Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Professional Question

One thing I want to clarify before I get into my current post: When I express my thoughts on this blog, I am not the spokesperson for the entire publishing industry. I want to make that clear before I go anywhere else today. I’m only writing here about what I, as an individual agent, observe on a daily basis. During this process, there should be granted by those who read these musings some room for natural human error. Lord knows I am far from being perfect and thus am prone to make, heaven forbid, a mistake or two.

Okay, enough of that and on to the good stuff. There have been a couple of comments on some of my prior posts about a two issues I need to address. One has to do with having your work edited before submitting it to an agent and the other has to do with listing what you have written in the past. I’ll take on the listing of your prior writing first.

As far as I’m concerned, I want to know how many novels you have written before the one you are querying me on. Some agents feel that if you have written a dozen novels, why haven’t any of them sold? As I said at the beginning of this, I don’t care what other agents feel; I personally, like this information. Why? Because, in my experience, first novels are not very well written. I think a novelist has to write a couple of novels before he hits his stride. Art is art, after all, and artists never try to sell their first project. Novelists are no different.

The only reason I even mention this is that I receive many queries in which the writer states that this is the first novel, and, if I ask for a writing sample, ninety percent of the time, it is substandard. Consequently, this high percentage of rejections could be avoided if writers will only understand that what should be their training novels are just that—training—and they should not be sent to agents. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but those exceptions are so rare that I’m not afraid to be called on them. I keep hoping when I request these novels I will find an exception, but I never have. Ever.

The next comment has to do with what I said about professional editors. No, I’m not going to advocate that everyone run out and hire an editor to look at his or her work. However, if you are ever going to discover the mistakes you are making in your writing, this might be the easiest way to jump those hurdles that are blocking your road to successful publication. Let me ask you this, “What makes college writing programs so attractive?” Because you write many, many somethings, they are analyzed, and you see and correct your mistakes. This is the only way to improve. You cannot guess at what you are doing wrong. You are too close to your work to be able to see it properly. Plus, there is much more to writing than finding grammar and punctuation errors.

Critique groups are good, but how many critique members have the expertise to read, analyze, and be critical in a constructive way? In other words, how many members have editing in their background? I would trust a good reader first, but can a reader tell you accurately how to fix the problems she spots? Not usually. She might say that there is something wrong in a certain area of your story, and you might be able to even pinpoint it yourself. But can you fix it? Do you have the expertise to fix it? Maybe. But what do you do if you don’t?

In sum, what I am advocating here is getting professional quality editorial review of your writing from a legitimate expert. Whether it be an MFA program director or a professional editor or a friend who has been an agent or editor for twenty years, constructive criticism from a qualified professional is vital to learning how to put together a commercially viable product. Without it, you will be chasing your own tail. Finally, do I immediately reject if I don’t see that you have gone to an editor or other qualified industry professional? Obviously not.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Copyright and Rejection

A writer wrote me recently and asked whether it would be okay to post the rejections he received from agents and editors on his blog. Here is my response:

Did you know that according to the Copyright Law of 1978, even personal letters, including e-mail letters, are copyrighted as soon as they are published (put on paper)? You may share the letters with others in this form; however, the moment you republish them on a blog, you have violated the letter creator’s copyright because you have not been given permission to copy the letter onto a blog or Web site. This is what a publishing contract is all about—permission to copy and distribute copyrighted works.

The reason I’m mentioning this is that there seems to be a trend where writers are posting rejection letters written to them by agents. If you do this, you are in direct violation of the originating agent’s copyright on that letter, and might, if they choose, be subject to a lawsuit by them for copyright infringement.

I know it’s fun to share your rejections with fellow writers, to get their comments and to vent your delight or frustration. However, whatever the case might be, if you happen to push too far and that particular agent feels you have damaged his or her business reputation, he or she might have enough incentive to sue you, not only for infringement but for damages to his or her business reputation.

So, the bottom line is that although it might be tempting to extract vengeance for hurt vanity, be sure you ask permission before posting anyone’s correspondence. Personal letters to you from an agent or an editor are confidential business communication and are not to be published in any form on the Internet or elsewhere without permission from their creator. Many letters even include a message at the bottom that indicates this. How would you like it if an editor or agent posted your query or a portion of your work on their blog? Suppose, also, they used your real name and then made fun of all the dumb mistakes you made. How would you feel about that person? Would you be angry enough to sue them?

When it comes to created works, size doesn’t count. Even one-liners are copyrightable. So don’t let your publishing freedom get you into trouble. Make sure you understand the copyright laws before you publish anything that isn’t yours to publish.