Reading to learn what people like to read

Agent Kristin Nelson has been blogging about publishing for a while now, and she is probably one of the best agent bloggers out there because she posts almost every weekday and she always has really interesting stuff to say about the business that is both informative and entertaining. Today her post was a continuation of yesterday’s, about how lots of aspiring writers like to trash popular books simply because they’re popular, and it was pretty much the most succinct argument for why you should NEVER DO THAT. Observe:

If you are smug in the excuse that the writing is average or the storyline didn’t work for you then you are missing the point. There is something about these novels that are capturing millions of readers (and the dollars in their wallets). Ultimately I refuse to believe that a million people are so “uncultured”, “stupid,” “non-discerning,” or “insert your phrase here” that they don’t get it. That’s condescending and underestimating the reading audience.

Now, I’ve been known to express all kinds of opinions on all kinds of books for all kinds of reasons. I once had an entire blog devoted to that enterprise, and I still claim that all my opinions on the books I read were honest and forthright, those being some of my best (or worst, depends on who you are) qualities. I don’t write that blog anymore, or do book reviews, because as somebody who now is pursuing publication I don’t really think it’s in anyone’s best interest to take books down just because I didn’t like them–at this point, all I want is for people to READ, for God’s sake, no matter what it is or whether I liked it. That said, if you cornered me at a party and were like, “So what did you think of The Da Vinci Code?” I’m going to tell you the truth.

Anyway, my point is, I have a lot of standards when it comes to the books I read–prose, characterization, dialogue, plot, pacing, message, etc.–that determine whether or not I think a book is well-written, but that’s not necessarily the same thing as saying I did or did not like a book. For instance, I thought Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital had some flaws (length being the primary, which is not so much of a flaw as a lack of a strength), but I LOVED IT and would laud it to anybody who is fool enough to ask me for a book recommendation. Did I think The Da Vinci Code (par example) was a major feat of literature? No. Is it wildly entertaining and provocative and worth reading? Certainly. And I’m not the only person who thinks so, obvs.

I have to admit, being a writer has ruined me as a reader to an extent. Too often now, I think, my appreciation of all those things (prose, pacing, etc.) that, when done well, make up the best novels, have turned me from someone who reads for pleasure to someone who reads to edit. NOT GOOD. Because reading has always been my greatest pleasure. I’m trying to train myself out of that, but then will my writing suffer? I’m afraid to see.

Bu the thing is, Kristin is right–millions of readers can’t be wrong. My MA thesis adviser used to pwn the Harry Potter series, his catchphrase being, “It’s about fucking MAGIC!” But people LOVE IT. That is not insignificant in any way. I actually try to read as many big ticket books as possible just to get a feel for what books are touching a wide audience, because when books sell millions of copies they’re not just preaching to the choir–they’re preaching to the world, and the world is all: “WORD.” Obviously, The Da Vinci Code is not just selling to people who enjoy thrillers, Twilight is not just selling to teens, Eragon is not just selling to fantasy fans…whether I like them or not, those books are speaking to people in some ways–indeed, in many ways, since they’re speaking to so many people. And that’s what I (or you) as a writer want to do. Touch as many people as humanly possible. If you consider yourself “literary” and you’re all, “If people don’t have a Ph.D. in 18th-century Russian literature they will SO NOT GET THIS” then guess what? Only people with a Ph.D. in 18th-century Russian literature are going to want to buy that sucker, and there are not a lot of them around, I would wager. Writing for a niche market–and yes, so-called “upscale”, “literary” writing is a niche market, to which the sales of almost any short story collection (apart from, like, Alice Munro and Jhumpa Lahiri, obvs) can surely attest–is never a solid business strategy. And book publishing is a business, of which we have daily proof.

So! This is all to say that I think people read and love books for all sorts of reasons, the same way that some people like Jasper Johns or Transformers or whatever. Art and “what is art?” are so subjective and, therefore, completely meaningless as anything other than abstract concepts disagreed upon by most people. So what? Go with the numbers–Dan Brown sells upwards of 7 million copies of his book, you may want to check it out and instead of combing for reasons why it’s not up to your standards, comb for reasons why one book can appeal to so many different kinds of people. The answers may surprise you.

I’m such an (April) fool

Don’t be embarrassed…I totes believed it, too.

google's april fools

Not to mention Google’s announced merger with Virgin to create Virgle: Virgle’s goal is simple: the establishment of a permanent human settlement on Mars. There’s even a 100-year plan and a questionnaire you can take to determine if you are a potential “pioneer” for the “settlement”. I took the test and this was how I scored:

Well, you’re distressingly normal and could conceivably adjust to life as a deep space pioneer, though we recommend instead that you leave the Mars missions to the serious whack jobs who scored over 130 and instead finish year 3 of law school, tuck your toddler into bed, design Web 2.0 applications, run for Congress or do whatever other normal, healthy, middle-of-the-road thing you’re currently doing with your normal, healthy, middle-of-the-road life.

