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Writing well isn't good enough

Insights shared by literary agent and Mayborn friend Jim Hornfischer in his speech to the September 1995 Deep South Writers Conference, University of Southern Louisiana.


By Jim Hornfischer

The following anecdote illustrates how difficult it can be to get published on your own. Five years ago there was a writer living in Florida. Like most aspiring novelists, he had grown frustrated with the daunting array of barriers which publishing companies had erected around themselves for protection from people such as he. So he decided to conduct a little experiment. He took a copy of that classic novel, The Yearling, and had it retyped onto 8 1/2 x 11 paper. He gave it a new title, made some xeroxes, then shipped this wolf in sheep’s clothing off to New York. He addressed the packages to anonymous figures like “Editor in Chief,” or ”Managing Editor,” thereby assuring their innocuousness.

Weeks went by, then, one by one, the manuscripts started to come back. ”Your novel does not meet our publishing needs at this time,” the letter read. The next one said it ”has merit, but given the difficult fiction market, we just don’t see our way clear to taking it on.” Any of these sound familiar? The rejections came in one after the other . . . Simon & Schuster, Harper & Row, Random House, Scribner. Even Macmillan rejected it, which is funny because it was they who had actually published The Yearling lo those many years ago.

Now our Floridian friend had a good laugh when this hoax was reported in Publishers Weekly a while back. But he also learned something important about the way publishers have chosen to shield themselves from a very frightening epidemic of word processors and laser printers. He learned that there are so many more of you, writers, than there are of them, editors, that it is almost impossible to command the attention of a publishing decision-maker without some kind of personal connection. He also learned that the book trade is a very small world which is given to retribution, and that accordingly publishers who had once ignored him seemed very interested in learning his name forever, the better to recognize his submissions and give them a sound, round rejecting.

So . . . this big industry can be a very small place. And it is in fact small. The book business in the U.S. makes a mockery of the term ”mass market.” A so-called mass-market author like John Grisham would be lucky to sell as many books in a lifetime as Anheuser-Busch sells of cans of Budweiser in six months. In annual revenue the book business is about same size as the sausage business.

But business is good. If you read Publishers Weekly you’ll see book revenues rising in the double digits and publishers enjoying brisk sales despite the best efforts of our video culture. In the U.S. today, more different books are published, and more copies of them sold, than ever before. However, if this doesn’t gibe with your experiences submitting your work, there’s good reason for it. The reason is these booming unit sales are fueled a tiny minority of big authors, and the large numbers of books published are becoming more homogenous all the time.

The reason is, the Superstore. These huge prison-sized Barnes & Nobles and their ilk accounted for 17% of 1994’s almost $10 billion in sales, up from 11% in 1993. Last year there were 458 superstores in country. That number will have surpassed 600 by the end of this year. Anyone who’s ventured into one of these price club warehouses understands the muscle their forklifts can exert on the small number of brand-name authors they carry. The big novel of the fall seems to be the book, The Horse Whisperer, just out from Delacorte. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when every Sam’s Club in the country has two five-foot stacks of the book sitting on wooden pallets in the middle of the main aisle.

A similar concentration of resources has been underway for some time now among publishing houses.

Paramount now owns not only S&S and Pocket Books, but Scribner, Macmillan, The Free Press, and Prentice-Hall—all of which used to be independent. Just within recent memory Jeremy Tarcher was bought by Putnam; Westview Press by HarperCollins; and Donald I. Fine by Penguin.

Independent houses are the rarest of birds.

Farrar, Straus just sold a majority stake to the German conglomerate that owns Henry Holt. Another German multinational owns Bantam, Doubleday, and Dell, each of whom was once an independent name.

New publishing lines are still being launched, but they tend to be within vast corporate empires—my former boss, the head of HarperCollins, has just launched Broadway Books under the BDD umbrella, Avon Books is beginning a new HC line, and Crown has launched a new trade paperback line. Each of these publishers is extremely underinventoried right now—and therefore completely submerged in submissions from agents and authors.

The concentration of capital in a few large publishers has tended to concentrate capital in the hands of a few large authors. If it is true on one hand that more books today are being sold than ever before in the history of publishing, it is also true that a smaller number of authors are doing the selling.

This contraction has put a lot of editors out of work, and the large, ready pool of the unemployed has shortened the tenures of those who have jobs. Authors ultimately suffer from this.

