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All the Answers I Wish I Had
I'd Give Them to You If I Had Them
Whoooo boy. There’s been a lot going on in publishing lately huh??? You might have heard about New Leaf literary agency parting ways with an agent and a swath of her clients late Friday night. I’ve been thinking about that on top of all the amazing, amazing comments and questions that came along with my poll-post last week. Before the stuff went down on Twitter this weekend, I had been turning over in my mind how to answer your requests from that poll-post, about what you wanted to know and what you wanted me to write about.
Many of the requests you made boiled down to tell me exactly how it works. Tell me what I can expect. Tell me what I have to do to get what I want. This is not news; it’s what we all want to know about everything. When we endeavor to learn about something, we figure out the mechanics of the thing (write > query > agent > deal > publish) and then try to break everything down further and further until we understand absolutely everything. How else do we learn? And it feels like we’re getting somewhere at first because there’s a good thick layer of actual information and knowledge and how-to on the top. There are things you can do in a query letter that are better than other things. But beneath spell names right and be clear and concise is just write something good and hope for the best. And beneath that is just ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. There isn’t a magic set of rules or steps or secrets you can unlock (that anyone is keeping from you) to ensure success. There just isn’t. There isn’t a magic set of steps that I can take to even ensure my success, and after 17 years as an agent, you’d think I’d have figured that out. If there was, we’d all know it and there’s be one kind of book and one kind of marketing plan and one kind of agent and things would be very, very boring.
None of this is easy or fair. It’s unjust and inequitable. It takes a lot of work and time that none of us have. It takes trial and error with books and ideas that are so important to us, that represent our being and soul and life’s work. The stakes are high. It’s really important we all get this right—you and me. But there isn’t any right. There isn’t one right. I can’t change that and I can’t explain publishing in a way that will prepare you for everything your book will face. It’s impossible. I can tell you everything I know and you can learn as much as you can, and then, well, you deal with whatever you have to deal the best way you know how.
You can throw up your hands at this. You can. No one’s stopping you. I want to sometimes. You can also accept that this is how it is and go forth the best you can. It’s not any different than any other career or venture or pursuit. There isn’t one way to write a cover letter to get that job. There’s no list of things to say in an interview that guarantees you’ll be hired. There is no set of characteristics that will ensure a person will love you or trust you or do the thing you want. We want to control these kinds of things because they mean so much to us. We cannot control most things.
When it comes to publishing, we also think that because there are SO many people doing it and not a lot of transparency, then there must be secrets we don’t know that someone can tell us and then we’ll get everything we want, or at least most of what we want. But that’s not how it is. Do I know more about publishing than you? Of course I do. Does that mean I am 100% successful in everything I do? It does not. A lot of success boils down to well, this time it worked out. Many multi-published authors will tell you that it doesn’t work out every time.
I know you are thinking: Kate, then what do we do when things go wrong??????? The same thing you do when anything else goes wrong. You find who you can trust. You rant to the group chat. You yell about bullshit. You tell your friends. You advocate for yourself. You help others in the same situation. You aren’t necessarily alone in these situations. You haven’t necessarily done anything to cause it. (I mean nobody’s perfect, agents or writers or publishers or readers.) It is 1000% unfair. I don’t want any of you to struggle or go through the worst parts of this business: ghosted queries, no offers, multiple books that don’t sell, low sales, agents who leave you, unmet promises. I’m here to tell you, though, that I have personally experienced things on that list, and you probably will, too. Most of these things shouldn’t happen, but sometimes they do, for reasons that we can either understand or reasons we think are completely unfair. Sometimes you do not know the reason and I know that is EVEN WORSE. I don’t know the reasons for a lot of things and well ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
I don’t want you to panic. I’m hoping you can lean into this morass of uncertainty with the attitude of ok, let’s give this a shot! Sometimes I am able to have that attitude, and sometimes I am not. I work on it. It’s all we can do.
This is probably the least helpful post in the world! I know! I’m sorry! I absolutely can write more about specific things, like how to read an agency agreement and a bunch of stuff about book contracts or what to do if things get bad and reading these things will help more than they will hurt. They may not, however, solve any specific problem you have because your problem is specific to you and another’s experience isn’t necessarily going to be a good blueprint. I’m sorry. I know.
What you must always remember is how much power you have in these situations, even when it feels like you have zero power. YOU wrote the book. YOU get to say who works on it (even when it doesn’t feel like you have a choice. No is always a choice.). The books don’t happen unless YOU write them. Do you get to swan around and make demands and be a writer-diva? No. Is publishing a book a team effort? Yes. Is it a whooooooooole lot of bullshit? Yes. I’m sorry. Are not a buoy on the seas of publishing, being battered about by a storm. You’re at the helm a lot more than you think you are.
Ask for what you need. Ask questions. Keep asking if you don’t understand. You will not get all the answers. You will not get everything you want. You do not get to demand things others are unable or unwilling to give. But you can ask. Asking is ok. You aren’t bothering anyone. And regardless of anything else, keep writing.