Then there’s CondéNast’s rumored takeover of my womanisty touchstone, Jezebel: CondéNet, the leading creator and developer of upscale lifestyle brands online, has agreed to acquire Jezebel.com (http://www.jezebel.com), a leading women’s news and entertainment website founded in 2007 by New York-based Denton Media. Financial terms of the transaction were not disclosed. I sincerely doubt that this is true. I had to read the comments to get the joke, which is pathetic, but true. Since Jezebel is pretty much the anti-Condé, it’s not true that CondéNast “has a portfolio of similar properties” like Nick Denton’s “Whoring Out Jezebel” post on Gawker says.

I’m so gullible. I believed all of these things (well, not the Virgle thing, but that’s only because I saw it after I’d been reminded it was April Fool’s Day and informed that “Google Time” is probably a joke). The internets are a great place to play a practical joke since it probably takes very little time and effort compared to, for instance, filling an entire swimming pool with Jell-O or something. Check out this list of the Top 100 April Fool’s Day hoaxes, and drop a line if you find any other fun ones I can first believe, then disbelieve, then link to.

ETA: “Stuff White People Like bought by Target”? Good one, guys. I’m not falling for any of this shit anymore, and I’m boycotting Jezebel for the rest of the day because of unreadability due to the continuation of the now completely unbelievable “bought by CondéNast” joke.

OOC

ETA: In my personal news, I finished my AUT revisions! I think I’ll let it sit a week or so then go back to excise extraneous adverbs, but otherwise Round 1 is complete.

I didn’t catch this until way after it was posted by both Gawker and Galley Cat, but apparently there is an editor out there who recently found herself on the receiving end of an unexpected visit from an aspiring author. I have no idea how he got my name–I’d never met him before, she writes. But he came in asking for me by name and carrying his unsolicited manuscript (which, incidentally, is a kind of book I have never acquired and my company has never published).

The Gawker-generated traffic sort of overwhelmed her blog, but in addition she got lots of hate mail from people who were angered (?) or offended (??) by her post. I do not understand this at all. Apparently, Sheila, the Gawker reporter whose original post started the whole shenanigans, also was deluged with hate mail because she was forced to add this little disclaimer to the post: Note: these very sensible suggestions are from the Editorial Ass blog, not by me. So stop sending me angry emails about the ways in which you disagree!

I’m…so confused. I’ve read all of the suggestions and I find them quite reasonable. I don’t understand who could possibly have taken offense to them. This is all very obvious–don’t ever show up at a publisher’s office if you have not been expressly invited, don’t expect your unsolicited manuscript to receive anywhere near the same amount of attention or consideration as an agented MS (unless this is a publisher that still takes unagented manuscripts, in which case I don’t know but still don’t show up in person!), don’t call and harass the editor and his/her assistant, don’t be pushy and entitled. DUH. How is this not Gospel to every single person? Some of that might require research to figure out, but some of it is just plain old common sense. I have no earthly idea why anyone would object to the things that Moonrat said in her post. Also, the Gawker commenters really got stupid on that post–not wanting to be contacted by potentially crazy people that you don’t know/know if you can trust is a NORMAL feeling experienced by EVERYONE. It has nothing to do with people/phone skills.

Somebody named MisterHippity commented on the Gawker post, A couple of things here kind of pissed me off. For example: “Know what I acquire. If you send me your manuscript and it has nothing to do with what I edit, why should I do you the courtesy of wasting my very precious free time responding to you?” Ok, it takes exactly 10 seconds to send that person an e-mail saying “I’m sorry, but the subject of your manuscript doesn’t relate the kind of material I normally publish. So I’m afraid I can’t consider it. Best regards …” Instead, you’re going to leave that person hanging for weeks on end with no word because you’re so outraged that they “haven’t done the footwork”?

