Over the course of a year I’ll look at somewhere between 1500 and 2000 submissions out of which I can only take a handful. Most agents and editors face that kind of numbers. To narrow it down we aren’t looking for something that is good enough, we are looking for something that is exceptional, and something that is ready to go. We aren’t inclined to overlook a lot of format errors, grammatical errors, people that blatantly ignore submission guidelines and all that sort of thing.
No, when I send something to an editor I want to assume he will get to it late Friday afternoon after a hard day. His mind is already on going to the lake and reading another submission is the last thing he wants to do, but it’s too early to leave and he has time to kiss off one or two more. He doesn’t want to read it, knows the odds are that it isn’t one that will survive to the “ask for a full read” pile, and just plans to read far enough to toss it in the “send a rejection” pile with a clear conscience.
I assume that is the guy I am sending a submission to and I have less than 30 seconds to hook him into reading and 3 minutes to keep him reading. My job is to pull him in, keep him in, pass test after test until I end up being one of those few on his desk that he actually has interest in and wants to read more. My mantra is “publishing is not a selection process, it is a survival process,” and that survival is not up to them, it is up to us.
It does no good to get mad at an agent or editor if they fail to connect with our work, it isn’t their job to like it, its our job to make them like it. I ask for no hard copy submissions, I like to run a paperless office as much as I can, so when that envelope comes in the mail it is thrown aside in favor of the people who are doing what I asked them to do. When I open an email submission and it is a bunch of files instead of a single, professional proposal that I could see myself using to interest an editor the same thing happens. It’s about passing tests and moving on and these people failed the very first test. I’ll probably look at them sometime anyway . . . or not.
This evaluation goes on test by test until we survive our way to the end. Now it isn’t about tests, its about the best writing, and that’s where I want decisions to be made, on the basis of the writing, on the fit of the product to the publishing house. It can still lose out even then of course. Maybe that editor is reading a dozen manuscripts for a single open publishing slot. But the author who has made it this far is in the 15% that is really in the game.
So a good healthy negative attitude can help us survive. I’m still an optimist at heart, I believe the best is going to happen, but only if I look at the reality of the situation and take appropriate steps to make it happen. This is not the place for rose-colored glasses. “The obstacles don’t matter, my writing is so good that it will rise above it.” It is all about the writing in the final analysis, and the best thing we can do to be published is to write an exceptional book. But if we don’t take care of business too, we may not get far enough in the process for the writing to come into play.
This is not the part of the business that we want to do, we want to write, not do business. But it has to be done or we may find ourselves writing in vain.