99% of the people working in publishing as editors or agents are in the business because they love books.
They have likely been reading since they were able to sound out words on the living room floor. Many of them loved words and books so much they majored in English during their college years. Will they always love the same books you love, or, perhaps more importantly, the book you wrote? Of course not, we’re all subjective human beings with different interests, fascinations, and tastes. In the same way that it doesn’t offend me that some people like the taste of okra, it shouldn’t offend you if I don’t dig your book the way you and others might.
You’ll also note that the math in my initial assertion is (a) not backed up by scientific evidence, and (b) is rather specific with regards to two job titles, and is not the blanket of “all people working in publishing.” On the first point, it’s a number I arrived at by living in the industry for ten years and meeting a whole bunch of people. I have extracted accordingly. As far as the second point, I raise it because there are many other people who are essential to running a publishing company that could just as easily be working at a music label or a computer manufacturer or a general widget company. Their skillsets are for running a business. The product is sometimes secondary, and is usually hostage to spreadsheets and forecasts. Instead of things like plot, pacing, and theme (the domain of the editor and agent), focus is instead given to things like, profit margin, consumer buying trends, and other jibberjabber that I can’t even properly qualify. Undoubtedly, some business types have come in from different industries hoping to apply widget practices to literary conventions and have ruined the party for all present. That doesn’t change the fact that other skilled business folks have also helped keep afloat a vessel, the S.S. Publishing Industry, through many storms.
These two different sides are usually good together. The business suit guy helps keep the editor/agent from indulging in some crazy whims about things that could be published. And, through some complicated osmosis that I’m still not completely sure I understand, the buttoned up Poindexter behind the calculator learns about things like Love and the Existential Struggle.
Here’s a sample transcript from a made up meeting between the two sides.
EDITOR: Oh my God! This book is so great. The protagonist is a man who accidentally ingested speaker wire and he falls in love with a poor country singer who can’t afford an amp, but absolutely has to play the county talent show. So the protagonist stands on stage with her (the singer), mouth wide open, and the music comes out of him, loud and clear, with the best acoustics ever…
BUSINESSMAN: Who is going to buy that?
EDITOR: Me. And like, at least a dozen of my friends.
BUSINESSMAN: Is the singer a vampire? Vampires are biiiig right now.
EDITOR: Well, no…I mean…it wasn’t ever really discussed or anything. I suppose it’s possible. There wasn’t any evidence to suggest it, but…
BUSINESSMAN: Could you talk to the author, maybe? Vampire it up a little bit? Or, if the author doesn’t like that idea, could we set the county fair in some dystopian wasteland, where, if the singer doesn’t win the contest she is killed on stage in front of a cheering crowd and her body is harvested for organs in front of everybody. There was this show on HBO that…
EDITOR: Yeah, the book is basically a quirky love story. I don’t know how those things would fit with it…
BUSINESSMAN: Do you have any other projects to suggest? Maybe we should move on.
Editor has a problem. Huge fan of Speakerman and the Blue Ribbon(*), but the numbers don’t work. So now editor has to go back to the author and say, “Well, I love this, I really do. It’ll be with me for the rest of my life, but I couldn’t get the necessary in-house support. We’re not going to be able to publish it.”
Who is wrong in this situation?
Well, to the author, it’s likely to be whoever the hell “in-house support” is, and because that’s not a name or a single person, it can quickly become the company. And if enough companies reject Speakerman and the Blue Ribbon it can become the publishing industry as a whole.
Well, to Captain Numbercruncher behind the big mahogany desk, it’s the author for not writing what’s hot, and, instead, following the pesky gnawing in the gut to write a book that means something to the author.
To the editor, it might also be “in-house support” but in this case, editor knows the names and faces and knows that the business folks who stress over forecasting and budgets are the same people who have to make sure enough money is coming into the company to pay for editor’s salary and health insurance. So editor goes back to the other 300 unread books in the office and begins the process anew, trying to find a brilliant work that has a definable audience (preferably with disposable income for books) and speaks to the same part of the editor that was built on the living room floor and was fed with Ramen during four years of college.
It’s hard, I know, to be out of step with current trends, to be passionate about something brilliant while the world adjusts its bifocals. But as a writer, it is your mission to listen to that voice in your gut, writing the thing that means something to you. It’s the part of the process you have absolute control over. You have an anxious audience waiting behind the desk—agents and editors both who will do what they can because they believe in books. Are moved by words. See your brilliance.
* Because a whole bunch of people asked to buy SPEAKERMAN, I thought I'd at least give you a glimpse of the cover so that you can find it on the shelf at your local bookseller.