It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know

Discussion in 'Publishing' started by neodoering, Mar 2, 2017.

  1. neodoering

    neodoering Master

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    The industry people always give you the same advice: "Read the magazines, read the novels, read the writing guides, practice your craft, and only submit your finest work. Cream will rise to the top. The industry always spots quality."

    Well, folks, I'm here to tell you, this is bullshit. Think of the tens of thousands of books and stories that sit in slush piles for a few weeks and then get tossed into the recycling bin. Sure, some editorial assistant will give each one a ten-second glance, just to say they did due diligence, but it's not "quality" that determines who gets published. "Quality" is a catch phrase for "I liked it," which is to say, your tastes as a writer sync up with the tastes of the editor/agent. In the arts, there are no objective measurements of "quality."

    So if the cream doesn't somehow rise to the top, what sells your work? I think it's personal factors. A year or two ago I read Creating Short Fiction, by Damon Knight, which is a book on craft. Late in the book he tosses out a one-line blockbuster: he has talked for hundreds of pages about getting ideas, developing story arcs, working on your writing skills, etc., then he admits that he made his first professional sale not by these skills but by knowing Frederik Pohl, who asked him for a story and then published it. It's not what you know, it's who you know. Writing skills, storytelling talents, honing your craft...all of this is nice, but knowing an insider moves you onto the inside track. Past the phalanxes of gatekeepers, all of who are trying to keep you out; past the armies of the semi-skilled who are trying to hold you back; past your peers who are trying to break in before you do. Taking creative risks is nice, and having a powerful voice can get you noticed, but nothing moves your career like knowing those insiders.

    You think I'm full of crap. Think of all the mediocre stories and books you read each year. How did that dreck get published? The writer knew an insider. Personal factors sold the book, not some nebulous idea of "quality."

    Agree? Disagree? You've heard stories, that you'd now like to share, about other writers who got on the inside track? Or do you believe that in fantasy fiction there is such a thing as "quality," and the industry people are geniuses who spot this elusive trait every time?
     
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  2. Annoyingkid

    Annoyingkid Lore Master

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    There doesn't have to be. All there has to be is a consensus.

    But okay lets follow the strategy you outline. Hypothetically: Your work is truly mediocre. The hero is passive the voice is fairly dull but serviceable and the work is very stock fantasy. You are not related to any insiders. You don't know any insiders. People who give this advice tend to give vague tautologies like "Get yourself out there" and "Go to book signings and conventions". Alright so you do that. Then what? "Talk to the industry people". About? What are you going to say that's going to lead them to be an insider advocate for you in particular?
     
  3. psychotick

    psychotick Dark Lord

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    Hi Neo,

    Yeah, unfortunately there is nothing better for your writing career than knowing someone. And next on the list of things that will lift you as a writer through the slushpiles of manuscripts on agents and publisher's desks is luck. The simple fact is that they are overloaded with submissions and can only take a very tiny few. One agent who published her stats - and this has been reported on some writing sites - said she accepted two out of six thousand one year.

    Having said that, neither knowing someone (Unless of course you're his / her live in lover etc etc) or luck is going to get you very far if your work isn't up to par. Sad but true. So those other things you mentioned aren't actually "nice" - they're essential. Do not overlook that.

    And if you want to reduce some of the luck factor go indie, where you can have complete creative control and guarantee publishing. (There's still a lot of luck needed to be successful, but less than is needed to get a good offer from an agent). Of course indie has its own perils and you will have to upskill in a vast number of areas, and are still unlikely to make the best seller lists. But at least if you make a good fist of things you can expect some sales, some reviews, and slowly begin to garner a reputation for yourself as a writer. That's one thing all those trying to get trade deals aren't doing while they're submitting.

    In the end you simply have to accept that whatever road you chose, writing is a tough game.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  4. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Out of curiosity, does he say how he met Frederik Pohl?
     
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    Damon Knight did not get published because he knew Frederick Pohl. He got published because he wrote well enough for Frederick Pohl to want to publish him.

    There is such a thing as ability, whether it be in writing, painting, music, athletics, or engineering. Having the ability guarantees nothing, but not having the ability does. So let's take that off the table.

    Next, having the ability may be necessary but it is not sufficient. This is where Knight's book comes in: you have to be willing to work at it. You have to study, practice, improve. That's what all those other hundreds of pages in Knight's book are about. They're not irrelevant. They're not bullshit. They're school.

