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Some Thoughts On Advice For Writers

A couple of years ago, I had a finished mystery/suspense manuscript. It had taken me three years to write, and I thought it was at least as good as many of the other mystery books I'd read. I wanted to see it published.

I knew some writers, both online and in person, and I asked everybody what I ought to do. The consensus was:

  1. research the market to determine whether my book fit a market niche (and write a different book, if it didn't),
  2. research agents
  3. send carefully crafted query letters to agents
  4. be rejected by a lot of agents,
  5. rewrite if an agent so requests
  6. wait

This irritated me, and not just because I hate research even more than I hate waiting. The thing that bugged me the most about it was that it seemed to shove every hopeful author in the world into a sort of cattle chute. I hated that. I've always refused to buy into it in the music business (for which I have paid with a career that still hasn't netted me a single platinum album), and I didn't like the idea of being assimilated into a vast, undifferentiated mass of author just because I'd written a book.

And besides, I'd already botched Step 1. Show Control was neither a cozy, a hard-boiled, a procedural, nor any other subgenre I'd heard of; the main character is a musician, his sidekicks are an actor and an artist, a lot of the dialogue is funny, and it's got a bit of a computer angle. Thus I knew of no easily definable market niche for it. But I had written a book that I wanted to read, and I half-naively and half-obstinately figured that if I wanted to read it, other people would too. So as long as I was already off on my own weird vector, why not continue? I decided to ignore all the wise and logical expert advice I was getting. Not a unique decision in my life.

I learned that the American Booksellers Association trade show was to be held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, not terribly far from where I lived, and I asked the same writers -- both online and in person -- whether that might be a good place to find a publisher or agent. The response was uniform: No; the A.B.A. is emphatically not for writers. The likelihood of finding a publisher or agent there is infinitesimally slim, and the show is closed to the public. There are accepted channels and ways of doing these things. Don't waste your time.

So it was settled. I was going.

I went about finding a way in to the show, and ended up volunteering at a booth selling audio cassettes that taught you how to use Word Perfect. Armed with a Vendor pass, a stack of a dozen manuscripts, a box of synopses, and several homemade posters that said I NEED AN AGENT, I trooped off to the show.

The first day, I got hold of a show program and circled every booth listing that had the word mystery in it. During the next couple of days, I visited each of those booths and said, "Hi. I'm a writer with a mystery manuscript. Is there an editor here I can annoy?"

Then I learned something interesting: Whereas not a single agent at the show would so much as return a smile, all the editors were willing not only to hear about my book, but to explain their operations and recommend other publishers I should approach. I even found myself pitching face-to-face with editors-in-chief of major houses. By the time I was done with the show, I had a dozen requests for full or partial manuscripts from both large and small presses. (That's the other thing I learned: Don't bother taking manuscripts to a trade show. No one wants to carry them around.)

So, off went the manuscripts via FedEx, with cover letters that said, "Nice meeting you at the A.B.A. Here's the manuscript you requested..."

In a few months, I received responses, including one enthusiastic rejection letter that detailed how much the editor had liked a particular character, and another that apologized for holding the manuscript so long but "we were considering publishing it."

Also among the responses was the contract offer I eventually accepted. The publisher is a small press called Write Way. They'd been three booths down from the Word Perfect cassette booth, and we'd chatted on and off before I realized they were in the market for the kind of book I'd written. And it was their first Los Angeles A.B.A. show.

Luck? Absolutely. But luck that had the opportunity to happen only because I took some risks that I was discouraged from taking by people who really do know what they're talking about.

So... what do I make of that? Now that Show Control is in stores and receiving excellent attention, I bear a stamp of validity, and unpublished authors often ask me how they can get published. I'm not sure how to answer. The responsible answer is to tell them to go through the same steps that were recommended to me when I was the one asking. The orthodox approach really is best in most cases; that's what creates orthodoxy. And now that I've seen more of the book business, I understand how unusual my story is.

But somehow, I still can't confidently recommend the conventional approach. Doing things the way you're supposed to has just never worked for me, and I can't bring myself to endorse it. I have this weird feeling that if I hadn't ignored a lot of good advice, I might still be sitting on an unpublished manuscript.

I guess despite my new, more informed view of the book business, I still naively and obstinately believe what I believed before: Write the best book you are capable of writing and then do everything you can for it.

We'll see what happens with the second one.

Keith Snyder

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