Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Tao of Publishing

While we be pirates here at The Cove, I've been pondering the correct philosophy behind successful writing, by which I mean sales of books and cold hard cash.

We're pirates, are we not?

Seriously, as I embark upon my first querying adventure, I feel the desire to develop a philosophy to battle the crazies that come with repeated rounds of form rejections, partial requests, and other potential teases.

Should I query fast and furious, with the philosophy that finding the elusive "perfect match" with an agent is really a numbers game? After all the numbers are stark: hundreds of agents, thousand of writers, even more manuscripts, and only a few matches made each year. Right?


Should I query in rounds, using the feedback (or not) to improve my query/partial/full, with the philosophy that an agent search can be your best source of professional feedback for improving your work? After all, these agents only bother to give feedback if you've interested them, and they have gobs of industry insight. Right?


Or perhaps my philosophy needs to be not one of fighting the randomness with strategy, but rather with patience.

"When the spring comes, the grass grows by itself." - Tao Te Ching

Chinese character for Tao, or The Way

I ran across this article on the Tao of Publishing. It's a couple of years old (eons in the publishing world) but still makes a lot of sense. Much of the publishing world is capricious at best and utterly random at worst. What makes one published novel a bestseller, while another languishes on the shelves? Why does one beautifully crafted manuscript get passed over, while another is auctioned off because mermaids are hot, hot, hot this year? Why is middle grade boy fiction the rage today, but not last year . . . or next? Did the middle grade boys disappear? Maybe they discovered that time portal after all!

The article posits that it's human nature to strive to find patterns and reason, even when there is only randomness. And the harder we strive to contain the randomness into a well reasoned box, the further we get from being successful.

This reminds me of the Wall Street Journal's dartboard theory, which is that throwing darts at the WSJ pages for stock picks will beat the professional managers every time (and they almost always do). The idea being that by not over-thinking your stock picks, you capture the long term upward trend toward success that buying (and holding) your investments will bring.

This is going with the flow of the universe, a Tao of Investing.

While I'm far too fond of free will to believe in fate, I do believe that it's possible to mess things up by over-thinking and trying to rationalize random processes. Also: this leads to a madness of sorts, where you are paralyzed by the impossible.  I firmly believe the only people who ever succeed at the "impossible" are those who have an open heart and keep trying.

1) Have an open heart: by which I mean be open to critiques, changes in the industry, and improving your craft. All of these things put you on The Way to writing success.

2) Keep trying: by which I mean do all the things that are necessary but not sufficient for success: write and write well; query wide and long; write more and better; try again.

In the meantime, enjoy the parrots, the company of your fellow pirates, and the process that allows you to bring stories into the world. Because in the end, there's no better job.



  1. Susan, great advice! After your manuscript is polished and your queries are shipped off, it becomes a phychological journey/battle. Like you said, it helps to not over-think things. And after the sting of the first 20 rejections, it can become kinda fun in a messed up sort of way. Then you can watch for patterns, and prize the rejections that have something meaningful and non-form letter about them. And one day, that golden letter WILL arrive. In the meantime, sitting back in the company of parrots and pirates is a wonderful way to pass the time - oh, and starting another story, of course.

  2. @Jonene "Messed up" definitely describes much of this process, but I'm in my Zen mode, so I'm good. Also helps that I've got a WIP dying for attention, so I'm diving right in! :)

  3. I loved your post! I need to have more of a Tao attitude with submitting. It scares the bejeezies out of me. And no, I don't know how to spell bejeezies.

  4. @Leisha You and me both! I've been working up to this for a while...

  5. Great article, Sue! I loved reading it, and it came just at the right moment for me. I spent hours last night combing through Publisher's Marketplace, trying to find some agent in the top 100 list who would look at science fiction. I found someone whose title list interested me, clicked over to the website, and in big, bold across the top it said, WE ARE NOT LOOKING FOR FANTASY OR SCIENCE FICTION AT THIS TIME.

    The impossibility of this whole thing began to press down upon me.

    But now I think all I can do is try. Take as many opportunities as I can.

    And I'm resurrecting some of the agents I crossed off my list because they are not top sellers. After reading those tao articles, WHO CARES about the rotten numbers?

  6. Oh, and this was my favorite part of the article:

    "If you have talent and you’re committed to a career in publishing, the one thing I can guarantee you is that you will get more than one chance to succeed.

    And a corollary of all this is that you will inevitably be better off taking the time, energy and money you want to put into a promotional idea that worked for someone else and put the time, energy into your writing."

  7. @Rebecca - Those two quotes jumped out at me too! I wholeheartedly agree with them.

    Also, something that has stuck with me since I was a wee babe in the woods (er, last September): A published author was talking about querying and sorting out the agents that you want into "piles." The "would LOVE" pile, the "would be OK" pile, and the "better than nothing" pile. Then she suggested picking some from each pile to query (and then again, in rounds). Her reasoning was that the agent you thought was just so-so might turn out to be perfect for you.

    You simply don't know until you try.



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