    Yes, luck enters into the equation. It's a variable and it's always unpredictable. I can know fifty key figures in publishing, but so do lots of people and they don't get published. Why? Because I have to have something that makes those fifty key figures want to know me. Otherwise, they're just buds.

    It's not what I know. Certainly. Just knowing things doesn't put words on paper.
    It's not who I know. See above.

    It's what I write. And until I've written four or five novels, and until what I have written has been seen by people who understand what a finished, polished work looks like, and until those people (not necessarily publishers) have told me my work is good enough, I don't really have much to say. I'm still working.
     
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  6. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    An old friend of mine published her chick lit book (which I thought was out of fashion) just within the past year. She has industry connections, however, she also worked VERY ****ING HARD to get where she's at today.

    So, no. People get published because they improve their craft and never give up. Sorry but the OP post reeks of bitterness towards other writers, which isn't necessarily the healthiest of ways to approach a discussion on a writing forum. J/s.
     
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  7. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Who you know will get you a chance, but you still have to be able to deliver the goods.

    This is true in writing, and it's true in life in general.

    In life, people network and make industry connections. One of the ways writers do it is writer's conferences, so it's not like making contacts is an impossible task.

    There are plenty of published books I think are terrible. But when I take a moment to think about the story and it's appeal, there's always something that it delivers exceptionally well despite its flaws.

    For me, I'd rather learn from that and work on my craft and basically control the things I can control rather than waste my time worrying about the things I can't.
     
  8. Brian Scott Allen

    Brian Scott Allen Dark Lord

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    I'd argue it is a combination of factors, including who you know. But not just that, but how you act. Most of the time professionals aren't looking for friends. They are looking for other professionals. So you need to present your professional self. But you also have to have a minimum level of competence to get a sniff. The who you know and how you act are plus factors.
     
    Russ likes this.
  9. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Staff Moderator

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    This thread has been moved, from Writing Questions to the Publishing Forum.
     
  10. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Dark Lord

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    Publishing is far more egalitarian than screenwriting, for some pretty obvious reasons... a whole lot more. But, whether it's a screenplay or a novel, it better have something worth paying for or it isn't going anywhere no matter who you know, unless you have some serious dirt on said person, heh heh. Blackmail is handy.

    I don't like Rothfuss's writing much, Name of the Wind, but I recognize why folks do like his work.

    Then there is Erikson, Gardens of the Moon, and it is far harder to figure out why people like his stuff, but I kind of get it... Frankly, Erikson makes Rothfuss look like a literary genius.

    Sanderson, Mistborn, I get why people like/love this book/series, but I'm done after book 1, maybe if I'm bored to death someday I'll pick up the rest of the series.

    I mention these three in order to point out very successful books/writers that I don't necessarily love in order to make sure of this point: because I only like something, can barely tolerate something, or even can't bloody well stand something, doesn't mean it won't do well. And I recognize that I am a hard sell... but

    Over the past several years I've read hundreds of book openings and sample chapters of what writers have figured to be fairly finished works, in addition to the opening chapters of a lot of self-pub'd books... and only one or two have even made me want to read more, let alone, if I were an agent, make me say... Wow! Send the full MS on that! And you consider the stories from agents on how they get query letters that aren't even close to what they're looking for or rep... and yeah, I've no doubt they don't take on more than 1:1000 in unsolicited queries. And probably for good reason.

    It is also true that great books can be overlooked, but considering how rare great books are... if the writer is persistent and truly has something great, it will eventually land on the right desk. If the writer only has something "good enough" then it's a total crap shoot. If the writer something "good, with one or two strengths" like IMO Mistborn, it will probably find a home in the world.
     
  11. neodoering

    neodoering Master

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    Good afternoon, Devor. I read Knight's book a couple years ago, but if I remember right, he and Pohl were members of the same writers' group. They had talked, and both aimed to become professionals. So when Pohl got a job in the industry, he asked Knight for a story, and published it. Point being, it was the personal connection that opened the door; otherwise Knight's story would have ended up in some slush pile at some magazine, competing against a thousand other stories for attention. It's not what you know, it's who you know.
     
    Devor likes this.
  12. Brian Scott Allen

    Brian Scott Allen Dark Lord

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    Your conclusion is flawed, or at least incomlete. Personal connections can help, but ultimately one needs to put out their best work, period. There has to be a minimum showing of competency. So, yes, a personal connection can get a foot in the door, but that writer still needs a minimum degree of competency. It is both what you know and who you know.
     
