How Chance Matters More Than You Think in Publishing
In February, the Arlington Writers Group met at a Virginia high school to critique the winning entries of the 2011 Writers’ Magazine Short Story Contest. Writers showed up to the meeting to hear feedback on the stories, learn more about the contest, and, most importantly, figure out how they could win such a contest.
The discussion moved quickly until the group began to critique the contest’s second-place-winning story (“A Blue Day, With a Chance of Bubbles”), and a single writer in the group took issue with the plausibility of the story. The writer, Sarah Blumenthal, felt that the depiction of the nursing home in the story should have been presented as substandard care.
“It really gets on my nerves when people try to tell stories outside of their settings,” she said.
Blumenthal questioned how the story could have made it to the finals for the writing competition. What were the judges thinking?
It’s a good question—so just how do judges decide which stories should be kept in the competition, and which should be tossed out? If the review process for the contest is anything like the book publishing process used at most houses, then the submitted work has to pass through two major hurdles to be selected—the editorial interns and then, the editors.
The first-level judges (or “readers’”) of submitted work are usually lowly interns—they take notes and scan work for the automatic rejects, looking for the author’s voice and grammatical skills. According to Leonard Mogel’s book Making It in Book Publishing, interns at literary magazines and large publishing houses, such as Tin House and Little, Brown and Company, are actively recruited to do some fact checking and copy editing.
If a submitted work gets the ok from the interns, it moves up to the editors. At this level, submissions are also read for marketability and content quality. Can this work sell publication copies? Can it move the editor up to Editor-In-Chief? Has the story idea been done before? Submitted work that passes this stage is usually take to a higher next level before the purchase of the work.
At both levels, the ultimate decision to move forward is subjective in nature. Who is to say that a futuristic science fiction novel will sell more copies than a gritty thriller? The gatekeepers do not know for sure—they can only guess based on their own assumptions. What works for one reader, may be a total turnoff for the next editor (as in the case of Blumenthal in the writers group). And let’s not forget that some submissions can see upwards of six or more editors/judges during the review process.
And sometimes, the interns and editors get it wrong by taking a pass over quality work. Take the case of the “Steps Experiment” by then writer-hopeful Chuck Ross, who decided to test the publishing industry’s ability to recognize talent by submitting twenty-one pages of Jerzy Kosinski’s book Steps to four major publishers in 1975. Interestingly enough, Ross’s fake submission, which had won the National Book Award, was rejected by all of the publishing houses, including Random House, who had published the book.
And times have not changed much since then. A recent experiment showed similar results: In 2007, David Lassman, director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, sent slightly amended versions of Pride & Prejudice to nearly 20 United Kingdom literary agents and publishers. In the end, Lassman received 17 rejections, and only one person realized that the submission was a published work.
So what is an ambitious writer to do? Keep trying—eventually, they may get lucky and the right person will take an interest in their submission. Bestselling authors were not fazed by rejection—John Grisham’s first novel was rejected by 16 agents and 12 publishers before getting published, while a dozen publishers took a pass on J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. The lesson learned: Keep trying.
Writers can get ahead by targeting their work to the right publishers and following all submission guidelines. They can also work with other writers and editors to proofread their work for grammatical mistakes before submitting it to an agent or publisher. This last step is often under looked, but still critical—first-level editors and interns often send error-ridden submissions to the slush pile.
More importantly, practice makes perfect in the writing industry. A writer’s voice may improve with and experience, and a strong voice is key to getting published. Well, that, and a whole lot of luck.
-Jazzy Wright is a contributor for Wrightspeak. Email her at email@example.com.