I've been asked over and over to reprint two articles I wrote for Poets & Writer's magazine.
This is the first and it was published in 2003.
Other than John Glusman now working at an imprint of Random instead of FSG, nothing else has changed. If anything it's more intense now than it was then.
How Lucky Can You Get? By M.J. Rose
No question about it, Carl P. was one lucky writer. At least for a while. At 33, he finished his first novel - Lucky Boy - sent out two dozen queries and got an agent within four weeks.
Let's call her Lucy. Typically, Lucy gets over 200 queries a week, so this was indeed a lucky break for Carl. Within a month of signing with her, Lucy had an offer for Lucy Boy with one of the better publishing houses for $75,000.
His editor, let's call her Pandora, took him to lunch at Michael's (where everyone in publishing lunches) and spoke of her vision of the novel, how much faith she had in his talent, and how excited she was to launch his career.
Carl was promised that the imprint was devoted to "building a writer's career," not just "buying one book." Pandora told him that the marketing and promotion budget was high and designed to build him a readership.
And then they talked about how hard it is to get published. Tens of thousands of manuscripts a year go unsold. Over 70,000 authors have self published in the last two years or have just given up because they couldn't get that one big break that Carl had been handed on a china platter along with the roasted free range chicken.
He felt as lucky as the boy in the title of his book. But Carl's luck was about to change.
The first sign came three months later when Pandora's assistant called him to discuss the edits on his manuscript.
"I thought I was going to be working on this book with Pandora," he complained to his agent when the first few working sessions with the twenty something junior assistant went badly.
Lucy calmed Carl down, convinced him that the assistant was Pandora's pet and not to worry. "Not a word goes out without Pandora's approval," she promised.
As time went on, it just became more and more clear that the assistant didn't understand the book. Most of the changes she wanted didn't make editorial sense to Carl.
And then Carl saw his cover, which he felt, misrepresented the book.
Lucy agreed but convinced him to accept the cover, saying he was lucky that the publisher was excited about cover and it wasn't smart to make a fuss at this point in the process.
Two months later Carl saw his book in the publisher's catalog. It wasn't the full page that Pandora had told him he'd be getting. Nor did it list the ten-city tour or the national advertising campaign that also had promised at lunch
Lucy didn't return his phone call or email for two days and when she finally did it was to tell him not to panic. Everyone at the house loved the book and he was worrying for nothing. This is a tough business, you are so lucky. Now's not the time to complain."
It was not the last time he'd hear that in the next eight months. No matter what the problem -- the publisher only making 100 ARCs instead of the 500 promised, the book's launch being postponed to the next quarter, yet another edit from the junior assistant -- no matter how upset he got, the refrain he heard over and over was: "But you are so lucky. Your book is being published. That's what you need to remember."
Except he didn't feel lucky anymore and when he pleaded with Lucy to get on the phone and call his editor and straighten out the various messes, Lucy finally admitted that she couldn't put her relationship with Pandora in jeopardy.
When the book out came out there was little review attention and the initial sell through was less than stellar.
Carl felt anything but lucky. " I turned into the red headed step child and my book just disappeared."
As authors, are we just so lucky to be published that we should shut up and stop complaining? Or should we be angry? Or is there a more productive way to navigate this strange land called publishing that does not resemble any other business model out there.
What’s the Problem?
Part of the problem is the fact that it is so damn hard to get published.
"I not only felt a groveling attitude toward my first publisher but toward my first agent, a woman who sold every one of my novels, but who nevertheless told me at every turn that I was lucky to be published at all, let alone have an agent," said Ada L., a six time published author.
It took Ada years of prodding from writer friends to ditch this agent and find a new one. Why? She was literally afraid to call because the agent couldn't have a conversation with without getting that in that "luck factor" phrase at least once.
Is it any wonder that our primary attitude is one of being grateful when we hear from countless other writers who are all desperate to be published, how lucky we are?
Even seemingly positive news reemphasizes the luck factor. When Oprah picked a book for her book club, other writers talked about how lucky that newly anointed author had been to be plucked from obscurity.
When the Today Show and Good Morning America choose a book every month for their Book Clubs every publicist and editor -- and again every writer -- talks about how lucky that singled out author is. After all, with over 130,000 books published a year you have to more than a damn good writer to be anointed by reviews, you do have to be lucky to get noticed.
Ada L. suggested that writers don't always feel empowered because we aren't really in on the process. "We don't negotiate, we don't go don't know which editor is looking for which product. We're removed.
One way to empower ourselves is to forget the rules!
"I was told I would never get a review in a major newspaper and not to even try," Jane T, a mid list author, said. " I tried anyway, contacting the paper myself, and when I got the review (a rave) guess what I was told by my publicist? I was lucky. And please don't do it again because I was making the publicist's job harder."
ICM literary agent, Lisa Bankoff, points out that there is also a fear factor that exacerbates the problem. She reports having phone conversations with dissatisfied authors who complain about unresponsive publicists, ill-conceived book jackets, or a lack of advertising.
"Often, they're absolutely right to feel that the publisher could be doing a better job of it, paying closer attention, offering more meaningful consultation. That said, I've had many of those same phone conversations end with the client BEGGING me not to repeat any of it to the editor. God forbid the squeaky wheel might get replaced instead of oiled."
That fear is part of why we crawl away convincing ourselves we should be grateful instead of acting on our anger. If we get any thing -- one ad in a major newspaper, a four city tour, three weeks of decent coop in the chain -- we consider ourselves blessed. We've heard of too many cases where books are dropped or just die from lack of a publisher's interest despite a big advance.
So like abused children we're thankful for every small favor.
TOMORROW PART 2.