Book marketing 101: it ain’t necessarily so

Yesterday, I wrote about one of the great fringe benefits of conference attendance, making friends with other writers. The person sitting next to you at the agents’ forum might well be famous five years from now, you know, and won’t you be glad that you made friends with her way back when?

Today, I am going to talk about the other end of the spectrum, the naysayers and depression-mongers one occasionally meets at writers’ conferences. And, still more potentially damaging because they’re harder to pin down, the infectious rumors that inevitably sweep the halls from time to time.

You need to inoculate yourself against them. So think of what I’m about to tell you as an adult cootie shot.

Let me step outside the writing world to give you an example of the classic naysayer. Last summer, I went over to a friend’s house for a “let’s save the garden from being reclaimed by the jungle” party. Lopping off branches and deadheading roses in the hot sun, I couldn’t help but notice that another party guest — let’s call her Charity, because she was so VERY generous with her opinions about how other people should be spending their time — kept looking askance at everything I did. I could not so much as pull a weed without her telling me I was doing it wrong.

It was exactly like cooking Christmas cookies with my mother-in-law.

At first, I thought she just didn’t like me, but I soon noticed that Charity was striding around the yard, correcting everyone, in the most authoritative of tones. We all took it meekly, because she seemed so sure that she was right.

However, the third time she gave me advice on pruning that I — the girl who grew up in the middle of a Zinfandel vineyard, pruning shears in hand — knew to be balderdash, I realized something: she was barely doing any gardening herself. She had no idea what should be done. And yet, she had appointed herself garden manager.

Why am I telling you this? Because I can guarantee you that no matter which writers’ conference you choose to attend in your long and I hope happy life, you will run into at least one of Charity’s spiritual cousins.

They’re not hard to recognize as a family. It will be the writer who tells you, in solemn tones, that there’s a national database of every query that’s ever been submitted, so agents can automatically reject ones that have been seen by too many agents. Or that if you’ve been rejected by an agency once, you can never query there again, because THEY maintain an in-house database, dating back years. Or that you’ll get into terrible trouble if you EVER have more than one query out at once. Or that you should NEVER call or e-mail an agency, even if they’ve had your manuscript for over a year.

None of these things are true, incidentally; they’re just persistent rumors that have been circulating harmfully on the conference circuit for years. To set your mind at rest, there are no such databases, and unless an agency actually specifies that it will not accept simultaneous submissions, it simply does not have that policy. Period. And if an agency has lost a requested manuscript, believe me, they want to know about it toute suite.

But these rumors SOUND so true, don’t they? Especially after you’ve heard them 147 times over the course of a weekend. It’s like brainwashing.

I don’t think that people perpetuate them on purpose to dishearten other writers, necessarily, but I have noticed that anyone who speaks with apparent authority on the rules behind the mysterious world of publishing tends to be surrounded by an audience at the average conference. There are some definite perqs to being the person who walks into a group of writers and says this and this and this is true.

For instance: you believe me, don’t you?

It works, of course, because the publication process IS often confusing and arbitrary. As anyone who has ever spent ten minutes browsing in a bookstore already knows, there are plenty of published books that aren’t very good; as anyone who has a wide acquaintance amongst writers also knows, there are plenty of perfectly wonderful writers whose work does not get published.

There IS a lot of luck involved, unquestionably. If your manuscript happens to be the first one that the agent reads immediately after realizing that her marriage is over, or even immediately after stubbing her toe on a filing cabinet, your chances of her signing you are definitely lower than if, say, she has just won the lottery. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to affect whether your work hits someone’s desk on a good or a bad day.

The more you know about how the industry operates, however, the better your chances of falling on the right side of the coin toss. But the right way to learn about it is not through rumors.

Ask people whom you are positive know how the industry works. Go to the agent and editor forums at the conference, and listen carefully. Learn who likes what. These are people with individual tastes, not mechanized cogs in a homogenous industry where a manuscript that interests one agent will inevitably interest them all.

Contrary to what that sneering guy in the hallway just told you.

Which is why, incidentally, you should always take it with a massive grain of salt whenever even the most prestigious agent or editor tells you, “Oh, that would never sell.” What that actually means, in the language the rest of us speak, is “Oh, I would never want to try to sell that.”

It is, in fact, a personal preference being expressed, and it should be treated as such. It may well be a personal preference shared by a substantial proportion of the industry, such as the nearly universal declaration prior to the success of COLD MOUNTAIN that historical fiction just doesn’t sell anymore, but it is still a personal opinion.

