam/Cage. Walsh, a former
reporter for the San
Francisco Chronicle
, describes himself as a “failed novelist.”

 

These were a few of the 78 reasons
that I could relate to from my own experience as a publisher:

 

You
listen to false praise.
“Listening
to family and friends gush about your storytelling and writing skills is good
for your vanity, but do not believe it. Do not believe them when they tell you
they think your book is wonderful. What they mean is that you are wonderful or
the fact that you wrote a book is wonderful. The only people’s opinions that
can help you are those who do not care about you at all.”

 

Walsh also warns writers that
their worst fears “are probably true” when a favored reader is slow to praise.
“When they waffle about the writing, saying they are unqualified to judge or too
stupid to understand your literary talent, they hated it. If they did not know
you, and read your book, they would boldly announce that the author was an
idiot or the book was garbage.”

 

You
cannot tell a story.
“When
somebody lacking storytelling abilities embarks on a career as a writer, she is
doomed and that is sad. She will fail with all her might.”

 

You
do not know your audience.
“Every
book has an audience with its own expectations. Your task is to know what those
expectations are and to exceed them. . . . Do not write in a genre or form that
you do not read or care about.”

 

You
do not understand how publishing works.
Although our product is a book, whose creation “is arguably the
highest form of human endeavor,” in other respects publishing is just another
industry, and writers would do well to seek a realistic understanding of the
business. “When authors are not looking, we refer to books as ‘units’.”

 

You
cannot describe your own work.
“A
good synopsis requires many drafts and, if you have a trusted reader, another
set of eyes to ensure that you are not too close to your book to boil it down
accurately. . . . When you finally distill the essence of your work into a few
lines, you will know it.”

 

You
have back luck and bad timing.

“Hard luck stories are as common in the writing game as misplaced modifiers,
every writer has a few”—publishing houses that fold just before a pub
date, agents who die inconveniently, editors who are fired just as a contract
is ready for signing. “The only way to make bad luck worse is to accept it,
making it a permanent disability rather than a temporary condition.”

 

You
blame the publishing industry for your lack of success.
<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>“I’m sorry. I am sorry those of us in the industry
are flighty in terms of what we want. I’m sorry our opinions conflict. I’m
sorry our protocols are cumbersome. I’m sorry our decisions are unfair. I’m
sorry we’re often slow to recognize talent. I’m sorry that we’re sometimes full
of bullshit. And I’m sorry that none of these things is going to change anytime
soon, and if it does change, it will probably be for the worse.”

 

Accept publishing for what it is,
because “letting bitterness and anger paralyze you will kill your career before
it starts.”

 

Among the 14 reasons why someone
“just might” get published:

 

You
are honest with yourself.
“If you
can look at your work with dispassion and see where it is lacking, you will be
reassured of your abilities to rebuild and rewrite where needed. You’re able to
discern good ideas hobbled by bad writing and clever language masking shoddy,
extraneous thoughts. A committed writer is always looking for
constructive—often negative—feedback instead of empty praise.”

 

You
do your homework.
This relates to
everything from researching content to recruiting an agent to finding a
publisher and presenting your work in the correct form. “Most writers know what
they want, but many do not know, or care enough to know, what they need to do
to get what they want. They want to skip over the middle steps and move from
sitting at the desk with a fetching idea in their heads to the National Book
Award ceremony.”

 

You
have high hopes and reasonable expectations.
<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>“A writer with her expectations out of whack cannot
see the benefit of encouraging feedback because to her it’s just a slap in the
face. Even if she’s published, she will not let herself enjoy it much because
the expectations game will haunt her with visions of grander and grander
success.”

 

You
are patient but persistent.

Imagine this scenario: “A meeting is taking place where somebody brings up your
proposal as something they might be interested in and they describe the book
briefly. Who’s the author? somebody will invariably ask. When your name is
mentioned, somebody else will say, That guy? He called me three times
yesterday. Throughout the room eyes will roll, as if to say, Who needs it?

 

“I can empathize with the
frustration of waiting and the emotions it conjures, but they must be held in
check. Feeling insulted or ignored is not fun, but again, I promise you the
quick answer is not the one you want.”

 

You
are flexible.
“If I sense the
author lacks flexibility, I might back off and look for another title. A writer
who digs her heels in on every minor change is going to be a difficult edit,
and if the book has problems I do not believe she’ll be willing to address,
I’ll pass.”

 

You
learn from rejection.
“Rejection
is feedback and feedback is valuable. A quick form rejection without comment
can alert you that your query or cover letter is in sorry shape. A form rejection
with a quick note will tell you that someone found something of some merit in
your work to warrant a modicum of respect, that there might be something in it
for them in the future if they’re not completely dismissive. A long form
rejection, with specific notes, is a sure sign of being taken seriously. A call
to explain when an agent or editor is passing is an invitation to submit
something in the future, perhaps even a rewrite of the same title.”

 

You
have fun.
“Writing is hard and
feels like pulling out your own teeth at times, and the humbling, often
humiliating, act of trying to get published can shred your self-confidence. To
paraphrase a famous politician’s line about the Irish, what’s the point of
being a writer if the world doesn’t break your heart once in a while? With all
the anguish and bother, it’s still worth it. The grief, pain, and sorrow
writers experience are easily bested by the delight of looking at the page and
realizing that they’ve exceeded their highest expectations and satisfied even
their own worst doubts.

 

“No matter how much trouble the
writer’s gone to, or how many sacrifices she’s made, none of them I know would
ever say it wasn’t worth it. Because it is.”

 

 

As always, I welcome your comments
and ideas for the association—on this subject and any others. Please
contact me at gksturgis@earthlink.net
.

 

 

 

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