Monday, October 08, 2012

"Agents and publishers aren't knocking on my door"

I spoke at the SCBWI Michigan Fall conference in Detroit this past Friday and Saturday--it was a wonderfully-organized and attended conference, and as I got to attend with my fellow speakers Libba Bray and Barry Goldblatt, it was a lot of fun. Libba and I both ran workshops on Friday afternoon while Barry did critiques, and then on Saturday we talked separately on various topics (mine was about what defines a good children's book). Then we did a few panels together, including a 1st-pages panel, and a Q&A.
For another panel, we talked about the history of The Diviners, "from concept to cover" and it was a trip relieving the whole process. Libba talked about her inspiration for the books, Barry spoke about choosing which editors and publishers to submit it to, and I talked about how as a publisher we rallied together to get the project. We talked about the editing process, too--and I laughed remembering a misunderstanding Libba and I had early on. I had wanted to make sure she was okay with our new policy of copyediting electronically, and she looked at me dismayed, and then said very hesitantly: " will nuance be taken into account?" There was a pause, and some more back-and-forth, and I finally realized she thought we had computers (or robots, perhaps?) copyedit our manuscript. I had to assure her that we still had live people who were talented copyeditors--but that now, instead of copyediting on paper, they did the copyedits using Track Changes in a Word document.

The attendees were passionate, friendly, and engaged, and a lot of great questions were asked, and stimulating discussions were had. However, I do want to discuss one encounter I had with an attendee that has left me feeling a bit perplexed. I hate to pick on one slightly negative encounter, when the whole conference was wonderful, but it's been sticking in my brain, so I thought I'd blog about it. My memory of the exact exchange and the order of what was said is a little fuzzy, but it went something like this.

It was after the conference had finished Saturday evening. I had just fetched my suitcase from the hotel storage and was heading to the bathroom to change into travel clothes, when I woman stopped me to ask a question. I wasn't in too much of a rush, so was happy to chat for a minute. She told me that the question she had submitted for our Q&A panel hadn't been read, so I told her to go ahead and ask me.

"With most publishing houses not accepting unagented manuscripts, what are authors supposed to do?"

"Well, you need to get an agent first." I told her that even authors who had "made it" without an agent generally went back to get agents in recent years, because in today's market, it's generally considered important/a necessity. "The problem is, it's not that easy to get an agent." I said it's still possible to get published without an agent--and by attending conferences and meeting editors, that was one way to do it. We chatted a little more about how the industry had changed with eBooks and self publishing, and then she said something like, "I guess there are more agents now, with editors losing their jobs and becoming agents." and I said, "Yes, for whatever reason, there are more agents now than there used to be." At this point, I realized I needed to get going in order to meet the woman giving me a ride to the airport, and I think she realized this, so we started saying our niceties (thank you and goodbye), but then she said something to the effect of: "Well, I guess I just won't get published."

I was a little surprised by her defeatist tone, and I wanted to be as encouraging as possible, so I said, "Oh, don't say that, don't give up."

"The problem is, agents and publishers aren't knocking on my door."

I didn't have a response for this, and we were already walking away from each other, so I just continued on my way. But later I replayed the conversation and marveled at the woman's attitude. It was as if she felt she was somehow entitled to be published, that it shouldn't be so hard.

I don't know the woman's background--perhaps she'd been coming to conferences for years and was just speaking from extreme frustration. Or maybe it was her first conference, and she was disappointed by what she had learned. But I'm really not sure what that woman wanted me to say. That it should be easy? Did she want me to somehow feel guilted into publishing her? That I'd say, without having read anything she'd written, that I'd publish her book?

It's a tough, competitive business, for sure. It's not easy to get published, nor do I think it should be. It can be heart-breaking, frustrating, and soul sucking, and not everyone is going to make it--in fact, very few people are going to be successful in this industry. But this business can also be joyful, inspiring, and full of supportive, collaborative people. And generally, that's the type of people who attend these conferences. So, give up if you want, if it's not worth it to you, but if you want it enough, then work hard, learn all you can, and try to enjoy the journey. Write from your heart, and surround yourself with supportive, positive people. You may make it, or you may not. It takes a lot of luck and timing to be published, a lot of things that aren't in your control. But it most certainly takes not giving up.

