If you are a writer looking to publish, chances are that you’ve done your fair share of research online about what the publishing world is looking for. And you know that this world encompasses not only publishers, but agents, fiction journals and magazines, and readers. It’s very easy to believe that if you can figure out “what publishers are looking for” then you can be that thing, and make your writing career a success.
You also know that trends and fads come and go with violent intensity when it comes to what people are reading right now. After Harry Potter got big, everyone was looking for the next Harry Potter sensation. Then it was Twilight and vampires. There are tons of examples of one book or series that exploded on the scene, and then the upsurge of interest in any and all books that might bear some similarity to it.
So when you’re researching around online for what publishers are “looking for” it’s tempting to believe that they actually know what they’re talking about. After all, they believe that they know what they’re talking about. They truly do think that if they can discover the next writer, who is exactly like the writer who just became successful two months ago, success is guaranteed.
But the truth is…publishers don’t know anything.
Publishers did not predict Harry Potter and they did not predict Twilight. In fact, if you study the history of publishing you will find that almost every wildly successful literary phenomenon was turned down by publishers at first because they didn’t have the foresight to see that its time had come.
Go ahead, spend some time right now on Google and learn about how many rejections Stephen King garnered as a young writer, and how publishers said the Chicken Soup for the Soul series was “too positive to sell.” Or how one publisher said of the Diary of Anne Frank, “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”
Seriously. This is how much insight publishers actually have into the minds of readers.
I’d also like remind everyone of the reaction publishers had to e-books less than a decade ago. How they dismissed them out of hand and predicted they would do nothing but fail. How publishers have reacted to the self-publishing movement and self-published authors. How their ideas about how to market online fall so short of the knowledge self-published authors have already figured out on their own that it’s shocking.
Let’s think about Amanda Hocking and her experience. Hocking was an incredibly successful indie author who was picked up by traditional publishers and almost immediately began to lose sales. The difference in her career before and after being traditionally published was so glaring that some authors questioned if traditional publishing should now be “used by authors as a secondary market.” This article features Hocking’s thoughts on the whole process and it’s worth reading for the comments section alone:
The point of all this is that publishers have no idea what they want, and due to that, they have absolutely no qualification to tell you what you need to be as a writer.
So where do we look for guidance? Because, I know, that small still voice within sometimes just doesn’t cut it.
We look to the readers.
Just as, time and again, publishers have demonstrated to writers that they have no clue, readers have demonstrated to writers that they know exactly what they want. And they’re vocal about it. They want great books. They want stories with soul, characters who burn with living energy and leap off the page, and raw, vulnerable dreams that come from the writer’s secret heart and twisted mind. They want writers to show up 100% for their work and they will know in an instant if the writer brings even one percent less than that.
Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, storytellers were the same as you and me. They were the people who waited for the quiet time after twilight when everyone was gathered around the fire ready for a great story. They painted verbal pictures of heroes and adventures, and love and death, for their captivated listeners. And then they moved onto the next circle, the next village in need of a story to teach them and help them understand this baffling existence on planet earth.
If publishers had been around back then they probably would have noticed a successful storyteller telling the tale of a dragon and jumped to the conclusion that the people only wanted dragons from now on.
Let’s be grateful that we storytellers have always known our audience better than any publisher ever will. We build our own cities of literature. The publishers only come to set up shop afterward.
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