Countering Bad Advice to Aspiring Writers

As those who follow me on Twitter know, I recently came across some really bad advice that is making the rounds among the aspiring writer circles and forums on the internet. There are two different prongs to this exceptionally crappy advice:

1) When seeking a publisher, start at the “bottom.”

2) When seeking an agent, send out your query in batches, trying it out on agents lower down on your “want” list.

You guys, this is really, REALLY bad advice. And let me tell you why.

Let’s start with the publisher bit. When someone is telling you that you should start submitting to publishers “at the bottom” they are arguing that smaller publishers are better for beginning writers. They are arguing this not because of all the myriad wonderful things that smaller publishers actually are. Rather, they are arguing that smaller publishers somehow have lower standards.

And yes, sometimes this is true. There are, in fact, small publishers that have lower standards. But those are NOT the smaller publishers you want to work with. Over my ten years in the business, I have seen a whole bunch of fly by night publishers spring up, sign up a whole bunch of “not quite ready for prime time” projects, then promptly vanish, often leaving authors with a whole bunch of marketing material they bought for a book that will never see the light of day, and occasionally tying up the rights and all other kinds of messes.*

I have absolutely nothing against small publishers. I have worked with several smaller publishers: Running Press, BenBella, Nightshade Books, and Fiction Studio. There are some things smaller publishers can do way, way better than larger publishers. One of these things is niche work. For instance, the publisher BenBella has a whole imprint called SmartPop which publishes essays on popular fiction. They kind of have the market cornered on that.

There are other small presses which do particular genres (erotica, sword and sworcery, grimdark, Amish romance, etc), or local-interest books or LGBT fiction or religious fiction or anthologies (what most of my small press work has been with) or shorter fiction or other stuff in which they can totally exploit a very particular market and do it very, very well.

Good reasons to submit first to a small press:

  1. You have written a niche book that would shine best at a press who specializes in that niche.
  2. You totally love the editor/press (or project/charity/anthologist) and have a deep and fervent desire to do a project with them.
  3. You’ve written the kind of thing that for reasons of subject matter, length, etc., doesn’t fly with a large publisher. If you are writing novellas, for example, small presses that release single short titles (usually ebook) are pretty much your best bet.

NOT a good reasons to submit first to a small press:

  1. You think it’ll be “easier” to get published there.

First of all, you’re probably wrong there. The thing about small presses is that they don’t put out as many books as large ones do. So they actually have a very limited list, especially if they are a print publisher (ebook publishers have more leeway, but they still don’t want the crap you apparently think is barely good enough to scrape by).

If you don’t think your work is good enough, then don’t publish it. Because you really don’t want your first published work to be something you are later embarrassed by.

Some people argue about starting small on principle. There are different variations on this argument for different genres. In SFWA, the one I see a lot is that you have to publish short stories first. But some people simply aren’t short story writers. You can be an excellent marathoner and a crap sprinter. Novels might be the length for you.

Because I came up through RWA, the argument there was that you had to publish category novels first. This is bad advice if your voice and style is not suited for category. I spent four years and four books trying to conform to a category romance voice and style that just wasn’t ever going to happen. And the day I got frustrated and decided to go in as far opposite direction as I possibly could was the day I started writing Secret Society Girl. Make of THAT what you will.

The bottom line is that there may be pathways that worked for other writers — short stories, category romance, self-publishing, getting an agent and going straight to Random House — that don’t suit what you are doing. The trick is figuring out why it worked for them and if that approach is right for you.

The argument for the small pub first approach tends to go something like this: “if you publish with a small press first, you ‘learn the ropes’ before you have the pressure of a NY deal.” Now, maybe I’m just clueless because I published four books with Random House first, but I have NO idea what this means. Do first timers who get small press contracts also get some kind of magical publishing boot camp not available to first timers at NY houses? Additionally, having spoken with authors who started at a small press and then moved to, say, Random House, they still had plenty of ropes to learn. Because — and I’m speaking as someone who has now published with four NY publishers and the aforementioned small presses– every publisher does things a little differently.** For instance, you may have a ton of experience in the e-erotica market, but you don’t know anything at all about print runs and distribution and paper proofs and the whole advance model.

The other argument that I saw a lot was that “no NY house would take you unless you had a track record” or “no NY house will publish something that doesn’t guarantee a 100,000 print run.” These are both categorically untrue. There are debut authors sold every day to NY. I have personally NEVER had a 100,000 print run. So if someone is dishing this crap out to you, take it for the crap advice it is.

Okay, on to the agent part:

“When seeking an agent, send out your query in batches, trying it out on agents lower down on your ‘want’ list.”

Do not do this. Please do not do this. This is truly terrible advice. Not only is it terrible for you, aspiring writer, who wants the best agent you can possibly get (for whatever qualities of “best” you want in an agent), it’s also truly terrible advice for the industry.

Agents are not your guinea pigs. They are not your critique partners. If you are submitting to an agent you don’t particularly want just to see if your query “flies” with them, then you are not acting professionally.

Let’s see how this spectacularly bad bit of advice works in real time.

You write a query. You have been told not to “burn” your best shot at agents (say, Agent A) until you know your query is a keeper, so you “try it out” on an agent (Agent X) you aren’t particularly interested in.