  13. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Grandmaster

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    In the context of traditional publishing, I agree with this. Writers have to submit their works to appropriate agents / editors. Send a manuscript to the wrong agent or editor, and you're asking for rejection. The agent / editor determines the level of quality, and any given work might be received well on one day and not the next, depending on the whims of the agent / editor. So, no, there are no objective measurements of "quality" in that regard. Once a story is published, the level of quality isn't even necessarily measured appropriately by reviewers, especially if some of them have axes to grind.

    Some agents will admit that they don't look only at the manuscript in deciding if they will represent you. After all, they are more interested in representing you for multiple works, not just one. So they are looking at the complete package, including your marketing platform. You are a brand. The person who has the better marketing platform will be a leg up on the other person who writes a little better but has a weak or no marketing platform. Even if you self-publish, you need a good marketing platform, and the quality of your platform can depend on who you know.

    I don't know what Damon Knight's first professional sale was, or if I would deem it a quality read. However, I would trust Frederik Pohl not to accept just any story from an acquaintance, but that he would either reject it or ask for revisions if the story was not up to par. To suggest that Mr. Pohl would accept a crap story from an acquaintance and publish it as-is, just because he knows the person, is insulting to Mr. Pohl. To make me believe he had done that, I'd have to read the story in question. If the story isn't any good, then the OP has a point. Otherwise, it must be realized that people who know people do have an advantage, but that's how it is in any endeavor. Publishing is not the only industry in which it helps to know people. But the world does not operate solely based on who you know. You can become known within an industry by producing good work.

    If you haven't yet made a sale to a professional market (one could assume a professional market in the realm of sf/f is a SFWA-qualifying market), and if you have made some sales to other markets (non-SFWA-qualifying markets), and if an editor at a professional market has read some of your work, then I can see how the editor might be willing to ask you for a story and feel confident about publishing it, thereby assisting you in making an SFWA-qualifying sale, to assist you in achieving SFWA-member status. But even if the editor asked for a story, if you submitted something the editor didn't care for, your story would still be rejected.

    Though there might be no objective measure of "quality," there is consensus among a book's target audience. If you aren't a member of the target audience, your opinion doesn't matter. So I always figure, if I don't like a story, I'm not in its target audience. I gave it a shot, and confirmed I wasn't in the target audience. By someone else's standards, the book might have been awesome.

    I know for a fact that not all accepted manuscripts are accepted because of who the author knows. I also know that knowing an insider does not guarantee acceptance. I edited an anthology once and was in charge of accepting or rejecting stories. There were some people I knew who submitted stories, but most of the people I didn't know. I suggested some edits to one of the people I knew, and it ruined our friendship. That story was not published. I did accept stories from a number of people I didn't know; those people were willing to make the edits I suggested.

    There are stories of people who became best-selling authors only after receiving numerous rejections, but they persisted, and someone finally took a chance on them. So industry people do not always recognize a potential best-seller.

    We could also discuss the difference between "quality" fiction and "salable" fiction. The market wants fiction that sells. You can produce what you consider "quality" fiction all day, but if no one else is willing to buy it, it's the job of agents and editors to reject it. And since no one knows beforehand what will sell and what won't, it comes down to the judgment of agents and editors, who are only human, despite what they might want you to believe. If you happen to know an agent or editor, and can cater to their likes, then you might have a leg up on other writers. But it still doesn't guarantee your story will be accepted.
     
  14. Russ

    Russ Istari

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    Allow me to try to understand your argument properly before I respond.

    As I understand it, you suggest that most traditionally published work gets purchased and published because of "personal factors" and your evidence for that is:

    1) Some guy sold his fist story to Frederick Pohl; and

    2) you think a lot of traditionally published work is mediocre in quality.

    Have I missed anything? Do I summarize you correctly?
     
  15. oenanthe

    oenanthe Master

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    Well, I can't say you're 100% wrong. You're not. If you know people in the SFF business, if people know you, or percieve that you know people, it helps.

    A very long time ago, I was at a worldcon with my friends, who were all junior sakura blossoms in the SFF world. We were the starry-eyed neo-pros. We had a blast hanging around with each other and that con is definitely the best one I've ever attended because of them.

    (as you know, bob) one of the main hangouts at any SFF convention is the hotel lobby bar. I was separated from my group because I needed my shoulders fixed, so I poked my head in there, and sitting at a table getting ready to have lunch was an editor from a small press magazine with a lot of prestige, sitting around having lunch with book editors of a certain stature. It looked Important, so when the editor I knew saw me, I just smiled and prepared to duck out.

    But she waved me over. I was introduced.

