Monday, July 19, 2010

Mythbusting 101

At last week's conference, I got manymany questions referring to publishing myths as if they were truths. Many of these were mentioned multiple times. Always they were brought up by smart-seeming people speaking in earnest tones. Here, once and for all, let us destroy these lies with scorching truth-beams!

LIES: and then the truth
You can't get an agent unless you are published:  Fully half of my clients are (or were) debut authors when I signed them up.

You can't get published unless you have an agent: Plenty of people get first book deals without agents. Some people even have whole writing careers without agents and do just fine. (Though to be fair, this is generally not recommended - these folks usually have serious Type-A personalities, are highly organized and business minded, love to do research, and are control-freaks and extremely confident extroverts... a rare combo for writers, in my experience) 

You can't get published, or get an agent, unless you know somebody: As far as I know, all of my debut author clients came to me with absolutely zero connections in the publishing world. 

You can't get published, or get an agent, unless you live in New York City: None of my clients live in NYC. 

You need an agent who lives in NYC: There are great agents all over the country... even in California. You need an agent with a track record, or a newbie with a well-respected agency behind them, who has connections with publishers. Where they live doesn't matter. 

You shouldn't send your work to anyone, cause they will steal your ideas: Trust me, we don't want your ideas. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Making something great out of them is the hard part! 

Don't query during the summer, nobody works in publishing during summer; don't query in the winter, nobody works in publishing in the winter:  The fact is, most agents and editors have to work year round, just like everybody else. We also often take a vacation for a couple weeks sometime during the summer and around the Christmas/New Year holidays... just like everybody else. And yes, this means sales slow down a bit. But that doesn't mean that you can't query! In fact, many agents use this time to play catch up. I have both signed clients and sold books during the supposed summer/winter doldrums.

Once you get an agent, you are 100% set. Get ready for easy street!:  Sorry, having an agent does not mean that your book will sell. Nor does it mean that your work is done.

A huge publisher is better than a small one:  Depends on the kind of book you've written. Some books and authors would get lost at a big publisher but thrive at smaller one. Large publishers might have more money, but small publishers might take risks that big publishers are too bureaucracy-ridden to take. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and neither one is inherently "better" than the other.

Editors don't edit anymore: They really do, poor things. Though there are fewer people to do more work than ever, and they have to go to plenty of meetings during the day, all the editors I know really do still edit. Often not during office hours.

Agents don't even read the slush, they just send form rejects:  Oh but you are wrong. Yes, we reject quickly. Think about it this way: I don't need to listen to a whole concert to know that the orchestra is out of tune. 

If you get a big advance, and your book does badly, you have to pay the publisher back:  Nope. The advance is yours to keep, unless you are in breach of contract somehow. But your publisher may well be leery of taking another risk on you if they lose a lot of money the first time around.

Picture books are easy to write. OR, YA writing is fine, but eventually you should "graduate" to writing grown-up books.  Errr... screw you.

Once you get that contract, your life will change for the better. (aka: Publishing means fame and fortune!): Selling your book is probably not going to change your fortunes very dramatically. The VAST majority of authors do not make enough money on a single contract, or even several, to give up their day job. A contract is neither medicine, nor magic. It can't transform a generally unhappy person into a cockeyed optimist, it can't solve all your problems, it won't make you more popular or prettier. Sorry.

WHEW. That was fun. Any other myths for me to bust? 


  1. What a great post! I know I've heard all of those at some time. Love the comparison to an orchestra out of tune.

    There must be a myth too about authors having an unlimited supply of books to give away. I already have people saying, "Remember, I want a copy of your book when it's out." I'm pretty sure they mean a free one, handed over by me.

  2. Myth: Jennifer Laughran is godlike and powerful--OH WAIT THAT'S ACTUALLY TRUE

    Do you disagree?? It IS true, damn your eyes. Don't make me come over there...

  3. Great post.

    When I was at Brown, I made the mistake of telling people in one of my classes that I was a YA writer. They didn't take anything I said seriously the rest of the semester, and took every possible opportunity to remind me that they were were concerned with writing "real," books, and I was just in it for the money, obviously, or I'd be writing *literature.*

    The class we were in together? "The Literature of Children and Young Adults."

  4. Anonymous9:50 AM

    Great post! Thanks so much for the info, and I love your response about YA not being "grown up fiction." :)

  5. Ha! I am in total agreement with your response to the "graduating to a high reading level" Everyone is always telling me, "Well, it's great that you write YA, but when are you going to write a real book?" limey bastards

  6. I love this post. I haven't been writing long but I can honestly say that I've heard almost all of them at one point or another.