Scenario One: Agent X reads your query and is uninterested in books about were-penguins. Form reject. You have learned nothing. Maybe your query is actually awesome, but Agent X has a thing about were-penguins and would never take a book on the subject even if it were the best book ever. Or maybe she just took on a were-penguin book. But you have no idea what they didn’t like about it, because it was a form. Is your query? Is it the subject? You have no idea. However, Agent A, your favorite agent, is dying for a book on were-penguins, but won’t know it’s out there because you have decided your query is faulty and don’t send it out to the agent you actually want.

Scenario Two: Agent X takes time our of her extremely busy day, time she ought to be using to help her own clients, and is in fact, interested in your book. Elated, you turn around and go out to Agent A, who, being a top agent, takes a really long time to look at your query. Meanwhile. Agent X waits and waits, figures you are never going to send your book in, and signs the next were-penguin book that crosses her desk, since now she totally has were-penguins on the brain. Agent A eventually rejects, and you have nowhere else to go.

Scenario Three: Agent X takes time our of her extremely busy day, time she ought to be using to help her own clients, and is in fact, interested in your book. In fact, she’d like to offer you a contract. And there it is, a contract offer from an agent. Do you take it, even though it means never seeing if you and Agent A would be a match?

Scenario Four: Agent X reads your query, and thinks “You know, were-penguins are not for me, but I know Agent A, WHO WORKS ACROSS THE HALL FROM ME IN OUR SHARED OFFICE, (and yes, this is a true fact), or who I went to graduate school with, or who I used to intern with at our former agency or publishing house, *loves* were-penguins, so I’m just going to hand this to her.” She does, but Agent A, your top choice agent, thinks to herself, “I do love were-penguins, but this query isn’t well-written, soooo…”

When you are looking for an agent, don’t use agents you don’t want as much as your auditions. It’s rude and unprofessional. If you need your query critiqued, go to a conference, or get a critique partner, or enter one of those myriad query critique contests that are always going on online (I can think of like 6 agents who do this on their blogs off the top of my head).

Go ahead and send out your query in “batches” if you must (I’m still not sure what the benefit of this is) but before you do that, make your query the absolute best it can possibly be. Don’t send ANYONE sub standard work. This is a small small industry. And don’t submit work to people you wouldn’t sign with if they were your only choice. It’s totally fine to have a list. But be a pro. Your work should be the best is can possibly be, whether you are submitting to your top choice agent or your number 8.


* And yes, this has happened at larger publishers, too, especially when the economy is falling off a cliff. But not nearly so often as at these fly by night operations. NO publisher is perfect, not even the ones I’ve worked with. (Though I should clarify — I have personally never had any payment or other contractual issue with a publisher, and mostly my small press work has been anthos in which I was paid by the anthologist, not the publisher proper.) Caveat Emptor and all that.

** Which is why I don’t like those blog posts from newly-minted debuts that argue that no published writer tells them How It Goes, and so they will be the first since they’ve sold their first book and all, then proceeds to delineate a production process that doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever gone through in nine books because — guess what, guys. Everyone does it differently.

Posted in writing advice, writing industry

14 Responses to Countering Bad Advice to Aspiring Writers

  1. Phyllis Towzey says:

    Really great advice Diana.

  2. Pam says:

    Excellent advice. There are way too many people out there expressing their “expert” opinions. I’m glad you did this. Hopefully, it will reach a lot of readers.

  3. Aurelia Blue says:

    Once again, I must thank you, for sharing with those of us who aspire. You have been Twitter gold to me, as well as highly entertained me with your books. I think I speak for many, many writers seeking publication, when I say, thank God, Diana cares enough to “mention,” “ask us,” and “share.” You are such an encouragement in a culture of published writers who are mostly interested in talking to other published authors who can network them ever higher, and not necessarily those of us who haven’t quite made it yet. Thank you.

  4. Pingback: On Publishing | Justine Larbalestier

  5. Pingback: Rambling About Writing | Cheryl's Mewsings

  6. Pingback: Diana Peterfreund Blog | On Publishing Working Differently

  7. Pingback: Friday Fry-Up — Speakeasy

  8. Juliette says:

    I hadn’t heard this, but thank you for flagging it up. It’s interesting that this advice is out there – this is the sort of advice you’re often given when starting out in academic publishing, where it works well and is generally true (you need publications and fast to get started, then you need to move on to the big guns). Perhaps people are getting their publishing wires crossed?

  9. In defense of small batches and not sending out to your top agent choices first, I found that in my querying process it might take two or three tries (even with much editing and critique partner help) to get what I called a “working query”…meaning one that gets requests. Sending out small batches helped me find the approach that would work best.

  10. Chris Cannon says:

    As an aspiring author, I’ve received so much conflicting advice. Thanks for posting something that makes sense. And I love the were-penguins idea.

  11. I think you assume that the people saying start at the bottom are saying start with a small. It may not be that they are using ‘small’ and ‘bottom’ synonymously. That apart, I think your post offers sagacious advice v. clearly explained – thanks.

    • Diana says:

      I don’t assume that, but I focus my argument on it. Which is better than saying they mean what they mean when they say it with agents, which is “start with the ones you want least.” I’m actually giving them the benefit of the doubt.

  12. Pingback: Thirsty Thursday Blog Round-Up | Thirsty Thursday

  13. Pingback: Your Questions About Obedience Dog Training School | Train My Dogs Myself