Rather than blathering on in my usual fashion, I thought I'd answer some of the e-mails I've received. Keep in mind that the following is one man's opinion, and that others might disagree.
Q. Do editors look at sample materials and other goodies on aspiring authors' Websites? In other words, do Websites help attract publishers' attention?
A. Most serious writers these days do have websites, usually in the form of johndoe.com or marysmith.com. The only way to get to most of these Websites is to type the URL into your browser, or to click on a link that you've seen somewhere.
I do have a look at a writer's Website when I've seen or heard about materials I might be interested in. I like to see what they've done and who they are. It helps me get a sense of how good they will be at promoting their work if/when it's published. I like to see what the person looks like, too, as a photogenic author is always going to have an easier time of it in the publicity arena.
I tend to be most impressed by Websites that are more modest and content-driven, rather than Hollywood-style treatments of the writer and his/her work, full of superlatives and exclamation points. Of course, good reviews mean a lot, and seeing them is helpful; but there can be certainly be too much of a good thing.
The key thing is - I make the effort only when I'm already pretty interested. The fact that someone doesn't have a Website wouldn't dissuade me from requesting a full manuscript. However, I do think it's good for all published writers to have an online presence as a way of building community around their work.
I also like Websites that reach out and provide something to the reader, rather than Websites that act solely as vanity pieces. Some authors' Websites provide links to other cool sites (including this one, I have been pleased to notice) and other matters of interest. I like that because the inclusion of these materials shows the author's understanding that building a community requires two-way communication, rather than a "me, me, me" approach.
Q. What do you think about the situation in corporate publishing today, with the huge advances to a relatively small number of writers?
A. This system is problematic to say the least, and it's created (as well as being the result of) a whole sub-industry in agents. I know many editors who love working with agents, and I have worked with some very good ones in the past. The problem is that an agent is in essence a middleman/woman who needs to sell books at high prices in order to pay the rent and earn a living.
The current system pretty much ensures that people who don't have a connection won't get contracts. Good agents are very effective at sniffing out people whom they can sell to publishers. (They sell authors as much as they sell their work.) Particularly appealing are people who already have a name somewhere else and those with built-in networks of Ivy League connections. (A Harvard or Yale grad is going to get a contract much faster than an Oklahoma State University grad. Have a look at the New York Times book review sometime, and notice how many of the books are written by--and reviewed by--Ivy Leaguers. That can't be a coincidence, can it?)
On the positive side, agents do help to separate the wheat from the chaff, to prescreen authors for publishers. That is a valuable role. Because their fortunes rise and fall on placing books for high prices, they're often unwilling to take on writers who can't guarantee sales of 20,000 books right from the get-go. And they often (though not always) are reluctant to try to place books with smaller presses or independent houses, because such places don't play the huge-advance game. This, unfortunately, limits the playing field for a lot of first-time writers, who see their options decreased in terms of publication.
Certainly a company that's paid a huge advance is further incentivized (ugh, hate that word) to support the book with tours, publicity, and so forth. That does work to the book's advantage, but not even the biggest marketing budget in the world can help a book that turns out to be a dog. I can think of a few such books in recent memory, some of them in the mystery genre.
Another positive side is the fact that huge advances keep the number of titles published down. From a publisher's perspective, this is a good thing. There are way too many new titles competing for attention. Fewer titles might give the reading public less choice--and therefore make readers pay more attention to the fewer titles each season. Of course, this doesn't help writers who are trying hard to get published.
On balance, I think huge advances do much more harm than good. An author whose works doesn't sell shouldn't get to keep his/her advance, and yet most of them do. For many years this industry was based on an investment model. In essence, the writer wrote a book (i.e., invested time/money in writing the work) and the publisher invested time/money in producing the book and making it available to the public. When the book was successful, both parties shared in the success. When the book wasn't successful, both parties shared in the failure. With huge advances, the publisher takes all the risk. It isn't fair.
Q. Are you Ruth Cavin?
A. No, I am not. I'm a man.