The problem of the Publishing Fairy

>> Tuesday, March 3, 2009

One of the listservs I'm on brought up an interesting question yesterday, and it has prompted a fair bit of discussion and controversy.

At most Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrator conferences, attendees have the option of paying for a 10-page manuscript critique by one of the guest speakers. The issue: you never know which guest speaker you're going to be assigned to. Most every conference invites an editor or two from a major publishing house, perhaps one or two agents, and then one or two published authors, all of whom are given the option of extra compensation to critique manuscripts. Most guests say yes.

But everyone who signs up for a critique wants to get one of the editors or agents. Not one of the authors. Why? It's pretty easy to do the math. Whether they say it or not, every unpublished author with a manuscript dreams of being discovered at a SCBWI conference, and there is almost universal disappointment among those who are assigned critiques with the published authors.

What this assumes, of course, (and we're talking in generalities here) is that almost everyone who signs up for a critique has no real interest in hearing what they can do to make their manuscript better. What they really want to hear is, "I love this! I want to buy it right now!" That's not why SCBWI offers manuscript critiques, and RAs will tell you until they are blue in their faces that the real value in having a critique is to learn your strengths and weaknesses and become a better, more sellable writer.

But the simple fact of the matter is that saying that's so doesn't make it so. People still sign up for critiques for no other reason than to hear those magic words. It's only natural--we all want a critique from someone who can accept our manuscript on the spot. We're all desperate to make any connections we can with editors and agents, and critiques are a great way to meet them one-on-one and get personalized feedback.

And the real trouble, of course, is that it does happen, occasionally, that an editor will say, "I love this! I want to buy it right now!" when critiquing your work. It's like seeing someone win the lottery. You think, "Look! It happens to other people! It will happen to me!" But the reality is, like the lottery, being "discovered" at a conference happens for very few people. (I met many editors at conferences before I sold my first book, and not one of them ever "discovered" me or bought anything from me, at the conference or down the road.) Unfortunately, it is our collective belief in the Publishing Fairy--the magical person who will wave her magic wand over our pumpkin of a manuscript and turn it into a gilded, published book--that makes us think WE will be the exception to that rule.

So the question came up: should editor critiques be offered separately from author critiques? In other words, should people who do not value a critique from an author be forced to pay for one if they draw what they see as the short straw?

Those who toe the "all guest speakers know what they're talking about and will give you a good critique on your writing" line want to keep the system the way it is, as a way of reinforcing their point. It shouldn't matter who you get! They're all going to be good! The problem with this, I've found, is that those who believe in the Publishing Fairy aren't listening, and they never will. They hear the fairy's siren call, and it overrides everything else. They are the people who take the same manuscript--unchanged!--back to each conference, year after year, waiting on the Publishing Fairy. You can't tell them there is value in an author critique, because they can't see it. The only value to them in the critique--nay, the whole value in the entire conference--is in meeting the editor who finally says yes.

I can tell you that this very issue made me hesitate to agree to do critiques for the last conference where I was a guest speaker. I was flattered to be asked to do critiques, but the moment I got the e-mail I turned to Wendi and said, "Should I do this? Nobody wants to get the author. Everybody wants the agent or the editor." I know it's true. Everyone knows its true. And I didn't want to be the well-meaning agent of someone's crushing disillusionment.

I eventually said yes though, because I believe my experience so far has taught me a lot about character, voice, plotting, and the publishing business as a whole, and I credit SCBWI with helping me get my start and I enjoy giving back as much as I can so others can find similar success. But that still didn't blunt the . . . well, the guilt I felt when my writers were assigned to me and not to one of the agents or editors. I wanted to tell them, "Sorry you didn't get an editor!" as they sat down. (And boy, I have done critiques at conferences where the disappointment some writers felt at getting me as a critiquer and not an editor was palpable.)

So what's to be done? I offered the modest proposal that we should acknowledge the 300-lb. gorilla in the room and make registration separate for editor critiques and author critiques. You offer the editors first--since everyone wants those most anyway--and once those slots are filled, you open a separate registration for author critiques, so that those applicants are making a deliberate choice to have a published author critique their work.

Now if you're paying for a critique you'll know exactly what you're paying for. If you don't value critiques from published authors--for whatever reason--now you won't be "stuck" with one, and the author who has agreed to do critiques can rest assured that he or she is giving writing advice to someone who genuinely wants to hear it. (And I know there are some people out there who want author critiques--I get at least one request a month via e-mail, usually from someone I've never met, asking me to read and critique their work!)