    I WAS INVITED TO HAVE LUNCH. And I'm dying. I've got a pencil holding up my hairdo and I smell like Tiger Balm and acupuncture. But I sat, because the only thing better than lunch is lunch with fancy new york editors, oh my god. we talked. we had a good time. and when asked what my novel was about, I said, "I haven't written one yet."

    years pass. over a decade passes. and people I got free lunch with remembered me when I saw them at other cons, and congratulated me when I sold my book.

    They remembered me.

    It's not that hard to *meet* publishing professionals, if you've the wherewithal to do a small fan-run SFF convention. I've met literally dozens of writers and editors this way. Give it a shot.
     
  16. Russ

    Russ Istari

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    Let me ask you. What personal connection resulted in your book sale? Do you think you sold your book because of who you knew not what you wrote?
     
  17. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    It's funny because in another thread I'm arguing with Russ that networking is really hard and people should be careful about investing in it. Now I'm jumping into this thread and I'll probably look like I'm switching sides. Thus is life sometimes.

    :spin:


    Thank you for answering, Neo.

    It's an important question for a discussion like this one because who you know is often used to suggest some kind of unfairness. But getting to know people on a professional level is an important skill. Knight and Pohl were in a writing group together, and both of them made it in the industry. I know it's easy to look at that and think, "That sure was lucky, he had a friend who made it, and he hitched a ride." But everything in my life tells me it's probably more like, "Two highly talented people found each and other and helped each other make it because that's what talented people do."

    In the big ol' blogosphere of networking literature, it's known as putting together a "Mastermind Group." People don't make it big all on their own. They do it by collecting a network of people they trust, over the course of their lives, and at some point creating an opportunity that allows them to put that group together. To me, that sounds like what Pohl did - he tagged up with a talented Mr. Knight, and then when he needed to bring talent to the table for his industry job, he had a fresh new writer on hand that he already worked well with.

    To me, it's just fine to say it's all about who you know, but only if you remember the importance of talking about how you get to know them. Let's say hypothetically you submit to an agent, the agent happens to respond, loves your work, and runs with it. Alluvasudden you know an agent, right? Let's say you're at a bar, get a little tipsy, and start chatting up someone who happens to be an agent who wants to see your work. Sure there's a bit of luck to it, but the agent must see something in you, whether it's in your cover letter or your drunken banter. And the cover letter is just as much about luck - you're much more likely to be rejected if the agent looks at your letter right before lunch, for instance (I'm extrapolating from research in a different field). Why should one be somehow more.... ethical, is it, than the other?

    One of the most important, make-or-break tasks facing a writer is choosing the people you're learning from. Who's in your writing group? Who are your beta readers? Who are you reading? Choosing the right people, the right mix of people, learning to be brave enough to approach them and trust them, will determine everything about how far you get.

    The only worthwhile difference between, say, Harvard, and the school that I went to, is how much you're learning from your peers. Are they raising the bar for you or holding you back?
     
    Russ likes this.
  18. Annoyingkid

    Annoyingkid Lore Master

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    Then why don't you make a rushed, incoherent pile of shit in two weeks and get to work on improving insider relationships instead of your story?
     
    Last edited: Mar 2, 2017
  19. neodoering

    neodoering Master

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    Is It Worth That?

    That's part of the point I'm trying to make, AnnoyingKid; should that be what I'm doing?
     
  20. neodoering

    neodoering Master

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    Ah-hem. I might suggest you've reduced my argument a bit...

    But yes, I think personal factors account for more sales than publishing professionals are willing to let on. That's both relationships (I went to San Francisco State University, the agent went to San Francisco State University; we talk about the creative writing program there, and she buys my book... this didn't really happen; it's just an example) and tastes. Industry professionals play favorites. They prefer one sub-genre over another, one writing style to the next, and so forth. Look closely, and you'll notice some agents represent women writers exclusively, while other agents represent only male writers. If you give agents what they like, your chance of being accepted is much higher than if you send a contemporary fantasy agent a spy thriller novel. Personal factors.

    And definitely the industry publishes a lot of mediocre speculative fiction each year. Books that have all the right details in all the right places, and a few surprises here and there, but don't rouse the mind or spirit or heart. Someone on another thread made a similar complaint a few weeks ago and said he thought it wasn't the product, it was him: he is much older now than when he first discovered speculative fiction, and has read a lot of books, and rarely is he surprised anymore. So I'll leave that possibility open in my case as well, since I'm in my 50's.

    What are your comments?
     

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