WHAT TO DO

Market is increasingly unfriendly to authors who want to write lots of different kinds of books. Lots of writers feel publishers should indulge their creative need to write mysteries, science fiction, horror, literary novels, and biographies of obscure Third World poets. These people are having problems selling their work, and the reason, really, is simple. When you publish across a number of categories, it becomes almost impossible to become a brand name author to any specific audience of readers. You spread yourself too thin. Find a niche and do it better than anyone else. Eventually the readers will find you, and so will the royalties.

It is in fact possible to become a brand name author. Consider the following names—Deepak Chopra. John Gray. John Grisham. None of them was a whisper in anyone’s ear prior to 1991. But with some talent a little luck, they’ve grown into the bestselling pariahs so many writers long to become.

Now in a moment I’m going to give you some advice, in light of my remarks so far, about the best way to approach literary agents. Before I do that, though, let me recommend something even better: putting yourself in position to have a literary agent find you.

This is very much a two way street. Literary agents are always on the lookout for new talent, and we’re not shy about approaching someone who interests us. So the first order of business is to get your work seen. A good way to do that, if you’re a fiction writer, is through literary magazines. Even the smallest sample of your work can trigger in an agent’s mind visions of larger works to come. The publisher who gave me my first editorial job had made her name when, as a young editor, she found a story about a high school teacher in The Saturday Evening Post. The author’s name was Bel Kaufman, and that story was the seed of Up the Down Staircase.

Another great thing to do is enter contests at writer’s conferences. If I get two novels submitted to me on the same day and one of them has already won some kind of award, which one do you think I’ll read first. Publishing professionals regard chapbooks such as the excellent one published here as a breeding ground of future talent, and pore over them assiduously.

It’s more common, though, for the writer to seek out the agent. So let me offer a few pointers and warn against some pitfalls on that front.

Understand how to position your work. Stating in a cover letter that your novel is a darker version of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter is more valuable, in my mind, than the most detailed plot synopsis. It shows you pay attention to the kind of writing you do.

Have respect for your reader’s short attention. Which is to say, make sure the tempo of the novel is kept up unless there are obvious and unavoidable reasons for keeping the tempo slow.

Always address your submission to an individual. I have never seen an acknowledgments page thanking someone named ”To Whom It May Concern.” Submitting to a real live person creates a relationship that must be honored with a modicum of attention and a timely response.

In your cover letter, don’t apologize for anything. Don’t explain irrelevancies or recite publishing horror stories in a bid for sympathy. Don’t badmouth editors or agents. Do write with confidence, clarity, brevity and dignity. The content of the cover letter should be, basically, ”Here it is, hope you like it,” along with a condensed personal bio. In your cover letter, if you ever use the phrase ”fictional novel,” go wash your word processor out with soap.

Don’t call your work a guaranteed bestseller. Don’t get too specific in saying who will buy the book. Instead of saying your book will be bought by doctors, lawyers, and three-toed marsupials, use more general language describing other authors the work draws inspiration from.

Don’t call your novel a guaranteed bestseller. Be realistic and modest, and let your prose do the talking.

And finally, I’ll offer what is surely the most frequently repeated advice you’ll ever get, but which will mark you as an amateur if you fail to comply with it: Make your work easy to read by using a 12-point or larger type face, not one inch but inch-and-a-half margins all the way around, and a well-tuned laser printer. Double space it, print on one side of the page only, and use ordinary photocopying paper. Heavy cotton-bond only makes the ms. feel bulky and burdensome to read. Finally, always enclose a postage-paid return envelope. Most agents read everything they get sent, but without an SASE, you’ll never know for sure.

Now learning to write well is of course the only meaningful way to get published. And for my money there’s only one way to learn how to write well: read other published work which you admire and write like that. I believe good writing is learned by osmosis, in the exact same way an infant learns a native language. If you get into your brain the rhythms of prose and modes of narrative that command attention, you will have no problem getting published.

And that, friends, is the message I would like to leave you with.

 

Jim Hornfischer, president of Hornfischer Literary Management LP, is one of the few agents in the country who is both a licensed attorney and a former New York trade book editor. He is also the author of three well-received nonfiction books of his own. HLM’s clients include major award-winning nonfiction writers, memoirists, historians, scientists, professionals, journalists, and assorted other literary artists with portfolio. Jim, a longtime Mayborn supporter, joins the Mayborn conference again in 2017.

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Insights shared by literary agent and Mayborn friend Jim Hornfischer in his speech to the September 1995 Deep South Writers Conference, University of Southern Louisiana.
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