Why people don’t get published

by Alex

Well, okay, there are a lot of reasons. Some people simply don’t have the skill, talent, passion, will, guts it takes to be a professional writer. Almost everyone can write, and I am always the first to say that everyone SHOULD write, for their own pleasure, and sanity, and self-illumination. But a pro writing career is something only for the truly insane. I mean, driven.

And yet… I think we all know people who have the talent and the drive and still are not published. This is one of the most heartbreaking things I can think of. It is not just uncomfortable, it is literally painful for me to see talented friends and acquaintances who I know have the goods and are still struggling to find agents, publishing deals, screenwriting sales.

Now, this is very, very often self-sabotage. I certainly see people who refuse to “play the game”, even though the game is part of the job. I see people who are crippled by the thought of any kind of rejection, or stopped by the very first or first few rejections, even though rejection is part of the job. I see people who submit directly to editors because they think they don’t need an agent, or are too impatient to go through the process of acquiring an agent, even though having a good agent is a vital part of the job. I see people who jump at the first offer of representation they get, even though they know nothing about that agent, who can then burn that writer’s chances with that book by submitting to the wrong people, or pretending to submit, or by just being such an obvious fraud that no one will read his or her submissions anyway. I see people who just give up and turn bitter and bilious. I see people who simply don’t think that anything good is ever going to happen to them, consequently it never does. We all have our demons, and some more than others.

But after last week at Pen to Press in New Orleans, teaching a dozen amazing writers, I now know that there are phenomenally talented writers out there who do have the goods, and the drive, and the faith in themselves, and they still need help – not on their writing, because that’s there in spades – but on all that OTHER part of the job. I guess it just finally dawned on me how much marketing is involved in getting a book deal to begin with.

This may seem like a stupid and obvious revelation to some of you – I’m certainly not above being stupid and obvious! My excuse is that I’ve been doing the sales part of writing for so long that it doesn’t even occur to me how much of a salesperson I am. For a screenwriter, pitching is the only way to get a job – even if you write and sell an original script all on your own, you still have to pitch to get to a point of writing the next draft with the producers/studio who bought it. So coming as I do from screenwriting, writing a synopsis, writing a query letter, pitching my next project to my agent and editor, doing radio and TV interviews – all of those are just variations on sales pitches. We say “pitch” but really, we’re leaving out that critical word, aren’t we? What we’re talking about is a sales pitch.

I’ve said this before but one of the most amazing things to me about the publishing world, as opposed to Hollywood, is that agents and editors actually come to conferences LOOKING for new authors, and an aspiring author can sign up for pitches with really great agents and move herself to the top of the submissions pile at various agencies. It’s a miraculous process and we’re lucky to have it.

But after the Pen to Press workshop I understand better why some talented people don’t get published: they can write like crazy, but they have no idea how to tell someone what’s actually IN their fabulous book once they’re finished with it.

Really. It’s weird. Like seeing people struggle with a foreign language.

The emphasis of this particular conference was to get authors ready to pitch and submit their completed manuscripts, and now I know how enormously necessary that kind of coaching is. Because I couldn’t tell my students a thing about HOW to write. I could be taking classes from THEM on that. But it took a good four very full days for me and my fantastic co-instructor, Scott Nicholson, to coax the actual storylines out of most of our students and show them how to put those storylines into synopsis and pitch form. When they started, we were getting vague descriptions of books that were “A young man’s journey from adolescence to adulthood” and “A multigenerational family saga about the ravages of racism”. (Hint: that’s not your story, that’s a subgenre). We had to get them to tell their stories to us, character by character, conflict by conflict, revelation by revelation, climax by climax, just as if they were sitting around a campfire, so that they could go tell those stories to agents. But once they got it, they really got it – we were blown away by the power of their pitches, and apparently so were the agents, who made multiple requests for material.

It was so very enlightening to me to see how people who can write rings around me could be so clueless (and I say that with love…) about the next step in the publishing process.

So I guess my point is this. We are very lucky to have such phenomenal resources in the book world – conferences like Pen to Press and the Southern California Writers’ Conference (which I know is also a particularly good one for workshopping), and websites like Backspace where you can get instant and intensive feedback on query letters, synopses, first chapters – and online critique groups like Sisters in Crime’s celebrated Guppies. If you’re not published yet, or if you are but you have talented friends who don’t seem to be getting to the pro level, then please consider that you or your friends might have no idea to SELL what you or they write, and as much as you might think you know, a good professional workshop or online group could be the thing that breaks you through the concrete ceiling.