I'll leave you all with the same way I ended my talk at the conference. This is from Stephen King's On Writing: 

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy….you can, you will, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.
             Drink and be filled up.”


Libby Koponen said...

Well said!I think it's true -- and I am also glad to have an editor write that getting published is PARTLY a matter of luck and timing!

People used to say, "If a ms. is good enough, it will get published" and I honestly don't think that's true.

People who can't accept that -- who think that because they've done the work, they SHOULD get published--are setting themselves up to be disappointed and maybe even unhappy and bitter. btw I include myself in this!

Thanks for a great post that I think will be read and appreciated by writers and editors!

Meghan McCarthy said...

It's tough. Things have definitely changed since when I started! I remember just walking into publisher's doors with my stories without an agent. Of course... I still don't have an agent so I"m probably not the best example. But I know things have changed.

Meghan McCarthy said...

I would also like to add that for illustrators, if they are really talented, I think they will be found eventually... with or without an agent. It's SO much harder for writers!

Rondi Olson said...

I attended the SCBWI-MI conference is Detroit this past weekend also. It was great! And while I always enjoy hearing from agents, editors and best-selling authors one of my favorite panels is by the debut authors. It's so encouraging to hear their stories about how they got published. They all spent years improving their craft before they got their break. No one is an overnight success. It gives the rest of us hope, if we keep working on it.

Sangeeta said...

What helpful and heartfelt advice. Thanks for sharing. One of my authors recently told me that his goal right now isn't so much to get published, but to improve his craft. I admire that attitude!

Kristin Lenz said...

Thanks for sharing your time with us in Detroit! I don't know the specifics of the interaction you had, but it seems like an unusual response for a conference-goer. We usually leave feeling energized and inspired and ready to tackle the publishing challenges with an extra dose of persistence. Thanks again!

Naomi Canale said...

Nicely said, Alvina, and I love the quote you ended with. One of my favorite books for sure! And I agree whole heartedly. Sure there's going to be heartache (I believe this will happen with anything that's worth working hard for), but I’ve never met a more supportive, fun, loving group than in kidlit. The family of writers I have in my life now is absolutely priceless and they have made my love for writing that much deeper.

Ruth McNally Barshaw said...

Maybe also at issue is it's harder to get an agent for a picturebook than for a novel, and lots of people still write only picturebooks, even though the market currently prefers novels.
Anyway, my Hapkido instructor says, "If getting a black belt were easy, everyone would do it." The same applies to writing and illustrating and getting the work published.
I'm one of those writer-illustrators who happens to have been "found" by an agent, but I did a lot of hard work before getting to that point --and a LOT more, since.

alvinaling said...

Thanks, all! Ruth, I was actually thinking that my post for next week would be how to get publishers and agents to knock on your door--because there ARE ways! What's your story?

Heather said...

I can also vouch for the great support and encouragement at the SCBWI Detroit conference. My daughter is a dedicated (and talented) dancer, but she has tough days as well. I always tell her, "Well, if it was easy everyone would do it!" As a pre-published (How's that Alvina?) writer I often have to tell myself the same thing.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

I'm a little late to the party, but I just wanted to say how much I appreciated this post. I've thought for a while that, once you reach a certain level of technical proficiency, so much of this process comes down to luck and timing. Nice to know I'm not the only one who thinks so:)

Fiona Paul said...

*FEAR* Robot copy-editors :)

I wouldn't say my agent came-a-knocking, but we did meet at a conference and she was impressed enough by 5 pages of my MS to full-request. When she ultimately passed on it, she provided helpful feedback and friended me on facebook. One year and one shiny new manuscript later she offered me representation :)

It's true, you can spend your whole life working toward publication and it might not ever happen, but it definitely won't happen if you give up.

Susannah said...

Thank you for the great post.