UH, YEAH. Has this person ever SEEN a slush pile before? They’re GINORMOUS! I do think that there are problems on both sides of the equation here, but authors who send blanket submissions without regard for agent and editor preferences, without doing any modicum of research, without knowing the rules of the game, are a plague on everyone, including themselves. I’m not using the word “game” here to imply that there is a malicious, manipulative agenda behind it all, but there are rules. There are. There have to be. Because any fool with a typewriter can “write a novel” and send it out. Agents and editors want badly to find manuscripts to sell and buy–that’s how they make their livings, but more importantly it actually matters to them, in a way that most people’s jobs don’t. There is no conspiracy in place to keep you, Unsolicited Author, from putting your brilliant thoughts and imaginings out there. The rules aren’t secret–they’re freely available to anybody with a library card (Writer’s Market) or the Internet (Miss Snark, Agent Query, FOR A START). You want to get published, write a great novel, then learn how to get an agent and get one. It’s a lot more work than that, full of rejection and failure and disappointment, but in the end, if you’re patient, hard-working, persistent (but not obnoxious), optimistic, and informed, you will get there.

And I’m sorry, but this kind of shit, this author coming into the building unannounced and trying to get a face-to-face meeting with the editor? It’s scary. I know because it happened to me. I used to work at a literary agency and we kept the door locked for expressly this reason–so that we could decide who came in and who stayed out. One day, a seemingly innocuous man came to the door and I opened it and politely asked him what I could do for him and he went on a forty minute ramble, asking me if I was familiar with the greatest baseball poem ever written (I wasn’t; apparently, that’s “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Thayer). Then he proceeded to tell me that he had written the new “Casey at the Bat” and he wanted us to publish it. Now, I tried to explain that we were not a publishing company, we were an agency, but he wouldn’t listen, nor do I think he particularly cared. I tried to tell him how he could query us via email, but he was adamant that he didn’t want to go through all that hassle (seriously: “I don’t want to bother with that”), that he had something really special here. This whole time he kept trying to push his way into the office, which was very unnerving. Both my bosses were out of town at a conference at the time, so thankfully I could tell him truthfully that he could not, in fact, come in and talk to either of them.

Then he took out a bag of CDs on which he had recorded himself reciting his new baseball poem (I don’t know, something about a girl named Katie playing on a Little League team in the fifties…I wasn’t quite sure) and handed me one…then two…then a third, so that I could give one to my boss, keep one for myself to listen to, and ANOTHER for me to keep wrapped in plastic because in 20 years it would “put my kids through college” I kid you not. Then he proceeded to recite the poem for me from memory. This whole time I’m standing gatekeeper at the door, not letting him in, trying to impress upon him my need to go back to my work and also his need to query us formally via email or regular mail, but he wouldn’t listen. Eventually he went away because I took the CDs and promised that he’d hear from us in the next two weeks. It was such a relief when I closed the door, and I’m sure he was just a harmless man and just really enthusiastic, and we did listen to the CD (which was, of course, much more than we owed him since he a.) hadn’t queried us, b.) sort of harassed me, and c.) we don’t do poetry), but we eventually rejected it, which he wasn’t expecting and he did email me back angrily, but I didn’t respond.

My point is that you rarely get dismissed out of hand by a good, responsible agent (those are the only ones whose attentions you want, anyway) if you follow the rules. The rules being that you conform to all of their submissions requirements (most of them have detailed submissions guidelines on websites, and the ones that don’t are in Writer’s Market or on Agent Query), you only query them in genres that they have expressed interest in or sold before (Publishers Marketplace is an excellent source of this information; submission req’d for deals listings, though), you only query them the way they liked to be queried (some have forms on their websites, some only want email, some only want regular mail, some will take a combination of both, and some don’t want to be queried by unpublished authors, which is their right because it’s their business and obvs. they’re not the right agents for you, then), and you cut them some slack on getting back to you because agents get submissions numbering in the hundreds and thousands per week and, really, assistants and interns only have so much time.

The other thing is, most editors don’t want to see unagented stuff. Again, this is a time issue, and also because agents can usually be counted on to do exactly what uninformed writers refuse to do, which is tailor submissions based on known editor preferences and the needs of his/her list. It’s a streamlining thing, NOT an exclusionary thing. And, yes, it’s a higher quality assurance thing. Sorry. Not everybody gets to be a highly paid Hollywood actor, not everybody gets to be a Grammy-nominated musician, and not everybody gets to be a published writer. Lots more people get to be published than act or sing professionally, but still. There’s a carrying capacity. But showing up at publishing houses is not the way to get published; it’s the way to NOT get published. You aren’t doing yourself any favors by not doing the research and just bombarding random agents and editors with submissions. Moonrat’s suggestions are perfectly reasonable, and the very smart writers will either already know these things, or learn things things from her or other sources, and put them to use in their journey toward getting published. The not-smart writers who ignore them…well, let’s just say I’ve never seen a brilliant piece of work in an otherwise messy, completely rules-ignoring submission. Not everybody who follows the rules is talented and/or has a great novel to sell, but it’s my personal opinion that the ones who DO sell, 99.9% of the time they probably followed the rules to the T.