It seems a simple, straightforward solution. It just takes everyone acknowledging what they're thinking but not saying.

But let me be clear in all this--I think published authors have a lot of experience, both in terms of craft and the business of writing, that is of great value to unpublished authors. The published authors I met at SCBWI conferences before I sold my first book were invaluable resources. I learned from editors at those same conferences, but none of them snapped up the manuscript I was carrying around with me and put me on the shuttle to bestsellerdom. (I'm still waiting for that shuttle, in fact. I think I might be at the wrong station.)

As a newbie, that's why I went to the conferences in the first place, of course--to meet editors and be discovered, or to learn something about them I could use to target my next query. But what proved to be far more valuable, it turned out, were all the panels on craft, on writing query letters, on professional submission practices, and all the other amazing things SCBWI offers that really helped mold me into a sellable writer. That's the real value of SCBWI and its conferences.

But that still doesn't change the fact that most of us still hope that when we go to a conference the Publishing Fairy will wave her magic wand and turn our manuscript into a published book. :-)


Teresa Fannin March 3, 2009 at 4:19 PM  

No matter how this issue is resolved, and I'm not sure it can be, it will be a P.T Barnum type of solution, if I'm paraphrasing this correctly; We can only please some of the people part of the time. What makes the editor/agent vs author critique more difficult is that we are all feeling the crush of the current political and economic climate and it's impacting our emotions, well-being and resiliency in rather negative ways. Sad. Ah well, long live the Publishing Fairy. May she shine upon some deserving soul.

Stephen,  March 4, 2009 at 9:43 AM  

I think it's also worth asking what the editor wants. Normally, the work that an editor critiques at a conference has been vetted for quality and targeted for genre/category. Is a picture book editor going to be willing to spend 20-30 minutes critiquing a (possibly entirely amateurish) YA fantasy? Even if they are, of what real value is that to the aspiring writer?

Alan March 4, 2009 at 10:18 AM  

You're right, Stephen--and this came up in the listserv discussion. Often times the guest authors at a conference are chosen specifically because they cover genres the editors and agents may NOT cover. In these cases, is it really in an author's best interest to insist that an editor critique something she doesn't usually handle? And how fair is that to the editor?

Here again though, the Publishing Fairy rears its ugly head. There are some writers who will always assume they are the exception to the rule. "I know she doesn't do picture books, but when she reads MY picture book, she's going to love it." Unfortunately, it's a sentiment I've heard before.

What conference organizers will have to do is really draw the line: this editor wants these kinds of manuscripts to critique, and nothing else. If that means there's no editor to read and critique YA that year, that's what it means. If someone is interested in getting a good critique--and not just meeting an editor--then I'm sure the conference organizers will have someone else available to handle YA in that case. If not, they're bound to be disappointed--but at least they'll be disappointed in advance, not the day of the conference when they learn to their dismay that there is no editor for them.

I was surprised to learn in all this that the manuscripts are vetted in advance. I had always assumed things were first-come, first-served, but that turns out to not be the case. This makes sense, but it rubs some people the wrong way. IMHO, that's just evidence that they NEED a critique of their craft from ANYONE, but some unpublished writers of course won't see it that way.

a. fortis March 4, 2009 at 12:43 PM  

Fantastic post--my co-blogger posted about it over on Finding Wonderland and that's how I found my way here. Also, before I make my comments, THANKS for putting Guys Lit Wire in your blogroll! Yay.

I wanted to mention another unfortunate fact--quite a few people, even given an editor/agent critique, will not be very accepting of the advice...many new writers (and many experienced ones, I suppose) don't have skills in receiving or giving critique. So I guess it doesn't surprise me that within this group, an author critique wouldn't seem as valuable.

I'm always trying to fight the part of me that wants to believe in the Publishing Fairy...but if she exists, she is fickle and uncaring, and ignoring my willingness to listen to criticism and revise, revise, revise! :D If that fairy had any sense of justice...

Alan March 4, 2009 at 1:28 PM  

@a. fortis: I love Guys Lit Wire! I'll check out Finding Wonderland.

And you're certainly right that some people don't know how to receive a critique. There were a couple of people I knew in a grad school writing class who were TERRIBLE about criticism of their work. I can only imagine the same is true in writing critiques at conferences.

The Publishing Fairy is a fickle mistress, indeed. I think you're going about it the right way though. Don't believe in the fairy; believe in yourself and work at it. That's the difference between someone who will never be published and someone who will.

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