My PSA for the day.

(It is going to be 100 degrees in Raleigh today. Yike. Good thing I’m doing nothing but writing today, right?)

So can others recommend great workshops, sites, resources on selling, pitching, querying?

And I think it’s my month for the signed book giveaways, so if you’re looking for something spooky to take to the beach, all commenters are automatically eligible to win a signed hardcover of THE PRICE.

27 thoughts on “Why people don’t get published

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    Great Post Alex, and very true. Knowing how to market your work is HUGE. This is all very valuable information for anyone looking to take their work to that next level, publication.

    I agree one of my problems that I had before was not really understanding the marketing half, as well as the frustration that can come with the business of writing. But ever since I have been trying to get my work published, I am glad I was grounded enough to know that getting published is hard work. There’s no instant success. I know it takes more than just writing a good manuscript then waiting for people to come beating down the doors for it.

    But it’s really encouraging that there are so many valuable resources for writers, particularly those people who have been published or are in the business and are willing to share their own experiences and knowledge. To you and all those who provide aspiring writers with this wealth of information, I say thank you.

  2. Robert Gregory Browne

    I fully understand the whole pitching shyness thing that aspiring writers suffer from. I spent many years resisting the pitch, which is why my career in Hollywood was not everything it could have been. I could play the “game” but I didn’t enjoy doing it, so I spent a lot of time avoiding it.

    In the publishing world, the pitch seems less crucial. All you really need for the meet and greet, it seems, is little more than an “elevator” pitch and, if your story sounds intriguing, people in this industry are willing to give it a shot.

    Coming from the screenwriting world, I’ve had to learn to adjust to this new reality and, for me at least, it’s a much more relaxing place to be.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    You’re absolutely welcome, RJ – it’s a pleasure to talk to people who get it.

    Rob, an elevator pitch may get you in the door if you’ve got a good one, but that’s not going to help if the synopsis you send as a follow up is about everything OTHER than what your story is. You may get an agent who skips synopses and goes straight to the chapters – but do you really want to take that chance? Plus you’ll be using variations on your synopsis on your website, as flap copy, on postcards and bookmarks. Bottom line is – you need to be able to talk about what your story is so that anyone hearing it wants to read it.

  4. JT Ellison

    One thing that I don’t think new authors realize is that this pre-marketing of you and your manuscript is WORK. I’ve been amazed at the number of people I’ve met who are looking for the shortcut in.I’d heard this complaint before, that we published authors have some kind of secret handshake, and if you can just meet one of us and befriend us, we’ll show it to you.

    There is no secret handshake. Research, polish and hard, hard work are the way you get an agent, and subsequently a deal. There are no shortcuts. There are serendipitous happenings, and luck, but I’m also a firm believer in you make your own luck.

    On another note, I hate that anyone has to get rejected, but it is part of the game. We need to find a balm to assuage the newbie — This isn’t an indictment of you or your talent. It’s just not right for that particular person. I’ve seen rejection derail an author, and it’s heartbreaking. Don’t let them get you down!!! This is business. You don’t sell a vacuum cleaner every time you knock on the door. You work and work and finally get that sale. Writing is the same.

  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Alex,This is an excellent post. The entire time, I was thinking of a friend who has polished his manuscript so much it’s shine is blinding. But he won’t take the next step of getting it into the world. He always has some excuse.

    The thing of it is that he’s a tremendously successful salesman in his other life. He just isn’t translating that skill to his heart projects.

    As far as good workshops/conventions . . . I think the Tony Hillerman Mystery Writers Conference is a very good one and offers genre-specific input that is quite useful for attendees.

    This year, I’ll be doing an all-day preconference workshop on PR. I plan to have a section on the BEFORE aspect of our publishing careers.

    BTW: To JT’s response about rejectionI always tell people that I consider rejections “Badges of Courage” and am proud of every single one. If you don’t put your work out there, no one will ever know about it, period.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    JT, this is worth repeating:

    “There is no secret handshake. Research, polish and hard, hard work are the way you get an agent, and subsequently a deal. There are no shortcuts. There are serendipitous happenings, and luck, but I’m also a firm believer in you make your own luck.”