  7. These are great myths and truths! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Anonymous10:10 AM

    Awesome post! And yeah, totally agree with your response to people who think YA authors should graduate to writing 'grown-up' books. Grrrrrrr....!

  9. Amen to the 'PB's are easy to write'. I bow to the awesomeness of those that can write picture books. I tried, and I found out quickly that I just stink on a atick at it. They are HARD.

  10. "I don't need to listen to a whole concert to know that the orchestra is out of tune."

    oh, I like that!

    Great point on large vs. small houses, too.

  11. As a teeny-tiny startup publisher, thank you for busting the "huge is better than small" myth of publishing! It's all about finding the best fit for you and your work, not about the size of the publishing house...!

  12. Anonymous11:52 AM

    What are your thoughts on self publishing a few titles before you seek an agent or a contract?

  13. I'm hoping that this is a myth and that you can BUST it for me...

    A person from a country that doesn't produce many #1 bestselling authors (eg. South Africa) can't get an agent/publisher overseas (eg. NY or UK).

  14. Really great post—thanks for putting these myths to rest once and for all. I also loved the metaphor about the orchestra—so true!

  15. Thanks Jennifer! I loved several of your responses. This was informative, and a little surprising to see some of the questions you are asked. And as for PB writing being easy, I'm with you!


  16. Great post, especially busting the slush myth. We should all try to make our queries in tune by spending the time necessary to get them right. Someone really is reading them!

  17. Great post! Someday, maybe we'll all be up to the challenge of writing books for adults instead of this so-easy-anyone-could-do-it kid lit! ;-)

  18. Oh, for pete's sake, did somebody really say this: "'graduate' to writing grown-up books" to you OUT LOUD?!!!

    Great post. :)

  19. Anonymous7:18 PM

    "Once you get an agent, you are 100% set. Get ready for easy street!: Sorry, having an agent does not mean that your book will sell. Nor does it mean that your work is done."

    Too true! Written seven YAs. Am on my third agent. Have sold -nothing-. I am beginning to think I'm cursed <-- only half joking

  20. Great post! Much truth!

  21. What Becky said! I love your response to that.

    There must be a myth about having to write what's trendy in the market (e.g., vampires or zombies or whatever the Trend o' the Week is) in order to get published.

    Great post!

  22. Anonymous11:44 PM

    But I was positive writing a book would make me prettier. So I guess I have no reason left to become a writer.

  23. I think I'm going to have to steal your response to the YA comment.

  24. I agree with all except the "editors don't edit." There may be some who do but I haven't encountered them, aside from work-for-hire situations. At most I get vague requests for changes, never actual suggestions of what might work. My impression is that they not only lack time, but never actually learned to edit the way I did twenty years ago in a different field of publishing.

  25. BookMD10:52 AM

    I've got one!

    "If a publisher spends a lot of money on your advance, they will promote your book a lot."

    You would think so, right? But it ain't necessarily so.

  26. Anonymous4:19 AM

    I was wondering about the whole summer winter not really break break thing. If your gone or there then does the proccess slow when it comes to replies to queries? Does it build up? Thanks :)

  27. Hi Jennifer,
    I found your words "It can't transform a generally unhappy person into a cockeyed optimist," disheartening. I was hoping this would be cheaper than Xanax. ::sigh:: back to my day job. Loved the post.

  28. I get the same attitude when I tell people I write Sci-fi and suspense: When am I going to try writing "real" books?? Funny, all printed up and bound with a shiny cover, they sure look like "real" books on the shelf! I'm still waiting for critics to "grow up"! LOL

    Great post. Thanks for the myth-busting...

  29. I'd heard lots of these before, but some were new to me... and even the ones I'd heard are certainly worth repeating. Good post! (It makes me wish I wrote YA -- I'd send my work to you first.)

  30. "Graduate to grown-up books?" I write adult novels and think it would be the hardest thing in the world to write something that would interest children and teens.

  31. Regarding YA not being "real literature", this is my standard answer to people who say things like that.

    "Okay, then explain the fact that The Jungle Book, Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows, A Wrinkle in Time and the rest of that series, The Chronicles of Narnia, and last but not least, Coraline, The Graveyard Book, Stardust, and the Sandman series are all considered classics.

    Oh wait, you can't."

    Seriously. Who's going to say that Kipling or Stevenson or L'Engle or Lewis aren't serious authors, and write serious literature? Now, as for Neil Himself, he'd probably smile that not-quite-Morpheus smile at them and say something to the effect of, "No, I just make things up."

    But I applaud YA writers, because some of the best work I've ever read is technically YA.


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