This will be my last post about the pastime of publisher bashing...then I'll move on to other things. I've been seeing a lot of queries/manuscripts lately with the same types of problems, and I think aspiring writers will benefit from knowing about the mistakes they often make (as well as what they do right). But for now, a few final things to get off my chest.
Some (not all - not many - but some) writers complain about the way they are treated by publishers and agents. The usual complaint is that rejections are little more than rude brush-offs. And yes, I can see why this is frustrating. But you must understand -- we are not paid to critique your writing or provide tips for improvement. There's just too much to do in a day. Form letters aren't overly personal, but they do the job. The standard reply -- "not a good fit for us" -- may sound like nonsense, but in a lot of cases it is absolutely true. We see many good things that just don't work for us. With a limited number of publishing slots, we can only take on manuscripts that are 10s, not 8s or 9s. And the truth is that while we do see plenty of 8s and 9s, they still won't make it when we do get 10s (which we always do, sooner or later).
And yet there's a side to the story that isn't often told...which is how some writers (and agents) treat editors and publishers. To put it simply, we are not infrequently treated as stepping stones, as people who exist to further careers and write large advance checks. If we can't, aren't willing to, or don't provide those services, we can be dismissed just as summarily as agents and editors sometimes dismiss writers.
Here are just a few examples of things that have happened in our office over the last few months:
*Our assistant answered the phone. On the other end was a writer asking about what types of books we publish. She said she had a paranormal romance and asked if we'd be interested. Our assistant said we don't usually publish those kinds of books, but our submission guidelines are on our Website. The caller then harangued our assistant, asking why we are so "limited" in our publishing scope and complaining that our assistant wouldn't print out those guidelines and mail them to her.
*Some agencies still have my name as affiliated with the much larger house I used to work for. The other day our assistant put a call from an agent through to me. I expected to have an amiable chat. Instead I was pitched a book with no preamble. I couldn't get a word in edgewise, until the agent told me "And we're looking for a six-figure advance." I told her that as an independent publisher, we simply don't play in that ballpark... I began to explain our editorial philosophy, and she hung up on me. Yes, hung up the phone without saying good-bye. And it's not the first time this has happened.
*Our publicist occasionally posts on listservs and newsgroups, and every so often someone recognizes his name. Word gets out, and he gets emails from various people looking for favors. Recently a woman contacted him to say she'd heard he was a publicist, and maybe he would be willing to talk to her writer's group? He's quite good at those things, so he asked for more information about her group. She responded by asking him which house he works for. He told her, and she stopped writing back. And we know why: She's not interested in dealing with anyone from a "small press." We get this reaction not infrequently--We're not one of the big guys and we're therefore not worth dealing with. The joke is on her, of course, as our publicist is exceedingly well known and respected, with more than two decades in the industry. To some we are seen as a stepping stone to something bigger and better - or a last resort when Random House wants nothing to do with you. (P.S. I'd never heard of her, but after this experience I googled her and found that she is published in an odd arrangement through a house that does not really do mysteries, but that she's been nominated for and won an award or two. The message to me was clear: She's already with a small house, and she wants out. We're not St. Martin's, so we're not worthy of her continued efforts.)
I suppose because editors are the "face" of the publishing house to the world, it's convenient to have us serve as stand-ins for everything that's wrong with the industry (and I'm the first to admit that the industry does have its share of problems -- like every other industry). But we are people, too. We don't like rejecting people, or cutting books from our list, or telling an author that his/her new manuscript isn't cutting the mustard and won't be published. A little respect would be very much appreciated...which is very different than butt-kissing, which we get all too much of.
To end on a positive note: Most of the authors we end up working with are absolutely wonderful. Some of my best friends are people whose work I have published.