Catherine's right: despite constant advice from me and many others to get your covering letter+synopsis+sample perfect before sending it to an agent or publisher, perfection is not always actually necessary. In other words,a beautiful view may still be recognisably beautiful even if seen through dirty windows. [I should know - I have some. I really wish the sun wouldn't shine, as it makes them worse.]
There are plenty of stories of writers being taken on despite the fact that they have not yet produced perfection, or anything like it. My own story is a case in point: my agent took me on, then we made the book better and then she sold it. Catherine provides examples of agents who did deign to read and give good feedback even though she hadn't produced [yet] a publishable book.
So, why am I still right as well? How can Catherine and I both be right? Why do I still urge you to clean your windows before inviting an agent or publisher to look through the glass?
- competition and harsh reality- every reputable agent and publisher receives many, many MSS every week. Many agents / publishers will very understandably follow their first impressions. [And I mean first, as in first paragraph.] If you have made basic errors which look like carelessness, ineptness or lack of technique, and/or they have just read something else better, yours gets dumped. You want that to happen? So, some may painstakingly read everything (I doubt it); some may have received nothing good that month; but you simply reduce your chances by not getting it right.
- some sorts of error in covering letters matter much much less than others. Some don't matter at all. Experts make judgements that are much more subtle and powerful than simply noticing an error: they use that error to make detailed analytical judgements about you and your command of language.
- your book has to be EVEN more brilliant underneath if the dirty windows are to be ignored. Of course, you already think your book is brilliant. And let's hope it is. But there's a Simultaneous Equation going on: for every bit of imperfection, you have to have that much more brilliance in your offering.
- it is getting harder and harder to get certain types of book published, so the more perfect a state your book is in now, the more likely it is to be taken, because the less structural work it will require during editing, and the less of a risk an agent or publisher would be taking with you. If you think the editor will just do it all for you, read my recent post here.
- agents and editors are looking for potential as well as an existing state of publishability. This means that yes, they may well take you on if they see huge potential shining through the grubby glass; but, for all the reasons above, you simply lower your chances of looking like a great writer if you get too many things wrong in the first place. Because, frankly, potential is what you should be honing, before they get to it.
In answer to that I'd say that this is not a science but an art. There are several ways of approaching a publisher or agent that work in general and tick the necessary boxes. But there are absolutely some which don't work. Showing ignorance in certain ways will get you rejected; making certain types of error will get you rejected; but most of all, not having a beautiful view through the murky windows will get you rejected.
It's worth noting that Catherine is talking about that very important step of getting an agent / publisher to a) read and b) give encouraging feedback. The question of being accepted comes later and is different. She's right to notice that some agents and publishers will read and respond in unscary ways even if you haven't written the perfect book yet.
- An expert reader [ie good agent or editor] can tell within a very few sentences / paragraphs how well you can write
- And whether you've written a publishable book
- Some of those experts readers have more time and patience than others
- You are trying to attract all of them, whether or not they have patience
- And you are trying to get published, not only to receive feedback [eg a "positive" rejection]
- Therefore, I strongly suggest that you work your socks off to get your whole submission package as perfect as possible
Don't get me wrong: I'd LOVE love love it if you all got published despite doing things wrong, but I believe you'd get there quicker if you tried to do everything right. This blog is about doing our very, very best to get it all as right as possible as often as possible. Don't let me down, please!
[Catherine - just to emphasise: I'm not disagreeing with you. I thought you wrote an excellent piece and I'm very grateful to you for making me think about it some more.]
Note to all: I'm away in Dublin doing talks from Friday and not back till Sunday so excuse my lack of replying to your comments. Please comment, though - you usually produce some very helpful conversations between you.