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What to Tell Wannabes

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Just when you were enjoying the party, someone says, “I’ve written a book and I was wondering if you . . . ”

Sound familiar? What publisher, large or small, hasn’t heard that line? All too often, the wannabe author corners the publishing person at a social gathering and starts by saying, “It will be a bestseller. It’s the Great American Novel.” All wannabes seem to think that their books are unique, and that the book-buying world will beat a path to their doorways as soon as bound copies are on hand.

Before the publisher can sigh and walk away, as many would like to, or smile faintly in the interest of good manners, the wannabe has grabbed hold and started a monologue. “You see, it’s about an abused child, who finally runs away from home, gets into drugs and robs a bank, then shoots his father, but is redeemed when he finds true love with the daughter of a preacher who comes through town with a traveling revival.”

What’s a Publisher to Do?

Option #1.Abandon good manners and flee, murmuring, “We don’t discuss business at parties.”


Option #2. Announce, “We only accept manuscripts from agents” (whether or not that’s true) while thinking, “We’re not taking that dreadful idea from you, that’s for sure.”

Option #3. Say, “We aren’t buying any manuscripts at the present time” (which probably has the virtue of being true).Option #4. Take a risk. Ask: “What makes you think you can write a book that will sell?” This will bring a startled look, indicating that this question has never before occurred to the wannabe.

“Sell?” the wannabe mumbles. “Of course it will sell. Everyone will want a copy of my book.”

If it’s a dull party and you are feeling especially kind, this conversation can continue:

Publisher: Have you finished this book?

Wannabe: Well, not exactly.

Publisher: I see. How many chapters have you written?

Wannabe: Well, actually, I’m going to get started on it right away–this coming week.

Publisher: That would be a good idea. Just who do you think will be interested in buying your book?

Wannabe: Like I said, everybody. My Aunt Ethel thinks my idea is pure genius, and a lot of the people at my office love it and say they’ll want a copy and that they wish they could write a book.

Publisher: Yes, I wish you could, too. What background do you have in writing?

Wannabe: I won a prize for a poem when I was in the fourth grade. And I read books all the time.

Publisher: That’s encouraging. What book have you read lately?

Wannabe: Well, let’s see. I read part of Lord of the Rings, but it was so long, and after I saw the movie, there didn’t seem to be much reason to finish it. [long pause] But when I was a child, I loved The Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew mysteries.

Publisher: And you think if you write a book and it is published, not only will it sell, but you will gain fame and fortune?

Wannabe: Oh, yes, I intend to quit my day job and travel the country doing book signings.

Taking Pity, Offering Tips

At this point (if not before), you do sigh deeply and then maybe you say, “Let me give you a few tips and tell you how it is. Publishing books is one of the most challenging jobs in the world, and it’s not synonymous with producing books, which anybody with money has always been able to do.”

“In fact,” you continue, “if it’s synonymous with anything, it’s synonymous with marketing. Consider the fact that approximately 150,000 new books were published last year, and it’s a sure thing that they didn’t all make a profit.”

Then take pity on the wannabe. Confess that you also believe there is something glamorous about being an author, something akin to being a movie star or a rock idol, and that it’s a good thing that some writers don’t give up easily because sometimes they produce gems.


After that, you can launch into your big finish: “All the people out there who think they can write a book should stop throwing themselves and their ideas at the poor publishers they meet in social situations. Nobody would go up to a dentist at a party and lean back with open mouth to say, ‘Doc, this back molar has been hurting. Would you mind taking a look at it?’”

Come to think of it, though, I have a friend who is a physical therapist and who is often approached at parties by someone who says, “I have this pain in my lower back. What do you think I should do about it?”

“Take off your clothes,” is her immediate answer, and that usually is the end of that. I’m going to work on a way to adapt it for publishers’ use.

Margaret Ellis, publisher for Magnolia Mansions Press in Mobile, Alabama, is the author of three books and many newspaper and magazine articles. She had several careers in public relations and also taught journalism and writing at the high school and college level. When asked if she has retired, she quotes Margaret Mead: “One day I will die, but I will never retire.”

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