    Especially research. Research, research, research. It’s amazing to me how many aspiring authors are counting on (and sometimes pressuring) published authors they meet to pass their ms. on to their own agent. Well, what if that agent isn’t even right for them?

    Very true about rejection, too.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’ll have to add Hillerman’s conference to my list, Pari. Love him!

    What I found with my Pen to Press students is that the whole idea of pitching and querying terrified them at first – but once they knew their stories and understood what they were supposed to be conveying, the whole process was exciting to them. The confidence level just shot through the roof and I know that translated for the agents and editors they talked to. It’s the whole unknown of the marketing that keeps people blocked, I think.

    And thanks, LU!

  8. billie

    Great post and great advice, Alex.

    It’s so hot here and I’m in and out trying to keep 4 horses and a mini-donkey from being miserable, so I can’t formulate much of a response!

    The only thing I’ll add is that for me it’s so important to find and maintain a balance in this writing life. Between the mystery and the beauty and the joy of the process, and the business that it inevitably is if one wants to publish the traditional way.

    What I love most about what you’re saying today is the message that there ARE ways to learn and get good at the business side of it, and ways to make that part exciting and fun too.

    Stay in and write through this weekend of extreme heat if you can – it is miserably hot out there!

  9. JT Ellison

    Alex said: It’s amazing to me how many aspiring authors are counting on (and sometimes pressuring) published authors they meet to pass their ms. on to their own agent.

    Alex, I’m trying, operative word trying, to put together a post on manners at conferences. I’ve been so shocked at how forward and pushy people can be asking/demanding blind favors. I’ll keep trying…

  10. Tom Barclay

    I used to work with a conductor who was also a church organist. He said his job was to play his best while people walked away from him and out the nearest door.

    It does take forever for people with their heads firmly buried in the art of the work to learn comfort with the business side of the work. One of my favorite authors has a terrible time with meeting and greeting readers, and doing all the public appearance stuff. She has a great editor at a major publisher. She sells a lot. In my opinion she should be selling tens and tens of thousands of copies of each title . . . but the self-selling isn’t something she seems to do.

    Why is Lee Child so successful? Could it have been things he learned during those years as a producer at BBC?? Something about the thousands of hours it takes to get one produced hour on the screen?

    My father taught me at a young age to look down on salesmen. Little did he know I’d have to learn to become one, since half of doing business is asking for money.

  11. Robert Gregory-Browne

    You’re right, Alex. I didn’t meant to dismiss what you said about a good synopsis, etc., but I do find the world of publishing more forgiving when it comes to pitching story ideas. But I’ve also not had to be “in the trenches” quite as much as I was in Hollywood.

    Of course, the greatest pitch or synopsis in the world won’t help you if you don’t deliver the goods.

    Great post, by the way.

  12. Catherine

    Alex what you’ve offered for the people involved in Pen to Press is so much more valuable than a ‘secret handshake’. It is helping newcomers build a practical strategy harnessing their own creativity, to move themselves forward in probably what is a pretty emotionally scary industry.

    Um buzzword appropriate …self-empowerment.

    The flipside comes though, I think in JT’s advice that there are times when ‘It’s just not right for that particular person. I’ve seen rejection derail an author, and it’s heartbreaking.’

    I don’t know the particular pleasure/pain of pitching a book. However, I did learn at a very early age what it is to work hard to polish something to performance level and stand in a cold huge hall and deliver it to one person with a stony face and pen. Which pretty much pushed me out of being shy. Brutal, but effective.

    This trained me up to take in advice and not let it rock my world if it wasn’t all positive.(Because I knew I couldn’t have worked harder at that point in time)but I could listen and incorporate constructive advice. The other thing I learnt was that this was only one person’s opinion framed by their life experiences and perhaps influenced by their burning their breakfast toast. I also had to keep this in mind when I would win too.

    The thing that sort of amazes me (but it probably shouldn’t) is how many people think in a two – way communication it’s all about them.

    I should also mention that as a heavy user of books, I do appreciate so many people striving to get their story out there.

