hypocritical : talking the talk without walking the walk

April 05, 2005

Author or marketer the quest remains the same: mitigate risk

For those of you who have actually taken the time to review my resume, you will see that way, way down at the bottom, near the beginning of my idealistic, young career, I was a literary agent.

Now, keep in mind, this has been on my resume, basically, since my resume has been in existence. And my resume has been on the Web, in various iterations, for a very, very long time. I am old. I have dealt with that. Move on. So, even without any effort with that newfangled search engine optimization, that little resume bullet entry tends to pop to the top of search results every now and again.

What's that mean? That means that even if you didn't notice that, there are quite a few people who do. And they tend to email me. Asking for advice. Now, since I tend to send practically the same advice to every generic query, I thought it might be wise to post that letter here. So, that in the future, I can just reference it with a link. Or maybe, just maybe, I'll spend some time optimizing this page for literary agent, and it will pop to the top instead. Smart huh? Not really. All I've done now is insure that I'll get even more pointed questions. But that's not all bad. Because it will force me to think.

So, anyway... Now is about the time you begin to ask why I'm subjecting you to this much-unneeded insight into my life. Well, there is a reason, sassy pants. Stick with me. The reason is that it just dawned on me that the main theme of my response -- mitigating risk to make yourself seem more attractive -- has as much bearing on the literary world as it does the marketing world.

In marketing, it is all about mitigating risk.

For the marketer, it's mitigating risk. If you don't buy our product, you won't seem cool. If we don't blog, we won't hear our customers. If we don't buy an ad, no one will know who we are. If we don't have an RSS feed or we have an RSS feed that no one can find, people are going to ignore us. (This last one is true. Just ask .)

For the consumer of the message, it's mitigating risk. If I go to the Web site, I don't have to talk to a sales person. If I subscribe to the RSS feed, I have an opportunity to avoid spam. If I comment on the blog, I have the opportunity to be heard. If I buy this thing, I will be cool and everyone will love me.

So, now, with the stage set and the constant concern of mitigating risk in mind, we begin our response to the frustrated fiction or short story author. Join us, won't you?

[Enter stage left.]

Dear Struggling Author:

First of all, I don't generally respond to these types of requests. But, lucky for you, I have a blog that allows me to assault all of my readers with this. Ahem. I mean, I admire your drive and the avenues you're taking to find a home for your work. Thank you for the inquiry.

It has been quite some time since I have been in the literary game, and the reasons I chose to leave that line of work are, I think, evident to you. It's a rather callous business.

It doesn't sound to me as though you're doing anything wrong. On the "free" or "minimal cost" side of trying to land a contract, the business is very much a try, try, try again type of existence. One person will tell you you're a horrible writer. Another will tell you you're a brilliant writer. And even then, neither will accept your manuscript. It's a matter of finding a needle in a haystack. Continually pounding the pavement, until you find an editor or agent who values your work. And is willing to take you on. And, even then, it's a challenge to pick the honest agents from the dishonest agents.

So that wall which you feel your head hitting? It's that agents don't like risks. They only like to represent published authors. So, even if they think you're an excellent writer, those agents are not willing to bang their respective heads against walls to get to the publishers. You have to show unmitigated rough-hewn brilliance to make that the case, or have something else going in your favor.

Why? Because guess what? The publishers don't like risks either. And they use agents to mitigate their risk. They are sinking a great deal of capital into producing a book. And that doesn't even begin to touch the editorial resources, the marketing resources, and the management resources needed to bring that chunk of pulp to life. The distribution. The promotion. The word-of mouth. To make that thing sell. It's a big gamble.

So what's the point? The point is that publishers, like agents, prefer to publish published, proven authors. This, they believe, leaves them open to far less risk. Never mind that most sophomore efforts fall flat. At least people buy them.

Chicken or the egg, hunh? So where does that leave you? It leaves you with spending your own money to bring your work to life. If you can walk into an agent or publisher with a demonstrated success, they are much more likely to listen. You have to show them that you are working to mitigate their risk. That, in essence, they are betting on a somewhat sure thing.

Here are just a few ideas of how to go about this:

  • Blog, blog, blog, blog, blog. And then blog some more. Develop a following. Expand your voice. Understand your audience. Engage. Nuff said. (If you can get each and every one of them to promise, in writing, that they will buy your book, that helps too.)

  • Join a literary community. There is a wide variety from which to choose, and they often publish compendia of member authors' work. Or they may even have a monthly. This can be a very easy first step to gauging your market and the acceptance of your work through a third-party vehicle. Mitigating risk all around. Who doesn't like that?

  • Read Publishers' Weekly. Figure out who is publishing what. Find the editors who work on your kind of book. Try to discern which agents are representing the authors you feel are your peers. Do your homework. That is, do some of the agent's work ahead of time. This will make you more attractive to the agent.

  • Try the electronic publishing route. Publish your book, or a short story, as a PDF and give a portion of it -- or all of it for that matter -- away for free. Mind you, if you've only got one book in you, this is a problem. If your book is 10,000 pages, this is also a problem. But, it's my bet that you've got a few books in your head and they're not all 10,000 pages, so this technique will give you discernible metrics as part of your pitch.

  • Find an editor with a stable of published authors who is willing to edit your piece for a price. Agents and publishers use editors as filters. If the editor has a good eye, it is likely he/she has publishing contacts who respect his/her vision. If you're paying that author, you're mitigating the risk that you're wasting their time.

  • Look to small, boutique publishers who are willing to split the costs with you or who will publish your work for a small fee. If all that you want is your work in print, this is the best way to go.

To be perfectly blunt, agents, editors, and publishers, despite claims to the contrary, are not the "entry level" for most authors. They are a secondary or tertiary level. They are the pros, not the minor leagues.

So, if you've tried the free-assessment route and no one has snapped you up, you may be a shade or two short of brilliant. That means, you're going to need to spend some of your money to get into the game. If you believe in your work and know it can sell, then you're going to have to take the initial risk. You can't ask the agent or publisher to take it for you. Once you have proven the viability of your work, agents and publishers will be much more likely to take you to the next level.

I hope this has been helpful. I've tried to be as honest as I possibly can without completely taking the wind out of your sails. It's a hard business. But, if you believe in your work, you will find a way to get it published. And if your public is clamoring for more work, agents and publishers will suddenly become much more receptive.

[Exit stage left.]

What do you think? Think I'm off my rocker or is this a fair assessment? I'd love to hear your views. If you have any energy left after reading that diatribe, please feel free to comment. Otherwise, go rest. And then return to read another day.


Author or marketer the quest remains the same: mitigate risk
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