Monday, 24 August 2009


You will have noticed that there's often conflicting advice about how to get published. You will be frustrated by this. And confused. And sometimes despairing. Natural responses, but wrong.

Some of you have been talking about tearing your hair out or curling up in little balls of stress at the conflicting advice. Sometimes you'll read something on my blog and it conflicts with advice on a blog I recommend to you, or it's different from advice that someone else equally amazing gave you.

So what's going on, I hear you ask? Thing is (and here's some more advice), you need to hang on to some truths.
  • publishing is not an exact science - when an agent or publisher receives your MS, any attempt at science goes out of the window in the face of human emotions and personal response. When an agent or editor tries to decide about your work, he or she is trying to bring objective expertise to bear in order to try to make a commercial decision about something that is personal response and will continue to be personal response right down the line to the customer choosing your book in the bookshop
  • it's all only advice - even when it's couched in words like RULES, it's just designed to give you a better chance, not a perfect certainty. We offer guide-lines, our best recommendations, that's all.
  • in the end, it's the power of your book that counts more than anything, not your perfect covering letter or whether you included congealed toffee in the package. It's just that for 99% of agents and editors, having congealed toffee in the package kind of gets in the way of appreciation of the rest of the contents
  • most importantly, your submission to an unknown agent or editor is a human and personal attempt at communication between two strangers - there is no objective recipe for how this might work. Sometimes, your writing will connect; sometimes it won't. So, what bugs one agent will delight another. What leaves one cold will inspire another. All our advice just tries to steer you in the most-likely-to-be-right direction, but it cannot work every time. Humans aren't consistent like that.
  • so, writers need to focus much more on making their actual writing brilliant than following the devoted advice of people like me, who stupidly spent hours formulating a post about the perfect covering letter and perhaps ended up making some of you more stressed than you were before
Do remember this most important fact: the vast majority of what agents and editors receive is eye-bleedingly awful. And if yours is not, it already stands a huge chance. Hold that thought and believe it, spending most of your time and passion in getting the book right. The rest is easy. (It just makes sense to follow the guidelines, in order that the agent/editor can focus on your writing without unpeeling toffee from the pages.)

Don't get tangled up in negativity. Don't start saying it's a lottery or that agents don't read your work or that you have to be blonde, gorgeous and leggy. (Take a look at most published authors, including me, to know that that's not quite true.) If you write a great book and if an agent or editor loves it enough and believes that enough other people will love it, it will be published. There's not enough out there that deserves to be published and editors and agents are desperate to find the gems.

My over-riding advice for finding your way through the sometimes conflicting messages is this: work out for yourself which is right for you and your book and your dreams for it.

Thing is, you're all individuals. (Cries of, "Yes! We are all individuals ...") You and your book and your background and your future are not the same as anyone else's, and therefore how you pitch those things to an agent or publisher (who are also all different from each other) will have to be slightly different. And this is why every approach to an agent or publisher has to be tailored and personal - personal to them and personal to you.

The way to do this is, for a writer, simple: put yourself in the shoes of the recipient, enter the mind of the person who will read your words. I say "for a writer" because this is what good writers do: they enter the mind of their readers, they listen, they learn, and they tune in. Do that, and you cannot fail.

I now give you two of my favourite quotes, because they're both apt.

F Scott Fitzgerald said, "The sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing beliefs at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

And the buddha apparently said, (according to the card that sits above my desk all day, every day):
Believe nothing,
no matter where you read it,
or who has said it,
not even if I have said it,
unless it agrees with your own reason
and your own common sense.
But I really do recommend that you don't put toffees in with your submission. When I find an agent who would look favourably on such stupidity, I'll let you know.


Terri Nixon said...

How nice to see a positive slant on the publishing business - we're constantly being told "the competition is fierce and overloaded" which immediately chips away at the confidence, but reading that a lot of it is "eye bleedingly awful" helps smooth the resulting sharp edges and get things in perspective again.
Thank you for that!

DOT said...

I knew the Fitzgerald quote, not the Buddha one.

If I had space above my desk I too would pin it up.

I echo Terri's comment - it does give one confidence to know writing, in the final analysis, comes down to the quality of the finished product.

David Griffin said...

I couldn't agree more with Terri Nixon's words. I found this post most refreshing and inspiring. Writers are fragile beings, easy for our confidence to be knocked. I also had some confidence restored by your description of the majority of the slush pile being "eye bleedingly awful." (Surely some of these might be so bad, they have a certain fascination of their own?!)

Concerning your words about the covering letter (which I would agree is much better than the American term "query letter"), I always feel as though I'm treading on eggshells the few times I've written to an agent. It's nice to know that it's not an exact science, and what really counts, at the end of the day, is the writing itself. (as DOT wrote as well, in a different way).

Excellent post, Nicola, thank you!

Francesca said...

Hooray! I absolutely cannot hear this sort of sense often enough and have tweeted a bit from this post (crediting you, naturally). Also plan to have it tattooed on the inside of my eyelids.

Not really. Ow.

Jenzarina said...

Buddha not congealed toffee...
Got it. Good advice.

Sarah said...

Great post! I always like how, again and again, you remind readers to work hard and not get discouraged.

Janet Reid had a great post about folks getting discouraged about query letters. She makes the point that the folks who actually do the research sometimes get more worried than the "eye bleedingly awful" folks.

(I'm so going to use eye bleedingly awful in conversation today!)

catdownunder said...

And, having partially got my cat hair in order, I have to say that there was a point where I almost stopped reading what you had to say. I felt depressed. I wanted to curl up in that little ball and put my paws over my ears as well as my eyes. What you were saying was not me. A cat cannot wear purple, pink or turquoise shoes. Then I thought, a cat does not have to wear them. A cat can observe them. A cat can learn from them. As a cat I have the unique advantage of being able to get closer to your shoes than most people Ms Morgan. I need to remember that.
I was going to try and become human for a moment but the temptation to leave some cat hair was too great. I will return to trying to find out what my young heroine is thinking instead.