Urban Myth vs. the Truth

Publishing, no less than any other field, is full of stories presented as truth&#151call them urban myths. Like the alligators in the New York City sewage system, these myths are often sworn to by people who have not actually experienced them. The danger for aspiring writers is that you may believe publishing myths that are not true&#151or discount those that are not myths, but fact.

So which is which? Let’s drain some water pipes and see what alligators we find.

Myth #1: The odds and evens
This “truth” is, for some reason, often presented by writing instructors with minor sadistic tendencies masquerading as helpfulness. It goes like this: Every month a major magazine or publishing house may receive about 800 manuscripts. Therefore, the odds of acceptance are very low, about 800 to 1, and you shouldn’t get your hopes up too high.

Quick Tips
  • Talent outweighs numbers&#151forget the odds and concentrate on the quality.
  • Sales are not the only measure of success&#151percentages have nothing to do with it.
  • Rejections are not automatically indicative of quality&#151send the story out to another editor.
  • It’s far better to write the stories you genuinely want to tell and then try to market them.
  • As the maxim says, “There are lies, damn lies and statistics.” This is a good example. Yes, the 800 figure is correct. But publishing is not a lottery. The editor does not put all 800 manuscripts in a giant drum, rotate it wildly and choose one at random. The 800-to-1 odds, however much they may apply to lotteries, do not apply to fiction.

    Instead, the editor (or his assistants) will read those manuscripts. No, not all of them all the way through. Some will be eliminated after a page or two, others because they clearly do not fit publishing requirements. Some will be read all the way through but simply don’t impress the editor because the ending doesn’t work, the idea is old, the characters are unbelievable … you know the list.

    However, this means that a story suitable for the place you’ve sent it, with decent prose that’s plausible and interesting, enjoys considerably better odds than 800 to 1. The odds may shrink to, say, 20 to 1, which means the editor has seen 20 stories he could conceivably publish.

    The point here is that talent outweighs numbers. If your manuscript is truly good, it doesn’t matter whether the editor has received 10,000 other manuscripts. Yours will stand out. Forget the odds and concentrate on the quality.

    Myth #2: Defining success
    This myth says: “Even if you get something published, it doesn’t mean much. Only a small percentage of published authors go on to actually be successful.”

    Percentages again. The key word here, however, is not “percentage” but “successful.” The myth does not define success.

    Is success measured in best sellers? Then, yes, only a small number of us will have the sales of Stephen King, Danielle Steel or Michael Crichton. Even if you define “success” as some number of sales that allows the writer to support himself in luxury by writing alone, few authors will qualify. But sales are not the only measure of success.

    Some fiction is written for a very select audience. This is easy to see in nonfiction: The definitive, terrific, tremendously exciting book about 16th century silver will have a small but enormously enthusiastic audience of silver aficionados.

    In fiction too there are books destined for modest sales. Complex, intelligent books that tell depressing truths are going to be read mostly by complex, intelligent people who are willing to encounter depressing truths in recreational reading. They represent a minority of readers.

    The author of such a novel will not become rich. But he or she is still a success if success is defined not in terms of sales but of writing the book the author wanted to write and having it appreciated by the audience.

    And what of short story writers? There are people who write sensational short stories but simply are not novelists. Their stories may be read eagerly, reprinted often, esteemed highly. Since it’s impossible to support a luxurious lifestyle on short stories alone, a definition of success that focuses only on money would exclude such writers.

    As a writer, you need to define success for yourself. Only then can you decide if you’re on the road to meeting that criterion.

    Myth #3: The good, the bad and the ugly
    The third myth says: “You must be better at the beginning of your career than at the end of it.” This one is true, with both good and bad implications.

    On the face of it, the truth seems to make no sense. Most writers improve as they perfect their craft. Why should they be expected to get worse with each book? The answer is, they’re not supposed to get worse, they’re only supposed to get better known.

    Consider this: If an editor buys a story or a novel from an unknown, the writer’s name on the magazine or dust jacket will convince no one to buy it. The writer has, as yet, no fans. Therefore, the only value the fiction has is its intrinsic interest and quality.

    This is important, of course (see Myth #1), but on the other hand, a known name on that cover translates into guaranteed sales. Known names already have fans. This means that if you submit a story to The New Yorker, you’re competing for a fiction slot with John Updike, Amy Tan and William Trevor. Your story has to be pretty good to be chosen.

    Later, however, after you’ve published a lot, your name has sales value. You have fans; you help sell copies. Thus, editors are more likely to buy fiction from you even if the quality of that particular story is not as high as either your previous stories or those from unknowns. Notice, please, that I didn’t say they’ll buy any old thing you turn out on a bad day. But they will take into account that your fans are good for some sales just because of your previous work.

    The disadvantage of all this to you, the aspiring writer, is that it’s difficult to be at your top form at the beginning of your career. In writing, as in music or dance, practice does make a difference.

    However, there is also an upside to the phenomenon. If a piece of your fiction that you love is rejected, it may not be because the story is poor. It may be an acceptable story … if an established name had written it. Rejections are not automatically indicative of quality. Send the story out to another editor.

    Myth #4: The necessary brother-in-law
    You must be a celebrity to get your work looked at seriously, this urban myth goes. Look at Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. Would anyone have published her children’s books if she were not ex-royalty?

    At the very least, if you’re not in People yourself, that myth goes, you need a personal connection to the publishing industry: a brother-in-law whose sister is an agent, a cousin who once read the slushpile at Atlantic, a former next-door neighbor whose daughter is a junior editor.

    Do those connections help? Well, of course. Editors are people, people have friends and relatives (and the friends of relatives plus the relatives of friends), and everyone understands the concept of doing favors. Connections can get your work looked at more readily. Looked at, however, is not the same as bought. Connections will not close the sale if the manuscript is no good.

    More to the point, your work will also be looked at if your only friend in the entire world is your building janitor. It probably won’t be looked at as soon as Sarah Ferguson’s, but the editor will get around to it eventually. Editors want and need to find fresh new talent, and they know that not all of it is related to royalty.

    Myth #5: Ripeness is all that matters
    Some people say, “You can only get a book published if it has a currently fashionable subject.” When vampires are hot, write vampires. If Tom Clancy sells a million copies, write an espionage tale that’s similar to Clancy’s work&#151but not too similar. Right now, pen young-adult fantasies about children learning to be wizards, a la Harry Potter.

    This “truth” can be very destructive. First, the current fashion will probably have changed by the time you finish your “hot” novel. Second, if you’re writing fiction just because it’s what sells at the moment, you may be working with material that hasn’t grown out of your genuine interests and abilities.

    Such fiction is almost certainly going to lack conviction. Far better to write the stories you genuinely want to tell and then try to market them.

    But can you market them? The myth is partly right; editors are often reluctant to take a chance on an unusual subject or style. Sometimes this stance is dead wrong; editors can’t predict what will catch the public’s fancy any more than you or I can. That’s why rejected manuscripts include John Grisham’s A Time to Kill and Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. This last was rejected with a note saying, “Regret the American public is not interested in anything on China.” Buck went on to win the Nobel Prize for this timeless novel.

    Publishing is a peculiar activity, part art and part commerce. Nobody really understands it. But you can come closer by separating the urban myths from the genuine hard truths.

    Nancy Kress‘ latest book is Probability Sun, the sequel to last year’s Probability Moon. In both books, characters try to sort out hard truths of their own.

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