If you doubt that, consider: when the author of COLD MOUNTAIN went out looking for an agent, the platitude above WAS standard industry wisdom. And yet some agent took a chance on it. Go figure.

I am harping on this point for two reasons. First, it is a very, very good idea to bear in mind that not everything everyone who speaks with authority says — no, not even a senior editor at a major publishing house, or the agent who represents a hundred clients, or me — is necessarily accurate 100% of the time. That knowledge can save your dignity if you get caught in a meeting with an agent who dislikes your book’s premise.

Trust me, I’ve been there. Just thank the speaker for his opinion, and move on.

I’m quite serious about this: don’t be afraid to walk away. If you find yourself caught in a formal meeting with an agent or editor who tells you within the first thirty seconds that she does not represent books in your category, or that the premise isn’t marketable, or any other statement intended to prevent you from completing your pitch, you are under no obligation to remain and listen to the pro’s opinion. You are well within your rights to murmur, “Thank you for your time, then,” and leave.

Or, as I mentioned earlier in this series, you can take the moral high ground, and turn the conversation into a learning experience. You can always learn something from contact with an industry professional.

For example, you might say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you didn’t represent this kind of work,” (try to say it politely, even if the agent or editor’s conference guide blurb actually state specifically that he DID represent this kind of work) “but if you were me, who else at the conference would you try to pitch this book to, given your druthers?”

Or, “Gee, I’m sorry to hear that you think it won’t sell. Would you mind telling me why? Do you think this is a trend that will go away after awhile, or do you think books like this always have a hard time selling?”

Or even, “If you were a writer just starting out, how would you try to market a book like this to agents and editors?”

Beats losing your temper, and it certainly beats bursting into tears. Often, agents and editors are happy to give you tips in exchange for your sparing them a scene.

The other reason I am harping on why you should take blanket pronouncements with a small mountain of salt. While rumors about secret ways in which the industry is out to get writers may roll off your back at the time you first hear them, they can come back to haunt you later in moments of insecurity.

And the last thing you will need if an agent has held on to your manuscript for two months without a word, and you are trying to figure out whether to call or not to check up on it (do), is a nagging doubt at the back of your mind about whether writers bold enough to assume that the US Mail might occasionally misplace packages are condemned forever as troublemakers, their names indelibly blacklisted in a secret roster to which only agents have access.

Sounds a little silly, put that way, doesn’t it?

When confronted with a hallway rumor, don’t be afraid to ask some critical follow-up questions. “Where did you hear that?” might be a good place to start, closely followed by “Why on earth would they want to do THAT?”

With an industry professional, you can use polite interest to convey incredulity, “Really? Do you know someone to whom that has happened? Did it happen recently?”

Whatever you do, if you hear an upsetting truism, do not swallow it whole. You look that gift horse in the mouth, and everywhere else, before you wheel it into Troy.

And when someone of Greek descent tells you to give a Trojan horse the once-over, believe it.

Let me just go ahead and nip the ubiquitous database rumor in the bud, since it is one of the most virulent of the breed. Since the average agency receives around 800 queries per week, can you imagine the amount of TIME it would take to maintain such a query database, even for a single agency? It would be prohibitively time-consuming. They barely have time to open all of the envelopes as it is, much less check or maintain a sophisticated tracking system to see if any given author queried them (or anybody else) two years ago.

A good rule of thumb to measure the probability of these rumors is to ask yourself two questions each time you hear one. First, would the behavior suggested serve ANY purpose to the agency, other than being gratuitously mean to writers who query it? Is its only real purpose the exercise of power?

Second, would performing the suggested behavior require spending more than a minute on each query — say, to input statistics into a database? Could the agency accomplish it WITHOUT hiring an extra person – or five – to do maintain the roster of doom?

If the answer to any of these questions is no – and it almost always is — chances are, the rumor’s not true. Even unpaid interns’ time costs something. They could be opening all of those envelopes, for instance.

Okay, that’s a long enough walk on the depressing side of the street. Tomorrow, on to what happens if an agent loves your pitch. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

PS: Just between ourselves, my predictive abilities sometimes startle even myself: my spies — oh, they’re everywhere — at the Conference That Shall Not Be Named tell me that 100% of the pitching info being taught there is toward a 3-line pitch. Sigh. I’m glad at least some of the attendees will have more to say for themselves and their books. I’ve also heard from several sources that the wining and dining (mostly the former) of the pros has been unusually lavish this year, to the extent that a savvy writer might want to wait until after their second cup of coffee to pitch to them in the mornings. But that’s just what about a dozen little birds told me; might not be true. But it does raise a possibility that one might want to bear in mind for future conferences, eh?

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