Friday, 8 April 2011

G is for Guardians at the Gate

Who are the gatekeepers? When you send a manuscript to an agent or publisher first it has to get past a reader. Someone who will look it over and decide whether it is worthy of higher consideration. The people who are giving this task are generally secretaries, PA’s, younger writers looking to make a bit of money and interns. They have no great expertise in identifying a good novel/script and have their own personal preferences and prejudices.

If they come across something so amazing that even they can spot its value then they can hand it over to someone higher up the chain. Obviously there will be various manuscripts with potential that will be overlooked, but since there are plenty of writers with potential already on the books, it’s considered a risk worth taking.

Often it is seen as a way to gets a more junior member of staff up to speed on the standard of work out there. Everything does get read eventually but it soon becomes apparent that most of it is not very good and the enthusiasm with which a reader will approach work sent in will fade over time. To be honest the pitch in the query letter is just as much aimed at that slightly bored person who spends most of the day answering phones and making coffee as it is at the agent.


So having a well written, interesting, potentially great manuscript isn't enough to guarantee consideration by the person or company you sent it to. That's just the way things are. The person who will actually read it is probably around the same level of expertise as you (i.e. not very expert at all). In fact since they are in ‘the business’ they might have an elevated idea of their own position, making them a little more arrogant in their judgements. Whether it is a struggling writer who resents the vampire fantasies dominating the marketplace, preventing his magnus opus from selling, who roundly rejects your urban fantasy, or a university graduates with a Masters in classic romantic literature who considers your sci-fi soap opera to be ridiculous, there are numerous reasons for a story to get rejected that have nothing to do with the quality of the story itself.

You have to remember that even the novels that get supported all the way into print, the vast majority are massive failures commercially. The people who make the decisions about what the public want to read are wrong most of the time. What keeps the business afloat is anonymous low grade crap and the occasional hit that makes millions. Even the people at the top don't really know what will sell. Yes they were convinced book A was going to be a hit, and it was. But they were also convinced books X,Y and Z were going to be hits, and they weren’t.

So finding your way onto an agent's list or into a publisher’s catalogue is a bit of a lottery. The person whose hands your writing end up in has to be inclined towards whatever your style happens to be, they have to be in the right mood, and they have to have the ability to see potential if it's there. And then they pass it onto someone else who has to go through the whole process again. And so on and so on.

That's not to say there’s no point. There are lots of places to send your work, somebody will certainly read at least a bit of it,  and if it ends up in the right hands, the fates might smile kindly on you. But it would certainly help if you make it as good as you possibly can. It would be a terrible shame if you managed to get in the right place at the right time and then blew it because you didn't apply enough spit and polish.

25 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

If I hadn't already landed a publisher, I'd give up after this post! Ignorance is bliss...

Kari Marie said...

How true! I've heard reading the slush pile is a tremendously advantageous thing for a writer to do. We are all optimists aren't we?

Dawn Embers said...

Great post and some good observations. I have been an intern for a small publisher, though haven't read anything lately. I am one that gets the first couple of chapters and decides whether we will ask for more, or with children's stories if they have potential. I have done one edit too. And every time I have to send a response to my boss I feel super nervous. It's not an easy thing to do. The stories I've considered have had problems but as long as they are minor and workable with a great story they can be considered for publication.

K. C. Blake said...

For years I thought 'there has to be a better way.' Now I'm publishing my own books. Maybe if enough writers bypass agents and publishers, they will find a new way of doing things.

Tiyana, aka "Yoyo" said...

Thanks for the great insights, Mooderino. When you put it that way...it puts the whole prospect of rejection into perspective. Perhaps even makes it more bearable. (Ha! We'll see when I get there.)

Melissa Dean said...

Great post, mood! Loved it!

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

Interesting observations about Gatekeepers. The readers often describe themselves that way. Some of them are approachable and some less so. I'm sure you're right about the lottery element in all this.

Jennifer Shirk said...

That's true. They say your query should be as interesting as the back of the book blurb. And that blurb has to be interesting enough for anyone off the street picking it up to want to buy it.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Very good reminder - it's tempting to be sick of edits and want to send your manuscript off but better to be sure :-)

damyantiwrites said...

Absolutely true. All the more reason to polish the manuscript!

Clarissa Draper said...

What you say is true. The only thing authors can do is make sure their work is wonderful to read.

Elena Solodow said...

I think the "you never know" rules applies. If it hits, it hits. If not, move on and try again.

Hart Johnson said...

I know it's really hit and miss--it is why persistence is so important. I read an agent blog recently that talked about assistants, though, and i think she made a great case that MORE gets read because of the assistants.She said they talk enough that the assistant knows what is wanted, and that the assistant's time is ONLY reading, where the agent has a thousand other jobs, so would reject faster--the assistant then can go to bat if the pages are good but the query is marginal--something the agent never would have known.

Ciara said...

Keep your chin up and keep submitting. I just landed my first contract. The hard work and dedication makes it that much sweeter. :)
I'm from A-Z and a new follower. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

Sky said...

The more I read bestselling novels (recent ones and from decades past) the more I realize one has to make a choice between writing a few (1 - 5) really well-written, well-plotted, near-perfect novels or bang 'em out (30 or more) while not really striving for perfection but "good enough." I think most gatekeepers recognize the former category, so those writers are likely to get published, though those books take much longer to write. On the other hand, while fewer gatekeepers might let you in with "good enough" manuscripts, those take less time to write, so you can just keep banging 'em out till one gets accepted and go from there. Granted, both requires lots of blood, sweat, and tears. No doubt about that.

Too bad the book industry can't employ "test audiences" from the general public to read the manuscripts (probably too many copyright issues) because I worry gatekeepers might be too snobbish in their tastes compared to the general public.

mooderino said...

Hi Sky,
I think you can end up with people who just have a fixed view of how things should be, whether that's high or low brow, and they end up creating the market that they then blame for the choices they make.

Thanks for all the comments so far, much appreciate you all taking the time.

cheers,
mood

the writing pad said...

Hi
I guess that - whatever else we can mechanise or computerise - we'll always need real people to read and assess books, and hence this will always be open to purely subjective appraisal.
Thanks for the post - I hadn't realised before quite how things work in the publishing world.
All best
karla

Gail M Baugniet said...

Sometimes it seems it's just the luck of the draw, what the mood of the reader is that day, where their mind "is at."

Angela Felsted said...

Luck plus skill. So why am I still writing?

Karen Walker said...

I think it truly is a crap shoot and some people just get lucky. There are so many talented writers who don't find an agent/publisher, it's just sad.
Karen

Austin James said...

Lady luck ;) If I could woo her with chocolates and roses, I would.

As for Gatekeepers, I try two strategies... be really nice at first... and if that doesn't work, pester them until they pass you off to someone who will listen.

GigglesandGuns said...

This isn't very encouraging. Books and movies are subjective.
Perhaps it's just the law of averages the more you put your work out there the better chance you have that someone will read and like it.
As Karen says, "it's a crap shoot."

Murees Dupé said...

Great post! You keep it honest and real and I admire that. And it is true what you say. Finding an agent or publisher is like the lottery. You never know what they want, but it is still up to you as the writer to try your all and persevere. Maybe it's not fare, but as the saying goes ''That's life".

Talei said...

Hopefully what we write will wow the gatekeepers too! Gotta keep polishing that novel before we submit.

Suze said...

'It would be a terrible shame if you managed to get in the right place at the right time and then blew it because you didn't apply enough spit and polish.'

Agreed.

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