Thursday, October 7, 2010

It's Who You Know

There's something I've learned in my time on the sales floor, mes auteurs, that I think not only applies to sales, publishing, and/or writing in general, but to life: up until a certain point, it's all about what you know. After that (and I think most people cross this line earlier than they think), it's all about who you know.

You do your research. You learn the basics and mechanics of writing. You write a terrible novel. You learn from it. You write a pretty good novel. Maybe you even write a stellar one.

You do more research. You learn how to craft a query letter. You figure out which literary agents represent the kind of work you're producing and you send them that query letter. You personalize your queries and you follow all directions to the letter.

At this point, you've more or less exhausted the what portion of your knowledge.

To be fair, this filters out a substantial number of people: you'd be surprised how many queries (or attempts at queries) agents receive from people who (1) are functionally illiterate, (2) know nothing about the publishing industry or how it works, (3) are crazy, (4) are unable to follow directions, (5) haven't actually finished the novel they're pitching, &c &c. You're reading this blog, though, so chances are slim that any of these apply to you.

The number of people trying to sell a novel these days, however, is so unimaginably huge that even with all the hacks and lunatics filtered out, you're still facing long odds. Knowing what can only get you halfway there, if that. Now you've got to know who.

Caveat: thousands of writers are discovered/find representation every year without knowing a soul in the industry. They've never attended a conference, workshop, or seminar in their lives; they're just truly fantastic writers who found agents with whom their work resonates. The odds of this, alas, are astronomical. You should, à mon avis, endeavor to improve them.

Maybe you have a great relationship with a professor and she offers to show your short stories to her agent; maybe your best friend has an agent and he thinks your work would interest her, too; maybe your uncle's former roommate is an agent and your uncle offers to hook you up; maybe an agent you pitched your novel to at that conference last month wants to see a full MS.

The possibilities are endless, and when you aren't writing or reading, you should be thinking about networking: specifically, think of people you know who can help you further your career. No one sells their book solo; take the time to cultivate relationships that can get your foot in the door down the road, and your odds of one day seeing your book in (e)print will rise more than you might think.


  1. Good points. I've made more progress via networking, especially at conferences, than by direct queries. My current agent and I hooked up thanks to a recommendation from an author I met in the blogsphere.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  2. This is so true. Thank you for saying it. Most people in the industry won't.

    I got my agent through a connection. It's so much easier to do it the networking way.

  3. I found my publisher through a connection as well.

  4. In March I got The Call from an Editor at Kensington with an offer for a three-book deal. I owe this bit of fantastic to an email I received from a woman I barely knew who happens to be a member of the RWA chapter I joined last year. She saw me whining on the loop about the number of rejections I was getting from agents on my manuscript, a PN romance, and sent me an email suggesting I read an on-line interview with this editor and query her. I did, the editor liked the book (thank you, Lord!), and I have a book deal and an agent, something I have dreamed about for fifteen years but never thought would happen. Networking works!

  5. It's all about creating opportunities for yourself.

  6. I'm one of those lucky souls who found an agent through shear luck. True, I also did the work, queried agents, joined writing groups and attended conferences. But I found this woman via a total accident when I entered a writing contest and she was the final judge. Not that it wouldn't have been easier if I had hadconnections, but at least it can sometimes work without them.

  7. Yes and no... a referral or conference connection may get you an extra 5 to 10 percent boost, but if the material doesn't resonate, it doesn't resonate. And it's often more subtle -- I helped a friend find the right agent for her recently, but it wasn't an agent I knew personally, and my name was never used. (It wouldn't have done any good.) So did she get an agent because of "who she knows"? Not at all. Knowing someone who'd been through the process helped her make a match faster, but she had a great book. That's what did the job.

    Conferences are great, online writing communities are great, critique groups are great. But don't go into them as a machine for racking up favors. You may very well succeed without them, and there's no guarantee that even with them, you'll succeed.

    I feel like way too many writers use "it's who you know" as an excuse. Because it hurts less, honestly, to blame the system.

  8. Ah, but as he states, the first is "what" you know. You have to do the work. Then the "who" is helpful. If you don't have a good story, it won't matter who you know.

  9. This makes me wonder how many great books have never been published because someone with a "connection" got through instead.

    Kind of sad if you ask me.

  10. How does one go about asking for help from "connections" I wonder? Because mine are pretty tenuous, at best. (Think brother's girlfriend's cousin's professor's other student).

  11. True advice. Thank You. Tho I, like others, just don't have the contacts to start with to even get to a point where I could form an opportunity to meet someone who might be able to know anybody worth knowing who could help me with my book. So, my question for you today is how does one proceed from there?

  12. There is certainly validity to what you're saying, but I believe no matter who you know, if your writing stinks, no one is going to be interested and they'll give you a polite heave ho. If your writing is great, connections can certainly pave the way, but the writing has to be there. That is foremost.

  13. I agree with Fiction Chick and Stavros. Spending my academia in physical therapy school, I didn't develop the literary connections necessary to give me a start. A few English and Journalism friends isn't enough of a basis either, especially when I'm shoveling out Christian science fiction. What to do, what to do...