Mark Terry

Friday, July 11, 2008

Blog Redux: The Secret Handshake

July 11, 2008
Because I'm killing time not working and it's a low-keyed day doing nothing in particular, I wondered what I had to say a year ago. As it turned out, I was blogging over on the Inkspot blog (I no longer do) and it was, I think, a decent blog, so I'm reposting here in lieu of actually having something new to say.

July 11, 2007

I was meandering through blogs the other day (in lieu of actually writing) and I came across a writer’s blog talking about mid-list authors, which she seemed to define as anyone who is not a bestseller (a subject for a different post, I suspect). Anyway, the point of her blog was that when you’re an unpublished novelist, you believe there’s some sort of secret handshake—knowing someone, meeting someone at a con, writing a particular book, writing “I look forward to hearing from you” versus “Thank you for your time” at the end of your query letter, using Courier instead of Times New Roman—that will get you published.

The truth?

Write a good, compelling novel, be persistent and get lucky.

Then the blogger went on to say that once writers (mid-list or otherwise, I suspect) get published, they start obsessing on what the secret handshake is to breaking out of mid-list into bestsellerdom—is it your blog, your website, your book tour, your postcards, your book signings, should you hire a publicist, should you blackmail Oprah?

The truth?

Hell if I know. And she didn’t either.

But let’s talk about those four categories of getting published briefly.

Write a good novel. 
What’s a “good” novel? Oh, I’m ready to be tarred and feathered here. A “good” novel, in this context, is one that eventually gets published, is purchased by a reader, and read. Period.

Write a compelling novel.
Presumably a “good” novel is also a compelling novel, but the truth is, “compelling” (like good) is pretty much in the eyes of the beholder. I’ve read some supposed bestselling “compelling” thrillers that I thought were boring. In fact, one of the writers’ organizations I belong to gave a “best” award to a book I later tried to read and couldn’t even finish. So who’s to say? But the fact is, your novel, in order to be published, must be compelling to someone, presumably your editor. There’s no formula that I’m aware of.

Be persistent.
Sad truth of the publishing industry is there are a lot of books published in the U.S., but not by all that many publishers. So if you write a book and have an agent (this applies to getting an agent as well) you’re going to have to be persistent. You or your agent will need to determine a list of the 7 or 8 or 12 available publishers and quite possibly contact all of them. Legend has it that Elmore Leonard’s “Big Bounce” was rejected by 88 publishers. Every time I’ve read that I’ve thought: “Where the hell did they find 88 publishers in the United States?” Times have changed. I dare someone to come up with a list of 88 publishers, big or small, in the United States that publish mysteries or thrillers. Post it on your blog, you’ll get a ton of hits.

Get lucky.
Persistence leads to this, as does writing a “good” and “compelling” novel. But still, your manuscript, no matter how good it is, needs to land in the right editor’s hands on the right day. The day the editor got ripped in half by the publisher for her last thriller tanking and not earning back its advance is not going to be the right day for your similar thriller to land on her desk. Sorry. You have no control over this. But it does happen. By the same token, the day an editor tells your agent, “The thing I’m really looking for is a private eye mystery that takes place in Thailand” is the day your novel about Bangkok P.I. Ping Ng might have a shot.

And how does this all apply to increasing sales once published?

I think marketing is like Chinese water torture. We drop our books one at a time upon the public’s head, hoping eventually it’ll notice. We drop our postcards, blogs, e-newsletters, conference attendance, book signings, etc., on the public’s head one at a time, hoping eventually it’ll notice. We persist. We write good, compelling books. We get lucky.

Or we don’t.

No secret handshake.

Unless, of course, I know it and am not willing to tell you.

Mark Terry


Blogger Zoe Winters said...

OMG you totally know the secret handshake and aren't telling me. :P

I didn't know you were "allowed" to post old blog posts hehe. But I'm glad that you did. This post definitely is where my mind has been at lately. And I'm with you on the "Where the hell did he find 88 publishers" Though I do think in the next 10 years or so we're going to see more small presses popping up as the technology and expense barriers lower.

But that means a lot of them are going to be crappy at first and a lot will be vanity type publishers trying to masquerade as 'real publishers.'

But who knows what the future of publishing holds. I'm more concerned with building up a possible readership. If you've got the readers, the matter of a publisher is just "the details."

1:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When people ask about writing routines, or where writers get ideas, or how they first got published, they are often really looking for the secret handshake. Me, I need the secret password to sell something else.

1:53 PM  
Blogger MissWrite said...

Your last line still has me laughing. You are not playing fair. Didn't your mommy teach you to share?

4:02 PM  

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