Friday, December 20, 2013

An open letter to a frustrated wannabe author

I just got an e-mail today from a self-published author, announcing that he is quitting his newsletter, and railing about how real people have almost no chance of getting published. He points to everything from the growth of electronic self-publishing, to the number of "charlatans" out there who sell services to wannabe writers, to people not showing up at his book events. His conclusion seems to be that most people have no chance of ever succeeding as writers, and that they may as well give up.

I hear things like this all the time, and it saddens me because most of it simply isn't true. I am not going to respond personally, because I don't want to call him out - or get involved in a back-and-forth exchange I really don't have time for. But if I were to respond, I might say something like this:

"Dear Wannabe Author,

I hear your frustration with the publishing industry. And I wanted to share my thoughts with you, as someone who does write a fair number of royalty-published books.

Personally I have seen a lot of fiction and non-fiction writers get published over the years - usually mere mortals like me. I have also seen a lot of people struggle to become authors and eventually self-publish or give up. I do NOT believe that the deck is stacked against them. But I do, however, see a huge difference between the two groups.

The first group almost always works backwards from the market. They study what sells, first. Then they adapt their style around what sells. They write tight queries, good "hooks," and intelligent competitive analyses. And they keep at it until they smell like published authors. I was always the guy standing in the bookstore deconstructing top-selling business books to see how they tick. I don't copy other people, but my writing has always been informed by what people are buying right now.

By comparison, the second group is usually focused on themselves. They don't vet either their ideas or their writing against what sells. They aren't necessarily bad writers, but their end product is almost always out of step with what people are currently buying. Inevitably they rail about what a poor chance anyone has of ever getting published. Except it isn't true.

A good litmus test is to read other self-published books in your genre, then pick up some popular royalty-published books. For those who see a difference, there is hope. For those who don't, less so.

I had an interesting discussion about this with my literary agent a couple of years ago. You are probably aware a typical query has about a 5% chance of getting accepted by a given agent. What you don't know is that more than half the queries these poor agents receive are *horrible* - completely out of step with the market and/or any sense of good, readable writing. Get rid of those queries, multiply these odds by the number of agents open to submission out there, and my experience is that a serious, professional writer who studies the marketplace is looking at a much more realistic 50/50 chance.

Trust me, I've had more than my share of no-show book signings, and even though I coach non-fiction writers myself, I share your disdain of most paid services. But when I hear people say that normal people can't get published, I have to politely disagree. I know way too many who do. But they do act differently.

I completely respect whatever you decide to do with your own writing. But if you try again, I hope you decide to think like an agent or an editor, and become a student of the marketplace. Good luck!

Your friend, Rich Gallagher"

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