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Catherine, you’re so mysterious. Are you talking about acting auditions? Music? Debate?

    I think all those performance experiences are golden for people who become authors – or really anything. Life is a stage, and all that. So a hugely important thing is to learn to love performance… it makes all the selling part and art.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    And oh yes, rejection. Acting is great for learning how to deal with that as well!

    I love the story about the church organist, Tom. Really love it. I’m going to remember that.

    But et’s all just face it. Lee Child – British accent…

    I mean, come on.

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Billie, yes, that’s what was so great to see about this conference – that people actually got excited about the pitch part. We’re always going to have stage fright – but stage fright is just a prelude to the terrific adrenaline rush of doing a great pitch.

  16. Catherine

    Alex I used to be heavily involved in singing( of which competition was a small part). The mystery occurs as I still can’t remember how to spell the particular word that describes that form of competition…starts with an E lots of consonants( German or Welsh origin?)It’s too early on a Sunday morning here to ring my Mum to ask.lol.

    I’ve been able to see the link between not being too caught up in rejection through performance. I hadn’t thought hard about the role it may of played in my ability to sell, an idea or product. Too busy just doing it.

    There are times if I get nervous now that I remember once being in a local theatre production of the White Horse Inn at 15, and having to lead a baby goat out while singing some silly flirty song…having the goat balk and that moment of ‘knowing’ that scooping it up in my arms, and not missing a beat was so much the way to go…. so much better than a tug of war in front of a 500 people. I really use that moment to get over nerves now. On the basis of if I could just suck it up and get on with it then, I certainly can now as an adult.

  17. Tom Barclay

    Oh, you’ve been moved by Lee’s appearance and presentation, Alex? You don’t say?

    That just reinforces your point, and mine. It’s easier to sell if you present a pleasing and well-prepared package.

    Stephen, my wife is fond of reminding me that “the sale never ends.” And ain’t it the truth?

  18. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Sokoloff,

    What a great post. It’s funny, I’ve not yet gotten to the point where I’m querying, but I’ve already done enough research on it that I felt comfortable teaching my creative writing students about that aspect of the business. I actually used someone’s post about premise sentences so they could see the difference in the hook section of a query, and making it even more simplified into one sentence. I let them critique the premise sentence I wrote on here as practice, and they loved it. Most of my research has been from agent blogs like Janet Reid, Kristin Nelson, and Miss Snark, and also from writers’ blogs. I point my students in that direction for examples, but also to show them how subjective this industry is.

    With respect to conferences, don’t make enough money to go yet, but someday I’m going to try Murder in the Grove, I’ve heard it’s good. Might do the Hillerman conf. if that’s a better one.

    On a side note, I mentioned earlier on Ms. Taichert’s post about support that I’d be there to support you at the B&N in Cary, especially since I teach right across the road. Unfortunately, that’s the week my wife and I will be taking AP training in Athens, GA, for the new courses we’ll be teaching next year. As such, we won’t be there in person. Be supporting you in spirit though! Good luck!!

  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Catherine, that is a truly great story about the goat. There is such POWER in that realization that you can improvise – physically. Once you’ve done it you know that your instincts will take over in any situation and turn even potential disasters into triumph.

    You must be an opera singer, I’m thinking.

  20. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Tom – LOL. Yes, when he’s not around I can admit to being “moved” by Mr. Child.

    Jake, am I doing a signing in Cary? My God, my life is completely out of control.

    Here’s another stellar reference for your students – I just recently discovered the Foilio Lit Agency blog. Absolutely required reading for new authors.


  21. gautami tripathy

    I write a lot of poetry. I have even considered publishing. However, the publishers I contacted were not at encouraging. That to witjout even looking at my poetry. Their plea, no one reads poetry. It won’t sell. Now I write and post my poetry on my blog.

    Maybe I should go for self publishing.

    I landed up her via google alerts!

  22. Carolyn Bahm

    This is an excellent post. As a unpublished fiction writer, I really appreciate learning about events and resources about the salesmanship and other skills needed beyond the writing itself.

    Oh, and I would LOVE to win a copy of your book!

  23. Jake Nantz

    Ooops, sorry, it’s not a signing it’s a mystery group discussion (at least that’s what was posted in the B&N newsletter) in late June…the 23rd, I think.


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