April 27, 2015

Mixed Messages in Publishing

It isn't surprising that with just about everyone weighing in, contradictory information exists about every aspect of publishing. So, aspiring authors learn early on that it's crucial to verify the reliability of our sources. Often, we rely heavily on the steady stream of information coming straight from the proverbial horse, that is from agents and editors sharing tidbits on Twitter or details in blog posts.

Of course, even those reliable sources don't always agree, and some make general assertions which aren't in fact true. For example, there's the very popular claim endlessly repeated by agents and by writers helpfully passing on their wisdom that "no" agent wants attachments included in an unsolicited query. Well, yes, in fact some do.

Still, in cases such as how to query, it's fairly easy to do your due diligence, since we know that many individuals have their own preferences, and this information is almost always readily available. The real problem happens when people contradict themselves, and in looking further, it seems that this is in fact the case for the industry as a whole. Traditional publishing, despite its many rules, actually bolsters and embraces rule breakers. [Tweet this.]

A tweet I saw a few days ago crystalized this realization for me. An agent posted that a query she received for a project in a genre she doesn't represent was just so perfect for her that she requested pages. A few days before this, the same agent tweeted that ignoring an agent's representative categories had never led to representation. But that's precisely what the aforementioned querier did. Granted, since this agent may not offer representation, her statement may hold true, but the message her first tweet sent out was: do NOT query outside an agent's categories. The implication was you'd be wasting the agent's time, perhaps come across as foolish/unprofessional, and ultimately be rejected anyway. 

Now, I'm not including the agent's name for many reasons, but the biggest is that this isn't about one agent, or even one instance. It's about the culture of venerating certain rule breakers, while simultaneously denigrating the majority of them, that pervades publishing. 

Think about it: how many agents or editors have you seen complain about writers who don't follow the rules? Whether when it comes to submission guidelines or rules for how we write (think word counts, head hopping, limited number of perspectives, etc.), aspiring and established authors alike are constantly reminded to follow the rules, because if we don't, it's supposed to signify that we're incompetent, rude, unprofessional, or even stalkerish. At the same time, a major bestseller's success may in fact depend on the author having broken a rule. Or many. [Tweet this.]

Whether the author did the unthinkable and pitched an agent at a bar during a conference, or s/he simply ignored representative categories, or decided to flaunt word count guidelines, or even introduced a brand new stylistic choice to their writing, plenty of examples demonstrate that breaking the rules can in fact get you precisely where you want to be. Because somewhere, at some point in the chain of the author breaking all these die-hard rules, someone found their work so engaging that they stopped caring about those rules. And once that rule-breaking book was out there, it may have been precisely that edge given to the book through the disregard of the rules that garnered popular attention, because it was exciting. Visionary. Exceptional. 

So what are we, as writers, supposed to make of these mixed messages? I'm not advocating ignoring submission guidelines or craft, because in the majority of cases it will at best lead to a rejection, and at worst to a negative impression that makes the rounds of the close-knit publishing community. Simultaneously, though, wouldn't we all want our work to be so incredibly engaging that agents, editors, and even readers stop caring about the rules we may have broken to make it so? At what point do we trust our artistic and creative judgment more than popular wisdom or convention?

One thing I'm sure about is that you have to know the rules before being able to break them effectively. Beyond that, beats me.
What about you? Do you follow the rules to the letter, or do you think breaking them judiciously might be the best way to reach your goals? Share in the comments!

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