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publishing and the princess bride
what aspiring authors can learn from florin
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

William Goldman famously said "Nobody knows anything." He was talking about Hollywood, but it applies to book publishing nearly as well -- no one knows which books are going to be a hit, no one knows what type of marketing dollars pay off, and no one knows exactly where the industry is headed in a rapidly changing landscape.

That's not comforting, of course. Flinging yourself willy-nilly into the process of getting published, throwing up your hands and crying "William Goldman said nobody knows anything! Hope for the best! God willing and the creek don't rise!" is not going to get the job done. So what can you do?

Turn to something else of William Goldman's, of course: the script for one of the finest movies of all time, The Princess Bride.

You never thought your ability to quote that movie word-for-word would come in handy, did you? And yet. Some of the most famous quotes from the movie, if you give them a close reading, contain publishing wisdom. To wit:

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. Publishing has its own language, its own terms. Query. ARC. Galley. Royalties. Submission. Delivery and acceptance. First pass and second pass pages. The bad news is, you're going to need to learn this language. The good news is, this material is so well-covered on author websites, agent blogs, and writing communities online, that all it takes is time. No matter what stage of the process you're in, from looking for an agent to approaching your book's launch date, you can learn. It's all out there.

Then I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me. (See, this is how you can tell these quotes are about publishing and not writing -- most writers I know, including yours truly, are not in the business of passing up wine.) This is slightly dangerous territory -- remember, Vizzini tries to think his way through with logic, but it ends up he's playing a rigged game. Publishing is not rigged, although plenty of frustrated writers on the interwebs will tell you it is. But every decision you make is an important decision, and it's important to think through it with logic, not emotion. If you jump at the first agent who offers representation without doing your research, you could end up represented by someone who not only doesn't "get" your book, but doesn't have the relationships needed to get editors to pay attention, doesn't advocate for you in fraught situations, and holds you back instead of moving you forward. And there are hundreds of decisions like this throughout the process. Think through them, and even though the final decision is and should be yours, it's also a wise idea to ask others for advice.

Is this a kissing book? If I had a nickel for every writer I'd heard say "But my book doesn't FIT any established GENRE!", the proceeds would count as a "good deal" on Publishers Marketplace. In a word: yes. Yes it does. And picking your genre is unimportant in some ways, but very important in others. A book classified as a "romance" is not the same as a romantic book. An agent is going to expect different things if you call your book a "thriller" than they do if you call it a "mystery." You don't have to get too specific -- my book is upmarket women's fiction -- but look at other books that you think are like yours, and plan accordingly.

Let me 'splain. No, there is too much, let me sum up. Like choosing a genre, the need to summarize your book frustrates and infuriates lots of writers. But it's so, so necessary. You need a one-sentence logline or pitch, and you need a paragraph or so to go in the query. And don't think of it as describing the book, because you'll go crazy. You're not describing. You're not explaining. You're selecting a few elements from the book that pique the reader's interest. And the one-sentence pitch isn't just useful in the query stage. You use it over and over again. Your agent uses it to the editor. The editor uses it to the acquisition committee. The publicity department uses it to the media. The sales team uses it to bookstores. In the end, it comes down to the reader, and the reader doesn't want a list of events or a vague promise that "it's hard to explain, just read it, I swear it's good!" You cannot explain. You must sum up. Buttercup is marry Humperdinck a little less 'a half a' hour. Period.

Bow to the Queen of Slime, the Queen of Filth, the Queen of Putrescence. Boo. Boo. Rubbish. Filth. Slime. Muck. Boo. Boo. Boo. Even if you have written the most brilliant book in the world, if you do succeed in publishing it, some people aren't going to like it, and some of these people may be reviewers. If you aren't prepared to hear people say negative things about your work, you may want to rethink the whole publishing thing, period.

Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something. No, I'm not saying the entire publishing process is painful, though it's not entirely pain-free. I'm saying, if anyone promises you a shortcut, scrutinize it. They may very well be selling something. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

No one would surrender to the Dread Pirate Westley. Things are tough out there for debut authors, and while it's tempting to say "My book will catch on because it's so great!", you need to give readers a reason to pick it up in the first place. You aren't Jodi Picoult, or Stephen King, or some other household name, so you don't have the luxury of having a built-in readership. Remember that you're asking readers to take a chance on you. It's a balancing act, sure -- confidence but not arrogance, humility but not supplication, self-promotion but not spam -- but finding the right way to get your book in front of your most likely readership is essential, considering that as of now, they don't know you exist.

I'm tempted to find a publishing truism that goes with what is arguably the movie's most famous quote -- "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." -- but I'll leave it here. Because Goldman was right: nobody knows anything. Your road may be rocky or smooth, your book might be a blockbuster or a flop, you may publish 35 books or none at all. But persistence, logic, and a thoughtful approach can do wonders.

And watch out for the shrieking eels.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


not-so-secret agents, man
literary agents enter the blogosphere
by jael mchenry
topic: writing
published: 11.3.06

on the occasion of the 803rd anniversary
transcripts of dr. santangelo's remarks
by jael mchenry
topic: writing
published: 9.4.02


russ carr
12.6.10 @ 9:48a

What about the shortage of perfect breasts in the publishing world?

jael mchenry
12.6.10 @ 3:11p

Y'know, I was gonna try to work that in, but what else is there to say beyond "t'would be a pity to damage yours"?

I also got the suggestion on Twitter that during negotations (between an agent and editor, for example) the most applicable line is "We are men of action. Lies do not become us."

russ carr
12.6.10 @ 3:23p

A tougher question: is the best reply to your editor always "As you wish"?

jael mchenry
12.7.10 @ 8:54a

Heh. Not always, but then again, that's not always their answer to you either, so in my experience, it all works out. No one unconditionally gets his or her way in publishing, for better or for worse.

adam kraemer
12.9.10 @ 11:11a

Rodents of Unusual Size? I don't think they exist.

Actually, in publishing, I assume they do, in fact, exist.

adam kuehn
1.3.11 @ 9:15a

Have fun storming the castle! (You think it'll work? It would take a miracle....)

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